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.

 

 

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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.

The Play Goes On

One day back in the first year of the North Branch School, back in the Silurian period, I was sitting peacefully at the big room table—which then was three rickety folding plastic tables—when the entire student body, which numbered twelve, approached. Their expressions were serious. They did not speak. They thrust a sheet of paper in front of me.

We, the students of the North Branch School, hereby demand that we be allowed to write our own play. If you, Master Tal Birdsey, do not accede to our demands, you will be attacked by a pitch-fork wielding mob. 

 Love, the students of the North Branch School.

Every student had signed it. I could not deny this wish, which represented not only the students’ initiative, but also their deep dream and wish to play and create something together.

The following year we authored our first play. I was hesitant to do it, since I had had nothing but a terrible and terrifying theatrical career up until that moment. In seventh grade I had been unable to remember my lines in “L’il Abner,” and the director resorted to giving me my lines on a folder. Even worse, I had been unable to remember the lyrics to songs, so I hid in the back of the crowd scenes in my overalls and heartlessly mouthed “Jubilation T. Cornpone.” My only other acting moment occurred during graduate school, when I was tapped to act in a short Tennessee William scene for another student’s directing class simply because I had a southern accent. Even then I struggled to remember my lines, and most of what I remember is calling out “line” over and over in rehearsal. When I thought about theater it seemed to be an alien and threatening place where only bad things happened, like forgetting lines and cues, making a fool of myself, or knocking over some clattering metal thing in the dark of the backstage area and ruining the entire show. All of this from someone whose main subject of study in college was the plays of William Shakespeare.

I did, however, find my comfort zone working on tech crews. In eighth grade I skillfully helped manufacture a large papier-mache boulder for “Brigadoon,” and was given the opportunity to operate the fog machine so that we could create the illusion of remote Scottish highlands in a hot and steamy basketball gym in Atlanta. Later, in graduate school, I worked on a professional crew at Breadloaf. The actors were magnificent. The sets were ornate and complex. Being enclosed in the theater in rehearsals, among an audience consisting only of sound and lighting techs, costume designers, and a couple of carpenters, gave me the sense of being on the inside of a magical, living being. To listen to King Lear thundering at the gods shook and moved me.

This was the extent of my theater experience when we embarked on our first North Branch school-wide production. My challenge was to have every student participate in the writing; every student would be in the play, and every student would participate in costuming, sets, and props. These guidelines followed the fundamental principle of the school’s pedagogical belief: every student did everything. Because the school was small it did not have to balkanize itself into the “theater kids” or the “sports kids” or the “math nerds.” We were all writers and poets, all math nerds, all scientists or saunterers in the woods; all of us hiked together, skied together, built sculptures together, talked about our feelings together, negotiated conflict together. The school, in all its various forms, was indeed a school, as in fish—one body made by many, all of us moving together with each other and for each other. So it would be with our play.

Because I was trepidatious, and because there were others who knew more about theater than I, we brought in the experts. Deborah Lubar helped the kids write monologues, as a way to infuse characters with personal meaning and real emotion. Kendra Gratton, who’d put on plays with kids before, could play the guitar, and helped direct and do blocking, a topic of unimaginable complexity and limited solutions (as far as I could see when you were working with bumbling middle schoolers). We also managed to link our three half-working computers so that we could write on various scenes and then put all the pieces together (the presence of these hand-me down computers was over my grudging acceptance and the vociferous ire of some in the school community. While the rest of the world was accelerating into the digital age and the dot.com bubble, we still used phone-trees, and I still mailed home weekly announcements to parents in paper envelopes. We did not have a web-site, nor did we understand how a website might function or what exactly it might do).

We spent two months cobbling together our first play. All year we had been asking questions, of all kinds. We had studied religion. And I had spoken to the kids of Dante’s nine circles of hell, often reminding them that they, or we, were in one of the circles at any given time. Whenever one of them was in a low place, we tried to determine what exact adolescent circle they currently resided in, and then we discussed how they might climb out, at which point I would call out my favorite quote from Paradise Lost: “Long is the way, and Hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” Then I would assure them that their teenage suffering would not be forever, that this too would pass.

Our play was called: “The Quest: A Journey Into the Realm of Questions and Answers.” It concerned two travellers, Yorick and Hamlet, who were journeying into the human soul, visiting various locations where they observed a variety of humans at each stage of life, from birth to old age. Along the way they visited, among other places, a pre-school, the rooms of teenagers, a murder scene, and an old folks home called “Green Pastures.” Rehearsals were chaotic and cumbersome, since we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, and because we had nothing like a stage to rehearse on. The kids were wildly excited, overflowing with energy and worry. Cooper Sanford was so terrified of acting that in rehearsal one day he broke down crying and so we had to give a part that had no words. We shouted, laughed, and came up with solutions. We made terrible stage signs painted on taped-up cardboard. There was no back-drop for the stage—justy a shiny, white wall. Our lighting consisted of six chicken brooding lamps clamped to metal chairs at the foot of the stage. I controlled the light simple by plugging and unplugging an extension cord. Our acting was shaky, our voices muted, the plot line rickety

At the time, we thought we had made the greatest theatrical work in the history of middle schools. It tuned out the play had six short scenes, which amounted to a little under 55 minutes of time on stage.The play ended with all the students surrounding the audience in a circle. The actors, now merging back into their real selves, fired off round after round of soul-questions, questions of each other, themselves, and of the world. The parents, kids, and other audience members found themselves enwrapped in our web of thought and feeling, as best as we could represent it.

