A School Inspired by a Childhood in the Wild

Editor’s Note: As a part of Getting Smart’s Place-Based Education campaign, we’ve invited people passionate about “the power of place” to submit guest blogs that tell their stories.
We love this narrative submission that departs from our typical blogging style because it offers a powerful description of all the ways in which the places we inhabit shape how we experience the world.
Here’s the story of how the author’s childhood experiences eventually informed the creation of a school.

By Stuart Grauer
Behind my childhood home in Manhasset, Long Island, were thick woods. My earliest memories are of running wild through the narrow, leaf-covered paths on summer nights. I remember filling my pockets with eye-catching stones—some for gathering and arranging, some for throwing and hunting. I’ve read that fireflies are hard to find these days, but they weren’t back then. On summer nights, we illuminated glass jars with fireflies we had caught from around the low hanging tree branches–a moon of my own in a jar— then set them free the next day. Back then, we were free to roam, to take, to give and to run as far as our legs would take us.
On my sixth birthday, we all sensed something in the works, as land movers made their first clearance into our childscape. “Maybe they are putting in a park,” I remember saying to my dad with visions of greenery. He didn’t know. I was too young to experience hate, and I hope I always will be, but on my seventh birthday, I strapped on my cap gun belt, unholstered my six-shooters and, peering through the chain linked fence that now stood where I once ran and climbed trees, I snapped off rounds of caps towards “The Miracle Mile” with its B. Altmans,  JJ Newberry’s 5 & 10, and Davega’s jumbo sporting goods and appliance store.
I became masterful at hopping that fence, even though the chain links were topped with barbs. Eventually, with a hacksaw, I simply cut out an opening so that it formed a “V” and we could just slip right through like passing into twilight. I zigzagged through the cars spread across the vast, black, macadam lot where, for centuries beforehand, rabbits, robins and spiders had coexisted in their natural habitat, now gone forever.
I could disappear for mornings or afternoons into the alleys and doorways of the shops and enter into the new, florescent-lit micro-climate with no sense of the forest expiry, too young to weep for the weight of history, the loss of our woods and fertile brown soil, the death of a squirrel beneath a skip loader.
There in the mall, in our packs of two or three kids, we roamed, weaving in and out of stores, learning the best aisles and stairways as if they were hidden passages to elves’ grottos or caves. It wasn’t like roaming in the wooded wilds. But it was a new kind of wild, and our instinct to play was unabated as we looked subconsciously for new “species.”
We collected all that was alluring, lining our pockets with trinkets. One day a five-cent candy bar. Another day a pencil charm. A pack of Juicy Fruit 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 through the chain link passage into a netherworld of linoleum aisles, and the emerging plastic miracles of radios from Japan and 45 rpm “singles.” We roamed and chased and escaped.
Miracles! Stalking a Rawlings genuine leather hardball in Davega’s—aromatic and sensual—stuffing it into our clothing, then making our cunning getaway, endorphins rushing hard. Only humans can lie, and only a human child can lie purely. Like many others who lose their lands, we had become poachers and smugglers.
For me, this all occurred in a sort of dreamstate. I don’t recall having much guilt about any of it until 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 what had seemed like an essential dream ended for me. No longer was I a fearless adventurer, nor was I, in the truest sense, a child.
I forgot about this shame for at least 40 years and all the while childhood changed. Over this time, we watched the walk to school disappear. Slashed to the minimum were the lunch hours and aimless breaks. Gone was the free play along with over half of the world’s forests. Gone were the games with no rules or boundaries.
Though I had held onto my youth in many unpredictable ways, throughout a teaching career I attempted, with varying measures of success, to conform to the weatherless world of desks in rows and time periods that ended with drilling buzzers that apportioned out four minutes of relative freedom. But all the while, somehow, nature stayed a part of me. It snowed inside of me, dropped leaves in me and washed upon my shores.
And then, one evening, surveying the raw, future site of The Grauer School, a sense of loss and longing possessed my spirit again. We stood at the highest place on the lot and contemplated what we might do with five acres of coastal sage and maritime chaparral, and at last I could see what was meant by the terribly good lessons from my dark past. The shopping mall, “The Miracle Mile,” had separated me from my natural world, attempted to exile me from my childhood. But I had never fully let go and now, restitution.
Stuart Grauer.jpg
We built our school and left behind a two-acre, sloped corridor for native habitat and wildlife. It includes sage, wild radish, pepper grass, wild cucumber, morning glory and honeysuckle. Making their living off of these commons are lizards, hummingbirds, owls, wrens, endangered gnatcatchers, four different kinds of sparrows and more birds, squirrels and woodrats and snakes, and 24 kinds of butterflies. Restoring and maintaining this hillside to pristine condition became a part of our development plan. And so, we preserved our 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 sketch here. Student poets write verses beneath the Mexican elderberry here. Welsh author Jay Griffiths writes of the disappearance of open space as a metaphor for so much of the sadness in schools today:

“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.”

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Today’s exiles are our kids in rows of chairs, in fenced-in “consolidated” schools, left on weekends to roam the digital media one step ahead of their parents, or to join field games where adults make all the rules and where their lives are 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? What could possibly be more valuable than the wilds or the freedom there? How can we teach our children about all that?
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education, see:

Stuart Grauer is the author of Fearless Teaching: Collected Stories, as well as founder and Head of  School at The Grauer School in Encinitas, California. Follow them on Twitter: @GrauerSchool

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1 Comment

Stuart Grauer

For 32 short stories about place based education, "Fearless Teaching" is a must read--see https://www.amazon.com/Fearless-Teaching-Collected-Stuart-Grauer/dp/0986016004 or your favorite indy bookseller!

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