Friday, November 26, 2010

The School: Part 1

Jim Healy's younger sister, Sharon, came to Toronto in the late 1960s to do some therapy in the then developing Therafields. During her stay she lived in a house group, saw a therapist, and at the same time was trained in the Montessori method of teaching. When her training was completed, she took a job in Kitchener for a year. In 1973 some of the parents in the large Brunswick milieu approached Sharon to start a school with their kids. They wanted a system that more closely reflected their philosophy of living and one that would be more sensitive to the individual needs of the kids than the public system as they were then experiencing it. Sharon was delighted and very keen to work with them. They began with nine kids, using the basement of 477 Brunswick Ave. and had full use of the enormous open space behind the houses on Brunswick and Kendal as well. Over the next year or two Sharon's school continued in this fashion.

In the meantime Malcolm had become very interested in education as his infant daughter grew older. Malcolm read widely about schooling and had many interesting and innovative ideas about ways that it could be conducted. His own early education had been an unhappy experience and no doubt he wished to avoid that fate for his daughter. Josie and Lea were keen to have him work with the young children as they came along and some of the Brunswick parents were interested in his ideas as well. He began to do some "classes" with the older kids at Sharon's school. In September, 1974 Mary Lou moved back to Toronto from the farm and Malcolm began a more structured connection with her two children, Josie's son, and his daughter. Fairly soon after this, pressure began to build, especially from Lea and Josie to amalgamate the two small schools into one with both Malcolm and Sharon as teachers. Lea was happy to see Malcolm involved in a project that she believed in and that he seemed well suited for. It gave him a focus, a job, and a legitimate role within Therafields. Josie was Sharon's therapist at that time; she brought a lot of pressure to bear on Sharon to go along with the idea of one school. Sharon thought then that it was probably a positive step for the kids and she liked Malcolm and his ideas. At the same time she was nervous about him.

The amalgamation was effected by early 1975. It was decided to bring the newly formed school, then generally called the Therafields school, to the farm. The kids were bussed up from the city on Tuesday mornings with a few of the parents attending. They slept over a couple of nights with the older kids at the schoolhouse, though later in the dorms in the barn with the younger ones. They had classes in the group room and outdoors and would return to the city on Thursday afternoon. Some of the really young children had difficulty making the transition to sleeping in the dorms but the older kids loved it all. It was a great adventure. They would meet in the group room, sitting in a circle while Malcolm talked with them. They had spelling bees and would act out scenarios on the stage in the upper barn. There was a structure to the day and within it they were learning and having a lot of fun. One of the older girls remembers: "It was so beautiful up there. In general the kids were smart and interested in a lot of things. We would be outside all day, wandering in the fields and the woodlot. We older kids would sleep at the schoolhouse. After dinner we would all walk down there through the woods, the sun going down behind us. It was so beautiful. Sharon was a part of the school then and she was terrific. Malcolm was pretty great too at that phase. Everyone was into it in a special way and it was fun getting to know the people at the farm. One of the great things about being there was the focus on nature, the garden, the greenhouse. We were lucky to be there with other kids of all ages. We never wanted to go back to the city."

There were other pieces to the experience at the farm that were not as wholesome, however. There were attempts to do some group therapy with the kids. Each week they would be gathered in the group room for a session -- sometimes all of the kids but more often just the older ones. The same girl said, "There seemed to be an assessment that some of the kids were problem children. I think it was quite arbitrary, bearing no relation to the kids' actual emotional make-up. I was always sceptical and irritated by all the therapy stuff. I thought it was a lot of shit and that a lot of it was just made up. In the groups I would steel myself to being attacked or to watching someone else being attacked. The group leaders would direct the conversation. They would decide to talk to one kid and would bring up something that had happened and get some other kid to say something to him or her about it. Before long whoever was being focussed on would be crying. Once you reached the point of crying or raging, they would say: there, there. That's what they wanted. I never did it though. I would think -- what is it about these people?" Malcolm was not in favour of these meetings though they bear a resemblance to some of his own practices with the children in later years.