Over the years we evolved in our ability to write a play, and much of that was derived from our discovery that the comedy and shenanigans of each particular school year could form the cornerstone and creative energy of the play. For our second play the ideas came directly from the school-day playfulness of the students. That year the kids spent several days in the fall dressing up and play acting every day at lunch. Sophie Allen and Annabelle Maroney dressed up every day as high-fashion British spies, and spent lunch-times interrogating their classmates about their high-heel shoe preferences. The following day, they were confronted by a posse of boys dressed up in heavy overcoats and fur hats who spoke in horribly cliched Russian accents, and who challenged  the British spies for superiority in the Ripton woods. Far more important than shoes, they announced, was the perfect mine, they claimed, where they planned to extract minerals to run their communist collective. The following day, a number of other boys appeared in dark suits and carrying toy machine guns. They claimed they were seeking the perfect hole, which would provide the perfect place to deposit a perfectly dead body. Their leader?  Cooper Sanford, who called himself what would be his stage name come spring— Papa Salami.

From these three days, we had the beginnings of a very funny play. Our task was then simply to figure out a plot, and weave some meaning into the story.

Over time we began to incorporate inside jokes, facts, ideas, current events, and topics we studied. It was a kind of adolescent soul-stew, a pastiche of SNL, iCarly, Monty Python, and us. Our plays included gods, heaven, hell, and other far-fetched locales. The search for freedom, revolution, and utopia permeated the narratives. We had devilish characters named Beezle and Bub, who ran a casino called the Royal Flush, the plumbing of which was backed up, and which was being patronized by three marginally noble knights  knights who had come to Vegas to celebrate after finding the holy grail (which they’d promptly lost at the Vegas airport). Another scenario included a boxing match featuring the four prophets of a retiring god, and the match was called by Howard Cosell, resurrected from the grave, looking over the proceedings in his yellow sports coat. We had a female Jesus, accompanied by her male side-kick, who, with his long hair, beard, sandals and sexist beliefs, felt he should be promoted to Head Jesus.

Another year featured a coffee shop called the “Big Talk Cafe,” which had been established as a refuge from small talk. One play took place in a combined Guns and Donut Shoppe, called “Nuts ‘n Guns.” Police sporting huge donut-guts paraded around seeking the criminals who had ransacked an artist’s studio and smashed all her sculptures. This play idea had originated from a real-life news story that occured that year: a bunch of local teens had broken into the Homer Noble Farm house, where Robert Frost lived during the summers, and had held a huge party. They’d left beer cans, vomited in the corners, and burned furniture in the fireplace. Amazingly, they did not burn down the house, but in a local paper an editorial noted that while no one knew who  had done it, the North Branch School was just down the road. From that we had a play.

Plays were set in real and imaginary places, Watersmeet, Missouri; Twainsboro, Arkansas, Ripton, Vermont, the WNBS News Station, a jail, a boot camp for the love-sick. In the therapy session with God, whose retirement was imminent, his psychotherapist counseled him on how to hand over his powers, in King Lear fashion, to his four children, while his attendants, Peaches and Cream, brought him bottles of San Pellegrino.

The scenarios were fantastically imaginative and joyfully idiotic. One year the play was set on a tropical volcanic island after a ship had crashed on a nearby reef. The survivors were two families, each headed by moronic former fraternity presidents. When the island’s volcano begins to erupt, their solution is to have a grilling competition. Another play was set in the underworld, in Purgatory, where a band of mortal fools wandered about looking for a Golden Ducklet. Another play was set In Jeff’s Celestial Comedy Cellar, where the head comedians were the Devil and God, and where the devil began the play with the intention to read the entirety of Moby Dick to the audience. We included talent shows within the play, spoofs of crappy musicals, and set pieces featuring the actual musical talents of the kids.

Another play was set in a sand-box on a playground in a town divided by a wall, with females on one side, males on the other. It was clear that current events and politics were being placed center stage. In 2016, the play was set at the gates of Heaven, following the funeral of a man named Ronald Hump. That play had begun in the pitch dark, with a hooded priestess standing over a coffin, reading lugubrious last rites as the entire cast stood by, heads down, holding tea lights. That year, due to the fact Ronald Hump and his fellow deceased did not possess the credentials to be allowed into heaven, Hump and his followers decided to hold an election to see who would be the President of the New Heaven. Needless to say, Ronald Hump did not win. One play was set in the most horrible high school in history, Crapperstown High, home of the Dung Beetles, and the Gods were mercifully watching over it. In another play, Anna Akhmatova visited an English class and awakened the slumbering souls there. Once, Eric, the science teacher, made a cameo as Gandhi. In the middle of a different play, Rowan tossed a football to the crowd, which I had to catch and then dash off to operate the lights, which we had upgraded to a small light board and four spots. Another year, we put on three false endings, one of which was me stopping the play, walking out into the middle of the audience, feigning fury and frustration at the cast for their terribly corny and insipid ending. “That’s the most embarrassing and horrible play ending that’s ever been on stage. Total crap! Come up with something acceptable, and play it again!”

