Some years ago, I watched this British film called The Bar Mitzvah Boy. In it, a working class Jewish family in North London undergo preparations for their son’s Bar Mitzvah. Meanwhile the boy is going through all kinds of apprehensions which no one seems to notice except his sister. While the parents are busy arguing over who will sit with whom at the catered affair, their son is going through anguish. The upshot is that the boy is a no-show on the big day.
His sister finds him in the park and confronts him why he did not appear and how disappointed everyone is. The boy lists the aforementioned distractions of all the adults. His sister asks him if he is afraid to recite his Torah portion. He says that he is not and that he can recite it standing on his head, which he proceeds to do.
When this is brought to the Rabbi’s attention, it is declared that he has fulfilled his bar mitzvah requirements by reciting his haftarah before the lord.
I relate this because for one, it has always stuck with me. My own bar mitzvah was a very stressful affair. My father really could not afford the event, which always seemed like a competition between neighbors and relatives as to who would have the more lavish affair. I remember being harassed by the photographer constantly (he doubled as a magician) and I did not have a moment to hang with my friends or get to speak to my relatives and to hear whatever pile of nonsense they wanted to relate to me about my “big day.”
And these days, from what I hear, these events are even more over the top.
When my son was born, it was a question about whether he would be circumcised or not. My wife is not Jewish, but her brother and cousins had all undergone the procedure. When I asked my Nigerian doctor for advice, we went over the pros and cons, and the conclusion was on the pro side. But from what I had read, I wanted it done by a mohel, and not a surgeon, so we waited the requisite time.
My key business associate was (and is) orthodox and through him, I became friendly with his rabbi. When the time came, I asked Rabbi Fund, if he could recommend a mohel, and would he preside over the ceremony.
Jewish law requires that 3 holy men be present and that in order for a child whose mother is NOT Jewish be circumcised, he must also undergo conversion. We agreed. My wife and I, and our son met in a small Flatbush storefront synagogue and the deed was done.
But when Noah was approaching his 13th birthday, we asked whether he wanted to be bar mitzvah’d or not. We spoke with several people. My son thinking that this meant getting a lot of money, had to be put straight regarding our financial situation. That said, he was also apprised of the work involved in learning to read Hebrew and recite his Torah portion. So basically he refused his induction into Jewish manhood and the matter was laid to rest.
Yesterday, we made a vist to his grandmother who is in rehab just outside the limits of Crown Heights. We took a long route by walking from Eastern Parkway through some of the most orthodox sections of Hasidic Brooklyn.
As we passed one of the Chabad tables, a young man and two very young boys approached me and asked “you wouldn’t happen to be Jewish?”
Now I already know what is coming next and sometimes I just shrug them off. But on this day somehow, I was feeling spiritually predisposed so I said yes. They then asked if I would like to do a mitzvah (good deed) by putting on tefillin. I then explained my son’s situation to them.
We learned that the first time a young man puts on tefillin and recites the accompanying prayers, he is officially bar mitzvah’d. Noah agreed to the opportunity and we both stood there, on this busy sidewalk on Kingston Avenue, and recited the prayers with the phylacteries on our heads in the bright sun. When I covered my eyes, to utter a silent prayer, I thought only of my family and what I wished for everyone, which is peace and prosperity.
Then we walked on. I asked Noah if he felt any different, to which he said “no.”
But something was different.
And this allowed me to relate to him, a much loved joke.
Moishe and Chaim are good friends. They are always discussing ecumenical ideas, arguing over philosophy and trying to face the big questions about life.
One day they are walking down the street and they see a banner hanging outside a church which reads “Convert to Christianity and get $50!”
They stop in their tracks and look at each other. “It would be nice to get the $50″ says Moishe. Chaim agrees.
When push comes to shove, Chaim agrees to enter the church, and report back to Moshe afterwards.
15 minutes later, Chaim comes out. Moshe is there waiting for him.
“So, how’d it go?”
Chaim shrugs his shoulders.
“Do you feel any different?” asks Moshe
Chaim says, “No, I feel the same.”
Moshe asks “The $50. Did you get the $50?”
Chaim looks back at Moshe with a look of consternation and says, “$50? What’s with YOU people.”
And with that I say happy Bar Mitzvah to my wonderful son. Now you are a man.
