It’s a question not frequently asked: What is school for?
However, the New York Times asked it a few weeks ago, and gave twelve educators a chance to answer. The answers were presented in the format of a multiple-choice test. The Answers:
b) Economic mobility
c) Making citizens
e) Wasting time
f) Learning to read
g) Connecting to nature
j) Parent activism
I can’t argue with any of those answers, with the exception of e). If schools are wasting time, or boring, they should be burned down and started over.
I’d like to add to those answers. Not only what it is for, but what it can be. Not only its function but its possibilities. School is such a beautiful, fragile, pulsating ecosystem, so delicate in structure, so complex in its human-to-human interconnections, so freighted with reciprocities of thought and feeling. It demands a close analysis of what it is, a microscopic and macroscopic gaze of wonderment, not a one-word answer.
School is a place for Poetry: a place where the words of poets reverberate, are enacted, felt, and lived. On Friday, I asked the class if anyone had a poem to read at the end of morning meeting. Lil said, “I have a poem. I got it from my mom.” The poem was “Wild Apples,” by Ruth Stone, who, incidentally, was the great-grandparent of an NBS alum.
Lil opened up a piece of folded paper:
In August we carried the old horsehair mattress To the back porch And slept with our children in a row. The wind came up the mountain into the orchard Telling me something: Saying something urgent. I was happy. The green apples fell on the sloping roof And rattled down. The wind was shaking me all night long; Shaking me in my sleep Like a definition of love, Saying, this is the moment, Here, now.
Lil read the poem to us as we sat on the patio in a jagged circle. School is for sitting in a circle, listening to poems. School is where we listen for what is urgent and necessary. Apples on a roof, and the wind coming up the mountain. Schools should be like orchards, gnarled limbs and fruit, where the kids can reach the poetry inside them and outside around them and in each other.
School is a place for flowers and leaves: All around us are woods, the mowed field, the rock wall, the ferns, a few stray wild apple trees, wild asters, and goldenrod. The leaves are reddening and falling, curling and drying. On Friday, for science, the kids went to the field and woods with their Perpetual journals to make drawings of what they found. Identifying Solomon’s Seal, black oak, mullein, and Queen Anne’s lace. School is for finding the scientific names, and seeing new words that explain the world.
School is for strange tasks and experimenting. Folding paper and cutting only one straight cut to make a triangle fall from the center of a sheet of paper. School is for doing that over and over and finally figuring it out.
School is for hearing words from great thinkers: On the first morning I read the kids a quote from Toni Morrison:
“Well, now you may be asking yourself: what is all this. I can’t save the world. What about my life. I didn’t ask to come here. I didn’t ask to be born. Didn’t you? I put it to you that you did. You not only asked to be born, you insisted on your life. That is why you are here. No other reason. It was too easy not to be. Now that you are here, you have to do something that you respect, don’t you. Your parents didn’t dream you up—you did. I am simply urging you to continue the dream you started. For dreaming is not irresponsible; it is first order human business. It is not entertainment, it is work. When Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream,” he was not playing; he was serious. When he imagined it, envisioned it, created it in his own mind it began to be, and we must dream too to give it the heft and stretch and longevity it deserves. Don’t let anybody, anybody, convince you this is the way the world is and therefore must be. It must be the way it ought to be.”
I asked the kids: “Now that you are here, what must you do, something that you respect, something that will move you in the direction of your dreams?” This question, and variations of it, is the basis of the speeches the kids began to write. But in order to answer the question, one has to look at oneself. To begin to question one’s actions and thoughts. This is the best place for learning, right at the edge between what you know and what you don’t know. To become more conscious of thought and feeling, not only of self but others. Toni Morrison meant to provoke us, disrupt us, to put us in a state of spiritual and mental tension. Wiley responded: “Last year I was closed to learning, but I began to open up. Now I want to be even more open.” School is for hearing their ideas, and helping them shape those ideas into a coherent, palpable, enactable vision.
School is for hearing stories: Stories about mistakes, courage, impulsivity, loss, risk-taking, stagnation, care, thoughtfulness, cruelty, tenderness, remorse, failure, love, anger, grief, loneliness, belonging, generosity, triumph. I told them stories about kids I had taught in the past. Kids just like them. We dissected those stories for lessons we could take. Of what a team is. The meaning of helping. Carrying a lesson forward into the future and giving it to someone else. Being aware of the least among us. Stepping into the light to do what no one else is willing to do. Of the superhuman kindness of strangers. Understanding that growth is not always a straight line, but a continual process of going forward, cycling back, going forward again.
School is for telling stories about oneself, and learning from the stories of others. Every speech has an idea in it, and every idea has a story behind it. I asked the kids to take two or three books off the shelf, the titles of which spoke to their state of mind, how they were feeling, where they are in their lives as they start this year. Indeed, there was a story behind each choice. Owen chose Of Wolves and Men. Because he was thinking about being in seventh grade, when he was sure the older kids were voracious wolves and he would never survive. Then he chose Native Son, because now he feels, after two years, that he has a place here, and that he is a native son in the school. Lila chose Adventures in the Skin Trade. Her interpretation of the title is that she is trying to shed false skins so that she can find her way to her own authentic self, a skin that is hers and hers alone. Louis chose The Turn of the Screw, because he was thinking about his last school where he felt himself to be no more than a tiny part of a machine. Colt chose Wallace Stevens’ Whole Harmonium, because he had an intimation of a vision, of a school where all of us were making a harmonic verse. Aurora chose a memoir by Nelson Mandela. At first, her reason was that her mom is from South Africa, and so to pick that book was to pick something familiar. Then she opened up the cover and read the quote on the inside flap. When it came time for her to tell the class what she’d chosen, she read Mandela’s words from the book: “There is no easy walk to freedom, anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain top of our desires.”
School should be for asking which valleys of the shadow of death we have passed through, and what must we do in order to reach the mountain top of our desires. School is for having moments when a kid reads us the words of Nelson Mandela.
School is for asking open-ended questions that will take a lifetime to answer, questions that have infinite ways to respond. Here is a partial list of what the kids came up with in response to Toni Morrison’s challenge in the first hours on Tuesday:
To be the kind of person who helped me when I was in seventh grade/To act with empathy/sympathy when others are struggling/To not only think about myself, but others/To be able to find peace both here and at home/To find a new home for myself after leaving my old home/How to deal with anxiety about the state of the world/To make a school or life that is good–not bad/To feel like more than a screw in a machine, but to matter to people/To be able to accept mistakes, or blame, and then grow from that/To make a new space for myself where I am not only giving and where I am not the target/To find a way to find my passion and live it and show it/To become more “zen-ful”/To know that there is always more to learn, and that I can’t say, “I know this, but to say, there is so much I don’t know”/To Accept the mystery of this new year and to be open to it/To be more open to learning, and make more room in myself for learning and trying new things/To stay open and take every chance and opportunity that is presented/to not miss my chances/To come out of my shell and learn to be free from fear/To find a reason for hope/To help all of us find our roles and “instruments” and harmonies/To find the real story of myself, and to have courage to keep telling it/To have strength to love myself and feel loved, and to accept when others are loving me/To not be caught up in my dark imaginings, or let my negative imagination take over my thoughts/To feel like I belong and matter/To navigate the difficulty of leaving my old home and making a new home here/To try to the best of my ability, and to not be overly afraid if I don’t know how to do something/To keep reflecting on and learning from my memories and dreams/To know that what I think will happen NEVER is what happens, and to have more trust when I am afraid/To find myself more comfortable in my own skin../To be ready to put my story into the big collection of stories/To embrace the TWO suns rising–the sun of reason and logic, and the sun of expression and feeling/Coping with being afraid/To love the mystery of a new year/To know there is no easy walk to freedom and that there are many struggles in order to get to the mountain top/To remember that I once felt like wolves were going to eat me, but I survived and learned/To have those around me see me for what I am doing and judge it or think negatively of it–to not feel ostracized but to belong fully/To feel completely here, and to be in this moment, not the past or future/To not be overmastered by echoes of the past/To not be like I was last year, when I limited myself by feeling like an outside, but to feel and live out of being a part of things/To “read the mountains of home” and learn from the mountains/people/experiences around me–to feel and learn from the intricacies of the lives of others/To combine the magic of home and school as one thing/To think of life as beautiful and growing–as a sunflower/To be alive to the “sea and the bells” all around me.
A school should be a place for speaking about those visions as though one were a preacher or prophet, as Cullen did, when he spoke of each person being a mountain of intricacies, and that we are learning to Read the mountains of home” and each other. School should be for enacting those visions, for making them real, a continual adventure of becoming and discovering, of mountain-making.
School should be a place where what needs to happen happens. To be outside. To take time. To put the phone away. To sit in the sun or shade. To swim if the day is warm. To get muddy playing soccer and track mud in. To celebrate birthdays. To sit at the table. To try. To remember screwing up, and then trying again. To show each other where the trails and paths go, to lead each other forward. To weed the patio, put up a volleyball net, bring in a trilobite or a feather or a seed. To put an image of oneself on one’s work. We did this on Friday at a picnic table in the shade, where each class made collages for their class notebooks. Schools are for putting your name and self on the line and on the cover. To announce yourself boldly, colorfully, inside or outside the lines. School is for making little sculptures from leaves, roots, moss, twigs, berries, flower petals, grasses, and fungi, as we did in the woods at Lake Pleiad. Graeham’s “notebook” made of sticks and birch bark, connecting to a path carved into the humus, symbolizing the infinite circle of learning here, everywhere, always, neverendingly. Schools are for making mandalas out of deer antlers and beaver skulls, calculators, chess pieces, marker tops, book titles, poems, notebooks, plaster busts, and leather boots. We did this on Tuesday in groups, each mandala telling something essential about those who made it. School is for making more of ourselves out of ourselves, and seeing how others do that, too.
School is for feelings. When tears come, the school—teachers and kids—can listen and understand and not judge. If someone is unsure or fearful, they can say that. And then someone can say, “I remember when I felt that. It will get easier. I was scared too, but I grew into it. It takes time, but it is worth it.”
School should be for this moment, here, now. School should be for saying the dream and making it true. School should be for everything that is life.
In the morning there was more light in the room, with the sun creeping higher, even though it remained six degrees.
The kids sat quietly, ringed around the table.
“I’m looking at you, and it looks like you didn’t evolve over the break,” I said.
“What do you mean,” said Colt.
“You look the same. None of you have changed for the better. You didn’t become wise or enlightened or geniuses.”
“It was only a week,” someone said.
“It was 240 hours! Think of all the changes and transformations you could have made. That’s enough time to change your heart, become loving, tender, and true!!”
“I evolved,” said Jacques.
“Jacques!” I shouted. I wanted to remind him of the promise he’d made the day of Valentine’s Day. He had brought a giant plastic heart full of candy his mother had given him. I had commented on how that plastic would one day be floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or be consumed into the stomach of a loggerhead sea turtle. He had then told me that that would never happen because he promised protect and keep the heart with him forever, for ten thousand years, for 300 generations. “I promise,” he said. “I will always take care of it!”
“Jacques, do you know where you left your plastic candy heart after your big promise?! Do you know where I found the sacred heart?”
“No,” he said, laughing.
“You left it on the dirty floor, under the table, broken in two parts! I picked it up and saved the broken heart!” I pointed to the shelf on the wall where I had placed his abandoned heart.
Jacques doubled over in laughter.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” I demanded.
“Well, over vacation I took care of my heart,” he said, tapping his chest.
After this wake-up conversation, I wanted to check in with them about world affairs and express something about the events unfolding in Ukraine. I told them I have been fully immersed in the story, and I told them: “Yes, it is far away, yes it is difficult and scary, but it is important to know about.”
“History is happening before our eyes,” I said. “And it relates to our own quest to understand and create some kind of Eutopia here, even in this little school in Vermont. When George Floyd was murdered two years ago, we were primed to understand why that was so significant because we had been studying Black History for the whole year. We are in the middle of something terrible, and we can see before our very eyes what is true and good, and what is horrid, destructive, and barbaric. We are talking about courage, peace, safety, and freedom here every day. And we are seeing it all in Ukraine.”
The room was still and quiet. I have been criticized for “brainwashing” my students. I have been attacked for teaching the 1619 Project. I have been accused of, “showing my ideology.” I have been critiqued for being too much focused on humanism as a source-point for my teaching. I have been criticized for a lot of things related to my teaching. Maybe I was showing my “ideology.” I prefer, “showing my identity” or “showing my heart.” I do not want to disguise my feelings or teach bland neutrality. In this case, my “ideology” was inspired by the tragedy in Ukraine, and the righteousness of the Ukrainians in the fight for survival. My ideology was to express what I feel about what I see.
“Does it relate, to us?” I asked. “Yes, it does.”
In our lit book, in the reading for our class on My Name is Asher Lev that Monday morning, Asher had drawn a picture of Stalin, who is from the sitra achra, the demonic side of evil. At the same time, Asher’s father is trying to save Jews in Ukraine. In the other class, we are reading 1984. The parallels are direct: Winston and Julia, digging down with their most desperate efforts to live and create the Golden Country. They are willing to die for it, to give everything, to throw themselves against the onslaught. And these people in Ukraine, what are they willing to live and die for? The flag of Ukraine is symbolic of the blue sky and the golden fields of wheat. That is their Golden Country. As the Ukrainians go, so go Winston and Julia, working to create and defend their world, to drive out lies and dishonesty and find truth and beauty, to retain themselves and “stay human.” By staying human, even if just for a moment, they make of their lives nobility and beauty, a secret cell of their own, their own inviolable sacred heart. Beauty as in paperweight with red coral encased in the watery glass. Beauty in an old song, barely remembered beauty in the touch of a hand, or the smell of real coffee, or the sound of the washerwoman pegging diapers and turning a drivel pop song into something eternal and all-conquering and untouchable.
“The war is scary, but we need to understand it,” I said, thinking of Alfred North Whitehead. ”In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place.”
“We are not an island, we are a part of the world. And what we are doing here matters in the world.”
During the vacation, I had become scared about what was happening and had written Deborah Lubar, the grandmother of NBS alum Geeta Lust, who knows a thing or two about Soviet totalitarianism.
I told her I was ready to hand over the keys of the school to some young whippers-napper and head to Poland with Rose, where we would join up with international resistance fighters and enter into the western provinces of Ukraine and engage the fight.