In every case the play was filled with music, poetry, real writing from the school year, scenes from stories, and the actual, lived drama of the adolescent actors. Into their plays they poured themselves. And it was play, and they were players playing together, and from that a great, rambling communal joy was made. I became better at directing them and marshalling their excitement, anxieties, and high intentions. Every year I was certain we had authored the most horrible, insufferably long play in history, and every year it all came together. Donna became a properties master, and Rose became a master set designer who occasionally offered up tidbits that might help the play along.

Some number of years ago we were struggling to find an ending to the play. The opening scene had been set at the Walt Whitman Memorial Poetry Reading, where each of the poets was repeatedly interrupted by crass advertisers and a variety of rude and self-centered buffoons. But we could not find a suitable way to bookend the play without being overly hokey. Previously, Rose had read lines from Whitman one morning in meeting, and suddenly, we had our ending— words which were not ours, but Whitman’s, by way of the math teacher, out of the mouth of Bryn Martin, who spoke for all of them: 

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

                                                             Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Over time the play became central to the school’s identity, and central in the narrative of each school year. The play became intertwined in the school, and we became intertwined with the play, with each student, every year, contributing a verse.

A Good School

I have ideas about what a good school is, ideas which should apply to any school, from pre-K to college. Kids should be happy there most of the time. Happy times should be intermixed with measured amounts of tears, doubt, confusion, turmoil, tension, and mystery. A visitor, upon entering the school, should be able to hear shouts, laughter, singing, and conversation. There should be few or no phones. There may be computers, but there should also be  hammers, saws, brooms, cleaning supplies, pencils, measuring devices, knives, tape and other building materials readily accessible. Computers should be no more or less or important in the school than a dustpan or duct-tape. People should be moving about, inside and outside. There should be messes of a wide variety—paint, cut papers, crumbs, clay, paste, dirty dishes, machine parts and electronics. The tools of work—paper, marking instruments, glue, containers, hand-outs—should be visible. At the end of a day or a class, there should be evidence of what happened: scissors, glue, scraps of paper, smells of materials, open books. Moreover, at the end of class, more than a few students should be mentally or emotionally agitated to the degree that they need to talk about what happened the next day.  There should be many things on the wall–art, posters, memorabilia, postcards, photos, printed words. There should be projects or art hanging from the ceiling, on the floor, in hidden corners, works that both the teachers and the students have arrayed there. The objects hanging or displayed should be the work of the students as well as representations of the work of the other thinkers or artists the students study.  The whiteboard or chalk board should filled with lists of things happening, to do, or wild, scrawled utterances of a certain moment and circumstance that may be a mystery to others in the school.

There should be evidence of daily living— food, eating, cooking, and clothes. Students’ own belongings should be mixed in with the school’s detritus. This indicates a merger of the lives of the children from outside of school with the matters of life inside the school. At any moment there should be a great number of things going on and a wide variety of activity–from the pointless and child-like, to profound, mind-bending, or poetical-metaphysical. In classrooms there should be laughter intermixed with searching and serious work.  There should be a base standard of excellence with which everyone is familiar, and which is defined each year by the given class of students, towards which everyone is actively working. Each student should feel his or her importance in the school, and should be able to speak articulately and excitedly about what happens there each day. Each student should feel a sense of attachment, belonging, and responsibility to the school. Each student should feel like he or she is seen and known by the teachers, and each student should be engaged in an ongoing conversation with his or her teachers that focuses both on the personal and extra-curricular life of the student as well as on the discrete academic projects or skills the student trying to master or complete. In a good school teachers will make a conscious personal connection or conversation with every student every day.

The students should learn something new each day. They should be able to look back on their time in the school, over months or years, and be able to see how they grew, changed, expanded. Mistakes should be an everyday part of the learning, and there should be no shame in mistakes, but a willingness to look at them, think about them, and learn from them. Problems in the school should be everyone’s problem, and those problems or issues will be dealt with with all of the students together, openly, with everyone having a chance to speak. The school should be small enough, or be able to be broken down into small enough groups, so that normal conversations can be held in class, like a large family around a dinner table. There should be argument, debate, disagreement, and friction, as these lead to the development of new ideas and understanding. Assent and agreement should also be sought, and when assent is attained, the moment must be captured and slowed down so it can be felt and remembered. The students will know what that assent means, why it is important, and how it came to be. There should be hundreds of questions asked every day, by both students and teachers. Breakthroughs—emotional, intellectual, artistic, personal, psychological—should be celebrated vigorously and discussed broadly and at length. A large part of the thinking and discussing should be about thinking and thought. All the feelings that one encounters in life will also be present and felt in the school. No feeling or idea should be alien. And the feelings of the students, the emotional and developmental undercurrents that course through them or sweep them along, will be central to the collective pedagogy. The subject will not only be subjects, but the children themselves.

There should be a history of the class that the class knows and is actively involved in making. When things go badly, that must also become part of the learning, and so become part of the school’s history.  The students should feel that they are part of making history, making thoughts and creations that have never before been made. A visitor to the school should feel they have entered a different country, where there are customs and traditions which, while strange or incomprehensible, seem to leave the participants in them in state of joy and excitement. The visitor should be able to feel the particular energy and affections between the students, and wonder how it came to be.

