Free School Graduates Tell Their Stories
Here follows a series of articles written by graduates of the Free School in Albany about their student days and what they have meant in their subsequent lives. I've also dug up snapshots of them as students in the school, and Connie Frisbee-Houde took pictures of them as they are now, except for my son Mark, whose pictures he and I supplied.
Mark's account chronicles the first year of the school downtown, and vividly describes its chaotic beginnings!
by Mark Leue
My first memories of kindergarten at PS 16, the huge brick building across the street from my family's house on North Allen street in Albany are of "nap" time. Our young woman (goes without saying) teacher, probably exhausted herself, would put on some suitably insipid music, roll out the mats as far as possible from each other, and spend the next fifteen minutes hovering over us. As she patrolled the room keeping a sharp lookout for potential "brush fires," I can remember trying to keep perfectly still, tense and almost rigid with the fear that she would find me less than completely immobile, trying even to control my breath so as to please her.
First grade was quite a shock to the tender young ones who passed muster in that first round of behavior shaping. Thirty desks in a rigid, rectangular, face to the blackboard arrangement, symbolized the no-nonsense sadism that our ruler, the currently politically appallingly named (although not without poetic resonance) Miss Dyke embodied. In her 70s, and well hardened by many years of battle with imps of our age, she dominated the classroom with an iron will and a quick hand that could quickly twist your ear while pulling you from your seat on the march to the principal's office for some real or imagined breach of the public dignity.
Halfway through the year we had a heavenly reprieve in the form of a beautiful young woman substitute teacher, Miss Riffleberger. Imagine our joy when we learned that her position had been made permanent due to the death of Miss Dyke. Second and third grade kind of blend together, although in different schools. A move closer to my father's work at the State University necessitated a change to PS 27.
Mark, age nine
In the summer before my fourth grade began we moved to a village on the Thames River not far from Oxford, the famous English "City of Spires" where my father would be spending the year on his first (and only) sabbatical leave from the philosophy department at Albany State.
The village school, St. Bartholomew's, was probably a typical "comprehensive" (kindergarten through tenth grade)school of the time. The majority of the kids were expected to get to tenth grade, pass their "O" levels and join the English working class. We studied several subjects which I found novel and sometimes at odds with my previous background. Penmanship was perhaps the most exotic item of curriculum. My efforts with a real dip pen (no fountains pens allowed until mastery was proven) consisted mostly of trying to keep the blots to a minimum. Some of the children, however, had been studying Italics for several years and could write in the beautiful way that seems to have died out in this country early in the twentieth century. What I remember chiefly, however, about Eynsham was playing. Schoolyard recess, players' field (the town fields on the edge of town near the river) the locks on the Thames, the alleys and warrens that twisted their way between the ancient stone houses and pubs, but most of all a nearly magical walled-in couple of acres called "Temples Garden."
I suppose it must really have belonged to a man named Temple once, and there was some evidence that it had in the distant past been a formal garden. (I can remember that along one of its encircling eight-foot-high stone walls there were some old espaliered pear trees). [Ed. note: Actually, I was told by the owner of the village "curiosity shop "that it was originally the site of a Roman temple.] But it seemed a jungle paradise of vines, elderberries and small watercourses winding through ruined artifacts of many genera-tions of settlement and cultivation. In such paradises fantasy games of many varieties and seemingly limitless duration were lived by small English kids in shorts or skirts.
As a "Yank" my vocabulary and accent were different but we had no problem speaking the universal language of imagination. Yes, I'm sure many of our games followed the same sort of unwritten rules of the games back in my neighborhood in Albany. War, Explorers, or even organized games like Tag, "Conkers", or British Bull Dog were tried-and-true favorites&emdash;after all even "Doctor" has its rules and roles. But there was a feeling of timelessness (maybe influenced by the fact that it was still light in the summer till 10:00) that I haven't forgotten. The children had their own culture and the games seemed to have their roots in a past as old as the landscape we inhabited.
Somewhere during the year I began to become aware of and identify with the counter culture. The years were 1968 and 1969 and I don't know if it came as a subliminal message coded into the lyrics of my 16-year-old sister's Beatle records, or my fairly politically radical parents' views, but before our journey back over the Atlantic was complete I knew I wanted to stop having my hair cut.
After spending the summer driving around on the continent in a Volkswagen bug, we returned to the U.S. Never before or since have I experienced such a strange form of culture shock. Somehow my comfortable home and friendly neighbors had become trans-formed into suspicious bigots in an alien terrain. To make matters worse, several weeks before we returned, neighborhood kids had vandalized our house in a malicious and crude way. I was at an age of burgeoning self-realization and began to see how my family's "differentness" had always been there.
