From Sierra Leone to Appomattox: Of Frogs and Bees, and Heroes and Heroines

When I was six or seven my grandfather told me he was taking me to a movie. But not just any movie. “Gone With the Wind” was being screened at the majestic and historic Fox Theater, in Atlanta, an hour and a half drive from where we lived, in Macon. My grandfather had a love of history, even as told by Hollywood, and he wanted to impart that love to me. We drove up to Atlanta on a Saturday afternoon and the theater was full. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember if we ate popcorn. I wasn’t intrigued by Clark Gable or Vivian Leigh or Butterfly McQueen.

What consumed my mind, during the film and after, were the long shots of the Atlanta rail yards filled with Confederate wounded. I was disturbed. So many wounded and bleeding, so much agony and suffering, as Scarlett O’Hara walked between the rows of bodies, giving soldiers sips of water and cleaning their wounds. Those images stayed with me.

But I was a little boy, and I got tired, and midway through the movie, just when Scarlett was clutching a single carrot in the wasted fields, my grandfather decided it best to take me home. I slept all the way.

Later, after we had moved to Atlanta, I found a cannonball in our neighbor’s yard. A Confederate 24 pounder, half-buried in a low ditch. The Battle of Atlanta had been fought where we lived. This, along living only three miles from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King preached, helped make me know that I was living in history, that it was close and it was real. It was in the ground I walked on.

At school this year, inspired by the New York Time’s “1619 Project,” we have been studying American history through the lens of slavery and African-American history. It is important to know, in these times when our current president does not know who Frederick Douglass is, that our history began 150 years prior to the Declaration of Independence. It can be said to truly have begun with the first slaves arriving in Hampton, Virginia, in August 1619. This is where we started our projects, tracing the arch of our history through the lens of the marginalized—primarily African Americans and women.

We visited the Middlebury College exhibit, “Votes…For Women?” where the story of the suffrage movement is artfully portrayed through text and image. We were overwhelmed by the enormity of the story, and we copied down some of the words of those who fought for 70 years to gain the right to vote. “The best protection any woman can have… is courage” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton).  If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it” (Sojourner Truth). We learned about the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the reason for the purple, white, and gold sashes suffragists wore—which stood for purity and royal nobility.

We looked at woodcuts recording the events on the “The Zong,” a slave ship from which 133 Africans were tossed overboard while still alive. Geeta told us the story of Thomas Jefferson’s nailery, which was filled with ten-year-old enslaved boys who toiled to enrich Jefferson, and of Jefferson’s relationship to Sally Hemming. After her project, we ate grits and collard greens. We crouched under the big room table to feel, if only for a few minutes, what it would be like to be stowed under decks on a slave ship with no room to sit or stand. Iris taught us the story of John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who wrote “Amazing Grace” after his conversion to god, and she arranged a small chorus of her peers to sing it to us. Finley showed us a mountainous pile of buffalo skulls left behind by settlers and soldiers during the time of westward expansion, under the banner of Manifest Destiny, an expansion that decimated indigenous cultures. The photo gave us a grim counter vision to the “glory” of American empire. When we visited the college, we put our hands on actual copies of “The Liberator,” the Abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison. In her project on Abolitionism, Isabelle had us analyze the masthead of the paper, which included imagery of a slave auction on one side, an image of Christ with a freed slave at his feet in the middle, and a gateway in the far-right inscribed with the word “Emancipation.” We looked at photographs of the dead at the Bloody Road at Antietam. We read the Gettysburg Address in class, Lincoln’s words so poetically sure and aspirational. In Dinara’s project, we held voice votes to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, with unanimous assent to ratify all three.

It is massively difficult to make history important and exciting and compelling to middle school students. All we have is a few pictures. The hieroglyphics of political cartoons. Journal entries, letters, and speeches, which are often ornate and difficult to understand, almost a foreign language.  It is difficult to compete with all the claims on our student’s attention, the technicolor kaleidoscope of images on Instagram, or the immediacy of Snapchat or the drama of a Google chat. Moreover, students come to the school with practically no historical awareness. Only a few of them have visited historical sites. Only a few of them have read much history. History, its magnificence and beauty and terribleness and drama is, in most cases, a distant echo in their ears

And yet when we read about the singular acts of actual historical persons, we find real examples of the traits we most wish for ourselves. When we learn about Harriet Tubman going back and forth from north to south over seventeen times, we see towering bravery. When we learn of Frederick Douglass’ journey from being slave separated from his mother to become the greatest orator of the 19th century, we feel the immensity of possibility and noble transformation. When we learn of John Newton’s conversion from slaver to abolitionist, we see that anyone, us included, can move from darkness to enlightenment.

***

One night this fall I had a dream in which the world was ending. It happened after I had seen a news clip of horses being lead from their stables in the wildfires in California. In my dream, thousands and thousands were streaming down highways on foot. There was nothing left, just roads leading into a wasteland.  When I awoke that morning, I immediately thought of a book of poetry in the pile of books by my bedside. The book that came to mind was Kevin’s Young’s book of poems Brown (Knopf, 2018) The book is filled African American history, both personal and public, and in particular focuses on great figures and moments in time: John Brown; the “Brown Bomber,” Joe Lewis; Brown v. Board of Education. But the volume closes with a marvelous poem about a child bee-keeper. The poem is called “Hive,” and it is this poem that was in my mind when I awoke. Before I got up to get ready for school I pulled the book out and read the poem again.

The honey bees’ exile
is almost complete.
You can carry

them from hive
to hive, the child thought
& that is what

he tried, walking
with them thronging
between his pressed palms.

Let him be right.
Let the gods look away
as always. Let this boy

who carries the entire
actual, whirring
world in his calm

unwashed hands,
barely walking, bear
us all there

buzzing, unstung.

I did not know exactly why this poem came to me. But when I got to school that morning in meeting I told the kids about my dream. And as I described it, I realized that the poem was the answer. If the world is dying, or if it is in convulsions, or if we are living through some kind of collective rupture in the natural and political order, then the answer is the boy in this dream. He appears, on the last page of Young’s book, as a prophet for our time. A child who possesses all of the sacred knowledge; a child so careful, so loving and gracefully poised and so great in his power, that he can carry the entire buzzing world in his hands.

We teachers are driven by the idea that we can transmit all of experience into the hands and heads of our students. That we can make them feel the majesty of the universe in systems of equations and the sacred order of geometry; that the beauty of a frog’s iris is so moving that, upon gazing into it, our students want to save the world; that the story of John Brown or Robert Smalls is so inspiring makes them want to change their lives and the world entirely.

But sometimes this can only happen in a purely ahistorical way. Iris wrote a sketch about her little brother, Tobin. One day, playing in spring puddles, he accidentally stepped on a tiny frog. He froze and stood over the dead frog, in terror and dismay, heart-broken at the outcome of his playful glee. Iris stood by him and watched him coming to understand what had happened. She wrote that she learned how to love from seeing Tobin weep over a tiny frog in springtime.

In the morning I read them Kevin Young’s poem, no light shone down in the classroom. It was all I had to give them. It was another day of the North Branch School, another poem in meeting, another lab looking at cell structure, another day of balancing equations. Sometimes poetry and history do not touch them.

Still, we want them to see the infinity in a grain of sand, that is sure. Infinity in the life and death of tiny frogs and in feats of heroism. The hope is that they will learn the course of those right ones who came before. The dream is that they will pick up a handful of bees and find the right way to walk in the world.

Open Doors, Open Minds

When I was about ten years into my teaching career, back in the 1990s, I photocopied a letter I had seen in the NYT. When I photocopied it I enlarged it repeatedly until it was poster-sized, and then I laminated it and hung it in my classroom in Atlanta. After ten years of teaching in Atlanta, we moved to Vermont. Three years after that, we started the North Branch School, in 2001. When we first set up the school, I pulled that hand-made poster out of a box and it was the first thing I hung up on the wall in the new North Branch School. It was the first thing I hung up in my office in the new school-building we built to house the NBS in 2003. It remains on my wall today.

Here is the text:

To the Editor:

“Teacher Who Assigned Graphic Poem Says He Made Mistake” (news article, Oct. 23) reports that a Manhattan public high school teacher, after coming under fire for assigning a sexually explicit poem written by a former student, said that he had made ”a mistake in judgment.” I beg to differ.

As a student at Stuyvesant High School in 1977, I took a creative writing class with Frank McCourt, now famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes. One of the things that made him such an extraordinary teacher was the way he encouraged his students to express their thoughts and feelings honestly, and without external or self-imposed censorship.