Norma Elaine Durrant needs your help with her mounting medical costs due to a serious neurological illness.
In May this year, Norma Elaine was finishing up her time in Kingston Jamaica. She was about to fly back to the States, but needed to stay just a few weeks more in order to attend an awards ceremony, where she would receive the Prime Minister’s Medal of Appreciation for her long service in education to the island nation.
At the end of May, Norma Elaine began to complain about symptoms of dizziness, nausea, numbness and unusual sensations in her head. On June 1, her daughter (my wife) flew down to Kingston, Jamaica,to accompany her back to the States so that she could see her doctor. When her daughter arrived in Kingston, she observed what she believed to be the beginning signs of a stroke and immediately took Norma to the hospital where her condition quickly deteriorated. She was admitted to the Critical Care Unit at University Hospital (UHWI). She began to lose muscle control on one side of her face and body which caused her to be bed ridden in Jamaica for a total of 6 weeks. She could not swallow on her own and had to be fed via feeding tube. She contracted hospital borne pneumonia and aspiration pneumonia during her stay. After 4 weeks in Critical Care she was transferred to Medial Associates where we were encouraged to seek special evaluation in the States because her tests did not conclusively confirm that her symptoms were the result of a stroke.
It was at this stage that we began to look into getting her to NY via air ambulance.
The air transport alone would cost 23K and the insurance company would not pay for it up front. She could not fly on a commercial flight as she could not swallow and would need oxygen throughout the flight. Therefore the transfer costs fell on the family.
Norma was finally transferred to NY Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn and has spent the past two weeks improving dramatically. But here, as in Jamaica, after several tests(MRI, CT Scan, x-ray, ultrasound, etc), doctors still could not confirm a stroke. However, based on her symptoms, they still recommended agressive nuero rehab. She is now at The Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Brooklyn where she will receive the treatment she needs.
As you can imagine, entering the US Healthcare system with any kind of insurance is still expensive. Many of the copay costs, the air transport and other services fall immediately on the patient, and over time add up to tens of thousands of dollars. We are asking family, friends, neighbors, fellow church members and good samaritans to help Norma in her recovery and post recovery. She has spent her life in service of others. Please help her return to a normal life as soon as possible.
There are moments in life, where a series of events converge, to put one in a position that questions the core of our very existence. This may be one of those moments for me. It is one of those times I have to ask, why I am where I am, without the wish for a ready explanation. It is this kind of questioning, which needs to go deep, that there is a flash of great wisdom—one in which a vision on how everything is connected. If I were a better mathematician, I would be able to write an algorithm that would explain not only all of nature, the stars and the galaxies, but how those realities are connected to my struggles with money, the illnesses of loved ones, the seemingly chance encounters with new strangers and the opportunity to express myself in front of different groups of people.
It was with a sense of abandon that I agreed to spend a day at the Alternative Education Resource Organization Conference (AERO) which has been going on for the last few days at Long Island University’s CW Post campus. I will justify my first paragraph in a bit, but I wanted to give a brief recap of the day and why my sense of universal connectedness is especially strong this morning. My daughter and I left here early in the morning to catch the trains out to Westbury. We were met by taxi and en route, the driver picked up another attendee. We quickly exchanged introductions and before we even reached the campus, I was already engaged in discussions about the school, where this person came from and by the end of the ride we quickly delved into philosophical territory about why we care so much about the education of children. It set the tone for the day. Not having a clue or an agenda, I randomly picked which workshops I would attend. My method was akin to throwing a set of dice or going “eeny meeny miny moe.”
I saw the workshop “Experiencing Awareness Through the Body” by Margo W. MacLeod. Margo and her assistant were the first people I met at the table in the morning. I was unsure if I would attend. I spend my year engaged in activities centered around self awareness. Being a bit of snob I saw myself rejecting another approach. But looking around at the other topics, and my daughters enthusiasm, I followed the invisible thread that led me into the room.
