I was actually a fairly successful student myself – in the sense that I jumped through the proper hoops and earned the right marks. However, school did nothing for my emotional well-being or in helping me to figure out what direction I wanted to take my life. Like so many students who don’t act out overtly, I hid behind the veneer of being a good student and doing what was expected of me. Meanwhile, I had a cousin who did act out overtly; if there was a stink bomb set off in the school or someone rode a moped on the church roof it was likely my cousin. I watched as his self-esteem plummeted and his anger grew. We were two very different individuals, neither of who were well served by the school system.
The part of being a learner that I came to value most – that I primarily discovered following high school – was the hashing out of ideas, the work of learning to express one’s self clearly, the exploration into the past – particularly modern history, the uncovering of roles most of us are unconsciously enacting, discovering the cultures of others, and always, for me, the way I could – and still can – lose myself in a good book.
I wanted to stay in this world of learning, but I did not want to teach in a traditional high school; my instincts were still intact enough to know that. I spent a few years in my early 20s stumbling around – and it did feel like stumbling around because I was not properly equipped with the self-knowledge that I needed to make better choices. I was a product of my schooling.
I discovered the world of alternative education at the public library. I signed myself up for a year-long internship at a public alternative school in Ithaca, NY. This involved immersing myself in theories of alternative education. I read Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, among many others. What I remember most from that year was not in what I read, but what I came to refer to as “The Battle of the Yurt”.
I was teaching a class on pioneer women’s history. The class was comprised almost entirely of… you guessed it: females. I had greatly enjoyed teaching the class and the feeling was mutual as far as I could tell. The final project was going to be a day spent at a yurt in the countryside (the closest we could get to a log cabin). We would cook as pioneer women had cooked and generally try to immerse ourselves in the experience; some of the girls even dressed in pioneer-like attire. The other teacher who had accompanied us had to leave early, so I was left for the final hour with a group of 15 girls who I naively thought of as one class. Then things got ugly. During a game of hide and seek, one group of girls locked another group in the loft portion of the yurt. Cries and sobs alerted me that all was not well. I was able to open the door, calm the girls, and get them all in one group talking. It turned out that my class was deeply divided into two groups; they had special names for themselves, but we could safely term them as the “goody goodies” and the “bad-asses”. You can guess who dressed in the pioneer-like attire and who locked whom upstairs. In the conversation that followed the incident, we had one of the most authentic conversations of the entire year. They honestly expressed themselves, listened deeply to each other, and, probably for the first time that entire year, came together.
As I look back on this story now, I realize that had the students had the space and freedom – rather than my filling it for them – this confrontation and subsequent coming together might have happened much sooner.
I re-read the completion paper I wrote from that year and am amazed by its passion and cogency. I had found the internship myself, was deeply engaged in the year-long internship and set up the questions I would explore for my final, exploratory paper. John Holt wrote: “The most important question any thinking creature can ask itself is, ‘What is worth thinking about?’ When we deny its right to decide that for itself, when we try to control what it must attend to and think about, we make it less observant, resourceful, and adaptive, in a word, less intelligent, in a blunter word, more stupid.”
I was more committed than ever to pursuing a career where I could support and encourage teens in an environment that was non-punitive and where the students had the time and space to explore things beyond the mandated curriculum. And then, I moved to Montreal where any semblance of “career” took a nose-dive, but life became very interesting in other respects. More coming soon…