Deborah responded forcefully and lovingly in her note back to me.
But here’s where you personally do belong to the Resistance – one better than, God forbid, your getting to Poland and from there into Ukraine with your ankle knife and your Uzi – oh please don’t. Among other things, like our losing you, your loud cussing at every mishap, including stubbing your toe in some underground tunnel that would give your whole unit away and get them all instantly killed. You know that, right? Your Resistance is “living by poetry.” Our minds are dying, flattening out, unleavened, shriveling, drying up. Don’t hand the school over to a whippersnapper. Unless you decide to travel around the country instead, teaching poetry as you do, as a way of being alive and watering our drought-ish minds and despairing hearts. You could do that. Without the Uzi. Only dust-bowl minds accept/promote/sustain totalitarian horrors.
Because, poetry is what has sustained Ukraine and Russia for a half dozen centuries, and it’s what the world needs now. There is a book on our shelves, Poetry Like Bread, a collection of poems by poets engaged with world events, poets who wrote to save the world, to remind us of what is worth saving.
I told the kids about that book. “This is what we are here to do in this school— to practice making the world as it should be—safe, free, open, loving, truth-seeking, meaning-making, and alive.”
One of the kids mentioned that it is hard to know what is happening because one news source will say one set of facts or numbers, and another will report a different set of facts and numbers. Moreover, the news changes hourly. I suggested to them a couple of credible sources, and said that it is important to not just read the headlines on “Apple News,” but to dig a little deeper. Digging deeper is what scholars and historians do.
As we talked, it was evident that many of the kids had been following the events, and knew a lot about it. The resistance appeared to them, as it is to the whole world, inspiring. We are alive as history is happening. It is frightening, confusing, shocking. The firmament seems to shake beneath us. And while there is no shortage of terrible and tragic events happening in more remote locales of the world, this one now demands our attention, as George Floyd’s death did, because we are all bound up in it. And yet, I am mindful that these are children, still living lives of children, talking about candy, arguing about skis, drawing cartoons of “Cow people” on the whiteboard, playing hide-and-seek at lunch.
The conversation shifted. Axel’s dog Moos had died over the vacation. Axel described the circumstances, and then shifted to what appeared to be more of a mystery dilemma. “I guess I have been kind of stoic–I mean, I usually cry about a lot of things, but I didn’t really cry about this yet. And I’m not sure what to say when someone says, “I’m sorry about Moos.”
There was a round of comments and thoughts.
“We say ‘sorry’ because we want the other person to know we feel what they feel. We don’t want to ignore it or be indifferent.”
“It lets us feel our own feelings again. If your dog dies, and I feel it, I feel it because I know what it’s like to lose something precious and once-living.”
“An animal becomes a part of your life. And you will feel it in different ways at different times.”
Animals dying, grandparents dying, the past dying, old times changing into new times, old relationships with parents evolving into new relationships with parents—this comprises some of the great work that the kids here are processing and experiencing.
Oscar mentioned that he had had social success at Arapahoe Basin, remembering his great loneliness at the top of the mountain when he was in seventh grade, and his increased ability to reach out to others at the top of the mountain this time.
Oscar had prefaced his comment by saying, “This isn’t really important to what we are talking about,” to which I said, “It’s all-important to talk about. There is no right-being, or legitimate/illegitimate experience…This is who we are.”
Graeham read the poem, still prepared since we had not had school the Friday before break…
by Jericho Brown
The water is one thing, and one thing for miles.
The water is one thing, making this bridge
Built over the water another. Walk it
Early, walk it back when the day goes dim, everyone
Rising just to find a way toward rest again.
We work, start on one side of the day
Like a planet’s only sun, our eyes straight
Until the flame sinks. The flame sinks. Thank God
I’m different. I’ve figured and counted. I’m not crossing
To cross back. I’m set
On something vast. It reaches
Long as the sea. I’m more than a conqueror, bigger
Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.
In the segue between classes, I had sentences resonating in my mind: “I’m set on something vast.” “I am more than a conqueror.” “Your resistance is living by poetry.” And the words of John Donne, which have been stuck in me since I was 19, floated to the top.. “No Man Is an Island.”
In lit class, we continued the discussion linking 1984 to ourselves and current events in Ukraine. I read part of Ezra’s last lit response, which included his reaction to the moment when Julia passes the note to Winston, saying “I love you,” It’s a magnificent moment, a blow against a faceless, brutal totalitarian system. Ezra’s question was: are we doing that here, at NBS. For instance, we do things that hurt each other constantly–chipping away at ourselves, teasing each other, saying this just to get a reaction, reflexive arguing, spreading stories and gossip, without ever taking a risk to talk about what is important to us, without slowing down to try to say what matters and listen to what matters.
Are we helping each other to be free to feel and experience our lives here? Ezra asked the question of us. I presume, then, that he is questioning himself. He asked, are we diminishing the chances that we can be ourselves fully here, even in regard to something as tender as a crush. If we tease each other about “who we like” it eventually can have the chilling effect of causing us to hide our feelings. This can be with any rare or special thought. It turns affections and self-revelation into commodities to be sold and traded and kicked around in the social marketplace.I told them that the feeling of a crush or falling in love is special and raw and exciting. So why would any of them jab at that good thing by spreading it around and making it small?
Whereas Winston and Julia, they gave themselves wholly to the other. They risked it all. And that gave them rare and special freedom. And if they don’t make it to the end, if they are forced into hiding, they will have at least done that knowing love, having known the beauty of the bluebells and songbirds.
Jacques asked me if it was okay if he had rewritten some scenes and added new scenes for the play. He had taken liberties, he said, coming up with a way to turn the play towards a conflict that we can resolve at the end. He was worried that he had done too much. What if people don’t like the lines I wrote for them?
“They can change their lines,” I said.
“Everyone has responsibility. You are helping move it forward. They can help move it forward, too.”
But his questions revealed the same issue: If I care about something and put my heart into it, what happens if it gets kicked down.
I got an email from the Ripton Fire Chief, Chris Pike, who’s also Eli’s dad. He’d looked at footage of the security camera at the firehouse and had seen a recording of what appeared to be an NBSer marking out in large letters in the snow “Hi” and “Good—” which we at first thought might be the word “poop” but which was in fact unfinished “good morning,” Some of the kids, with active imaginations, thought the figure making the messages looked like a Ukrainian solider, but others recognized it to be Seely.
I told Lila B. to help organize all the musicians and musical performances for the play. Jacques wanted to help. Ezra offered his “new beats” he’s been making on an Apple Music app. I gave Ezra a book about Woodstock, since he’s doing a project on it. I warned him that I knew everything about Woodstock and so he will not be able to BS or leave anything out. Opera is doing a project on Drop City and the Farm. We looked for information and photos on the internet: I helped her see how to collect info to answer basic questions, and how to find images to show what she may be talking about. She said her parents were helping her do research and started getting interested in the communes–I asked Oprea if she was interested in joining a commune with her parents and Hartley, and she demurred, then said, “No, not if it is far away from NBS!”
In all-Tal we only had a short time to do a hundred things. Read a story? Work on the play? Talk about the ski trip? Hear a project? Talk about beauty? I handed back stories I had read over vacation. I read a passage from Jacques’, in which he talked about how excited he was for the play back in seventh grade. But, in seventh grade, he was caught up in seventh grade turmoil. “I didn’t even know who I was. How could I come up with a whole new character?” I read an excerpt from Oprea’s story, in which she was questioning who she wanted to be, curled in a ball in the snow, crying, because she had fought over a dumb thing with her brother.
Why did I do that? I asked myself. That’s not me. That’s when I thought, then who am I? Really? Not what I tell myself I am.Who am I? I’ve been so busy trying not to be forgotten, that I’ve forgotten myself. The last thought made me cry harder. I clutched the smooth wood stick that had been the reason my brother and I were fighting. I fought over a stupid stick. Who am I? My tears started freezing on my cheeks. I looked up at the full moon, the only light I had. Even that light is just reflected from the sun. It’s not the moon. Who am I? I curled up tighter. I wanted someone to come. But I had said I wanted to be left alone before I stormed out of the house. No one is coming. I’m alone. ALONE. Who am I?
Who am I? The essential question.
And then I read a passage from Campbell’s story, about trying to become more than someone who just argues about “Star Wars.” She stands up to a boy who, after talking about his weekend hunting, claims that the Bible condemns LGBTQIA+ people because they are not fully devoted to God.
I got up quickly because I was done with this. With the dark rooms, with the dead deer who once was free, with myself and how I felt, with emotion, which at the moment was angry, so angry, but that would only carry me as far as the day. Because I knew that I would cry again at night, and Fiona would bring me a book by a gay Christian author, and say some of her bottled up words that everyone praises so much, hoping it would make me feel better, but would only make me feel annoyed at her. Because I had “screamed” like Fiona says she wants to, and yet it still wasn’t good enough.
Of course, it is good enough. I can see it, any of us can see it. This is what it looks like when the kids tap into the scream inside them, the higher self trying to emerge. Asher Lev’s teacher tells him that for the artist, “Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.” All of the kids are trying, each in their fumbling, mystifying ways, to find, possess, and free that self.
And finally, for the last twenty minutes, we watched a few short clips of the recent history of Ukraine; phone footage from Kyiv and Kharkiv, and a short bit on the resistance and what it means.
I had spent my day at a special island, with maddening, hilarious, evolving, transforming, sometimes abjectly moronic, sometimes-brilliant children, the special soldiers of the future. When I got home, I went to find Donne’s words and remind myself to resist by living by poetry:
No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
A lot is happening in the schools in Addison County. A lot is happening in our school. The disparity in the environment of our school vis-a-vis others has got me thinking about what we do that creates the environment we have. For one thing, we—all of us, teachers, staff, students, and parents—laugh, a lot and often. There is joy and humor to be found everywhere during our school days. Over the years, I have come to see that a school must have a sense of humor. How could it not, when we are with middle schoolers. I take as my guru on this matter Jimi Hendrix in “All Along the Watchtower.” I mean, on Friday it was “Pajama Day,” and we began with a rundown on the names of our stuffed animals, (Lulu, Bun-Bun, and Big Fish), a disquisition on “Squish-Mellow” Pillows, and whether we had hit a new all-time low when we discussed the composition of toe-cheese before school had even started. And while we might be able to see that life is but a joke, we also take the other view, that life is utterly precious, and we must make every moment count. We approach our teaching, our way of being, our collective enterprise, with a most acute sense of both humor and seriousness. Between those poles, we have immense space to explore everything under the sun: definitions of words like “contentious,” the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, play-acting, inventing songs for the “Holiday Rocks” concert (punnily named by Rose), inspired by the Amoeba People’s nerd-rock song about the “crazy man” Alfred Wegener’s founding theory about continental drift (see below), or making robots to earn the school currency of Klonbecks. But also, how voices from the past speak to us, or the poetry of Robert Frost, whether the world will end in fire or ice, if we’ve had enough of hate, and what organizing systems bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people.
In literature, we talked about finding the rooms inside us, the deep places that have light in them, like the tiny light deep in the back of Boo Radley’s house. About how we slowly grow in our understanding of love, death, and friendship, shedding our old ideas and perceptions to gain greater awareness, in the same way that Scout and Dill Baker Harris grow towards awareness as their storehouse of experiences expand. As in the town of Maycomb, we look at what happens when something harmful comes into the garden, like nut-grass or rumors, or fear is allowed to take root and spread. We have to work harder to root it out and not let it take over, be willing to put up resistance to that which might ruin or infect our enterprise. As individuals, we have to have the courage to be ourselves truly, like Miss Maudie, who is free and independent, gardening by day in men’s coveralls and a big straw hat, reigning with magisterial grace over her porch in the evening, only ever concerned with the mimosa’s scent, and not caring less for gossip or morbidity. Miss Maudie will garden for all of her days, even if fundamentalists believe she is a sinner who “will burn to hell with her flowers.” She stands strong, and nothing can extinguish the light she carries, and this becomes yet another lesson for Scout.
We started writing our stories. I used a scene from an old NBS story, about a boy who set out to see if he could find something in his house that he had never seen. He eventually found a small drawing of an elderberry bush by his grandfather. He had not known his grandfather was an artist of any kind. He was surprised and moved by the delicacy of the drawing, with its carefully shaded leaves and limbs that had clusters of berries carefully rendered. He found that so long as he looked, so long as he consciously moved towards an expansion of his mind and his world, he would make new discoveries. I posited that this house he searches is really an analog to the body of a human, and the “house” he is searches is no more nor less a searching of the rooms of his heart, life, and experience. He seeks for what matters, for what has depth, resonance, and meaning. So when we start thinking about writing a story, we have to look inside ourselves to see what is there—to examine the past and the infinite catalog of memories and experiences. We surmised that there might be for each of us anywhere from 10,000 to 1,000,000 important life-shaping moments. We made our target for story ideas to be “anything that has happened, big or small, long ago or recent, that changed, marked, made, or affected us.” All of these bits matter, each person has a story, each person is a Galahad. When one begins to look at these bits carefully and see them as treasure, one sees matrices of meaning and connection. A memory of a visit to a museum and seeing the great renaissance paintings of the deaths of religious martyrs suddenly has a different resonance when linked to a memory of reading a book about the Holocaust in fifth grade, or seeing homeless children for the first time. When the events that comprise a life are put together, each event takes on a new and sparkling potency, has new radiance and significance. Meaning is made when this is put next to that. A small, newly born fish—like the one that magically appeared in the fish tank in the science room this week—is afraid in the world, alone, peering out, isolated, tentative. Add this event to another event, the new student who comes into the school for the first time on Monday, likewise afraid in a new world, alone, peering out, isolated. When we see these situations with clarity, when we talk about them, raise them up, and give them attention, we can act more directly and appropriately within our sphere of influence—to perhaps see when we ourselves have felt so alone, and so reach towards the solitary person, and make them feel not alone.
The story of To Kill a Mockingbird is not really about Atticus’ “heroism” so much as it is about Scout, Jem, and Dill and how they begin to “knock” on the Radley’s door and the doors of the wider world. They are learning that you have to move fearlessly towards that which you do not know in order to know it, to see it with your own clear vision. One can be afraid of a stranger, sure. Or one can invite them out, and tell them you won’t hurt them, and say, “Let’s go for ice cream.” One can be persistent, trusting, and open-hearted, and so the world enlarges.
