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by Chris Mercogliano © 1998
She arrived at our door one day, three years' worth of rompin', stompin' hell's-on-fire. Since the Free School is an energetic place to begin with ("How do you people stand the noise?"), and since Mumasatou was obviously a tightly-strung, "high-energy" kid, we knew from the start we were about to have our mettle thoroughly tested. And so, as soon as the dust began to settle, two questions emerged: What did this unusual child need, and what had she come to teach us?
Virtually uninterested in the other children, she possessed a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of tricks for winning the attention of every adult in the Big Room, as we call the large open space that houses the pre-school. Her favorite: dashing over to any nearby table with stuff on it - preferably breakable - and with one sweeping motion of her arm, seeing how far she could launch the whole mess, smiling at you all the while.
Kids raised in an interpersonal economy of scarcity will always choose negative attention over no attention at all; unfortunately, negative attention can become quite addictive. Mumasatou was the ninth of ten children (now eleven with the addition of an older sister's new baby), with a father who travels from Africa to visit them briefly once or twicea year. Her mother is an intelligent and competent woman who is doing the best she can, but it's not hard to see how Mumasatou, as well as her siblings, is forced to scratch. scrape and connive for the love she needs to develop fully.
It wasn't long before we had run through all of our tried-and-true methods for socializing such radical free spirits as Mumasatou, and we realized that it was time to punt. This little she-tiger was not about to roll over and conform to our enlightened program. The strategy we fell back to, following the advice of our colleague Mary, was a simple one: Nancy - a 20-year veteran of the school who had four kids of her own - began to hold and rock and carry her around for much of the school day. A very physical child, hungry for affection, Mumasatou immediately began lapping up the contact like a kitten with a saucer of warm milk.
Along with the constant limits that would help her learn ways to get positive attention, Mumasatou required protection. She was initially so prone to sudden rage and such a fearless fighter - all teeth and claws - that she needed us to keep her, and the other kids, safe from her out-of-control impulses. Children who are frequent biters contain a lot of fear, and Mumasatou's own rage and fear terrified her. Also, she had been born and then lived the first two years of her young life in a public housing project in the war-torn Fort Green section of Brooklyn, where shootings were a daily occurrence. Whenever Mumasatou would bump her head, she would immediately grab it with both hands and shriek unconsolably, "I'M BLEEDING!! I'M BLEEDING!!" I still haven't quite figured that one out, though it is finally being recognized that some ghetto children are actually suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - the name given to the set of potentially disabling psychiatric trauma symptoms found in returning Vietnam veterans. I am certain that this is true of our "wild child."
Being with Mumasatou early on could be exhausting, both physically and emotionally; and so after she wore out Nancy, I became "her person." I quickly learned several things. First of all, Mumasatou had extremely thin boundaries between herself and her environment, much like a newborn infant. She was ever so sensitive to the moods and feelings of those around her, and even to whatever was "in the air" at a given moment. Also, I found that changes - even subtle ones - and transitions of any kind, especially beginnings and endings, were very difficult for her.
When I began to put Mumasatou down on the floor and encourage her to play and explore, it was obvious that I was going to have to monitor her moods and excitement level. She was utterly incapable, at first, of regulating them herself. At this point, Mumasatou's only way of modulating her energy was to work herself up into a tantrum. My goal became to gather her back in before this would happen, and to slowly help her build up a repertoire of less dramatic alternatives that would enable her to wind down gradually, and if possible, independently from me.
Toward this end, my colleague Mary loaned us an irresistibly huggable, over-sized teddy bear, which we kept on hand at all times. Mumasatou learned she could calm herself by sitting and rocking with Dr. Bear (he wears a physician's shirt) whenever she started to lose control.
Thanks to Nancy's steadfast presence early on, before too long I was able to start weaning Mumasatou from my constant attention. Looking back, I am convinced it was the initial total-body contact, with both a woman and a man, that was the key that unlocked the inner room in which that scared, frantic "infant" had felt so trapped. We were thrilled to watch her begin to speed through some of the early developmental stages that she had missed for one reason or another.