I was pleasantly surprised with the gentleness and unpretentiousness in the way the workshop was conducted. We were led in a very simple sitting, which covered familiar territory for me. It established a quiet in my body and deepened breath which supports a state of calm. Next we were asked to stand and with eyes closed, to slowly and carefully walk around the room with this same sense of awareness. When we came into contact with another person, we were to stop and take an impression of what we felt the moment before we made contact. For me, there was a sense of the subtle body heat of another. The second part of the exercise was when making contact with another person, we were to stop and slowly stand back to back with that person. Then sit down on the floor with our backs together. Keep in mind that I did not know any one except my own daughter so there is a huge element of trust here. As we sat, the presenter placed an object into our hands. With eyes closed, I tried to sense what it was. At first I thought it was an artificial flower but then realized it was simply a balloon. We were asked to try to feel the color and texture (interestingly, I sensed it to be red and when I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see that I was correct.) We then followed with a number of games involving the balloon.
I left the workshop feeling very refreshed and awake. This particular approach to quiet work was not presented without reason. It is a method of creating self knowledge in children as well as adults. It originates from a school in India and you can find out more about it at their website. The video is of particular interest and was shown at the beginning of our workshop.
Next we went to the auditorium to witness the two keynote speakers of the morning. Ramchandra Das who runs 3 ashram schools in Nepal, and Skyping from England, Zoë Neill Readhead, daughter of A. S. Neill and now Principal of Summerhill, the oldest democratic free school in the world.
After lunch we attended “Bringing Democratic Education to More Communities” with Nikhil Goyal. This is where it became interesting for me. Nikhil is a very engaging and intelligent speaker. He is also very young (19.) The discussion went around the topic of why we have such a difficult time getting others to accept this seemingly successful mode of education. Nikhil said that when he visited Brooklyn Free School, his first reaction was “where were the metal detectors? Where were the guards? Where were the unhappy children?” But here is where I saw the opportunity to bring a certain level of understanding which has come from experience. I said (in essence), “what you are asking for is a huge paradigm shift. The world, at least to my eyes is extremely messed up. A situation that has in truth, been created by us adults. And we are asking that our youth take possession of this f**ked up situation, and fix it. Then the education system that created this mess wants to tell the children what they need to know in order to have the skill, knowledge and desire to correct the woes of humanity. What we in the democratic movement are suggesting is that EVERYONE drop their attachment to how they understand things, and trust children to find their own path to knowledge and actualization. But most human beings, including those sitting in this room, are unable to do that completely. Talking about it does not really help because we are asking people to “imagine” what this form of education can do. Until one actually experiences it and is directly affected by it, over a period of time you begin to absorb the fact that Democratic Education is actually another dimension of learning which is completely unfamiliar to the average person. To change how people receive this is paramount to trying to change the whole of the planet.”
We all eventually agreed that the process needs to be through osmosis. There are many more Free Schools now then there were ten years ago. But there needs to be a bigger understanding about how these schools will survive past a decade or so. One elder gentlemen brought this out very clearly. He said that we need to become familiar with the word abjure (def: solemnly renounce.) This is a huge leap for most of us, including this writer. It requires a willingness for me to give up my false sense of authority. But in doing so, it allows me to realize that in truth, I am not in control of my life. I would like to think I am, but as I approach my 59th birthday, I am beginning to accept that I am not. And I am okay with that. Because it gives me the opportunity to study my condition in a whole new way. There is a sense in me that everything is connected and that my own condition has brought me to the unique understanding that is beginning to unfold in me. I am still thankfully in a process of learning and growing.
This sense of “being-connectedness” draws me out of any self pity for things not always being easy—for events converging in a way to make me feel the truth of my own discomfort. It is because I have a wish for something more. A wish to live a life that is truthful and meaningful. How that happens may not be entirely up to me. But there is something I can do. I can make myself available to this new understanding and not resist the truth of it. I am where I am because of where I have been. If I surrender my false sense of authority, it gives me a chance to find a real sense of authority. And that sense has much greater value in the real world. So by the end of this workshop, the fact that we had gotten out of bed in the wee hours began to make itself known. I had a hard time keeping my eyes open. After the second afternoon workshop, where I worked with mind mapping, we headed home. But I am full of thoughts and feelings this morning about the strong sense that I am just one small point in a grand fabric. I am grateful for my one day experience for helping me back to that truth.
Holidays. A time where I am possessed by the deep need to lay about and do absolutely nothing without any guilt. One of my guilty pleasures is to search for movies from the past year that I have not seen and kick back and watch. If it is science fiction, even better.