Our students are mostly happy to be this way, as children tend to be. If there is any wonder why our school is generally a so loving and happy place, it is not necessarily because our kids different from any other kids in the world, but because we spend a lot of time inviting each other out and talking about the need to be invited out. We talk to each other, learn to reach over the petty walls and fences and boundaries between us with an understanding that each of us wants to belong and matter and that each of us has something of value to give. Slowly, like a photographic image appearing in the darkroom, we witness the process of a community forming in which individuals thrive and all of us can see how all of us matter.
At the North Branch School, we work to make space for the twenty-six individuals. It takes time and patience to find and see the light that is way off in the back of the house. Yes, the outside may appear gray or weathered or closed, foreboding or repellent or odd or different, but we have to believe there is always something good living inside.
Earlier in the week, I had put forward to the kids a statement a student had made many years ago: “The most important question we must ask ourselves, in every moment, is where should we be?” He meant this in terms of morality, action, engagement, attention. What is our posture, he asked, with regard to each moment? Alert and curious, or disinterested and indifferent? Committed and caring, or careless and heedless? Broad-seeing and circumspect, or narrow and blinkered? At the end of the week, we had a visit from Zosha Andersson, Oscar’s grandmother, who was born in 1943 in Prague, and who had to be smuggled out of Czechoslovakia in 1948 when the Communists came to power. She recounted how she then later smuggled all of her family’s remaining treasures out of the country: little silver jewel boxes, paintings by her great uncle, a black shawl that her mother once wore for audience with the Pope, and which her mother also used as a disguise to escape from Czechoslovakia herself with her infant son. We heard about her cousins playing the red capes of the Cardinal who later became that Pope, Pius the 12th; about how the events of history swirl around us, and only later are we able to see the majesty, horror, mystery, and meaning. She passed around pictures of her family home, her grandparents, the way life was in the interwar period, the passport of her father, with a stamp in it from the Nazis from 1934, and the book of Impressionist paintings from her great Uncle, who had painted with Monet.
At the end of the day, when it was time to leave, Zosha was about to walk across the treacherous icy driveway. Greyson saw his opportunity to be a gentleman, to extend his arm and escort her to her safely to her car, which he did. He came back into the big room, bounding with delight and inarticulate glee. “I just did that! I just put my arm out and walked her across the ice! It was like, it was like I was a god!” He was ebullient and aloft. He’d reached out. He’d thought about “where he wanted to be,” and had met the moment, however fleeting, with right action. When I think of what our school is, what a school can be, I think I would like to believe it is just that moment in the driveway. At the nexus of a single person’s story and the history of mankind, of fragility and strength, of loving-kindness and self-awareness, of a little danger and a lot of safety, and one person holding his arm out for another to hold onto.
One must remember the quivering thing, the living thing.
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
In 2001, in a rural town in the mountains of Vermont, we started a small school. It was for grades seven, eight, and nine.
We had neither money nor expertise. We were one teacher, four parents, and one town citizen. We started with ten students in a rented house with a dirt driveway in the village of Ripton in the Breadloaf Wilderness, a mile from Robert Frost’s summer farm.
What few books and materials we had were kept on shelves made from plywood we scavenged from construction sites. Our school had one bathroom, one wood stove, and numerous red squirrels that made frequent appearances during morning algebra class. Our science teacher had never taught science before, our math teacher had never taught math, and I, the head teacher, had never before run a school.
It wasn’t much of a school in the beginning. Often we wondered if it would survive.
But the little school in the mountains of Vermont did survive. There is a story in a book about it—the book is called A Room For Learning: The Making of a School in Vermont—which recounts how we made the school out of a dream of what a school could be. We believed, contrary to prevailing theory and practice, that if we gave the students responsibility and freedom, they would make a school that was an expression of their most vivid dreams and highest ideals.
We wanted a school that the students felt was theirs, where they could learn from each other, the outside world, and from what they created together. We sought to develop their capacity for love, wonder, and openness—to help them grow to their brightest, biggest, most full versions of themselves, no matter their abilities. We wanted to find the balance between teaching the knowledge and skills of the various disciplines, never losing sight of our primary concern with each student’s growth towards becoming more caring, loving, creative, compassionate, courageous, individual.
The central pedagogy, if there was one, was simply this: the voices, energies, and aspirations of the students would be more than enough to create a vibrant, living school.
Over time, the school grew to twenty-seven students. We wanted to keep it small, intimate, close. A modern-day one-room schoolhouse, all of us learning together as best we could.
We moved out of our rented house and built a new school-house up the road from the Ripton village, near the end of the paved road. The Green Mountains surround the school. A trapezoidal-shaped soccer field stretches towards the woods. A stone wall, overgrown with ferns and blackberry brambles, runs along the length of the field. There is a stone patio, a small herb garden, plantings of perennials, and an iron school bell on a post. Behind the school are a unicursal labyrinth, a bread oven, and a nature trail, all constructed by students over the years.
It is a remote and bucolic setting for learning. The woods are filled with maples and beech trees. When the wind blows, or when rains pound on the metal roof, or when crows call over the field, we hear all of it.
This book is about this little school in the wooded mountains, about school as a place where learning is an experience of high adventure, where the experience of growing and living is wild and joyful, deep and transformational, where we never know exactly what might transpire on a given day because we create it as we go. A school of mystery and possibility, where old ideas about learning and what school should be are decimated by the colossal tenderness and fierceness of children reckoning with and discovering what matters most; where the students come and go to school thrilled with what is happening to their minds and hearts, each of them learning to believe that something great, something as big as their lives, is reachable.
Note: each week a student at the North Branch School compiles the weekly notes, which describe the week that has just passed. It’s a way to get an inside look at what happens at the school. These notes were compiled by 9th grader Axel de Boer.
I walked into school wearily, not because I didn’t want to go to school, but because waking up on weekdays, Mondays especially, always seemed to induce a weariness upon me. My eyes felt like they were being beaten down by anvils as I walked into the basement to put my things into my cubby, walking past the Big Room which was full of my classmates, sitting around the table or at the chairs in a second ring, around the table. Once I was in the basement, I opened my computer and printed my lit response, to which I was notified by one of my classmates passing by that Tal wanted everyone upstairs. I glanced at my computer screen, hoping that the print had finally worked, and then ran upstairs to avoid me being yelled at by Tal. At first glance the entire room was full, with no room for me to sit, but as I looked over it again, I saw a spot, in between Campbell, a seventh-grader, and Seely, a fellow ninth-grader who was hunched over her notebook. I sat down with my notebook, and as soon as Lila began to talk about her going to a museum with her family, I began to write. Soon a storm of people began talking about their weekend. Owen talked about how his friend’s sisters were bothering him, and I related to that. Sometimes it felt like when my sister was around her friends, she targeted me, along with her friends, or even if she was in a place with none of her friends, she still seemed to make conversation out of trying to embarrass me. Meeting seemed to pass by all too quickly, until Campbell, who was dressed in purple with a unicorn hat, for spirit day (which was to wear as much purple as possible, even though most people didn’t own that many purple clothes), began to talk. At the beginning it was somewhat muffled and quiet, but as it progressed it began to become much more clear. Campbell was talking about how she felt that in Math and Science people were going much further ahead than her, when Campbell was working together with her class. I didn’t exactly know how she felt, because I was normally on the other side of the spectrum. I was normally the person that was working perhaps too fast, and giving out answers to people that were still trying to figure it out. I was going to change that, I decided, it was my ninth grade, and I wasn’t going to be the one that was going to be ruining classes for another person. On top of that, when I do something fast I’ve learned that it isn’t my best work. The week before this one, Steve had been talking about the people that go fast on their work, and it’s never the best work. Peter read the poem for the day, which was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Meeting wrapped up, and everyone left besides the eighth and ninth graders. I left the room, and hustled to grab my lit response, which I had managed to print before meeting. I walked into the Big Room, and sat at the table, next to Leila, who had already begun to draw things in her notebook. It seemed that everyone around the table knew what to talk about, and I did as well, and soon my arm began to ache, but instead of just letting everything just pass me by I wrote people’s thoughts down. The one that particularly struck me, at the beginning of the class, Owen said “It’s crazy how just one rainstorm could kill an entire horse,” I added onto it. For those who don’t know about the book we’re reading, The Red Pony, (Spoilers ahead) there is a boy named Jody, and to not become too elaborate, Jody is pretty much a lazy butt munch, who doesn’t really do anything right, because he’s too lazy (To give him credit, in the book, he’s only 10 years old). Then one day his dad buys him a horse, and to basically make these next few sentences sound like a 5th grade book report the horse and Jody get a bond, and then the horse dies because of the strangles. It’s pretty morbid. But something that really struck me that I didn’t share in the literature class was how one mistake (The mistake being that the ranch hand, Billy Buck, didn’t bring him in fast enough during a rainstorm) could destroy an entire relationship. Lit went by too fast because it felt like when the eighth graders left the room, it was still bursting with ideas. I continued to sit in my spot, with nothing to do because I had finished most of my homework. Eventually Leila got up and brought in her gourd, which had been decapitated by Oscar’s soccer ball. Leila and I began to attempt surgery on the gourd, which Leila had affectionately named “Mother Goose” because she had added eyes, and a scarf (Which was placed over the decapitation wound that Oscar had inflicted) Eventually we finished the surgery of Mother Goose, with two sticks, a scarf, and maybe too much clear packaging tape. Tal was somewhat laughing, somewhat exclaiming at that now that study had hit the 30-minute mark, and he still hadn’t done anything. He told me to write how annoying and unproductive this study had been.
I left study, and went to break, in which I had told Anika that we should practice soccer, in anticipation of the game that was coming up later that day. It was raining, to which I said to Anika,
“Since you’re my friend you’ll still play soccer with me, even if it’s raining, right?”
To which she responded with
“Well, friends can be mean sometimes.”
I laughed, and then began to try to keep the ball away from her. Which failed. Eventually, Oscar came out, and along with him came Quinn. I went inside, because I was cold, and went into the math room. I looked at the 9th-grade homework bin, which was a see-through green. I began sorting through it, looking for mine. I was thinking about what Campbell had said earlier that day, about some people going too fast. I felt that I wasn’t proud of the Math homework that I had done on Friday. I felt like I had done it too fast, like I hadn’t put as much work into it as I could. I began to read over my homework, and as I looked over it for the second time, reading through the questions. I began asking Anika questions about the work. Not necessarily the answers, just how I could get to them. I went over the questions and began correcting myself. Eventually I was finished and began drawing on the back of my sheet, which soon held something that perhaps would form questions in some people’s minds about how sane I really was. Math slipped by, and after a quiz, which apparently had been incorrectly assigned (It’s okay Steve), I left Math, to the basement, where I sat in my cubby, along with a few other people. Soon people came into the cubby area, and then Finn turned off the lights. Immediately Campbell began to scream, and people began to scare each other, as the basement was pitch black. Greyson turned his phone’s light on, and put it in my eyes, I cringed away from it. Eventually, we began to all hum intensely, in a sort of mock prayer. Lila, who is in a musical, suggested that we should begin a harmony, and apparently I was really bad at keeping my note, because she kept telling me,
“You changed your note again!”
Lunch felt good, it felt like it was the first time I had connected with people that perhaps I hadn’t really attempted a connection with. I left the basement after people began to stream in, looking at us as if we were insane, because they must’ve heard us doing our pretend Sermons. I left science and began vigorously taking notes. Soon Science finished, and we entered the Big Room. Cullen was about to read his speech. He did an amazing job, he put his own spin on the speech, saying it like no one had ever said it before. Reading it differently, and doing hand motions to exaggerate points. He did a great job. Soon, school had ended, and people were gearing up to go to the soccer game. I left the school excited, and as my mom’s van pulled out of the driveway, I pretended to be the crown queen of England, who was also an avid spud farmer.
I walked into school and looked through the glass door which showed the big room, where people had already begun to sit. I walked downstairs, put my stuff away, and walked back up with a little conversation in between me and anyone else. I looked for my notebook but couldn’t find it, until I realized that the notebooks had been laid out in various spots. Assigned seats. I found my seat in the back of the room, where I had sat the day before. I was sitting next to Colt, and once Oscar had realized that he asked if we wanted to trade seats. He apparently was sitting next to Leila. I shook my head, I knew that if I switched spots with Oscar, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep himself from talking to Colt. Meeting began once Tal entered the room from a meeting with the teachers. Tal began talking about the soccer game we had, because he didn’t know the score. We quickly informed him about the fact that we had won 6-1. Jacques had scored four of the six goals, and Tal congratulated him. I interrupted Tal by saying that I had gotten an assist, to which Tal responded to something along the lines of
“Calm down, it’s Jacques’ time to shine.”
After that, when Tal had finally sat down and Meeting had really commenced, Tal informed us of a way to reach true Utopia, which was that before October began everyone having their notebook covers done and taped. Most people had finished theirs, most people had a collage, and we’d cover it up with clear packaging tape, to prevent it from water damage. Tal picked up Jacques’ notebook as an example of what a good notebook looked like, and began reading a passage from it. This immediately sparked a thought in my head and I began to go through my notebook, which instead of writing had various drawings in it. It was easier to draw my thoughts than put them down in a comprehensible script. Eventually the conversation was drawn about cats disappearing, to which Tal began one of his many short stories about the students that had been at this school in its 20-odd years. This one was about a cow that had escaped from its herd, and apparently there was a student in this school who’d occasionally see the wild cow, and they’d call it “The Wild Cow of Shoreham” to which Finn began talking about how if people had heard about the Wild Cow of Shoreham fifty years from now they’d think we worshipped the cow. To an outsider this conversation may seem like a conversation not fit for school, but to me, this is the chaos that comes before the quiet perfection of intermingling connections form like a glistening spider web after a damp morning. Towards the end of meeting, Fiona shared what she had accumulated so far for burning School, and after she was done, Wiley read the poem for meeting, which I couldn’t find the book it was in, and I couldn’t find it on the inter-webs.
