The Community of Trust

Microsoft Word - Document1It is fairly early in the morning. My coffee is here with me and I have already been up a while. I find myself here at the key board, after such a long layoff from blog writing, with my brain on fire. My thoughts this morning center specifically around our school. There has been a lot to digest from this year.

Yesterday, a few of us gathered for an Upper School parent breakfast meeting, to discuss issues that may have arisen over the course of this year and how best to address them for the year to come. It was interesting to listen to what others were going through, what their child’s experience of the past year was and to express my own understanding about where Noah is in this whole process. After the fact, I began to ponder what his and our situation is, and felt a need to write the community as to what has crystalized in my understanding of Brooklyn Free School. Also, after Sunday’s very intense and emotional parent meeting, I felt it was important to state my growing sense of how this school has grown since the time we all sat down in a room 10 years ago, to conceive the idea of a democratic free school.

The one thing that stood out in my mind when thinking about my son, is that for the most part, he has always been in conditions where he is loved. As my third child, I was more relaxed with his arrival, and my wife and I have fortunately agreed most of the time as to how best to allow him to find his own way. This has always come with a huge amount of love. When Noah started at BFS 8 years ago, it was clear from the beginning that he was in a condition of love. He was in a place where he was appreciated for being who he was, and therefore, his growth has been guided by trust, patience and empathy.

This gave me to pondering my own upbringing. I know my parents loved me, but they did not have the facility or awareness to know the consequences of the conditions they put me in. Public school, right from the start was a place where I could not be myself. I was constantly told what to do and what NOT to do. “STOP RUNNING! SIT DOWN! SHUT UP!” As a human being, it is our instinctual need to seek love and friendship. As a child we begin immediately to look for friends who will like us and accept us. But in public school, you could not talk to your new friends in class because that would annoy a teacher or interfere with their preconceived agenda to jam facts down our throats. Many wrong facts I might add. It is amazing we developed friendships at all, but we did. But much of those were awkward scenarios of trying to fit in. A great deal of my life has been wasted trying to find people who loved me, for being me. Noah has never known this condition. If he was not accepted in one place, he just moved on and never looked back. We noticed this quality in him early on when he would interact in the playground. If a kid was mean or agressive, he just moved away from them and found someone else who wasn’t. And that has been his modus operandi ever since.

The parent meeting on Sunday left me with a lot to think about. There has been a pervasive feeling throughout this year, especially among the parents of the youngest children, that something was “not quite right.” I am not sure if this is true, but it is how people are perceiving a situation that is frustrating, and not changing rapidly enough to gain any consensus satisfaction. Well, here is my take: BFS has always been, and still is in a constant state of growth. It will likely always be in a state of growth. That is a good thing. Humans need to grow throughout life. It should not stop. As a man who is at the end of middle age and about to enter that “gray zone” before old age, I feel I am still in a state of growth. Maybe more so now than ever in my life. This school has been a part of that process for me. I have watched layers of distrust and impatience fall away from me like layers on an onion. As it is for me, so it is for the school, (As In Heaven, So on Earth.)

The school is a perfect example of what growth is. Most of us do not have the experience to understand properly what takes place in the school on a daily basis, unless you spend a little time there. We need to realize that our children are in a process of adaptation to the difficult idea of “freedom.”  While it is happening in them, it is also happening in us, in the teachers, staff help, interns and just about anybody else who has the inclination to get involved with the grand BFS experiment. There are occurences on the student level, decided by the children, that are incredibly baffling to us.

One example: this year there was an incident involving the drawing of penises on the school walls. An all school meeting was called, but the culprit never stepped forward. There were more incidents and then action was taken by the WHOLE school. It was decided, that for a time, the WHOLE school would be punished by limiting access to the upper floors. Many parents were aghast at this decision, but it was decided on by the WHOLE school. If you have never attended a democratic meeting at BFS, I urge you to do so. When children are given a situation to decide on, and action is required, they can be way more punitive than any adult. I have seen this many times.

At the core of this, at least for me, is love. This is truly a community in the making and one that has love as its’ core value. It is constantly reforming itself, but it is always guided by the fact that the people involved with BFS love this community. And before we go into reaction because something is bothering us, we need to stop and think how rare a thing this is. “A Community.” We live in a world where neighbors hardly talk to one another. Everyone in this country is so busy trying to pursue an outmoded consumerist model for existence, they have withdrawn themselves into their own private psychological cave. We live in a world ruled by fear, mistrust, and growing anxiety, all of our own making. The collective anxiety is so great, it creates a terror that accompanies most people as they awaken from their beds on a daily basis. What BFS represents for our children on most days, is that they arise from slumber with the intense urge to go to school. It is certainly not the case with the majority of America’s children. Is not entusiasm considered an important trait to venture out into the world with? Think of the case for the youngest son or daughter in just about every fairy  tale. Many conquer great obstacles with nothing more than entusiasm in their arsenal.

