The Lives of Children
The Story of the First Street School.
by George Dennison
There is no need to add to the criticism of our public schools. The critique is extensive and can hardly be improved on. The question now is what to do. In the pages that follow, I would like to describe one unfamiliar approach to the problems which by now have become familiar. And since "the crisis of the school" consists in reality of a great many crises in the lives of children, I shall try to make the children of the First Street School the real subject of this book. There were twenty-three black white, and Puerto Rican in almost
equal proportions, all from low-income families in New York's Lower East Side. About half were on welfare. About half, too, had come to us from the public schools with severe learning and behavior problems.
Four things about the First Street School were unusual: first its small size and low teacher/pupil ratio; second, the fact that this luxurious intimacy, which is ordinarily very expensive, cost about the same per child as the $850 annual operating costs of the public schools; third, our reversal of conventional structure, for where the public school conceives of itself merely as a place of instruction, and puts severe restraints on the relationships between persons, we conceived of ourselves as an environment for growth, and accepted the relationships between the children and ourselves as being the very heart of the school; and fourth, the kind of freedom experienced by teachers and pupils alike.
Freedom is an abstract and terribly elusive word. I that a context of examples will make its meaning clear. The question is not really one of authority, though it is usually argued in that form. When adults give up authority, the freedom of children is not necessarily increased. Freedom is not motion in a vacuum, but motion in a continuum. If we want to know what freedom is, we must discover what the continuum is. "The principle," Dewey remarks, "is not what justifies an activity, for the principle is but another name for the continuity of the activity." We might say something similar of freedom: it is another name for the fullness and final shape of activities. We experience the activities, not the freedom. The mother of a child in a public school told me that he kept complaining, "They never let me finish anything!" We might say of the child that he lacked important freedoms, but his own expression is closer to the experience: activities important to him remained unfulfilled. Our concern for freedom is our concern for fulfillment - of activities we deem important and of persons we know are unique. To give freedom means to stand out of the way of the formative powers possessed by others.
Before telling more of the school, I must say that I was a partisan of libertarian values even before working there. I had read of the schools of A. S. Neill and Leo Tolstoy. I had worked in the past with severely disturbed children, and had come to respect the integrity of the organic processes of growth, which given the proper environment are the one source of change in individual lives. And so I was biased from the start and cannot claim the indifference of a neutral observer. Events at school did, however, time and again, confirm the beliefs I already held - which, I suppose, leaves me still a partisan, though convinced twice over. Yet if I can prove nothing at all in a scientific sense, there is still a power of persuasion in the events themselves, and I can certainly hope that our experience will arouse an experimental interest in other parents and teachers.
But there is something else that I would like to convey, too, and this is simply a sense of the lives of those who were involved - the jumble of persons and real events which did in fact constitute our school. The closer one comes to the facts of life, the less exemplary they seem, but the more human and the richer. Something of our time in history and our place in the world belongs to Vicente screaming in the hallway, and José opening the blade of a ten-inch knife - even more than to Vicente's subsequent learning to cooperate and José to read. So, too, with other apparently small details: the fantasy life and savagery of the older boys, the serenity and rationality of the younger ones, teachers' moments of doubt and defeat. Learning, in its essentials, is not a distinct and separate process. It is a function of growth. We took it quite seriously in this light and found ourselves getting more and more involved in individual lives. It seems likely to me that the actual features of this involvement may prove useful to other people. At the same time, I would like to try to account for the fact that almost all of our children improved markedly, and some few spectacularly. We were obviously doing something right, and I would like to hazard a few guesses at what it might have been. All instruction was individual, and that was obviously a factor. The improvement I am speaking of, however, was not simply a matter of learning, but of radical changes in character. Where Vicente had been withdrawn and destructive, he became an eager participant in group activities and ceased destroying everything he touched. Both Eléna and Maxine had been thieves and were incredibly rebellious. After several months they could be trusted and had become imaginative and responsible contributors at school meetings. Such changes as these are not accomplished by instruction. They proceed from broad environmental causes. Here again, details which may seem irrelevant to the business of a school will give the reader an idea of what these causes may have been. A better way of saying this is that the business of a school is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.