The ninth graders left the room and then went to the science room. I was forced towards the back of the room because everyone had gotten there before me. We were going to watch a documentary about Earth’s Creation. I began copying down the 23 questions on the board, but was then told by my classmates that I didn’t need to copy them down. I still did. Science class slipped away with a few technical errors, and soon enough it was time for study. I began in the big room where Finn was passing around Sour Cream and Onion Lays chips, which apparently was now something that my class was doing, because the day before Greyson had brought Salt and Vinegar chips (Or whatever they’re called I probably got that wrong). Once the chips were gone I went downstairs because it was quieter down there, and I began doing my Math homework. Normally I don’t feel like I did well enough on my Math homework. Sometimes it feels rushed, or sometimes I feel like there isn’t enough that I can do, like I’ve exhausted all my mental abilities. This time I felt invigorated, though. I had promised to Steve that I’d go over my math homework twice to decrease the amount of easy to correct errors in my work, and I did that. I turned in my math homework with pride, something that I should’ve been doing for the years before, but I was glad that I was doing it now. I returned to the basement and began working on my place description corrections, which I finished before break had begun. I went outside, where it was cloudy. Everyone was sitting on the patio, eating various different kinds of foods, and I grabbed my soccer ball and began dribbling around the patio. I’d been practicing over the weekend, and I was glad that it was being noticed by people who were really good at soccer, like Oscar or Lillian or Colt. It felt like the people who were so far up the soccer hierarchy sometimes looked down on people like me who were trying to improve. It’s a good feeling, and it’s something that I want to do, because the feeling of being appreciated is a great feeling, like the things that you’ve been working on. Break ended and I entered the Math room. I was excited because Ezra was going to teach a class on Origami. Once everyone had sat down people began to fold to Ezra’s instructions. When people asked Ezra what to do, he’d simply say “Use your best judgement” which was something that Steve would say whenever we’d ask him a question on a quiz. In Math class we made a Butterfly, a Swan, and a Lotus flower, and I was pretty proud of mine. Once we were done we pinned all of our lotus flowers to the wall, and left for Lunch. I played soccer for a little while before I got tired, and walked downstairs to the basement, where Anika and Greyson were sitting. I sat in Anika’s cubby, because it was the cleanest by far, even though Anika was trying to paint it. Eventually more people arrived in the basement, until eventually people turned the lights off, and we were right off where we were the day before, although this time, it didn’t feel as special, as all things seem the second time around. Perhaps it’s best to leave the things that made us happy in the past, because if you re-enact them then they’re bound to not be nearly as special, and the other thing is aren’t you just back tracking to when that happened? Either way Lunch ended with people giving us the odd stares that they had the day before, and we went into All-Tal, which now had the podium on the table. Lillian began her speech, and it was about her dad, and how she felt bad that she hadn’t been appreciating him, or at least that’s what I got out of it. I commented on it and talked about how it’s hard to appreciate someone that you feel like works three times harder than you do, because it’s hard to put yourself in their shoes. My dad also works a lot, and I appreciate him for that, but whenever he comes home and says he’s had a long day I don’t know how to respond, because I’m sure that my definition of a long day is not his definition of a long day. After Lillian’s comments on her excellent speech finished, we clapped and whooped as she walked out of the spotlight and collected notes. Next up was Finn, who went outside and screamed, as Lillian had done (It’s to get the nervous feeling out of your chest). He began talking about trying to lift people out of their own holes. I glanced over at Oprea’s notebook, and read one of her notes, which was something along the lines of You talked about pushing people down to get yourself up, but isn’t a good idea to push other people up and hope that they’ll pull you up. I thought about that, there definitely have been points in my NBS career when I’ve pushed people down for my own gain, and this idea was interesting. Not only does it employ the idea of goodwill towards others, but also to trust them to pull you back up. Trust is a fragile thing that takes an entire year at North Branch to carefully fabricate, yet I think that so far the process has been going well, and I was proud of that. I was proud of this class, this school, because we have come far from the first day, and we definitely haven’t reached our peak, which is also a good thing. Fiona walked up to the podium, and I was surprised when she walked outside screaming. Most people who seem quiet in their first year here don’t scream, but I guess it was Fiona showing that she trusted us. Or at least enough to scream, which was still something. She talked about her brother Levi, and about when he was younger he had a thing called Failure to Thrive. She related it to the fact that when she was younger she wanted to avoid crying as much as possible, but then her speech took a curveball, she talked about how can we thrive when we don’t cry or can’t even show our emotion. I talked about how sometimes North Branch feels like it doesn’t live up to its good credit. Sometimes it feels like there’s too much work, or that the people are just so far ahead of you, but what makes North Branch different is that hopefully, you will eventually feel comfortable, or even if you aren’t comfortable you’ll begin to cry, and that’s what makes North Branch special. It’s a place where people can show emotion without feeling scared. That’s what creates my love for North Branch, we can be vulnerable. I sometimes struggle with being vulnerable or showing my emotions, but eventually, I got here. To this place, the proverbial peak. I loved Fiona’s speech, she writes her words carefully and with intention, and she reads it the same way. Soon I left the Big Room, because it was the end of the day, and walked to the bus with Colt.
I stepped off of the bus after saying goodbye to the bus driver, Scott, who had just come off of a vacation in Colorado. Later in meeting Ezra brought up the fact that he had asked Scott how vacation had been, and he was trying to make a small change. Everyone in the classroom agreed that it hopefully made a small difference. In meeting, the primary thing that struck me was when Tal was going around the classroom asking people what they’d done to show how they want to live the day before. Lillian began to talk about her friends at Mt. Abe, and how she had normally been feeling stuck in between two places, but now she had been feeling better. Tal asked her to describe the stuck feeling, and she began to cry a bit. This was the vulnerability described by Fiona the day before, this was Lillian beginning to thrive. I was glad that Lillian felt like she was out of the stuck feeling. Meeting ended with Seely reading poem, which was called This Be The Verse, by Phillip Larkin (a very famous poem)
They fuck you up, your mom and dad
they may not mean to, but the do
they fill you with the faults they had
and add some extra just for you
but they were fucked up in their turn
by fools in old style hats and coats
who half the time were soppy stern
and half at one and other’s throats
man hands on misery to man
it deepens like a coastal shelf
get out as early as you can
and don’t have any kids yourself
Everyone cleared out besides the eighth and ninth graders, and Lit class kicked off. Wiley, who was sitting in the outer ring of the chairs which were backed against the wall, was asked by Tal to sit at the table. Wiley came into the inner circle, and Tal began asking him questions about the lit. His answers undoubtedly surprised everyone. Sometimes it was hard to believe that Wiley had something to say. Most of the time he spent his time in the outer circle, or reading Calvin & Hobbes, yet he clearly had thoughts about this book. Soon, people began raising their hands after Wiley had sat back. I looked over at him, to see what his facial expression was, and I couldn’t read anything. Although throughout that lit class I noticed Wiley speaking a bit more. It wasn’t anything big, just bits here and there, and I just want to write about that, because I think that sometimes we forget the quieter people. It’s hard to remember the people who are on the doorstep, looking in. Sometimes we forget those people, because we’re too caught up about what’s going on the inside of the house. It’s important to invite the people on the outside of the house, because then they might feel more comfortable, or at least know that they’re welcome on the inside of the house. Lit went by, and I commented on and off, but I was also folding origami butterflies, which Ezra had taught us to do the day previously. I had the idea of colouring them in later. I would take a piece of paper out of my notebook, fold it into a triangle, and then rip it, which would create a near-perfect square, then I’d begin folding. Soon I had six different butterflies, each different size. After class had ended and the eighties were leaving for Math, and the nineties began study, Ezra handed me an origami lotus flower that he’d made. I thanked him, then put it neatly next to my butterflies in a neat pile, in the unorganized desk. At first, during study everyone thought that we were in the midst of a crisis, for no one had brought the chips, but then Seely ran in and plopped some Dill Pickle flavored chips in the middle of the table. I was skeptical at first, but then was educated by Finn about how good they tasted, and then I grudgingly took a bite, and took a handful more. Study passed and we went to Math, where we began to overview the homework.
An hour and 45 minutes later, we dismissed math class. Everyone had been stuck on one problem, problem number 14. It was finding the dimension of a rectangle inside a rectangle when we only knew the perimeter of the outer rectangle. The only thing was that instead of it being something easy, it was Algebra, something that we’d learned the year before. In the end though, I had learned something. I went outside and for the remainder of the time I played soccer in anticipation of the 2v2 possession match that Oscar and Colt had set up. I had chosen my partner as Ethan (unwillingly) for two reasons, one: Lila kept saying no, even when I tried to do my baby eyes or whatever they’re called, and two: because I thought that it’d be fun to do with Ethan, despite the fact that I was pretty sure he’d never played soccer before, but I wanted to bond with him. Lunch ended too early, probably because we were 45 minutes over. While the eighties and sevies went to Study, the nineties went to science. I sat at the table (Finally) because I had gotten there on time, rather than late. Science went by in a breeze, and it was All-Tal, where we read two place descriptions. One was Leila’s, it was about last Spring, going up to a rock with Isabelle (A previous ninety), Anika, and me, and the silent tension that was happening in between us, which was eventually broken after Anika and Isabelle had left, and Leila had placed a crown of ferns on my head. The second place description was Anika’s, about the day that her cat had died (It was titled “Title, which after the place description created a big debate on what it should be called). I thought that her description of the place was clean and sharp. It kept every detail and feeling, and at some points the grief that was described felt surreal. After All-Tal ended, I walked downstairs to do my job, and then walked upstairs to soccer.
I walked into school cold, because it had seemed that since the beginning of the week the weather had just gotten worse and worse. The day had started off raining and gray, and in the beginning of the morning I didn’t want to be at school, but the entrance into the school changed that. Once I was there, I didn’t want to leave. I quickly hustled to the Big Room, and sat down at the table. Almost immediately meeting began, Owen had brought up how much he had enjoyed doing math with his mom the night before. I found myself smiling, I knew that Owen had been struggling, and I was glad that he was finally doing something about it. I raised my hand, because I had something to say, and once I was called on, I began talking. I talked about how when you’re writing weekly notes you get a new perspective on things, and I talked about how I had seen Wiley sort of begin to enter the school. I was proud of him, or felt happy for him, because this place can be especially overwhelming, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to enter in the middle of the school year. Then someone brought Quinn up, because she had been sick for a few days before, and I don’t remember who, but the person talked about how much Quinn’s presence affected this school. She was the person that would play any sport with anyone outside. Overall, she was someone who was super positive, and I can’t agree more with this statement. Quinn is someone who’s positive energy is so overwhelming that it’ll make anyone smile, even if they’re having a bad day. I know it might be too early to say this, but when I say the current eighth grade class as a ninth-grade class, I can see Quinn helping all the new seventh grader’s into the school, and helping the eighth graders through strife. Meeting ended, and Quinn (Rather fittingly) read her own poem:
‘Conversation of A Lifetime’
“Hello stone, can I talk to you?” I asked,
Wondering what the stone may say
“No, why must you talk to me?” The stone replied unwillingly.
“Well may I talk to your friend?” I asked, not surprised by the response
“Yes” The stones friend said before it could intervene
“Well, did you have a nice day?” I asked, looking at the darkness behind it
“Yes, but is that what you really want to be asking?” The stone replied,
It had known I was not there to make small talk
“No.” I said, taken aback
“Well then, get on with it.” The stone said
“Well, what do you like about being a rock?” I asked, somewhat bluntly.
“Surely watching the change around me,
Things getting smaller and bigger.” The stone said knowingly
It dawned on me then the amazing lives of living and non-living things,
The rock would see many moon cycles and all the change
“Do you watch the moon cycles and if so do you notice things about them?”
“Yes, it is a cycle at some times but it also changes randomly.
Also none of the humans know this or even think about it but there are sun cycles too.”
This made me think more of the things like this that may happen,
that maybe trees see, or… or dirt
“Thank you rock, thank you!” I said filled with joy and wonder.
“It is my pleasure, I rarely talk to any of you humans,
For some reason you think it silly to talk to us rocks and others.”
“There is just one more question I have,
How do you see these things?”
“Oh, of course
It is something you humans don’t consider.”
“I am a rock, I have no eyes, but I can see.
I have no ears, but I can hear.
And I have no mouth but I am talking to you.” The rock said,
It was as though it had prepared for this but I was here witnessing it.
“I will let you now ponder over this and you may come back if you gather more questions.
However for now, I will say, goodbye”
“Goodbye.” I said dumbfounded
“Oh yeah, and thank you. Really, thank you”
Meeting ended, and I left the room for Science. I walked in and took a seat at the amoeba-shaped stone table. My class normally crowded around it, perhaps nine people sitting at it at once. I guessed it was because of the fact that the last year that we were able to sit at the Science table was in 7th grade. Or at least, that’s why I did it. We did a brief lab, where we guessed the density of liquids, which we did by testing the flow of the liquids (which was our class’ idea). Rose then informed us that we wouldn’t know the true density of the liquids until the next day. Rose then began sorting cards into lab partner groups. I waited patiently as my group was named
“Ezra, Axel, and Oscar,”
Oscar and I immediately started laughing, as Ezra grimaced. In 7th or 8th grade this would’ve been the omen that the world was going to end because we would probably be the most unproductive group in science class history, but now we would see how our growth would do.