Mumasatou began taking little steps out of her private world, with plenty of medium-range supervision from me. She even began, very tentatively at first, engaging in play with some of the other three-year-olds. Fortunately, we had a couple of other little girls that year who were live wires themselves. They were undaunted by Mumasatou's frequent attempts to dominate, and a healthy respect grew up between them. I tried to stay out of this process as much as possible, sometimes having to bite my lip when the fur began to fly. By this time, Mumasatou's propensities to search and destroy had mellowed into a more sociable kind of aggression that the other children could generally handle by themselves. When they couldn't, I would intervene, like a lifeguard swimming them out of the deep water of their more violent urges to where they could stand again, and then talk, or yell, or scream things out.
Struggling with friendship
Mumasatou returned to us the following September as full of it as ever. Thankfully, so did her two equally strong-willed cohorts, Ashley and Tiara. The three would become as thick as thieves during Mumasatou's second year, and it was fascinating to watch her struggle with the everyday give-and-take of friendship. It didn't come easily.
I gradually realized that a great deal of Mumasatou's antisocial behavior was habitual, stemming from the mix of her inborn demanding temperament and the effects of living in a crowded family in a crowded apartment in a crowded inner-city neighborhood, always with another new baby around to monopolize most, if not all, of their mother's available attention. Or it might have been her preferred way of releasing pent-up anxiety and frustration. Here there was little for us to do but sit back and let the chips fall where they may. Friendship cannot be taught - only prevented - by keeping kids too busy to interact with each other naturally; by setting them one against the other with grades, tests and special privileges; and by perhaps the simplest of all means, age segregation.
Children in our preschool, and the older kids, for that matter, often spend a good part of each day engaged in self-structured play. They also paint and dance and sing. They read and are read to, and they learn their letters and numbers and how to write their own names. They bake cookies and bread and make butter from fresh cream. These kinds of activities, of course, are structured by the teachers. Kids partake when they so choose.
Mostly they play in a world of their own creation, and the teachers move about the periphery, where the kids can seek us out as needed. We do it this way for many reasons. The first is that children are constantly learning on a myriad of levels while they play - about time and space and proportion, about the power of language, about themselves and each other. But perhaps the most important reason is that even three and four year-olds will frtequently form very tight bonds with each other if given the chance to associate freely and to discover their own ways of working out their differences.
On her good days,. Mumasatou was a social butterfly. She would merrily play house with Ashley and Tiara for hours on end. On her bad days, she would arrive at 8:15 with a dark, defiant look on her face, which only meant trouble. All I could figure was that her entire household must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed on mornings like this. Or she would come in with stories (always true) about someone breaking into their apartment and throwing a knife at her older sister. or about the cops dragging away her brother for selling drugs.
Mumasatou tended to resort to her violent ways on these days. While we were having some luck getting her to verbalize her volcanic emotions rather than lash out at others, there were still times when the only thing to do was to wrap her up so that she could safely rage and cry it out.
By now we had learned that when Mumasatou was this far out of sorts, she was much more at ease playing outdoors or alone painting or working with Play-Doh. Even during her earlier wild-child phase, we had found that when Mumasatou was painting or working in clay, she would calm right down and often become quite sociable. While she continued to have trouble functioning in most kinds of structured group activities, especially when something passive was going on like listening to a story, Mumasatou was a valued and valuable member of the group when left to associate freely and engage in activities on her own terms. For instance, that year we had also taken on a two year-old bilingual French-speaking boy who was suffering from a lot of separation anxiety in school. Clearly, she deeply understood his sense of abandonment; and in return, he trusted her implicitly (as I trusted her with him as well). At times, Mumasatou became his at-school mother and they would spend hours happily amusing one another. Here was a role she was well-versed in (mothering); and while playing it, she was making an important contribution to the larger community, one which we were sure to make a point of recognizing her for.