There should be a “head,”an organizing leader or spirit-guide, that undergirds the whole enterprise, and this head must participate in every aspect of the school, do the projects, experience all the feelings of the students, practice the same disciplines, suffer the same hardships, learn along side of the students. The leader and teachers must also be as vulnerable as the students, work as hard as they ask the students to work, and be willing to be openly self-critical. The teachers will both love and be intolerant of the students–love them for what they are and are becoming, intolerant for when they come up short or don’t exert their powers as they can. The students and teachers will feel safe in bringing in aspects and truths of their lives from outside of the school into it, so that life and learning are seamless. The teachers will be humans in the process of learning and growing as well, not mere technicians or facilitators of a discrete and confined subject.

At the end of a day, the students should feel a little reluctant to leave, and they should feel a little excited to come back the next day. And at the end of it all, the students should feel that they are part of the school, that their school was vital; that they gave themselves to it; that they swam with a school of other beautiful fishes, that they were an important dog in the pack, big or little, that the herd needed them and knew, appreciated, and loved them for the contributions and the person they were in the school.

If you walk into a school and sense that all the above-listed items are happening and true, you have walked into a good school.

Last week Henry Black brought his gas-powered remote control car to school and Henry Swan explained to Isa how the throttle works. Will made a pasta car that looked like a rhinoceros and which he named “The Pablo Escobar Cocaine Cowboy Mobile,” because, he explained, he’s been watching documentaries about organized crime. In the process of making pasta cars students burned their fingers and while making stained glass they cut their fingers and while grouting their tiles they roughened their fingers.The students climbed around in the woods and deep snow and came back into class with clots of ice in their hair and left puddles of water by the door. Everywhere there were bits of broken spaghetti and bow-tie pasta and glue guns plugged into the walls. Vivian took her Pasta mobile down from the shelf and held it up and said, “This car is going to win,” and then, as she spoke, the entire front axle and wheels fell off and broke on the floor. We all laughed and shouted, “instant karma!” and then later Vivian came to me to proudly show me how expertly she had repaired her car. Lena and Syd, along with two eighth graders and two seventh graders, made a pregnant snow-man-woman. Apparently, Lena cared very much about making sure this pregnant snow-man-woman had properly formed body parts of all kinds.

All of us were moved by Henry Swan’s character sketch of Isa, as he tried to understand this feeling of love and crushes and coming into the world of being a social animal. The class took care of Henry Black’s dog, Hazel, laughed when she whined in lit class while we were discussing freedom of expression in 1984, and marveled at Hazel’s back flips when they tossed her snow-balls in the field.. Up in the woods Ethan pretended to be a Vermont logger. Henry Swan was drilling a hole in a leaf-spring down in the basement, which made an infernal noise until he got a proper drill-bit. Henry was converting the leaf-spring into a meat cleaver, an idea he somehow conjured up after talking to Celeste, whose dad makes knives. Tal, Rose, Phoebe and Iris watched from the science room windows as the couples and pairs of friends went hand-in-hand into the woods across the snowy field; and then saw Henry Swan emerge from the woods in his Russian military overcoat, and then collapse face-first on the frozen field, like he had spent himself to the last during the Battle of Stalingrad.

We all waited while Lena sang the Hebrew prayers over the menorah each morning of Hanukkah, and laughed a little when the matches snapped off and the cheap candles kept going out, and we listened to the sweetness or her singing the three-thousand year-old prayers. Phoebe told Syd that she was good at art and that made Syd feel good, and later Syd said she “felt oddly but extremely happy for no good reason.”  We all came up with our own trees of life, trees that no one had ever seen before in the history of the world until we drew them at 2:45 on a Thursday afternoon. Syd learned that Phoebe loves her, and that she (Syd) can’t always protect people and that sometimes “you just have to step down and leave them to figure it out for themselves.” We talked about helping. We have to help those who are doing the things that everyone should be doing. Henry Black said: “The mysterious things I experienced? Math, drawing rocks, watching Swan draw tree-roots, learning and thinking about crushes.” Someone else asked: “Why did I draw my tree the way I did?”

Phoebe watched Isa and Henry hug and remembered it.  Phoebe learned from every science project and tried to be looser around people and love them. There was mystery and excitement, she wrote, to see each Tree of Life that each classmate drew, and she realized that if you set yourself on a path, and it’s good one, try to stay on it.

Someone noticed that Creed got up to get Ethan water when Ethan’s voice was getting dry during his project on Buddhism. Ethan told us about the eight-fold path and the four Jewels. Ethan told us that we could all be Buddhas, that we had it in us to take the teachings and make them our own. Iris worked making a pastamobile that’s a Christmas Tree delivery truck with little Christmas trees and lights, but she misspelled the word “Chrismas” (sic). Vivian was happy and joyful when Iris came into the school calling her name and telling her to come out into the snowy woods, and she loved that Henry Black drew a teetering pile of rocks for his tree, while she carefully drew her own, an ornate rose plant emerging from an open hand.  And meanwhile, she was thinking about why we live, how time passes and how we continue on. “What’s our purpose? Do some people live their whole lives never speaking up and die without making a mark? Did their life matter then, make a difference, was it a life worth anything?” Then Vivian said that in a a conference, after hearing his beautiful sketch, she learned that Henry Swan is trying to become a better person and that to do that he needs to not be protected, and he doesn’t want to be protected. “He’s figuring himself out, so am I. But he has a better idea. And that older siblings have a lot of control over their younger siblings, and they can move them to be better people.” 

