When I was about ten years into my teaching career, back in the 1990s, I photocopied a letter I had seen in the NYT. When I photocopied it I enlarged it repeatedly until it was poster-sized, and then I laminated it and hung it in my classroom in Atlanta. After ten years of teaching in Atlanta, we moved to Vermont. Three years after that, we started the North Branch School, in 2001. When we first set up the school, I pulled that hand-made poster out of a box and it was the first thing I hung up on the wall in the new North Branch School. It was the first thing I hung up in my office in the new school-building we built to house the NBS in 2003. It remains on my wall today.
Here is the text:
To the Editor:
“Teacher Who Assigned Graphic Poem Says He Made Mistake” (news article, Oct. 23) reports that a Manhattan public high school teacher, after coming under fire for assigning a sexually explicit poem written by a former student, said that he had made ”a mistake in judgment.” I beg to differ.
As a student at Stuyvesant High School in 1977, I took a creative writing class with Frank McCourt, now famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes. One of the things that made him such an extraordinary teacher was the way he encouraged his students to express their thoughts and feelings honestly, and without external or self-imposed censorship.
We were allowed to hand in, and to read aloud in class, poems containing explicit images, rage, obscenity and whatever else we felt a need to relate. In respecting us for who we were, by accepting our thoughts and feelings at face value, Mr. McCourt helped us learn to respect ourselves and to listen to our own ‘’voices.”
Our society’s misplaced Puritanism communicates to adolescents that what they are feeling is somehow immoral or inappropriate. Rather than forcing teen-agers to remain underground, hiding their thoughts and feelings from those charged with facilitating their emotional and intellectual growth, we should unflinchingly encourage them to share their lives and experiences with us, openly and with pride.
Brooklyn, Oct. 23, 1997
I keep this letter to remind me of one of the core beliefs I hold about teaching and about kids: Students should be free to talk about what is important to them, and classrooms should be hospitable to all that they bring forth. In our case, since our students are young adolescents, their concerns are, generally speaking, considerably non-explicit, but their concerns are serious and real. In order to usher them into the world of their own thought, the mechanics of their cognitive powers, their wobbly psychological growth, the layered and shimmering world of meta-reflection, and the intricate depths of their lives, the first move has to be to say: You are free. You have the license to talk and write and discuss what matters to you. We are a thinking and feeling community and we will, with all the grace and intelligence we possess, try to handle what comes up and learn what we can from it.
Because at this age–12,13,14 years old— kids are beginning to come into and see themselves in the world before them. They are beginning to see things they do not understand but want to understand. They are beginning to feel things that they do not understand, but want to understand. Their feelings are quite larger and more intense than they ever previously could imagine. Suddenly feeling becomes massive, unexplainable, volcanic, three-dimensional. In the folds of meta-cognition, they are thinking about why they feel and think one way while everyone else is different; they are comparing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with those of their peers. They can actually see and feel their thoughts changing in time and through experience. They begin to grapple with their own cognitive dissonance and that of others. They are asking existential questions for the first time. They are beginning to see where they do and don’t fit in. They are beginning to see how their thoughts and feeling are intertwined with the others in their midst. They are beginning to see that they and others fit into a great fabric of existence: a family, a grade, a school, a team, a society, a nation. They are realizing that others have complex lives of infinite value and each of those lives has something to teach; they are finding that their actions or inactions have deep and meaningful consequences. They are trying to find their voices, their “thing,” their way, their path, the person they want to be; they are beginning to envision the future and relate it to the past. They can now notice their bodies and perceptions as they take from in the present. Their bodies and minds are changing to such a degree that they feel themselves to be entirely new beings, a revelation that is at once terrifying and thrilling and dismaying and disgusting. They are losing one self–the child, but have not quite gained another, the near-adult, which, as they see it coming, they can not quite imagine embodying. They are contemplating death, or the end of being, and ends of self, on a daily basis; they are beginning to understand the suffering of others. They are beginning to comprehend the nature of courage and sacrifice and altruism and cowardice and inaction. They are seeing themselves as the result of history and the generations; seeing themselves as inheritors of the past and as a vast network cultural beliefs. They are beginning to realize they have a responsibility to others besides their families. They are beginning to confront the fact that this life is their only life, a life distinct from all others.
