Thursday, November 17, 2005

The New School

Okay, here's yesterday's post, back by popular demand. ("Popular demand" = Michelle said she wanted to finish reading it)

Recently I've come back in contact with people from my high school, the "hippie free school" that I've written about before a couple times, here and here, for instance. It's been both pleasurable and painful. The New School was the first institution in which people generally were kind to me. Until then I had assumed that the world outside my family would be a hostile place, in which I would have to pretend normalcy and mediocrity or be perpetually taunted and harassed. I was later to find that in fact elementary and middle school were the exception, not the rule; that by and large people in the world would treat me decently. But at thirteen I had had no such experience, and the New School was a miraculous revelation to me. So in that way, coming in contact with its people again has been a great pleasure. I remember them with affection and gratitude.

But it's painful too. My prior ostracism in school had encouraged in me an arrogance and conceit that it took me years to lose. To help identify some people in group photos I looked back at my journals from those years, and I found the young teenager revealed in them very hard to like. Pompous, rude, opinionated, and grandiose, utterly convinced of my rightness and blandly convinced of my right to the privileges I enjoyed. Looking back I can see that maybe I hadn't been ostracized in school just for being different and clever. Being insufferable possibly had something to do with it too.

Gil, the moving force behind this new restoration of New School ties, commented on one of those old posts linked above:

I love hearing your thoughts. That must be the year I skipped (and got full credit). I don't believe I ever thought about the New School as a utopian experiment, but rather as freedom from the deadening...and I still believe essentially flawed...traditional schools. Personally I don't think I was bored, but I was often restless, and as you kow, filled my time with games of all shapes and sizes, and the clumsy pursuit of sexual, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy. I remember it fondly, although dad's vison that the school would create freedom through structure (a la Dewey) gave way to indulgent chaos, which I believed at the time was a right (when Chris Fromhold, a faculty member towords the end, wanted me to do some school work before graduating, I debated her in a community meeting which ended with her in tears, and me graduating based on precedent...i.e., getting credit for hitch hiking, reading comic books, playing Avalon Hill games, and such). Hard to believe, really...but I was a passionate college student and have been a passionate learner ever since. Maybe that would have been true without the New School, but it seems possible that I would have lost my passion for learning in a more traditional setting.

I remember the director of the school the year I arrived there, Don Jensen, said that if the only benefit the New School conferred was refuge from the public school system -- if it did nothing else for us at all -- it still was a valuable place. Gil and I had no particular trouble, it seems, recovering from our scanty-to-non-existent academic background. I in fact, since I was an eager and hungry reader, and didn't have irritating classes all day to stop me from reading, devoured a huge number of books. I found when I got to college that I was better-read than anyone I knew. Since I went to a weird college as well (Evergreen State College), and I went on reading, I found that in graduate school also I had read more than anybody else. All I needed to "succeed academically" was to be left alone.

At the end of the seminar in which I got my first paper back at Yale, as a graduate student, I eagerly read the comments on it. The woman next to me looked up from her own paper to say, "you have such discipline!"

"What?" I said, bewildered.

"You didn't turn to the back to see what grade you got!" she said.

Grades! I'd forgotten all about them. I hadn't had a grade since middle school. The very idea seemed quaint and juvenile, of a piece with Eton collars or white knee-socks. Surely adults didn't get grades? Or take them seriously, if they did?

(possibly this post continues, but for the moment I need to stop --)

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