This is especially important under such conditions as we experience today. Life in our country is chaotic and corrosive, and the time of childhood for many millions is difficult and harsh. It will not be an easy matter to bring our berserk technocracy under control, but we can control the environment of the schools. It is a relatively small environment and has always been structured by deliberation. If, as parents, we were to take as our concern not the instruction of our children, but the lives of our children, we would find that our schools could be used in a powerfully regenerative way. Against all that is shoddy and violent and treacherous and emotionally impoverished in American life, we might propose conventions which were rational and straightforward, rich both in feeling and thought, and which treated individuals with a respect we do little more at present than proclaim from our public rostrums. We might cease thinking of school as a place, and learn to believe that it is basically relationships: between children and adults, adults and adults, children and other children. The four walls and the principal's office would cease to loom so hugely as the essential ingredients.
It is worth mentioning here that, with two exceptions, the parents of the children at First Street were not libertarians. They thought that they believed in compulsion, and rewards and punishments, and formal discipline, and report cards, and homework, and elaborate school facilities. They looked rather askance at our noisy classrooms and informal relations. If they persisted in sending us their children, it was not because they agreed with our methods, but because they were desperate. As the months went by, however, and the children who had been truants now attended eagerly, and those who had been failing now began to learn, the parents drew their own conclusions. By the end of the first year there was a high morale among them, and great devotion to the school.
We had no administrators. We were small and didn't need them. The parents found that, after all, they approved of this. They themselves could judge the competence of the teachers, and so could their children - by the specific act of learning. The parents' past experience of administrators bad been uniformly upsetting - and the proof, of course, was in the pudding: the children were happier and were learning. As for the children, they never missed them.
We did not give report cards. We knew each child, knew his capacities and his problems, and the vagaries of his growth. This knowledge could not be recorded on little cards. The parents found - again - that they approved of this. It diminished the blind anxieties of life, for grades had never meant much to them anyway except some dim sense of problem, or some dim reassurance that things were all right. When they wanted to know how their children were doing they simply asked the teachers.
We didn't give tests, at least not of the competitive kind. It was important to be aware of what the children knew, but more important to be aware of how each child knew what he knew. We could learn nothing about Maxine by testing E1éna. And so there was no comparative testing at all. The children never missed those invidious comparisons, and the teachers were spared the absurdity of ranking dozens of personalities on one uniform scale.
Our housing was modest. Ile children came to school in play-torn clothes. Their families were poor. A torn dress, torn pants, frequent cleanings - there were expenses they could not afford. Yet how can children play without getting dirty? Our uncleanliness standard was just right. It looked awful and suited everyone.
We treated the children with consideration and justice. I don't mean that we never got angry and never yelled at them (nor they at us). I mean that we took seriously the pride of life that belongs to the young - even to the very young. We did not coerce them in violation of their proper independence. Parents and children both found that they approved very much of this.
Now I would like to describe the school, or more correctly, the children and teachers. I shall try to bring out in detail three important things:
1) That the proper concern of a primary school is not education in a narrow sense, and still less preparation for later life, but the present lives of the cluldren - a point made repeatedly by John Dewey. and very poorly understood by many of his followers.
2) That when the conventional routines of a school we abolished (the military discipline, the schedules, the punishments and rewards, the standardization), what arises is neither a vacuum nor chaos, but rather a new order, based first on relationships between adults and children, and children and their peers, but based ultimately on such truths of the human condition as these: that the mind does not function separately from the emotions, but thought partakes of feeling and feeling of thought, that there is no such thing as knowledge per se, knowledge in a vacuum, but rather all knowledge is possessed and must be expressed by individuals; that the human voices preserved in books belong to the real features of the world, and that children are so powerfully attracted to this world that the very motion of their curiosity comes through to us as a form of love; that an active moral life cannot be evolved except where people are free to express their feelings and act upon the insights of conscience.
3) That running a primary school - provided it be small - is an extremely simple thing. It goes without saying that the teachers must be competent (which does not necessarily mean passing courses in a teacher's college). Given this sine qua non, there is nothing mysterious. The present quagmire of public education is entirely the result of unworkable centralization and the lust for control that permeates every bureaucratic institution.
In saying this, I do not mean that the work in a free school is easy. On the contrary. teachers find it taxing. But they find it rewarding, too - quite unlike the endless round of frustrations experienced by those at work in the present system.
We were located on Sixth Street in Manhattan, just a few steps east of Second Avenue, where we rented classrooms, art and shop rooms, and a gymnasium in the old Emanu-El Midtown Y. We took up about a third of the building, and since we were sharing it with others, we could not decorate it, change it, abuse it, explore its nooks and comers, or shout in its hallways as we might have liked. We kept the name of our original location - the First Street School - in which we could have done these things, but which hadn't met the city's fire laws.
Our experience with racial problems is one of the things I want to describe, so I will make racial identifications wherever necessary. Let me say immediately that nothing could be more different from the present ideological uses of the word "black" than the simple indicative speech of children. No child comes into this world with racial hatred. It is foreign even to five- and six-year-olds. in their experience, however, color is one of the attractive properties of an extremely attractive world. One of our teachers, Gloria Aranoff, was Negro. if I were writing a political article, I would say black, as I suppose she herself would. Her young pupils, however, would not. In fact, they could not describe her at all. They were too close, and she too particular, too wholly unlike anyone else. Yet it was obvious that they found her color admirable. To sit near her was to come into an aura of color, a watm, dark-brown glow that was very pleasant, in the way that good health and physical radiance always is. Her tots were always climbing onto her lap. Black, to a young child, means just that: black. Negroes are not black and "Whites" are not white. Our older boys, however, were racists. José (just turned thirteen), though he was fond of Gloria, would have said, "She's black," as he said of Michael Hasty, who was as light as himself, "He's black." Twelve-year-old Willard, who was learning to say with pride, 'I'm black," identified José by nationality: "a fuckin' spic." These two bloodied each other's noses time and again, and I shall describe some of their fights a bit later. It is worth mentioning here that by the end of the year they could be seen at the school picnics with their arms around each other's shoulders., What had happened was simply this: the real concerns of young boys had gradually welled up within each one, and had finally overflowed the barriers of racism. They had discovered each other - and had discovered themselves - in more richly human terms. On the last day of school, coming back from an outing, I delivered various children to their homes. Finally only Willard and José were left in the microbus. They were talking by now with forced animation. When Willard jumped out at his comer, he turned to José with a tightfaced grin and said, "See you on the block, man," and José, stammering somewhat, repeated, "See you on the block." I was struck by this exchange, for the fact was that their neighborhoods were far apart. As I maneuvered the bus back into traffic, I saw José's face in the mirror. He had begun to weep. He cried for ten minutes. He knew very well that he would not be seeing Willard. There had been a new ease in their lives, a gaiety and spontaneity they had rarely experienced, and José especially (since he had lost all their fights) had won through to it with great pain and courage. Now it would all be lost for the racial pressures would be decisive once they were on the streets again. And of course he was crying because school was over. It had been a haven. He had had protectors and friends, and had gradually given up pretending that he knew karate, hated niggers, and could vanquish cops.
Not many boys in the public schools could have surmounted their racism as José and Willard did. Racism feeds on anxiety. it is supported by fantasy. When children are herded together in great numbers and are treated as ciphers in some huge, indifferent sum, the anxiety of anonymity absolutely forces them into protective alliances. They reach out for some identity to fill the void of self, however inadequate and fantasy-ridden that identity may be. Yet the power they achieve by banding together, though it may be crippling to growth - is not illusory; it is real.