We were allowed to hand in, and to read aloud in class, poems containing explicit images, rage, obscenity and whatever else we felt a need to relate. In respecting us for who we were, by accepting our thoughts and feelings at face value, Mr. McCourt helped us learn to respect ourselves and to listen to our own ‘’voices.”

Our society’s misplaced Puritanism communicates to adolescents that what they are feeling is somehow immoral or inappropriate. Rather than forcing teen-agers to remain underground, hiding their thoughts and feelings from those charged with facilitating their emotional and intellectual growth, we should unflinchingly encourage them to share their lives and experiences with us, openly and with pride.

CARL LEVINE

Brooklyn, Oct. 23, 1997

I keep this letter to remind me of one of the core beliefs I hold about teaching and about kids: Students should be free to talk about what is important to them, and classrooms should be hospitable to all that they bring forth.  In our case, since our students are young adolescents, their concerns are, generally speaking, considerably non-explicit, but their concerns are serious and real. In order to usher them into the world of their own thought, the mechanics of their cognitive powers, their wobbly psychological growth, the layered and shimmering world of meta-reflection, and the intricate depths of their lives, the first move has to be to say: You are free. You have the license to talk and write and discuss what matters to you. We are a thinking and feeling community and we will, with all the grace and intelligence we possess, try to handle what comes up and learn what we can from it. 
 
Because at this age–12,13,14 years old— kids are beginning to come into and see themselves in the world before them.  They are beginning to see things they do not understand but want to understand. They are beginning to feel things that they do not understand, but want to understand. Their feelings are quite larger and more intense than they ever previously could imagine. Suddenly feeling becomes massive, unexplainable, volcanic, three-dimensional. In the folds of meta-cognition, they are thinking about why they feel and think one way while everyone else is different; they are comparing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with those of their peers. They can actually see and feel their thoughts changing in time and through experience. They begin to grapple with their own cognitive dissonance and that of others. They are asking existential questions for the first time. They are beginning to see where they do and don’t fit in. They are beginning to see how their thoughts and feeling are intertwined with the others in their midst. They are beginning to see that they and others fit into a great fabric of existence: a family, a grade, a school, a team, a society, a nation. They are realizing that others have complex lives of infinite value and each of those lives has something to teach; they are finding that their actions or inactions have deep and meaningful consequences. They are trying to find their voices, their “thing,” their way, their path, the person they want to be; they are beginning to envision the future and relate it to the past. They can now notice their bodies and perceptions as they take from in the present. Their bodies and minds are changing to such a degree that they feel themselves to be entirely new beings, a revelation that is at once terrifying and thrilling and dismaying and disgusting. They are losing one self–the child, but have not quite gained another, the near-adult, which, as they see it coming, they can not quite imagine embodying. They are contemplating death, or the end of being, and ends of self, on a daily basis; they are beginning to understand the suffering of others. They are beginning to comprehend the nature of courage and sacrifice and altruism and cowardice and inaction. They are seeing themselves as the result of history and the generations; seeing themselves as inheritors of the past and as a vast network cultural beliefs. They are beginning to realize they have a responsibility to others besides their families. They are beginning to confront the fact that this life is their only life, a life distinct from all others.

One of our foundational beliefs as a school is that all these changes, threshholds, and forms of “becoming” are the lodestone and locus of all of the most important learning that occurs during the transition through adolescence. The students themselves, the process of adolescence, the experiences of their lives—these are the subject and the wellspring. Of course, we overlay and weave into our days conventional and relevant academic exercise, but the heart of it is the kids themselves, their lives, their minds.

In order to do this, we have to start with the door wide open. It is death to freedom, it is death to Truth, if we began by saying, “No, you can not talk about that. That is off-limits. We don’t go there.”  Because once you do that, a new consideration begins to metastasize inside of every subsequent thought or impulse: “Is this appropriate? Is this off-limits? Is this wrong? I shouldn’t say this, should I?”
 
These questions, in their fearful negative form, truncate the intellectual or creative process before it can come alive. Such questions cut off the journey before it can begin. If you cut off one thing, you cut off everything, because once you have cut some things out, particularly the vibrant unknown, you are not dealing with whole truth.
 
So we veer decidedly the other way. We say: tell me who you are, who you want to become? You feel sad? Mad? Confused? Happy? Excited? Why?  You believe in fairness, equality, courage, grit, hope, love, honor, curiosity?  Then tell us why you do, and how you came to believe in that. What experience made you? What has taught you? Who? How? When tragedy or suffering or hardship visited you or those close to you, what did you learn? How did you react? Pick yourself up? How did you change? What did you decide? When you saw your father crying, what did you feel? When your mother celebrated her new job, what did that mean? What did you suddenly see in her that you had never seen before? Yesterday, why did you not fight back? Why did you fight back that way? Why were you afraid?  What happens when you are afraid? What happened when you cried at the lectern when you got up to read your first speech? What happened the second time? What did you feel when you classmate said thank you to you? When something terrible happened to you on the field at lunch, what made you afraid to say anything? What if you had said something? What is it that you really need? How did you learn to learn, even when it was hard? What we can we learn from that? That walk you took with your parents last night, why did it matter? Why should it matter to us? 
 
When the kids know this is all part of the discussion, they suddenly realize that they can be philosophers, seekers, inquirers. The world, their world,  is open to them.
 
Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese” comes to mind.
 
     You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

“Wild Geese “is a poem of invitation. It calls to every existing soul to join the family of things. This is what we are saying to the kids when they walk through the door of our school. You are something, you have something, you are a part of something. Bring what you have to the table.
 
Conversely, the “Resource Room” is the place in most schools where the real issues go to be hidden and scuttled. When anything gets dicey, when there is conflict, suffering, trouble—emotional and personal complexity—it is quickly removed from the classroom and dealt with, or not, by an adult who does not necessarily know the child, and there the conflict stays. The reality of the child, the reality of life and living, is divorced from the classroom. No doubt this may be a cleaner and potentially less upsetting or controversial way to manage affairs. But have you been in a classroom lately, one where emotion is not regarded, where the personalities of both the teacher and taught are excised, and the reality of lives lived is sanded down to edgelessness until it disappears? If you have, you will begin to understand why so many children feel lost, invisible, uninspired or uninterested in school, and why going to school, for so many, is nothing but a boring drag and a long, dry way of marking time.
 
So we tried to design a school that was equipped, in size and intimacy and disposition, to accept and celebrate the lives of the children and the emotions and thoughts exploding in them; to take young adolescents and all their manifold characteristics and convolutions, to let all that loose into the classroom; to work with those beings lovingly and intensely and directly; to accept them as they are and help them make sense of themselves; and to do it, every day, openly and with joy and seriousness. That is what we set out to do and we made a school that kids want to go to.
 
Every year at the end of summer, and at the end of vacations, I get emails from students who are dying to come back to school. Something has been happening there that they miss, that they need, that they long for. They want to come to school. Most days. They are excited, most days. They are seen, and known, and celebrated, most days. They will laugh, cry, be somewhat of balance, be challenged, and have joy, most days. It is messy, most days. And it is wild and alive, most days.
 
Their days at school are rich and pulsating with life not because we teachers devise great activities and projects, though we try to; it is because we invite and allow the fullness of their lives–the entirety of their lives–to be alive and expressed here. And to be learned from. This is why they want to come to school and why they realize, in their time here, that they are indeed part of the family of things.

Four Days in September

On the morning we started school I first asked one student from each grade to pick a book off the shelf. “Pick an interesting title.” Our shelves are packed full of books—maybe 3000 in the big room. After a few seconds, three books were placed on the table in front of me. 

      The Oddysey

      The World of Edward Gorey

      How Could I Not Be Among You

“I’m going to use the titles of these books to say how I’m feeling, what I’m thinking about today, at this point in my life.”

I told them that I was nervous, scared even, full of anticipation and hope. Based on the titles I told them I was thinking about our odyssey as a school. I told them that I thought of each school year as an epic, filled with a variety of tales and adventures, some terrifying, some joyful, all of which will call from us as yet unseen powers, none of which we could ever predict or plan, and that in the end, my hope is that we will have traveled a great distances, nobly and together.

I told them that we are all on this odyssey together. I told them that as a teacher, I was prepared to end my summer solitude and enter into their world, whatever their world is, no matter if it is populated with strangeness or adolescent freaks, and then I showed them Edward Gorey’s drawings. “This is you guys here,” I said, holding up the book. I then told them that in my mind I never had any question about my choice to be among them. 

“All of my best thoughts and joys of mind and soul that I’ve experienced have come in large part from sitting and being with and listening to kids like you around this table. My life and experiences led me to this place and time—though I did not consciously plan to become a teacher in Vermont— but how could I not be happy and joyful to learn from you, to have my own thoughts sparked by yours?” 

