Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
I’m going to call Nick’s school Fern Hill. It’s really called something else, but like Nick, Nora and me, it will have another name here. I’ve taken the name Fern Hill from the poem by Dylan Thomas, the first stanza of which is quoted above. Stealing from Thomas is a respectable practice. Bob Dylan, another practitioner, was born Bob Zimmerman.
Fern Hill (the poem) is a sublimely beautiful ode to childhood. It’s so seductive that it risks carrying the reader, or at least this reader, into sentimentality over childhood. Many dangers there. Whenever I feel the pull of sentiment, I try to bear in mind Freud’s dictum: All sentimentality is repressed brutality. Say what you will about Freud, he comes back to haunt you. (Think of Hitler and his love of animals and little children, by whom he liked to be called Uncle Dolfi. Think of Dylan Thomas drinking himself to death.)
As I was saying, Fern Hill is what I’m going to call Nick’s school. Henceforth here, Fern Hill means the school, not the poem. But just as with the poem, there is danger of sentimentalizing it. In writing about Nick’s school, I will try to keep Freud’s dictum in mind.
Fern Hill is a free school. Not free as in costless, but free as in wild. The sign outside reads, “An Alternative, Humanistic School,” conjuring the aura of child-centeredness usually attached to more familiar names such as Waldorf Schools or Montessori. Fern Hill would certainly call itself child-centered. These days, what school doesn’t? But Fern Hill is the real deal, a place where the talk is walked. For example, homework: there is none. Neither is there a curriculum. Zip. Nada. For example, Nick, who will begin the Fern Hill equivalent of third grade in September, doesn’t know how to read. He doesn’t give a damn about reading. Oh, he loves to be read to, which he has been every night since he was a few weeks old. But at eight years of age he has no inclination read on his own, and nobody at Fern Hill is pushing him to.
At Fern Hill, kids don’t sit in a classroom. They go where they want. There’s no recess. Recess lasts all day. There’s no lunch time. Lunch time is whenever anyone wants to eat. For his first four years at Fern Hill (he started at age three), I would say Nick’s major subject was digging. A couple of years ago he showed an interest in wood and began banging things together. The rooms of our house overflow with wood model planes, wood model computers, wood swords, wood guns, wood tables, boxes, houses, cat runs and myriad other objects of his design. No child left behind? Fern Hill is a deliberate attempt not to get on the bus.
Fern Hill doesn’t look like a place that’s big on structure, but looks deceive. The structures at Fern Hill are invisible. Fern Hill is not a school without limits, for example. It’s limits are the limits of the students, and of the teachers. These must constantly be negotiated. So I sort of lied when I said Fern Hill had no curriculum. I think its curriculum is “emotional intelligence,” or perhaps, “know thyself,” in the Socratic sense. The idea is that if a kid learns to trust his own mind and negotiate from that, everything else will follow. This is not a concept that appeals to certain elements of our society, such as multi-national corporations.
A Fern Hill teacher facilitating two students solving a problem is a demonstration in giving power to kids: “So, Alex, you want to ride the swing, and Nick, you want to ride the swing, too. Such a big problem. How are you two going to work out the problem?” The difference between that and telling kids, “Take turns,” is as wide as Andromeda.
There’s a great deal of subtle and sophisticated reflection behind a school like Fern Hill, as there is behind a school such as Summerhill, which is Fern Hill’s model. Here is what John Taylor Gatto had to say about schooling when he accepted New York City’s Teacher of the Year award in 1991:
The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aids and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard the institution is psychopathic, it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to [a] different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.
Now, I happen to believe that man and monkeys do derive from a common ancestor. But as an over-educated person who didn’t begin to know his own mind until age 35, I find the Fern Hill approach refreshing. It also seems to work for Nick, which is more to the point. He can’t wait to get to school in the morning. I don’t know when he’ll learn to read. I know he’ll learn when he’s ready. As the school’s director says, “They all do.”
I’m not without my criticisms of Fern Hill. I’m not without my fears. I know a woman who says, “I hated that I was forced to take piano lessons when I was a kid. But now I have music in my life, and I’m grateful for it.” What are we depriving Nick of, Nora and I ask ourselves sometimes, by not forcing it on him? When you parse it, the question can sound ridiculous, sort of like “We have to destroy this town in order to save it.” But in practice it calls for a leap of faith. It’s a constant exercise in surrender.
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Got 10 minutes? Check out the animated version of Sir Ken Robinson’s mindblowing talk on changing the educational paradigm: