by Mary M. Leue
Learning Our Trade (Part One):
In l969, my husband and I, accompanied by our two youngest kids, returned from a year in England, where the two kids had been enrolled in a village school. It had been a good year for them, especially for Mark, and the return to a typical Albany fifth grade in the public school he had been attending before we left was a real shock. Thirty-five kids were cooped up in a classroom designed for twenty, with a teacher so frazzled and overworked that she actually had to be hospitalized on the psychiatric ward of our local hospital shortly after I let Mark persuade me that he really couldn't stand the prison-like atmosphere any longer. Any hesitation I may have had as to the wisdom of this decision vanished when I heard of her breakdown. Mark had good instincts, as do most kids!
The first thing I had to do was to establish the legality of keeping Mark at home, and the prin-cipal of his school left me no doubt on this issue, calling me to warn me of legal action against me the very day the school nurse ascertained from me that Mark was indeed not sick but had withdrawn from school. Being in the state capital, I decided to make some phone calls to find out for myself if this was actually the case, since I was a teacher. I was fortunate indeed to find a man in the curriculum department of the state department of education who assured me that my action was legal, and who offered to give "state guidelines" to anyone from the local school board who hassled me. This, again, was fortunate, because the very next day I received a call from the head of the bureau of "attendance and guidance," (the truant officer), who began an impassioned harangue warning me of the terrible things that were about to occur to me should I refuse to bring Mark back at once, but calmed right down when I gave him the name of the man from "State Ed."
Shortly after this, he called back and apologized for his previous manner, assuring me that what I was doing was fine, and that he would be happy to give me any help he could if I should run into any problems. And, actually, during the fourteen years of our existence, this has been the case. Joe Markham has been our liaison with the superintendent of schools, has given us a lot of help in various times of trouble including a brush two years ago with the county health department, and has been not only respectful of our operation but really sympathetic with our purpose, since his chief clientele comes from the same "population" ours does, and he knows the problems that can arise.
About two weeks after Mark and I got started on our tutorial venture, I ran into a friend with six children in another of Albany's "finest" public schools, and when she heard what I had done, begged me to take on her three youngest, who she said were acting as though their lives were on the line every morning when going-to-school time came around, and whom she usually ended up having to accompany there. One of my chief worries had been that Mark would feel isolated from his friends, and this sounded great, so I agreed at once, and we were in the school business!
The year we spent at my home went swimmingly. We all loved the experience, and since it was the year of the student strikes and the Cambodia crisis, as well as the initiation of "Earth Day," it was a very exciting time to be "free" of school - and for me, to be actually conducting my own little "unschool," planning and carrying out my own design of curriculum, which included a lot of projects like picking up twelve trash bags of cans, bottles and other garbage thrown down an embankment by the side of a public road near the house (on Earth Day), helping at a day care center set up for the children of university strikers and others, putting on home-written plays, learning to develop film, making our own movies, cooking and baking, and generally enjoying ourselves a great deal while learning the three R's.
Toward the end of the year, we took a vote and decided to go on with the school the following year, even though the other three were moving during the summer, and so, we would be back to a population of one. I decided to ask for advice at this point, and went to see a friend of mine whom I trusted as having an enlightened view of children's education, she being the religious education director of the local Unitarian Church where I had taught Sunday School for a number of years. Her advice was to have a talk with an educational filmmaker in Newton, Massachusetts, who was running a resource center for early childhood education and whose films dealt with the development of successful alternative education programs in various places, notably the experiments in Philadelphia associated with the Parkway Program, but on an elementary level.
I took a week off from school, and went on my travels. Alan Leitman, the filmmaker, received me warmly, and gave me several suggestions. One was that I first ask a local newspaper to do a feature on our little school, and then that I rent a few films depicting the kind of school I was interested in creating and show them in community places, in order to attract the kinds of families who would want our kind of school for their kids. He also suggested that I visit a few "free schools" in the New York state and New England regions, to see how they actually look in action. He warned me to start small, learn my "trade" at every stage of the process before moving to a larger operation, and in general, to ensure that the enterprise was sound at every step of the way; that we really knew our business and were accomplishing what we set out to do, not just playing kid games. That advice still governs everything we do.
