Saturday, May 27, 2006

That Hippie Free School, Again

I see them as if through a tiny window, a teenage boy writing a teenage girl's name in red paint on the wall, the paint trickling down like blood. It can be nothing, in those days, but a reference to the Manson cult murders. The other teenagers in the house profess to think it's funny. What did the adults think? No one knows. The question arises -- as so often, thinking back -- where the hell are the adults? The ruling fiction is that the teenagers are adults. They'll work it out. And they do, of course. They work it out. It costs some of them more than it costs others. They grow up, in some ways, fast. They will take less for granted, all their lives, than those who grew up under authority. They don't assume that anyone else will take care of things, that somebody somewhere has it all under control. It's not under control. That's a lesson worth paying for.

Most of us remember the place with love. Some with intense nostalgia. I and at least one other student I know remain firmly convinced that it saved our lives. We were headed for jail or for one of any number of addictions -- pick one! -- and we found community, of a sort, that made us think a rapprochement with our species might be possible. A shared alienation. It was okay to be smart here, to love art or poetry or philosophy or difficult music -- if you didn't grow up in small-town America you may not understand just how not-okay those things can be. It was okay to think hard about politics, or religion. It was okay to be gay here; in 1970, that counted for a lot. Saved some lives right there. There was a shared body of knowledge about drugs that probably also saved some lives, given that no force on Earth was going to stop these kids from getting stoned repeatedly.

Still, as I read the posts on the Yahoo group, thirty years down the road, I am struck more forcibly by the cost, than by anything else. And what it says about the world these kids were growing up in, that this was a better place than where they came from. The intense, unrelenting sexual pressure on the girls. The violent outbursts of temper. The bad acid trips. The voyages -- scruffy teenagers hitchhiking a thousand miles on a whim, going to Canada, to Mexico, anywhere. You'd get into a car and realize the driver was dead drunk. It's an interesting problem: how do you get out of the car, now, alive? Life skills. You bet.

The leitmotif to me is loneliness. This, I'm sure, isn't the school's fault. Teenagers are all, so far as I can tell, intensely lonely. It goes with the territory. I want to go back and help these kids -- or help the kids, no different from them, right down the street, in 2006 -- or for that matter, the kids playing D & D in my living room -- and I realize, I don't know how. There is no general answer, of course. There's only attending to this child, here, now. They need so much kindness and encouragement, and mostly they don't make it easy to give it to them -- it takes a light touch and a willingness to fail. Sometimes I rise to it and sometimes I don't.

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