Between Two Hedges with David Johnston

To graduate from Brooklyn Free School, students compile a transcript of the classes and activities in which they participated during their years of attendance, write an essay arguing why they are ready to graduate and move on to the next stage of their lives, and defend their graduation in a voluntary meeting with members of the school community–staff, students, parents, and volunteers. Here, reprinted with permission of the author, is the graduation essay of David Karr Johnston, 17. People often ask me whether Brooklyn Free School “works.” More than anything I could say, this candid essay captures the myths, realities, challenges, and some of the benefits of the school from the perspective of one of its founding students.


Between Two Hedges with David Johnston

In writing this essay, I find myself walking between two giant hedges in my mind, each bordering great lawns of falsehood. If you peek through one hedge you’ll see the Rhetorical Free School, an idea which I’ve compiled over nine years of hearing and repeating educational philosophy which I (and, I suspect, most people) do not fully understand.

In this lawn it is perpetually summer, each blade of grass is the perfect “Grass Green” that you would find in a Benjamin Moore catalogue, the sun hugs every exposed part of your body, enriches your skin with its vibrancy, and yet doesn’t strain your eyes. In the direct center of this lawn stands a hill, no, not in the direct center, slightly off center, to the left where it seems elegant, not uncanny. It isn’t a particularly big hill, nor is it particularly steep, but it’s beautiful for this exact reason: it’s approachable, it’s friendly, it seems youthful for a hill, it would never intimidate or hurt anybody as a more distinguished hill might. There are no buildings on this lawn nor, in fact, any walls besides the bordering hedges, and those could hardly be said to be “on the lawn.”

This lawn is populated solely by young humans, ages five through eighteen. It’s difficult to tell how many there are precisely, but there’s no point in knowing, as the group could always support more members, and even the most knowledgeable single member could be easily replaced. Their average skin color matches the global population’s average skin color exactly. The entirety of human knowledge is held collectively by this community. Members of the community need only ask those who know what they want to know to teach them, and the appropriate member will oblige, with zero judgment and infinite patience. All those not presently teaching or being taught are charged simply with living however they feel best, enjoying the perfect scenery and each other’s company. Aging is entirely optional.

I wouldn’t recommend that you peek through the other hedge. For one, you wouldn’t be able to see anything and would only get your nose wet due to the eternal deluge, and for two, it would simply be a downer. That being said, and in lieu of you being able to see it for yourself, I’m going to describe to you this lawn anyway. Understanding this lawn is just as crucial as understanding the last if you want to get an accurate idea of my mental state in writing this essay and attending Brooklyn Free School every day. And I assume that’s what you want to do since you’ve read this far.

This lawn we’ll call the Real Free School though it’s no less of a fantasy than the Rhetorical Free School. I don’t know from where or when the Real Free School idea came, though I would guess that where the Rhetorical Free School is the free school philosophy projected onto my mind, the Real Free School is my anxiety projected on Brooklyn Free School.

As stated previously, it rains intensely and continuously on this lawn, and as such it isn’t so much a lawn as it is a giant mud lake. In the hope of escaping the ugliness of the ground you might look upward, but there you’ll find no respite. Hanging low in the sky all year round is a blanket of clouds so thick and so dark that it is indistinguishable from the clearest night, minus all the glorious cosmic miscellany.

There stands a single school building on this lawn, four stories tall. The building has immaculate white walls and a fire truck red door. Odd as it may seem, any mud that sloshes up onto the walls slides right off. The inside of the building is not nearly as pristine. The inner walls have a pitch black molding of concentrated grime, built up through the years by students too lazy to bother with a dust bin. Every piece of furniture is maimed and/or infested and the floors are a drunken grid of gashes from the incessant, improper moving of said furniture.

The students find themselves simultaneously bored and busy. They are incapable of committing to or producing anything, not because they are inherently bad students, they just don’t know how to properly “direct their own education”; how could they? The teachers simply find themselves constantly busy, despite the low student to teacher ratio, juggling a multitude of tasks ranging from educational to administrative to janitorial. Ultimately they are a very smart, very talented, very hopeful group of educators who have been charged with both nurturing students’ natural curiosity and operating a small government, two tasks which are damn difficult individually and impossible together. Needless to say, everyone is exasperated.

It is this duality that makes writing this essay (and speaking about the Free School in general) so challenging and confusing for me. When combined with my hunger for creative perfection and tendency to procrastinate the task becomes poisonous, a feeling which is exacerbated by the knowledge that all of these factors are entirely internal. So in the interest of not only honesty and meaning but self-preservation, I will try to stay out of my own way as much as possible going forward in this essay.

