THE THERAPEUTIC SCHOOL
by Chris Mercogliano

 

Because we appear as such a motley crew, always with at least a few kids looking a little bit wilder than most, people often ask if we are some kind of special school, for, (you know), "special" (problem) children. Of course, I always answer, "Yes!" because damn it, all children are special, and all children have problems. We all have problems for that matter; that's just the nature of the beast.

Actually, we are not a school that is specially designed for anyone. Year by year we simply take on, with little fanfare, whoever happens to show up. And God just always seems to know who needs us the most. Since we are the only non-conventional and affordable alternative to the public and parochial schools in the center of a small metropolitan region with over a quarter of a million people, and since our only entrance requirement is a genuine desire to come every day to be a full participant in the life of the school, some very interesting characters do show up each year. I would guess that we tend to be a "school of last resort" for about a third of our kids, with roughly another third seeking us out because they and/or their parents are attracted to our unorthodox approach to education, and with the remaining third coming because we are simply their neighborhood school. This last group struggles mightily to come to terms with our unusual style, and we try to help them bridge the gap. We all do the best we can with it, but as I learned long ago, try as we might, we just are not for everybody.

So what does it mean, "therapeutic school?" It occurs to me that this is a very tricky notion. Mary, our founder, often says to people that the Free School is like a Rorschach Test, meaning that whatever someone experiences in our school is simply an outward, concretized manifestation of the inner rumblings in that person's psyche. In other words, if one has preconceived ideas about school, or about life, for that matter, then sooner or later one will get reality to bear them out in our school. For this reason, I always tell prospective parents, and often their kids, that if they are coming to us because of problems in the previous school, they can be sure that the very same problems will crop up in our school as well, in spite of the fact that we are so different. And we intend it to be this way, which is one important reason why there are so few fixed rules and policies and why the structure of the school is free to evolve as needed to meet changing circumstances. One of the things that tends to separate us from other schools is the way we then follow problems to their true and hopefully lasting solutions, rather than temporizing with standardized responses and formulaic "discipline" all of the time, as most schools do.

Visitors to our school frequently comment on how "unstructured" we seem to be. What I am gradually coming to understand is that here the participants themselves are the structure. A true community, a concept I explore in much greater detail elsewhere, is an assembling and reassembling of people - not policies, or ideologies, or buildings. Communities consist of relationships among people, and people - with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies - make up communities, each with their own unique structure and identity. Everything else is secondary, or even tertiary, if not irrelevant altogether.

In the absence of a great many prescriptions and prohibitions, and in the presence of a good deal of spontaneity, "shit happens" on a regular basis at the Free School. I am purposefully borrowing that recently popular scatological expression from a bumper sticker that swept the nation for a time. This, I think, is where the idea of therapy comes in, and where, as I said, we part company with a great many other schools. Just as a good therapist would do, we encourage and invite the inner rumblings of the psyche "to come up." Then we work together, or struggle alone as the case may be, to take the drama all the way through to its logical completion, though the logic I'm speaking of here is of the inner kind. This is not a revolutionary idea. Getting away from all the psychotherapeutic lingo, it's simply called learning from your own mistakes; which many would argue is the only way true learning occurs anyway. When we take on kids with serious problems, they usually take full advantage of the available freedom, setting into motion a highly accelerated and certainly imaginative course of study based entirely on personal trial and error.

You might ask, "So what about the other kids, the ones who don't want to raise hell all the time?" Ah, this is another very tricky question. First of all, I firmly believe that it is important, even at quite a young age, for kids to learn to relate to and deal with all sorts of people. That's how they explore the limits of their own personal power and learn who to trust, and who not to trust; when to ask for help and when to go it on their own, and when to fight and when to flee (all of this belonging to an area of human experience sometimes referred to as "the politics of experience"). I have also discussed elsewhere the many tools and procedures available to our kids which enable them to deal safely and non-abusively with one another. When one of our "troubled" kids, having seen whatever pattern they happened to see in their ink blots of daily school life, stirs up the pot at school, we view it as an opportunity for the whole community to learn something about themselves.