Then I asked them all to get up in silence and spend a few minutes looking over the titles of the books on the shelves and pick out one or two that articulated, through only the title, how they were feeling. Some title that said something to them about this moment in their lives. 

Once they had their books in front of them, they wrote out a feeling or idea that was wholly their own. Not something delivered to them by a teacher or school system, but their own self-created conception of themselves in space and time.

Treasure Island: Because I think of the school as an island, and I am here to find treasures and I don’t know what they will be. 

The Way Things Work and 30,000 years of Art: Because there is so much we don’t know, and yet humans have been creating art from so long. We all have something to say. It’s a part of us. There is so much to be known about how things work—gravity, hair, even.

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: We ended last year, but we continue this year. We have to bring back from last year what we want to keep the school going. 

I Dream a World: I am thinking about what this year will be like.

Leap: Going into this is unknown. I don’t know what will happen. I have to just leap in.

No More Masks: We tend to hide. This school is about trying not to hide but to be real and to show it.

Ants on the Melon: I think of the school as the melon—it has sweetness and bad stuff like rinds and seeds, and we are the ants on it.

Living Your Dying: I have to experience everything here. I can’t just sit around and wait.

What Are People For: We are here to figure out what we are for. What we stand for, what we are supposed to do.

World’s End: Last year is ended. That’s the way it works. It’s up to us to make a new world.

Eyes on the Prize: I am trying to figure out what my goals are. I don’t know who I’m going to be.

Growing Up: That’s what’s happening. And it happens fast. This school is about that, and especially with the three grades.

A New Creation—Spiritual Voices: We are trying to make a new creation. I want to make something.

Utopia: Last year we studied and tried to make Utopia. Even though we are not studying that this year, it’s still our goal.

Witness: Part of being here is looking, listening, observing, and witnessing. I don’t talk a lot and I listen at first in order to figure out what to do and how to be.

I’m a Stranger Myself: Even though I was here last year, I am a stranger again. Because it is a new year, new people, new everything. 

Paradise Lost: Last year was not always paradise, but sometimes we got close to it. Now it’s gone and we have to start over.

Plain and Simple: Plain and simple is how I like things. But sometimes what is plain and simple is actually complex and not plain at all.

The Stranger: I come here and I feel like I am a stranger. I hardly know anyone and that feels weird.

Jung: The Undiscovered Self: We are trying to find ourselves here. We don’t know what we are going to discover.

The Craft of Poetry: We care about poetry at this school. We read it and write it and it’s an important part of what we do all the time and part of how we learn.

American Utopias: We studied this last year and we are trying to make one.

The Big Burn: Every year we create the burning school and it’s a way we remember the old year and start a new tradition.

What’s to Become of the Boy: Heinrich Boll—I thought of this like myself, even though I’m a girl. What will I become? What will become of this girl? How will I learn to free myself from my own cages.

The Invisible Man: Sometimes I feel invisible. We don’t want to feel that way. Nobody should feel invisible.

This Is My Century: This is my year. I want to take all the time I have and grow past what has held me down. I feel strong.

The Gift: This school is a gift. This book is a gift. Life is a gift.

The Promised Land: We are looking for it. But it’s not just promised: we have to make it.

Maiden Voyages: It feels like we are going on a voyage. If you’re a seventh-grader, it’s your maiden voyage. For seventh-graders, they are leaving the harbor. Eighth graders are halfway across and can’t see land in either direction. Ninth graders are getting closer to the new world.

Great Expectations: I have great expectations for myself, but I don’t know if I can live up to them.

The Crossing: To be in a crossing means to be between worlds. I am used to being between worlds because I have changed schools so many times. I have become used to it. But I don’t know what it will be like to stay in one place.

Brave New World: This is what it feels like coming into a new school.

Second Skin: I have two ways of being. There is the part of me that is easy going and relaxed and there is the part of me that gets anxious. I want to peel off the thin skin of anxiety and be the full self underneath.

The Elements of Grammar: Grammar is important because it’s how language works. We have to be able to communicate with each other. The grammar of our connections, the way we hold ourselves together with language and our connections with each other.

The Perfect Storm: I am hoping that this year will be a storm—not one that destroys me, but one that makes me change and changes me, that shakes me up enough to change me in a good wat.

There Once Was a World: The old school year is gone—good and bad has disappeared. That leaves us with a big responsibility.

Boundaries of the Soul: We are pushing to the edges to find out how far we can go.

The World’s Rim: I am perched on the rim, looking out into the unknown. My life is behind me, and the world is in front of me.

The above list could stand as a temporary manifesto of our educational project. As you may observe, it is already in them, and it arises organically, with very little prompting, virtually unbidden.

By this point, everyone has spoken. Every voice has been heard, every person has contributed an idea. None of the ideas are wrong. All of them are valuable. All of them tell us something about our desires, hopes, fears, awarenesses. Some hint at struggles and difficulties. Lurking behind some of the notions are bigger ideas, larger considerations, vast possibilities. But now we are moving.

I want them to begin thinking about their lives in a serious manner. To think about who they are, or were, who they are becoming, the directions towards which they want to move. I read them a quote by Frederick Douglass, remembering that only a short time ago it was revealed that our nation’s leader did not know who Frederick Douglass was. But more than that, I want them to think about what Douglass said about struggle:

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

We began talking about speech ideas from this point. What is a struggle you have had? What is worth fighting or struggling for? What is the right way to fight? What progression do you seek? When have you failed, or when has your life gotten the best of you, and how did you respond? What experiences have you had that have forged your ideas and beliefs? What are you willing to work for, in yourself or for others?

But as is often the case, the responses from the kids took us in unforeseen directions. And by some strange occurrence, I had been handed a slip of paper earlier on that  morning that sent me off in a new direction. See, I am like a squirrel: if I find a good nut, I take it. It was part of an essay by Toni Morrison, in which she writes…

“Well, now you may be asking yourself: What is all this? I can’t save the world. What about my life? I didn’t ask to come here. Didn’t you? I put it to you that you did. You not only asked to be born, you insisted on your life. That is why you are here. No other reason. It was too easy not to be. Now that you are here, you have to do something you respect, don’t you? Your parents did not dream you up, you did. I am simply urging you to continue the dream that you started. For to dream is not irresponsible; it’s first order human business. It is not entertainment; it is work. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream,” he was not playing; he was serious. When he imagined it, envisioned it, created it in his own mind it began to be, and we must dream it too, give it the heft and stretch and longevity it deserves.”

I read this to the class as well. It is not unrelated to the words of Frederick Douglass. We are not playing. We have a responsibility. This is serious business. There is work to be done. You are here to envision a world. I Dream a World. The Perfect Storm. American Utopia. A New Creation. Eyes on the Prize. Great Expectations. This is My Century.

The miracle plainly evident is that the kids, without yet knowing it, are in conversation with the great thinkers and novelists and abolitionists and scholars and epic writers and artists and activists of history. Their lives are wound up in history, they are thinking about the same notions, and they are here because of those who envisioned it before them. So they owe it to the world, to the past and the future, to begin to play their part and begin to do something they will respect.

Our job is to help them bring it out as fully as we and they can, and celebrate when they do.

In the afternoon of the first day, three teams of students built geodesic domes out of sheets of newspaper outside on the sunny patio. This proved difficult to say the least. the paper crumpled. The tape got stuck. The structure sagged. What’s the first step? What am I supposed to do? What is my role? What am I able to do? How do I fit in? Do I give direction or do I take direction? Who is in charge? What needs to happen next? Am I being useful? What am I contributing? How do we overcome a challenge? What happens when it all breaks down?

We teachers gave very little support or direction. We wanted to see what they are, what they can figure out, where each of them is as an individual, and as a member of the whole. In the end, the domes were decorated, and the domes were named, and the domes stood for something.  Each dome, in its patched together, misshapen jangled mess, was a pretty fair representation of what we are right now. Not great, not bad. Standing up, barely, a mere skeletal frame, ready to be filled in.

On Wednesday Geeta read “Eve Remembering,” by Toni Morrison also. I had been planning on reading this in class and had given it to Geeta prior to receiving the portion of Morrison’s essay, so that was a happy coincidence.

It’s a beautiful poem, speaking from the voice of Eve, at the end of her life, explaining that for any difficulties leaving Eden might have presented, those were more than redeemed by a true life lived thereafter.  For  “gardens planted for a child”—those pre-made gardens of bliss—do not help to make a soul. A soul is forged through hard living. One learns the heights of summits by surmounting them: 

1

I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.

My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple

Fire red and humming.

