One September morning, when I was eight years old, I eagerly stepped off a school bus for my first day of the third grade at Stephen Leacock Public School, a respected French Immersion school in a lovely Canadian suburb, outside of Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

I had been enthusiastic about school from the start and my grades reflected that, with a consistent stream of report cards full of “A”s. I’d taught myself to read at the age of two and loved learning about literature, astronomy, languages, nature, art and other phenomena of the world I lived in. After a Kindergarten spent at a regular English school, a psychologist had suggested to my mother that I was not being stimulated enough and that we should try the French program the following year, which we did. Throwing me into a foreign language a year later than the other kids kept me occupied for several months, as I raced to catch up to what everyone else was saying. But, like most children immersed in a new linguistic culture, I became fluent in a short time and loved acclimating myself to a whole new form of communication.

Second grade came along and I remained enthusiastic, as an English class was added as well as one or two other cosmetic changes, such as a new classroom, slightly different classmates and another teacher. But basically, I’d gotten the idea. This made me even more excited for third grade…the big time. I came to class that first day, ready for something radically new. I walked into class and our new teacher, Madame Sullivan, gave us each a seat and a desk, just as we’d had last year. She introduced herself and told us what a great year lay ahead. Then she turned her back to us and began writing on the blackboard. Everyone around me opened their notebooks and started copying everything down. I looked around, waiting for something more. But Madame Sullivan kept on scribbling her chalk and every other kid kept their nose down, just as they’d done for the last two years. I was confused. “This is it? We’re going to do the same thing again? Desks and a blackboard and lectures?” I was shocked. A dark cloud began to unfurl over my heart as it hit me. This really was it. This was what we were expected to participate in…no, that wasn’t right. Even at eight, I knew that real participation was neither required nor welcome. We were expected to endure this, and be grateful for it.

I started calculating how long I was supposed to sit there in that chair. I could make it to the end of that day but then what? Third grade had another nine months to go. Then fourth grade, fifth, sixth, seventh…Canadian high schools have five years of high school…I’m eight now…I’ll be nineteen when I get out. …Eleven more years. …Over a decade of my life. …Every day. …My entire childhood.

“…I can’t do this.”

This was the beginning of a long battle that would test my very being. I may have been bright enough at such a young age to realize the truth of my predicament but I wasn’t nearly old enough to articulate it. My grades fell rapidly from “A”s to “C”s, then “D”s and “F”s. My mother had been astonished at my self-taught literacy and fought to put me in the school’s gifted program. But my grades didn’t reflect any discernible gifts so the school declined. My mother wouldn’t let it go and spent the next four years infuriating the administration, trying to get them to acknowledge my “giftedness”. I didn’t blame them. From their point of view, what evidence was there? The principal even once told my mother that he’d spoken to me in the hallway recently and didn’t think I was all that bright.

The feeling was mutual. I had very little respect for most of my teachers and was angry that such was their perceived inherent moral authority that we were not allowed the right to call them by their first names. I didn’t see what qualifications they had that earned them such an assumed respectability. The only special qualities that I could see in them was age. They didn’t even have any real experience other than a lifetime spent in school. It was clear they didn’t know anything about the world, how to assess it and improve it. Nor did they have any insight into their own passions and my instincts told me, even as a boy, that their career choice had been by default, due to a gross lack of imagination, self-knowledge and courage.

But, again and alas, I could articulate none of this and even if I could, there was no one to receive the message. My parents were terrified by my plummeting academics and the battle to prove my “giftedness” only exacerbated the pain and humiliation I felt at school and, quickly, at home. I also adamnently felt the “gifted” debate was ridiculous. What person isn’t gifted? I was no more or less gifted than any kid in my class. It was obvious that everyone is born with something extraordinary and unique in the world. Trying to prove that I was special only highlighted how dumb I was to the “smart” kids and how elite I supposedly thought I was to the rest. I just tried to stay out of it and when the school finally relented after my kind, sixth grade teacher, Louise Wilson, vouched for my intelligence (I would stay after school to have lovely chats with this sweet and perceptive woman) I cynically laughed at the shallowness of the so-called gifted program. All they did was a few extra “fun” projects on the school’s new Apple II computers. Big freakin’ deal. I felt angry on behalf of the supposedly stupid kids back in regular class who I found far more engaging in conversation than the eggheads who knew how to play the system for a good grade. I was starting to find new respect for the rebels, usually bright but poor kids who refused to play by the rules but lacked the psychological resources required to survive the mind games inflicted on them at every turn. Their only recourse was to grow their hair, listen to loud music and, eventually, start drinking, smoking and breaking stuff. But even that behavior didn’t dampen what, to me, was a keen intelligence, even amongst the most distained of these rejects. As I entered adolescence, I was appalled at the social injustice I witnessed as the soft-minded game-players were groomed for success while the so-called under-achievers, the smokers, the head-bangers, whatever these sharp-witted, lower-class forget-me’s might be labeled were all swept aside into the blue-collar recycle bin.

