AERO 2014 in Review

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.

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CW Post Auditorium

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.

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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.”

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NIKHIL GOYAL

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.

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