Nate and Joe were talking about man-boobs, which made some people laugh.  Vivian and Wagner and Geeta built a tunnel in the snow. And when everyone went to make Quinzees, everyone already knew how to do it. Geeta asked Rose to help her pull her glove over her coat-sleeve. “I know I’m being like a five-year old, but I hate snow in my sleeve,” said Geeta. Wags gave a piggy-back ride to Celeste and found out how light she is. Wags was struck by how in a dystopia like the one in 1984, people would be “heroes” for being spies against their own people, designing grenades to kill the most people, and blindly following a leader.  Will kept up with his “what if” questions, like, “What if I was attacked by ten bears but was wearing a mummy suit?” and Oscar answered the questions seriously. The three big mounds of snow in the field were evidence of a group of people who built a thing together. According to Lena, Elise wielded sarcasm deftly and sharply, responding to Lena’s incessant bragging about how good the ninth grade quinzhees were by saying, incisively and deadpan, “Good for you.”

Someone realized that everyone has to find a way to excel. We talked about how we may not understand everything perfectly, but we have to find a way to do what we each can do in way that is excellent. Una showed Creed and Phoebe her way of drawing, and she liked sharing that. Then, by random chance, she found a book on the shelf about anarchy by Emma Goldman. “I can’t wait to read it!” she said.  And she found excitement and pleasure in being able to make references and talking about “the Wall’ with her friend Isa—finding points of commonality and something to share.Henry Swan remembered to ask me if I had listened to “There is No Sun” by Sun Ra, and when I said I had not yet, he remembered to send it to me again.

Tal told Joe that in school activities he, Joe, sometimes does less than others, and that while others were pushing wheelbarrows of snow, he was throwing snow-balls at the snow mound. Joe responded. “I need to pick it up. Not everything is perfect. Life can’t be your fantasy.” When we talked about how to be a great older sibling, Isa said she realized she had power to help her sister ease into the world, and Maddy learned more about how she can be a better big sister. Then Maddy wrote Phoebe a long list of real compliments and told Phoebe that Phoebe is a good friend. Sasha carried his “101 Greatest Science Fiction Movies Ever” book around. Sam felt pride when he made great pasta-mobile wheels, and worked in the basement shop with Tal, Oscar, Will, and Iris. We discussed Net Neutrality. Some of us wanted to make Molotov cock-tails in response. Ben and Henry Black and Oscar knew a lot about it. Declan finished his car and used a better wheel and axle arrangement (and plans to use powdered graphite for a lubricant), than Tal, who bragged a lot but then accidentally destroyed his car at the very moment when it was almost complete.

We learned that Leonardo knew things no one else knew. Geeta made a poster about Leonardo that set the standard and included the quote from Leonardo’s notebooks, “Life without love, is no life at all.”  Some of the things we came to know: that Star Wars can have spiritual meaning.  That every person can never be fully known. Wondering what does it take to change somebody? And asking, “Why do we find that we ourselves give up our voices; Or, why would humans want to let go of their voices, give them up?” as seems to be the case in 1984. Someone else realized that everyone has hidden parts of them, an inner shyness, no matter how extroverted.  And realizing that seeing the good AND bad of a person or thing is okay—it is wrong to see a thing in only one light—everything has multiple facets and it is better to know this. Someone else learned that everyone, it seems, has to belittle others in order to make themselves look better.

Swan said in meeting that he was sick on Thursday night, and in the old days he’d be like, “Please, I’m sick, don’t make me go to school.” But this time he convinced his mom that he HAD to go school, because he WANTED to go to school. Ben told about a lady on the bus who told him about how she had gone to a small school like ours and she told him to treasure it and take care of it. Tal said that it was hard to make a school like ours, and a lot of time they don’t survive. It’s hard to make them live, even harder to make them soar. Celeste said our school was soaring, and then she proclaimed, “Hallelujah!”

Cultivating Work-Lust

Half the time I’m telling them what to do, how to live, the right way to do a thing. This is how you re-read your words to edit them. Keep a list of your dreams. Make a picture of the idea. Fill in the white space in your mandala. Ask the question again. Read the passage out loud. Fill in the blank spaces in your mosaic. Add a detail to the detail. Don’t stop until you know what you want to write next.

I try to be a voice strong and insistent enough to get inside them. He said to do this. The solution here is to see it from above, float over it, get some distance. 

Other times I let them lead, as on last Monday, when Joe proposed that we mimic part of the last pages of Siddhartha. There, Siddhartha’s follower Govinda asks Siddhartha to tell him what’s he’s learned in life, what secrets or doctrines he can pass on before their final parting. Siddhartha responds by picking up a small pebble, and launches into a monologue about the wisdom he has accrued.

Joe’s idea was that at the beginning of class we would all go outside in silence and pick up our own rock, meditate with it, then bring in into class for discussion. I said, “Great idea.”

We read the pebble passage in class and then they headed out the door. While the were outside in the woods looking for their meditating rocks, I went to the office to discuss other matters. When I returned to the classroom, they were all back around the table, each of them with a stone or pebble, or in the case of Celeste, a breadloaf-sized rock, and they were in the middle of conducting their own conversation without me.