Despite the fact that Ezra seemed to dread doing science labs, I think we did pretty well. I felt that we were productive, and instead of talking to people outside of the science lab group, we kept most of the conversation about science and within the group. Eventually we finished the lab, and went outside to begin letterboxing, which was basically using coordinates on a compass to find a box, sort of like geocaching if you’ve ever done that. Oscar, Ezra, and I found the letterbox pretty quickly and then ran back down to the school building after signing all of our trail names into the book. Study began and after doing a bit of finishing up on the homework before, my class began practicing the Burning School poem, which I’m grateful that I recorded. Everyone in the ninth-grade class realized that reading was a lot harder than it seemed, and the frustrated curses never stopped. Study ended with jovial laughter and happy exasperation. Break came and ended, and I entered Math with enthusiasm. I knew that I was finally getting somewhere, so I exclaimed
“Math is going to be so fun today,”
Steve raised his hand, and I gave him a high five, and I wasn’t being sarcastic. Steve handed out pieces of paper with questions on it, and then we began doing some practice questions. For some reason, when I looked at the questions, instead of just seeing numbers, or in this case, lines, dots, and letters, I saw what connected them. I began writing things down that made sense to me. 20 minutes later we went over the quiz, and I realized that the answers that I had that made sense were right, and the ones that I got wrong, I knew what I had gotten wrong. I was proud of my work, and left Math with pride. I mingled in the basement for a bit, before going upstairs, and outside. I quickly returned inside after realizing how cold it was, and walked around a bit before it was time for the first project of the year, Jacques’ project about The Garden of Eden. For those who don’t know, Projects are an hour-long presentation about a certain topic. We had already chosen topics, and this year’s theme was Eutopia. Jacques’ project was a good example for what projects are supposed to be. At the end of his project, he asked us what our Eden was, something that we had been in, but then kicked out of. I immediately wrote “North Branch”. Tal began talking about it, but then I called him out for stealing my ideas, even though he was halfway across the room. The fact of North Branch is that it’s isolated. That’s why so many people think it’s either “Some hippy school in the woods” (Tal would like me to point out that he is the farthest thing away from a hippy as possible) or a place where people go to be antisocial nerds. Sure, we have antisocial nerds, and that’s what most of the school is, but is that really a bad thing? It’s a place where the antisocial nerds can be less antisocial, and still be nerds. On a more relative topic, it’s like an Eden because it’s isolated from everywhere else. But instead of temptation or a serpent, kicking us out of this paradise, it’s time. We have three years in this school, and I know that at the end of this year I’ll question every second that I spent on this. Was it right? Was it wasted? I dread the Summer after I graduate because I know this is what I’ll be thinking about, so I’m going to try my best not to waste any moments, and encourage others to do the same, even if it’s hard to imagine leaving the school in ninth grade, and maybe it’s best not to think about that. Eventually, Jacques’ project ended after most everyone had said their Eden, and then we went upstairs, for we had enough time to do Wiley’s speech. I didn’t know what it’d be about. I hadn’t talked to Wiley a lot, he seemed fairly comfortable when he wasn’t in class and was getting growingly comfortable in class, as I mentioned earlier. After he finished his speech, which in my opinion was to not think that writing was a waste of time, I re-commemorated what I had said earlier that morning, and also talked about how I was a similar way about Math compared to he was about Writing. It felt hard, and sometimes it felt better to give up because of how annoyingly hard it is, but eventually as you keep going, in Math it gets easier to use your mind and see problems differently without exhausting it, and with writing it probably gets easier to find things to write about and then write about them. I clapped loudly for Wiley because I knew that he was going to figure out this entire situation this year. I knew it. After pretending to play soccer with Ethan, I walked outside to the bus stop, and waited for the bus to come to bring me home.
I walked into school excited, as it was the last day of the week, but also because this was the last day when I’d have to remember things for Weekly Notes. Just kidding. I walked in and saw all the people sitting at the Big Room table, so I went down the stairs, put my backpack away, and did a 180 and walked right back into the big room, out of the basement. I took a seat next to Lila and took out my notebook and began drawing cars on it. Finn shared about his family going to trivia night the night before, and dominating because they had a few college professors on their team, Finn’s dad, Andy, and Finn’s grandmother. In North Branch, it’s sometimes hard to find time to do things with your family, because there’s a lot of work, and when you come back from the day you just want to collapse on your bed because the day has probably been both physically and emotionally stressfu or vigorousl. That’s why I was so glad that Finn had found a way to do something fun with his family, especially since he’d enjoyed it. I raised my hand, because I didn’t want to interrupt anyone who wouldn’t normally talk. Tal looked at me, signifying that I could speak, and I began to talk about the night before, when I was working on my Weekly Notes, but then sent a text message to Giles, who was a ninth grader from last year. I hadn’t really talked to Giles besides the graduation party night, which was before Summer had started. Eventually we talked about a large range of things, from NBS to stealing toilet seats from public schools. It felt good to talk to Giles, because he had been a sort of mentor or role model for me, someone who I looked up to. I forget who wrote it, but someone wrote about when we were in hybrid school, and seeing Giles throwing the wood into the fire, keeping the fire alive, which is a metaphor that I won’t explain because it’s fairly easy to see. Meeting ended with someone reading Poem, which I forgot, which is my fault. After poem was done Tal began speeches, because we had such a packed day. The first speech we read was Quinn’s, but before it began, Tal seemed somewhat down. I don’t remember what prompted the conversation, but Tal began talking about sometimes only boys talking in meeting, and those boys had said something every day. I felt the same way he did. Meeting that morning had felt empty and dissatisfying, as all meetings did when no-one who didn’t share often shared. As one of the people who perhaps talks too much, I hope others will too. To the people who feel like they talk too much: The best thing you can do is to raise your hand, but don’t wave it in the other people’s face, just place your elbow on a surface and wait for it to be completely silent, or for you to be called on. To the people who don’t talk that much: If you feel like you won’t be heard, you will, it’s amazing when Oprea or Fiona speaks in a meeting, because it feels fresh, and it feels like an empty void is being filled. If you feel like what you have to say isn’t important compared to what other people have to say, it is important as long as it has meaning to you. Don’t share about something meaningless like… Well, there really isn’t anything that isn’t meaningful, because as long as it happened to you, you can attach meaning to it, or we can help you realize why you chose to share it. Wiley continued the conversation by saying how good he felt once he started talking, after much encouragement from Lillian and Colt, two of his classmates. Cullen said the same thing. The reason you have classmates is for them to be talked to about your problems, so if it feels so bad that you don’t really feel comfortable bringing something up in meeting, then find someone you’re comfortable with and talk to them about it. Eventually the conversation ended satisfactorily, feeling much better than the end of meeting. Quinn went outside and let out a beastly scream, and then began doing her speech. It was about fear, and how she had overcome it. I think that in a lot of speeches it’s hard to follow through on what you say in the speech, but it feels different with Quinn. I’ve never known her to lie, and it seems like in the speech she had already been working on it. I brought up about how much her presence matters to this school. She walks into the school or the room and the good feeling of being around someone kind follows her. After Quinn, we had minimal time, so Oprea did her speech, and it was about being there for people. Oprea’s only been here for a few weeks, but she seems to be one of the people to help her classmates if they need help. She keeps her own personality instead of letting other people know her, but she’s also not completely ignorant to people, she walks the fine line in between, which I think is an admirable trait of her’s (Even though she hates Pizza because she’s Gluten Free). Rose separated us into groups, confusing the two Leila/Lila’s multiple times, but once we had settled down in the science room Rose separated us into lab partners. I was partnered with Cullen, and we both took turns doing the work, because the lab was really only able to be done by one person at a time. After a little while, we finished up science and went downstairs to Steve’s class, which was cartooning. I loved cartooning, because I did art, and my art style was sort of cartoonish. Steve told us that we were going to be doing comic strips about what had happened in the school. I drew a comic about Monday, when we had been in the basement and the lights had turned off and the chaos that ensued. Eventually we finished cartooning class, and I got ready for the 2v2 possession game that Ethan and I were doing, which was against Lillian and Ezra, which in my opinion was a ridiculous match up because it was me (someone who’s an okay soccer player) Ethan (Who’s really good but hasn’t really ever played outside of lunch) against Ezra (A good player) and Lillian (Who plays club soccer for Far Post). No surprise, they won, but I was happy because I had played soccer with Ethan, and as Tal pointed out later, I had sort of brought him in a little bit, despite the fact that he might’ve not wanted to bring me in. What made me even more jubilant was when I was sitting on the bench and Ethan walked up to me and sat down next to me and said good job, and I said the same back, he responded with something like “You did most of the work,” which is not true, because in 2v2 possession you need two players playing, and although we did lose by quite a bit, we still both had possession at one point, and I was proud of that. The bell rang and we went inside, to the Big Room, for the final speech of the day before we decorated the Burning School structure. The final speech was written by Owen, and I thought that it was about how you can’t let your view of someone be consumed by their political/social views are, because even though you might think that you are right and they are wrong, behind that black and white view is the fact that they are human, just like you. Owen did a great job, and although he was reading about things that were somewhat sad, he read it joyfully. Owen’s speech finished, and after everyone handed in their notes, we all went downstairs to grab the things that we were going to hang up at Burning School. I grabbed my stuff and rushed outside to the sound of staples slapping against the wood and people scuffling around with papers. After finishing hanging up all of my stuff on the burning school, I sat down next to Colt, who was sitting next to Lila, who was sitting next to Lillian. These were the same people who I cried with the year before, and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to cry with them again. Owen sat down, and his face was red. I patted him on the back, along with Colt, whose eyes had begun to form pools at the bottom. Colt patted me back and Owen nodded at me. My eyes began to sting, but I never began to cry, or at least I wasn’t sobbing. Maybe a few tears spilled. I looked over at Lila, who raised her eyebrows at me, for I had said that I probably wouldn’t cry during Burning School. I don’t know why I said that, but my face probably contradicted that statement. I stood up and walked around the Burning School, reading what everyone had put up. Eventually, we began to go around a circle without raising hands, reading things that were meaningful aloud. Once we finished, we were instructed to grab to leaves from the woods. I found one, and then found another, which was spotted by Stella, but I grabbed it before she could. Then I gave it back to her, giving a dry laugh. I grabbed another orange-ish leaf that had probably fallen from a tree above, and walked back to the Burning School and stapled the two leaves to each other. The day finished with everyone walking inside together, and I had finally begun to feel connected to my school. This has been a good week, I concluded, in my mind.
In the beginning of The Red Pony, there is a boy, Jody. He is ten years old. He has a few chores which he does haphazardly and thoughtlessly. He’s bored. He throws stones at birds, kicks musk-melons, and is really invested in nothing. He is curious but aimless. He possesses a 22. rifle, but he’s not old enough to have cartridges. Upon receiving the red pony from his father, he is given his first opportunity to take care of something, and now he must engage in meaningful work. For the first time in his life, he gets up before the ringing of the bell to head down to the barn. He begins to take pride in his labor, thinking of how he might do it better and better. He is in love with something living for the first time.
This is an important step for him. With age comes responsibility. As he takes care of his horse, readying it for saddling and riding, he begins to imagine himself into his future. It is thrilling, the surge of life force embodied in both the pony and the boy. He pays attention to the musculature and gleaming coat, the flickering ears, to the way he can help his pony prosper, alert to the life before him. As a small boy though, he is not yet ready or able to imagine a darker side to that future. He can not imagine the horse’s throat having to be cut, or the bloody phlegm, or that sickness and vultures that would carry his horse away. He can not know that inchoate rage and loss and grief will be a part of the gift. So the gift of the horse carries with it the totality of life force, and death. This is what Jody comes to see and begin to understand. It’s his first vision of the awesome dimensions of living. Though we are sure that his father did not give him this pony to teach him about loss and grief, what happens to the pony becomes a necessary part of Jody’s learning.
It’s a bit like Adam and Eve in the Garden. Before they are banished and sent east of Eden, they are in a suspended state of being where they know nothing of love or labor, accomplishment or loss, tension or growth. They are just “there” with no center around which to build their own lives. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, when they are sent from the garden, the last lines read:
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld Of Paradise, so late their happy seat, Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms: Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.
It’s important to note that once out of Eden, Adam and Eve now have each other. They hold hands, bonded in human love, leaning upon each other, with the world newly stretching out to infinity. There is terror and loss in it, of moving from one state of being to another, bound up in a mistake or misstep. But it’s also an image of regeneration, of the immensity of new beginnings, alive with the possibility of choice and will and creation. There are tears, yes, but they are wiped soon, and the world lays all before them, and they now must make their way.
In the very first chapter, the horse, so late Jody’s happy seat, is lost. So he is initiated into the blood and marrow of life. Seeing the vultures peck at his dead pony’s eyes, he thinks he could kill death. He can’t, because death must come, somehow, some way. He’s touched and has been touched by the fire and passion of life and death, and so awakens into the greater dimensions of his own existence.
To read the first chapter is to feel heartbreak. It is also true that our students, with their expanding minds and fast blooming consciousness, are becoming aware of so much at this stage of their lives. They are seeing more, understanding more, changing more. Their brains are becoming ever more complex, with the ability to think about their feelings, see themselves from outside their own bodies, to think and wonder about what others may be thinking or feeling. The amount of new thought and understanding is staggering and sometimes overwhelming, the speed with which change overcomes them dizzying. Among other new horizons, kids the age of those at North Branch School are recognizing in a conscious way their place in the world, that they have the power and responsibility to begin to think about their place in the world. They get to, and must, chose how they will make their place, how they will “dare to disturb the universe.” They feel and begin to comprehend the tensions and struggles of the adults around them. They go from seeing things in concrete and literal terms to being able to see abstractly, figuratively, meta-cognitively. They begin to sense the size of the world, the depth of feeling, the immensity of what there is to learn, the nature of human love and compassion, and the sometimes scary abyss of what they do not yet know.
This tension, these new forces buffeting them, these tectonic shifts and rough dislocations are why there is so much emotion and energy in them, why suddenly out of stillness or stagnation there is eruption and shifting. These places of tension, as with Jody and his pony, are where the most learning happens.
I mentioned the Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Writer” at our parent meeting the other night. For me, as a teacher and parent, as someone who has spent 30-plus years watching and learning from adolescents, this poem captures the essence of what is happening to kids this age.
As rites of passage from cultures all over the world remind us, adolescence is a time of crossing over. From childhood to adulthood, from “Eden” into the world, from living in a world that has been made to having the power to make the world; from being held to learning how to hold; from the bliss of innocence to a beginning comprehension of the grit and beauty of experience.
In her room at the prow of the house Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden, My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy: I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses, As if to reject my thought and its easy figure. A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking, And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago; How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it; And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door, We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody, For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back, Beating a smooth course for the right window And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling, Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish What I wished you before, but harder.
This poem marks that time and place where a child finds herself ready to chart her “smooth course for the right window” of her life. She wants to write, to imagine herself, to begin making a story. The father offers up a simple metaphor early in the poem: The stuff of her life is “great cargo, and I wish her a lucky passage.” It’s too easy though. He’s left out the hard part. He later realizes that this is an “easy figure,” a simple, depthless way to have thought about it. He realizes this after remembering the starling that was strapped in the room, that battered its head against the wall, kept trying, kept regathering its wits to try again. Remembering this, the father understands that the pain, the stumbling starts and restarts, the gathering of wits, the repeated struggles–all of this is necessary for her find herself and to author her own story. As difficult as it is, there are times where he must stand back, close by but back, to listen, trust, hope, observe, wait, and know that she will find her way.