I received an important lesson on this subject a number of years ago, when a couple of other men and I took a group of our more unhappy Free School boys with us to a weekend "men's council" held on the ancestral land of a quite elderly clan mother of the Seneca Nation in western New York State. During the course of the weekend, one of our boys - who suffered from occasional volcanic rages - got into it with one of the local boys, eventually going after him with a very sharp pocket knife. Fortunately, a couple of men were nearby enough to disarm Peter before anyone was hurt. The men presiding over the council, a mix of Native Americans and non-Native Americans, were at a loss as how best to respond to this disturbance to the peace of the council. The mutually agreed upon taboo against violence clearly had been broken. Should the boy be punished or sent home? The men from the Free School were advocates for having the whole group of boys sit down together and talk out the entire event, which they all, as it turns out, had a part in. The only problem was that our boy flatly refused. He was still too angry, ashamed and frightened by the power of his own reaction.

Finally, one of the council leaders, the one who had been placed in charge of the kids, decided to consult with Grandmother Twylah, as we called her, who was not actively participating in the council, but at whose invitation we were all there. That proved to be a very wise decision. Grandmother Twylah insisted on speaking to Peter immediately, and I ended up with the dubious honor of nearly dragging a very frightened boy to her sitting room. She instantly melted Peter, whom she had never seen before, with a smile of total acceptance. She told him that she sensed that he had had a problem controlling his temper before, and he nodded his head solemnly. She asked him if he knew that some of the men were suggesting that he be sent home, but that she had said absolutely not. She told Peter that she knew that he had come to her land that weekend just so that this very problem could arise and so that Peter would have the opportunity to begin to learn to deal with the force of his own anger. The old clan mother explained to us both that in the Seneca tradition, children are not punished for their wrongdoings because each contains a lesson to be learned. To this day I have posted on my wall Grandmother Twylah's Ten Lessons for Being Human. The first one is that life is nothing but a series of lessons; the second is that we repeat each lesson until it is learned; and the third is that when one lesson is learned, it is immediately replaced by another one. You get the idea after that.

At the end of her talk with Peter, Grandmother Twylah asked him if he would be willing to bury his knife under one of the old trees on her property, an act that would signal his willingness literally to begin learning to "bury the hatchet" when he found his rage being triggered. The pocket knife was a recent birthday gift to Peter and he loved it dearly, and so this was no easy decision for him to make. He thought for a long, silent moment before agreeing to do it. Peter was not the same ten-year-old boy when he arrived back home that Sunday evening, and today he is a tall, responsible, and even-tempered sixteen-year-old, and one of the most valued counselors at the overnight camp where he now spends his summers.

What about when the actions of one individual child begin to pull down the rest of the group? A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill School in England back in the 1920's, addressed this sort of question by differentiating between freedom and license. Freedom, according to Neill, carries along with it the responsibility for one's impact on others. For example, one is never "free" to shout, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. That would be an obvious example of license. At the Free School, we continually walk a very fine line in terms of how much leeway to give an unhappy child to work out their kinks and knots. It is a fact that because our school is so much an intimate, living community, when one person is suffering, everyone else inevitably suffers as well, to one extent or another.

Well, then, at what point does it just become plain unfair to the other kids? On certain rare occasions - I can remember two examples in twenty-one years - the kids themselves settled the matter by voting a chronic antagonist out of the school. This drastic action was taken only after repeated warnings and last chances failed to bring about any real change. I can think of three other instances when the teachers got together and decided that it was time for a troublesome student to leave against his will. In the majority of cases where it just hasn't worked out, kids have ended up making their own, I think, necessary decisions to return to the "safety" and predictability of the rule-bound, heavily supervised conventional schools. They somehow sensed inside themselves that they had moved as far as they were capable of moving at that time, and I suspect that they also were picking up on their parent(s)' mixed feelings about their attending the Free School as well. Unfortunately, this type of parental ambivalence freezes a child's willingness to experiment with new behaviors and ways of interacting with other people. At any rate, I make a point of following up on each and every one of the kids who don't stay on with us, and they all seem to manage to come 'round right, usually more sooner than later.

