A Beautiful Alternative (2 of 2)

Bruce L. Smith (bsmith@midway.uchicago.edu)
Mon, 24 Feb 1997 22:20:10 -0600

I either said no or just said nothing and watched. One or two students
tried to get things started by running the class as I would have run it.

"No," said Miriam, "don't you see that's what he's trying to tell us? We
can't do things his way!"

They didn't know what to do. They were stuck. Then they started getting
mad, first at each other, then at me.

"Teach us something. It's your job," complained Terry.
"I'll be glad to. What do you want to know?"
"I don't know"
"You don't know what you want to know?"

Then I got mad and said sarcastic things. Then they got mad and started
defending themselves and accused me of being unfair.

Things went on like that all class. By the end of the hour, two had
broken down in tears, five or six had just up and left, one had stormed
out and slammed the door muttering nasty things, one just kept repeating,
"I'm so confused, I'm just so confused, I don't know what I'm doing here."

Oh yes, I know what the schools teach, Superintendent Grimmel. They
don't teach anything. What schools do is socialize. The main function of
our schools is to produce good Americans, small humble helpless people who
look and think and dress and talk and hope alike, mechanical people
programmed to tumble from school into ticky-tacky houses and fit into
the machine. Some fit high, some low, but the purpose of the schools is to
produce parts for the machine.

America is the machine, we are the parts. Factories need workers,
corporations need executives, offices need secretaries, and schools need
superintendents. Everybody must fit. But the slots aren't very big, and
the human spirit is huge, so you have to whittle people down pretty
small to fit them in, and that takes a long time, so school takes many
years. And nobody really wants to get whittled down like that, nobody
really wants to be made small and afraid, nobody really wants to have the
God pumped out of them, so let's make school compulsory! Let's kidnap the
little gods and put them in yellow buses and transport them to schools.
They have to come and get made puny by law.

I was once talking to a high-school kid and asked him what year he was
in. He said, "I only got two more years to serve." He wasn't trying to be
funny. It was a slip of the tongue.

I am sure you are not a bad person, Superintendent Grimmel. I bet many
of your teachers are good, gentle, loving people. But because they are
working for a system, they are the system, and they will teach my
daughter the teachings of the system.

I know that you will teach her.

You will teach her first that she needs a teacher to teach her. That
knowledge and power come from the outside. The message is that she
doesn't know anything inside herself, she's an empty ignorant helpless
vessel that must be filled. I can't begin to tell you how wrong that is.

You will teach her that she is not a person but a role: a little girl,
bright child, advanced reader, first-grader, sophomore, Phi Beta Kappan,
graduate, Ph.D. She will look up to those in superior roles, and down at
those in inferior roles, but she will not look straight at people,
behind the roles, at the persona and the God in the person. In time, she
will begin to identify with her role. She will forget who she really is.
In every sense of the word, she will then be lost.

You will teach her that she is weak and that authority is strong. In the
name of practicality, you'll suck the fight out of her. I really hate it
when Greta fights with me, but I hope she never stops.

Above all , you will teach her fear. First, she will fear teachers and
then all grown-ups. She will fear failure, which means that she will
fear endeavor. She will grow to fear the feelings natural to a human being
and a little girls- feelings of terror, rage, vulnerability, power, and
love. She will grow numb to the best stuff inside her. She will be ripped
and uprooted out of her own ark human soil, and like the rest of us she'll
be left to rot in the dryness of her intellect.

You will teach her that life is compromise and choices are limited. Some
nice teacher will give her the choice to write a paper about her summer
vacation or about her neighborhood, but I don't think that the teacher
will give my daughter the choice to write whatever she wants, including
nothing at all - and that's the choice that takes the bullshit out of
the other choices.

You will teach her that there are places and activities of her own
little glorious body that are ugly and dirty. That will be a subtle
teaching, although the first time that Great gets insecure in school and
sticks her fingers in her vagina, the scene will probably not be subtle.

I wonder what you'll teach her the first time she calls you a
"piss-ass." She calls me a "piss-ass" all the time. I call her a
"piss-ass" back, which makes her laugh. Will you, Superintendent Grimmel,
laugh with Greta when she comes to your office and calls you a "piss-ass?"

You will teach her competition. It won't take long for her to realize
that her 'A' means nothing unless her friend Julie gets a 'B', better an
'F', so in some deep corner inside her Greta will be hoping failure for
Julie. Hoping failure for your best friend (Rusty Swartz! Forgive me, I
loved you!) is an evil thing, and schools are evil for doing that to
people. Schools corrupt friendship. Where there is supposed to be
equality, trust, and cooperation, you put hierarchy, fear, and competition.
People secretly competing with each other never look each other square in
the eye because their real loving selves are hiding under their scared
competitive selves, and who wants anyone to see that in your eyes? Do you
really think I will allow you to tamper with my daughter's clear gaze?

