Childhood stories: Redwood School

Here’s the second installment of my childhood-stories project. I intended to post this yesterday, but the day got away from me, so here I am again with #TBT on a Friday. If I don’t manage to switch to Thursday by next time, then maybe I’ll just make it always on Fridays.

In 1972, after graduating from Berkeley, my father Peter began working as a drug abuse counselor at a place called the Rising Sun Awareness House, in Tracy, CA. But he wasn’t living in Tracy, he was commuting to there. I’m not sure where we were living at that point, but maybe somewhere up around Santa Rosa. (That’s about a 2-hour drive, so possibly he was staying in Tracy several days at a time? Or maybe we were still living in the East Bay then, and we only moved to the Santa Rosa area after that job was over.) Meanwhile, I think this was also around the time when Marcy started working at a bookstore called Merit Book Center, in Sebastopol. (Thanks to Jay for reminding me of the name of the store!)

But all of that is tangential to my topic for today, which is the school I attended.


In the fall of 1973 (I think), I started attending public kindergarten. I didn’t like it at all. In retrospect, I suspect that my experience was no worse than most kids’ experiences in public kindergarten; but after about the first week, my parents pulled me out of that school (I’m not clear on whether I asked to be taken out or it was their idea) and put me into an alternative school called Redwood School. (They referred to it as a free school, which led me to be very confused a couple years later when I learned that (a) my parents paid money for me to be there, and (b) they wouldn’t have had to pay money for me to attend public school. But they explained to me that the school was free in the sense of freedom, not in the sense of money.)

I could have sworn that I had written somewhere publicly about my experiences there, but if so, I can’t find it. So I’ll write about it here.

The school was in Sebastopol, CA. (I have long misremembered it as having been in nearby Santa Rosa.) I think there were three buildings on the grounds: a former farmhouse (iIrc), which was the main school building; some sort of a silo or tower, which I think was always locked and unused; and a wooden geodesic dome, constructed (I think) by the parents and teachers. The dome was maybe about ten feet tall and maybe twenty feet across at the base; it was empty except for an adult-sized pottery wheel, but at least some of the triangular facets were holes instead of covered over, so it could be used as a climbing structure.

There were maybe a dozen students at any given time, ages roughly 6 to 10 years old, all mixed together with no grade separation. …I say students, but the year I started there, there was little if any studying; in retrospect I would call it more like a daycare than a school. We spent most of our time outside, playing. Kids who wanted to read could look at the school’s books (I don’t think there were many), and I’m sure there were enrichment activities of various sorts. I think there was only one teacher.

We were semi-rural-Northern-California hippie kids. Almost all white. Some of the kids had common Anglo names like Andrew and Roger; others had less common names, like Celery, and Buttons (I think also known as July), and, well, Jed.

I attended Redwood School for four years—what would have been kindergarten through third grade if I had been in public school. Over the course of that time, the school gradually acquired slightly more structure and a slightly more school-like environment. For example, I think by my second or third year there, the adults instituted a requirement that each kid had to do at least one small thing in each of about five different subject areas before we could go outside and play for the rest of the school day.

That could mean (for example) reading a bit of a book, or doing a little math. Or one of the subjects on a given day could be Jumping Room Spelling.

The Jumping Room was one of the rooms of the school building, in which there was a mattress. I imagine that we were allowed to jump on that mattress in other contexts too, but my main association with the Jumping Room was spelling. The way it worked: a kid would go into the room with the teacher. The teacher would stand near the mattress and say a word for the kid to spell. The kid would jump up and down on the mattress, saying a letter of the word with each jump.

I was always good at spelling. My only semi-specific memory of Jumping Room Spelling was the day when (iIrc) it turned out that I knew how to spell Egypt and sphinx, and the teacher didn’t. (I think the teacher wanted to spell them as Egipt and sphynx.)

I didn’t get punished for knowing more than the teacher did, the way I’ve heard a lot of kids have been. But I think that experience left me feeling like Jumping Room Spelling was more a place for me to show off my spelling ability than a place for me to do or demonstrate any learning.