All this having been said, we haven't won any popularity contests with our insistence on including troubled kids. One year not too long ago a respected area psychotherapist who, ironically (from my point of view), specialized in helping Viet Nam War veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, sent his young son down to visit because he was dissatisfied with their uptown public school. We had two disturbing older boys in the school that year and the therapist ultimately elected not to send his son because of his concern over the level of crisis that he felt he was observing in the school at the time. It's true that there was a lot of uproar being generated by those boys in particular, and I certainly didn't fault that father for his decision. Nevertheless, if I had it to do all over again, I still wouldn't throw the two troublemakers out. Both badly needed us, both later were able to transition successfully back into more conventional schooling situations, and both are now doing very well indeed.

One of the boys, whose name I won't use for obvious reasons, was sent to us because he was that kind of kid who chronically invites the abuse of the entire class in the typical public school environment where there is so often a reservoir of pent-up hostility and frustration on hand. He was large and gawky and very used to playing the role of what I call "kick-me." To make matters worse, his father had serious paranoid schizophrenic tendencies; and furthermore, there was a relatively mild form of sexual abuse slowly being transmitted down the line of six siblings, with our boy being smack in the middle of it all. To make matters worse for us, he was the largest kid in the school, and prone to expressing his anger with definite sexual overtones toward anyone female. And then, to top it all off, he had a history of academic failure and now had no apparent interest in learning or doing much of anything.

Free at last, our boy simply chose to sit around all day and bug other kids, both for the sport and for the attention it gained him. And then, one day, the Lord who works in such mysterious ways sent us an old eight-track tape player with a big box of working tapes, all from the sixties and seventies when the boy's father was a real music-loving young, died-in-the-wool hippy. Now, our boy sat around on his somewhat overweight derrière and listened to music all day long - a definite step in the right direction, since at least he stopped being such a general nuisance. Still, I was worried about him because he was already thirteen, years behind academically, and very depressed. Getting him to do anything other than play his tapes was like trying to move a glacial New England boulder with a lever made of Styrofoam.

All was business as usual until he got it in his eternally earphoned head to hold a dance at the school, with you-know-who as the DJ. Lo and behold, the dance was a great success, with more to follow, and suddenly this budding teenager had a standing with his fellow students that he had never before had in his life. At some point along the way, it occurred to me to ask him if he might want to apprentice with a professional radio disc jockey if I could find one (anything to get him moving and out of the building!) His face lit up at the idea, and miraculously, I was able to find a student at a local college radio station who was willing to take on an eager, but totally inexperienced learner. He had him on the air the first day! Our young apprentice went on to earn his FCC license and then to start his own radio station on the block in his neighborhood, all within three months of his debut!

Eventually, our boy outgrew the Free School in more ways than one and returned to his local public junior/senior high school, a move which was entirely of his own creation, since neither his parents nor I believed that he was ready to make the transition back to the abysmal world of failure and abuse from whence he had come. What actually happened was that one day, entirely unannounced of course, he managed to persuade his aunt to take him to visit the public school nearest his home. While there, he further convinced her to enroll him on the spot, with the aunt claiming that she was his legal guardian! No one was more surprised than I when I received a phone call from his new principal the next day asking for his school records and if I could tell him a little more about his unusual new student. You can imagine what my next phone call - with his mother. who still knew nothing about any of this - was like. To complete this very abridged version of the story, his mother and I agreed that there wasn't much else to do at that point but respect her son's determination to escape from freedom. Within two weeks of his cleverly orchestrated "transfer," I learned that he had already started a school radio station and that the principal had him "on the air" every morning broadcasting from his office before the morning announcements! What a turn-around! He's apparently keeping up academically now, is beginning to have girl friends, and is generally turning out to be a very "normal" teenager.

