Exile and Restitution: Thoughts on the Riddle of Childscape


Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition.

This is part of the answer to the riddle of childhood unhappiness: their minds need, and deserve, a whole world of utterly unfenceable freedom where everything has othering, everything is radiant with the possibilities of elseness. —from Kith: the Riddle of Childscape, by Jay Griffiths

1809: Enclosure Act divides English countryside into strict fence-lines
1830: President Jackson prompts U.S. Congress to pass the Removal Act, forcing Native Americans to their land and settle in the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River
1867: The first patent in the United States for barbed wire was issued to Lucien B. Smith of Kent, Ohio
1956: Construction starts replacing the Manhasset (Long Island) village woods with a 220,000 square foot “premiere” section of the Miracle Mile
1964: Chairman Mao denounces gardens and grassy fields as “bourgeois”
1965: The original AstroTurf brand product is invented and installed in The Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island
2013: African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights calls for the forced relocation of Kalahari Bushmen and tribal people in Ethiopia to be halted

My earliest memories are in nature. Behind my childhood home in Manhasset, Long Island, was a thick woods. I remember filling my pockets with eye-catching stones—stones for gathering and arranging, throwing and hunting. I remember running renegade through the narrow, leaf covered paths. I read that fireflies are hard to find these days, but not back then. On summer nights, we illuminated glass jars with fireflies we caught from around the low hanging trees and set them free the next night. A moon of my own in a jar. Back then, we were free to roam, to take, to lie, to shapeshift and to run to our escape as far as our legs would take us and never be caught.

On my sixth birthday, we all sensed something in the works, as landmovers made their first clearing into my childscape. “Maybe they are putting in a park,” I remember saying to my dad with visions of green. He didn’t know. I was far too young to experience hate, and I hope I always will be, but by my seventh birthday, I strapped on my gun belt, unholstered my six shooters and, peering through the chained link fence, snapped off a few rounds of caps off towards B. Altmans, JJ Newberry’s 5 & 10, and Davega’s jumbo sporting goods and appliance store.

I became masterful at hopping the fence, even though the chain links terminated in barbs at the top. Eventually, with a hack saw, I simply cut a series of links from about one foot high, up to the top of the fence, so that it formed a vee we could just slip right through like passing into twilight. I could run through the cars spread across the vast, black, macadam lot and disappear for the morning into the alleys and doorways of the shops.

The great scholar Joseph Campbell has documented how, across cultures and ecosystems, humans live in accordance with common mythologies. There, in the Miracle Mile in small packs of two or three, we roamed, weaving in an out of stores, learning the best aisles and stairways like passages to elves’ grottos or caves. Our total prior experience on this land had been in the wooded wilds. Now, here was a new kind of wild, and our instinct to play was unabated as we looked subconsciously for new species. We were indigenous and collected all that was alluring, lining our pockets with trinkets.  One day, a candy bar. Another day, a pencil or pencil charm … a pack of gum. Gathering in the wild became the game and we became unwitting, masterful, light-fingered thieves. “Let’s go on a hocking spree,” one of my brothers suggested one day, and from then on our activity was branded, innocent and subversive at once, a paradox accessible only to children. We slipped though the charmed, chain link passage into a netherworld of linoleum and aluminum aisles and glaring lights, and there we roamed and chased, universal pastimes.

Amor Loci
I could draw its map by heart,
showing its contours,
strata and vegetation
name every height,
small burn and lonely sheiling …
— WH Auden

Oh, miracles! Stalking a Rawlings genuine leather hardball in Davega’s—tantalizing and sensual—stuffing it into our clothing, then making our cunning escape, endorphins bursting forth. Only humans can lie, and only a human child can lie purely.

Like all who lose their lands, we became poachers and smugglers. What other choice had we? And how could a child be responsible for what they do in dreams? I don’t recall having much guilt about all this until at last, at around age 10, my mother asked, “You don’t have any money–where did you get that baseball scorebook?” and at that point the truth sunk in and something essential ended for me. My Kennedy was shot. No longer was I a fearless adventurer, nor was I, in the truest sense, a child.

I forgot about this dark past for at least 40 years and through a teaching career while I attempted, with varying measures of success, to conform to the asphalt world, the weatherless world of desks in rows where everything had rules and time periods, but all the while held on to my youth in unpredictable ways. Somehow, nature stayed a part of me, snowed inside of me, dropped leaves in me, washed upon my shores and then, one evening, surveying the raw, future site of The Grauer School, my dark past possessed my mind again. We stood at the highest place and contemplated what we might do with five acres of coastal sage and maritime chaparral, and I at last could see the terribly good, desperately good deed that hocking had been, what it meant. The shopping mall had separated me from my natural world, attempted to exile me from my childhood, but I had not let go. Hocking was restitution.

We built our school, leaving behind it a two-acre, sloped corridor for native habitat and wildlife. It includes sage, wild radish and pepper grass, wild cucumber, morning glory and wild honeysuckle. Making their living off of this commons are lizards, hummingbirds, owls, and wrens and endangered gnatcatchers and four different kinds of sparrows and more birds; and squirrels and woodrats and snakes, and 24 kinds of butterflies. Restoration of this hillside to its pristine condition was a part of our development plan. And so, we preserved these wilds and shall forever be short of parking.

This corridor of nature is home to science teachers, teens dreaming of a first kiss, and students looking for a quiet wander. Artists sketching. Writing poems beneath the Mexican elderberry.  I hope there will be history students there, too, some time. Perhaps they can draw the timeline from here all the way back to the Enclosures of Victorian England, cruel acts by which the vulnerable, commons was fenced off for the profit of the privileged few, essentially exiling the country folk from the land. In her gorgeous book, Kith, the Enclosures serve as Jay Griffiths’ extended metaphor for so much of the unhappiness in schools today. Today’s exiles are our kids in fenced off schools, left to roam the malls and hardly grounded to real earth for days on end. How can they even know what wilds once lay on the other side, before the Fence was there?  Thankfully and at last, I can now walk the two acres behind our schoolyard in peace and play. Restitution is complete, although there are no fireflies west of the Rockies.

Reference List:
Griffiths, J. (2013). Kith: The Riddle of Childscape. New York: Penguin.

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at www.fearlessteaching.com/.

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