I bit sweet power to the core.

How can I say what it was like?

The taste! The taste undid my eyes

And led me far from the gardens planted for a child

To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.

2

Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;

Lips forget what they have kissed.

My eyes now pool their light

Better the summit to see.

3

I would do it all over again:

Be the harbor and set the sail,

Loose the breeze and harness the gale,

Cherish the harvest of what I have been.

Better the summit to scale.

Better the summit to be.

Now our eyes pool the light. The thread here is woven into the first other threads. There is something always ahead in life.  Struggle is at the very heart of it. Struggle is to be embraced. “Be the harbor, and set the sail. Loose the breeze and harness the gale.” The Perfect Storm. The Second Skin. The Undiscovered Self. The Gift. Living Your Dying.

                                                                                 *

Their initial speech drafts are filled moments when each kid saw and could feel themselves alive in space and time. This is one of the things we set out for them to learn and understand: how to be themselves, themselves and no other, in space and time, even in the presence of others. To know the mind and heart of the person they are. In order to become themselves more fully, they have to see themselves honestly, as they are, as they conceived of themselves in the past, as they see themselves changing now. When they can do this, when their foundation is solid, they can begin to see far beyond themselves.

A boy’s memory of being teased on a trampoline one summer night brings tears. The details of the teasing are lost. The feeling is not. The feeling comes up in class. It becomes clear, sitting at the table, that the person each of us each is is filled with a thousand stories and all the associated feelings. This boy at the table, he now only remembers what happened after he was teased. He left the trampoline, and he walked around the perimeter of the yard, circling again and again, counting the paces. He remembered that, and that is part of his struggle. What in him distances him from the moment the pain was inflicted? What can he reclaim from that moment to begin to envision his dream? What is he circling for, and when he stops circling, what will he do?

There is hint of it when I ask him, “Why did you not punch your tormentor?” And he replies, through the hands he holds over his face: “Because I wanted it to be that when she grew up and stopped doing these things, I could say I never did a wrong thing. I never went to the low place like her. So I could say I did not do anything wrong.”

This is a beautiful commitment. But it is also the struggle. How long can one endure being the outcast or the alien? Indeed, Nat Turner could take being a slave for only so long before he turned murderously on his oppressor. Who can say which path is right? Silent endurance of suffering, or righteous violence in response.

Sam hears the first draft of his friend Declan’s speech. In it, Declan recalls times when, during the past year, his friends, Sam among them, teased him. Declan says he fell into a state of mental anguish. The narrative he has constructed spares no one, obscures no facts, does not equivocate. At the end of it, his friend Sam, sitting at the table, is not angry. Sam is crying. He is mad at himself, that his own fears of being an outcast or teased drove him to tease his friend Declan, who he loved then and loves now. Sam was in his own struggle then—who am I going to be, and what am I willing to do to preserve myself and others, and how do I mend this? Now, at this moment he feels he created nothing and only destroyed, and it is a terrible feeling. But the sun also rises. A full acceptance of his role in Declan’s suffering—his willingness to feel the consequences of what he did or did not do—gives him a vision of what he wants to do and can become. He knows he has a choice and responsibility to remake something, to do a new thing with greater courage and conviction. This is the crux of the writing we do: reinhabiting our struggles and difficulties, going backward, reckoning with actual lived experience—this is the way to the source of all wisdom and meaning. That is how we grow, that is how we go forward. 

One student starts his speech with this declaration. “All my life I have struggled with dyslexia.”  The value of his willingness to share this is nearly impossible to quantify. It is a magnificent thing, from the perspective of teaching and learning, that a student can come into a room and reveal something so personal, so raw, so hard. When I read the rough draft that followed that sentence, I already saw in him great courage and power. He is not hiding. He is willing “to loose the breeze and harness the gale.” He is already fully present, to teach, know, and to love. He wrote: “It was hard to sit inside while other kids were outside playing and working on reading and writing. But I learned to use elbow grease.”

No student that I can remember in 28 years of teaching has used the words “elbow grease.” Ah, but it is so perfect, and so in tune with everything we tried to open up in the first days talking about struggles and hard work. He’s ninety-five percent of the way there. On Friday morning I told him all of this while the whole class listened: how reading his work woke me up, and made me excited to come in and tell everyone what I had learned from him.

I asked Iris to tell about a moment from the week. She stumblingly and improvisationally meandered through a tale of what happened in science class. Her sketch is filled with details—of her surroundings, her teacher’s voice, the objects in the shelves, the notebooks, the vocabulary on the board. Iris is marvelously and acutely self-aware, of her feelings and of what is actually happening with the balloon, sugar, yeast, the graduated cylinders.  As an older kid, she is able to inhabit her body in time and space. Able to see herself feeling and seeing. But what she wanted to tell us about was the moment, during all that, when she looked at her classmates and felt, for the first time, that she wanted to be partners in the science lab with all or any of them. There was no one she was afraid of. No one who bugged her. No one she was mad at. She was joyfully content to look through microscopes with any of her classmates, because, though time and struggle, she has come to know and love each of them.

Then I made her write it. And this time, her sketch was a composed, balanced, nuanced, poetic artifact. A statement of where she’s been and where she wants to go. A snap-shot of her dream and a dream of what school can be.

Jacques did not listen to me when I said to write about something that happened in the first four days. When he read his scene it was evident that he had something far more important and pressing to say. It was welling up in him, ready to spill.  He wrote about a time from the previous year at his old school. He had befriended a boy with Downs syndrome. Jacques was his buddy, took care of him, and was often tagged by teachers to partner with the boy. But one day on the playground, standing with the boy, Jacques wanted to go play with others. So he left the boy alone in the middle of the playground. 

“I just left him. It felt terrible.” The feeling of having abandoned that boy now has Jacques to tears and his voice was trembling. 

“But what you did was not wrong,” I said. “You were the one who loved the boy and took care of him. You are also a boy who wants to go play with others. That’s a human thing. You wanted to go be with your peers and play. No one is guilty of doing something natural and human. But your other self, which you’re showing bravely now in the depth of these feelings, is that you have a self that is also Super-Human. Someone who can give to someone else. You are someone who has so much in you that you gave love and care and companionship to someone else who needed it.  That’s also what you are teaching and revealing.”

We have now learned something about moral struggle, and also Jacques’ morality. We’ve learned that he cares, and we have begun to learn how he cares.

It will be some time before he or any of them can take their experiences and manifest them consciously and intentionally in the school. But they will learn to do this. They will learn to take what they have learned and turn it into something beautiful. 

                                                                                *

At Lake Pleiad, we took our chance to make something beautiful. Though it is hard to improve on what was already there. Which reminds me, and I hope all of us, that we are part of something far larger than we can imagine. Although we all have powers like Jacques and Iris and Jonah and Declan and Sam, we are also quite tiny relative to what is above, below, and around us. Rose tried to be like a bird and made a nest with bundles of grasses and twigs. She found, even with her fingers and two opposable thumbs, that making a nest is extremely difficult, and that birds can do it with only their beaks. She knelt before her creation with a renewed humility about human limitation and the power of little creatures.

In the silence of the woods, with the sound of sticks snapping and feet scampering in the leaf detritus, with the wind rustling the over-story, we knelt in the understory and built little sculptures of what we could find: moss, mushrooms, twigs, ferns, flowers, berries, vines, logs, stones. 

This is, of course, an analog for what we are all about. I do not have much genius educational theory except this: anything of value will be made from us, by us, and for us, from whatever is close at hand. The kids in the room, and who they are. The powers and material are already there. What wants to happen, tries to happen, does happen, this is our syllabus. Latent or as yet to be discovered; timid, undefined, hesitant, shy, or unsure.  Whatever it is, whatever issues forth, there needs to be an axis Mundi which gathers the powers, a focal point where we can all be there to feel and see what matters most where we gather to see what we are and made. This is what the school aims to be.

In the woods on Friday we had already come a far distance from those first spindly geodesic domes. In the works made in the woods there was density and color, depth and hidden places, minute fairy houses or towering structures built without rule or form. The shaky utterances taken from book titles speeches on the first day will grow into towering manifestos, the best each of us can do in each moment. 

Before we took off for our sculpture building, we had spent some time in the basement drawing leaves. Steve demonstrated how to start lightly. “Just move your pencil over the paper without setting anything down. Just practice the motion a few times. Sort of like little practice swings.”

We started putting down lines. In time they will become deeper and more committed, more confident and defined. And then we will really be making something.

The Most Pressing Questions

When we begin we start with big questions as fast as we can, to get moving, as fast as we can, to begin to go far, as far as we can. The first question was: how are you feeling, right now? In this moment, sitting in this room? I have them close their eyes so that they can shut out the many new and dizzying distractions. No reactions of others to gage.  Try to be as undefended as you can, so you can know the ground YOU are standing on.