John was the other boy that year that kept things livelier than they might otherwise have been. He had been adopted at the age of three after having been taken away from his mother by the local child protection people due to extreme neglect. This was in an extremely isolated area in upstate New York where they lived in Apalachia-like poverty. John's young mother sometimes worked as a prostitute in order to get by and she frequently left her little boy alone to fend for himself for long periods of time. John's new family was troubled as well. His adopted father was a combat veteran of the Second World War already in his sixties, and was disabled, alcoholic, and still suffering, I think, from untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To top it all off, he had a slow-growing cancer, and so John was often preoccupied with fears about his new dad's dying. John's adopted mother, a sensitive, quiet, and insecure woman, was a full generation younger than her husband, and finally left him a couple of years after the adoption because of his drunken abusiveness, taking John with her.

In school, John's stock in trade was somewhat similar to his classmate, the DJ's. The only way that he seemed to be able to get at his buried grief, anger and despair - so understandable in light of his origins - was to play out a victim scenario, inviting his classmates to tease him and rough him up, all the while adamantly refusing to stick up for himself. He would then spend long periods of time off by himself, feeling abused and neglected - an obvious reenactment of his actual predicament in early childhood. Just the other day, a reporter from a local newspaper spent the day with us, working on a feature-length profile of the school, and near the end of his visit, he shared a very astute observation with me, one that I'd never heard put quite that way before. He asked if I had noticed how in most classrooms in most schools, there are always at least a couple of kids who are loners, who often seem depressed or withdrawn, or who are in some way "out of it." I nodded my head.

This thoughtful journalist then went on to say that he was quite taken by the fact that he hadn't seen a single child all day fitting that pattern. All the children in the Free School, he was realizing, seemed to be "in the flow." All seemed to him to be always actively engaged in something, whether alone, in pairs or in small groups. No one appeared to be left out, and he wondered why I thought that was so. I answered that we place a great deal of value and attention on precisely that level of experience, and that we in some ways give it a higher priority than purely academic or other more mental forms of learning. Furthermore, I told him, the kids care so deeply about each other that it's usually not o.k. with them when someone's pain is being ignored - either by themselves or by others. Perhaps this statement could form the basis for a wonderfully unrefined, albeit "therapeutic" definition of "community," a term rendered nearly useless by constant over- and mis-use.

Our kids will inevitably find ways to draw each other out, much the same way that applying a hot compress to a boil slowly brings the trapped pus up to the surface, speeding up the healing process. Their assorted techniques for treating emotional wounds don't follow adult logic and instead are mysteriously intuitive. They often involve conflict and are rich in paradox. John's "abusers" finally stood the situation on its head by calling council meetings on him because he so consistently refused to defend himself. Riding the horse in precisely the direction it was going anyway, they ultimately, after all their caring pleas and exhortations had failed, voted in a motion that John had to sit alone - for as long as it took - until he called his own council meeting and got to work on changing his self-abasing pattern of behavior.

The kids' ploy worked like a charm, just as I'm sure they instinctively knew that it would. After two very stubborn days, John finally became so enraged at having to be isolated, that he demanded his own meeting at which he gave his "persecutors" hell, and then pledged to stick up for himself from there forward. And that was a promise that he kept. Soon after this breakthrough which was largely engineered by his peers, out of the blue one day, John decided to write down his life story. I suggested he use the computer to make it faster and easier, and what followed were tens of hours, day after day, spent by himself in front of a computer screen. It was wonderful to watch his curse of self-isolation turn into a blessing of self-healing. Eventually, John also "outgrew" us and chose to switch to another excellent alternative school nearer to his home in the country where he is now flourishing. Stealing a line from one of my favorite modern Protestant hymns, "Wise hearts find truth in paradox." Amen, I say to that.

One of the most important points that I wanted to get across to the aforementioned reporter was that children, given the space to associate without external constraint, free from adult-imposed judgment and competition and free to be their authentic selves rather than some false school persona, are simply their own best teachers and therapists. The kids are thus entirely unfettered, as he had so accurately observed, not because of any particularly enlightened methodology being practiced by us teachers, but because we trust them to employ their own devices, knowing that they are naturally inclined to have it be this way. Which isn't to say that the adults in the Free School just ignore the kids while they float about in some artificial and exclusive bubble. We are interacting with them all the time - sometimes at their initiative, sometimes at ours - and we seldom hesitate to intervene when there is just outright abuse or dumping of negative emotion taking place.