This self-awareness must have broadcast the kind of message that a bleeding animal will to certain species of shark. At school I was immediately dubbed with the nickname of "Girl." Between the general prison-guard-like tactics of my teachers and the blood-thirstiness of my classmates, by November I was done with the fifth grade. I was simply not going to go any more, period.
Thus began what later would be called "The Free School." It started with my mother's agreement to homeschool me. In truth, she took little convincing. I think she had been "champing at the bit" for some time and had had correspondence with, and a visit to A.S. Neill and the "Summerhill" school in England the year before. I, however, had never heard of homeschooling, or "free schools" and the only private schools I had ever heard of were run by discipline-minded nuns. You can imagine my surprise and gratitude at being granted clemency from my sentence. This lasted at least several days, until my first math lesson from my mother. After a few weeks of mutual head-butting, she began to look for other kids, to change the energy as much as anything else, I surmise.
In my mother's true style, within a few months we were a group of four and the initial round of politics had been settled with the state Board of Education. We were a "school," of sorts. It was a good first year. I remember mostly the big events; going to Washington for the moratorium to end the Vietnam War; spending the first Earth Day picking up bag after bag of trash alongside a road; the "Be In" at the University.
We started the next year with about six teachers and twenty kids. I guess it was an outgrowth of my mother's involvement with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that influenced her decision to have the school move to the inner city. That, and the fact that the rent was cheap on Albany's Franklin Street.
Much of the experience for me was about an uptown boy learning about downtown life. Lining up with the other neighborhood kids for a salty sour pickle given out free by the "pickle man", Mr. Richmond. Smashing out tunnels in the brick walls of abandoned tenements to explore them. Hearing the stories about the Green Street bordellos in their heyday.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were also becoming major interests. I spent hours in a school closet with a 15-year-old girl kissing and doing diffuse petting, hours jumping up and down on a mattress listening to "In a Gada Da Vida" by Iron Butterfly. To be truthful I don't remember getting high at school.
Group dynamics at the school ranged the whole gamut. We spent a lot of time working out our differences in "Council Meetings." I can remember some pretty violent incidents. A kid breaking a 2 by 4 over a teacher's back stands out in my mind. The most self-indulgent destructiveness came when either the teachers or the students or both decided to go "on strike" over some incident and the kids were allowed to completely trash the school. Bookcases were toppled, plates smashed and the shit generally hit the fan.
In retrospect, I think that part of the adults' willingness to let this happen may have been the knowledge that as part of the city's "Urban Renewal" program the whole block was being taken by eminent domain. Maybe this was the only way the adults could act out their anger towards the city's policy of what could be more aptly termed "Urban Removal." I don't think that this justifies its having been allowed to happen. Even then, I could stand back and say to myself, "Wow, so this is what a war is like." For the more destructive kids I wonder what the lesson really was. The school was out of the building within a few weeks and many of these kids were gone the next year.
Out of the ashes the school reformed itself and through hard work, good luck, and my mother's inheritance money acquired a rundown, ex-parochial school turned war veterans' post in the heart of the old Italian (now black) neighborhood not far from Franklin Street.
I had one more exciting, chaotic year at the school. It must have been during a summer school session following that second school year that some of us did an investigation of the bigger river polluters, seeing what the Tobin meat packing company dumped into Patroon Creek; photographing the open sewers complete with turds and toilet paper dumping directly into the Hudson at the end of Troy's streets; visiting the sloop "Clearwater." We also spent a couple of weeks interviewing members of the police department and sitting in police court investigating what sort of justice poor people experience in downtown Albany.
The following year I spent back at the public junior high school, a long enough time to confirm that it wasn't where I wanted to be. By the end of the year a friend and I were putting up posters for kids interested in starting an alternative secondary school. How that came into being and where it went are another story.
So how has all this affected how I parent and educate my own children twenty-three years later?
Our kids are Homeschooled and predominantly decide how to spend their time. They are also given a lot of structure and some very firm limits. I guess we want them to have the best of both worlds. They shouldn't have to attend a school where they are wasting a large portion of their time. "School is fine as long as it doesn't interfere with your education," to quote someone whose name I don't remember.
I think kids thrive best when given clear boundaries. A basic rhythm and structure to their lives is also very important for them. I certainly would have benefited from more structure at certain times in my childhood.
