Testimonial on 10 years of Brooklyn Free SchoolPosted: May 16, 2014
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