At the risk of repeating myself, we spend much of our time attending to the emotional and interpersonal dimensions of everyday life in the school because we believe them to be the cornerstones of life and of all learning. Our experience tells that when children know themselves, like themselves, and belong to themselves, the areas of learning that conventional schools spend countless thousands of hours going over and over again become practically effortless and require amazingly little time. I suspect that what the reporter was really picking up on, though he didn't use these words, was the surprising degree of aliveness that one usually finds in our school, and this, I am quite sure, is why.

Now it occurs to me that the risk in going on with this notion of "therapeutic school" is that it might suggest to some that we are all actually a bunch of amateur psychologists running around playing therapist most of the time. While I personally have done a great deal of individual and group therapy to repair my own inner damage and to strengthen a much too fragile sense of myself - so that I would be both a better person and a better teacher - I recognize its built-in limitations and its potential for fostering dependency.

On the other hand, I see many similarities between the roles of teacher and therapist, properly played. Neither good teachers nor good therapists impose their idea of who the individuals they are working with should or shouldn't be. Adroitly keeping their leading and guiding to a minimum, both endeavor only to encourage the growth and unfolding of the possibilities that are already present. Sometimes a little poking and prodding, or a little limit-setting is called for, and sometimes it's better to let someone make mistakes and then learn from them. Good teachers and good therapists trust those they work with to know themselves better than anyone else.

I've gradually come to know that therapy doesn't cure anything, nor should it. We are all wayfarers, each on our unique journey in this life, with all its joy and all its suffering. So, the Free School isn't a place where we are always trying to fix kids, though we are certainly guilty (sic) from time to time of searching for psychological explanations - perhaps too often. Such is the temptation of a therapeutic orientation to reality, I guess. We try to avoid this pitfall as much as possible, and in any case, the kids usually protest loudly when they feel that we are over-psychologizing their experience. We then struggle to receive their teaching as gracefully as possible.

What the Free School is, I hope, is a place where all its co-participants can come to find out enough about who they uniquely are so that they can remove any obstacles to the full expression of their particular forms of specialness - be they artistic, intellectual, musical, scientific, poetic, athletic, mathematical, or some rare combination of them all - if that is what they choose to do. One of the cornerstones of our approach to education is that personal authenticity is the ground from which all true learning springs. That does, indeed, sound very "therapeutic," doesn't it? and means, I suppose, that we are a special school after all.

I can no longer count the number of times that children have demonstrated to me their superior inner wisdom regarding choices they have made about what they have needed to be doing in school, and when and how. as well. A few years back, Allan came to us at the late age of eleven, already a budding young man with his mind made up about a great many things. His academic performance in public school had always been poor, as was his overall attitude toward almost everything, and when he began refusing to go to school at all, his parents decided to give us a try. Allan had suffered a lot of emotional abuse and neglect as a young child. Although his mother was well on her way to making a beautiful and complete recovery from alcoholism and had remarried a man who was a caring step-father to Allan, he continued to display a number of psychosomatic side-effects such as nervous ticks and so on. Today, he most certainly would have had the absurd label, "Attention Deficit Disorder" stamped on his records, but thankfully it hadn't been invented yet. Allan had tremendous nervous energy and rarely liked to sit still for long, which generally made "progress" in things like math, and certainly reading, pretty much out of the question.

Naturally, there was a lot of concern about his academic standing, although not on Allan's part. His parents were shocked and relieved enough by the sudden reversal of his attitude toward going to school that they were willing to go along with our novel approach to their son's education, which consisted mainly of letting him do as he pleased while he was in our care. In addition to always being on the go, Allan was quite cocky and had little if any respect for anyone female. God, in all His infinite knowing, arranged it so that when Allan happened upon our little school, all six or eight of his age-mates were girls. I told him right up front that this was a curse placed on him to rid him of his prejudice and that no boys his age would arrive until he decided to begin treating girls and women with proper respect, which as it turns out, is exactly what ended up happening.