One of the most important values I want my kids to gain is the ability to make choices based on what they believe in. It's often touted as a fact that kids are tremendous conformists and enforcers of dominant cultural values. I believe that to be a lie. If we don't repress them at home and at school and keep them drugged with TV, they are quite capable of deciding for themselves what is right and wrong. It is people who have this ability that our society needs more than anything else.
Mark, now [in 1995] thirty-five years old, his wife Helene and their two kids Ian and Madeline live in a house they built themselves in Ashfield, Massachusetts. They are a home-schooling family. Mark is a stringed instrument maker and restorer and a house builder, and Helene is a family child care provider, a former teacher in the Free School and a whiz with things financial. Mark is also a Morris dancer, plays the guitar, and both he and Ian play the violin. Ian is also learning Morris dancing, and tells me he might go to England with Mark to dance later in the year! ..
Mark with his kids (four years ago) and working in his shop (recently)
by Kaylana Mittleman
I don't exactly remember the beginning of my thirteen years at the Free School. That may have something to do with the fact that I was only seven months old. My mother is a teacher, and she brought me with her. So, the first few years don't really hold that big a place in my memory. The years following definitely do, though.
I remember a feeling of comfort, family and love. I learned to talk about my feelings, listen to others' feelings, and accept people for who they are. I learned to be open and honest with myself and everyone around me. As far as schoolwork went, very little of the things we did were structured (in the "sitting at a desk and listening to the teacher for forty minutes" sense). Almost everything we studied was hands-on learning, whether it be all student-teacher interaction or going someplace to learn about something. My final year at school - I was in eighth grade - was a very relaxed year. I didn't do much schoolwork. I just kind of "hung out." When I think about it, maybe that was what I needed before the "big" transition. That transition was going from the Free School's forty students ranging from grades pre-K to eighth grade, to Albany High School's (AHS) 2400 students with only grades nine through twelve.
It would be a small understatement to say that I was scared to death to start AHS. But I did, and was utterly surprised to find that I was fine. In fact, I was better than fine. I made plenty of friends, did great in my classes, and even made honor roll for the whole year. Even though I had thought that the education I received at the Free School would not have prepared me for AHS's "real school" situation, I did great.
My first two and a half years at AHS were fine. But after a few months into my junior year, the structure and the total unfeeling of the students started to get to me. Everything was just so impersonal, and I started to hate it. I just up and left the second day of my senior year. And after a three month struggle with myself and my parents, I went back, and found the strength to endure it and graduate. I feel like I got that strength from being in the Free School. After graduating, I took a year off, to take a break from all the structure. I am now in college and doing all right.
I visit the Free School frequently. I feel like I am a whole person with a whole lot of inner strength because of my year at the Free School. I've got a large family and support network inside the Free School and the community. The people have helped me many times since I graduated from the Free School almost six years ago. I feel that I am very lucky to have attended the Free School. Everything I learned there will be very valuable throughout the course of my life, and I am very thankful.
Kaylana Mittleman, now nineteen, still lives in Albany, New York [in 1995], and is a freshman in college in Schenectady. She enjoys reading, playing the piano, traveling and being with her friends and with younger children. Lana has worked for two years with elderly residents at a retirement home in Albany.
 ........Lana age six or seven......Lana at 21 with ex-classmate Meighan in 1995  
by Meighan Carivan
I used to be so nervous about going to school that I had nauseous stomach aches every morning. The thought of school filled me with dread and I was always trying to avoid having to go. I did fairly well, but I had no real interest in learning. It was this negative outlook on education that The Free School changed for me.
I attended The Free School at two different times in my life. And although I was there for a considerable amount of time as a young child, it was the time that I spent there in junior high that had the most impact on me.
When I returned for junior high, for the first year and a half or so, I did a lot of academics. But as time went on and I got used to the general freeness of the environment, I began to do less and less. Since the teachers believe in trying to encourage students to do work instead of forcing them, when there came a point when I was resisting all the time, they decided to leave me alone to see what would happen. It was in doing this that taught me the value of education.
Despite the fact that I was not doing what many people would consider responsible, productive things, according to me, I was. I was completely satisfied doing whatever I suddenly had the desire for. And if I had an interest in something, no matter how strange or unimportant it seemed to my teachers, I was allowed to pursue it. Not only that, but I was supported in my efforts. I was never put down or called stupid or lazy and I never once had what I was doing belittled or discarded.
By finally being given the space that I needed, I was able to develop an interest in things and make a connection with taking the interests of my life and cultivating them into my education.