In addition to being the most tempestuous kid we had seen in quite some time, Mumasatou was also the one with the most heart. I'll give you a good (and far from isolated) example. One day I took just Mumasatou and the other five four year-olds to the aforementioned playground adjacent to the new magnet school (a scene of many remarkable events). While the six classmates were busily playing together on one of the climbing structures, a group of slightly older kids from the magnet school sidled over and began teasing the only boy in Mumasatou's group, who happened to be quite small for his age. Abe was obviously intimidated, but was doing his best to ignore his tormentors, who meanwhile were beginning to smell blood. As I sat watching this little drama unfold from a discreet distance, about to intervene on Abe's behalf, the next thing I knew, Mumasatou had placed herself directly between Abe and the other boys. Just like some ancient T'ai Chi master, at first she pretended not to notice that anything was going on; and instead, just continued talking with her girlfriends. Those foolish boys, unimpressed at first by her sudden presence, continued the teasing; and so next I overheard Mumasatou telling them that they shouldn't be saying the things they were saying. This, of course, brought their attention to bear fully on her, which was obviously what she had intended in the first place. Now came the hapless bullies' big mistake; they began calling her a stupid girl and other slightly stronger names. Just like in the old martial arts flicks, it was all over in a flash. All she had to do was give them one fierce look and issue a single warning and those boys, gaining wisdom rapidly, were running for their lives. Mumasatou chased them for a hundred yards or so and then nonchalantly returned to her group and resumed more or less where she had left off.
Thus the same little girl who could be so stubbornly selfish and domineering could also be the best friend you'd ever want to have. Her loyalty and caring were equal to her rage. And while it was always two steps forward and one step back, by the end of her second year with us, her violent outbursts had greatly diminished in frequency and duration, and her ability to handle frustration had grown by leaps and bounds.
Also by this time, I had practically begun to take for granted her uncanny intuitive ability to know exactly what was going on with other people-who meant what they said and who didn't, who was a racist and who wasn't, and so on-and I have since credited her with having invented a foolproof "depression test." The test went as follows: whenever I would see her hanging all over someone - age being no factor - and endlessly pestering them, I would know that the "victim" was depressed, with Mumasatou playing therapist and trying to snap them out of it! Mumasatou, in other words, possessed the same deep knowing that one can find in a great many little kids if one knows how to talk to them (this was the late John Holt's genius). Though now only just turned five, by insisting on testing and re-testing her reality every day, she was well on her way to understanding such fundamentals as truth, respect, personal power and responsibility, and mutually acceptable boundaries and limits.
Ironically, just after the school year ended, I received a letter from the local Easter Seals Society, which had been providing weekly "speech therapy" to Mumasatou at her mother's request, recommending that next year she be placed in a "more structured program" (the letter didn't specify exactly what was meant by that loaded phrase and I wasn't about to ask). Borrowing a page from Mumasatou's Tai Chi manual, I just stepped to the side and let that one go harmlessly by, though it wasn't easy. The irony, of course, was that our girl, as my poem suggests, already had a vocabulary as broad as any Marine Corps drill sergeant, and never needed speech work in the first place. Actually, it was Mumasatou who was providing the therapy to her semi-depressed speech therapist, who had always appeared a bit puzzled, if not intimidated, by the energetic goings on in our building.
Now, I have no trouble understanding why that young therapist, depressed or not, was unable to recognize the method to our madness. There's no doubt about it; we are pretty different from most other schools. For instance, whenever we encounter other nursery school or day care center groups in our neighborhood, I'm always struck by the passivity and orderliness of their children as they tread along in orderly lines, two by two. Knowing ours the way I do, it's hard to imagine how those kids could be so compliant, until one of them takes a step out of line and you discover that their every move is being strictly monitored by a nearby adult. Don't get me wrong here - I'm not advocating that little kids should be allowed to run out into the street in order to learn about traffic. It's just that, in general, we seem to give our kids a lot more room to roam at the Free School. When we head off to the nearby park, more often than not it resembles the start of the Indianapolis 500, with the kids zooming up to the next street corner where they wait for us slowpoke adults to catch up. Any child who cannot be trusted to stay out of the street simply has to hold one of the teacher's hands until such time as they can be trusted.