When this happens I know they they care about their learning and what happens here. I know they are making the school something of their own, with their hand prints on it.

I want them to learn to care. For their school work.  For the school. For their families. And for each other. I want them to begin to carry the small burden of anxiety that comes from being old enough to care about things around and beyond them. I think of it as a small voice inside of them that speaks just above a whisper, “Remember and hold everything as precious. You have to make it become something more.”

I sometimes show them the corner of a prominent bookshelf in my classroom. The top of the shelf could have been joined with a simple butt-joint. But the edges of the shelf would not have aligned, and over time they would have separated. The shelf would still hold books, but it would be neither beautiful nor properly joined.

Instead, however, the shelf-top is made with two different kinds of wood and is flawlessly mitered, with a wooden spline of a different color wood joining the corner, so that the spline is visible, gleaming brightly with shellac.

“Someone took the time to do this right,” I tell them, pointing “The carpenter took pride and time in what he was doing. The skill and the care is visible, right here. It could have been done crappily and fast and without thought, but it wasn’t.”

On Monday morning all the 8th and 9th graders had mandalas they’d drawn as a final assignment for finishing Siddhartha. They were to have chosen a quote from the book, words that conveyed their strongest feeling about the book, and place the quote at the center of their design.

I asked them them if they were happy and proud with what they’d made. Isa had hers sitting on top of her books.

“How do you feel about how it came out?” I asked.

“Pretty good, but I ran out of time. I loved doing it. I worked on it from 8-2 on Sunday. I wanted to put more color up in these corners.”

“Lena, are you happy with yours?”  Hers was buried under her books, computer, and laying face down.

“Not really. “

“Why not?”

“Because when I came in I thought mine wasn’t good.”

“Why?”

“Because I looked at other people’s.”

What she’d brought in was not accompanied by knowing pride. Instead, she measured it against what others had done. But what was her standard, independent of the world, that she could use to set her direction and measure progress towards her goal.

“If you have your own standard, and you met it, you’ll be satisfied,” I said. “If you have a standard and you didn’t meet it, you can be disappointed. But if your only standard is what others do, you’re kind of flying blind. You have to know what your vision is and how to get there, and eventually that has to be independent of what others do.

 She stared at me, nodding faintly. 

“You are no one but yourself, and you have to learn how to be satisfied with yourself or not, to know on your own terms, by your own lights what is good, great, poor, your own constantly pushed-against limits.  Find your own limit, and move yourself there. Don’t look at others and then judge yourself.”

The day a student comes in excited about what her or she has made, wanting to show it to the world—that is when I know they are teaching themselves, directing their own lives, going deeply into their work, becoming forgetful of judgment, all the while being disciplined and self-aware. Once that happens, students become self-propelled. Learning, knowledge, even wisdom, can be self-generated.

“If you’ve made it to that place, where you almost don’t want to give it in to me, when it feels precious to you, or you want to take it home and put it on your wall, then you will know that you are really doing it.”

We ask them to begin to learn how to care, at this threshold between childhood and adulthood. Start caring now, just as Goknur, Paul’s family’s international student from Turkey, implied we must when she came to speak to us on Thursday. She told us that the age when girls decide to wear the hijab occurs at puberty. To be adult is to decide how one is going to live, to make decisive steps towards self-representation and responsibility. In Goknur’s case, she chose to become an adherent to her religious and cultural tradition.

So it is that we ask the students here to become adherents. For us, that means having a consciousness about what it is we are trying to do, and committing oneself to the trying. We do this by challenging them to think about their work, and what it means, or could mean. What it says about their commitment and willingness to extend their own boundaries. We do this by asking them directly: What do you care about? What is important to you? And we do this by asking them to care about little things, like the corner of a shelf, or the edges of a drawing, or having the just-right title for their story. When they care about little things, they will care about big things.

 It was like the other day, when Will decided that, even though circles are difficult to cut in stained-glass, he was going cut a circle because his idea for his stained-glass demanded it. His image was a mandala of a flower, and the center, a one-inch diameter ruby disk, had to be just right. When he came up from the basement, he’d cut his fingers six times.

“Tal, I did it.”

“What, cut your fingers?” I asked.

“No, I cut a circle. Come down and see it.”

In the clay room he showed me the small glass disk —no bigger than a quarter, but something he cares about, something he bled for.

This kind of caring, this attention to completion and integrity, showed up in Paul’s character sketch of his dad, which was nine-and-half pages. In it he uncovered an old memory that expressed deep care for his past, stories, dreams, and his connection to his father.

My dad tells us that when he was little, his dad used to read to him a book called The Wonder Clock. It is a book of stories written in Old English, usually about a poor, clever lad who won a princess for a wife by tricking the king. My dad loved to read us these stories, and the voices he used always went right along with how the story felt.. I remember that every night, my dad would read a story from The Wonder Clock to us, and we would look forward to it, and together we would find the chapter we wanted to hear, and hand the book to my dad, pointing to the page where it began. As he read, we would lie on our backs, looking at the ceiling, and imagining the textured white tiles were a landscape in which the story was taking place. The story would be food for our dreams, happy dreams about what I would do if I met a wise old crane by the riverside.

