“Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,” [Ratty] said presently. “O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”
The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. “I hear nothing myself,” he said, “but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.”
Kenneth Grahame–“The Pipers at the Gates of Dawn” from The Wind in the Willows
I spent a whole, meandering day at Nick’s un-school last week.
It’s hard to believe we’re in our 7thyear at Fern Hill. I suppose I’ve spent whole days there before, or near whole days, especially the first year of pre-school, a year of supporting kids to gradually separate from parents.
There were other times Nick needed me to hang around as well, as he did the first day this year. But I wanted to spend a whole day at Fern Hill when Nick didn’t need me. I wanted to spend the day there for me.
THE WALLED GARDEN
Fern Hill is the kind of place where moms and dads are welcome. Sometimes a parent with a kid at the school decides to stay and help out. Some stay more and more and in a few years wind up teachers.
That hasn’t happened in my case, but the same question always nags at me when I drop Nick in the morning and drive off to meet my agendas. The question is, what if I’m not supposed to drive off? What if this is paradise and I’m supposed to stay?
What if when my time is done I meet the Ancient of Days and he says, Bravo for all the accomplishments. But tell me, why didn’t you choose paradise when you had the chance? Why didn’t you spend more time at Fern Hill?
Paradise. from Old French, paradis, from Latin, paradisus, from Greek, paradeisos, from Iranian, pairidaeza: an enclosed park or pleasure ground. A walled garden.
So I made arrangements.
“Dad,” Nick said, “I’m not going to play with you. I’m just going to do what I do.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Walk around, I guess. I just want to hang.”
“Well, I’ll be there if you need me.”
Nick’s teacher Charity introduces me at morning meeting. This is the only structured part of the day, when kids share plans and problems.
“Wolf will be staying in school today,” Charity says to the group.
Most of the kids already know me. They’re used to parents being around, no big deal.
Morning meeting ends and I stay in the classroom and watch Nick and Jay work on a Lego space cruiser. It’s a normal looking classroom, with a blackboard and writing on the walls. There are bookshelves full of books, but nary a computer.
One of the younger kids, Justin, joins Nick and Jay at the lego table. Justin isn’t very good at Legos but he likes being with the bigger kids. Nick and Jay school him in the finer points of inter-galactic combat.
Nick wanders over.
“You have to be nice to little kids,” Nick says. “The good thing about being little is people have to let you do what you want.”
It seems the whole school is doing what it wants, which is the ecosystem here–kids doing what they do when you don’t make them do anything.
Throughout the day, teachers hold occasional classes based on interest, but they’re informal and optional. Fern Hill, it occurs to me, is like the little patch of wild, native growth in the middle of New York City, the one with the sign:
THIS PARK HAS
BEEN LEFT IN
ITS NATURAL STATE
I have fears that I romanticize the place too much, that I’ll be bored after an hour, the whole experiment a flop, a day spent looking at my watch.
It doesn’t happen.
What happens is the gentle rhythm of clouds.
I wander outside where most of the kids are and sit down at a table opposite a girl named Michelle, who is eight. The scuttlebutt is that Michelle and George, a boy of ten, are an item. George is off somewhere. Michelle is working on a yarn bracelet. She shows me how, and asks if I’d like to make one.
The writer in me wants to say to her, “What’s up with you and George? What do you see in him?”
I don’t ask this.
Instead I think about Heidi, a girl I was in love with when I was ten. I spent half a summer kissing a mirror pretending it was her. She is the only Heidi I ever knew, and she was enough.
DIE DARTH VADER
The sky turns, blue and breezy. I never once look at my watch. Children pair off, re-group, establish positions in the yard, play complex games.
Three girls climb to the top of a wooden structure, a cloud-capped tower from where they can keep a lookout. I’m told they begin every day this way.
Three other girls start a business in the sand kitchen. They send messengers with notes all over the yard. They’re looking for servants.
There’s talk of a Hunger Games plan, but one of the boys loses his temper and ends up in the mosh pit, hurling softswords at a wall in the company of a teacher. No Hunger Games today.
Nick checks in periodically. He samples my lunch. We hug and he runs off.
Three girls ask if they can show me their song. It goes like this:
I’m mean right now.
It always ends with a frown.
I’m mean right now.
But what I’m going to do later
is kill Darth Vader.
I think of the Opies, those wonderful anthropologists of childhood, and the decades they spent in the schoolyards of Great Britain, watching and recording the lore and language, rhymes and games, jokes and riddles, pranks and superstitions of school children.
. . . in our continual search for efficient units of educational administration we have overlooked that the most precious gift we can give the young is social space: the necessary space–or privacy–to become human beings.
. . .adults produce these dreadful playgrounds which are just sheer lakes of cement or asphalt, and what the child is interested in are the cracks in the cement; he can’t play his games without those.
— Iona and Peter Opie
ON THE RIVER
Two-thirty. Time for cleanup. The entire yard breaks into teams, some sweeping, some picking up trash, some stacking tables and chairs. I don’t know how this happens, but it happens quickly and with military precision.
Randomness returns. Parents drift in. Nick and I collect his things.
“Hey, Shirley,” Nick says to one of the arriving moms, “My dad spent the whole day!”
“I need to do that,” says Shirley.
In the car Nick says, “So, how was your day, dad?”
‘Swell,” I say. Swell it was in the yard, just watching.
I want to reach for a conclusion, something to tell Nick about why I needed to be here, a string to tie around the package. I can’t find it. The image of Ratty and Mole on the river floats by.
“Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”
And Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. “I hear nothing myself,” he said, “but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.”
Nick is Ratty, and it’s the pipes of the great god Pan calling to him.
Hearing but wind in the reeds and rushes, I am Mole, greatly wondering.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Pipers at the Gates of Dawn by Jonathan Cott. Interviews with remarkable children’s authors.
Iona and Peter Opie An overview of their books. But the best way to learn more about them is by reading their interview in Jonathan Cott’s book.
Image Credit: Children’s Games by Pieter Brueghel, 1560. The painting depicts all the children’s games he knew.
What’s your paradise story? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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