What I have just said is really the whole of what we learned about racism at our school. The very young wouldn't have it. Ile older ones were stuck with it, but some few worked through. We teachers never preached tolerance, desegregation, integration, or anything else. Our small, face-to-face community diminished anxiety, eliminated fantasy and estrangement. and supported ego growth, and step by step, at least in school, racism fell away.
For the twenty-three children there were three full-time teachers, one part-time (myself), and several others who came at scheduled periods for singing, dancing, and music.
Public school teachers, with their 30 to 1 ratios, will be aware that we have entered the realm of sheer luxury. One of the things that will bear repeating, however, is that this luxury was purchased at a cost per child a good bit lower than that of the public system, for the similarity of operating costs does not reflect the huge capital investment of the public schools or the great difference in the quality of service. Not that our families paid tuition (hardly anyone did); I mean simply that our money was not drained away by vast administrative costs, bookkeeping, elaborate buildings, maintenance, enforcement personnel, and vandalism (to say nothing of the costs hidden in those institutions which in a larger sense must be seen as adjuncts to the schools: houses of correction, prisons, narcotic wards, and welfare).
Our teacher/pupil ratio varied according to need. Gloria handled up to eleven children, ages five to eight. At least half of her children were just starting school, and were beautifully "motivated," as the educationists say. Motivated, of course, means eager, alive, curious, responsive, trusting, persistent; and it is not as good a word as any of these. They were capable of forming relationships and of pursuing real interests. Every child who came to us after several years in the public schools came with problems.
Susan Goodman, who taught the next group, ages eight to ten, usually had six or seven in her room. Two of these were difficult and required a great deal of attention. They got the attention, and they were the two (Maxine and Eléna) who of all the children in the school made the most spectacular progress academically. In a year and a half, Eléna, who was ten, went from first-grade work to advanced fourth; and let me hasten to say that Susan, like the other teachers, followed Rousseau's old policy of losing time. ("The most useful rule of education is this: do not save time, but lose it.") Eléna's lessons were very brief and were often skipped.
The remaining children, boys to the age of thirteen, had come to us in serious trouble of one kind or another. Several carried knives, all had been truants, José could not read, Willard was scheduled for a 600 school, Stanley was a vandal and thief and was on his way to Youth House. They were characterized, one and all, by an anxiety that amounted to desperation. It became clear to us very quickly to what an extent they had been formed by abuse and neglect. Family life was a factor for several, but all had had disastrous experiences in school, and with authorities outside of school, and with the racism of our society as a whole, and with poverty and the routine violence of violent streets. They were destined for environments of maximum control-prison in one form or another. How they fared in our setting of freedom may be interesting.
Some pupils, as Dr. Elliott Shapiro points out (Nat Hentoff's Our Children Are Dying is about Elliott Shapiro and the children of Harlem), require a one-to-one relationship. I worked with José on just that basis. At other times I took the boys in a group, or Mabel Chrystie (now Dennison) did, or they were divided between the two of us.
Even in so routine a matter as forming groups, the advantages of smallness are evident. We all knew the children fairly well and were able to match teacher with child. Gloria had had a great deal of experience with younger children, Mabel with specialized tutoring in the city system and with problem children in a free school setting. I had worked with severely disturbed children; and Susan Goodman, who had never taught before, came from a family of teachers and naturally asked for the children predisposed to studies.
Yet the final composition of the groups reflected the contributions of the children themselves. They, too, had a hand. And here is an excellent example of the kind of sructuring that arises when the wishes of the children are respected. Two of our most difficult pupils, Maxine and Vicente, actually placed themselves; and the truth is that we teachers could not have improved upon their solutions. ...

See our bookstore to order George Dennison's marvelous book.