Hearing his words made us care about Paul, the small child nestled up next to his dad on a sofa. It made us care about an old book, and about his father, about reading at night with parents, and even about old cranes by the riverside. He made us see that childhood is a sparkling, multi-faceted jewel. Or, he simply took enough care to see his own life in such a way.

I think of lines by Seamus Heaney, who wrote a great sequence of poems called “Station Island” in which he imagines the ghost-voice of James Joyce speaking to him and giving him advice on how to write and carry himself. 

       What you must do must be done on your own

       So get back in your harness. The main thing is to write
       For the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
       That imagines its haven like your hands at night

      Dreaming the sun in the sunspot of abreast.
      You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
      Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

      Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
      Let go, let fly, forget.
      You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

This place of doing that Heaney describes is exhilarating. Athletes call it “being in the zone.” Musicians call it being in the “groove.” There is work to be done, certainly, the harness, the work-lust, and a certain amount of danger. But the thing we are looking for is that wild energy, the willingness to throw one’s self into it, to abandon notions of safety and predictability. Then they are no longer listening to me or anyone else. Then they are authoring lives of their own.

Out Beyond Wrongdoing and Rightdoing

We have been reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. The story does not have much conventional drama—no cliff-hangers, violence, vampires, or orcs. However it does contain the drama of how human beings evolve from one state to the next.

It is this drama that we teachers live for, those moments where a child grows before our eyes. I am not talking about the proverbial “a-ha moment,” though that happens and it is good. I don’t simply mean those moments when, as exciting as they are, when suddenly students understand that breakfast means “to break the fast,” or see the symbolism behind the snake in “Don’t Tread on Me,” or comprehend why water expands, or are able finally, mercifully, to balance an equation.

We are talking about something much deeper, more far-reaching. We are talking about the moments when the vision of reality changes. When a student conceives of and asks a question and new vistas open up. We are talking about moments when a twelve-to-fourteen year-olds find transcendence, or are disabused of their illusions, or find a way to direct their lives in accordance with their ideals, or have their hearts broken and then mended.

Siddhartha stands for all of us who must shed our skins and become new again. He is all of us who go deeply into a new path or identity or relationship, only to find limits or stagnation. He is all of us who, having found that ostensible wall, seek further and believe there is another beyond, an ultimate reality still to be discovered. He stands for the part of us that lives beyond all “laws and preaching,” as Whitman writes, where the greater something awaits.

And as we see old orders of decorum and unity disintegrate around us, we may discover that we need to create our own structures, our own sacred realms, independent of what common culture offers. Rumi has some well-known verses (translated by Coleman Barks), about the human need to find such sacred realms.

              Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
              there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

              When the soul lies down in that grass,
              the world is too full to talk about.
              Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
              doesn’t make any sense

I find that most of what I read about beyond the woods of the North Branch School lately does not make any sense. When I look off  the mountain I see currents of anger, division, and rage. I hear strident voices shouting about wrongdoing and rightdoing. So much of what passes for government, leadership, cultural norms, or policy seems to be tainted by money, self-interest, and corruption. So I turn to the sense that my students make. If I can bend my ear just right, I hear them speaking words that the world should hear. They can be a river that offers secrets. I hear them talking about purity, selflessness, and love. I see them becoming forms worthy of being memorialized in stone or bronze.

When we were in Boston, we walked past Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ relief sculpture of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment to see action for the Union in the Civil War. Originally, though, Shaw had been unsure about leading such a regiment, dubious about their fighting capability. Over time, however, he came to love his men. When his men boycotted their pay, which was less than white soldiers, he boycotted with them and refused his own pay. In battle would not allow his soldiers to violate the rules of war, even when ordered to do so by higher-ranking officers. He treated his men with dignity, though they were considered an “unlawful” unit by the enemy, and sometimes as such even by fellow soldiers. He insisted on decorum, high standards, even treatment.  He lead them fearlessly. He learned to see his men as men. After Shaw was killed with his unit in a failed assault on Fort Wagner, the Confederate army refused to turn over his body and ordered it stripped, robbed, and dumped into an unmarked trench with the regulars as a show of contempt for his having lead black soldiers. In a letter to the regimental surgeon, Lincoln Stone, his father, Frank Shaw, wrote:

         We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his
         brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in
         which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better
         company – what a body-guard he has!    

Shaw was a man worthy of being memorialized in bronze. His heart, his actions, his willingness to find a cause and sacrifice for it made it so.  He lived on that high plane of the gods, where he gave himself over to something quite larger than himself—in this case a belief in the equality of all human beings. To get to that high plane he had to reflect, think, suffer, change course, and make decisions about how to conduct his life. He lived through his own reincarnations—from birth, to child of privilege, to student, to dutiful soldier, to leader, to martyr.

In this sense he lived as Siddhartha did, steadily evolving from the relatively contained generic place of high-born advantage to the timeless, boundless realm of the noble and heroic. And so while reading Siddhartha, I have thought of my students in such a light, relishing the moments when they have seemed to be moving from one incarnation to another, when they break from limits to limitlessness, from tentative stoicism to impassioned speech, from cold, stone-heartedness to empathic lovers of the world and each other.