And back at school, we don't micro-manage their time the way most conventional institutions do. Even in our pre-school, most of the children's activity is self-generated, so that right from the start they begin learning about making good choices and about conforming to their own internal rhythms and desires. You will usually find Free School teachers out on the periphery of the action, so that the kids have access to us when they need us, but so that there is neither the appearance nor the reality that we are there to be stage directors. Also, because we allow even the youngest of our students to associate freely with everyone else, they tend to form much stronger bonds with each other, a picture I hope I have already painted for you.
Again and again over the years, outside observers have told us the difference shows. For example, we once had a wonderful intern from Japan, a teacher with over ten years' teaching experience back home. I'll always remember, soon after his arrival, his observing with spontaneous amazement: "Your students ALL have such shiny eyes!" He went on to say that in all his years of working with children, he had never seen such a display of aliveness.
Fortunately, Mumasatou's mother felt about the same way as I did about the letter from Easter Seals; and in addition to cancelling the speech therapy, she decided to send her daughter back to the Free School in September for what would turn out to be her third and final year with us. Mumasatou, by this time, was well on her way to discovering that she could get what would truly nurture her without having to fight for it and without it's being at anyone else's expense.
In many ways she was now a different child; in many ways very much the same. The oldest kids in our pre-school generally get together for an hour or two each morning for "kindergarten," and Mumasatou would sometimes choose to join in and sometimes not, often depending on her mood. For a period of time during the middle of the school year, her teacher tried insisting that she come into the kindergarten room whether she chose to or not, then leaving her free to do whatever she wanted while she was there. The strategy worked pretty well at first. Mumasatou would come in with the others without being dragged and her teacher would make a point of initiating projects involving a lot of excitement and creativity, which more often than not, Mumasatou would join in on, thoroughly enjoying herself in the process. On other days, she would remain separate from the rest of the group, totally self-absorbed (which was fine), or she would sort of semi-participate from a distance (which was also fine as long as it didn't badly break the flow of the rest of the group). After a while, however, she began to object altogether to the idea; and as kids so often do in this type of situation, she started applying her abundant genius and creativity towards inventing newer and better ways to disrupt the class, at which point they immediately returned to the old system whereby she only did kindergarten when she felt like it.
In other words, at the Free School we try not to adhere too religiously to any one particular approach, preferring instead to go with whatever works in a given situation. Some children need absolute hands off so that they can begin finding their own way, while others, if they are holding back out of fear or anxiety, sometimes need encouragement and maybe even a gentle (or sometimes not so gentle) push or two. In Mumasatou's case, because we knew we couldn't count on her remaining with us for a very long time (meaning that she would one day be faced with compulsory attendance in a public school classroom), we were the ones who were anxious - anxious to do what we could to help her learn to function in such an environment.
How well we have succeeded remains to be seen; though we will soon be finding out. Towards the end of the school year, Mumasatou began making stronger and stronger statements that she wanted to go to first grade at the elementary school not far from her home (where her sisters and many neighbors' children attend). Our response was to tell her to talk it over with her mother; and if it was o.k. with her, then we would "graduate" Mumasatou in June. Not surprisingly, convince her mother she did; and so, come September, Mumasatou will be entering the first grade at one of Albany's most beleaguered inner city elementary schools. Meanwhile, since her little brother will be staying on with us, I am certain we will be getting regular reports on her progress.