It is a tenuous place to be. I suppose it’s a time of “holding on loosely” as the terrible song by .38 Special once reminded us. We want to have our hands on them, be guiding them, directing them, not letting them fall or fail. But there are times when they do need to be alone to struggle and find their way, to know what tension is and how to navigate their way through it. In the struggle and the repeated attempts is where the most learning and growth happens. They are learning that they must shape the world with as much care as Jody tended to his pony. That’s where they really begin to see themselves finding and making a way that is their own.
At the beginning of the year, I sometimes read to the kids this poem, “Keeping Quiet,” by Pablo Neruda. (English translation by Alastair Reid)
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth let’s not speak in any language, let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines, we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victory with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
There is a lot to the poem, but there are some specific parts that speak to our project here. Of course, we don’t want them to be still. We want them moving, shouting, laughing, trying, crying, explaining, re-seeing, describing, running, building, drawing, and talking. Nor do we want silence. We are a very verbal school. We cherish talking and discussing and joking. We love gentle, loving teasing. We love to hear and learn about the history of things–the history behind Stephen Spender’s poem. The history behind The Red Pony. The history behind math languages. The history of the earth. The history behind a family’s move. The history of a child’s journey at the school. We love to hear about it and know about it. We want to let every story in, important ones and less important ones. Our school is decidedly NOT quiet or still.
And yet. We ask for stillness. We ask for a place to be still. We try to slow down so we can have big and small conversations, to find the Big Mind. We began the week by walking the labyrinth. It was weedy and packed from a summer of neglect. In the silence, our steps whispered against the high grass. A slight grinding and crunching as we made our solitary journey on the sandy gravel in the midst of our peers. From the outside, it looked disordered. Monkish adolescents with their hands behind their backs, walking in every direction and seemingly going no where. On the inside, the mental interior, each person making their way.
In a unicursal labyrinth like ours, there is only one way in and one way out. Each person follows the same lengthy journey, and each person travels it alone. But not really alone, because we are traveling together. We have a shared experience. Your journey, my journey, our journey. Each of us is at a different place, and yet, there we all are together. Each of us finding a center, the center. Each of us gets there in unique and similar ways.
Our school derives its effecting power from this dynamic. All of us are learning and growing together. An understanding that we are all at different places. A willingness to be patient and listen, walk slowly, honor the natural pace of things.
However, Neruda writes, “What I want should not be confused/ with total inactivity. Life is what it is about.” After brief moments of quiet and introspection, we explode back into our life in school. Moving from class to class. Enormous collective laughter. Lyle the Trash-man coming for the Friday pick-up. Noise and chaos, sawing and hammering, as happened on the patio this week, with the beginning of the construction of the Burning School. A load of wood from Genevieve’s family—cut-offs from trees they have been milling on their property— gave us something to work with. We teachers did not get too involved. We brought in a couple of screw guns and that was it. A very “home-made” sun tower is taking form. It may eventually have a small “homemade” model of a single coronavirus hanging inside. I think the idea is for the Coronavirus to be obliterated and to burst upward into a live sustaining sun, but we are not sure.
However it may be, the sounds of adolescents measuring, arguing, deciding, sawing, hammering, play-acting, joining–the clattering of wood, the scraping of the ladder over the patio stones, the voices saying, “What can I do?” the supervisors being bossy, the workers actually doing something. There is a happy chaos of activity which comes close to being performance art, a very strange and comical performance art. We purposely don’t get involved. It’s theirs to build. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be plumb. But it will have their handprints on it.
Others may not participate directly. One group made their own small structure off to the side in the grass, a neatly “woven” tent of short boards. It was done with no fanfare and near silence. It stands as testament that there are other kinds of building going on. Others are in the woods, practicing reading their speeches to a classmate, or kicking a ball, or just watching bemusedly while sitting on the stone wall. The sun is bright and the year is before us.
So it is never really silent–not for long anyway. But from time to time we demand it. Because in silence new thoughts can take root. The noise and static of frantic socializing and anxious worrying can be stilled and a new thread can be picked up. We want to understand ourselves, see our life, understand something big. These kids, no more or less than us, want this for themselves. In the span between frenzied play, the variety of structures, ideas, and concepts we build in classes, and the moments of solitude and quiet, we can locate the many modalities of their beginning attempts to understand who they are and who they want to be.
*** One poem read by Anika this week was from the poet David Whyte. It wasn’t actually a poem, but rather a part of an essay. It began like this: “Close is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up….Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there.”
I think this comes close (if I may say) to where we are. In the year we study Eutopia (this year) there is much ongoing thought around the impossibility of reaching an ultimate reality, or a perfect world. We can imagine it. We can hope for it. We can argue about it. We can debate the merit of one way of living as that compares to another. But we eventually come around to the idea that there is not ONE PLACE–there is no singular Utopia–but there can be a “good” place. A Eutopia. A place of goodness.
So what are the conditions in which the Good Place may be made and found? One starts from feeling. We ask: How do you want to feel? How does your brother or sister want to feel? How do we want our fellow humans to feel? What do we want for them? What can we do to build this place which honors each of us, allows us to become full, to strive and try, where we can express our sigular nature and grow as each of us will? What is the tension between conflict, peace, tension, flexibility, freedom, and responsibility?From this we have a beginning, as in their speeches, which are their first maps and legends for plotting an individual and collective course.
This is where we are now. Our best learning—as a school, and as individual scholars in each of the disciplines—comes when we accept we are close but not yet there, when we can always see, with a beginner’s mind, that we are in a continual progression. The poet Stanley Kunitz told James Wright: “I am in love with a wild perfection.” On one hand we hold the ideal out in front of us. On the other hand, we say, “it is always growing and changing, even as we ourselves are.” The process is wild—in the sense that it is alive, and we embrace that living and those unexpected turns and offshoots. For us, the best happens when we are fusing a clear sense of “where I was, where I am, and where I want to go.” This means a lot of higher-order abstract thinking. This kind of thinking is tiring and demanding. It’s what we do a lot of the time. A child will grow magnificently when they can see how they once struggled in math or science or writing, and clearly see what is hard now and what is easier, and then decide how they want to proceed. I must keep working because working got me to this point. Don’t let old patterns or thought or action become routine. Keep trying a new way. Learn from the past, but don’t be a slave to it or confined by it. Set a goal and work for it.
Perfection is not the aim: living fully is.
We are definitely in the just-beginning phase. The ninth graders are in a different place than the seventh graders. Sometimes we have said that for the seventh graders, they are just getting in the boat and rowing out to the mouth of the harbor. The eighth-graders are out in the middle of the ocean. They have a memory of the harbor from whence they came, and they have only vague intimations of the farther shore towards which they row. The ninth graders are still out of sight of the farther shore, but they can smell land, they are seeing high billowing cloud formations which are signs of what is to come. One of the beauties of this school is that as each of them goes on his or her own journey, everyone else is watching and helping and supporting them. This is what happens when they hear their speeches: they begin to discover each other as complex and evolving beings—wherever each of them is—and they cheer for each other, and they encourage each other.
When we are teaching, we will count to twelve. Then we step back and we watch. We never leave the room though, not truly, or entirely. We want them to have a sense of themselves, to begin to fill the room and school and world with themselves. And that special kind of “quiet” is what we are seeing and hearing now.
At the end of the week, we weeded the labyrinth. This has become an annual ritual. I think of it as cleaning the slate. Clearing the path. Renewing our vows for the journey. In thirty minutes, the weedy paths looked nearly like a spiraling Zen garden. All our hands made it so. Now we can walk in and move to the center. We won’t get to the perfect place, not entirely or ever, but we will get very close.
Interview conducted by Alicia Tebeau-Sherry, GWP Editorial Fellow
1. Where are you and the North Branch School, are you still teaching? Has NBS changed at all since finishing Hearts of the Mountain?
We are still going strong, beginning our 21st year. I wrote Hearts of the Mountain over several years, combining a variety of moments, incidents, and experiences in and out of the classroom to make the “year” which I describe in the book. The school continues in much the same vein as described in the book. A lot of laughter, tears, hard work, spontaneity, letting the kids in each class each year put an imprint on the school, building something rigorous, new, and unpredictable. One thing that remains consistent is we never want one year to replicate another. We want each year to be an experience unto itself, influenced by real events, the chemistry of the kids and the group and the personalities, and what our lives bring to us over the stretch of the year.
2. You previously published another book about building North Branch School and its first years, A Room for Learning (2009, St. Martin’s Press). How is Hearts of the Mountain different? Was the process of writing this one different from the first?
A Room for Learning sketched out the dream of a school—how an idea became a living entity. It explored our hopes and ideals, even as we were discovering them. The book dealt with a lot of my own inner worries and anxieties: would it, could it work? How to make something from nothing? How will it survive? The book endeavored to show how we breathed life into something and saw, finally, “lo, it is good!” HOTM tries to show what happened when we really got going, when we hit our stride, when we were established enough to go deeper with greater confidence. It also shows some of the maturation of me as a teacher and the school as an “institution.” I had a better sense of what the possibilities were, and more assurance from the parents and kids, more clarity about the magic that can be conjured. In HOTM you find us driving more into effective educational experiences: outdoor learning, a cap-stone experience like the “ninth-grade hike,” writing our own epic plays, using poetry with intensified purpose, uniting the disciplines more effectively, delving deeper into the dynamics of the group through writing, reflection, and conversation, full days spent in the snow in winter. ARFL was about the dream and beginning. HOTM is about the fully-fledged and in-flight school, real and authentic, and exciting every day.
3. A central idea in Hearts of the Mountain seems to be how you wanted North Branch to be a “living” school. What made you think about your school in this way or what made you want your school to be this way?
If a school doesn’t have an identifiable “story” happening in it, it’s going to be kind of pro forma and boring. School SHOULD be alive, there should be a story to be told out of what is happening. School should be filled with humanity, emotion, ambition, mistakes, fumbling, and glory. It should be like life—mysterious, exciting, thrilling, sometimes disappointing, difficult and sometimes a struggle—something to look forward to, something immense, something that reverberates with value and meaning. Each year should feel like a new adventure–a seventh-grader should be coming in feeling like they are beginning a great journey. The continuing journey for an eighth and ninth grade should be equally thrilling and anticipated. Learning, building a community, discovering yourself, making your way into and through a singular and miraculous life—all of that should be some of the work of a school—discovery and making meaning. We never want our school to be like another school—it should be as unique as the kids in it and as dynamic—emotionally, developmentally, creatively, spiritually, and physically. The school should be a direct reflection of who they are and are becoming. Inasmuch as they are living and growing beings of energy and potential, the school should reflect and be super-charged by those energies. That is the sense of “living school” I meant to get across.
4. Early on in the book, you also talk about how if a student knew that school was completely for them, that they would give devotion to their work and their classmates. This seems like such a universal idea that should be a part of all schools, why do you think students are unable to recognize this in schools unlike your own?
I am not sure other schools really give the classroom—the space, the time— to the kids. Other schools are generally driven by dictates at a remove from the kids’ specific needs. The difference at NBS is we are small. We sit in one room together and see each other and listen to each other. We make the words “this school is for you” manifest. They build a structure of rules, generally from their mistakes. They define and raise the standards as they see what is possible. They push each other, make demands from each other as students and as peers. They articulate what’s not going well, what they need to address. They are asked on the first day: “How do you want to live?” “How must you grow now?” “What is your holy grail.” “How can we make something never before seen in the history of schools.” Then they write ten pages about those questions, using their own lives and experiences as the source of their first tentative answers. They immediately see that our “text book” is them. All of this carries over into the other disciplines, to math and science. This matters. All of it matters. This is their life, their school, their time, and they feel a need and are expected to make the most of it. The very structure of the building reflects them, honors them, is very much like them: bright, textured, open, light, shambling, open doors, messy, filled with junk and words and art and expressions of self and old artifacts memorializing past times. They are allowed to be themselves—absurd, comical, afraid, ambitious, timid, changing, clueless, aspiring. They curse, cry, say stupid things, tell deep truths, share their lives with us and each other. They are safe, even when they screw up in spectacular ways and make shambolic messes. They are invited into a dynamic, fluid human community that they themselves create, and that’s a flow and a current that carries them and which we all ride together. They want to be a part of the world, each in their unique ways, and our school is scaled in a way that makes them feel this is possible. That is why they are willing to go all-in and devote themselves more fully and emotionally than one might see in a conventional school.
5. In the Fall section of your book, you alternate between stories of students and their interactions in your first days/months of class. On page 39, after quite a moving story from one of your students named Ariela, you say “when the classroom was theirs, it became a living thing.” This makes me wonder, what was the class environment like— lively, lots of conversation, less of the quiet work-time, etc? How did you balance work time versus free-flowing, sometimes completely student-led, discussions that make up many stories in the book?
The morning starts with a free and open “Quaker-style” meeting. Anyone can say anything. Dinner last night. Something frustrating that happened in class lately. Deeper worries: my father is stressed. My sister left for college. I’m worried about X–he’s been totally avoiding me. Did you see the news last night? That thing was so cool. Everyone is free in these discussions. We teachers participate as well. Sometimes there are awkward silences. Sometimes ribald laughter, sometimes discursive tangents. Sometimes the meeting turns and we have to grapple together with a serious issue affecting us all. We then head off to classes. Lit for 7th graders, math for 8th graders, science for 9th graders, etc. This rotation happens in the morning. There’s a lengthy morning break. They have to move freely and without structure. The kids are free then and during lunch to be anywhere in the building or outside. More often than not the doors are wide-open. They can run in the woods and on the field. In addition to the morning rotation, each class has a class “study” period with me. It’s quiet work time, talking time, project-doing time. We talk together or I work one-on-one with a kid. They have time to get help, get work back, ask questions, finish something. They determine what work they have to do. In the afternoon it is “All Tal” which means I have them all together. This may be art, writing, reading a story, practicing some kind of skill, a group conversation about something, a kid giving a presentation to the whole class, an exercise or experience, a movie, something outside, play-writing, etc. More often than not all the teachers show up for All-Tal, which allows all of the teachers to see them in various settings. Fridays’ are a little different, in that we may do more things as a whole school together–hikes, Winter Olympics, sculpture building, an all school-science lab, a hike in the woods. In all activities we teachers are present—and if something goes awry—something doesn’t work or there is a conflict, we will discuss it, debrief it, break it down. A lot of this is process, which is infinitely more important than product. The kids will always have feelings about anything we do and we have to talk about those feelings, good or bad. We lead these discussions, but quite often the older kids have learned how to help and move things along.