I discovered at some point that Allan had a fascination for the outdoors, for wildlife and for hunting and fishing. On a five-day trip to what was then our school's wilderness site in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts - we have since been given 250 acres of undeveloped land closer to Albany in eastern New York State - Allan spent most of his time trying to catch small animals in homemade traps. His designs were crude and he caught nothing; but lo and behold, he showed up at school on the Monday morning following the trip with a book on animal trap design which he had gotten from his local library. We'd never seen him with a book before, and he proceeded to spend the next several weeks attempting to build the traps in our little school workshop. So much for his short attention span! Before long, he outgrew the book that had gotten him started and began working out his own designs, some of which were quite ingenious.

As paradox would have it, helpless baby animals literally began falling at the feet of our budding young trapper, who now began pouring the same intense energy that had previously been focussed on hunting into nurturing nature's offspring. Allan's first "patient" was a starling hatchling, not more than a few days old, that had probably been pushed out of its nest by the mother. He contacted the State Conservation Department to find out how to feed and care for the featherless little creature. I have seen countless wild baby birds perish while under the hopeful and tender care of well-meaning children, and I certainly didn't expect this tiny starling to survive for very long either. Not only did the bird survive, but with Allan's tireless and loving parenting, including several middle-of-the-night feedings in the beginning, it flourished. When its feathers grew in sufficiently, Allan then helped the bird learn to fly. He was well along in preparing the young starling for its eventual release back into the wild when tragedy struck.

Once again paradox was at work. I had driven Allan out to the State Conservation Department so that he could show some other students the lab where he was volunteering his help a couple of times a week. Allan's relationship with these folks around the bird had led to an exciting apprenticeship with the State Wildlife Pathologist, and among other things, Allan was getting the training there that would lead to his becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Allan had brought the bird along with him - he generally took it everywhere he went - and we left it in the school van while we went in to tour the lab. Though it was a mild day in mid-spring, I made the common and often fatal mistake of not rolling a window down. The van sat parked in the sun and when we returned a half-hour later the bird was already stricken by the heat. We frantically tried to save it, but we were too late and the little starling died a few minutes later in Allan's trembling hands. It often takes a lot to make an adolescent boy cry, but cry he did; and thankfully without shame. When we got back to school, the sad news spread quickly. Before long, the entire school had joined him in his grief, and elaborate funeral preparations were begun. Allan fashioned a little casket while other kids created grave markers of all kinds. The entire school attended the solemn burial in the school's pet cemetery, which is under an old mulberry tree in my back yard.

Try to imagine the preceding vignette occuring in a conventional, age-segregated classroom. Mind you, this isn't to say that it couldn't or doesn't happen sometimes. There are thousands of gifted, dedicated and creative teachers busy working small miracles in our schools every day, usually against great odds. But it is difficult to imagine, isn't it? For one thing, the ease with which the younger Free Schoolers got into their grief when they saw and touched the little dead bird greatly facilitated Allan's necessary grieving in a way that no textbook or adult figure ever could have. Rather than this being some curricular lesson - or "extracurricular," for that matter - about death and dying (which in itself would be a rare find in most schools), here was a struggling young adolescent receiving the total support of an entire community at a very poignant moment in his life.

Perhaps it is the inordinate amount of attention that we give to the emotional life and health of children and adults alike that would properly earn us the label of "therapeutic school." We believe very deeply that unexpressed feelings get stuck and then fester in the body and in the psyche, and that this causes breaks in the normal program of learning and development. While we don't do therapy with kids as such, we have developed any number of practices and techniques over the years which encourage the healthy expression of emotions as well as the articulation and exploration of life's inevitable conflicts.