So, I began that very day, visiting Jonathan Kozol's Roxbury Community School on the way home, and three others over the following few days, one in Buffalo, one in Syracuse, and a third in New York City - the Fifteenth Street School. A week later an article appeared in the newspaper which included large pictures of the five of us gathered (untypically) around our round dining room table surrounded by books and papers. It also mentioned that I would be showing three films on "free school" education at the Unitarian Church and at the university, which I did the following week to crowded rooms of fascinated adults whose appetite for information about this new "thing" seemed boundless. Out of these three exposures to the public, I found a group of four families interested in sending us their children and in working as a group to help us find a suitable building and at least one other teacher for the seven kids who would be involved.
Suddenly, providentially and wholly unexpectedly, a friend of my older sons gave me a call and asked if he could drop over to chat. Puzzled, I agreed, and lo, what he wanted to talk about was his wish to quit high school teaching (where his best friend had been recently fired for refusing to shave off his beard) and come to teach with me at our fledgling school, now christened "The Free School" by my four students. I agreed enthusiastically, and introduced him to our little group of parents at the next strategy meeting. They were equally delighted.
By this time, June was over and our school was out for the summer. One other mother and I set out in earnest to find a building where we could hold forth, and right away, the first snags began to appear. There were no buildings to be had that we could afford which would give us what I knew to be an absolute necessity as a school site - one large room for gatherings, roughhouse, and general togetherness, plus enough additional space for activ-ity rooms, eating, a lab, at least one good bathroom, an office, a good-sized kitchen, and play space outside. We literally searched for weeks, surveying the entire region, even including the top floor of a factory building which would have been ideal as a huge area on which we could erect our own partitions at will, the owners of which had been playing with offering it to the city for a municipally-funded day care center. At the last minute, they said no, after learning that we would be privately funded at a rate far below what they had been hoping to get from the city! Like Tom Lehrer's "old dope peddler," they had wanted to "do well by doing good."
We began desperately asking churches for space in their Sunday School quarters, were refused by at least three church boards and suddenly, were offered the rental of an entire church building for $100 a month by a black minister whose congregation had bought a fine stone church across town and were moving out. This was a frame building in a state of great neglect but essential soundness, and we grabbed for it frantically and with great relief, because, by this time it was nearing the end of the summer and we had not yet even begun to prepare the space for the school. After a hasty consultation with our parent group, and with the reality of our financial straits before our faces, we all agreed on this building, which was in the inner city. The price was right, the size was ideal, and our appetite for renovation was boundless, none of us having done any!
Immediately, we all set out to put it into usable shape. Working virtually around the clock, sharing coffee and sandwiches far into the night, we worked to cover up the grime with new paint, even going so far as to paint floor-to-ceiling blackboards in several rooms, scrubbing whatever we could not paint, attaching as a fire escape an iron staircase we found at a wrecking company to an upstairs door which had opened onto thin air, for a reason none of us ever fathomed. By the time school started, we had already grown to love this place, funky as it was, but indisputably ours!
One event which had charmed and excited me, but which proved a harbinger of trouble to come, was the fact that, no sooner had we opened our doors (to let in fresh air as well as to bring in ladders and so on) than hordes of curious black children began coming inside, asking us a zillion questions and begging to be allowed to stay and color or play school. These ranged from the ages of three and four up to twelve at least, all from Southern black refugee families who had come seeking work in this northern city, and all wanted to know, "What dis place?" When they learned that we were a school ("A school? You a school? Yo' kids goin' play heah?), asked us, "Kin ah come?"
We began having dreams of attracting a whole schoolful of neighborhood kids as students. Our universal answer to their questions was, "Go ask your momma, and if she says you can, you tell her to come and talk with us and then you can come here, OK?" The older ones would ask, "Do it cost money?" and my instinct was always to say, "No, it's free." My hunger for the children was always greater than my financial sense, and I guess I haven't yet changed that. Fortunately for me, Bruce, the other teacher, felt the same way about the children as I did, so at least at this point, there was no trouble. But it was coming.
Oddly enough, it came from the direction of the only black mother among our parent group, Dorothea, a well-educated and cultured woman whose husband was a university professor, but who had evidently grown up in Harlem among lower class black people. Her eight-year-old son Tami was obviously quite timorous in the presence of so many street-wise ghetto children, especially of two brothers, one ten, the other twelve, whose father had been living alone in a tiny apartment on the first floor of the church as caretaker, and whose presence struck us as a good idea, especially since he was on SSI payments for a bad back, and so, required no pay for continuing to keep an eye on the building in a neighborhood swarming with bold and curious kids who had nothing in their lives to catch their passion except illegal but highly exciting street activities of one sort or another. Also, he was the father of these particular brothers, whom we had spotted as potential troublemakers or students, depending on how we played our cards.