Today I am a full-time student studying music. at a local community college, as well as teaching part time at the school, It has taken me this long to realize what I could have been studying long before this year, but because I had to learn how to learn I am just coming to it now. I am beginning something completely new, and it is scary for me but I have been able to come to it because of what I have been taught about how to get what I want out of life. I have to be honest with myself about what I really want and not talk myself out of it because of fear. I need to always leave my options open and never limit myself. If I choose to view everything as available to me instead of letting my insecurities and inhibitions dictate what is possible, the world is mine. I believe that I owe this to The Free School for starting me on a path that has led me to where I am now.
My music is the love of my life and I can't imagine wanting to do anything else. Although it is hard to imagine my life any other way, I know that I might never have let myself follow my dreams if it weren't for taking that first step back in junior high.
Meighan is now [still in 1995] nineteen years of age, and enrolled in music studies, including voice training with an excellent voice teacher, at Schenectady Community College. Her sister Libby, who was at the Free School at the same as Meighan, is a student at Hofstra University. Their younger brother Francis, also a Free School graduate, is at Albany High School.
by John Lester
First of all 1 would like to tell you a little about myself (John-boy). It was in 1973 and I was a young boy about nine years old at the time of my enrollment at the Free school. I am what some of you call half breed, creo, redbone, high yellow, malloto or whatever stereotypical name that some people may use to describe a person of two or more different ethnic backgrounds.
We (my family) and the school lived in a very diverse community, meaning that there was a lot of different cultures and types of backgrounds. A lot of people thought that we were kind of weird because we didn't do things in the traditional manner. But as we all know the traditional way hasn't been very successful.
It is now twenty-three years later and I am a young man that has been through it all.
The Free School way of teaching is looked on to be unorthodox but their methods work - trust me, I know; I experienced it!! At the Free School I learned everything from A-Z. There I learned so much in such a short period of time that if I wrote down everything I learned, there wouldn't been enough room for my fellow students and friends to tell their stories.
johnboybday.gif ..johnboy85.gif
 John then and now
The Free School taught me the necessary tools to maintain a very healthy. happy and - most of all - a strong will to succeed in life. Don't get me wrong. My parents had a lot to do with it too. Two things that are most important in a young person's life are his family and his education.
The family is a major part of a young person's life because they are the ones that must encourage love, peace, togetherness, education, and also how to be independent. The School's job is to mold all of the significant characteristics in a young person so they may carry out a happy and flourishing life. I feel when a young person is a high school graduate he or she should be able to maintain their own existence. By this I mean having all of the necessary tools to get through life. If they need help they still will have their parents and teachers to fall back on for advice and support, but don't let them hang around until they're twenty-five and unemployed. Let them get out there and learn about life because the only way to learn properly is to experience.
Without both the family and the School putting 200% of their effort into bringing our children of today up right, then our adults of tomorrow look pretty sad. "Life is like riding a bike; put your child on it and give them a little push. When they fall, be right there to pick them up. Sooner or later they'll get the hang of it and you won't have to be there all the time."
The Free School put me on that bike and I learned how to ride. This is why I call my writings "The Best Things In Life Are Free" - because the Free School is one of the best and most important things that ever happened in my life.
John Lester is thirty-one years old and a father of two. He is currently working in the business management field, with the very creative local firm, Copy Inks. Also, on the side, John is doing free-lance typesetting and house framing, and wants to go back to college in order to pursue a career in teaching.
by Audry Camacho
I was five years old when I became a Free School student. Surprisingly, I remember those early years quite vividly and with mixed feelings. I looked forward to the daily exercises and especially enjoyed the morning meetings. It was at a morning meeting that I learned my loose teeth had large earnings potential. Students who lost a tooth would bring it to the meeting and the teachers would pay handsomely to have a look - as much as a dollar sometimes. My little brother Kaleb tried to sneak our cat's tooth in with his own one time. Unfortunately, the pointy eye tooth was suspected immediately and he wasn't able to collect on it.
My fondest memories are of the jungle gym, worm-digging expeditions in the back yard and the haunted house which was set up in the basement every Halloween. The annual talent show was the birthplace of my fleeting show biz career - for some reason my guitar rendition of "Jesus Loves Me" never again found an audience as enthusiastic as my Free School classmates and teachers.
While the Free School always put "fun" high on the list of priorities, they were never shy about teaching some difficult lessons. In my five-year existence on the planet, I had learned early on that offending classmates could easily be dealt with by "telling on them." The first time I ran to tattle on someone at the Free School, I was stunned to hear my teacher say, "Fight your own battles, Audry!"
