Tonight Milt and I watched the new Ken Burns film, The Address. The film made me laugh and cry and think back to much earlier times in my life. It is the story of a school in Vermont, a boy’s school where teens with “learning differences” come sometimes as an educational last resort. Over many months during the school year the boys are challenged with the difficult task of learning and performing the Gettysburg Address and receiving a traditional school coin for their achievement. Memorizing Lincoln’s two minute speech doesn’t seem like such a huge deal—unless you think you can’t learn, have a speech impediment, can’t sit still for very long . . .
Watching the film reminded me of several things. First, it reminded me of a book I worked on over a ten year period that asked the question “What does it take to turn a young person into an adult?” The question doesn’t seem so hard, but after awhile I called it my accordion book because the pages would increase and decrease 100 pages at a time. Just when I think I had the “answer” more learning would come my way. I began to analyze the way many tribes across the world traditionally arranged an initiation and rite of passage for their youth in order to guide them into becoming useful members of their society. What I learned from the many elders was that young people need to be thrust into a difficult challenge, guided along the way (initiation), and then celebrated by their whole culture when they successfully meet the challenge. Our current culture too often over-indulges our young people so that we can feel like “good parents,” but in doing more and more for our children, we find they are able to do less and less for themselves. They need properly placed rigorous challenges in order to make big leaps in their development.
The second thing that the film reminded me of was my first real “job” in education. When I was in my twenties I went to work in an elementary classroom for “emotionally disturbed” children. The class was tucked inside a normal white-bread elementary school, but the area schools funneled all of their “troubled” children though our doors. Those kids became my kids for the next two years. It’s funny—I can still remember every one of their faces as if it were yesterday. Johnny was a handsome kid whose wounds were masked by a big anger. Scott was tall and lanky and had been labeled “retarded” at a time in his life where both alcoholic parents split their world apart, and he and his siblings all landed in foster care for the rest of their childhood years. Eve was tiny and nervous and probably profoundly schizophrenic or DID. She drew creatures called “bindings” with a fine hand and had multiple parts of herself that she also drew—an elegant woman with bangles on her arm and high heels, a surly looking young boy, an old woman who always wore her gray hair in a tight bun. Mark was our official “hyperactive” kid. In truth he was extremely sugar sensitive. I noticed this every time a well-meaning parent brought donuts or cupcakes for the class. Mark would soon be walking on the ceiling. Darcy had long, stringy hair, weighed over 200 pounds, and had poor hygiene. He could have decked me in a heartbeat. And Pam, the pretty blond with the big Attitude. The primary teacher in our class was a big black guy named Al who knew how to put the fear of god into those “unruly” boys. He also knew how to respect them. I got to be the softer side. The truth was, I fell totally in love with all of those kids and the only real problem I had was with the attitudes of the other teachers who didn’t like having our class amidst their “nice” children.
The other day I saw a FB thing where a little girl asked her mother, “What is normal?” The mother said, “A setting on the dryer.” The next time I went to dry my clothes, I had to laugh when I moved the dial to “normal.”
Milt and I have been exploring how to do a documentary or a film/radio series on the core issue of belonging and being and blood. We want to look at what happens when the spider no longer knows how to spin her web—or when families no longer know how to (or have resources ) to shelter and guide and initiate their young. As a society we think we can mess with core constructs of the human spirit without consequences. We define a rigid normal. We toss away fathers and sometimes mothers as if they are unimportant. We warehouse the little ones. We create intellectual and social police states and call them schools.
We like to create film or radio documentaries that ask a central question and then explore the question in a dozen different ways. We have been talking about this one long enough—time to get on it. The clock is ticking for all of us, but I believe in the power of the human spirit to align both with itself and the greater forces that make up the greater web of energy that some call creator, or spirit, or god
I just have to believe that. I just have to.
There are so many of you who also believe and think like we do. I keep meeting more and more of you in my work and personal circles. We are smart people, and we should quit worrying about the petty stuff and begin putting our house back in order.
PS: You can order my “accordion book” on Amazon.com. It is called, The Lonely Place—Revisioning Adolescence and the Rites of Passage. Read it and write me with your ideas.