One day while Dorothea was painting walls and Tami was playing with Gordon and Louis, the brothers, and I was scrubbing the bathroom floor off the kitchen, I heard yelling and then an awful sound of thumping, over and over! I ran out, and was just in time to see Gordon and Louis pick themselves up at the bottom of our very long, steep staircase. Dorothea was standing at the top of the stairs, yelling down at them to go home (they lived with their mother on a nearby street.) Both boys stood for a while at the bottom of the stairs stunned, then broke into a run and disappeared. When I inquired from Dorothea what had happened, she told me Louis had been holding Tami's arms pinned at his sides while Gordon began to run at him with his head lowered in butting position. She had intervened at this point and had taken both boys by the arm, dragged them to the stairs and bodily thrown them down! I was appalled, but she was so visibly shaken herself that I knew that this was not the time to try to reason with her.
But when a crowd of angry black men, women, and children of various sizes appeared in the street in front of the building, some of them armed with iron pipes and bricks, I told Dorothea quietly, "I would like you to go down and talk with these people. I'll come with you, but this has to be set straight, and you will have to do it if you can." The scene that followed would have been the ultimate irony if it had not been so poignantly tragic. Picture Dorothea, attractive and cultured in her modified Afro hair-style, silver linen skirt and hand-woven blouse, finely crafted silver earrings dangling from her ears, hand-made sandals on her feet, crying out passionately to this group of black people whose whole appearance bespoke their proximity in time and history to the post-reconstruction agricultural south of the share-cropper newly come north to seek refuge from hunger and despair, "I know you people! I am one of you! I grew up with people just like you, and you are all killers!" To me, it was a wonder they didn't lynch her on the spot. But gradually, by degrees, Bruce and I managed to quiet the mob spirit by apologizing for the incident and assuring the tribe (for it turned out that every one of them were the boys' relatives - aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on) that it would not happen again, and that we regretted it very much. It was a foretaste of what was to come out of our naive and explosive effort to conduct a free school for middle-class people (among others) in the midst of a totally neglected and furiously angry welfare proletariat (I cannot think of any other term which so aptly fits the characteristics of this group).
The school year got underway in early September, initially with eleven kids, all middle-class. Bruce and I found we could work together very well indeed, and our parents seemed happy with the new experiment. We met weekly to discuss funding and other considerations, and seemed to get on very well together. One day late in the month a charming young woman, Kathy, appeared at our door and asked if she could teach with us, having just graduated from an Ohio school of education. Of course, we agreed enthusiastically, and the children all fell in love with her.
Our only problem was finding enough money to pay salaries, rent, phone and utilities. We all came up with all sorts of strategies for raising this money, and participated enthusiastically in doing so. We had bake sales, rummage sales, garage sales, and candy sales, all good middle-class strategies our parents could throw themselves into enthusiastically. None of them raised much money, but they were a lot of fun. Soon three other families joined us, and we really felt we had a nice little school going. Gordon, the younger of the black boys whom Dorothea had been pushed downstairs, asked to become a member of the school, and we all agreed amicably - even Dorothea and her husband. Things seemed to be going amazingly well.
Then two things happened, some time in December or early January. Two new children enrolled in the school, and two new families brought us their children, a significant distinction, as it turned out. The mix proved to be dynamite. First, the children. One snowy day a bedraggled little troupe of four children resembling nothing so much as Wendy and the lost boys from Peter Pan arrived on our doorstep from out of the soft white opaqueness that covered the city's ugliness. "What is this place?" asks one. "A school," we answer. "Can we visit?" "Sure, if you behave yourselves." So in they come: Kitty, a skinny girl of fifteen (as we subsequently learned) who could pass for twelve, Jimmy and Ernest, her brothers, ten and eleven, one light-skinned, the other white; and Alfred, their white cousin, a kid of thirteen the size of an average seven-year-old and with a manner to match, squint-eyed and "hyper," having been labeled by the school psychologist as retarded, with an IQ of 60-some and in a "special education" course, a total non-reader, and slated for residential warehousing in a state school for the retarded.