I really cannot predict if she will make it in a regular classroom or not. That will largely be up to Mumasatou and whether she chooses to go along with her new school's regimen; and of course, it will be up to the teacher and whether she is able to recognize Mumasatou's many gifts and elects to meet her half-way. I would worry about her less if she had remained in our school until she became more sure of herself in terms of acquiring her basic skills; but then, as was so often the case, she had other ideas. We have discovered over the years that it never works to keep kids in our school after they have gotten the idea it was time for them to move on, a decision that different children or their families make at different points for very different reasons. We have discovered from long experience that the Free School's magic only works because we hold no hostages. All who are present in the building at any given time are there because they want to be, and therefore are making the most of the time they spend with us.
We have found again and again that when it has, in fact, been the child's choice to leave, he or she tends to have little or no trouble with the ensuing transition to a more conventional setting; an outcome which can be quite surprising in instances where the child has not, up to that point, been proficient academically. It's as though the act of making their own authentic choice about where they go to school in and of itself propels them forward in certain invisible ways. For now, we can only hope and pray and wait to hear if this will be true of our one and only Mumasatou, who was everyone's teacher.
Making the school fit the student
Before I leave Mumasatou again for the time being, let me spell out what I consider to be the real moral of this story. If we had compelled her to be and do the things that she was either not ready for or simply did not choose to engage in at that particular time, thereby denying her the freedom and the opportunity to define her own stance in this ever more confusing world of ours, then we probably would have missed out on most or all of the positive and noble qualities of hers I have just described.
Had we insisted that she listen to stories, or practice writing her letters and numbers, or join in some group game against her will, she simply would have given her teachers the same treatment she gave those bullies in the park. She would have glowered and threatened; and if that wasn't sufficient, she would have disrupted and disturbed. And then, before long, we would have felt it necessary to remove her from her group and hire out to some "expert" to decide which pathological label to hang around her neck.
In other words, by demanding of her that she conform to our regimen, we would have been the real problem, not Mumasatou. (Or as A.S. Neill said so eloquently in Summerhill, "The school must fit the student and not the other way around.")
We (as a society) have slowly come to realize over the past decade or so that the procedures or medications doctors employ in treating their patients sometimes themselves become the cause of illness. We have even come up with a term for this phenomenen: iatrogenic medicine. Funny (not really) how we have yet to come up with a similar term to describe what happens when schools throughout the land create problem children (by the hundreds of thousands) by treating them as uniformly square pegs and and then, with considerable force, trying to squeeze them through equally uniform round holes.
I don't mean to imply here that schools are to blame for everything, and that today's children don't have plenty of problems that have nothing to do with school. Mumasatou was in many ways not a happy child and is probably never going to have an easy time of it, wherever she may be. But that's not the issue here, really. It's that Mumasatou, like so many of the children who have been labeled one way or another, she wouldn't have been able to survive in the world of her origin if she had been. There was nothing wrong with Mumasatou when she wasn't doing the schoolish things that the other kids in her group were doing. Her reluctance to participate at appointed times, her so-called "attention deficit," and her sometimes outrageously impulsive behavior were not signs that she had a disorder of some kind. Mumasatou was hardly lacking in intelligence and she was not suffering from any perceptual disability. She was unwilling- - not unable- - to do those things. And When everyone else was quietly reading or writing, she would work with clay or play with dolls for hours on end. I believe the same to be true of so many of the children being labelled by our modern, "scientific" method of schooling defenseless children. Their crime is not ignorance or lack of potential, it is willfulness and non-conformity.
What Mumasatou needed from us was patience and tolerance for her distinctive personality and her personal developmental timetable, not some bizarre Orwellian label affixed to her permanent record. That cowardly practice is known as blaming the victim, and professionals who engage in it should have heavy stones hung around their necks so that they can begin to get a feel for what they have done to those vulnerable children by declaring with all of the formidable weight of their authority that refusal to adopt the schools' norms and routines constitutes a pathological condition. What damnable nonsense.