Not all of the parents in the Brunswick milieu had been happy about Malcolm joining the school begun by Sharon and them. One recalled: "When Malcolm first got involved we had a so-called interview with him. I asked him what his qualifications were and he became livid. He mentioned OISE and said that he'd done something there. In my opinion he had no educational expertise and little to offer. I should have sent up 18 red flags in the meeting and said, 'This is dumb. You don't trust your children to someone like him.' But I trusted Sharon and she really tried to make his involvement work. It just became a take-over though."

At the farm tensions among different factions became palpable. There were a series of fraught exchanges in the dining room among the parents focussing mainly on the children's diet. Food combination rules should be followed: No peanut butter with bread, but, peanut butter on celery sticks was allowable. All fruits and vegetables should be washed and peeled, or, washed in a particular manner and not peeled. Whatever the topic one could sense a deeper, unspoken agenda that related more to the discomfort of some about their loss of autonomy with their children and the desires of others to go along with the directives of and to please Malcolm and Lea.

At the same time another situation central to the future of the school was being played out. Malcolm had flirted with and had had liasons with at least a couple of the mothers. But he was becoming attracted to Sharon and wanted to develop a relationship with her. Lea was very keen for this to happen. She no doubt thought that Sharon would be good for Malcolm, a stabilizing factor in his life. She talked with her a couple of times, encouraging her to give him a chance. But Sharon wasn't interested. Malcolm accepted the rejection in seeming good part but before long differences between them became more underscored. Sharon says,"Malcolm's revenge was simply to get rid of me and everyone else just hopped on the bandwagon. He had basically taken over the school once we were at the farm. Malcolm isn't a team player; he's basically into slave labour: you do this; I do nothing; but, I get all the credit. I forget what the ultimate issues were but it came to a point where he and I parted ways over a number of things about the way the school should be run, who was going to put in the time, what the kids should be learning, and so on. Almost every issue became a controversy. But the real thrust was: this is my school. If you aren't going to be involved with me, then get out. Then all of these supposedly impartial people like Lea and Josie got involved. At a Hypno I meeting at the farm the decision to support Malcolm was made. I wasn't at the meeting and I wasn't consulted. I felt very let down, especially by some of the Hypno I women who were involved in the school. I felt that they were just like sheep then, doing what they were told and afraid to go up against Lea. They basically railroaded me out of the school and also out of the Brunswick learning group. Lea and Josie both told me that if I didn't want to go along with Malcolm that I was out of the group. They said that I was showing obvious signs of disturbance. It was all cloaked in terms of the school and how I didn't want to go along with the way he wanted to develop it. I realized then that Therafields had crossed a line and that Therafields and I were parting ways."

When Sharon left the school none of the kids was told that she had been ousted. Without explanation, she just was no longer there. One of the girls who had been with Sharon's school since she was six said, "I had liked Malcolm at the beginning but when Sharon left I felt some resentment towards him as I believed that she had left because of him. I remember thinking that there was something weird about the transition. We felt abandoned. She had been so good and so involved with us. We always had neat things to do in the Brunswick backyards. I was very sad when Sharon left as things were different without her. After she was gone we didn't have structured teaching. It was all very vague." Another recalled: "When you are young as I was, nothing seems that unusual because you don't have a reference point. Sharon's gone -- OK. Still, it seems that a lot of the structure of the school changed or collapsed after Sharon left."

Malcolm now had a fairly free hand with the directions that the school would take. In the next blog I will look at these directions as they were acted out when the school returned to the city.

1 comment:

  1. Brenda, again I want to thank you for your courage and your hard-won clearsightedness. Revisiting this period of my own life is part and parcel of what has become the work of my eighth decade, gaining insight into my terror at what I felt around me in Therafields and, at the same time, my dependence on the group to keep me and my child from being drawn back to an even worse situation in my family and church. At 71, I find myself having to give up any illusions that Tom O was different from Therafields, a distinction that had kept me alive through very traumatic years. I'm still grateful for his help but have to accept that his blind spots profoundly affected me and my child. Much painful stuff here, but nothing you have revealed stands in contrast to my own experience. You are making it possible for me to love the young woman who lived through it and was scarred by much of it; I can now move more freely into the future.