Naturally, these truants were delighted with us all, and immediately asked if they could join the school. Standard response, "Go home and ask your mother. If it's O.K. with her, it's O.K. with us." Well, Alfred was sure his mother would approve, and dashed off to ask her. Kitty, who seemed to be the spokesperson for all three members of her family, informed us that her mother was dead and that her father probably would not agree, but said she would ask anyway. Half an hour later, Alfred appeared virtually dragging his mother, who reluctantly gave her approval of his admission, saying, "Well, I was just about ready to send him to Rome anyway (a state institution for retarded children which sub-sequently became notorious for its flagrant abuse and neglect of its inmates). I can't do nothin' with him, and that school has him in one of them special classes. He ain't learnin' nothin'. If he wants to come here, it'll be the first time he ever wanted to be in a school, so I guess he can come here."
Alfred was so overjoyed at this that he whooped and sprang upon me, wrapping both arms and legs around my body and squeezing tightly, as if to insure a permanent bond that would never again come loose! And actually, it never has!
Alfred was with us for three exciting years, during which time he managed to create lots of drama around himself. Once he nearly electrocuted himself fiddling with the guts of an old TV set, poking it with a big screwdriver! Once I had to bail him out of the local police station for robbing somebody's mailbox of their welfare check! At one point he stole my son Mark's bicycle, and wrecked it! Mainly, however, he just couldn't sit still in one place for more than a few minutes! It was as though his energy system simply worked too fast for him to be able to slow down long enough to learn how to decode the verbal symbols, which to me was an odd definition of retardation! Is it "retarded" to live too rapidly? The spirit in that "retarded" body was absolutely pure and sweet in spite of his disregard for social mores and limitations!
But the miracle of Alfred takes up long after we left off, and for me, is the most confirming evidence of the real nature of learning I have ever known. When he left, at the age of nearly sixteen, he still couldn't read, although his math was pretty good. He didn't learn to read for many, many years - despite enrolling twice in adult education programs after leaving us. He finally quit trying, and got a job in a garage for a while until they fired him for not being able - or willing - to complete jobs. The next thing we heard, he was married, at about seventeen, and had a child. He would come back from time to time, full of optimism about his future, but he couldn't seem to stick at anything for long. For a while he lived in Florida on welfare with his wife and child. Then we heard he had enrolled in another reading course, still unable to read, and had been drifting from one job to another and from one part of the country to another. Somehow, though, through all this, he seems to have kept the dream in his mind of learning to read.
I saw him on the street near his house during one of his periodic trips home about six years after he left us. I asked him how it was going. He answered, shaking his head solemnly, "Well, I had to leave my wife and come back home. We were fighting too much. But Mary, you should see my room now. I got shelves all around my bed and I keep buyin' books to put on them. I love books!" Could he read? No, not really, not yet. I parted from him with wet eyes.
One day some years later I got a call from a Catholic priest in a nearby city who wanted to know if this young man Alfred was for real, did he really want to learn how to read, was what he was telling him actually true? By this time, Alfred must have been around twenty-four or so. In ordinary terms, his story was pretty unbelievable, I guess. I said it was all true, that he was somebody special, and urged him to do the best he could for our Alfred. I don't know if it was this time he made it or the next time, but somehow, some way, he got through that narrow door! One of our teachers, Chris, who had known him at school, saw him at the supermarket just before Christmas a couple of years later. Chris was blown away. He said Alfred had grown almost a foot, that his crooked eyes were now straight, and that he looked manly - his hair was no longer sticking up in unruly points, he looked at you clear-eyed and steadily. Alfred told Chris that he could now read, and loved it, and had a good job and a good marriage with four kids - that his life was great! Chris told us he could see that it was true! We don't take credit for that. It is Alfred's triumph! But he learned that ability to believe in himself with us!

But back to the narrative: Alfred's cousin Kitty came back a while after Alfred and his mother, with a different story. "My father says I can come, because he don't care about me, but the boys gotta go to public school and learn somethin'." She had already taken them back to their school, where she had been supposed to bring them in the first place. How their father knew the boys wouldn't learn anything in our school seems a bit mysterious to me. Perhaps he believed that if you hated school, that was a sure sign it was a good one, and if you didn't learn there, then that just showed your cussedness, or your stupidity. In other words, within his lights, he was being a conscientious father!

The fact that Ernest and Jimmy would play truant every time they dared and would come to us (which meant one of us, usually me, trudging with them all the way back to their school, knocking on the classroom door - they were in the same "special ed" class - having the sour-faced guard - oops, I mean, teacher - unlock it and greet them with exasperation, shooting a resentful look at me, as though I were responsible for their evil conduct) meant nothing to him except to confirm his belief in their criminality. [Editorial note: this particular school is unchanged from that time (1971) until this (1991), is still kept essentially locked up to prevent children from either escaping or attacking one another on the school grounds - as one of our teachers from the Free School discovered to her horror when one of her children opted to go to our district public school!]
