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Short list, long post

A Brief List of What Has Improved Since Charlie Started at Hippie Do As You Please School

  1. Everything

There. See you again in six months!

...Perhaps I'll get more specific. But first I'll have to work hard to cast my mind back to where we were at the end of second grade. It's a little hard to remember, because human consciousness mercifully retains only the outlines of past agony instead of actually recreating the sensation of repeatedly dropping an anvil on your foot every time you recall it. Just, K through 2 were hell on a pedicure, is all I'll say about that.

This year is different. Instead of tears, anger, and outbursts in the morning, we have...okay, tears, anger, and outbursts, but those are mine and occasioned only by five-year-old Ben's insistence on putting his boots on before his snow pants. (That's not true. I don't cry. No, at times like that I merely lean on the newel post, wearily wait for the storm to pass, and think about adding Drāno to my second cup of coffee.)

This year, Charlie's happy to go to school. Once he's there, he's involved, engaged, productive, and — this is the part where the tears do well up — a part of the community. Not the bullshit kind of community, where the teacher stations him next to the class's most compliant student and tells him to watch, learn, and do juuuust like she does...thaaat's right..., but the kind where, when he walks down the hall, kids call out his name, tell him his glasses look cool, and want to work with him on projects. What's even more remarkable is that he wants to work with them.

He's come a very long way socially, too, and while I can't say that that's entirely due to a change in schooling, since he's another year older and presumably more mature, and since we also compel him, over his protests, to serve time at a Weekly Hateful Social Coaching Gulag, I do see positive changes that have their roots in HDAYPS. If I had to guess, I'd say the most obvious factor is the council meeting — the school's community-based, consensus-building method of conflict resolution.

PiggyI will pause for a moment to let you wave a fond goodbye to Piggy as he plunges off that cliff. And may I say that loincloth really brings out the color of your eyes?

All right. Now back away from the precipice, if you please. The idea isn't quite that hippie-do-as-you-please. As with so many aspects of this particular HDAYPS program — and surely others, but they're beyond my ken — there's a thoughtful, consistent set of principles quietly at work, giving heft, if you will, to the loincloth.

Here's how it works. When you have an issue with someone and ordinary methods of problem-solving have failed — meaning you've already tried to work out your differences directly with that person; you've enlisted the help of a teacher or older student to achieve resolution; and you've asked the person to stop the problematic behavior — any student or teacher can call a council meeting.

Prayer-flagWhen a meeting is called, everyone in the school drops what they're working on — do you know how hard it is for me not to suggest six to ten hilarious examples? — and gathers. By vote, the group selects a moderator, who then guides the meeting, asking questions like, "Who called this meeting?" "Why did you call it?" and "Why didn't you stop when she asked you to?" Interested parties raise their hands to speak; people discuss how the behavior or issue at hand affects the community; brainstorming sometimes takes place; and usually the person who called the meeting is asked what they need in order to feel that the matter has been resolved — an apology, for example, or a rule change. There may be motions made and voted upon, and eventually the meeting is adjourned. ...You know, so the kids can get back to making unicorn bridles out of fair-trade hemp dyed with windfall nutshells and festooned with Tibetan prayer flags LOOK YOU PEOPLE I AM NOT MADE OF STONE.

And there's a lot that can be taken from this. What I see Charlie internalizing is the recognition that one person's behavior has an impact on his community. That people have opinions — often strong ones — about the way we act. That those opinions influence whether they want to spend time with us. These are things he's been told before, of course, but never really heard. Now it seems he's listening.

The other thing he seems to be developing is the confidence to take responsibility for his actions, to accept that he's accountable to others besides himself, and to trust that nothing really bad is going to happen if he owns up to making a bad choice once in a very great while. The council meetings are teaching him that, by example if not directly. (His sole council meeting star turn thus far has had to do with blurting in class. "Of course it did," I said to his teacher, interrupting her mid-sentence.)

His learning is evident when he talks about the meetings he's attended, just in the language he uses. "Wasn't very considerate of the people who were trying to concentrate." "Weren't going to play that game with him if he chose not to follow the rules." "Didn't know it was bothering so many people, but it was." "Asked us to help by reminding her if she does it again."

And I could go off on a whole long angry sputter about how his public school disciplinary experience suggested pretty much the opposite of every single one of those things, but how 'bout I just skip that anvil because, hey, look! my toes have healed.

There's more to school than belonging, certainly, and other reasons we send kids there beyond fostering emotional self-actualization: academics, right? Those achievements and abilities we measure with tests, grades, and standards...?

And that's where I feel on shakiest ground when I talk about HDAYPS. What can I say? I fight my own prejudices every day when I don't ask, "But what are you learning?" I've seen enough of Charlie's work product to know that he is doing what anyone would recognize as traditional academics — but not only that, or even primarily that, and certainly not in the quantity he did at public school.

So how will we know that he's learning? This is the question I ask myself often, worrying at it like a hangnail I must...keep...picking. But it's not really the right question for me to ask about Charlie, who, like most kids, can't help learning if you get out of their way. He'll learn. The more relevant question is what exactly it is he needs to learn.

To give that question rhetorical zing, I could put any handful of things in inflammatory opposition to each other. What's more important to learn: which animals are indigenous to Africa, or the rewards of successful collaboration? decimal division, or that his curiosity is precious and worth celebrating? writing in cursive, or his own inherent value to his community — and the value of each of us to one another?

He needs to learn it all. It's all important. It's just not all important right now. The way I feel about it is similar to how I felt about giving him ADHD meds: you have to turn down the static before he can receive the teaching. What's important right now, we think as we grope our way through it, is that Charlie feel good about learning.

And he didn't. I feel very small admitting this, but since exposing one's own ass is basically what the Internet is for, I'll go ahead and confess it: I had no idea how deep an impact his negative school experience was having on the rest of his life. He never articulated it as such, but in retrospect I see that he must have felt terribly anxious. I mean, maybe post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that cautious Caesary hand-waving, but once that pervasive stressor was neutralized, everything else improved. He's sleeping better. He's more helpful at home. He's more patient with Ben, more flexible, more cooperative, and more receptive to correction. Why, he's become the easily-manipulated designer-baby accessory child we always dreamed of!

He is also doing better by his own measures. He sees that his gifts are appreciated. He feels respected, encouraged, and coached instead of hectored and disapproved of. He gets to work on what's important to him, at least for part of his day. He looks forward to tomorrow instead of meeting it with dread. They let him use a glue gun, y'all — do I need to say more than that?

Wait, turns out I do need to say one thing more. At our most recent conference, Charlie's teacher told us, "I'm so glad he's in our class." Another teacher stopped us in the hall to say, "I love your son." Until it was relieved by a few simple words, I didn't know how deep my own anxiety ran. Now let me borrow your loincloth — I've gone all teary again.