A Place to Stand
On Green Island
"Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go!" I sang, ruffling Elizabeth's hair a bit as we tramped down through the dewy grass towards the market garden plots, after quickly throwing a bag of food to the fish. Elizabeth had just watched Sleeping Beauty for the first time in a few years the weekend before, and the music was still in my head. This was the first year Elizabeth had actually asked to help in the garden, and she was still learning about the different vegetables and their different habits and appearances and planting and harvesting requirements, so it was fun for all of us, even those of us on the male side of the family who were not normally dawn risers. I still found the actual getting out of bed to be something I'd rather not be doing at that time of day, especially with the warm body of the one I loved right there beside me - but that body was not there long most days after sunrise, as Brittany had always been an early riser, and usually with a poke in the ribs rather than a sexy kiss she enticed me out of bed those mornings we had to prepare the market baskets. But it was always magical once that part of it was over, to be out in the fresh dawn, with birds trilling away and flashing through the sky along with the fresh breeze, watching the sun sparkling over the Greenwich dunes of a morning, between pulling whatever had to be pulled or picked for that morning's market. Somewhat less fun, of course, on the foggy, drizzly cold days, of which there were plenty on our little island in the North Atlantic - but the bay and countryside did have its own beauty in any kind of weather, as long as one's mind was open to it.
"Stephen, I've been thinking as you and that girl there (winking) were feeding the fish - " Brittany was saying, looking at us both with a fond smile and squeezing my arm which she had stepped up to as I stopped walking and was holding - for such a strong, independent woman, she had no fear of doing traditional womanish things like holding a man's arm - " - and I think that early planting really worked and today we can take out the first row of new potatoes, ok? Could be a first this year at the market. If you and our new helper - " - smiling down at Elizabeth this time - " - can do that, I can get the green onions, radishes and lettuce picked, and if we can get rid of all that at the market, we can call it a good enough morning. 'Kay? We won't be tarrying anyway, as both of us have busy days ahead...." (Brittany really did use words like 'tarrying' in normal conversation). On Saturdays we went to a farmer's market in St. Peter's, which was convenient, located there as being central to a number of places, and on Wednesdays, we went to a larger one in Charlottetown. We'd talked a bit about it last night, and Brittany was adamant that we did our normal things, not even putting off one trip to the market because of the court case the next day - Brittany still thought, after talking to the lawyers yesterday, and I agreed, that what would happen the next day would be more of a formality than anything, the lawyers presenting their case before the courts, setting a date for a longer trial sort of thing, etc, so nothing to get too excited about, after the initial shock and anger cooled down a bit. Sometimes we all made big mistakes of judgement.
"You're the boss!" I said, smiling, "Do you want us to replant as we go? With two of us, I think we could do it with almost the same amount of time as I used to dig a row..." We usually agreed on things like this, but I asked anyway, as we also agreed that 'someone' had to be at least nominally in charge of things, so there was some coordination, everything that had to get done got done without the danger of assuming someone else was doing it and it not getting done at all, potentially harmful things like using certain chemicals did not get overdone, and other stuff that required at least a nominal captain. Sort of the same philosophy we were developing for Green Island - holism had always interested me, and there were examples of it all around, for those whose minds were open to it. And the garden was Brittany's baby, her insistence on being part of the solution to our problems here, not only on Green Island, but on the planet, living Gandhi's dictum 'be the change you want to see', by providing our own food locally, rather than contributing to the idiocy of shipping food unnecessarily all around the world, at great cost not only financially but environmentally, in many ways, for no other reason than to line corporate 'investor' profits. When she was in a particularly disgusted mood about something, she was always sure to mention Canadians shipping cows or chickens to Australia, and Australia shipping cows and chickens to Canada. "Don't even get me started...." she'd say, ".. what freaking idiots!!!!" She loved the garden, anyway, and the whole challenge of creating our own sustainable little corner here by St. Peter's Bay, and Green Island in the bigger sense, as did I. It had its very rewarding moments. As well, of course, as its backaches and blisters. Many good things in life were free - many came with some cost. That's ok - that's life. And there's always a good dollop of satisfaction from reaping the rewards of some hard work well done.
Brittany looked at the row of potatoes, then down at Elizabeth, and said, "Sure - sounds good. The seed potatoes are still in the shed, still ok?"
"Yep, had a look already, and told Elizabeth that's what we'd likely be doing and explained the procedure."
"Great. Let's get at 'er!"
"Yea!" echoed Elizabeth.