And Jimmy has in fact spent most of his young adult life in prison for various crimes. Ernest, Kitty informed me, "had a rubber hose up his ass and would die if he got kicked," which I took to mean he had had his colon or rectum resected for ulcerative colitis. At any rate, this seems to have kept him docile and law-abiding, even though he too has never learned to read, let alone find a job. He lives with Kitty and has indeed become a "lost boy."
It has been sad, though, watching Jimmy change from an angelic-looking boy with light brown skin and curls and a wistful look in his eye to a sullen, hate-filled criminal who eyes you cynically, when he bothers to acknowledge you at all. Jimmy's trouble is that he's not dumb enough to accept his fate! His native wit rebels. It is appalling to me to see his sad, intelligent spirit imprisoned in that ugly body and mind. No, Kitty never learned to read, either, but she did find out who her friends were. She has six children, now, at the age of twenty-eight, and for several years, would bring them to us, one by one, as they reached the age of three. Repeated pregnancy and child-rearing have taken their toll of her appetite for motherhood, alas, and she finally took her four away from us when the oldest two, who adore their father, began wetting their beds and in other ways behaving badly at home after he left finally and for good, and we took his side in wanting regular visitation rights - but at least the three oldest are still "ours," and will be all right, we hope and believe. Kitty does have an instinct for finding good men to father her children, and the present one, who is father to the two youngest, really seems to care for the entire brood, even though his hand is sometimes too heavy.
But this is still in the future, and my narrative is of the past. The new families who had chosen to send us their children proved a problem far greater than their children. One father, Lamont, was an assistant professor of psychology from the university newly married to a young widow with three children, the oldest of which was our student. This man was determined to assert his parental authority - with this boy in particular. It was clear that he believed that Denny had been spoiled by his mother. He had considerable skepticism about the nature of our school to begin with, and as his PhD thesis was on the subject of non-violence and we were located in the ghetto, Lamont was prone to seeing violence everywhere.
We had developed a school policy of encouraging children to work out their own solutions to interpersonal problems via a council meeting system of self-governance as well as by other problem-solving devices which did not prevent violence as such but taught them how to handle problems which left unsolved would have led to violence. His interventions, or efforts to intervene, in the governance of our school struck us as authoritarian in impact, as our policies struck him, evidently, as anarchical.
Parent meetings began to acquire the characteristics of a battleground, with factions lining up pro and con school personnel and policies, but mostly con. It was an uncomfortable time, and its effect on the school was to cause those of us who were actually at school from day to day to decide to adopt a policy of permitting only those who were actually involved in being there to make rules as to how we could or should do things. Any parent who chose to be there would automatically be a part of that decision-making process, but other parents could only request, advise or suggest, but not demand or direct. It was our first real move toward absolute internal autonomy, and is still in effect. I still believe it is the only possible way we could have managed things in such a way as to make them work, but the cost in loss of families was great at the time. All but four of them withdrew their kids at the end of the school year.
But this division was only the beginning of our troubles! The other new family was a divorced wife and her son Bobby. Susannah was living with a black militant, still a big no-no in our society, at least for middle-class families - and even now, I believe, grounds for loss of custody of a woman's child with many family court judges. We got caught in the midst of the custody battle for control of where Bobby would live and go to school. His father, a pathologist at the local medical school, had as his lawyer a former city court judge who elected to focus on our school as the second grounds for his client's custody of Robby, the first, of course, being his client's ex-wife's sexual preferences.
The first thing we knew about this was when we were visited, in rapid succession, by an attorney from the office of corporation counsel for the city, the chief of the fire department, an official from the building department, and a man from the county health department. One after another, these officials told us that we would be summarily shut down, some unless we complied with their requirements, others, just shut down, period. I must admit, we felt pretty alarmed, called an emergency meeting of parents, and began frantically trying to find out what, if anything, we could do to meet the situation.
Then the children got into the act. I guess that was my fault. I had felt badly crowded by the threat and had decided to bring out our big guns. I told the kids what was going on, in pretty colorful terms - and they decided to set up a picket line outside the school protesting the unfairness of the city. Then I called in the media. The signs made by the kids were most eloquent, and the photographers had a "human interest" field day - for which, read fair game for taking pot-shots at the city government. Reporters and picture-takers from both newspapers and all three TV channels swarmed, and we were a short-term sensation for the silly season.
