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Seeking a Place Where Childhood Is Preserved

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I have worked for 28 years as a teacher and school administrator, 27 of them in day schools. Over that time I have watched my schools try to take on more and more of the roles which, in my own youth, were managed by families. I have been asked to provide programs in sex education, values-building, and in the small civilities we call manners; I have acceded to requests for day care from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. and have been queried as to why there weren't more activities for children on weekends.

I might as well be rearing the children myself, I thought. And so I began seriously to consider a heresy which has now taken over my life.

It began with my getting angry at what was happening in our society and having nothing to do with my anger. Expressing it would have been politically incorrect. Divorce, people said, was honest and liberating. Better for children the flash fire of separation than the smoldering of enmities. The words "house'' and "wife'' isolated and relegated to secondary status an entire gender, it was claimed. There was nothing wrong with families, but men and women had to look out for themselves.

We were swept up and along by these changes. We didn't decide one day to sell off our social institutions for personal aggrandizement. It just happened. The inner child spoke more loudly than the outer one.

And if there was a hiatus of doubt about this devolution it quickly passed. The advertising industry came to our rescue with a new social rhetoric. We learned that we were special, that we couldn't look out for others if we didn't look out for ourselves first. We deserved a break today. "Deserve'' became the new code word in advertising. Taking care of one's own "needs,'' one's body, assuring ourselves that we had our own "space,'' always looking for a Sharper Image--these things became moral imperatives in an amoral society.

In one sense we stopped altogether "raising'' children. Raising children suggests a process of cultural immersion; but our culture was no longer for kids a time-release capsule, it had become an injection. Three-, 13-, and 30-year-olds watched the same TV programs. Children were being left more and more to their own resources. Bored or ignored in school, "home alone,'' frightened by premature freedoms, confused by the violence and eroticism of television, struggling with divorces and recombinant families, where were they to turn?

There had to be some new ideas. I started looking for them.

It was at about this time that a Swedish film entitled "My Life As A Dog'' swept the country. I took my faculty to see it. It is the story of how a village raises an orphaned child. Schools, at their best, are like villages, I told my teachers, filled with adults who are worth a child's learning.

There are such villages in this country. But very few. The majority of children, now dispossessed of neighborhoods, aunts and uncles, grandparents, corner groceries; butchers bakers and candlestick makers have no such places from which to learn a culture or the nature of community.

They have karate class and Hebrew school, soccer and swimming; but the swimming teacher never met the cantor, and the sensei lives in another part of town.

I decided to turn in my day school for a village and went looking for one. It was no easy matter. Most live-in schools for pre-adolescent children are pretty Prussian; or for boys only and designed on competitive models with games as their centerpiece. I found one school in Switzerland that was like a village. When I mentioned it to an education specialist in the U.S. State Department she said there was a place just like it in Lake Placid. "A national treasure!'' she called it.

I found it and I have come here now to commit this heresy of raising children away from their homes and parents.

North Country School is a village, an extended family, a place where childhood is preserved and where children learn from the land. Here children face the issues that will fill their lives--of justice, of husbanding and recreating natural resources, of living with people unlike oneself, and of trying to find sense in life.

I have read recently of New York City sending children out to Iowa or up to Massachusetts to live in small communities--children who are at risk for want of a safe place to grow or a family's protection. I am glad to hear an echo. This year over 10 percent of our children are from poor inner-city neighborhoods. In a place like this, they will have a chance. But we are small--more effectively an example than a solution. There is a need for hundreds of such villages across the land.

That children should be raised by communities is one of the oldest ideas in the history of mankind and one of the most successful. It is not alone the family which is disappearing in our modern culture, but the community as well. Children are suffering a double blow, and the effects of that are showing up in the demographics of crime, violence, and addiction. If we cannot turn back the history of the family, we can at least create a new history for the community. Children can go home again, back to places where things are small enough to make sense. We can create villages like this one here in the Adirondacks where life can be grasped with small hands.

It wouldn't be the first good idea that began as a heresy.

Frank Wallace is the headmaster of the North Country School in Lake Placid, N.Y.

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