And so we did. I dug the spuds and Elizabeth separated the green plant stuff from the red island soil and white tubers, and lay the potatoes on one side of the small conveyor belt we had running down between the rows and the foliage on the other, then dropped a couple of seed potatoes and a small trowelful of our special natural spud fertilizer (based on fish waste) in the hole and shoved the dirt back over it - these replanted rows would grow longer and bigger, and be our fall crop, for overwintering in one of the root cellars under the big house.
The conveyor belt was one of our innovations that was being picked up in various places around the island. We spaced our rows about twice the normal distance apart, as a soil conservation measure, and had a light conveyor belt set up that we could easily move from row to row as needed, powered by a series of light pulleys reaching to the bottom of a windmill that sat a few yards from the garden. At the end of the row the spuds were dumped in medium size tubs from where we would take them to the cleaning sink and tray at the end of the garden, and the foliage would be taken to one of the compost heaps. Small operations like ours were much better in almost every way than huge factory farms - we could produce as much food as before, they were all far more environmentally friendly than huge chemical-dependent monocultures, and they provided real and satisfying work for many people. Part of being engaged with life means being engaged with providing your own food, in some way; the connection to the earth is necessary for mental health, grounding and roots and connection with the home planet and things like that. Those who spend their lives in office towers and malls and walking on cement are, in many ways, lacking real roots and thus many other things required for good health, of the brain as well as the body - although a substantial part of modern life is engaged with the business of covering that up in various ways, from mind-numbing television full of advertisements about how wonderful it is to have 356 brands of detergent to choose from to the fabulous taste of frozen chemical cardboard to ritalin and its many clones for specific groups to - well, don't get me started.
We made a good team, Elizabeth and I, and in 30 minutes or so we had finished the 25-meter row. I rinsed the spade and trowel while Elizabeth took the remaining seed potatoes and fertilizers back to the shed, then I gathered the first of the two full bushel baskets of spuds and walked the few meters to the sink, where Brittany was just finishing rinsing her salad stuff.
"Great!" she said, smiling, tossing a stray rope of hair away from an eye with a shake of her head, "I'll corral the kid, head in for a quick shower and see you at the breakfast table."
I returned her smile, placed the basket on the work area beside the sink, and gave her a quick nuzzle - sweaty, working farm ladies are pretty sexy to me. As I dumped the spuds into the suds in the sink for a quick rinse, I heard her laughing, and turned to see Brittany with her arm around Elizabeth, the two of them looking at each other and laughing together. A ray of sun came through a hole in a cloud somewhere and shone on them just like a spotlight on a stage, and it was a perfect moment.
A few minutes later we were sitting down to one of Mrs. Dellington's breakfasts, a made to order mixture of toast and eggs for Elizabeth, muesli for Brittany, and, this morning, some bacon, tomatoes, toast, eggs and fruit for me. Coffee, tea and milk. Orange juice. All fresh and delicious. The best darn restaurant on Green Island, we had all commented more than once, as had many guests.
Our morning conversation was usually light, as eating was the priority, but Elizabeth had a question this day.
"Mommy, did you hear Beezer barking last night? I forgot to mention it earlier, but it sounded like he was down at the water somewhere. He's usually quiet all night, Mommy. Do you know what he was barking at?"
"No, Sweetie," answered Brittany, smiling up at her daughter, pausing while she finished chewing some oats or something, "I didn't hear a thing, I'm afraid. I was very tired last night, and slept like a log. Was he barking for a long time?"
"No, Mommy, just a few times. I don't know why I even heard him, I just woke up for a few minutes - he wasn't around the house, like, but farther away, it sounded like maybe down by the shore or something." Elizabeth dunked a piece of toast in the bright yellow egg, collected this morning by Mrs. Dellington from our own flock.
"Well, I don't think it's anything to get excited about. Dogs do that sometimes - they have very sensitive ears, you know, and sometimes hear things from a long ways away - maybe there were some dogs barking in St. Peter's or Greenwich or someplace - you know how sounds carries across the water, on a quiet night - something that he answered, or maybe he saw a snake in the grass and had a little fright or something - I don't suppose we'll ever know."
"Yea, I guess. Mommy, lookit here - I think Daddy made me work a bit too hard - look at this blister - maybe I won't be able to help on Saturday if this needs an operation or something....?"