It was a stand-off. At the mayor's press conference every week, Herb Starr from Channel Six would ask him, "Well, have you closed The Free School down yet?" And he would answer, "I'm looking into it." The building department assigned us a permanent "advisor." It seems even our fire escape was illegal, lacking a platform at the top.
But...we weren't closed down. We made some changes, did some housekeeping, and let a lot of people know that we took their comments seriously. And gradually, the heat subsided. I made an appointment to talk with the mayor. He was very understanding, but made it very clear how much he deplored my having used the weapon of publicity. I was very apologetic and contrite. It was a real father-daughter scene. I think he was quite relieved to have us off his back.
So ended our first exciting year of the "official" school. Toward the end of the school year we had finally received our tax-exempt status from Internal Revenue, and since this had been reputed to be an extremely difficult feat to accomplish - and I had done it without legal representation or even setting up a corporation - I felt elated. Our funding problem was still an acute one, and I believed that having tax-exempt status would encourage people to donate money to us. The same mother who had helped me to find our building, Carol, and I now took on the task of seeking out a grant or grants to help us solve this problem. She and her husband David together wrote out a series of eloquent grant proposals and sent them to several corpo-rations reputed to have given money to other schools like ours. We got back a sheaf of polite and encouraging "no's".
It was very clear to all of us by now that our present building would not be suitable for occupancy the following year, and so, we set out to find a replacement. Quite early in the sum-mer we located an ideal one, not far away, in the old Italian section of the south end, currently occupied by an Italian Catholic War Veterans' Post, and, historically, an Italian language parochial school, and before that, a German-language church! The building department would be ecstatic, we knew, and so would we if we could get it at a price we could afford. My first attempt to raise this money, or enough of it for a mortgage, was to write a small grant proposal to three local millionaires who had expressed an interest in the families living in the inner city. I was inspired to do this on reflecting that I had met two of them personally, and had heard from our teacher Kathy of the reputation for benevo-lence of the third, who was a friend of her father's and the owner of an electrical contracting firm which occasionally hired ghetto black adolescents. One of the other two I had met during a brief lecture series my philosophy professor husband had given at a nearby summer "Chautauqua" focused on the role of science in society. This man, a highly successful contractor who had put up many of the new downtown buildings in Albany and was well-known as a patron of the arts locally, had wined and dined us both at his sumptuous home in the posh new-money section of the city, and was reputed to be both enlightened and humane.
The other, a lawyer from Troy (across the river from us) owned rental houses in the south end of Albany and was said to have a kindly interest in the "children of the ghetto," (presumably when he wasn't evicting tenants for protesting against his slumlord policies - although, to give him his due, he was by no means the worst of the absentee landlords, and was liked by most of his tenants!). Actually, he had come into our first school one day bringing us a box of second-hand Cherry Ames books, but had expressed disappointment at not seeing more black faces among the children. I believe we had only one really black face at that time - Gordon - although we had two light brown ones (one of them Tami) and one white one that masked black blood (shudder) - Kitty! But he was expecting shoe polish black, not interracial sun-tan. His "disappointment" was actually a twin of our own - or at least, of Bruce's and mine. We had only begun to learn that poor black parents are the most exacting of all groups in judging the potential usefulness of a school in money and status terms, and so, shunned ours as "dirty hippy."
It makes perfect sense that this should be the case, when you think of it. These parents know full well from their own experience (mostly in the South) with inferior all-black schooling in dilapidated housing that such institutions do not attract the truly gifted teachers needed to educate their children. And at least, the public schools exhibit good, middle-class values and offer skills which can, theoretically, offer a way out of poverty and ignorance. In this view, if their children fail to learn, it shows either that the teachers are prejudiced and hence, are discriminating against their children (which is often the case!) or that their children themselves are responsible for their own failure, which leaves the family helpless to remedy the situation except by punishing their children, or by tutoring them, a solution not accessible to illiterate parents. Much the more comfortable belief of the two, as well as the most statistically prevalent one, is the race-class prejudice one, which, alas, often leads to the result of working to bring about the very thing it believes in, teachers and principals being human like the rest of us. The working-class parents who feel comfortable with us all too often appear to feel instinctively that we must not know our business, and that for a school to instill middle-class values in a child, it must reflect those values, and hence, feel uncomfortable to those parents! Or so I gradually came to believe.
