A Beautiful Alternative (1 of 2)

Bruce L. Smith (bsmith@midway.uchicago.edu)
Mon, 24 Feb 1997 22:20:00 -0600

In a way, I wish I would just forward this story to you without any
introduction, but a few words demand to be heard. I received this from a
former student of mine just this morning, and I haven't been able to get it
out my head all day (like I'd really want to). It is truly beautiful, and
so much in the spirit of the Sudbury model. I have no idea as of yet where
this originally came from, or what its original context might have been.
But there can be no doubt that it is Real.

What a joy that someone whom I met in the system was still able to get to
know me, and build a connection with me, such that he would know to send
such a piece my way (not to mention wanting to keep in touch with me in the
first place). <sigh> I have to confess that most (if not all) of the best
times of my life have been spent in the company of "my" students. I owe to
them a very large part of Who I Am today; the fact that I still *have* a
Self to speak of.

I've already forwarded this piece to over thirty acquaintances of mine,
mostly former students and former colleagues. Not that you need any
encouraging to do likewise; I just think it's that good. Anyone who needs
a simple, yet eloquent, in-your-face yet humane, explanation of the need
for the Sudbury model will find it right here. Anyone who thinks the
prevailing/traditional system has a prayer needs to read this much more
than those of us who already know better.

Finally, if you're the least bit like me, this message will make you burst into
tears, tense up with uncontainable rage, laugh, and smile. This is
LIFE!!!!!! So fasten your emotional seatbelt, double-check your kleenex
supply, and dig in...


Open letter to the Superintendent of Schools
by Robert Alter

Dear Superintendent Grimmel:

I have received your letter asking why my daughter Greta is not
attending your school system. I want to try and answer that.

I would like to avoid conflict between us by saying that Greta will be
attending a private or alternative school, but the truth is that she
will not be attending any school. I would also like to be able to say
that my wife Jane and I are not aware that Greta must attend school by
law. But we are. We are also aware that the State has penalties in such
cases. But we don't care.

I assure you that what we are doing we are not doing lightly. We don't
break laws lightly. Where the touch of the State is soft on the shoulder
of our family, we do not shrink. We pay our taxes, we get shots for our
dog, we register our car and drive it slowly. We don't disturb anyone's
peace, and we don't litter. We are good neighbors and good people.

But at this touch - where compulsory education touches the life of our
daughter - you must excuse us if we tell you to lay off. This law we
choose to break.

In a word, no.

This is our beloved daughter, whose body and soul were given by God into
our keeping, and you cannot have her.

This is the heart of the matter. Let me try to explain.

Greta is more ours than yours certainly, but she is really God's. Jane
and I are her mother and father because God needed a woman and a man to
lie down together and prepare a place for a human soul that was ready to
incarnate on earth. God wanted Jane and me to take care of that soul -
to nurture and protect it - until the time it is ready to go out on its
own and do the tasks God has appointed for it. Our responsibility, as we
see it, is to protect that soul from all harm so that it may grow
according to its own laws. Sometimes I think of myself as a temple guard,
standing before the sanctuary of the Lord, making sure that the unholy do
not enter.

Does this seem silly and overblown to you? It does to me too, a little.
I mean, all I want to do is answer the question, "Why aren't we sending
Greta to kindergarten?" The problem is that every time I think I have
answered it, I say to myself, "No, that's not it, there's something
under that." and then I go to that deeper level, and there's a level under
that, and so on until at the bottom of it all is God. I have a
responsibility to God to protect this being that He has sent me. That is
the heart of the matter.

I don't know you as a man, Superintendent Grimmel. All I know is that
you share the values that inform the compulsory public education system
in the country. You, your principals, and your teachers share those
values. Some more, some less, but you've all got your fingers in that

Frankly, I don't trust a one of you with my daughter's spirit. This is
my beloved daughter, in whom I am so well pleased that I sometimes cry
just thinking about her, and I will not hand her over to you.

