Nurturing the Spirit

For the past week, I have had it firmly fixed in my mind what I wanted to write about here. Events make it difficult to sit down and write, but here I sit now, and many things have happened that will help explore today’s blog topic.

The subject came to me just after the presentation of the school’s yearly musical. This year the children did “Once on this Island”, a folk tale loosely resembling that of the Little Mermaid. The story focuses on two classes of society (rich and poor) with the gods intervening for better or worse. As is our custom at BFS, the show was performed by children ages 5-18. There were many surprises in the cast with some very promising vocals from both Wayne & Infinity.

Now when I think about the spirit of a child, or any human, it is a question as to what I may be talking about. We cannot see spirit. But can we feel it? Wayne came to the school several years ago at about 8 years old. He was difficult, angry, distrustful of adults, and surely would have been marginalized to the corner of the public school system where he would be fast tracked to the lower echelons. The school showed him patience. He was shown love by the staff and now he commands the respect of his fellow students as he has become an active stalwart for democratic process and a leader at school. It has been wonderful to watch this young man enter into his own, while still maintaining his natural edge.

Is this natural edge the ‘spirit’? I am not sure, but from what I saw in the show, the kids all have to reach down into themselves to pull this off in the few months they have to prepare it. Nothing was imposed. It arose out of each one’s natural desire.

Last night, I was at the Tanzania Open House combination Talent Show and Bazaar. That is a mouth full. Tanzania is the destination several of the children along with one of the advisers has chosen for a traveling destination. They chose the place. They are raising the money. They are doing what it takes to get there. At this stage there are 12 students leaving for Africa in 7 days with an equal number of accompanying adults. Here is the blurb about it although the amount of students going has dropped since the project’s inception: This spring 43 members of the Brooklyn Free School community are planning an extraordinary expedition to the village of Kwala in Tanzania. We will collaborate with visual artist, Erik Parker, to create murals on the walls of Kwala’s school. Each traveler will bring along a bag of much-needed school supplies, medical supplies and books. Short excursions from the home-base to Mikumi National Park, the city of Dar-Es-Salaam, and Zanzibar will enrich our Tanzanian experience. Filmmaker, Anja Matthes, will join us to document this process of making art, being of service, exploring, and building bridges between cultures.

Recently, I have been feeding my current HBO addiction with episodes of The Wire. Every couple of weeks, I get the next disk from my Netflix account, and watch it quickly as no one else in the house is interested in getting involved in this drama. I am currently up to the 4th season which now focuses on schools in Baltimore, and how they play a part in the whole dysfunctional system up the ranks of drug dealers, police and politicians. David Simon, who was a homicide reporter embedded in the Baltimore Police Department, is the writer of this extremely realistic show. His writing partner was a former detective in BPD and was also a teacher in the Baltimore school system.

The boy from The Wire

The picture they draw, at least from my viewing of the first 3 episodes, is so disturbing, I wonder if I have the stomach to make it through to the end of this series. But after meeting and hearing teachers speak at Medgar Evers the other week, I am not totally surprised at the dismal picture of education (it seems like a sin to even call it education.) What is shown is more like herding cattle. Keeping a measure of discipline in place. Crushing any entrepreneurial spirit. It is no wonder inner city poor children opt for a life of drug dealing. It is where the talent can flex it’s muscles unabated until incarceration or death shuts it down. Or they can always join the military.

As negative a national view as Mr. Simon spins, and I believe that the problem is not only in Baltimore, but an illness that is rife though most of American society, we need to think hard how education and society are connected. I have always expressed this party line when speaking about democratic education and the Brooklyn Free School. When we leave our children in an environment that is state mandated, what are we leaving them to? Battle wearied teacher’s and administrators who are burnt out on a system that has dug the hole ever deeper. Children carrying, what looks to me, like sacks of bricks on their backs, which represents the amount of stuff they have to do in order to pass tests, which have become the only standard by which our children are now judged and decided on by the powers that be. The fact that the teachers who attended the Medger Evers symposium spoke of children in terms of being one’s, two’s, three’s and four’s proves to me the inhuman labeling system that has become embedded in the process.

So where is the spirit of our children in all this? I can tell you. It is being crushed under a mountain of bricks. And those bricks are composed of hardened bull shit! Which makes our largely corporate plutocracy have no solid foundation upon which to rest itself. The money will inevitably stop flowing upward. But after this crumbles we are still left with the every day realities to deal with. And I am not getting any younger. So youth is our greatest commodity. My point in all this is that we need to lighten and remove the mountain of bull shit, and let their spirits free. Not without watching, but allow the children to explore the world we are asking them to inhabit. As I watch the students of BFS grow into the new space, and their abilities to self direct their own learning strengthen, I see intelligence that is both surprising and comforting. Because it is in this spirit, that I see hope for our world.

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