We were thus coming up against the "catch-22" aspect of the widely-held belief about money and status in the society which defeats everyone who is at the bottom of the heap. The general belief in our capitalist system is that you have to have (money, success, status) to get (money, success, status), and it is the way most capitalist institutions, such as banks, operate. Well, that belief is true of schooling as well, and has kept us from being more relevant than we are to working class families.
This was a paradox we were to encounter time and again in the history of our school, and it is one which I believe has defeated most innovative institutions in our society which focus on working to resolve some of the class and race problems that plague our country. Although, come to think of it, the phenomenon is not limited to working-class families, but is widely held to be true a great many middle-class families as well. We've always had a limited appeal to upwardly mobile families of whatever class, for the same reason - that they fear that their children will not enter the high-income level group they see as essential to acceptance in American society. It's a matter of values. Equating income level with freedom of choice creates strange ideological bed-fellows! Over the period (twenty-two years, as of 1991) of our school's existence we have seen as clearly as Neill did that the end result of attendance at The Free School creates an outlook which allows our graduates to choose innovatively how they wish to make their living, but it's hard to convince parents who have not experienced this personally that it can happen to their kids. Still - the number we have gotten and do get is a testimonial to the continued existence of a number of independent-minded families who have seen through the illusion of the "American Dream."
Learnings about Education I Felt we Gained - plus Musings about School in General
The year we had just experienced did at least two things for us. First, it taught us a lot about what our values of schooling were and how important to us. These values had been there underlying our ways of doing things, but this year had, as it were, tested them in the fire of keen opposition and misfortune, and had helped us to consolidate what was real, in the sense that it had withstood the test of experience as opposed to being simply theoretical. Second, the year's events had brought home with unmistakable clarity the fact that you cannot be all things to all people, but must accept the fact that people differ widely in their beliefs concerning children's education - and consequently, it behooves you to be as open and as clear as possible in offering a school to people as an alternative for their children. Doing this conscientiously means that you lose some right away, but failing to do so entails the far greater agony of learning after spending a great deal of time and effort to do a conscientious and loving job with a child that it is not what the parents had in mind at all, and that you fail for this reason - namely, that you and they are unwittingly working at cross-purposes.

I can say that we were able to understand this after a year of struggle with parents concerning who had the task of defining what was to happen, as well as what was happening! Actually, this process has proved to be the most important activity in which we engage in working with a family, and we are still occasionally surprised to discover a dimension of a family's value system we had not anticipated beforehand, with the unfortunate result that we lose the child.

Another interesting discovery we made along these lines has been the way in which the form of an institution follows the way in which it functions. One has a goal in mind, and one encounters obstacles in achieving that goal. The question is always, if something in the form of the institution is working to help create this obstacle, how can we change that form to resolve the problem? This is fairly straightforward. But the next question is, what effect will this change have on the way the school operates internally; and will the change in some way change our goal by producing different results from the ones we had had in mind? And if so, what? My surmise is that a lot of schools start out being quite flexible and even experimental, and thus, exciting places for children to go to school, but end up becoming caricatures of themselves as a result of modifying their goals instead of retaining their original insight into how a school can be. They fit the children increasingly into the structure of the school instead of continuing to fit the structure to the child; and the excitement dies! When this happens, my belief is that it is the last thing parents and most teachers are likely to notice, but will attribute the change to the children themselves, and will act accordingly, in the time-honored way of blaming the victim. Another "solution" to such a problem may be to adopt a belief that, after all, schooling (in a formal sense of the word) isn't very important (as Neill seems to have done - at least, if you take his writings literally, which is always a mistake! - at Summerhill). If a child is bright, he can always pick up skills elsewhere when he decides he wants them - and that to insist he learn them in this school would be tantamount to joining the other schools this one was set up to be an alternative to. Hm. True? Not to me. At least, not as a prescription for setting school policy. Let me explain, because it sounds as though I were saying, "But of course you've got to make children learn!" No, no. That's not it, for me.

To me "not making them do things" is a necessary strategy for living with kids who have strong ideas about what they do or do not want to do. Yes, I am going to let them "do their own thing," but I am not going to characterize my willingness to let them make their own choices as necessarily indicative of their inherent wisdom or autonomy - because it may not be either of those things. It may be indicative of inner pathology which warrants my deep concern, and ignoring which may constitute gross negligence! I do not want to use the modality of regulatory definition to bury my failures or send them off to other schools, as Neill did, for example. I know, because I asked him and he said, "Of course!"

