Back to Home Contact Gene
Before I share my memories of Lille Skole, I can't tell you how strange it is to read an article written by your parent that you've never laid eyes on before (see previous "gene3" link next to "Gene's Remembrances" article by Brandi Barchus).
I feel the need to respond to the piece (perhaps that's where my writing talent comes from?) before I delve into the free school.
As an adult and parent, I'm not particularly proud that I told my mother to "f-off" or that I called cops "pigs" (they put their lives on the line; like any profession, they're some good ones, some bad), or that I protested against American society. I could've just as easily been raised by a right-wing family and obeyed my father and mother, respected authority, and loved my country. Leftists and right-wingers are opposite ends of the spectrum; what they have in common, however, is the tendency to judge others, harshly. I find extremists of any kind oppressive.
My Mom's words make me realize how well-intentioned her decision was to put me in a free school. Yet, her zest not to "oppress me" as her child placed me in a bind. It hurt like hell that she acted as my friend, not my parent.
Having said that, I did turn out independent, confident, and creative. I agree that scholastic subjects become irrelevant, but schooling is more than mere subjects. It's about socialization. Yes, the "controlling" kind that my Mom rejected, but also more importantly to a child, friendships. Was I prepared for scholastic subjects when I entered public school? No. But like my mother predicted, a motivated child can and will learn anything.
By the way, I take offense that both my parents, intellectual radicals, thought I wasn't an exceptionally bright child. Humph.
I do love to read books are my constant companions to this day.
Ok, enough said about the article.
My memories of the free school are told from a child's perspective. These vignettes are excerpted from a creative non-fiction piece I penned about my life, "Education of a Flowerchild, Or, Life's a Bowl of Granola," first printed by A Summer's Reading, No. 4, copyright 2000.
Do you wake up happy in the mornings because your children are glad to go
Isolated into remedial classes because I can't speak English, I am held back one year in school. Mama seeks alternatives.
That's when I spend my first day at Lille Skole.
Modeled after the pioneer Summerhill education program established by A.S. Neill in England, the school allows me to choose what I want to learn, when I want to learn. It is, in every sense of the word, a free school.
Set in a large warehouse with a vacant parking lot in front, the school is fenced in by red wood. I arrive in a white frilly dress with a pink satin sash and black patent leather shoes. This fastidious dressing habit rapidly gives way to halter tops, blue jeans patched with peace signs, red bandannas, and work boots.
My days at Lille Skole are carefree and playful. Not that there aren't challenging days.
"What do you learn?" asks a television host for a local talk show. Tongue-tied, I shrug my shoulders. How could I explain what journalists had described as "non-restrictive, non-scheduled, non-curriculum" learning?
We fix broken bikes for neighborhood kids. Our favorite is "Old Frankenstein" because it has so many different parts-the frame was salvaged from Buffalo Bayou. We sell an underground newspaper, "The Rag," on street corners for 25 cents. Instead of Butter Krust Bakery, we tour the Black Panther's headquarters. We make milk carton candles with wax and sand, we tie dye t-shirts, we macramé plant hangers with wooden beads, and we weave God's Eyes using yarn and Popsicle sticks.
I skip math circle every time but read a lot and manage to spell. My handwriting is horrible. Mama teases me that those headhunters had shrunk my head.
The field across the street is fodder for international spying, hunting vampires, and world cup soccer. The school has only three rules: can't hurt ourselves, can't hurt others, and can't destroy property.
A field trip with my schoolmates
In 1971, we attend a Free School convention in New Orleans. We scurry up and down Bourbon Street, peering into dark caverns hoping to see naked burlesque dancers, only to be shooed away by nonplussed doormen. "We" means three other kids, although there must have been about 15 enrolled in Lille Skole. Andy, the son of a German professor at St. Thomas University; Alison, the daughter of an English professor; and Georgie, the daughter of a petroleum geologist at Texaco.
There is also Benny, the son of no mother or father. At 10 years old, he has already racked up a record of 40 arrests. Wanted on charges of burglary and theft, Benny gets picked up by the police on a stolen bicycle (ironic, don't you think).
Bright and sensitive Andy, with his dark tangled hair, is the love of my seven-year-old heart. I have fun sharing hamburgers with Alison, whose Veronica Lake hairnever cooperates. Then I hook up with a new girl, the shy and slender Georgie.
Andy Milburn was the pride of the Free School Movement during Lille Skole's first year, and later years at Pearl
Public school, a real education?
Daddy experienced first hand the power of a formal education; it had lifted him across those proverbial tracks. He fills me with family stories of poverty, powerlessness, and his fight to get out.
I decide to fight, too.
I experiment with Greenbriar, Austin's Free School, but am unenthusiastic. Since it is the middle of the school year, I face two choices: either enter fifth grade or wait and begin sixth grade. Daddy takes me to visit both schools so I can make the democratic decision.
The sixth grade principal, wide and short, sternly lectures me from behind his desk. He describes spankings, demerits, passes, and detention. The fifth grade principal, lean and tall, kindly listens to my alternative education.
Which do you think I choose?
With no formal education since first grade, I struggle at first to close the five-year academic gap with the other fifth graders. I lie sprawled on the bathroom floor with the light on and the door closed until the wee hours, going over and over my exercises until I get them right. Math continues to elude me.
Socially, I am light years ahead. "What, you haven't smoked grass?" "You don't know what 'shooting the bird' means"? I ask incredulously. Where had these kids grown up, I wonder. They seem sheltered from life itself.
For me, the free school experience wasn't about the subjects we did or didn't
study; that was irrelevant. It was about childhood friendships, the essential
social ties of small human beings. So, Lille Skole was socialization after all.
Back to Home Contact Gene