 The answers are variants of scared. excited. nervous. anxious. eager. Hopeful. Full of faith, wondering, comfortable, “not here yet,” confident, determined. Everyone speaks in the first hour, and now we are all here. 

The next question: how do you want to live? How should you live? What does it mean to live “well.” What is the way to spend a life, if it must end and too soon? 

Bukowski says: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” 

He also says: “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”

Or as Wislawa Szymborska writes:

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.

I had meant to ask him

the same question.

 Again, and as ever,

as may be seen above,

the most pressing questions

These give us something to push off from. The answers to these “most pressing questions” and the resulting declarations will become beginning-of-the-year speeches. The speeches are filled with experiences, moments, ideas, and intentions, and by setting them down each student sets their own course. At the same time, we will end up with an informal manifesto of our collective end aim: the completed speeches will comprise the vision of a group of a people who have declared how they want to live and be together and how they will travel together.

In order for these speeches to really have grit and substance, we ask that the kids commit themselves to digging deep. Not to just say how one wants to live, but to show the origin of those ideas, which of course will be found in examining the amplitude of one’s lived life. That is, the kids are encouraged to find the origins of their intentions, the source of their ideas, the seed of their wisdom. “One who is able to realize the truth of one’s own mind has sown the seed of Buddha-hood,” wrote Paul, quoting the Buddha on the white-board in the big room. 

The Buddha’s idea is not too different from our own. We are pushing to find the truths inside ourselves. This requires various amounts of directness, honesty, questing, trust, courage, humor, self-revelation, self-disclosure, or self-deprecation, and a willingness, to the degree one is comfortable, to share it in the learning community.  

In the decades of doing this I have come to an understanding that is practically a physical law: So long as the school is a safe and supportive place and filled with the spirit of communal inquiry then happiness, humor, emotional richness, openness, learning, wisdom, excitement, wonder, love, compassion, and unity will thrive. As these qualities thrive, the safety of the school and the spirit of communal inquiry grows. 

Our first task then is to make it safe, safe for feelings, whatever they may be, and safe for all kinds of minds and experiences, whatever they may be. 

By writing speeches that are personal and true, we move with directness to a place where we are all in it together, sharing who and what we are, what our hopes, dreams, and needs are. We begin to see all these minds and feelings and thoughts. The collective begins as a sketch–a kind of unfolding human mandala, and we begin to see human variation and geometry, colors, patterns, and all various permutations, intricacies, and intimations of infinity that you can get when you put a bunch of growing, changing people of good spirit in a room. When it happens, as it now is, it is thrilling and beautiful.

By the morning of the fourth day, I asked the kids to do an accounting of all that they had done, felt, or thought—at home or in school—since the first day on Tuesday. Their answers provide a snapshot of the energy, activity, and diversity of experience as it has been lived so far in the school.

I felt love for my sisters when I saw them again. I made plans for being organized and responsible. I didn’t talk to Jholai, but I really wanted to. I shot a potato cannon. I realized Celeste is very intelligent and meaningful. I felt jealous of Declan. I remembered that fabric is stitched like chain-mail. I saw Tal try to smile and then pant with exhaustion. I heard Henry Swan yell at Sasha, and then apologize profusely. I learned more about the importance of words. I wrote an email to Lena. I felt overwhelmed. I burst out laughing looking at an art book with Luke. I felt happy. Tal called me a rock-hound. I ate birthday cake. I felt excited about geodes while breaking rocks in science. I started writing a speech about how I want to live. I made a poster in the basement. I pet Giles’ dog Blue. I tried to reconnect to my class. I tried to draw a picture of Tal. I tried to think about why most of the boys in my class don’t want to talk to me. I learned I am excited for math. I tried to help Isabell and Luke connect to the school. I learned more about Paul from his science bag. I got motivated to write. I made a mobile out of nature. I learned part of Alex’s story. I started to go back to my corner. I pondered about how we know and do not know things. I felt sad when Geeta was talking in class. I found the goose egg I left here last year still here. I realized I am not as close as I want to be to the whole school. I answered the question, “How do you want to live?”  I talked with my mom about East Germany. I read the entire book Animal Farm in less than 24 hours. I am excited for soccer. I already made a rough outline for my Utopia project. I ran through the woods being chased by Declan, the wind on my face and Joe beside me.  I was thankful for new friends. I thought about what “epistemology” is. I felt anxious when I sat in the woods. Henry helped me when my bike got stuck. I thought about how this school is my new family. Nate and Joe showed me everything in the school. I thought about the hike. I felt sad when Geeta cried. I asked Tal if I could bring in my dog. I looked at the flowers that Isa brought in I checked that a poem I memorized over the summer is still in my head. I watched Isa, Geeta, Iris, Isa, and Una make Tal a strange birthday card, and I felt included, even though I wasn’t helping. I helped Celeste crack open a geode. I remembered what “meta-cognition” means. I thought about why a poet referred to death as a “she.”  I made flower crowns with my family and friends. I fell out of a tree while playing pokey stick. I drew a portrait of a face. Alex and I researched uses for Pascal’s triangle. I made a scavenger hunt for Declan. I felt sad about Creed not being here. I set up class for Tal. I saw Henry B. get attacked by bees.  I read and thought about a poem called “Fern Hill.”  I examined the engine of the car at school. I looked at a book about D-Day. I have been working on a speech about who I want to be. I thought about whether I was close to my class again. I felt anxiety when I started working on my speech. I started to appreciate the posters on the upper big room wall. I found a mouse nest in the air filter of the car. I yelled out to Isa. I talked to Tal about my overall life in summer, and wondered why he cared so much to ask. It felt good to talk, but a little strange. I thought about the moment in the entry with Ben last year, and when that happened, I felt sad.  I felt hopeful that Alex will be a great new math teacher, because she is young and relatable. I was nervous that I would not be able to hold my end of the school up. I made a good notebook in science. I volunteered to do class notes. I pumped up the soccer balls for Tal. I bonded with Henry Swan. I missed Will. 

In addition: we hiked to Lake Pleiad. Asked questions about landforms and the mountains. Sat in silence on the rock. Took a class picture. Built sculptures in the woods. Swam in the lake. Started a class-note book. Listened to John Coltrane; weeded the labyrinth. Made science notebooks and artistic collages. Placed flowers on the table; talked about the new school bell. Played soccer. Decorated sticks with natural materials and hung them in the trees. Made sculptures with pasta and marshmallows, which melted in the hot sun. Played pokey stick; meditated. Contemplated the meaning of the Dhammapada quote: “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery.” Discussed who we had not talked to in the class so far and why not?  Had our first meetings, poems, classes. Collected flowers at Lake Pleiad; Had class in the basement because it was 100 degrees in the big room; 

Una read the poem “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg to the class on the first day.  Henry B. directed the clean-up system and volunteered to be the soccer goalie.  Isa brought in the flower “Indian pipe,” which is thought to aid in resolving grudges and which lacks chlorophyll–and she came out for Prunes soccer. Elise took on the job of being the Undercurrent Managing Editor. Nate volunteered to do the weekly notes, then asked Tal if he could do it again, because he wants to do it better. Eli brought read a book faster than he ever has and was able to keep his eyes closed for an entire hour-long conversation. Swan made a funny “Pac-man” journal cover, rode his unicycle to school, and made Tal laugh with witty jokes. Joe and Nate biked to school on the first day, and Joe came in early on another day and he and Tal talked in the big room. Geeta told us we have to live on top of the mountain with twigs in our hair. Alex told us her brother is in the army, and she respects what he is doing because it is difficult, and he loves what he is doing, just like she is. Paul held up the singing bowl and led the meditation, and wrote quotes from the teachings of the Buddha. Tal said he wants us to work like he did, stacking wood in the middle of a dark and pelting thunderstorm and not stopping until the woodpile is huge. Geeta made a sign-up sheet for a cooking competition. Iris wanted to get a Golf Cart for the school. Sam found a truck on Craig’s list for one dollar.  Jholai told us she had skipped 6th grade and she was nervous. The class told her that that is okay and she will be incredible. Isabelle brought rocks and crystals to school. Luke drew an eye in his notebook. Finley and Dylan went deep into the woods. Phoebe tried to learn to ride the unicycle. Dinara talked about courage, determination, and not being anxious. Iris danced in the dark to make the basement lights come on. Rose was remembering her mother. Vivian decided that YES, she will play soccer. Dylan raised his hand in class and spoke boldly. Eli was articulate about how to make the school a safe place. Sam told us how he had found his Declan. Declan said he was find-able again if anyone needed to find a Declan.  

