Post Industrial Crow Children
My first day of kindergarten was in the fall of 1976. From that moment on the Denver Public School system attempted to educate me. By applying a district approved educational system to my unique and wondrous psyche the DPS tried to educate me enough to meet a district-approved standard. The system utilized obedience to time and authority to achieve their results. Those students with a basic aptitude for rote memory, math and subservience tended to thrive in the school system of my time. Those students who had a basic aptitude for mythology, playing make believe, and, expected authority to earn respect, rather than demand it, tended to do poorly in my school system. I was distinctly the latter.
Denver Public Schools had systems in place to promote those who excelled in sports, academics or both. They also had systems to cope with those with behavioral problems and obvious learning struggles. I was neither smart nor dumb, an athlete nor an academic . I was good at recess.
It was not the fault of the grossly underfunded school system that my talents for play were summarily overlooked, I blame the industrial revolution. As a result of the industrial revolution, we Americans needed an educational system to produce good factory workers. As students, like clock-punching laborers, we lined up outside the school, single file; waiting for the bell to ring indicating it was time to enter the utilitarian building. In the classroom we sat in rows and were given instructions by the authority at the head of the class. Our work was graded on a scale. Excellence was rewarded, mediocrity was expected and failure was managed. We were motivated by bells, discipline and rewards. There was no place for a being like mine in the factory.
The DPS did provide me with an education. I learned to sleep with my eyes open. I learned to keep a perfect beat as I counted down the seconds, minutes, hours, months, years, until I would be free from that educational system. I learned to cheat guilt free. I learned that lunchroom milk is only palatable when served ice cold. The skill I have most benefited from is; how to assess a situation in a fraction of a second and adjust my behavior in order to avoid unwanted attention yet ultimately get the results I want. A basic jungle lesson.
Being a pleasure seeking human I wanted to avoid the threats and reap the rewards of the system so I made attempts to get good grades. It was apparent I did not have the necessary aptitude for success in that particular system. Eventually I sunk to the slow-moving, deep eddies of the public school system known as the remedial classroom. As opposed to AP classes where the goal is to prepare you for college, the goal of a remedial classroom is to provide the students with the bare minimum of necessary information to participate in the economy and the democracy. The low expectations of the remedial classroom provided the perfect climate to hide. I was thankfully overlooked by the system.
As I watched high functioning students take on a great many activates, and hours of homework, I began to wonder if the goal of the school system is to burn out their adrenal glands. Take the fight out of ‘em. The most successful students were always busy and stressed out. Stress is not good for the body. Even at fifteen. A less toxic stress, mostly caused by trying to avoid conflict, existed for the students in the remedial classroom, which tended to be populated with those who prefer the slow swirling waters of under achievement.
Compared to the focused energy of a college prep classroom, the remedial climate was breezy. The smartest teachers learned they could spend time trying to focus a group of smart-ass kids who don’t give a fuck, or they could create a mellow environment dedicated to activities like “free reading” or “study hall”. The smartest teachers caught up on their work while we read books, slept or wrote notes. I read books of my choosing. Imagine the abrupt transition from being totally absorbed in Tom Robbins’ luscious romantic novel, Still Life with Woodpecker ,only to step into the fray of a 1980’s high school hallway replete with cliques, pegged jeans, and violence.
The detention room was also a safe haven. Confined to an antiseptic desk, I spent hours trying to think of nothingness. As time slowly passed I listened as teachers gossiped, witnessed their faces contort with the stresses of the work place and the struggles of their existence outside of it. As we sat at our respective desks, each eating our sack lunch, it became very clear, we were both in detention.
By the time I reached the tenth grade I had failed a dozen classes. The phrase “not working up to potential” was the indelible mark on my permanent file. So many hours had been spent in detention that I knew how many holes were in 12’ x 12’ acoustic tile. Not by using multiplication, but by counting them individually. Fuck math. I could also drink as many beers as my years and still drive home and say goodnight to my parents before the stroke of midnight. Drinking was something I was good at. I did it well and I did it often.
I lived like a eastern block communist. I went to the factory during the day and got drunk at night.
And when I was grown I had two kids of my own.
Smart kids. My oldest son was yet two we sat on a hilltop as the sun began to set. I was overwhelmed by stresses at work. He smiled and cooed in the dirt. I was distracted by my own plight. A crow circled overhead.
Caw Caw Caw… said the crow.
Caw caw caw… mimicked my son.
Pulled from my self-absorption the crow called out again. Again my son answerd.
With a nod he looked at me. His shining eyes communicated the wonderment and humor in the world. In that moment my stress breezed away and we laughed together at how funny crows are.
On a Saturday morning, when my youngest was seven, he bumbled underfoot as I poured coffee. Dogs plodded through the kitchen, cats hopped on counter tops and my youngest spun contentedly amongst my legs and pets. Again I was distracted by stresses external. I was hardly present to the morning light shining through the kitchen window on to a perfect domestic morning.
“Dad do you know there are only seven stories in the world?” asked my son pulling on my pajama pants.
There is no stress grand enough that a comment like that can’t cut through it easy.
“What?” I asked.
“There are really only seven stories in the world. We just tell them differently.” He said as he floated out of the kitchen chasing some animal tail or another.
Yes, it was my responsibility to send these blessed children to school.
So we chose a brilliant school. A public school. A school rife with the struggles of trying to change the order of things. A school trying to do what is right by children’s intrinsic genius while placating standards set by an impuissant government that has continued to fail us in regards to the education of our children for decades. We chose an expeditionary learning school. Jefferson County Open School.
Forty years ago the “Open School” philosophy responded to the industrialized information cram approach to education, by allowing students to be self-directed and aspire to be life long learners. Open School followed in the words of William Butler Yeats "Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire". Students work hard within the great freedoms they are entitled to not because of the threat of a bad grade or detention, they work hard because that is their nature. Open School trusts that the human lust for learning exists in all kids they just need the environment to explore it.