Throughout this book I keep referring to our "council meetings," with their often strong feeling content, where problems are often unravelled right to their sources. Also, we have always had a large punching bag available for anyone to let off anger harmlessly at any time. Visitors are sometimes both surprised and amused to see even our preschoolers pounding an over-stuffed chair with an old tennis racket and shouting, "No!" A few years ago, I actually lined a small, windowless interior room in the school with donated second-hand mattresses. Appearing to the uninformed as a veritable "padded cell," we named this unusual space, "the Feeling Room," and anyone can ask to use it whenever they feel the need. It gets quite a lot of good use because it is a wonderfully safe, private place for the release of pent-up emotions of all kinds. We noticed that the amount of fighting in the school dropped off markedly once the Feeling Room became popular. The Fire Marshal, on the other hand, was entirely unamused when he first discovered our new addition, but even he eventually came to understand its value and finally stopped insisting that we remove the mattresses because he thought they were a "a fire hazard."

I want to return to the word, "No," for a moment. Often one of young children's very first words, it carries great power as it plays a defining role in the emergence of their identities as separate individuals. And then, at the age of five, if not sooner, we hustle them into an environment where "no" is virtually verboten and where conformity is enforced by all necessary means. Some children have no problem with such a regimen and appear to thrive under those artificial conditions. But what about the ones who don't? We have found over the years that they need to say, "No!" a lot, and without consequences other than ones organically inherent in the situation. Kids who have been spoiled and over-controlled for too long, either at home, or at school, or both, will sometimes say "no" even to spite themselves. When they are allowed to do that, it can then become a source of profound self-discovery.

I remember a small group of nine-year-old boys we had once, all public school refugees, who banded together and refused to go on a week-long trip to our school's lakeside "outdoor education center." Now, I knew that these boys - all city kids - loved to fish and to run in the woods. But on the previous trip, they had been furious at the idea of having to gather firewood, and so here was an obvious act of glorified rebellion. I was sorely tempted to force them to go because, first of all, this was just the sort of experience they needed; and furthermore, I knew they would have a ball once they got there. Still, a quiet voice inside told me just to let them be. I will never forget their faces when the school emptied out as all of the other kids departed for the lodge. Their smug looks of victory turned lonely and forlorn within minutes, and they were one sad sight when the others returned at the end of the week with all of their stories of great adventure. Our newly humble rebels proceeded to pester me for weeks to organize another expedition, and when they did get to go again, there was very little fuss about the chores that belong to camp life. How can we ever expect kids to become skillful in the art of making choices for themselves if they never get to exercise their option to say "no?"

Fortunately, it wasn't long before Allan was back in the saddle again. One morning, while he was on his way to school, he came upon a juvenile pigeon who was in pretty rough shape and unable to fly. And this story had a happy ending when, after a few weeks of Allan's restorative care, the now full-grown bird was well enough to be released successfully back into its urban environment. Everyone saluted Allan for saving the pigeon's life and he wore the hero's mantle with a lot of grace. The cockiness which I described above seemed to have disappeared without a trace. It was plain for anyone who wanted to see that while Allan was so busy healing those little creatures, he was also applying little splints to the broken wing places in himself that were a legacy of his own difficult and uncertain start in life.

After two years with us, Allan decided that he, too, was ready to leave the nest. Even though he previously had been so miserable in public school, the call of that wildly buzzing hive of adolescence - the middle school - became irresistible. I discouraged him from leaving the Free School just yet, only because he still hadn't done much to "catch up" academically. I was worried that he might be labelled a failure all over again and then revert back to all of the negative attitudes and behavior patterns that had led him to us in the first place. But if there's one thing we've learned, it's that once a kid has made up his mind to leave us, then it's important to let him go, with our full blessing. So, leave us he did; and sure enough, my fears were confirmed. After a couple of weeks, I received an irate phone call from Allan's new homeroom teacher. "Hadn't we taught the boy anything while he was in our school?" she shouted at me.

