Village School

(Recorded on December 5, 1981)

~ Introductory Text by John Sherin ~

FOLLOWING HIS POPULAR RUN for the School Board, Milt Siler was given an unprecedented Retirement Dinner in 1980 while the school was still located in the South Annex. Peter Murray, Joe Trusso, Johanna Caleca, John Sheehan and Ellie Stephan had already embarked upon their own paths to alternative futures. Ken Moss, Vieda and Tori Mazur were gone now. Michael Bloom had found a new direction. He’d been excessed the same year Milt left to take several years off to recharge and return to the classroom in New York City. It would soon be Lillian Thompson’s final year in the ‘Land of Oz’ but Laura Morelli would be gone even before her. John waved his goodbye in June of ‘82 as he watched Conrad choose retirement and relocation. Teacher cutbacks finally excessed Bob, leaving Grace DiRiggi and Marge Acosta as sole Staff survivors in ’84. It would be Grace, however, who would preserve the semblance of alternative choice among narrowed options for those courageous and needy young people who stayed. The mood in 1981 swung from hopeful optimism to gloom and doom and back. Decisions filtering from Central had all but obliterated resistance to the school's closing by a once formidable Friends of Maslow-Toffler. All wagons were circled now in anticipation of a non-negotiable last word from the newly appointed high school principal. Relentless testing of authority by needy, believing teens remained constant and was only intensified by the realities of local political exigencies. Security needs of students and staff drained the energy and growth potential from those who’d held out against the possibility of final institutional annihilation. M-T appeared to be in its last days. A few held out hope that if it were to happen, a return to the conventional high school might represent a new beginning.

This intergenerational Community Meeting serves as a metaphor symbolizing everything that was and wasn't happening at M-T and provides witness to the intensity of emotions, hopes and expectations of students and staff adrift in the same little lifeboat on an ocean of trouble. To observe this group process unfolding can be to witness more examples of confrontational tough love than “touchy-feely” varieties of affectionate affirmation. Watching this as a 17-year-old provides a certain innocent perspective. Looking at it from the age of 46 offers an option of adult life experience. Former staff might see something new if they are to see this in the context of today’s classroom norms. George Wachmuth (a visiting graduate from 1975) got it right when he reported what he saw and remembered. Mr. Heller (a visiting guidance counselor from the high school) got it right when he said what he did about people being serious and others "going along superficially." His advice, “to thine own self be true," was good advice in Shakespeare’s day no less than in 1981 or 2010. Our hope is that you’ll find this experience instructive. It was at best a difficult year. At the same time it was a year filled with opportunities and promise for real teaching and important lessons about what it means to be a good student, a responsible citizen, and an honorable person.

Part One - The annual Holiday Dinner for friends and family is in the early stages of planning. The role the Performing Arts Center will play in the entertainment is touched upon. A student asks for help obtaining a piece of sheet music. Looking around the room, a facilitator becomes aware that many of his seminar students are not in attendance for this required Community Meeting. He announces that he is going to confront them and invite their attendance. A student shares the status of a fundraising candy sale and suggests a way to boost sales, outlining what will happen without more student participation. Several other students offer help to those without financial means by running a workshop to teach participants how to make handmade holiday gifts for their loved ones. Those responsible for holiday decorations are acknowledged and applauded.

Announcements pertaining to upcoming Children’s Theater performances at Southeast Elementary, Laurel Park, and the Brentwood Public Library are made to the group by the Director of the PAC. There is an emotional request by a member of staff for the return of a new coat that was stolen and remains missing. There are expressions of joy, sadness and anger at the announcement.

Part Two - Concern is expressed that the school had evolved into a community of sub-communities. Overriding security concerns are contributing to a perceived closing off of people and public spaces. While some individuals were continuing to grow and opening to the process, others were withdrawing, afraid of being hurt. One person is heard to say “I need help,” another “I’m hurting too,” and still another “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” People are just beginning to learn how to verbalize feelings and distinguish them from ideas and judgments. Two sisters' conversation about the school becomes a public matter of differing perspectives about how M-T has changed. A mother and daughter disagree over an interpretation of something they’ve both just heard. A non-verbal statement of agreement is interpreted as such by an observant student; and another, when confronted with “Where are you right now?” reveals: “I’m thinking about where I’m going....”

Part Three - Individual group members acknowledge support they’ve received from one another. Modeling ownership statements and taking responsibility for direct and indirect statements, a student says “Okay, I’ll tell you where I’m at” right before his outburst. A “this year is not like last year” statement leads to a difference of opinion. When a staff member asks, “Does anybody object if I leave?” someone says yes, and he doesn’t. Mr. Bernard Heller, a visiting Guidance Counselor from the high school, summarizes his observations:  “Some are superficial and cannot relate to the conversation, others  torn because of their dedication.” (Applause.) An exasperated staff member says, “We’re bucking the whole society with what we’re doing here, we’re bucking the times.” A recent tragedy in California is discussed. “Does what happens in California affect us here? Do we have a piece of them?”

“I am you,” a staff member observes, ”and you are me.” A student, responding to the call of nature, gets up to leave the room and is asked where she‘s going. “I have to go to the bathroom” she says, and is accompanied by peals of laughter from her peers. A train whistle is heard. Another guest is introduced. A proposal is made recommending the school be closed in June because it isn’t working. Suddenly, the person whose coat was taken gets up and leaves the room, proclaiming feelings of hurt and rejection.

Part Four - A student follows her mother downstairs. More students follow them to lend support. Now a crying student storms out. Others follow. An emotional male takes center stage to say “we’re all falling apart” and verbalizes his feelings to shouts of “shut up” and “no, you shut up. People are upset and no one is doing a damn thing” he says, going down to assist the others. “Let’s not deal in generalizations,” a staff member suggests. “Let’s speak for ourselves.” “I think everything is going fine this year,” a student interjects. “It’s possible that everything is fine for some while for others everything is falling apart. There are always choices to be made,” the staff member observes. People who had left are beginning to return. A student says “I’m willing to make it better. We’re a community and we should be able to work together." The crying student who left returns and shares her conflicted feelings.

Hurt by her sister’s negative opinion of the school this year, she says “I want this school to work. It helped me. My education is the only thing that’s important to me. If it doesn’t work....I’ll quit school. I’m willing to do something about it.” Numerous students who now speak open the door to more confrontation and more taking of personal responsibility, followed by sustained periods of silence. “You need help,” a young woman says to her male classmate. “Why do you come here at all?” asks a member of the staff. A proposal is made by another staff member to award life experience credit for all of that student's classes (and for anyone else who doesn’t want to come to this school), carrying them on our rolls for the rest of the year, at which point the school will close for good. “Does everyone really think this year was THAT bad?" asks a male student who has not yet spoken. "NO," replies a chorus of voices at once. There are comparisons made with “last year” and more controversy ensues.

Part Five - Student outpouring of complaints about this year's comparisons with last year continued. Mr. Heller left 30 minutes late for his next meeting. He departed to applause and with a piece of advice for all concerned he called a cliché, “To thine own self be true.” A former 1976 graduate spoke to the positive energy level of the meeting and non-functional behavior he observed. Even in 1976 people were hearing the same thing these students were concerned about, hearing how last year was a better year or so different. “It’s been seven years and a lot of effort has been invested. The energy here is good,” he told them. “Everything you said makes a lot of sense,” said a current student, directing her comment to him. A staff member shared her fantasy of what she expected her experience would be like. “It wasn’t at all like that. Everything wasn’t smooth and friendly, and staff members didn’t always agree. Sometimes things got tough, and that was when the school was working best. It worked when people talked to one another....real.”