It seems to me that the main purpose of any school is to steer its students into as much positive change as possible and away from as much negative change as possible (or at least provide a safe environment and proper context for temporary negative change). And so I’d like to highlight three gargantuan ideas that have changed my life for the better and that I can directly attribute to Brooklyn Free School.

The first big idea is one so ingrained in the free school philosophy that one almost can’t help but learn it, yet I believe that it’s both incredibly important and tragically underutilized. The idea basically boils down to: pay attention, and never discount anyone.

Do you know how much people younger than me have taught me over the years? Sure, I wouldn’t go to any members of the younger advisories to learn about math, history, or economics before I’d go to Jonathan, Lily, or Mariano, but I would never go to an adult to learn about caring, family, or passion before I’d go to Martin Jr., Teseo, or Karan.

As people age, they tend to get better at showing what they want to show and hiding what they want to hide, which is probably helpful for getting jobs and impressing people and fighting bears, but it is utterly unhelpful for teaching others a lesson whose value cannot be overstated: empathy. Empathy is quite literally what allows humans to have meaningful relationships with each other, and yet we all make it so difficult with the mental and physiognomic armor that we build up for the aforementioned bear fighting. To make matters worse, empathy, like anything else, withers without use and practice; so as everybody’s bear armor gets stronger over the years everybody’s empathy tends to atrophy from not being able to pierce that bear armor.

Through my extensive but entirely non-rigorous research on the matter, I’ve concluded that the best way to allow someone to empathize with you is to show them a real part of your life and your sub-conscious reaction to that part. This is exactly what children will do better than anybody else, hell they’re practically throwing a little empathy-workout at anyone who will listen, and all you have to do is pay attention and never discount anyone.

The next idea I call the importance of trimmings, or: how you say is just as important as what you say. All schools are obviously very social, often comprising the entirety of a person’s social circle for seventeen straight years, but I think free schools tend to be even more social for a variety of reasons. First, the relative flexibility in regards to how one spends time encourages more spontaneous and informal interaction, which in turn relieves pressure and encourages experimentation. Second, the variety of socially acceptable cohorts is much wider, spanning from young kids to old kids to parents to teachers to the director, which prevents students from getting caught in the reverb of their own age group. And third, though this may be counter-intuitive, the relatively small community encourages students to engage in a multitude of larger communities outside of school.

The main benefits that these three factors provide are noticeable increases in both volume and variety of social interaction, which serve to expedite the maturation of one’s social skills. You may not think that a little acceleration of the maturation of social skills would make a big difference in a boy’s life, but then you probably don’t hang out with many teenagers. And, though I may be out of line here, I believe that I have a much more personal and therefore more meaningful and therefore more useful relationship with the teachers of Brooklyn Free School than most students have with their teachers. The idea most commonly manifests itself in my head as a warning: ‘If you say smart shit like an idiot then no one will understand, and it is no longer smart’ but in the interest of universality and self-neutrality let’s keep it ‘How you say is just as important as what you say.’

The third idea is much more personal. I don’t suspect most free schoolers would learn it simply by attending a free school, nor do I think it’s useful for all free schoolers. Hell, I don’t even expect most people to get nearly as much out of it as I have, or find any value in it at all. That being said, it is the most personally valuable idea I have picked up in my tenure at the Free School. I only realized it to any great extent in the last month, and its roots come from a book that I most likely would never have read if not for the Free School kindling my love of novels.

At least I’m pretty sure it’s from a novel. I associate the idea with a passage that struck me the first time I read The Sound and the Fury. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find the exact passage in subsequent readings, nor have I been able to find it online, so I really don’t know. In any case, as I remember it, the passage takes form as the memory of a lesson on racism from Jason Sr. to Quentin, and could be distilled as something like, “All people are inherently equal, for even if one race were inherently stronger or smarter than another, no member of any given race chose their own race, and a person cannot be thought better or worse for anything so completely out of their control.”

At the time, I was really impressed by the idea, and couldn’t believe that anything like it had never so much as grazed my mind. Every so often it would re-enter my mind seemingly randomly, and I would marvel at its incredible genius and simplicity, but for whatever reason I never took it further, never really pondered the implications of what I now refer to more generally as non-consensual birth.