6. The story about another one of your students, Callum, and his reading of Animal Farm really stuck with me, because as you note, because of Callum’s sparked discussion about Boxer and enlarging hearts—a very vulnerable discussion if you will—the students would remember the book in a different way than just remembering it because they liked it. Are moments like these ones that made you feel like your “teaching style” was working? Were these “living” moments? What did moments like these really mean to you?
That particular moment is precisely what I mean by a “living school.” It’s those moments when something goes into the deep marrow and blood of the student, and where everyone in the room feels it together. Where we are all being changed, and seeing deeply. Where life and learning and school and a child merge in a beautiful transformative fury and cascade of revelation. I want school to never be boring—it should always be memorable. We spend so many years there! It MUST be memorable! I want them to be touched, affected, changed, disturbed—and I want them to feel and see those moments. If any of us think back onto our schooling, a precious few wonderful and terrible moments may stand out—where we felt or realized something, a breakthrough, a traumatic moment, a teacher having belief in us, a challenge we overcame—We want a great density of those kinds of moments—Every day! Every Class! We want an intense experience. Those are the moments that make teaching and me feel alive. But to create it and live it takes great energy and is exhausting—emotionally, psychologically, and creatively.
7. You dive into feelings with your students often and encourage your students to talk through what they are feeling throughout the book. Do you consider emotional intelligence or awareness as a part of what you are teaching your students? Do you think this is a vital skill all students should be learning in school?
Emotional intelligence is a powerful and transformative skill. One must be honestly aware of oneself before one can be a productive human and a good person. Emotional awareness is really a step towards greater powers of self-expression and actualization. I tend to shy from the term “intelligence”—I like “awareness” better as it’s more important simply that kids learn to feel all their feelings, to not be afraid, and see what there is to learn about themselves first. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear./ I learn by going where I have to go./ We think by feeling. What is there to know? / I hear my being dance from ear to ear,” writes poet Theodore Roethke. The feelings and understandings of adolescents are exponentially more complex, intense, and dense than what came before. They are seeing and feeling so much. But it’s difficult and sometimes overwhelming. We give them time and permission to look at all this. When they enter into it, they then begin to see and understand each other more clearly and openly. When a kid gets clear in themselves, in how they feel, what they want, acceptance of their strengths and weaknesses and what their powers are, they become infinitely more accepting and curious about others and the world. It opens them up to everything we are studying and doing.
8. Again, the emotional vulnerability you were able to spark in your students was quite remarkable to me. How did you navigate remembering, collecting, and choosing the stories and writing selections from your students in this book? Did you write them down in the moment through the years, or are they all from memory and old classwork?
I mainly selected and wrote about what still stood clearly in my memory. Also, the characters I write about had written their stories so clearly I could see and remember and even feel the story—their story—in a broader pedagogical context. Most of what I have learned about teaching and adolescents—95 percent—has come from reading their stories or listening to them muck around in the process of creating and learning about themselves. Much better than Grad School. We put out a 350-page collection of their writing every year, a lit mag called “The Undercurrent,” so I had access to a lot of material.
9. Much of the book is made up of the students’ writings and revelations from these vulnerable discussions you had in class. Your student Haley’s story and writing piece in particular about finding her true, authentic, beautiful self, really showed the power writing has in self-discovery. Do you think this book is as much about writing as it is about teaching and adolescence?
Absolutely. I think writing—any writing—is important for self-discovery. Kids at the age our kids are is one of the greatest and most intensive times of self-discovery and identity-building. So writing is an incredible tool. Not all the kids take to it completely. But they all do it, they all have stories to tell, they can all write beautiful sentences and truths that are their own. This sense of self-possession—of having one’s life, seeing it, holding it, treasuring it—a lot of it comes from the process of writing. It helps that I write too—I am engaged in the process they are. They see me writing, trying to make sense of things. I know for a fact that a large percentage of English teachers do not write. I think that’s practically criminal. It’s like a history teacher who does not read new history books or go to historical sites. Or an art teacher who doesn’t practice art. In our classrooms, we try to make it a writing community; a community of young philosophers, a community of scientists or mathematicians. Incidentally, both our math and science teachers write, read poems, create art. Steve writes and illustrates children’s books. Rose is a ceramicist and makes stained-glass. We teachers are all polymaths. That’s important for kids to see and experience—adults who are still learning and creating alongside them.
10. You reference and use poetry both to tell this story of your school and to teach your students. Has poetry always been something you used to connect with students and encourage their thinking and growing?
I majored in Lyric and Narrative Poetry. Pretty traditional. Shakespeare, Keats, T.S Eliot, etc. After college, I opened myself up to the entire universe of poetry. It was a great unfolding. Hundreds of new forms, voices, lines of artistic attack. I read hundreds of essays on the practice and meaning of poetry. I wrote poetry for about ten years, publishing in small magazines. I wasn’t that good of a poet, but I learned a hell of a lot. All of this seeped into the school and into my teaching. We end the morning meeting every day with a poem a kid has selected which is read aloud. Some days the poem is not affecting. Other days the room rings with the power of words and the intention behind the selection. The morning poem—which I describe in the book—is a ritual that Callum created and it goes on to this day. Poetry is a quick way in. It speaks of things we feel but do not have language for. It is elevated speech. It puts them in conversations with a kind of music of the heart and mind. It opens them up to the world of feeling and seeing. Often the poems chosen are about things we are studying: math, utopia, freedom, God, frogs, numbers, love, seasons, the size of the universe, history. So unimaginable connections are made which we could never plan. Most of the kids leave the school with a favorite poet that they consider “theirs” and have a handful of poems that were important to them over the years.
11. Do you have a favorite part of teaching?
Summer? Seriously. I am amused at how off-balance and awkward we are in the beginning when we don’t know ourselves yet and our days feel weird and freighted with the sense of possibility and newness. The middle is hard—a big mess and muddle—a hundred unresolved stories, unraveled threads, continuing struggles and revelations, all of the tension necessary for the group to come closer to each other and learn from each other—the tectonic movement, sometimes slow and sometimes sudden, of each of the kids growing and expanding as their year unfolds. This is where the work is—it’s gritty, stumbling, grueling, slow, and sometimes beautiful. I love the ending and the resolution—seeing them taller, changed, happy, excited, full of new understanding, proud and wistful, recognizing how far they’ve come, feeling what was created and seeing it end, then excited for what is to come. Then summer!
12. What do you hope readers take away from the stories in Hearts of the Mountain?
That schools can be so much more dynamic when they take the risk to open up, experiment, and let go of overly governed/staged educational modalities; when they allow teachers the flexibility to unhitch classrooms from schedules and systems and protocols so they can evolve into their own learning and community ecosystems; that scale and intimacy matter–there are advantages in smaller schools, schools within schools; that schools and teachers thrive when different kinds of classes and experiences and initiatives are allowed to breathe and prosper; that a full sense of humor is also necessary, healthy foolishness, retaining a childlike sense of things., where kids and teachers have space to be themselves in the ways that make them feel alive. Smaller schools foster intimacy, safety, trust, and community, all things kids this age are grappling with as they take their first steps away from the family and into the “world.”
I hope that readers will see and feel all that from the scenes in the book. That they will find that kids contain worlds inside them–their hearts are as big as mountains. They will give more, work harder, commit themselves more fully in such a setting as described in the book. I hope readers will understand that it’s okay for schools to stop trying to overly control what “Must Be Covered” and let the kids be more fully a part of the venture. Pacing schedules are the death of true learning and authentic teaching. I want readers to come away believing that if you ask them—the kids—they will tell you where they need to go, and what they need to do, what is important to them. I wanted to show that the energies emotions and conflicts and aspirations inside the kids—sometimes latent, sometimes molten—are the key to full engagement, intense work, devoted learning. I wanted readers to see that the secret is in locating and accessing those energies and hidden realms the kids carry within them and often can hardly hide. Allowing them free play, encouraging open, direct expression, honest engagement, straight talk on their level (not educator-speak)—this is the best way to truly honor who they are and are becoming. I want readers to come away with a new idea of what is possible for schools and kids.
“Andy, you aren’t going to die, you just feel like crap and aren’t thinking straight,” my mom said, trying to keep him as tied to reality as possible. Whenever she would do that I felt better. I was beginning to think like Andy was, too. There were many moments where we would just smile at each other, and I loved that.
“Let me be a reason for you to live,” I told him in my mind, hoping it would somehow reach him. – Declan, from his morning meeting comment, when his neighbor fell and he and his mom helped him.
“Rose made a ten letter word, “Chimpanzee.” I made a three-letter word, “‘hat’” – Tal, commenting on Rose’s morning meeting phot of their Banana Grams Game
“The world felt grey, all my music recommendations were grey (that’s the type of music I listen to), it was like the world was drawn from a pencil. I felt like I couldn’t talk to people. I’m not the most modern person, and I believe that whatever someone says on a computer can only be true to a certain extent. The world of a computer is hard, cold, like a pencil tip, sharp and grey. You have to think about what you say, you can’t have the spontaneous bursts of happiness.”- Axel, from one of his writing pieces; a scene about a ‘sudden epiphany’
“I began fleshing out these memories by coloring them in.” – Axel, from the same writing piece
“I didn’t feel sad about leaving anymore I felt happy for everyone playing in the snow and I knew that the school would go on and that I wasn’t really leaving, I was just moving on.” – Nate, from his ‘sudden epiphany’ scene
“Saturday night, I had a dream that we were all back at school together, in one huge group hug of 25 kids. As if it was the first time we had seen each other after quarantine. I remember a small part of me knowing it was surprisingly soon, but it still felt real. Then we went outside into the field, and we all held out a huge circular tarp maybe 30 feet wide, and flung things up from the middle of it. It was sort of weird, but when I woke up, I was reminded of the tarp game, and it was just nice to think about that. And that even though we are missing so many opportunities for those kinds of experiences because we can’t be together, at least we had that to look back on, and it made me happy.” —Viv, her morning meeting comment
“It’s easy to lose track of time, not because every day feels exactly the same, but because the days start to blur together and it feels like the transitions between them are slipping away. This all happened so fast, at the beginning of March, we thought that having to close school was a possibility, but a distant one. It feels like things like that have just been piling up: we close school, Vermont closes school, a city closes etc. It’s a little terrifying because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future at all. Now, it feels like everything that could possibly have happened has happened, but there is most likely more. When I saw the writing prompt for this week, I realized how many amazing memories I have from the fall. It feels like such a long time ago that we were all playing the helicopter game and having a wedding for Tal and Rose etc. We have come such a long way since then, a lot of things have happened and now we are here and the fall feels like a completely different world. ” —Leila; from her morning meeting comment
“Rose I just realized I accidentally uploaded all my lab pages from last week to Steve instead of you, but I fixed it.” – Iris; on the ninth grade science Google chat, showing yet another complication with the art of ‘online school’: the uploading of pictures
“Rose is working hard. And Steve is working hard. And Tal is working hard. And a lot of you are working hard. Wallace and Jasper are not working hard. They are lazy, hairy, sleepy, bums.” —Tal, from his afternoon comment, depicting Rose’s work station at home.
“Last night our family was watching a movie but soon I started to get uninterested in it. I walked up to the counter and got a piece of cake and sat down at our dinner table. I looked outside. The window was black with a light beaming Crystal looking raindrop. I watched it hit against the house, sparkling up into the blackness. It was in the middle of the field. There is no light near it. I wondered how one raindrop had so much color. I wanted to go out and touch it. The patterns seemed so real and so close. Like it was almost touching my hand. The light was blinding throughout the field. Shimmering across the pond. I never liked the rain. The loudness always scared me but now I had looked at it from a different perspective. It was not going to hurt me. I stared at this beaming light for most of the night. Hearing, watching and feeling it come closer even though it had not moved.” — Dinara, her afternoon meeting comment
“I’ve found myself missing my stained glass as if it were a person.” Declan, in response to Rose’s afternoon comment, which was talking about visiting the school for experiment supplies this morning and seeing all the things that were and were not there
“Yesterday, for a long while I stood at my door whimpering like a dog because I wanted to go out in the rain. . . . I got tired of standing, but that was more out of annoyance that I couldn’t execute my plans than boredom. I want to see something else other than the goddamn rain. And I think when you really think about it. That is the same thing that we are doing right now, as a school. We are seeing past the rain. Although the rain, in this case, is a deadly virus. We are planning and formulating the best path to take. We are seeing through the rain to the woods. The thick foliage. The promised land. The golden country. Something greater, where we are all together.” – Giles, from his morning meeting comment
“That’s me giving you the evil eye over the internet.” – Steve, during the ninth grade math class, staring very close to the camera at those who hadn’t sent their movies in to him
“You should take a selfie with my 7 inch eyeball on the screen.” – Steve,same as above, to Declan, who put the zoom meeting on his TV
“Do you see where the secret to power lies? It lies in the patients.” – Tal, during the ninth grade lit class, talking about McMurphy trying to lift the hydro control panel all alone, and the others just stand and watch, not helping
“The Chief knows where the big fish is, but he can only get there in his imagination.” ——Tal, during the nineties lit class, talking about Chief staring at a painting of a fisherman and telling the fisherman in his head where he should cast his fly instead of being a fisherman himself.
“Today in lit class I kind of saw a glimmer of hope in Finley although he didn’t write a response, he read the lit and seemed to be excited, talking about what he was thinking about in the book. I guess, Finley, that’s what I want to see more, even though you weren’t bouncing off the walls crazy about it you seemed more excited about the book, all of the metaphors, and everything.” – Luke’s afternoon meeting comment
“Although, I did laugh my ass off when Nate said, “Well, you can’t really count ‘vegetarian’ as a pizza option.” – getting 2 quotes in one: the italicized quote is from Steve’s afternoon meeting comment, and the other is Nate’s quote is from a ninth-grade math class problem
“Today my dad and I made breakfast for everyone, and I have been wanting to do things with him, or any of my family members, because I want things to talk about in meetings. I thought of doing this because Tal said in lit class yesterday, ‘that even though you’re behind a screen, you can say something just as powerful, and you can choose to do that, or you can do a two sentence comment.’ And for the past couple days I have been saying things that were two sentences, and saying things that most of them had no meaning. And Tal has been pressuring me to do my work, and sometimes I don’t feel like I’m contributing enough towards this, and making a commitment to be here while this is going on, and trying to participate.” – Ezra, his morning meeting comment, stepping it up
“We’ve always had an ok relationship, with lows and highs, but being stuck together has brought us together, which I’m really glad about.” – Viv, from her morning meeting comment, about her brother
“Rose is an excellent “actress.” I, on the other hand, will not be winning any Oscars There is so much work that goes into setting up and following through, but the actual shooting/acting part hardly amounts to any effort at all: My take away: editors should get more money than film actors.”- Tal, from his morning meeting comment about making a movie with Rose.