"Ah, Bigelow, there you are!" I heard a distinctive voice over the hubbub of the market, and looked up to see More and Thoreau winding their way towards us through the crowd - and crowd it was; Wednesday mornings at the Athenia Market, the former Charlottetown Farmer's Market located just across the street from the main campus on the old Agriculture Research Station, were usually very busy, and this morning was no exception. More had the remnants of what appeared to be a juicy cranberry muffin in one hand, while Thoreau was in one of his characteristic hands-grasped-behind-the-back observing attitudes - I suppose, with his dislike of crowds, this was a bit uncomfortable for him, but he appeared to be quite interested in what he was seeing.
"Here you are, Mrs. Affleck, two pounds of the tastiest St. Peter's Bay spuds on the Island, first of the year, and your change! See you next week!" I said, finishing a transaction, before turning again to my guests.
"Well, gentlemen, I see you found the way alright," I said with a smile, "So what do you think of our little market here?"
"Well," Thoreau said, somewhat to my surprise as I had learned that of the two of them, More was more likely to have a quick response while Thoreau was more likely to ponder things a bit before replying, "It is quite marvelous, isn't it? So much good, fresh food, and so many people coming together around it - food really is such a central part of our existence, and it is good to see that it is recognized as such here, by both farmer and purchaser - and a much greater variety than the beans and potatoes which were all I could manage for a time. And such variety - not only potatoes and sausages, delicious no doubt as everything is here, but still the stuff of the body, but also the things that give a little inducement to the brain and the spirit, like Thomas's fine muffin here - I had never known such interesting and delicious things could be done with little bog cranberries! - and the jams and the camaraderie, and attention paid not only to the substance, the things of the first importance, but also to the dressing up, for a complete sort of excellence - altogether a soul-enhancing place, Bigelow. Thank you for telling us of it, and inviting us as a prelude to this day's excursions - a fine, fine way to start the day!"
I was a bit mesmerized - the longest speech Thoreau had ever made, I think - perhaps Green Island induced - and not brought on by some great existential issue, but by a simple market. But then, I suppose one's food is somewhat central to a good and complete life, if things are considered properly, as Thoreau was wont to do.
More was reaching up from his substantially shorter height and patting Thoreau on the shoulder, nodding and grinning in agreement.
"Yes, indeed, quite, quite," he said, "and how are you this morning, my dear?" he finished, looking beside me, where, as I half-turned myself, I saw Brittany, reaching for the last few radishes in a bowl on the counter in front of her.
"Why, good morning, Mr. More, and Mr. Thoreau," she said, smiling sweetly (about the only way she could smile, with those little dimples on the corners of her mouth...), "so nice to see you again - I am sorry we did not have longer to visit yesterday after you returned from Montague, but I think Stephen has explained about the situation that came up yesterday - perhaps this weekend, after all the excitement is over, we'll have some time together - I would love to show you around Greenways the same way Stephen is showing you around Green Island. But now, if you give me just a second, I have a buyer for the last of our salad stuff, and then it looks like we're finished for the morning..." - and we all did that, watched for a few seconds as Brittany very efficiently bagged the produce, gave it to her customer with a smile and nod of thanks as she received the money, and returned to us in a few seconds.
"So!" she said, as she returned, "Where are you all off to this morning? Was it Victoria?"
"Well, there's been a bit of a change of plans - I think we'll leave Victoria for another day if we find the time, as we managed to find a similar meeting in Georgetown where we went yesterday to the one I was thinking of there. Actually nearby, though, and the same way - I want to have a visit to the Hunter River Basic School," I replied, "and then I guess we're off to Alberton for a council meeting tonight, and back to Rustico on the overnight trawler..."
"Mmmm." Brittany smiled, "sounds wonderful, a night on the sea - hope the weather is good!"
"And what of you, Ms Forrest?" asked Thoreau, getting into the conversation; Brittany had insisted he call her by her name, but apparently he was unable to overcome his shyness around women enough, at least yet, or perhaps his old New England formality - I expected a few more days, and meeting a few more women here, would cure him of that problem; he had, however, absorbed the idea of Ms rather than Mrs and seemed ok with that, "I was so sorry to hear of the problem, happening just after we arrived - have you any more news yet of what is to happen next?"
Brittany sighed in exasperation.