All this isn't to say that we didn't work with Mumasatou on helping her develop a taste for listening to good stories, or learn to make an egg carton sculpture without exploding with frustration, or take pride in herself when she successfully wrote her name for the first time. I won't take the time to go into all of the particulars of our pre-school program (which is really rather ordinary), because really what is at issue here is something that every good teacher knows by heart: namely, that it is important, especially (but not only) when dealing with vulnerable children, to build on their strengths rather than dwell on and penalize them for their apparent weaknesses. All children carry within them their own particular form of genius, and it is incumbent upon teachers and schools, as A.S. Neill so rightly insists, to conform to them in such a way as to elicit that genius.
If the truth is to be told, schools that refuse to do that are simply in the business of breaking children's spirits. As Ivan Illich so rightly pointed out way back in the sixties, such schools have turned learning into a mass-production commodity, and the shadow side of the process which they glorify as "education" is that it turns insatiably curious, freedom-loving children into mindless sheep. And I say that if we have allowed the wool to be pulled over our eyes, then at least we know where it came from.
Sylvia Ashton-Warner once wrote a masterpiece about teaching, appropriately entitled Teacher , in which she tells the story of her struggles as the only teacher in a village school for the children of the Maori people on the island of New Guinea. The Maori were traditionally a warrior tribe, and as a result, their children were quite hot-blooded. Furthermore, the island was going through the shock of colonialism, a reality that Ashton-Warner was very sensitive to in terms of "educating" her students. She recognized the imperative of teaching them the things they would need to know in order to survive in a modern, white-dominated world; but she became determined to do it in a way that did not rob them of their Maori souls.
Ashton-Warner coined the terms "creative vent" and "destructive vent" to describe how she learned to help her students manage their innate aggression which was always in such plentiful supply. Ashton-Warner concluded (and I wholeheartedly agree) that all children are naturally aggressive (if they haven't been passivized by their environment, a process she describes in a later book about her experiences while teaching in a new age "alternative" school in Colorado, which she likened to some sort of weird, other-worldly spaceship), and that that energy is ultimately going to express itself through either one vent or the other. Given the opportunity to develop a sufficiently large creative vent, they will be happier and more respectful of each other. Otherwise, they will tend to use that same life-force to start tearing each other down along with their physical surroundings. And thus Ashton-Warner watched the violent behavior in her little one room school lessen exponentially once she abandoned the traditional style in which she had been trained and instead began developing a "curriculum" based on the children's abundant creativity and natural passion.
If only our society understood this valuable lesson which was taught to her by those spirited indigenous children. Surely there must be a connection between the elimination of art, music, and dance time; and physical education, sports teams, and even recess periods in our schools today (due to an alleged shortage of time and money) and the rising tide of violence therein. The focus is always on drugs as a root cause of this growing problem; but isn't substance abuse merely a symptomatic expression of the tremendous frustration and ennui for which there are fewer and fewer available answers? Meanwhile, our schools are driving adolescents away in droves with their obsession with "hard academics" and their rigid adherence to a system of rewards and punishments as the sole motivation for learning; but this is bringing us too far afield for now.
All too often our society opts to take the weighty path of force to damp down children's God-given zest for living life "to the max." Perhaps, above all, Mumasatou was sent to teach us that it is possible for us to enable children to grow and to thrive - within appropriate limits and safe boundaries - without robbing them of any of the rich exuberance which is their birthright. I am quite certain that her near-miraculous transformation would never have occurred unless we had been willing to extend our trust in the unpredictable freedom dance which plays itself out in the Free School every day. A large measure of that trust is the end result of our now twenty-nine years of experience in improvising that dance so that we could keep in step with the seemingly endless variety of children who have passed through our doors during that time.
Click here to view the cover of Chris' splendid new book about The Free School, Making It Up As We Go Along, which includes this article (somewhat modified) as a chapter.
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