There is already so much happening. We are excited to crack open the metaphorical geodes and discover the crystals inside.

Talking About Divinity

Lonnie Holley, “Supported by the Power,” wire, wood, found electronics, and refuse.

A few weeks ago we had a visitor, Harry Trask, a graduate student in the Divinity School at Yale University.

One of the kids asked what divinity school is. I sketched it out. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to divinity school in order to become an ordained minister. But Harry was primarily focused on Linguistics of the Old Testament and is studying biblical Hebrew and Greek.

“What is divinity?” someone asked.

“You mean, what is the definition of divinity?” I responded.

“Yeah.”

We looked it up and found the dictionary definition, which was pale, untextured, and lacked anything remotely like the miraculous presence of god. I work from an assumption that my students have ideas and thoughts of their own which will not be found in books, so we went looking elsewhere.

“What is divinity in your mind or experience? What would you say your idea of divinity is, from what you have lived?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t really know because I’m not religious,” came a reply.

“I’m not talking about divinity from a religious point of view necessarily. I mean, what have you seen or felt that is charged with something like god, or holiness, or the sacred?”

In my mind I heard echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

     The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
     Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
     Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
     And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
     Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
     And for all this, nature is never spent;
     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
     And though the last lights off the black West went
     Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
     Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
     World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

I was trying to give them the idea that they can mine their own deep down lives. They can see, all of us can, the ways in which the world flames and shines and explodes with glorious light. They are a secular group, by and large, but they are learning to seek and sense, like all humans, glowing radiances.

When Lonnie Holley came to Middlebury, we saw a human being showing his inner light. He also showed us a piece of brick he picked up at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Lonnie had carved a face into it, as though he was trying to repeople the shattered world. We passed it around and all of us touched it. He called himself the Golden Black Panther. He turned wire into a mother’s face. We watched him for an hour turning fragments of fabric into a colorful ring for three-year-old child, who watched him in a state of rapture. When he spoke of children, he said in the old way, “chirren,” and it was as though he loved every child he had ever seen. He seemed to have no outer shell, as if his chest cavity was split open and he’d chosen to live with his insides on the outside. He told how he grew up close to the earth, his whole life, spent wading in creeks and ditches, in the muck digging up the earth with a fork, looking for the worms, and finding the bright bits that got left behind. His radiance came from a belief, which he manifested in every utterance, that the world’s detritus is actually a kind of gold from which we might fashion versions of our godly selves. He took his pain and suffering and created an entire environment of artistic expression which says there is nothing which can not be used. Use the refuse of your life and make a golden throne of it.

Speaking of his fellow artists, Lonnie said:  “It was some of the best art that had ever come from simpleness. What I mean by simpleness is that it is something so sincere and so pure that it would almost fit into the category of that. In the Bible, it say: I’ll be coming back after that church without spot or blemish. And it may be one of the little churches that’s in the midst of you all. So these was the kinds of minds—I characterize “mind” like those small churches that will be picked up and that will be exposed in the midst of religion, in the midst of divinity, in the midst of the divine order on earth. (571)

This idea of there being a little church inside us is one we try to cultivate at NBS. Where is your inner sanctuary, the thing that must be preserved and from which you guide your life? How do we build such places? When Paul listened to Lonnie he was thinking about how music is made, what truths it tells, the value of listening to someone else’s song. Paul wrote about what Lonnie’s music made him think.

Earlier in the year, the school read Siddhartha. Lonnie’s response made me think of him. Siddhartha had learned after decades of being a Samana that the key to life was to see and be a part of everything, not to be separate. Lonnie’s music, art, and speech came from his enormous inventory of experiences, all of them entirely focused on how and what he would create.

To create the church inside of oneself, according to Paul’s idea, is to fill the self with every thing, in the same way Lonnie uses everything his hands can touch. No object is superior to another. There is no competition, no dispute, no wrong. We have our experiences and we say to each of them, “yes.” As Paul wrote on his poster at the March for Our Lives, “”To Be Aware, Not Right.”

Isa also wrote some of her reflections about seeing Lonnie.

I also cried while watching the video of him, in class. It was real crying, the type where your chest heaves without you, instead of just your eyes watering a little…After the show, I was completely silent, and it freaked my mom out. I wouldn’t talk because I knew I’d say the wrong words, and it seemed like such a waste of time to say the wrong words…. I cried after the show, when I watched Lonnie pack his things into his little black bag, because I knew he was going to die, and what good would there be in the world once he dies?

I suppose we might say the divine is the tender thing inside us that others would never want to die. The part that makes us so perfectly human that when we see it in other people, or when they reveal it to us through authentic disclosure or soul-stirring art, we are moved to tears and love. The presence of the divine can leave us loving a stranger.

We asked while reading Night: Why do I breathe? Why do I live? What are the right questions? Ben asked why he should try to live well.  “Because I am given life. I get to exist. So I must use my time to expand as far as I can.” We ask: what is love?  Isa answers: “When I realize I am thankful for another person’s existence.” We asked Harry Trask about his definition of divinity. He said it is something like when you find yourself at home in the world. He pointed us to Henry David Thoreau: “I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.” We ask again and again: What does it mean to “stay human,” as Winston in 1984 says we must: We answer that staying human must mean, among many things, the chance to dream about the golden country, leave secret love notes, have time to listen to birds, and hope that someone else in the world feels like you do.

Lonnie said to me that we are in a “threat-full space of time.” He was referring to the precariousness of our current condition, the fact that large portions of folks seem to no longer be able to understand or talk to one another. At the end of Lonnie’s performance at Middlebury College, his friend and companion, Matt, played a song Lonnie had just recently recorded. Get to the other side, it said. To the other side of the road. To the other side of the river. To the other side of pain, or the other side of our better selves. Why are all these children being gunned down in our schools, he asks at the end of the song, and then the song fades into a layer of plaintive cries—why, why, why?

Our students are asking the same questions as well. In response to the Parkland, Florida shooting they decided they would walk out with all the other million students in America. But up here on the mountain, we are too far away to march with the others. So we went into the field, still covered in deep snow, and we mediated. We put our prayers and voices into the wind, made of ourselves a Buddhist prayer flag, like in Vivian’s project.

I want to teach them about what a legislature is. And how bills are proposed and become laws. I want to teach them about what a “lobby” is and the history of civil obedience. I want to teach them about Thoreau, the Lorraine Motel, meditation, and theology.  I have been thinking lately that there is not enough time to do all the teaching that needs to be done. There is too much happening. So what can we do in school? We can learn to sit at a table and listen, try to understand another person’s sorrow or grief. We can look at ourselves, as Sam did on Friday, and think about what we did wrong, feel it truly, let the tears roll down, and then commit to doing better.

 

 

Love and Its Relation to Education

Precious few, if any, administrators, principals, school boards, educational theorists, or department heads talk about love or its place in school curricula. Education debate and policy centers primarily on reform options, assessment, school funding and consolidation, testing, core standards, uniforms, resource officers, mainstreaming versus inclusion, achievement gaps, the effects of poverty on learning, safe schools and bullying, technology, age-grouping, school choice, vouchers, privatization or charter schools. Essentially the focus is on systems of delivery and containment, safety, methods of instruction, measurement of “outcomes,” and the pursuit of equality.  While at heart these issues concern the well-being of children, the process of discussing them is mechanistic, riddled with mind-numbing jargon, and certainly does not involve the students themselves.

After the massacre in Parkland, Florida, much of the talk focused on  “hardening” schools. I wonder: a hardened school might a better fortress, but would it be a better place to learn and grow? Principals all over the country are consumed with how to put their schools in lock-down or get more funding for protection and resources. And no one—parents, principals, teachers or superintendents—can come to a consensus on what hardening schools actually means. Does it mean live video feeds to police? The ability to trigger gates to shut down halls? Panic buttons? Armed teachers? Metal detectors and swipe cards? Florida added $400 million for school safety when in its recent legislative response to the Parkland shooting. That much money might make Florida school children more protected. But it bandages over larger societal ills and merely keeps fear at bay.

The North Branch School has a mantra, repeated at graduation every June. Love is what it’s all about. All of the kids—7th, 8th, and 9th graders—having read their graduation speeches, stand together in the Ripton Community House and shout those words as loud as their voices will carry.