So it was with great disappointment that I chose to attempt watching Enders Game. I am not going to bore the reader with a recap of what the film was about. Basically Alien invasion infuses earthlings with resolute survival instincts to retaliate and destroy enemy. In this version, kids are trained for that purpose, because it is understood that children process complex data way faster than adults. Children are selected to be killing agents for earth.
Science fiction, which I read a great deal of in high school and then in art school, was for me, a genre rich in imagination. For instance, The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov was a far richer Star Wars scenario then the latter mentioned. Robert Heinlen, Harlan Ellison, and others were all so rich and varied and exciting to read. So why is it that every big screen sci fi has to have some scenario involving war or dystopia. Have we become so jaded that we cannot envision a future that is not a direct extension of the present? Do we have any sense of hope?
Now I am going to reveal my own idea for a premise. If you wish to collaborate on a story with me, I am all ears. So here it is…but keep in mind that if I see a script in a year or two without credit and it becomes a multi million dollar project, I am calling my lawyers.
What if another race of beings from far away came with a purpose—not to destroy or dominate or usurp us, but rather to enlighten the planet? I have this vision of a superior race, who observing our condition, sends an electro magnetic pulse onto the surface of our planet which instantly puts the entire human race into a state of instant self realization. What would be the consequences of such an event? Would it all be positive? Could the majority of humans sustain such an event without going completely mad? My working title is “The Bodhisattva Ray”
I believe that the current sad state of films coming out of Hollywood is the way it is because for one, everything is about making money. Two, most screen writers and directors do not have the personal vision to see much past what has already been done. And three, very few humans are actually in the process of seeking enlightenment, therefore they are unable to see a race or planet that would represent a higher ideal.
I often walk the streets of Brooklyn, many times accompanied by my son, where our discussion and thoughts work out scenarios where the world could be improved. How things could be made better. What would our streets look like with less or no cars. What if people cared more about their immediate environment? What if corporate businesses, fast food restaurants, liquor stores, cheap food markets (too much candy, chips, lotto tickets and sweetened soft drinks) did not litter our landscape, but rather open spaces (for ALL) existed and our mobility was clean and sustainable? What if there were food gardens everywhere? Or that community among neighbors was part of the natural order rather than an occasional feel good event?
I am waiting for a good movie like that. It probably will never happen though. This is because there will be no fancy weapons, no horrific and scary aliens, no kung fu and there will be no requisite murder, death and violence. After all, they will say, who wants to watch a film full of meditating, peaceful and functional characters? Disharmony is so much more entertaining.
Join Chris on this twenty-year tour of his singular writings on children and education. His parable-like stories and probing essays deliver his insights with a clarity and immediacy seldom found in books about teaching and learning.
Chris’s four decades of experience with kids of every imaginable kind in deeply human settings have earned him a profound understanding of just what it is they need in order to develop to their fullest. While so much of the educational literature today deals with children as though they were disembodied brains, A School Must Have a Heart explores every dimension of learning and development—and doesn’t stop until it gets to the heart of the matter.
Last evening my wife and I attended the 6th annual Brooklyn Free School year end gala. It was held at The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in Park Slope. It is the school’s biggest fundraiser and an opportunity for the community of parents, advisors, supporters, graduates and students to come together at one grand and festive event. It is also a milestone: the school is celebrating its’ 10th year of existence.
As part of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the school, the gala also surreptitiously included honoring several parents and others who helped get the school started over a decade ago. Yours truly is among that group and one of the last with a child still in attendance.
Since there were too many of us to get up on the microphone and give a speech, one has been rolling around in my head this morning, and I felt maybe it needs to exit my head and go out into the ether.
I would like to say how proud I am to be a part of this experiment in democratic education. I call it an experiment because at the very core of its’ mission, there is a process of understanding children and how they learn. It must forever be reevaluated and adjusted. So it is here that I will interject my own story on how it began from my particular vantage point.
Back in 2002 Sheryll, Noah and I were on our yearly Memorial weekend retreat in Phoenicia, NY. One day, while visiting a yard sale, we got to talking with the home owner about education and such. In the course of our discussion it came up that a Sudbury school was in the planning stages of opening in Woodstock. This got our mental wheels rolling, and from that point on all we could think about was how to move our lives up to Hudson Valley.
