My own educational experiences growing up were a mixed bag. It was mostly characterized by sacrificing self-esteem and self-direction on the altar of academia. I had what would be considered a very good “education” with the middle school years at a prestigious Quaker school downtown and high school at a top-rated public high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Followed up with an Ivy League bachelors degree and then . . .complete and utter alienation from mainstream education.
The school I attended before all that was a small diverse progressive private school in West Philadelphia called The University City New School. It still had a traditional structure in place but the children were given more respect, more freedom, and more play time than their counterparts at most other schools. After the third grade I left the New School to move on to my first “Gilded Cage” situation. The Gilded Cage is, as it implies, a lush and bountiful institution full of the bells and whistles of the modern education age. Just as the purpose of public education is to keep people in their place and not question the status quo, the Gilded Cage is designed to keep wealthy people in their place (as in continuing to accumulate wealth) and not question the status quo.
My joy of learning started to decrease and I looked to myself, not my environment, to blame for any failures. I thought there must be something wrong with me when I didn’t do well. I thought I should do what they tell me because I don’t want them to get mad. I thought I needed the approval of my parents and educators in order to feel good about myself. I never questioned whether we should have grades, tests, or age segregation. I accepted it, not even rebelling in ineffectual ways like disrupting lessons or pulling the fire alarm. This went on into high school, which although was public was in a wealthy enough area for it to be another Gilded Cage.
I did once object to a sexist decision made on the part of a teacher but the administration ended up, of course, siding with the teacher. Looking back I think of my outrage at the situation, girls bring baked good, boys bring napkins to an event, as rather naïve. There were so many other serious injustices going on in that school like racial segregation along academic lines, disproportionate funding of boys and girls sports, locked bathrooms. But I had been successfully coerced into remaining passive and maybe not even able to notice or consider these injustices as anything I could do something about.
It was during my illustrious college career that my eyes were truly opened to societal inequities including the state of education. I tutored at a local public school then worked at The University New School in their after school program. The public school was very simply and obviously a prison for children. The New School had changed over the years, I think in an attempt to compete with Philadelphia prep schools, which was a mistake because they should have emphasized what was so special about them as a small, diverse, neighborhood school. Even then I don’t think they would have survived financially, they closed a number of years ago. The after school program was a clean, safe, and friendly place but what I noticed more and more was my reactions to hearing other adults interacting with the young people. They were condescending, authoritarian, and dismissive. Being right was extremely important and behavioral issues were handled with what I don’t know how else to phrase, “talking to’s”. People could get “in trouble” and had to “behave”. There was nothing overtly abusive in what went on there, it was all normal and average, which is the problem. But this was my period of awakening consciousness, shocked by words and phrases I heard all my life, yet suddenly seemed like they should have no place around children.
I knew there had to be a better alternative that was not dehumanizing to all parties involved. I came upon the Free (democratic) School movement and went on to work at Open Connections in Newtown Square, Pa. I took what I learned and what I felt was right in my gut and started Talking Stick so that I could offer young people an uplifting educational experience that is characterized by mutual respect, creativity, and collaboration. I think that one of the most important aspects of Talking Stick is that it is non-coercive and therefore self-directed. I can’t imagine working in any other kind of educational environment. I’m happy to offer others, including my own son, what I could not even imagine as possible when I was growing up.