“If you can spell it, it’s a word.” – Declan, at the end of the ninth grade math class, defending “yeet” as a word, against Steve and I. who said it was not
“She asked for a blessing and asked for no more, and the choir kept singing of freedom.” – lyric from a song called “Birmingham Sunday,” in a video Tal showed us about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
Quotes from MLK Jr.’s eulogy for the 4 girls killed in the bombing: “We must work passionately . . . for the realization of the American dream” “Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with their conscience” “We must not lose faith in our white brothers” “Their lives were small in quantity but large in quality.”
“I finally looked up to see the attorneys and saw they too were weeping. “- Lisa McNair, sister of one of the four girls killed, recounting the court case 38 years later that finally convicted the four men who bombed the church
“But this is home, and you have to fight for your home and fight for it to be okay.” – Lisa McNair
“Lucky, then, we have two of these magical beans.” – the video on kidneys Rose showed us in science (ha ha)
“Steve, you crafty son of a toaster.” – Declan, on the all-school google chat, from a while ago, but is worth mentioning
“There’s so many TREES!” – yours truly, outside trying to make a birds-eye drawing of the yard
“I like Eli’s first step in taking care of goats: “You have to have goats. Check. We have goats!” – Tal; from his morning meeting comment, talking about Eli’s video from the film festival on how to take care of goats
“The part of school that feels like we are missing the most is the in between the classes where we play and mess around together. . . . Now I know how to take care of goats and how to cook fruit loop biscuits. Tal and Rose’s made me laugh a lot. When Anika asked for a hug, I really, really, really more than anything wanted to be giving her a hug. I miss all the hugs I get and give at school. I miss hugging Greyson in the morning when I walk into the school and hugging Anika everyday when I leave. I miss Iris’s spontaneous hugs that she gives to everybody. In my house, if I try to hug my sister she threatens to do what she calls “harming” me, so I avoid hugging her too much. The movies also gave me a chance to see the eighth and ninth-graders, who I see for five minutes during the meeting, but I haven’t really talked to since we left.” – Leila, from her morning meeting comment
“I am also very grateful to Steve for approaching everything with the same sort of enthusiasm and hilarity and excitement as he normally would at school. That enthusiasm makes up a large part of the school and I am not sure what we would do without things like film festivals or gingerbread making or spaghetti swings.”- Isabelle; from her morning meeting comment
I loved the film fest, It was great to see why I missed you all so much to begin with and why I want to go back to school, I sometimes forget the magic that happens in that school. We have been doing online classes for weeks, I know I am with the same people but we are doing school in the same way as everyone else, it gets harder and harder to open my computer everyday, but the film fest helped that a lot it just reminded me of what we are trying to keep going. – Grey; his morning meeting comment
“Every little thing! Is gonna be alright!” – Nate, from the ninth grade math group chat, while we were trying to get to the assignment Steve gave us
“I should’ve had vodka for breakfast today…” – Steve; from the ninth grade math group chat, trying to fix the assignment he gave us
DIGITS! . . . 0-9, that’s how we write numbers . . . numbers . . . Goddammit! – Steve; on the ninth grade group chat, going insane, trying to get my class to understand a math problem
He that is thy friend indeed,
He will help thee in thy need:
If thou sorrow, he will weep;
If thou wake, he cannot sleep:
Thus of every grief in heart
He with thee doth bear a part.
These are certain signs to know
Faithful friend from flattering foe.
—William Shakespeare…Rose; from her afternoon meeting comment; every once in a while she puts a photo of a ninth grader’s stained glass on the meeting log and a quote or part of a poem under it; this was under Nate’s
“This afternoon I’ve been abnormally motivated, and have been cleaning the house as if it were an Olympic sport, and I was going for gold.” – Declan, from his afternoon meeting comment
“One of the things that is frustrating about having school this way is that we can’t just all sit down and talk together as a school in a way that is functional for the sort of conversation that things like this require. – Isabelle, from her afternoon comment, talking about trying to get the people who are distant and struggling to talk about what is going on
“When I was little all I wanted to do was run out into the rain or after it rained so I could run and pick up the worms from under rocks and other places. Then I would have handfuls of worms and sing with them twirling around in my small hands. Then I got up suddenly and opened the door, which my dog automatically heard and ran outside in the rain with me. It was getting darker in the day and gloomy with some rain, but not a lot and I was in my now wet socks just running around. Nadja was following me and I ran around, rain falling all around me and on me.” – Jholai, from her morning meeting comment
“I think everyone’s a germaphobe these days.” – Steve, during the ninth grade math class
“Your role is as a seasoned, veteran model . . . if you guys don’t do this, we will peter out and fall and collapse. “- Tal; talking to the nineties; he needs our energy back: . . . “if you didn’t write a comment, you missed the class . . . that’s the expectation: nothing less than 100%.”
“People who have English accents are 1000 times smarter than us. “- Tal, during the ninth grade art class
Happy charcoal drawing. – a narrator, at the end of one of the videos Tal showed us on how to make charcoal
“just wait shell say sum event” – Iris; on the ninth grade science group chat; meaning to say: just wait, “she’ll say something eventually”
“gO FINLEY GO GO FINLEY GO!!!!!!!” – Tal, commenting to the beginning of Finley’s afternoon comment, the first meeting comment he has written in the past couple weeks
“The other day, we got out our paddleboards and went on the pond. We quickly noticed two Mallard ducks, a male and a female, swimming one the far end, so we were quiet and careful not to startle them. I had brought out my phone to try to take some pictures, so we tried to get close enough to them without them flying away. Maybe 15 feet away from them was a branch sticking up out of the water, which my brother grabbed onto, so the wind wouldn’t blow us away. I put my paddle on his board so that I was anchored there too, and then we just lay there, in the sun, watching the ducks and waiting for them to swim more out into the open- which they didn’t end up doing. I thought he would get bored after a few minutes, and want to go back, but to my surprise he just lay there, watching them, being very still.” – Viv, from her afternoon comment, talking about being with her younger brother
The second week of remote NBS is in the books (or screen). We are trying to see it for what it presents: possibility, a chance to try our skills at something different, the challenge to do it better than it’s been done. We’re dealt a hand of cards, we play the best ones we’ve got. Again, as ever, we find that the knitted fabric of togetherness and contact is the most important and most difficult element to sustain. But we are still connected, and there is joy and laughter in every class. We look forward to reading the kids’ comments in the meeting log every morning. We look forward to our classes. We look forward to signing off at the end of the day. The regular check-ins and the hundreds of pages of daily meeting comments have made it feel as though we have some continuity. . When the kids say goodbye on Zoom at the end of each class, it has a special poignancy. We feel our having been with each other, and we are assured that we will be back together again the next day.
On Saturday Elise sent me a curated list of quotes that had been said, written, overheard, or copied down over the week, from Meeting comments to Zoom meetings to Google Chats to classes to books we’d read, videos watched or listened to. Some of the quotes were from teachers, some were from students, some were from documentaries we showed. (See here https://panthermountain.blog/2020/03/28/weekly-notes-no-wait-weekly-quotes/ ). Elise said that since we did not have Weekly Notes, this could serve as a sort of stand-in record. In essence, Elise looked at the situation and made an adaptation, Over the years I have learned that when the kids start making something new out of something broken or old, then we are really doing it right. Whether it is making a play out of an old joke from October, or a church steeple out of screws and pine-boughs, or staging a wedding in the field with dresses made of butcher paper and burlaps sacks. Whether it is a sculpted face made out of bent wire or a game using a tarp that everyone learns or a perfectly set table for 29 people for a pizza feast. When the kids invent and those inventions are suffused with love and fun and joy, when a new tendril shoots out or a blossom emerges from the muck—those are the high points. Elise’s list is a new branch growing off what we are doing. When you read it you will see a smidgeon of the many fruits of just one week of school.
I reminded the kids over the last days that they had done everything they had needed to do as a class up to the point when we had to close the school. They had done it exactly right, according to the dictates of this year, these circumstances, this collection of humans. All of their mistakes, all our screw-ups, all our good days and bad days—all of it had fallen and played out exactly as it should have. The Nineties had led; the Eighties had stepped up; the Sevies had come into the school with vigor and courage.
Having done this a fair long time now, I’ve come to know that certain occurrences at certain points in the year foretell certain outcomes. For instance, if there is a Ninth-grader who takes on the mantle of leading the building of the Burning School structure, and does that by incorporating seventh and eighth graders as “apprentices,” it’s going to be a great year. If older kids come in with their voices shaking and then cry in the first class on the first day when I ask, “How do you want to live?” we will have a higher degree of emotional openness and a deeper experience of learning. If the kids flock to the science room one day at lunch for some wild dancing and laughter around Rose’s table, and then the next day assemble in a large group the math room to receive the rules straight from Steve concerning the latest version of “Assassin;” and then on the third day the building because the entire school left at lunch to go play in the snow on the Hill, then the school is humming and all is going to plan.
The corollary: if there are conflicts, tears, frustration, agitation, stubborn problems, and knotty dilemmas, and the kids are talking together about it, we are still going to get somewhere good. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we welcome creative tension. No growth or change can happen without tension. We find ourselves at an impasse. Currents of anger or fear or indecision may be present. Still, we gather together to examine it and let the feeling play out and be expressed. Listening, and moving carefully, sometimes achingly, we determine our needs and our options. We decide on how to move together. A new situation is born out of the old. We move and build again. It is not clean, it is not perfect, but we say that living in these difficult moments is as important as creating and living in joyful moments.
So we are always on the lookout for these moments, good or bad, hard or easy. Some of these “indicators” happen at precise and predictable times. It is the day that the Fed Ex man walks into the room and asks me to sign for the shipment of toilet paper. I say to him, “I’ll have my associate sign. Greyson?” Greyson looks around in terror and shock and points to himself, mouthing the words, “Me?” “Yes, Greyson, you’re my associate, get your fanny over here and sign for this toilet paper.” From that day forward Greyson is more fully visible in the eyes of his classmates. The day of Burning School, Rose arrives in the science room to start making pizzas, and all the the ninth-grader are already there assmebled before her, with aprons on and music playing from a mini-speaker, the fire already lit in the bread oven. In the week before Thanksgiving, a ninth-grader will say, “Tal, when are we doing peanut sales!?” and then there will ensue a half-hour’s worth of reminiscing about the comedy of errors and surprise and hilarity about the previous two years’ Peanut Sales. In March a musical-minded student will say, “Should we start getting the music together for the play?” I will say, “Yes, you organize it and let everyone know.” These moments occur with such perfect regularity that I think of them as the stars in the constellation of our school year; I can know where we are and how far we have to go and our relative speed simply by their sudden and steady bright appearance week after week.
On the Tuesday before we closed the school, we had been in play rehearsal. Ezra was absent. Someone shouted, “Who’ll be Marge?” Marge was Ezra’s character. A chorus of shouts answered, “I will! I will!” “Oscar, you’re it!” I shouted. Oscar proceeded to bumble through Marge’s lines. It was impossibly comical. He didn’t know where to stand or which way to go or where to look. His ramshackle but determined imitation of Ezra’s Marge was ridiculously and perfectly awful and spectacularly free and uninhibited.All twenty-five of us broke up laughing, doubled-over, breathless, red-faced, coughing, stomach-hurting laughter. Everyone laughing, together, at the same time, at the same thing, for the same reason. Not one iota malicious, and Oscar laughing the hardest. All mad joy, nobody on the outside, everyone on the inside, all of us together. It took a good two minutes to gather ourselves and reset the scene again. And then the laughing started all over.
This happens every year sometime in the middle of March. We’re down in the dark, dirty basement with our terrible play and our unfinished script, with the usual currents of irritation and frustration and chaotic un-doneness, and then through some mysterious cosmic predetermined order, the last vestiges of walls or veils between us dissolve, and we are all in the unity of understanding of our mutual and shared being. No one ever sees this but us. No audience, no parents, no graduation crowd. Never again is the play so funny as that moment, so perfectly timed, so true.
I told the kids that that is eutopia. That moment when everyone is suddenly and naturally and unexpectedly stitched together. All the work of the months before. All the tension and arguments and fears and screw-ups and half-done work and all the good moments, too, now have their denouement, here in the basement at 2:48 pm on Tuesday under the chicken lights. Such a moment is not a miracle. It was made through work and time, and it arrived right when it was supposed to, and they lived it together. Those moments are brief and they are rare, but they had a taste of it. And they will taste it again.
I told all of them that we will, no matter what, “end this year” in a way that is fitting and celebratory. We can’t know when that will be. But at the first suitable moment, at the first chance we can, we will assemble to celebrate our year and what was made and learned. And let’s be clear, the learning is still going on and in, and perhaps in deeper ways than we could imagine. We will gather somewhere. We will hike to the top of a mountain. We will light a raging bonfire. We will play a fully-costumed Wiffle Ball game; we will hold a graduation ceremony in which we will read our speeches and say thank you, thank you and goodbye to the ninth graders.
In the meantime, we can only do what we can do and that is, simply, to stay together. This has been the essential teaching and learning in the last two weeks. It will have to be the central learning for the next many more weeks to come. We play the best cards we’re dealt. As Sam wrote in the meeting notes, we still have time. “So we can’t just say it isn’t gonna happen. It might not be looking up. But if we don’t think positively then we won’t enjoy the time we have on this. We still got time on this. We have gotten so much better at it. And once we get fully ahold of it we are going to be professionals. So if this is what we got, we are going to be the best online school in the state.”
We still have time, a lot of it, and we will try to use it as best as we can.