Winter 2012, #18


Communal Pioneering

     by Joyce J. Townsend

In the early sixties, my kids and I were beset with problems as the local elementary school pursued its time-honored ruts. Son Clayton kept winding up in kindergarten detention for transgressions such as dripping paint in his margins and not buttoning his shirt to his chin. Liz, age eight, was punished extensively by her teacher for reading ninth-grade fiction instead of sticking to her third-grade workbook. Regina, the youngest, was ripe for kindergarten—if only I could find a teacher who would nurture the child’s creativity. Attempting to resolve the problems, I conferred with teachers, the principal, even the superintendent of schools, all to no avail. My husband, Will, wanted to know why I was making such a fuss over nothing—we went to similar schools, didn’t we, and we did okay.

Maybe “okay” was good enough for him, but I wanted more for our children. I wanted a school that would fit the children instead of the other way around.

I read a book about Summerhill, a school in England that offers freedom and self-government for children. After a visit to a similar school in upstate NY, freedom became a beacon to light my way. The problem was that I didn’t want to send my kids away to be brought up by other people.

What else could I do but start my own school?

Plowing through one roadblock after another—converting my husband and my house—I reclaimed my kids from the public school system in the mid-sixties, and opened Greentree School, across the threshold of our kitchen. Greentree was Ohio’s first “free” school. It had a total enrollment of five.

A year later, Greentree expanded to include Todd and Marsha Emmons, the enthusiastic parents of one of the students, and our two families joined together to create a democratic learning community.

Early Days: Not wanting to stifle Todd and Marsha Emmons’ fledgling spontaneity, I chose to restore the dining room by myself after our first wild silly food fight. Scraping spaghetti sauce off the windowpane, I laughed, feeling great, as if we had undergone a major breakthrough. Less than a month ago, aiming to build Greentree into a democratic learning community for children, our two families had exchanged our individual houses in suburbia for this ancient farmhouse and its Appalachian acreage, and already the ten of us, kids and adults alike, were evolving into equals in our brand new communal venture.

I wrung out the washrags and draped them around the sink. Exhausted but euphoric, I plopped into an armchair in the living room and lit a cigarette, swelling my lungs with smoke, my equivalent back then of taking a deep gratifying breath. The Emmons had retreated to their room for the night, and my husband Will was across the creek getting in a few more hours of laying out the schoolhouse. One minute the six kids were somewhere else, and the next they churned around me looking devious.

“Gimme a cigarette,” Harry said, his hand aggressively outthrust. Liz giggled, Freddie and Garth cried, “Yeah!” Designated or not, Harry was the ringleader tonight.

Pressing against me, Clayton’s elbow dug into my thigh. I adjusted him and brushed back a long hank of his hair. My son used to love getting haircuts just like Daddy’s. Will stuck to his brush-cuts but the boys eschewed haircuts like poison. I smiled at Clayton. He wheedled, “Come on, Teach. Give us cigarettes.”

They called me Teach ever since Liz had declared that they couldn’t very well call their teacher Mom.

“Forget it.” I leaned around them and threw my cigarette into the fireplace. “It’s against the law for kids. Besides, smoking’s a disgusting habit.”

“So how come you do it?” Liz accused, popping her thumb in her mouth.

“Because I’m addicted. It’s hard to quit, which is why I don’t want you guys to ever start.”

My smoking had never been an issue before. I hadn’t thought the kids even registered that I smoked, but I saw by their avid expressions that I had deluded myself. I most certainly didn’t want them to smoke; I didn’t want me to smoke. I hated everything about it, particularly my phlegm-y cough and wheezy shortness of breath, and the way my fingers and hair and clothing reeked. I had been smoking since the age of twelve. Countless times I had tried to quit—and there’d be countless more to come. Years would pass before I was successful. The kids were appealing to me to let them smoke, extra enticing because it was taboo—what could I do that would work, especially in a school like ours, where students came to their own conclusions? Knowing first-hand the allure of forbidden things, I struggled to think of a unique way to make a difference. It didn’t occur to me to consult the Emmons; I felt I was in charge. Greentree School had been mine alone before Todd Emmons convinced his wife—and I convinced my husband Will—to band together in the Appalachian foothills. We held administrative meetings and discussed various issues, but I was the primary voice in charting the school’s educational course, something I did mostly by instinct, having no role models around. And that was how Smoking Class came into being, like a cartoon light bulb flashing over my head. Smoking Class—the first of my inventions to eradicate the glamour of the forbidden through the concept of familiarity-breeds-contempt.
“Okay then,” I announced. “First thing tomorrow—Smoking Class.”

~ ~ ~

The next morning, in spite of Todd’s “Hold on a minute,” and Marsha’s, “Garth, you can’t!” we crowded into the tiny windowless extension that Will and Todd had built onto the old house. Exposed plumbing and a big, clawed bathtub took up almost the entire space. Towels and clothes hanging from nails on the studs dangled in our faces.

The children sat on the rim of the tub. I turned on the spigot for a dribble of brownish water. “Ashtray,” I said, indicating the tub.
Marsha was trying to push open the door, but I held fast. I told the kids, “First rule of Smoking Class is you each get your own pack.” Will had donated his rarely used carton of stale unfiltered Camels. I said, “You have to smoke them all now, right here. Second rule: once we start, nobody can leave the room. Everybody understand?”
There was excited agreement. I distributed the packs of cigarettes and went around lighting them on demand since the kids had a hard time keeping them going.

“How do I look?” Harry asked, flicking ashes with bravado. “Cool, man,” said Freddie, swaggering. Everybody laughed and flicked continuously.

Smoke layered the room and then obliterated it. My eyes watered. Regina gagged, coughed, and cried. I relented and let her leave. “Any other quitters? Last chance!” Wheezing, Garth fell into Marsha’s waiting arms. Hanging over the filthy tub, the others finished their packs, coughing and puking.

I hadn’t lit up a single cigarette for myself the entire time, and still I couldn’t breathe. I shoved open the door, calling hoarsely, “Okay, everybody—Smoking Class is over!”

Marsha complained that the house stank, and Todd gave me the silent treatment for a few hours. I wasn’t sure if he was upset that I had held a Smoking Class or that I’d held it without his involvement.
My throat was raw for days. I vowed yet again to quit smoking. The kids were subdued and yellow around the gills, but I never again heard them so much as mention cigarettes.

There would be a number of other inventive classes in the coming weeks and months, some of which I wished I had held but hadn’t dared, and others that actually took place, most notable among those, given the kids growing fascination with matches, was Fire Class 101.

Little did I know it at the time, but there would follow Teach’s most terrifying and unforeseen advanced fire course.

Excerpted from Three Rs and the Other F Word—FREEDOM!
     by Joyce J. Townsend