I try to keep it simple. On the first day, and as often as I can, I look at them and I say in every way I know how: I love you. I love who you are and who you are becoming. I love your idiotic, idiosyncratic gestures and the fumbling ways you move yourself forward. I love you because you are flailing, hopeful, persistent, strange, and lovely.  I love you because of what your mind can do; because of what you accomplish or what you try to accomplish; because you are human and finding your way. I am not merely an educational technician. I am a human being, like you, filled with passion, yearning, questions, hopes, struggles, and dreams. We are in this together. Even when you are paralyzed, inert, lost, stubborn, resistant, or stagnant, I love you and will push you onward.

The real work of teaching is in how to walk the line between toughness and tenderness. I mean toughness in the sense of holding to high expectations. I mean tenderness in the sense of love and patience. No matter, we end up at the same place every day. How can we better learn what love is? How to make it, and how to preserve the world by putting love into the world.

We want our schools to be more than than fortresses. We want them to be luminous places of unvaulted striving. I think of Malcolm X, who described what learning in a prison was like, who discovered books and the power of knowledge in a constant lock-down, with real guards, iron bars, and locked cells. His own cell was close enough to a dim light on a landing that stayed on all night. This allowed him to read through the long hours of the night. He would lay on the floor with his books flat to catch enough illumination to read by. When guards approached, he dashed back to his bunk, and when the guards had passed he went back to reading by the glow of that one dim light. Malcolm read everything he could get his hands on. He discovered the history of ancient black civilizations, African colonization, Gandhi, the history or American slavery, religion, genetics, and philosophy.  He wrote that “ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books…I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.”

He was in love with his learning and the possibilities therein. We want for our children to feel like this when they go to school. That they feel their school is more than a place of mere instruction, That it portends possibility and mystery. That it should be more than merely hardened and safe. That it should be bathed in transformative light.

We read 1984 this winter, and discovered, along with Winston and Julia, a place called the Golden Country. Winston thinks of it by day and knows it from his dreams:

“It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.”

Winston’s dreams are but one gateway into the orchard of love. There we find ourselves with Winston and Julia in that world beyond, transported from the gray, concrete oppressions of IngSoc and Airstrip One. The Golden Country presents the dream of unity, wholeness, safety, and tenderness which, incidentally, are dreams that entrance my students.

Again and again we find ourselves doing things that require us to have faith in love, doing things which soften our hearts. Or we see the strange ways love manifests in our lives and in the life of the school. One example is the maple tree we planted two years ago in memory of Ana Martinez-Lage, the mother of two former NBSers, Amalia and Marina. When Marina left the school, Lena promised her friend Marina that we would go out to the tree each January to read “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou, which had been an important poem for Marina during her time at the school.

So on the anniversary of Ana’s death, we trooped out into the wind and snow and Lena read the poem. Perhaps only one or two of the kids had known Ana. A handful of them knew who Marina was. But they participated in the ritual–a ritual of love, devotion, and memory. They were wrapped up in it, even though it was distant to them. In this manner the wider world beyond them came into them, through the sound of the poem and Lena’s faltering voice, in the wind and the gray clouds, in our standing there together in a ragged circle in memory of a life they barely knew, and in the midst of the life awaiting them all.

Sometime in February, on a Sunday before the school week, Phoebe went outside on a snowy afternoon. The sun was shining, and birds were moving in the understory and at the edge of the woods. Phoebe took handfuls of birdseed and stood as still as she could, her hands outstretched, to see if she could induce the flittering black-capped chickadees to land in her palm.  She told us about it in class in morning meeting the following Monday. There’s nothing in any school curriculum that requires that students try to feed birds in mid-winter, or to speak of it in class. Yet I found myself thinking about how ridiculously beautiful and good it was. I chalked up Phoebe’s bird-feeding as a blow against the forces that have colluded to drench our nation in high-powered guns. How could you not love them when they do the things that they do? Phoebe’s act, to my mind, was in harmony with those children who recently took to the streets, conducted mass school walkouts, or headed to the state legislatures in an effort to change the violent culture in which we find ourselves enmeshed. A more loving world would have more mittened children communing with small birds.

In Night, we witness with Elie what it means to hear loving words—”the first human words”—when he and his fellow Jews arrive at Auschwitz. The prisoners are counselled: “Don’t lose heart. We shall see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer—or rather, a piece of advice. Let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.” It is a most loving call, these words. When we read them aloud in class, it was as though they were being offered to us now, applicable to this world, today. How can we survive together, more lovingly, more as one family or world? How, against all odds, do we find comradeship among ourselves?

Later we saw that even as Elie felt his god dying inside him, his love for his father grew deeper. His prayers were no longer offered up blindly to the Master of the Universe. Rather, he prayed “to a god in whom I no  longer believed” that he be strong enough to never abandon his father. We witness the manner in which his religious devotion is pared down to inchoate rage, and yet how, miraculously, his capacity for human love endures.

Love–talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it—that’s what we do. We debate the meaning and value of telling someone “I love you,” particularly if we know that someone is at life’s end. Once, a student told us how, even as his Grandmother descended into dementia, he continually told her, “I love you.”

“But why would I do that? he asked. “She wouldn’t remember it. But I realized, I had to. It was the right thing. Even for that moment when I told her, she would feel that love. It was my responsibility to put that love into the world.”

Recently, Ethan’s story about his brother brought the idea out in a similar way. He had been missing his older brother, Wyatt, who had been a ninth grader during Ethan’s first year in the school, Now his brother was graduated. Ethan had no one to rely on, no closest companion, no best friend or soulmate, and he felt great distance from his peers, who’d fragmented into separate groups.

One day, despairing that he was alone and powerless to make new meaningful connections in his class of fellow eighth graders, he ran into the woods, where he wept fiercely, and attempted to find the source of his rage. Yes, he had been mad at his classmates for not trying, for being behind in their work, for being separated from each other. But his greatest anger came from his own inactions. If he wanted the school to have more love in it, if he wanted his school to be that loving sanctuary that he’d felt when his brother was in the school, he had be the one to make it. He had to find a way to project his own yearning into the world.  At the end of the story he had his conclusion: “The truest and only way to spread love and tell people not to hate is to love, to love with all your heart,” he wrote.

This is what we actually do at school. This is life, and it is all about love. Along the way maybe I can teach them a little more about how to express it. I can teach them to think logically, a little more systematically, on multiple levels or from perspectives that are not always their own. A school can indicate some values that are worth preserving. We can teach them to see the world scientifically, as something to be measured, observed, and understood. And we can help them use that kind of seeing as a way to think in terms of evidence and fact. We can help them read multiple meanings in a single action, symbol or syllable. We can help them learn to discern the overtones and undertones of speech or music or to see, as Wislawa Szymborska writes, “the roots beneath the oil paint.”

But in the end we want to release them into a world valuing life, loving life, and wanting to live in and create love. We want them to love the world, to do so fearlessly, to know what they have to do. We want them to love the people close to them, and to seek in others they do not know the places where they can love.

“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity,” wrote Malcolm X. The nirvana we seek, the holy place we touch, the pure land we sometimes come to discover  in this school has happened when they looked at each other, really listened, and saw that there are, indeed, strange and beautifully lit places where all of their hearts, overlayed and stacked like the sediments of earth, share the similar qualities and longings and vulnerabilities.  When they see this, they begin to love each other. When they see this, and feel it, it is easy to love them.

 

The Living School

In the beginning of the North Branch School, we believed, contrary to prevailing theory and practice, that if we gave the students full responsibility and great freedom, they would make a school that was expression of their most vivid dreams and highest ideals. The central pedagogy, if there was one, was simply this: the voices, spirits, and aspirations of the students would be more than enough to create a vibrant, living school.

From the start we discarded controlling curriculums and external dictates. We asked students to build a their school around what mattered to them. We asked them become seers and seekers of beauty and truth. Truth, and the beauty of the truth, was not to be found in a textbook, on a test, or in a chapter summary. Lesson plans, final exams, Power-point presentations, the internet, even instructions from menone of these were necessary. Truth and beauty would be found in the full amplitude of lived experience and in talking about and recording what we found. And so meanings made in the classroom came from experience as it was born from the heart and the mind, from the human relationships that bloomed and prospered.

Typically schools are thought of as places where preparation for life occurs. We conceived school as a place where life should be happening, a place of high adventure, where the experience was so deep, so affecting, that none of us knew exactly what might transpire and, given that mystery, the students would walk out of school every day thrilled with the prospects of what might be coming over them. Then they would believe: something great, something as big as their lives, was reachable. 