Let me introduce my daughter. Greta is five, fair, blond, blue-eyed,
and quite beautiful.

>From birth she has "toed-in", especially her left foot, so she has to
wear orthopedic shoes. We do special exercises every night.

One evening when she was two, lying in bed waiting for her story, Greta
started singing the words, "My tushy feel good, my vagina feel good."
The tune was quite pleasant, and she sang it for about ten minutes, the
same words, the same tune, over and over. Then, with one last "My tushy
feel good, my vagina feel good," rising to a kind of crescendo of pure
well-being, she looked up at me and said, "Know that song?"

When she was 18 months old, she fell while carrying a glass of juice and
slit her right wrist down to the nerve. She lost feeling and control in
her hand and had to be operated on by a team of surgeons with fancy
equipment. She was in the operating and recovery rooms, on her back with
masked strangers doing strange and hurtful things to her, for eight
hours. The operation was successful though. The nerve has regenerated
completely, and except for her index finger sometimes wiggling about
aimlessly, her hand is perfect. There is a scar that looks like a
wishbone on her wrist. There are scars inside too. To this day, she
distrusts many strangers, especially men, and she doesn't like to be
separated from us, and she is frightened of people wearing masks.

She loves to swing on swings, and play with other kids, and carry small
objects around all day, and tell time, and open car doors, and eat, and
talk. She dearly loves to talk. I have never met anyone who talks more
than Greta.

When she was three, she fought for and won the right to choose her own
clothes. Sometimes she comes down the stairs looking like a pile of

She has an incredible memory. Sometimes she'll say to me, "Hey Papa,
remember the time when..." and then she'll narrate an incident that
happened so long ago and with such minute detail that I, who have
forgotten it entirely, just listen in amazement.

She is very smart. I'm smart too, and I know the expectations people lay
on you when you're smart, and I am frightened by how smart Greta is.

She laughs hysterically when tickled. Cries unmercifully when hurt or
mad. Sometimes, if she doesn't get her way, or if she's lonely or just
bored, she whines and whines until I go crazy and tell her I can't stand it
anymore, and then she either stops and gets it together or bursts into

She loves all beings littler than herself. Babies, chipmunks, birds,
insects. Her favorite stories are the ones I tell her about Thumbelina,
who lives in a hole under a tree near our cabin. One morning, when I was
in a rage at our cat and hitting him because he had peed on the floor, I
looked over at Greta and saw a look of such intense personal hurt and
disappointment in me that I stopped and went over and held her.

She has a basically bipolar view of the universe. To her way of
thinking, a thing is either Yuk or Yum. One does not have to probe very
deeply to find out her opinion of something. "Hey, Greta, wanna help me
clear the table?"

She writes songs, flowing spontaneous songs that she sings all day. Her
latest one is called "Flowers":

Flowers at breakfast time
Flowers at lunch time
Flowers at dinner time
Flowers flowers flowers
Boom boom boom
Flowers Flowers Flower
Boom boom boom
Flowers in the spring
Flowers in the summer
Flowers in the sun of the east.

When Greta feels insecure, she likes to stick her thumb in her mouth or
her fingers in her vagina. Once she's plugged in, she feels better.

She is not conscious of being naked. I have seen other little children
titter at her when she was naked, and she just looks back, mystified.
How long she can stay in her prelapsarian innocence I don't know; I know
that she will eventually fall and join the rest of us, but it hasn't
happened yet.

Once in a while, she pees in her pants. Sometimes it's because she's
laughing very hard, sometimes she's just playing so hard that she
forgets it, and sometimes she's mad at someone and it's a revenge. Once
when she was mad at me, her revenge was to go upstairs and break all my

She doesn't close the bathroom door when on the toilet. She isn't yet
ashamed to be seen doing what human beings do. As a matter of fact, not
only is she not private about defecating, she's quite social, and often
invites passer-by in for a chat.

