09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We Won't Do It, Mr. Rose

I never came close to teaching like A.S. Neill in Sommerhill, because
in a public school the academic demands are tied into each teacher's evaluation. I could make many changes and be creative, but that was acceptable as long as I could prove, on standardized tests, that my students did as well as those in more conventional classes. I did that.

My experiences at the Creative Problem-Solving Institute had led me to try to make my classes into miniature Esalens. It had worked to some degree at Malcolm X, but when I transferred to Downs Elementary I had been to two more Institutes and was curious to see how these Human Potential Movement exercises would work with an integrated class of mainly white fifth and sixth graders.

I'll save the details of my very complex program for a future book. It included communications training, sensory awareness, massage, meditation, guided imagery, dreamwork, dream communities, aggression release and assertiveness training, and dyadic encounters, as well as many types of group work to help them become sensitive to the needs of others. I continued my work to individualize instruction and instill personal pride.

Two basic things were done to develop an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect. First, I had the children select a partner to form a pair. Either they choose a partner or I selected one for them. Then, each pair was to find the most compatible other pair to form a quartet. The pair shared a double desk and the pairs' desks were pushed together face-to-face. My goal was to force them to sit together and, through many types of experiences, learn to cooperate and get along. I was teaching them the rudiments of effective socialization. After a few weeks they could select new partners and new quartets. I did this a few times.

Each time they made the selections, I helped them to verbalize, in behavioral terms, the reasons each one selected or rejected a partner or pairing. It was painful, but instructive. No student could give a reason for his choice or rejection that was based on something, which the child could not change, such as a physical feature, religion, ethnicity, or economic state. Each statement had to be stated in a way that the child knew exactly what he was doing that resulted in him being selected or rejected.

Example. "I don't like you when you laugh at me 'cause I don't read as good as you." The other child knows exactly what he has to do to be liked. The change necessary is clear and doable.
Every morning in their groups they also discussed their dreams.

I introduced them to several theories of dreams and I explained that dream interpretation was more of an art than a science, but that they should have fun with their dreams. It was also one of my methods of getting them to become conversationalists. I was teaching them proper listening and clear speaking skills.

After several changes I had them form into groups of six. At this point I said this was going to be a permanent group and each was to be its own "Dream Community." Besides the dreamwork, each group was to help each member of its community with whatever lesson they were assigned. I was trying to create a sense of family in which each member liked and was willing to help all the others. It was like having constant peer tutoring at their fingertips.
Ideally, each would discuss and teach the others what he knew best. Of course, they often just gave each other answers; but I stressed teaching each other the "how" of doing things, and that giving the answer didn't really help. Also, in some groups, the children didn't really select each other, but were the ones no one else wanted to select. I had to watch them most closely as they tended to blow up. I used their eruptions as teaching and learning opportunities, and even these groups began to be more cooperative, friendly, even happy.

They did art, sang, worked all their academic lessons, and played table games together. By helping one another, they really earned. "earned time," in which they could play games, draw, or just talk quietly. It was working perfectly.

Then, I dropped the bombshell. I had done this with other classes and had certain expectations.
I asked them. "Are you all happy in your groups?"

Chorus of yeses.

"Anyone want to leave his community?"

Chorus of noes.

"Well, this is the real world. In the real world, people are always leaving or a boss forces you to change jobs and you're torn away from people you like. Also, there are times when you have to make painful choices. Now, all semester I've been emphasizing the importance of not hurting other's feelings and sticking up for your family. Today, I am asking you to give careful thought about excluding,putting out, ONE member of your family. You must explain why you are excluding him."

The room was silent. Many of their heads were moving side to side, nonverbally saying no to me.

A girl spoke, "Everyone in my group is my best friend. How can I push anyone out?"
"That's your assignment. It's to make you a stronger person. It'll help her to understand what
she needs to do to be more accepted by others."

"But we all accept each other."

"That's nice; but I know what's best for all of you. Just do it! Get rid of one member!"