Thus I cannot label as unequivocally splendid everything I choose to advocate and practice in my school. I know the "line" concerning "real democracy," but I can't tout it as a universal container for my own motivation. I'm not that much in command of my own "shadow" side, which sometimes takes on a life of its own. My motivation to pursue real democracy is sometimes absolutely true of me - but not necessarily. I can't turn my intentionality into a generalization! I personally love teaching and learning too much to toss them into the melting pot of "self-regulation" by or for kids. It seems to me a naive discount of myself as teacher to turn this much over to them. My kids love learning because I do - among other reasons. I refuse to leave myself out of the equation!

There is, of course, a real paradox involved in such a philosophy of education as I have just expounded. At first glance it doesn't appear to have anything in common with the outlook on total educational self-regulation/choice so brilliantly explicated by Dan Greenberg in all his pieces on the philosophy of Sudbury Valley School nor with Summerhill or The Highland School in West Virginia or Lewis-Wadhams (now defunct), to name a few examples of self-defined democratic alternative schools. Hey! - I'm not doubting that they are truly democratic! That's not what I'm on about!

The paradox, for me, inheres in the fact that, with the possible exception of old Neill, who was himself a walking paradox, all of these good people may be leaving out of the accounts they give of their schools the strong bias toward learning and the transmission of our common cultural heritage inherent in their own backgrounds and the backgrounds of other staff in their schools and thus brought to the children in the form of intangibles such as their personal impact as models, their school's educational/cultural facilities, initial selection of teachers and so on - and thus of fascinating alternatives subliminally available to children. This marriage between the ideological Spartanism of their words and the Athenian cultural wealth of the environments they provide for their kids creates a strange but wonderfully paradoxical environment which must be for these kids inherently fascinating and exciting - but to subsume all of this under the rubric of "democracy" strikes me as (unintendedly) obfuscatory. And it gets expressed at the expense of a lot of other alternative educational programs which may actually be equally good for kids but just not "do" it the same way!

My belief is that there may indeed be a large gap between such an ideological-cum-experiential mix and many run-of-the-mill middle class alternative schools - as Dan Greenberg insists there is - perhaps, as he says, even most such schools! If so, I would surmise that these alternative schools may have, as it were, fallen inadvertently into a false position, perhaps in one of the ways I suggested above of gradually modified policy-making in response to unresolved problems - as seems to have happened to Lu Vorys' Metropolitan School in Columbus, Ohio, and to a Coalition member school in a down-state county of New York which a woman (one of the founders) recently told me about. The latter finally succumbed a year or so ago for lack of students, having retreated a step at a time from their original policy of curricular and other forms of self-regulation by students.

Or perhaps it may happen for the reasons involving governance which Dan refers to in his article, "Subtleties of a Democratic School," influenced by philosophical left-wing political bias or a group mind mentality, as opposed to the pursuit of individualism and democracy in all aspects of the school - according to Dan. I would tend to classify such differences as a socialistic (or group-oriented) outlook versus a constitutionally anarchistic (or individualistic, à la Kropotkin) outlook - but that's my bias, I'm sure.

Basically, I believe education to be a fundamental political - not just a social - problem of democracy. We have the schools which our relative maturity as a people permits and reflects. Approaching possible solutions to our educational problems needs to be regarded as akin to therapy for a national as well as a personal disease. In proposing specific measures intended to provide symptomatic relief for these problems, we run the risk of masking a far more fundamental illness which we may be reluctant to face as a people and a culture. To me the basic problem is often one of institutionalized heartlessness, and as such is shared by us all, alternative schoolers, home schoolers and public schoolers alike.

Pursuing my suggestion that education is a political as much as it is a social phenomenon, it would follow that struggling to resolve some of our national problems involves practicing, among other things, the art of the possible. Or, as the popular slogan goes, "Think globally, act locally." And so, in this sense, I might say of us that we in our school carry on here year after year waiting and hoping that the rest of the country will catch up with us, delighted when some individual teacher or instructor in a local school of education - or a person from another country! - notices us and wonders if we have anything to contribute to their understanding. Over the years we have been visited by educationists from Canada, France, England, and Germany, but have never heard the extent to which we were able to give them something of value after they went back home. It was only in the late eighties, when we were "discovered" by the Japanese, that anything we stand for even began to sink in. Well, thank goodness it happened somewhere, at least!
Click here to read Part 2, From School to Community