She has seen me and Jane and other grown-ups display some pretty intense
emotions. She has seen us cry and scream. She has seen us angry and
frightened. She looks on, curious, a bit awed, but she seems to accept
it all as part of being human.

She's always picking fights with me these days. I tell her to go wash
her face, and she tells me she doesn't have to. "You're not my boss!" I
tell her it's time for bed, and she says it isn't. I tell her it's cold
outside and she should wear a sweater, and she tells me it's not cold and
she can wear whatever she wants to. I think she's separating her ego from
ours and feeling her power, which is great, but it drives me nuts and I
often feel like strangling her.

She gets so mad at me sometimes! She screams and hits me. She calls me a
dummy. Her electric little rage. One part of me hates it. Another part
is just so damn proud of her that all I can do while I'm getting punched is
watch in admiration.

So, what will you teach this creature in your schools, Superintendent?

Will you teach her that every single part of her body, from her eye to
her anus, is holy? Will you teach her that she - she herself, inside out -
is from God and therefore perfect? Will you teach her to love herself? Will
you teach her that whatever feeling she is feeling at any given moment is
valid and okay? Will you teach her that she is better than no one and no
one is better than her? Will you teach her not to judge anyone or argue
with anyone? Will you teach her that television is empty, that
newspapers and movies and stores and cars and cosmetics and clothes are
narcotics, that money is guilt, that the American middle-class is
desperate, that disease of the body is disease of the spirit, that 90
percent of the food in supermarkets is poison, that capitalism sucks? Will
you teach her about suffering beautiful humanity? Will you teach her to
every moment choose life? And what I mostly want to know, Superintendent,
will you teach my daughter that she is God?

I know you won't. I didn't go through twenty years of schooling for
nothing. I know what goes on in those classrooms. Christ, I'm a teacher!
I get them at the end of the line in college. I see what's been done to
those kids. I see their hot, angry pimples. I see them slump and cower
in their chairs. I see their boredom and their laziness, which I know is
really rage. I see the horrible thing in their eyes, the overwhelming
question they keep asking with their eyes and which I can never answer.
I see!

Listen. I will tell you two stories.

One day I told my students (freshmen at a prominent east-coast
university) to pull out a piece of paper. They all did. I told them to
print their names in the upper right-hand corner. They all did. I told them
to title the paper "A Syllabus of Syllables," and then underline the title.
They all did. I told them to write the following syllables next to the
numbers: "ge, sha, la, urb, orb, go, vin, sko, sti, cer." They all did. I
told them to form a word from each of the syllables. They asked me a few
questions - they wanted to be sure exactly what it was I wanted from
them - and then they all hunched over their papers and did it. I told them
to fold the paper in half. Deborah asked which way. I said lengthwise. Then
I told them to hand in their papers. They all did. I stood there with a
handful of 15 papers folded lengthwise. Everybody was looking at me.

Not one of them asked me why we were doing this. Not one of them told me
to go screw myself. Not one of them - not one - even looked at me

Why should they? Nothing strange had happened. this was school. School
is where you give up your power, you do what you're told, and you don't ask
questions. In school, we all learn not to care anymore, not even to care
that we're being humiliated, because everybody keeps telling us that
we're being educated.

Another time, later in the semester, I walked into class purposely late.
They were all seated, talking. I sat down and looked around. They
stopped talking and looked at me. I looked back and said nothing. They kept
looking at me. I kept saying nothing. It went on for about five minutes
clock time, but it seemed like an eternity. Finally, Russell asked the
class, "Why isn't anybody saying anything?" Nobody answered. Then
Marilyn asked me, "Why aren't you saying anything?"

"What do you want me to say?" I asked.
"I don't know. Run the class, I guess."
"It's your class, You run it."

She looked at me as if I had just asked her to stand on her head and
bounce out of the room. The all began to realize that something was
happening here and everybody began talking. Different people were
putting it in different words, but the message was for me to take power.