At BFS we have the opportunity to raise objection, but we should remember that this is not the case anywhere else. When we raise our objections, we should consider that it is against others who are merely trying their best to provide a condition of love, where our children can thrive while searching for who they are. There will be times where those involved will show a lack of understanding, or make a misstep, but in a community, that can be looked at in an open way that can be helpful to the individual or to the community as a whole.

We need to face our own impatience and mistrust of life so that they can fall away. This is our condition as parents. It is a difficult challenge, but one with many rewards if we choose to face our own lack which an experiment like BFS will undoubtedly reveal. Then one day we can hope to graduate, along with our children, with a better understanding on how to function in this crazy, uncertain world we live in.

This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. —Dwight D. Eisenhower


2 Comments on “The Community of Trust”

  1. Ana Santiago says:

    Thanks for sharing. I can tell you that Naia has not had the experience of excitement about school this year. When I pick her up she says she had a good day, but she dreads the mornings because of the “check-in’s” and has felt a growing resentment of the pervasive mis-trust exhibited by the policies eneacted this year mostly for “lower” school students. There freedom was siphoned away little by little and the Dolphins may as well have spent the year in a public day-care for all the freedom they didn’t have and wasn’t addressed. As far as Deomcracy and democratic meetings and drawings of penises etc, that particular meeting was very confusing for the turtles and dolphins as they wanted to make other proposals during the meeting but were rebuffed. There was really nothing else to vote for that day in terms of alternatives to an all school first floor sequester. Again, that was one of several incidents that left Naia and the other turtles feeling frustrated and disempowered. Not to mention irritated that she was stuck on the first floor all day. In addition, she had a great idea for catching the culprit that involved a community effort, writing, reading, and her attempts were AGAIN rebuffed by her teacher who didn’t encourage her idea, didn’t help her make the proposal before the democratic meeting and left Naia feeling un-heard and like her voice didn’t really matter.

    What bothers me most is the degree to which I, and many other parents, DON’T feel heard, DIDN’T get what we were promised in the BFS Mission, and our kids have suffered this year because of it. Young kids were scolded, yelled at, isolated in chairs and shamed and told to sit still. No going anywhere off the second floor without permission, no use of screens without an adult in the room, and more. It was NOT a trusting environment, and young kids missed out on all the cool stuff the older kids were doing upstairs and very much away from the younger kids. And that’s not free. It’s not what I paid for, it’s not what I was promised, and it’s not within the mission of the school.

    Worst of all, I have really lost faith in the staff. Their ability to hear constructive criticism, their willingness to make extreme policy changes without consensus, and the arrogance shown to parents who voice concerns. We were told policies would change after voicing our concerns, promised actually, and yet the concerns were not addressed and policies parents found troubling and disturbing were left in place. I am very disappointed and saddened by BFS. NAIA would have spent her entire school career there if they had kept true to their mission and spirit, but that is not the case.

    In closing, I have to say the school does a HUGE disservice to the students by dividing them up and pigeon-holing them into those age groups. It’s condescending, and everyone misses out. And by the way, that IS what a free school is supposed to be. Free from age classifications and stigmas, free from administrators imposing their curriculums and personal agendas onto kids, and freedom to explore their environment freely. In my opinion, BFS has failed. I wish them the best and would be willing to stay for the long haul, sit through the bullshit and assist any way i could, but this administration no longer has my trust. They are blinded by how right they think they are and how wrong they’ve made anyone who’s dissagrees with them. Best of luck,

  2. Paul Tainsh says:

    Thanks for writing this piece, Bruce. Thoughtful, understanding and compassionate.

    I remember years ago, a parent advocate telling me about the challenge that parents face being in the position of advocating for their child while not turning it into criticism of a teacher or a school. In another context, someone once told me that we all want equity — except for our own child, we want a little more. It is the challenge of being parents to not see the world only in terms of our own children, but in terms of the community, especially when our children experience their own struggles.

    But community is a strength of BFS, as is the strong value that, as a community, we place on the valuing children and their interests and experiences. I have been amazed by the thoughtfulness of the parents, teachers, staff and the young people themselves. As you said, we are all growing and changing. We all do this best in an environment that is safe and supportive. I am thankful for everyone who contributes to such a nurturing environment.


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