"Yes, I have been rather sorry myself, I'm sure you can appreciate," she said, with a small sort of smile, "I have a lot of interesting things going on right now at the ESEC, with a number of students, but it looks as if I have to take some more time away from them and deal with this legal stuff first. I don't think that the worst will come to pass at all, it seems like more of a nuisance thing, but I have to make sure that the steps that have to be taken are taken, and that all takes time. But I don't want to spoil your day, gentlemen, which sounds very interesting - the Hunter River School is really one of our brightest lights here on Green Island, our first New School and most advanced, and I'm glad Stephen is fitting it in - and a night on the Gulf on the trawler - and he didn't even invite me!" - she finished, giving me a friendly punch on the arm, and looking at me with a little sparkle in her eye that made me wish I had of invited her, we had some good memories in boats, there was something about the isolation of the sea and the sound and feel of the waves and the rocking - " - but just joking! - I couldn't have gone along anyway, right now - so I do hope you have a great time. It looks like we're getting a few days of good weather anyway, which always helps."
"Yes," said More, "it does appear to be an interesting day we have ahead - although yesterday at Georgetown, and then the student trial, will be hard to improve on really, I was quite impressed with everything, indeed, so very, ah, democratic, I guess you would say, with We the People running their own business rather than having some sort of King's Men hovering over everything with their ceaseless orders to make sure the proper order of things - them at the top and the rest at the bottom - is in no way threatened. And I have this little digital camera thing Stephen provided us with that I practiced with last night and I think I can get some pictures ok now, and Thoreau his trusty notebook, so we didn't forget anything. And I believe Stephen said we would be having dinner at Greenways itself tomorrow evening after we finish this little two-day excursion, and finally get to see that fabled place?"
"Fabled place!" said Brittany, with a bit of a smile, "I don't know what all Stephen has been telling you, or anyone else, but it's just a little working farm - a quite nice one, mind you, on the shores of the Bay where it is - but hardly the stuff of legend!"
"Well, we shall see about that, we shall see, in due time," said Thoreau, "but I too am quite looking forward to it! The university is very nice, very nice indeed, and our trip on the train yesterday, but I would like to spend a night in the countryside, with the true darkness and stars by the ocean, and the sounds of a lonely night."
"Well," I said, "you shall certainly have that tomorrow - aside from a few lights at Greenwich across the bay and St Peters at the end, it's about as dark as you'd want over the bay - except I think we're pretty close to a full moon right now, although I'm not sure what time it comes up. But gentlemen, we talk when we should be moving! Brittany, you're going to clean up and take the methane monster?" The methane monster was our several years old Japanese import small pickup truck, one of our Green Island techies' earlier efforts at environmentally friendly transportation, adapted to burn a mixture of gas and methane, which could be produced now on Green Island in large enough quantities to make such things doable, and made getting around when you had to use non-public transportation for some reason such as carting a bunch of produce to market both cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the traditional gas-guzzling trucks of yore.
Brittany smiled at me. "Yes, Stephen, my appointment with Blackstone and Singhszinghs isn't until 10, so I have lots of time - I'll grab a quick shower and then have coffee with Val or someone and chat for a few minutes at Zistis's law office where we're meeting - there's usually somebody around."
"Well, that's great then," I said, turning back to More and Thoreau, "I guess we're about ready to get underway. If you'll give me a moment to rinse my hands..." - I turned to a small sink at the back of our stall, pulling my apron over my head and hanging it on its hook on a nearby support pole, and then a minute later ducked under the countertop where a gate would open if there was not stuff stacked on it, which there now was, giving Brittany a quick hug and peck on the way by.
On Athenia market days the GRIS-RT made a special stop right by the large parking lot beside the market to encourage people's attendance, as the tracks ran right by there, so we were only a few minutes away from our ride, down to the Main Depot in Charlottetown to change to the Western Express which left every hour on the half-hour through the day, second stop Hunter River.
"So you say this is a 'Basic School', then, Bigelow, rather than Elementary or Secondary, as we have usually thought of such things?" questioned More, as we left the GRIS-RT Hunter River Road station, after a pleasant journey from Charlottetown.
Henry was still in one of his quiet moods as we began our short walk; I had noticed this at times before - sometimes when a lot of interesting things were happening around him, or us in this case, he would be quite involved and animated up to a point, and then it seemed he would withdraw. He didn't seem to be moody or anything, with a quite peaceful look on his face, but reflecting on things, and would often manage to find a small quite spot and spend several minutes scribbling furiously in the journal he never seemed to be without. He seemed to be enjoying our short but pleasant walk from the station to the school that was our destination at the moment, however. As usual on Green Island, where the largest city, Charlottetown, was under 25,000 in population and most people lived within walking distance of open fields, the air was never silent, but full of birdsong and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, dogs barking and cattle lowing somewhere in the not-too-distance - all the country sounds that were so much more pleasant on the ear than the roar of traffic in 'modern' places - which, with the GRIS-RT and our energy conservation policies, was also very much lower than in previous times. I don't think Henry would have much enjoyed a day in Toronto, pleasant and interesting as that city was at times, for some purposes, with its traffic and city noise.