You will teach her that the purpose of learning is a good grade and a
teacher's approval. You will move the source of her own sense of
achievement - her very pride, joy, and independence - outside herself
into an authority. When little Johnny gets that 'A', he feels great, but
if he gets a 'D', he is wretched with shame and guilt. You will make my
daughter dependent on the outside world for her own opinion of herself. In
the end, she'll be like you and me, like all of us who went through it,
looking out of scared squirrel eyes always asking everybody, "Am I okay?
Am I okay?" Not by accident but on purpose, at the very center of their
purpose, schools make people feel not okay. Who else but people who felt
not okay, people emptied out of all their hard proud stuff, would willingly
fit into this social system? Schools rip the You out of you, and by the
time you're done, you sit there burnt-out, gutted, soft as mush, ready to
do what you're told. Then they call your name and you go up and get your

You will teach her that at age five she should know her alphabet and at
six she should know how to read, at nine she should know this, and at
ten that. There is one clock in all your schools, and it tells time for
everybody. I don't know who first suggested that the human spirit grows
at the same rate in every human being, but whoever did should take a walk
in the woods during spring and see if a maple buds the same week as an oak.
Superintendent Grimmel, you're going to tell Greta that she should read at
six, when maybe she won't want to read until she's ten. Maybe she has
better things to do. When she wants to learn how to read, she will come to
me and say, "Papa, help me learn how to read," and I will. It will take a
month. We'll have a ball. And for the rest of her life, she will learn what
she needs to know when she needs to know it. Her learning will
always be a voluntary inner response to an inner need. If she needs a book
or a teacher or even a school, she'll find all of those. But it will always
be her need, not your curriculum.

You'll teach her all about time. The school day runs from 8 to 2:30. For
50 minutes you sit in a room and ten a bell rings and for 5 minutes you
walk through the halls and then a bell rings. Don't be late. Pink slip.
Time's up. Tick-tock. But kids' time is timeless, they live in one vast
moment, and it is a great sin to put them in time, and time in them. Oh,
I know, it will happen to Greta eventually, and to some extent it already
has. She too will forget that she floats in a sea of eternity, but
please, not when she's five for heaven's sake.

Somehow she'll learn that sex is bad and genitals giggly. Somewhere
along the line she'll learn that you don't cry or shout in public, and
you don't get mad at grown-ups, and you hold in burps and cover yawns and
apologize for sneezes. She'll end up saying "Please" and "Thank you" when
she doesn't mean it. She'll probably grow up being rational instead of
intuitive, cool and judicious instead of hot and spontaneous. She'll
talk softly, think small, and write like a corpse. Somehow the message will
get to her that the purpose of life is work and the purpose of work is
money, she will be somewhat of a sexist and somewhat of a racist and
somewhat of a patriot. Probably she'll end up being a consumer, and she'll
think that consuming will bring her happiness. And she'll get the message
that you really can't do much to change things, that ya better like what ya
get kid because you are powerless.

Probably no one will ever actually tell her this crap, but there's an
osmosis that goes on in your schools, and the medium is the message, so
she'll get it. Oh boy, will she get it.

God help her, she gets a lot of this stuff from me and Jane and her
grandparents and playmates. I know that everything I have said schools
will teach her she will learn anyway. It's called growing up in America.
It's also called falling from grace, and it seems to happen to all of
us. I know that Greta will not be spared, whether or not she goes to
school. But with all the forces threatening the integrity of her soul,
and with such a long hard battle ahead of her, she doesn't have to face
the Goliath of your schools too.

So, if she doesn't go to school, how will Greta learn, you may be asking
yourself. But I am more concerned with, What will Greta learn? You see,
I don't really care if Greta knows where Guatemala is, or who the
President of Ethiopia is, or how to write a compound sentence, or what
seven times seven is. While all the other little children are learning
that stuff, Greta might be out in the garden with Jane learning how to
grow pole beans. Or she might be in the woods with me learning how to cut
down a tree for wood. If Greta never learns to distinguish a noun from a
verb, she still might learn how to distinguish a black maple from a sugar
maple and know which one to tap. While all those other little children are
learning how to add and conjugate and type, Greta might be learning how
to survive in a world that is falling apart around our ears. Given the
state of the world today -the shortages, the pollution, the horror of the
cities, the horror of our weapons - can you, Superintendent Grimmel, say
with confidence what a person will have to know in order to make it in this
world in twenty years? I am scared about what's happening in the world, and
scared for my daughter. Things are much too serious for her to be wasting
time in school.

Not to mention all the time I want her to be playing, purely playing,
instead of sitting in a seat in a classroom learning.

And while all those other little children are learning where Guatemala
is and who is the President of Ethiopia, Greta, alone out in the woods,
might be learning where she is and who is the Lord of the Universe. Maybe
she'll never talk to a guidance counselor, but maybe she'll talk to an
angel. I'll tell you what. If you start offering courses like Introduction
to Wisdom, and Advanced Happiness, and Fundamentals of Ecstasy, I'll
consider sending Greta to your schools.

An old friend of mine met Greta for the first time this morning, and
said, "You know, your daughter... there's something special about her... a
light in her face. I don't know what it is.. just a light." I know what it
is. It is the light of God which we are all born with. The light dims and
flickers as we grow up, and in some of us it is all but out. Some of us,
like me, lose it for a long long time, and then in some mirror we get a
flash of it, and then lose it again, but we've seen it, there it was,
our real self, our peace, God - and then we know that for the rest of our
lives our job is to find that light again.

"Ye are the Light of the world." We are. We really are.

My daughter's face radiates light. Light spills from her as she
strides. She dances and spins in light.

She hasn't lost it yet. Not much of it anyway. I bathe in it. I am
fierce in my protection of it, like any animal fighting for the life of
its young. If I have said extreme things, that is why. I am sorry to be
extreme. I think schools are extreme.

Please excuse my daughter from school today.

Robert Alter


"If a person is determined to learn, they will overcome every obstacle and
learn in spite of everything...but if you bother the person, if you insist
he stop his own natural learning and do instead what you want him to
do...between 10:00 and 10:50 and so forth, not only won't he learn what he
has a passion to learn, but he will also hate you, hate what you are
forcing him to do, and lose all taste for learning."

-- _'And Now for Something Completely Different':
An Introduction to Sudbury Valley School_