Children naturally want to learn and the Free School gave us the freedom to learn at our own pace. Beyond academics, we were encouraged to share our talents and our feelings. The Free School gave me the tools to build a career, but more importantly to build relatioships with people.
After the Free School, Audry received a Bachelor's Degree in English from Empire State College and a Master's Degree in Technical Communications from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She became a stockbroker for two years and now she is a Senior Investment Editor with Newkirk Products, Inc., in Albany, New York.
Audry cartoonist, Kaleb gymnast
 Brother Kaleb and sister Audry
on the porch of their new house
by Kaleb Camacho
Why do they call it the "Free School" if you have to pay money to go there? This is a question I remember asking my mother as a child. Little did I know that nothing in life was free, and that the word free had more than one meaning.
When I look back at the Free School with a little bit older, and hopefully wiser, outlook I can see that the Free School means something different for everyone. When I walk by the Free School I always envision a building infested with hippies and wall-to-wall flower children freeing their minds. Being a student of both public schools and the Free School I can honestly say they made learning easy and fun. I can't recall begging for homework in public school.
This school went further than vocabulary words and decimals. They took the time to hold each student mentally, physically and spiritually. One of the key motivators for strengthening students was the school's leader, Mary Leue. As a child I believed she had powers, but they did not include spells that could turn me into a frog. Instead Mary Leue was able to help me overcome my biggest fear at that time: her. I remember being forced to sit under a cafeteria table without food. I was not to be given food until I returned one of the many "ugly faces" that Mary Leue had given me. Faces so hideous, by the way, each one made me cry. Bored with crying and embarrassment I finally got mad enough to make an ugly face back. Mary Leue saw I was weak and took the time to make me strong.
The Free School definitely has a radical approach to teaching. They've added to my character, and over the years have helped build so many characters that they will probably write a book. I can describe the Free School in two words - FAR OUT!!!
Kaleb attended the Free School from Pre-K to 4th grade. He is currently starting his junior year at the College of St. Rose where he majors in Graphic Design. At twenty-one, he is a home owner, having recently purchased a house with his sister Audry in the Mansion Hill neighborhood in Albany, New York.
by Ethan Manning
After four years in pub-lic school I was about to give up on learning. I felt lost there. I felt I wasn't learning anything, that I couldn't learn anything. Every day I would come home angry and frustrated, feeling like I was stupid.
I started going to the Free School in grade five. What words can you use to describe something so new, so different, it changes your life forever? The first thing I noticed at the Free School was that everyone wanted to be there. Everyone, the students and the teachers, were happy to be there. People listened to me. When someone talked to me it was with respect, I began to feel like I really was someone, that what I thought and felt mattered. And I started learning.
For the first time I wasn't told to "know stuff." For the first time school was fun, what we did was fun, learning new things was fun. Looking back on those years, I sometimes wonder who really was teaching who. When our teachers asked us questions I sometimes thought "I know that, I'll teach it to them." Sometimes you think of school as where you're pushed along by never-ending demands. Do this, learn that. At the Free School no one pushed. Instead it was like you were carried along on a wave of encouragement and enthusiasm. Along the way we learned to respect ourselves and each other, we learned to work together and on our own, how to speak up for ourselves and how to listen to others.
Next fall I am going to college. It is too soon to be more specific but my general direction is towards a career in the environment, forestry, or wildlife management.
Somewhere inside me there always was a love of the outdoors. At the Free School this was somehow noticed, encouraged, developed and brought out in me. I became involved with the Seneca Indian reservation. From the people on the reservation I learned many things about the environment which I had never known. I also was introduced to Ward Stone, a well-known environmental pathologist who helped me stay interested by letting me do volunteer work at the Department of Environmental Conservation. These people opened my eyes to things I'd only dreamed existed for other people.
At the Free School you feel you are among equals.They know things you don't but they let you know that in time you'll learn. They talk to you like you're an equal but still let you be a kid and respect you for that. It's a wonderful feel-ing. People are always going on about the love of learning. What I experienced at the Free School was learning to love. I have not been the same and I will never forget what they brought to my life.
Ethan is 18 years old and will graduate from high school in 3 months. He plans to go to Johnson College in Vermont for two years and then to either the University of Vermont or Syracuse University to major in forestry. He would like to be a forest ranger or an environmental conservation officer of some kind.
Back to SKOLE Index
Back to Student Writing page
Back to Chris Mercogliano's History of the Free School