In my calmest, most reassuring tones, I explained some of Allan's history to her. Next, I patiently recounted some of his amazing accomplishments to her and told her that, while they weren't exactly in academic areas, she would begin to see a carry-over once Allan recovered from his shock at being back in the kind of graded, competitive classroom where he had been such a miserable failure before. I urged her to try to relax and to see if they couldn't get Allan some extra help in some of the basic skills areas where he was lacking. I shared with her my discovery that there was nothing that I couldn't trust Allan with and that he was, in fact, a born leader. Doing my best to steady my rising annoyance, I struggled to find the words that would convey to her that she had a rare treasure on her hands, and that she'd damn well better not bury it in the sand. I assured her again that Allan's desire to succeed would bring him through the narrow place he was temporarily stuck in, and the conversation ended on a hopeful, friendly note.

I'll never know how much of my pitch she bought, but I managed to help buy Allan enough time for him to pull himself out of his slump. They found him some tutoring assistance, and by the end of the marking period, he was passing all subjects. This leads to my favorite Allan story of all. In the second half of that year, Allan's English teacher told the class to write a two-page paper on the book of their choice. Entirely on his own initiative - I don't even know where he learned of the book - Allan read Rachel Carson's classic ecological warning, Silent Spring. He proceeded to write an eight-page mini-thesis that the teacher then read to the entire class, declaring that it was the best composition that she'd ever received.

Although the paper was full of spelling and grammatical errors, it had a big, fat "A+" on the cover. I proudly tell this one last story about Allan because it is such a pure example of what can happen when we return the responsibility for the learning process to its rightful owner (assuming someone has taken it away in the first place). Allan read that book and wrote that paper for himself, not for his teacher. The deep meaning which he expressed in his writing, and which thankfully that teacher was able to recognize and acknowledge him for, emerged from within Allan, and from nowhere else. Here was another wonderful reminder that real learning unfolds from the inside out and not the other way around.

Human development is simply not a linear progression. Not unlike dreams, it follows a logic all its own, varying tremendously from individual to individual. Its course is often uncanny and also deeply mysterious. When we remember at the Free School to respect the kids' own growth strategies - no matter how unlikely they might appear at the time - things always seem to come out right in the end. Again, this is not to say that we are "laissez faire," as our dear reporter ultimately wrote in the ignorant and largely insulting story which appeared in the Sunday addition of his newspaper. Teachers in our school often attempt to influence students in one direction or another - sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly; sometimes gently, and sometimes not so gently. With budding adolescents like Allan, though, force of any kind rarely works very well. They just tend to push back and rebel, or become sullen and withdraw. Thankfully, Allan was open to allowing me to give him some guidance and encouragement in a direction he was already inclined.

But then there was Sally. A student in our school for several years, she had been a bright, precocious child and an eager learner. All of a sudden (or so it seemed at the time), she hit adolescence and lost interest in just about everything. I tried mightily to find some inner spark that I could help her fan into flames, but all I ever got was smoke. I was having increasing "bad teacher" feelings and so the situation was slowly driving me a little nuts. There were two things that entire year that Sally spent her time doing, when she wasn't just sitting around, "hanging out." (My innate prejudice against non-doing is beginning to show, isn't it?) One was melting candle wax onto her hands and incessantly making molds of them; the other was weaving a multi-color rope on a small spool loom that she had fashioned - until the rope stretched more than twice around our rather large building. The whole school got caught up in her fascination as the rope grew longer and longer.

Now, I knew that Sally's parents were just completing a lengthy and difficult divorce, and that the combination of her feelings about that situation with the onset of puberty pretty well accounted for her drawn-out, intense mood. Fortunately, I was able to relax my drive to feel like a good teacher by inspiring Sally to some great achievement, and instead to "stay off her case" and trust that she was doing what she needed to do (or not doing what she didn't need to do). Sally completed that year still weaving and molding and chose to move on to a public high school the following September.

Though a successful student there, she grew dissatisfied with the endless routine and rote learning and so decided the next year to create a modified homeschool program with our school's founder as her primary mentor. The two of them had a ball together and Sally returned to being aggressive and joyful about learning. To make a long story short, upon completion of high school, she ended up earning a scholarship to a well-known private university. Sally came back one day to tell her old teachers what she realized, looking back, had contributed to her satisfying transition into adulthood perhaps as much as anything else: It was that last year she had spent in the Free School, "doing nothing."

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