As for me, no gifted program, flash cards, prodding, threatening or hysterical screaming could turn around my academic performance. Day after day, year after year, I’d sit at home each evening and weekend, staring at my homework assignments. I understood it all, at least I would have if I’d paid attention and been allowed to approach the subjects of my own volition. But something in me just could not do it. I could not lift that pen, which seemed to weigh a ton, and even write the first word or digit of the answer that was expected of me the next day. I really tried. I would stare for hours and hours at a blank page, trying to will myself to just do it, knowing that if I could, it would only take me twenty minutes or so. But it was absolutely impossible. This went on for years. I must have managed to scribble some nonsense down occasionally or, what’s likely more accurate is that I thrived on the rare assignment that allowed some marginal freedom, such as an independent research project or creative writing. These fleeting moments would score me an “A+”, a shocked look from my teacher and would heave my grade up to a passing “D” from the clutches of the capital punishment of capital “F”.

Why couldn’t I do the work? If I understood that it was just a game, why couldn’t I play it? …You could say I was angry and rebellious, which was true. I was furious that the world had conspired to create this useless, coercive system and that I was powerless to exert any freedom from it or within it. Or you could say I was scared, which was also true. As clear-eyed as I was of authority, I was terrified of it and never found the courage to lash out in traditional ways (mouthing off, skipping class, partying), which would have been a far healthier channel for my imploding rebellion. So I just kept quiet, let them think I was stupid and hoped no one would yell at me.

But the ultimate truth is that I had a powerful instinct to protect my soul. Somewhere deep inside me, I knew that this was more than just a fight for grades, knowledge, diplomas or careers. This was an epic war for my humanity and my inherent rights as an individual. Whether I understood it or not, something told me that if I gave even a little bit of myself to a system, if I traded freedom of thought for safety in numbers, if I started down a path of doing whatever I was told, without question, then I would lose myself forever and that my time on Earth would be a kind of pointless death.

So I kept my mouth shut and did my time, suffering terrible stress at home and at school, my only pleasures coming from Saturday afternoons at my chosen temple, the movie theatre, and later, the bliss of the theatre as I finally did find my true gifts in acting, writing and directing.

Through all these years I clung desperately to the belief that I wasn’t crazy. As I got older I believed more fervently that I was right and the rest of the world was wrong. I found the will, as a teenager, to start learning about the system I was trapped in. I discovered John Holt, Summerhill, Sudbury and other great voices that were my first signals from the outside. Doves flying over the walls of my prison to drop messages of hope, with words that brought me to tears: “It’s not you. It’s them. You were right all along and you are not alone.”

Armed with the truth, I walked the halls of my prison (like many schools, my high school was designed by an architect who usually built actual prisons) with more confidence and, at last, saw the damage that had been done to the other prisoners. It was astonishing. Nearly all the children I’d grown up with had become an adult automaton. We had mere months to go on our sentence and yet everyone I spoke to (I was intensely curious where these people were headed) had no concept of themselves. They’d spent over eighteen years in institutionalized schooling, yet had no sense of what their passions were, in fact each believed that passion is nothing more than a rare personality trait, not applicable to them in any realm. They all claimed to have learned a lot in the last decade but not one could remember any of it. There was one lesson I remember they deemed pretty important. Formatting essays, college and job applications was the most indispensible skill they could imagine. The definition of a format is “the organization, plan or style of something.” But nobody had anything to organize, plan or style.

Around that time I first began speaking out about the school system and was shocked to find how protective and defensive my peers were, every single last one of them. Pre-puberty, they had chanted, “We don’t need no education! We don’t need no thought control!” Now, on the cusp of the freedom of adulthood but still pressed tightly under the thumb of academic oppression, they were the first to rush to its defense:

“Alex, you just don’t believe in school because you don’t like it!”

…Quite the opposite, actually. They still throw out other foggy concepts like “socialization” and “structure” but I’ve learned not to debate them. I often think of The Shawshank RedemptionThese walls are funny. First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

In my last months of high school, speaking to people I’d known most of my life, I could see clearly that each of them was now gone. They would never again think, create and act with the innovation, speed and insight of their childhood selves. I felt like the tragic hero of a zombie movie. I was the only survivor.

It’s taken me many years to recover from my schooling and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read, organize, communicate or achieve at the level I did as a young boy. But lately I’ve been thinking that there may be another, less selfish reason that some of us survived school with some of our wits and truth intact. What better experts on schooling could there be than those of us who spent thirteen years on site, day after day, year after year, scrutinizing every detail, questioning every method, witnessing the accepted results …and dreaming of another way?

Alexander Baack
Director, Force Education Project
May 21, 2010