                                                                                    ❖

In 1965 George Dennison published his exhilaratingly powerful and hopeful The Lives of Children, a description of one year at the First Street School, which he ran on a virtual shoestring in New Yorks Lower East Side. The school had no money, no campus, no equipment. They made do with what they had and the resources available from families, the city, and themselves. In the school they created there was virtually no separation between living and learning, life and school. He wrote

There is no such thing as learning except in the continuum of experience. But this continuum cannot survive in the classroom unless there is reality of encounter between the adults and the children. The teachers must be themselves, and not play roles. They must teach the children, and not teach subjects.The child, after all, is avid to acquire what he takes to be the necessities of life, and the teacher must not answer with mere professionalism and gimmickry…

He continues:

The experience of learning is an experience of wholeness. The child feels the unity of his own powers and the continuum of persons. His parents, his friends, his teachers, and the vague human shapes of his future form his world for him, and he feels the adequacy and reality of his powers within this world. Anything short of this wholeness is not true learning.

Schools, Dennison implored, should not be places where we deposit children for seven hours a day to fill them with what we deem important. Core Standards,external imperatives, political dictates, mandates from people who do not know our children or our communities, cooperation with an emotionally remote and ponderous educational system, even subject-centered classroomsthese could be discarded so that children might begin to discover the “experience of wholeness.”

The core that matters is the one inside the children. We believed our school’s sacred obligation was to bring that core into the light of the world. Only then would there be a reality of encounter.Only then would the necessities of life come to the center.  Only then would we enable individual children to freely find the reality of their powers and create the experience of wholeness. Only in the dance between self and soul would the students mind and heart be deepened into what we might call the wholeness of true learning.The teacher’s role then could be simply to encourage, call forth, support, and amplify that process.

How then do teachers move past standards-based approaches to get closer to the wholeness of true learning.” When we began the North Branch School, we found our partial answer in the belief, enacted every day, that the whole life of the child should enter seamlessly over the threshold of the school with the child in the morning, and the life of schoolactively and delightfully bubbling insideshould depart with the child in the afternoon. We believed that the full seriousness and profundity of life should be actively and experientially constructed in school, and anything that occured in school must necessarily be related to the inner emotional lives of the children in it. 

Every day at North Branch we asked essential questions: How could we deepen the experiences of the children, allow the powerful emotional and creative worlds in them to manifest in our classrooms, and so create a reality of encounter?How could the necessities of life”—as defined by children, whatever their age or developmental stage, become the center of learning? How could we go beyond merely teaching subjectsand teach children? How could we help the children find the true reality of their powers beyond simply mastering sets of skills and facts? How could we, the teachers, free ourselves to extend beyond mere professionalism to be ourselves and so authentically meet the children to create that experience of wholeness?

How, then, to transform school into a place of authenticity, of life and real conversation, where we found a reality of encounter?  How could we make school that is truly alive?

                                                                                   

Over time, in a virtual one-room schoolhouse, we discovered this: school can be alive and joyful every day, and what happens there is worthy of being told again and again because it is wondrous, moving, and instructive. Our school evolved into place of unbounded, unbridled creation, a place of academic rigor, high spirits, and infinite possibility. We got there by not having a plan, by not knowing, and by trusting the process we built together. Our school became a place where children wanted to be simply because we allowed them to live out, and out of, the full spirits living in them. The measure was not, nor should ever be, a test; we asked them to set the standards—for themselves, and for the school; who they wanted to be, and how they would get there.

The work done by teachers in our nations school system is unassailably noble. But in practice, most human contact between students and teachers is, even over many years, shallow, fleeting, impersonal. In so many schools students do not truly come to know or learn about each other because they rarely talk about or engage in the process of discovering who each of them truly is, beyond groupings based on superficial differences. Teachers driven by mandates to test or teach to prescribed standards do not have the time or inclination to enter into the manifold beauty and richness of their student’s full lives. Students spend great amounts of time together to learn about concepts and things, but not about the hopes and dreams of the classmates at the next table.

In American schools students are rarely asked to delve into the topic about which they have the most interest and know most intimatelythemselves. They are asked to write about great books, but they are discouraged from using a personal perspective. The lived experience, the lessons of life, are treated as alien or even disruptive to the subject at hand. Students are asked to write about Huck Finns journey, but their own miraculous journeys are somehow not considered valid subject matter. It transpires, incredibly, that preparation for SATs or learning how to locate the subjunctive clause is more important that an individual souls development.

The greatest need of any student is to be known and seen, to feel that her voice matters, that his  soul is recognized.  Yet school administrators and politicians who must prove their commitment to excellencebecome ensnared in the quest to quantify and measure student achievement, an aim often at odds with these most fundamental needs of children. Administrators are driven by standards and politics and scores and political judgment. The words failing schoolare in the lexicon, and schools, like students, are identified as failing,which is most insidious and negative. Value is determined by test scores, which may be an an important measure in some respects, but does not measure what students may need as growing humans. Tests certainly can not tell whether students and teachers are engaged in meaningful, inspiring relationships or whether a childs life has been changed for the better.

The current practice to achieve high standardsis driven by tests made at a remote distance from the children who are tested, by test-makers who have not set foot in a classroom, and by educators who have not asked the first essential question: who is this particular child before me, and what does he or she need?  Core-standards, because they must apply universally, can not take into account the infinite variety of the students who must master them.  The standards are not personal to the hearts of minds of the students. They are external, imposed from without. It follows then that the children are alienated, even insulted, sometimes enraged, when they find themselves filling in the ovals for days at a time in a silent room, answering questions that have been completely severed from human context and emotional meaning.

Meanwhile, a discussion with the children in school about what is most important to them occurs rarely, if at all.  No one asks them: how should we structure this community? What do you want to learn? What are the most fun and inspiring ways learn it?  Students enter school and are put on the pre-designed treadmill. These topics, these skills, these terms. This is what you will learn, at this pace, in this order. The system is fixed and at best students are given only token chances to participate, set the course, articulate the standards, and define aims. The children should be the mind, heart, and soul of the systemyet they are given the least power to shape it. We should not be a surprised if children appear only marginally invested in what happens in their schools.

There is another way to measure achievement: by the initiatives of the students themselves. I am not thinking of institutionalized groups like student government or volunteer activities in the school community. I am certainly not talking about standardized tests.

I am talking about a living schoolwhere the children feel the currents of life, where true conversation and community is createda school that is a living organism, where the richness of life is present and ever possible.

After all, shouldnt a school be wondrous and alive, a place of infinite possibility? If we are honest, thats the only standard worth aiming for.

Whenever someone asks about the governing “philosophy” of the North Branch School, I can only say, none. We follow what happens. We grow and learn from what appears. The lives of the students, the events we create in the school—these are the text. The collective and individual spirits of the students illumine and chart the path we follow. We stay open to those moments when the truth of  a child comes clear; when the evolution of a mind or heart is revealed in the living experience of school.

But how to create such schools? The answer is radically simple: First, keep it small. Break down and atomize the education monolith; get rid of the layers, the apparatus, the jargon, the consultants, committees, the initiatives, the isms, the technologies, the destructive obsession with standardization and uniformity, the dependence on labeling, the vast numbers of people who do not have authentic contact with childrenmaybe even get rid of the principals, the superintendents, and the school boards.  Reduce it to what a child can feelsomething slightly larger than a family but quite smaller than a systemchild-sized communities where human-to-human relationships are paramount— a few teachers, one building, and a few dozen kids which might become a laboratory for learning and life. In a smaller school, children feel important and they are important. Their actions make things happen. They can see and hear themselves. They can know each other truly and deeply, They see, to their delight, that they are the school. When they take ownership, the school comes alive with the spirit of children who are inspired, powerful, and excited.

Second: Make it personal.  Ask them how to make school real and relevant to them. Its a new year every year. How would you like to feel, and what do you want to know? Initiate real conversations about what matters and then listen, follow, and guide. Watch their faces and motions, laugh with them, sometimes cry with them, push and cajole, be crazy, be absurd, be flexible. Do not repress them. Let them be free, allow mistakes to happen. Believe in them, then give them the autonomy to change or make their school in their image: a place where they can freely feel and move. Let their work be sculpting their school into something as gloriously and uniquely imperfect as they are.

I promise they will rise to the challenge. Because shaping the environment is far more interesting than being passively shaped by it, and what children want and need most is to discover the reality of their powers to direct and create their own lives. All we have to do is ask the kids, and they will come alive in their schools, and they will take us further than we ever dreamed.

If they know that school is to be about them, if they know that the agenda is their lives and needs, they will give devotion to their work, compassion to their classmates, and respect and love to each other and their teachers. We only need to invite them into the room, a maneuver which does not require the planning or skills and educational degrees of a twenty-year veteran. Most certainly it does not require lesson plans or syllabi or phalanxes of administrators. It only requires faiththat in the crucible of the classroom the truth and beauty of the children will emerge. If they are invited to give their minds and hearts, they will give everything.