One of our foundational beliefs as a school is that all these changes, threshholds, and forms of “becoming” are the lodestone and locus of all of the most important learning that occurs during the transition through adolescence. The students themselves, the process of adolescence, the experiences of their lives—these are the subject and the wellspring. Of course, we overlay and weave into our days conventional and relevant academic exercise, but the heart of it is the kids themselves, their lives, their minds.
In order to do this, we have to start with the door wide open. It is death to freedom, it is death to Truth, if we began by saying, “No, you can not talk about that. That is off-limits. We don’t go there.” Because once you do that, a new consideration begins to metastasize inside of every subsequent thought or impulse: “Is this appropriate? Is this off-limits? Is this wrong? I shouldn’t say this, should I?”
These questions, in their fearful negative form, truncate the intellectual or creative process before it can come alive. Such questions cut off the journey before it can begin. If you cut off one thing, you cut off everything, because once you have cut some things out, particularly the vibrant unknown, you are not dealing with whole truth.
So we veer decidedly the other way. We say: tell me who you are, who you want to become? You feel sad? Mad? Confused? Happy? Excited? Why? You believe in fairness, equality, courage, grit, hope, love, honor, curiosity? Then tell us why you do, and how you came to believe in that. What experience made you? What has taught you? Who? How? When tragedy or suffering or hardship visited you or those close to you, what did you learn? How did you react? Pick yourself up? How did you change? What did you decide? When you saw your father crying, what did you feel? When your mother celebrated her new job, what did that mean? What did you suddenly see in her that you had never seen before? Yesterday, why did you not fight back? Why did you fight back that way? Why were you afraid? What happens when you are afraid? What happened when you cried at the lectern when you got up to read your first speech? What happened the second time? What did you feel when you classmate said thank you to you? When something terrible happened to you on the field at lunch, what made you afraid to say anything? What if you had said something? What is it that you really need? How did you learn to learn, even when it was hard? What we can we learn from that? That walk you took with your parents last night, why did it matter? Why should it matter to us?
When the kids know this is all part of the discussion, they suddenly realize that they can be philosophers, seekers, inquirers. The world, their world, is open to them.
Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese” comes to mind.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
“Wild Geese “is a poem of invitation. It calls to every existing soul to join the family of things. This is what we are saying to the kids when they walk through the door of our school. You are something, you have something, you are a part of something. Bring what you have to the table.
Conversely, the “Resource Room” is the place in most schools where the real issues go to be hidden and scuttled. When anything gets dicey, when there is conflict, suffering, trouble—emotional and personal complexity—it is quickly removed from the classroom and dealt with, or not, by an adult who does not necessarily know the child, and there the conflict stays. The reality of the child, the reality of life and living, is divorced from the classroom. No doubt this may be a cleaner and potentially less upsetting or controversial way to manage affairs. But have you been in a classroom lately, one where emotion is not regarded, where the personalities of both the teacher and taught are excised, and the reality of lives lived is sanded down to edgelessness until it disappears? If you have, you will begin to understand why so many children feel lost, invisible, uninspired or uninterested in school, and why going to school, for so many, is nothing but a boring drag and a long, dry way of marking time.
So we tried to design a school that was equipped, in size and intimacy and disposition, to accept and celebrate the lives of the children and the emotions and thoughts exploding in them; to take young adolescents and all their manifold characteristics and convolutions, to let all that loose into the classroom; to work with those beings lovingly and intensely and directly; to accept them as they are and help them make sense of themselves; and to do it, every day, openly and with joy and seriousness. That is what we set out to do and we made a school that kids want to go to.
Every year at the end of summer, and at the end of vacations, I get emails from students who are dying to come back to school. Something has been happening there that they miss, that they need, that they long for. They want to come to school. Most days. They are excited, most days. They are seen, and known, and celebrated, most days. They will laugh, cry, be somewhat of balance, be challenged, and have joy, most days. It is messy, most days. And it is wild and alive, most days.
Their days at school are rich and pulsating with life not because we teachers devise great activities and projects, though we try to; it is because we invite and allow the fullness of their lives–the entirety of their lives–to be alive and expressed here. And to be learned from. This is why they want to come to school and why they realize, in their time here, that they are indeed part of the family of things.