That is, until about three weeks ago. I was feeling absolutely terrible, more than I had in a rather long time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a prisoner of time, sentenced to fight uselessly against entropy for 80 years or so and then die. The usual steps that I would take to escape a funk were not working, a fact which, given the nature of my crisis, only amplified its effect. Then, that Friday, I took the bus home, not even up for trying to derive a little joy from talking with Jonathan on the train. And then… I really don’t know what happened, I can’t pinpoint the moment that that particular passage popped into my head, but it was sometime between my stop and the stop before mine. In any case, in those few minutes gallons upon gallons of implications of non-consensual birth came flooding into my brain. It may seem absolutely silly, but I had never truly considered the fact that I was in no way responsible for my own birth. This was incredibly liberating as it meant that I was not guilty for anything that may or may not have happened due to my own birth, and that as I had not wagered anything in being born, I was physically incapable of wasting my life.

The bus stopped and I literally ran home, giggling uncontrollably, to write down everything inundating my mind. That was one of the happiest moments of my life thus far, and the happiness still fills me to the same degree that it did then. I don’t know how long it will last, it’s been three weeks as I said before – longer than any other so called epiphanies I’ve had have lasted – and the prospect of it going away scares me quite a lot. But I am very confident that even if the elation fades relatively soon, the idea will smoulder inside me for a very long time.

I could sit here and list every important thing I’ve learned in my eight years at Brooklyn Free School, but I would easily miss the deadline for finishing this essay, choosing a college, and probably many other extremely important things, which seems counterproductive. And ultimately this essay isn’t about everything I’ve learned at the Free School, but how the Free School has prepared me for the ensuing majority of my life.

That’s the real beauty of these three ideas and, indeed, all of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my time at the Free School: the subject to which they pertain is simply life. If you combine curious students and passionate, knowledgeable teachers you can teach most people the entire pantheon of formal subjects, but those two criteria are deceptively hard to find together, and traditional school does nothing to nurture them. Come to think of it, a distinct fourth idea comes into play here, that is: formal education shouldn’t be a menial, thoughtless, boring, rote, banal, (insert every other terrible adjective here) experience, and to prevent such an experience one only needs to inject a bit of real life into the curriculum.

Agh, what the hell am I talking about? I know nothing about educational philosophy, and I’m letting Rhetorical Free School thoughts invade my mind. Look, I’m going to give it to you straight, and while everything stated above is true for me, that is the only person for whom I can speak. There’s not too much I remember from grades one, three, and four, but I do remember the feeling of terrible dread that would consume me every morning as the bus pulled up to the school building. Other vivid memories of those years include a teacher telling me I was a terrible writer because I had sloppy handwriting, being sent to the principal’s office for sitting in a distracting way, and slogging through hours of homework (the contents of which I would promptly forget) every night.

Then, one summer’s afternoon, I heard about Alan Berger and his crazy idea for a school and fell in love. Truthfully, I’ve been in love ever since, and while the Free School and I have had our rough patches, I think we’ve both improved each other to the best of our abilities over the years. Have I learned everything that the Free School can teach me? No, but I have learned enough that I can find happiness in the cruel, confused world and, with any luck, help a few other people do the same, which, in my increasingly apparently not-so-humble opinion, is the goal of a Free School education and is no small feat.

And so I intend to boldly step into the cruel, confused world, with my longest term goal at the moment being to exist on the forefront of the newest, hottest art form that not only dominates my thoughts (waking and sleeping) but is responsible for teaching me how to read: video games. In the interest of that goal, I will be attending an institute of “higher education” to both attain the necessary knowledge required to create at the highest level and meet likeminded fellows with whom I will create my masterpieces. I am not as of yet sure which institute I will attend, that will be decided by the end of April, but it seems like I will choose Champlain College, located in scenic Burlington, Vermont. Champlain seems wonderful for its friendly, knowledgeable professors who are all active in the field in which they teach; its beautiful dormitories, cafeterias and general quality of life related facilities; and its relevant, interesting, and engaging curriculum; to give but a few reasons.

Finally, we arrive at a bit of a paradox and a dilemma for you, Brooklyn Free School. You see, I will be the first to admit that you have given me a confidence and consciousness that I may very well not have, had I attended another school for the past eight years. And so, how could you decide not to graduate me? You know better than anyone else the boy that walked through your doors and fell in love with you so many years ago, so you know that if that boy hadn’t drastically changed, dare I say improved, in his time with you he wouldn’t be able to write this sentence, but I did, Brooklyn Free School, I did.

3 Comments on “Between Two Hedges with David Johnston”

  1. Great stuff David. You write better than most of us do in our 20s.

  2. Randy Karr says:

    BRAVO David, Johnny and the rest of the staff of Brooklyn Free School who have nurtured this intelligence!

  3. daniel scheffer says:

    BRAVO!!! David. Just plain bravo……for your thinking and writing and expressing but even more so for bringing yourself to this point, this level of consciousness and willingness (even though reluctantly) to move forward again and again.
    Bravo!!!! David

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