by Leonard Turton
Free School Democratic Education is a strange vocational choice. People are usually drawn to it by negative observations or experiences; so, it’s a positive from a negative. There’s often a dismay or an anger there, inside you, when you find it; an outrage that it has been so effectively hidden from children and parents and YOU. At the same time, there is often an over- reactive joy. A feeling that Utopia may have been stumbled upon. That it’s Sugar Plum Fairy Time, which is not true. This over-enthusiasm can cause misinterpretation, unrealistic expectations, a sense of superiority (after all you know better than the rest of your culture; you know the TRUTH, right?). This can lead to a lot of bad thinking and planning; to Pied Piper and even Guru or Hero syndrome. If you have a strong personality people might flock around YOU. WOW. And if you write a book you might become a Democratic Rock Star. Finally, since the adult/student relationship in a Free Democratic School is quite personal and friendly, Democratic School staff can have a lot more influence, positive but also negative, on children.
So, if you’re working or thinking of working in Free School Democratic Education I suggest you track your journey to it; analyse it. Who are you? Why are you doing what you do? What demons or cheering angels might have to be faced?
Here is my Journey. What’s yours?
Part 1: Ice Cream
When I was a child in Canada there was no school until 6 years of age. No kindergarten. While we waited for our family house to be built we lived with my Aunt Joyce and Uncle Ron and I started grade one at Consolidated School. It was an old three-story red brick building, probably from the twenties. My only memory is sitting at a wooden desk listening to the principal strap (on the palms of the hand) some nasty delinquent child over the school intercom. I wasn’t frightened by this public-torture radio show but I remember thinking it was stupid and cruel. In the gloom of the dirty yellow, high ceilinged room it made me sad.
In the summer, I turned seven and we moved to a brand new 50’s subdivision. Parnell School was an L shaped single-story building with a scrubby front lawn, gravel parking lot and a huge scrubby back lawn enclosed by a silver chain-linked fence. A thoroughly barren, treeless landscape choked with dandelions. My mom took me to register a couple of weeks before classes began in September.
She parked our blue Meteor in the lot and we were invited into the principal’s office. He was behind his big desk and stayed there. I sat in a wide wooden chair next to my mother and looked at the half person. He chatted with her. If he said something to me, it made no impression. I do remember a brown suit, white shirt, brown tie, glasses and a mustache. I was intrigued by the mustache and stared at it. I remember no face. I didn’t know I was meeting administration but I sensed something unnatural; the place made no sense to me at all. That office and the long, shiny hallways my mom and I walked down had nothing to do with childhood. I smelled a rat.
Actually, kids can sniff rats long before the age of seven but they don’t know what to do about it. Besides, they trust their parents. Too bad most parents have lost their sense of smell by the time children are of school age.
Soon another school was built closer to my house … to make room for all the new families living on the bulldozed fruit orchards beside the lake; I transferred to Prince Philip School in the middle of the year. Now that’s Philip the 90-something husband of Queen Elisabeth. This meant nothing to us kids. We never asked about the Prince and nobody ever told us about him. The picture of the queen in the entranceway could have been the principal’s grandmother for all we knew. Or Cleaning Lady of the Week. Years later when I was teaching at a place called Prince of Wales School a little girl drew a great picture of a happy whale wearing a crown cause that’s what she thought a Prince of Whales was. Perfect.
I spent grade two to eight at Prince Philip School. The day I enrolled the class was in session and my mom walked me to the room. The teacher came to the door. I held onto my mother’s dress quite tightly with my right hand. The dress was a grey-checked billowy fifties classic and I looked at that dress and my hand as the teacher pulled me free; she assured my mother I’d be just fine. She walked me to my seat, gave me some school supplies and introduced me. I remember thinking … “Don’t you think for a moment I’m alright, or this is okay. This is a bad situation I am in here.”
At the end of the school year, on the last day, this perfectly nice teacher walked up and down the aisles with a cardboard box and gave us each a little cup of vanilla ice cream and a flat wooden spoon. I opened the top of the cup, looked at the spoon and wondered if I’d get a sliver in my tongue. A few of the children seemed excited by the ice cream. I thought, now nearly eight … without the profanity but with the emotion of the profanity … “If you think this lousy bit of fucking ice cream makes up for a year sitting in this shit-hole wasting my time you are very mistaken, you stupid woman.”
Then it was summer.
Leonard’s Journey will be Continued …