I first came upon the concept of freedom in the years just before World War II, while attending primary school in New York City. Before that time, I roamed about testing my boundaries by simply acting upon my impulsive wishes and desires – stretching them to their outer limits in some type of game that made me feel so triumphant when I emerged as the winner, that it was worth the occasional losses.
The primary school class I was assigned to was designated “a special class.” It was comprised of supposedly over-achieving students. It seems a local college had developed a research project based on someone named John Dewey, who supposedly believed that nothing was learned unless it was “internalized” – whatever that meant – which was very little to me. Remember, this was primary school! And, this man, Dewey, believed that learning could only be internalized through experience– at least that’s what our teachers told us. Who knows if they got it right?
Point is – we were taught like no other students in the school were taught because we were given the freedom to experience and learn. Every morning we were asked what we wanted to do, and after declaring our individual wishes (barring our wish to annihilate someone) we simply took off and did it.
On one particular morning, while in perhaps the third or fourth grade, my teacher posed the daily mantra: “Children, as i call your name, tell me what you’ll be doing, and where you will be this morning.”
Now don’t for one minute think there weren’t any boundaries placed on the response. Of course, the assumption was that whatever the chosen activity, it would be done within the school. However, on that particular day, my wandering Dewey-led mind experienced an epiphany. No one had ever tested that assumption!
When my name was called and the question posed, I stood up as tall as my small frame could handle, froze in an assertive stance, glared at the teacher, and responded, “I’ll be experiencing the precious freedom we’ve been reading about at home today.” Certain of the clarity and right-mindedness of my statement, without hesitating for a response, I walked out of the classroom, left the school, and travelled two blocks to my home.
As I entered the house, I heard the clear, high voice of Sarey singing over the sound of the vacuum. Sarey had taken care of me since I was born. The story is told that when I arrived home from the hospital, wrapped in swaddling clothes, accompanied by my clinically psychotic mother, I was put into Sarey’s plump loving arms, and held to her bosom with love, lots of music, and a tincture of old tales from her Trinidad home.
I stood silent in the doorway, uncertain as to how the day would go from here. Sarey finally turned off the vacuum, stopped her singing, looked up and, without any sign of surprise asked, “What brings you home at this time of day?”
“I’m practicing my freedom.”
“And how do you intend to practice it?”
“Oh, i don’t know…listen to the radio, play the piano…who knows….”
“How’d you come by this freedom?”
“I don’t know, we all have it you know.”
“Do I have it?”
Sarey stood staring at me, her arms folded across her broad chest,
“Yes… i guess so. We all have freedom.”
“And you’re practicing yours…and I get to practice mine?”
“Of course, you do!” I tried putting in some enthusiasm and a broad smile at the end. Yet, my anxiety was mounting. Something was surely hiding around the corner, and it was about to pounce.
“Wonderful!” Sarey’s white teeth gleamed as they escaped through her broad smile.
“I. certainly am looking forward to spending my day with that freedom I’ve got. Only, I can’t do it with you around Missy, so I’m taking you back to school. You can find other ways to practice your freedom there while you give me back mine. I sure am looking forward to getting acquainted with mine here – alone!”
With that, Sarey took my hand, led me back to school, and deposited me in the front office where I spent some time considering that “freedom comes with restrictions.” After hearing about that restriction thing, I spent the rest of the day looking up and pondering on the word “restriction.”
When I finally did ferret out the meaning of the word “restriction, ”I didn’t much like it. I preferred freedom: “The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hinderance or restraint.” I was awed by that.
I had this thing “freedom,” and it meant no one could stop me from doing anything. Sarey was wrong. She had no right to bring me back to school…and yet…there was Sarey. Sarey who had cared for me and loved me…and there was Sarey’s freedom. I finally realized in my child’s brain and young heart, that I couldn’t and shouldn’t take Sarey’s freedom away from her, even if that meant losing some of mine.
Now that was a good day’s learning. Thank you Mr. John Dewey.