- 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
- MY SCHOOL YEARS
- 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
- Mark, age
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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)
- LIFE DURING AND AFTER THE FREE
- 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
- 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
- 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.
age six or seven......Lana
at 21 with ex-classmate Meighan in 1995
- MEIGHAN'S FREE SCHOOL
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- "THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE
- 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
- 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
- John then and
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- "AN EDUCATION FOR LIFE"
- 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
- Brother Kaleb and
- on the porch of their new
- "FAR OUT"
- 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
- 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,
- THE TURNING POINT IN MY
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
to SKOLE Index
to Student Writing page
to Chris Mercogliano's History of the Free School