In order to understand Siddhartha, we tried to live like him. We spent a week purposely living in a state of self-denial and deprivation. Each student elected to eschew some comfort or luxury. At home they slept on their floors, took cold showers, ate cold food, slept with no pillow. They wore the same set of clothes all week; chose to forgo washing hair, using make-up, or ornamenting themselves; wore logo-less clothes, or taped over clothing brand-names which, they discovered, labeled them from head to toe. They made their families turn off the lights and use candles. They tried going meatless or vegan. They  used only pencils, scrawled their school work on birch bark, left their computers at home, skipped all forms of social media. At school we unplugged the printer, microwave, and the lights. In the morning and afternoon we held mediation walks in the labyrinth, and several of the students walked barefoot on the cold, wet ground; one of them wore her “Samana sandals” she’d fashioned out of cardboard. We meditated in a dark room with a single candle until, by staring, the room went black and the only radiance emanated from that tiny, flickering flame.

By these means over five days we tried to coerce inner evolution. By choosing to endure these self-imposed rules, some of them uncomfortable, and by altering ingrained habits, we tried to change our consciousness. It wasn’t heroic by any means, and certainly we did not ascend to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “high plane of dignity and discipline,” or “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”  But we did, however, move ourselves together to a new understanding of what we are, and what our minds and bodies are capable of, not just in the internal, mental landscape, but in physical, three-dimensional being. Our learning, for those few days, dwelled at the point where physical bodies and senses intersected with the the potential forms of growing souls.

Robert Hayden’s great sonnet “Frederick Douglass” speaks about the need for idea to become action, the way the virtues memorialized in stone can be given flesh and life by the way we conduct our lives.

      When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
      and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
      usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
      when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
      reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
      than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
      this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
      beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
      where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
      this man, superb in love and logic, this man
      shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
      not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
      but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
      fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing. 
 

Yes, we are striving to be sculpturally and three-dimensionally significant. And I devoutly hope that that my students learn how to live lives that one day will be remembered. But first they must learn to see, and see each other, and then, at last, see themselves. To that end the kids write about their lives and each other constantly. They bring each other to life and into the room by means of character sketches, the primary aim of which is to penetrate to the invisible place beneath the physical surface. What lives under the face, the hair, the clothes, the easy smile, the annoying behavior. What powers are expressed in a single gesture, in the casual comment, in the way one leans over one’s drawing?  What great truths emerge from a close consideration of a person’s small actions over time? How is this friend, mother, sibling, or teacher a beautiful, needful, breathing figure of value? With all their expanding powers of observation and expression, their goal is simple: to the show cosmically significant truth of one another. To do it they must use the two great tools of the artist: logic, in order to show concrete reality; and love, to make it come alive.

Isa was writing her sketch on Henry Swan, a boy she has only known for three months. When she sent him what she had written, he was launched into a state of ecstatic, electrified awareness. He wrote me one night, clearly shaken. “It’s so good it’s not even funny. it made me laugh and cry and laugh again. this is some seriously holy business.”

By her artistic hand Isa had opened him up so he could see himself. She made a word picture of him that put him into the world in a way he’d never felt. Holy business! I wonder how many school principals or superintendents have ever called what happens in school a “holy business.”

So often the business of the world seems unholy. We exist mostly in the mundane, and often in the profane–obsessed as we are with menial or meaningless tasks and desires, piddling around with unworthy interests, selling little bits of our souls to the first bidder, investing in empty gestures and unneeded objects. But then there are those times when we do ascend, little moments that add up. Like when Maddy writes about Lena, because she wants Lena to be seen, and wants to know what is behind Lena’s tears and her laughter. When Lena volunteers to sing, a capella and in front of all her peers, “The Tree of Life” for Sydney’s project, even though she is not fully confident in how the melody  should sound. Or when Ben tells the class that he doesn’t like people making fun of him when allows a goal at lunch on the field, because, dammit, he volunteered to be our goalkeeper, and he may not be the best, but he’s trying. Or when Isa notices that Una’s lips look like an almost W. Or when Geeta says she will bring in a menorah to join our meditation bowl and Tree of Life, giving balance to the universe. Or when a group of boys dash into the woods at lunch to cut down a small conifer to erect in the big-room to be our non-denominational tree of life, in honor of pagan practice and Syd’s project. Or when Henry Swan realizes that empathy is more powerful than winning. Or when Henry Black writes of himself that inside his silences and his loudness is a small boy who misses his parents and just wants to be at home, in the embrace of his mother, with touch of his father’s flannel, and the musty smell of his barn.

Or maybe it happens when Joe speaks in meeting, about his old friend told who him his haircut looked “gay,” and then told Joe to “go fuck himself” after Joe told him that saying “gay” is not cool.

In a state of disbelief, I ask the class, “What do you say to that?” Celeste answers in less than a second and with absolute conviction: “You say that that person is not a very good friend.” Such moments propel all of them into an understanding of what being human is, and how life calls upon them to respond, together, with each other, and for each other.

This is how they move toward making of their lives something usable and good. They strive to see and seek the good in each other and everywhere. They make a school where no one is lonely, hunted, or alien. They try to understand, with empathy and insight, those who transgress the norms of communal or civic life. They willingly offer up their hearts, their wisdom, and their values as gifts.  In these moments Rumi is right—”even the phrase each other/ doesn’t make sense.” They live with full and evolving hearts, without walls, open to pain and joy. Then and only then does the field of existence become a perpetual unfolding.