You see, there was no way I was going to put my son through what I went through in public school. On top of that, I had already dealt with the public school system with my older daughters during their early years. I was not ready to fight those battles again.
Fast forward a few months, Sheryll shows me an article in the Park Slope Food Coop Linewaiters Gazette by Alan Berger. In the article, Alan outlined his interest in starting a school based on the principles of Summerhill. In that article, Alan posed a number of questions:
• Are you tired of federal, state, city, and “certified experts,” and bureaucrats telling you what your children should learn in school and when they should learn it?
• Have you had enough of high stakes, standardized testing and federal and state “standards” determining what our children should know and how they are measured and ranked?
• Are you unhappy with the fact that children, unlike the rest of society, are forced to learn particular subjects at particular times, and only with children their own ages?
• Do you think that it is wrong that children are punished (failed, left back, labeled, etc.) when they don’t “learn” something (at least as far as their teachers and school can determine) within a specific period of time?
• Are you turned off by the institutional nature of school; the bells, buzzers, announcements, overzealous security, large classes, overcrowded buildings, poor food, bars on the windows?
• Are you concerned that your children are not interested in much of what they are “learning” at school?
• Are you worried about the ever-increasing competitiveness and workload in school and the pressure and stress that children are experiencing because of it?
This set off bells for Sheryll and I. Everything we wanted for our sons’ future, was suggested by these questions.
We had a wish for our child to be unencumbered by the same nonsense that seemed to stand as a burden for us. My own schooling was not one that I would wished to impose on my young son. My 13 years in the public school system of NYC was not a road well travelled. It was a process of overcoming ignorant and oppressive attitudes. As a child, my main interest was to be able to work on my drawings as much as possible. This tendency was noticed by teachers as a distraction from what they were doing at the front of the room. They would often call on me while I was deeply immersed in some complex doodle in my notebook. Of course, my response was always bewilderment and disinterest. In the realm of ordinary schooling, this was not acceptable, and I paid dearly for it.
And today the situation is far worse with the conditions of standardized testing, massive amounts of homework, school security and burned out and disillusioned teachers. Schools have become like factory training floors gone nuts.
So you might understand why I was tickled pink to see Alan’s questions. My answer was yes on every point. And our response to this was to join others in the process of making something that had not previously existed for a long time in NYC, let alone Brooklyn—a democratic free school! We joined meetings that started with 15-20 people and sometimes would have as many as 50-60 in the room. There were many who felt as we did that in order for something like this to take place, we were going to have to be active in the formation of it.
One needs to realize that as adults we make mistakes. A lot of mistakes. I would go so far as to say that for the most part, most of my life’s’ decisions have not been good ones. It could be said that “I” did not even make these decisions, but that because of the path I have been propelled along, decisions got made as a kind of default way of life. Fortunately I have learned a few things along the way. And one of the truly rightful decisions (other than my current wife as a life partner), Brooklyn Free School stands as one of the great decisions in my life. It is a great thing because it is not only for me or my son. It is not only for the children of our school. I see it as a pebble thrown into a pond. You are called to observe the ripples the pebble has made. Those ripples potentially form a wave starting on the other side of planet.
BFS has shown me that when we take our own self righteousness out of the equation, miracles are possible. It is possible for a higher understanding to reach us through our children, because they have been set free from a very specific shackle—the assumption that “I know.” Their process invites me to partake. The path of self discovery is always unfolding. Their freedom is my freedom. And it would seem that the potential exists, that this innocence mixed with empathy and inquisitiveness, can be turned back on the world as a force of good. A positive action. An intention to be better.
The formation of the school back in a church basement in 2004, eventually encouraged others to try to start their own schools. Manhattan Free School, Longview School in Brewster, NY, Village Free School in Portland and others soon followed around the country.
That is why I am honored to be part of the ongoing experiment called Brooklyn Free School. As my wife said to me last night, we have helped to create a community that we truly love.
¨We do not mould children in any way, we do not try to convert them to anything. If there is such a thing as sin it is the propensity of adults to tell the young how to live, a preposterous propensity seeing that adults do not know themselves how to live¨ — A.S. Neill
In case you have missed it, the current issue of YES magazine is dedicated to education with the feature article “The Myth Behind Public School Failure” Some interesting stuff inside. I did get to read a piece by Scott Nine, former director of the Village Free School. Check it out here.