"Yes," I replied, "it’s one of our new initiatives, if you will, although one based on a lot of previous studies and writings and consideration, and our rather different objectives from industrial-based school systems which need to prepare young people to take their place as cogs of some sort in what is effectively an assembly-line society. Our goal is that the child gets two things from attending school - first a general sort of education in whatever things are necessary to get along in our society - competency in reading and numbers and basic science, of course, for instance, but also such things as history and geography and the literature of times and places and writers that have gone before, things that can be learned quite well at home of course if the parents desire and the child has enough books to read or other sources of information, but in general it is the kind of basic, factual information that can be usefully imparted in larger groups, with some discussion among their peers as well as with teachers, thus freeing the parents from such things and letting them do other work or things of their own. And secondly we feel that - most importantly of all - the very activity of coming to school represents a realtime, real-life course in social studies or civics, under supervision when just starting of course, getting involved with your peers in decision-making processes, learning responsibility, and things like this, which are less well learned in a known family atmosphere. How to function as a participating member of society, in other words. Heh heh, I suppose that someone wishing to support the older education system would indignantly reply that those were exactly the goals they had as well, but without getting into a lot of detail, there were and are some conflicting ideas about that, which I happen to believe. It is not very difficult to make the case that the older education system actually functioned basically as a system to train the students to go somewhere and take mindless orders all day without asking questions, and didn't do a very good job of actually imparting any useful learning, as they purported to do theoretically. I better not get started right now on all that.
"But here, they also get exposed, we think, in our new schools, to a somewhat wider variety of activities and people and viewpoints than are found in many homes, which again broadens their outlook and opportunities in many ways. All of this is a central part of education, we feel, learning many things, learning how their society works, really, becoming intelligent and contributing members of their society, and becoming prepared to live a good life. Also we try to be sure they understand what their responsibilities are as a citizen, not only through 'theory', but also through practical involvement in their own education, setting curriculum and lessons and so forth, having responsibility for some things, and so on. In their last couple of years at Basic School, they also can get specialized studies in various fields of their choice, preparing her or him for the more advanced studies at university - this, of course, again, is similar in theory to what went before, but it was apparent that previously there was quite a wide gap between the theory and reality, with most universities across the country, for instance, having to insist on remedial English classes for all their entering students because their grammar and writing skills were so poor ...."
"No!" interjected More, scandalized; "No, I say! Not 'remedial' English at a university level! It’s their native language, and they are supposed to be the intelligent ones, entering university!"
I even saw Henry's ears perk up at this, and his rather eloquent eyebrows raise a notch and look out of the corner of his eye at the two of us, even as he watched a chipmunk racing along a cedar rail fence beside the road, and returning the gaze of a few black and white cows on the other side of the fence watched our passage with a minimal sort of curiosity.
"Yes, I’m afraid so," I replied; "I think there are various reasons for that rather appalling fact, not least of which was that previously (and even now in many other jurisdictions), as I said before, the central, underlying purpose of primary and secondary so-called education had little to do with learning and much to do with training - human beings are naturally freedom-loving and curious, knowledge-seeking creatures, and it is most unnatural for them to go somewhere for 8 hours a day and do some mindless job primarily for the enrichment of someone else whilst being paid some sort of subsistence wage to do so, which sort of person the modern industrial capitalist system requires in great numbers - and training them to accept this kind of regime was and is the major goal of the so-called modern education system. Nobody of course has actually admitted to this yet, but then the people engaged in nefarious plots rarely do admit anything, and the circumstantial evidence is rather overwhelming, when examined impartially - comparing the theoretical supposed or stated goals with the actual output, for instance - such as requiring a remedial English course to get into university after supposedly studying and using reading and writing for 12 years. But I shouldn't start! - the failure of the old education system to educate, but its success in indoctrination, is something that did and does bother me a lot, and I expect we will probably be talking more about it again, as it impinges upon all aspects of the old way of doing things. Where I was about to finish was by saying that Athenia has rather high entrance requirements, and the several Community Colleges we are operating as well also have rather advanced standards compared to previously, which the young people who wish to enter must satisfy before being accepted. And most of them rather comfortably meet and usually surpass all of these standards by the time they are 12-14 years of age."