The only extracurricular activity that I specifically remember was the time that my mother brought in a sex-education book called Show Me!, which was (years later) pulled from publication in the US because of concerns about its photos. Marcy read it aloud to the kids and answered questions.

By the final year that I was at Redwood School (what would have been 3rd grade, if we’d had grades), the school was starting to try to adapt to official state educational standards. In particular, they acquired official math textbooks, and hired a second teacher whose specialty was math.

Which meant they did some kind of placement tests to see what grade of math each kid should be doing. And I placed into 7th grade math. I don’t think I had ever learned any math in school at that point, but Peter had taught me a lot of math at home, and I enjoyed it and was good at it.

So in what would have been third grade, I got to do things like arithmetic with fractions (iIrc), and graphing. I think I still have my spiral-bound graph-paper notebook from that year, probably in a box in the garage. That beyond-my-grade-level math led to some problems for a couple of years later on, in public school, when they tried to give me grade-appropriate math and I had already done it. (But in public school, they didn’t try to keep me going with a few-years-ahead-of-grade-level math, they just pretty much had me tread water until the curriculum passed what I had done before.)

The one other specific anecdote from Redwood School that I want to recount here is something that I wrote up in email to a friend years ago; below is an edited version of that email.

We regularly played various let’s-pretend games. (Cops-and-robbers kinds of things. I suppose you could call it live-action roleplaying.) The main one, which I think all the kids participated in, was a superhero game.

In the superhero game, the kid who was more or less in charge was named Roger. He played a beast-like superhero called “Jagwire Creature.” (From the context, it seemed clear to me that jagwire was how Roger pronounced jaguar.)

Jagwire Creature was invulnerable, and was immune to everything in the universe except for a Kryptonite-like substance called Record (pronounced “REH-cord”). But unlike the Superman/Kryptonite thing, Record affected everyone, not just Jagwire Creature. So none of us other superheroes could ever save the day—if Jagwire Creature encountered some Record that knocked him down/out, the rest of us also had to fall down and be unable to do anything. Then Jagwire Creature would heroically drag himself forward and reach the Record and throw it away, thereby saving us all.

I always found the superhero game a little unsatisfying. We would rush from one adventure to the next—it usually consisted of running after the (imaginary) bad guys, beating them up, getting affected by Record (don't ask how the bad guys managed to handle the Record if everyone was affected by it), and barely escaping from it, just in time to run after the bad guys again. It was rushed and disjointed and there was no interesting story to it. I’m sure that’s true of lots of let’s-pretend games, but I wanted something more, even if I didn’t really quite know what more I wanted.

One of the other kids in the game was named Andrew. He started out as a close friend of Roger’s, but he and I became friends. (My father was unhappy about that; he told me that he didn’t like Andrew. But when I asked why, all he could articulate was that Andrew had a nervous laugh.)

Andrew and I gradually developed a secret separate game, in which he and I were people who were immune to Record. In fact, we lived on an entire planet made of Record.

In my memory—which may be faulty—our only activity in that game was walking around outside for hours talking about how amusing it was that Jagwire Creature thought nobody was immune to Record, and here we were walking around on it. (At this point, we would pick up pebbles and toss them around just to show how immune we were.) Just wandering around and talking in character was far more interesting to me than the run-after-the-bad-guys game. (Though that may've had something to do with having a secret, and something to do with having more control over the game.)

But one day the secret game came to an end.

Andrew took Roger aside into one of the rooms at school for a while, and when they came out, Roger sneered at me smugly.

Nothing is immune to Record,” Roger informed me.


By the end of my would-have-been-third-grade school year, I think I had aged out of Redwood School—I think they had a specific age range for kids, and I got too old. There was another alternative school nearby, called Nonesuch, for older kids; but for reasons I don’t recall (possibly because we moved), I ended up instead switching to public school for fourth grade. More on that in a future week.

I vaguely recall that Redwood and Nonesuch merged at some point shortly thereafter, and shut down sometime in the next couple of years, but I don’t remember details, and I don’t think we kept in touch with any of the Redwood School people.

#tbt

Join the Conversation