A few of the groups started buzzing; but most said nothing. I waited a few more minutes and looked at the clock. "C'mon, we've got other things to do. Make your choices."

With some other classes, they couldn't wait to push a member out. Sometimes, those who felt that they were going to be selected anyway, volunteered to leave. Some of the popular children who had compassion volunteered, because they did not want to see a less popular friend hurt. Never had the entire class hesitated.

Joey, a small blonde boy, stood up and said, "Mr. Rose, isn't there some other way to do this? None of us wants to hurt any of our friends."

"NO!" I yelled. "Stop arguing with me!" I took the wooden paddle and smashed it on a desktop.
"You have two minutes. If your group doesn't throw out one member, I'm going to swat each person in that group." I glared at them.

Most flinched when the paddle hit the desk. In their eyes I saw fear, anger, depression, and disappointment. I was amazed at their resistance. Again, there was some quiet talking in the groups, but most sat quietly--waiting.

I stood there, paddle clasped in my hand, alternately looking at the clock and at each group. When the two minutes were up, Joey got out of his seat. "I guess I'll take the first swat. None of us are going to push out a friend."

I looked at him, at the paddle, and threw it towards my desk. I had difficulty getting the words out. "Please sit down, Joey."

He was puzzled, but relieved, and sat. "I am so PROUD of each and
every one of you. I know most of you like me and you know I like you and so you usually do whatever I ask of you. I also know most of you know I will paddle you and so are afraid of me. Yet, neither your affection or fear of me was enough for you to do a horrible thing!
`Throwing out a member just because I told you to do so would mean that you were ignoring your minds and hearts and would do something because someone in authority told you to. You didn't do I; you did the RIGHT thing, the moral thing, even though you were afraid. That takes courage. This is the kind of courage that makes our country great. Each of you today has discovered what it takes to defeat those people who try to make you do the wrong thing. By standing up for what you believe is right, you have demonstrated that you are capable of being the kind of citizen that Washington, Jefferson, and the Founding Fathers knew was necessary for America to be great. (I paused, continuing to fight back tears of pride.) I don't think I'll ever be more proud of any class that I have the rest of my life. You are the GREATEST!"
I paused again, "We're going to have two P.E. times today." They rushed out the door as I composed myself and then floated out following my small heroes.

When I was a conscientious objector (C.O.), I believed I was being a good American. It was during the Korean War. In college I had been taught to apply the scientific method to everything. I learned to challenge, examine, and evaluate what I heard and read.

My decision to be a C.O. was based on my sincere beliefs that any
war is counterproductive; but, that the Korean War was being waged for reasons other than what we were being told. I belonged to no religion, was an atheist, was not against violence (I was a boxer and football player), was against being treated as a nonentity; all of which meant that I had no basis for an exemption.

I even quit my part-time job on a military base, because I reasoned
that anything I did to help the war effort was wrong. Therefore, becoming a medic was not an option. (One of the reasons I finally gave in was I realized that almost anything one did to keep the economy going contributed in some way to the war effort.) I was totally alone in my fight for what I thought was best for my country.

I was ready to go to jail and there I planned to read, write, and
encourage others to resist. I fought for two years, but the loneliness, the lack of support from family and friends, and my self doubt resulted in my enlistment into the Air Force.
I regretted my decision for many years. I was twenty years ahead of my time, but I lacked the intelligence and moral fiber to do what I knew was right.

That day, with that class, I felt I had managed to somehow teach and instill the virtues that I still believe are what has made and can remake American greatness.
These children are the ones who would prevent a Holocaust; they would be the American Schindlers. These children touched my life as I had touched theirs, and they are the reason that teaching, next to parenting, is the most important, gratifying, and satisfying profession. I was honored to be called a Teacher!

And, I was ready to embark on adventures for the next twenty years that would test me and enhance my talents and powers and greatly increase the joys of being a teacher.
Children have made my life significant. I thank them!