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A SCHOOL MUST HAVE A HEART by Chris Mercogliano


Chris Mercogliano has been a college drop-out (in 1972), a teacher at the Free School in Albany, New York (1973-1987), its co-director (1987 to the present), and since 1998 the author of two books - one on The Free School he called Making It Up As We Go Along and a new one on ADD and Ritalin he calls Teaching the Restless - He is currently working on a third book on the organizing of a school like The Free School.

It happens every year. Yesterday we received a visit from two former students, a brother and a sister. Nothing unusual here, except for the fact that these were not our former students. Instead they were graduates of the old Saint Anthony's School, which for many years occupied the same handsome, Italianate-style building on Elm Street now belonging to the Free School.

Before going on with the story, a word about the building's unusual history is in order: It actually appeared first as a Lutheran church, built in the 1860s by German immigrants, newcomers who quickly prospered and moved west to form what is now known as Albany's Pine Hills section. A subsequent wave of Italian immigrants then bought the church and converted it into their parish school in 1909. When the South End's Italian-American population reached its zenith in the 1950s, Saint Anthony's built a new school around the corner and the old building was converted again, this time into an Italian-American community center. Following a general exodus of its members throughout the 1960s, the center sold the building in 1971 to our founder, Mary Leue, who was looking for a larger space for the rapidly growing educational alternative she had started in her home two years earlier.

The two aforementioned Saint Anthony's alumni, in their mid- to late-forties, are the youngest to return since we have had the building. Last year it was two elderly sisters in their eighties. I always consider it a great blessing to be there to witness the look of returning wonder overtake their faces as these visitors travel back through decades in an instant. Inevitably, they all gaze upwards when they enter the building's second floor, still with its 18-foot high ceilings&emdash;one of the few remaining vestiges of the original church. There's something about that arching back of the neck which seems to intensify the effect.

Partly, I think, because these most recent visitors were so close to me in age, our conversation soon meandered beyond the usual pleasantries and reminiscences. This time I felt compelled to wonder out loud why they had decided to return to their old elementary school. I know I've never really considered revisiting mine, a public one in Northwest Washington, D.C. Just what was it that had called them back?

While we were talking a sketchy parallel began to form in my mind. Twenty-seven years-old at this point, the Free School now receives numerous visits from its former students, and there appears to be no end in sight to the Saint Anthony's alumni. So here we have more than an incidental number of individuals returning to visit two very dissimilar types of schools with little more in common than the occupation of the same interior. Fascinating, as Mr. Spock used to say in the original Star Trek episodes.

I generally feel as though I know why most Free School kids come back, probably since I taught most of them at one time or another. But what about the old Saint Anthony's students? With them I was never so sure, until this time when I finally decided to ask.

Frank, leading his sister who is struggling with MS, came quickly to the point. He said that his alma mater, then run by a hard-nosed Irish priest named Father O'Connor and a cadre of sisters who generally meant business, wasn't perfect by any means. But it was, above all else, a place where he felt cared about, even loved sometimes; somewhere he knew he belonged. To sum it all up in a word, Frank reflected, it was a school which had a heart. This is the detail he will never forget.

And it is precisely why our alumni return. The Free School is imperfect, too; we do better with some kids than with others. But when they revisit, and a great many do, it is because of the way that the school once opened its heart to them. And vice versa. Always an even exchange.

This investment of mutual concern which invokes such permanent connection can't be measured in test scores or after-college income. In Latin it's known as caritas. In the Free School's lexicon it is the wellspring of all true learning. Yes, the mind is important but the heart must always come first, meaning that, for openers, we simply learn to care about each other. Everything else to do with good education, while certainly important, is considered secondary.

Again and again we have observed how much more easily the learning tasks associated with the three Rs and beyond will flow when this first step has been properly taken. And I suspect that somewhere underneath all the strictness and order of the old Saint Anthony's&emdash;a poor neighborhood school just like ours&emdash;the same was once true.

Which is why, year in and year out, so many graduates of both schools elect to rejoin us briefly for that little heart jog back through time.

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