"12-14 years! But how do they do this, when I understand that in this time, at least, usually children, or young people, are 18-20 before being suitable for advanced education?"
"Well, as I said, at our Basic Schools the focus is actually on educating our young people, rather than training them. And when you actually encourage children to think from the earliest days, rather than repressing their natural abilities while your main objective is trying to instill them with desired societal belief systems and/or trying to train them to go somewhere each day all of their lives and take orders from someone to do something they're not all that inclined to do, which they naturally resist mightily, the process works a great deal faster - and more effectively - the young and developing human mind embraces attempts to fill it with knowledge as sturdily as it resists attempts to force it into some sort of dull and lifeless box, which the old system was all about. And, I think you will see today, our young people are very advanced at quite an early age, in terms of acquisition of knowledge and basic ability to think, anyway - they are still learning judgement and so on, which only come more fully with age and experience, but you'd be surprised, perhaps, at how well they can detect the difference between important things and things not so important."
"Children have always been good at that," said Henry, interjecting at last, with a small smile, finally joining in the conversation a bit, looking over at me. "I too spent some time teaching, although I can't say I felt especially drawn to the life, not having the personality to deal with addle-brained laughing children very well. But even then I could see some attempts by those designing the curriculum to create a certain kind of citizen, although I think there was considerable more freedom as well in my day, and the children learned quite well and quickly at the early levels, those of them who had the chance, anyway."
"But what about children who wish to attend university in other provinces or abroad, then?" continued More, "there must be some kind of parallel system?"
"Well, there are still several more traditional elementary and high schools being operated in the province, to which parents can send their children if they wish, with such a goal in mind, although a number of our students have written entrance exams for foreign schools, and have all passed with no problem. We do find, though, that most Green Island Basic School graduates, after examining all of the options here and abroad, are choosing Athenia, and we try to accommodate our own as much as possible - it is, after all, being widely recognized already as one of the most advanced institutions in the world already, in many fields. And enrollment in these older schools is falling considerably, and each year we are opening new schools along the lines of the Hunter River Basic. Just this year, for instance, we are opening Basic Schools in Souris, up near Morell where Greenways is, and another one in West Prince, on the other side of the Island, to go along with the 20 or so that are already operating, large and small - I think that something like 75% of all elementary students in the Province are now enrolled with us, and the demand is still growing. We try to keep the schools fairly small and personal, rather than huge conglomerations of impersonality."
By now we had completed the five minute or so walk from the Hunter River Road GRIS-RT station to the grounds of the Basic School, and More's attention become occupied by more practical matters, as the HRB was physically quite a large and interesting place. It covered perhaps 25 hectares, bound on the east, or front, by the New Glasgow Road which we had been walking along, and on the south, or town side, by the Hunter River which the town was named after. To the north and west the land gave way to the typical spruce bush that covered large areas of PEI, although one of the Basic School projects Islandwide was to undertake a system of plantings of hardwood trees which would return large areas back to some form of the once magnificent original Acadian Forest, which had been largely destroyed by shipbuilding in the 1800s. Several old, mature hardwoods, beech, oak, maple, birch, and suchlike, and some magnificent pines as well, were scattered about the property. In clearings, and between and under the trees, were several buildings, old and new, large and small, varying shapes indicating various uses. Here and there groups of children could be seen gathered together as we entered the grounds through the large front gate, passing under a sign which read 'Find hope, all ye who pass these gates, for knowledge and truth are the keys to freedom in your life and in the world', and past a little weathered dwarf-like wooden figure which seemed to be guarding the entrance.
At the base of the little statue, barely visible as dark letters on a dark background, was carved in swirling elven-like script the word Amsel. Stephen Bigelow reached out a hand and brushed the head of the figure on his way by; had anyone been looking, they might have seen him give it a small smile and wink, before turning back to More. Others might even have said they saw the little figure give just the tiniest black-eyed wink back, but that is a tale for another day.
"Well," I said, pausing as we entered the schoolyard, looking to Henry and Thomas, spreading my arms in the ages-old all-inclusive gesture, "I have no particular agenda, beyond getting you here - where would you like to begin? Ah - perhaps with a drink of water?" I finished, noticing the center of the schoolyard where a large, open well was visible, with a few children and a couple of larger people gathered around it.
Henry smiled at this, nodding.
"A large glass of cold, fresh water sounds excellent, Bigelow," he said, "and perhaps the folks there can tell us if anything exciting or special is underway today as well."
"Good thought, Thoreau," said More, agreeing with a smile, then turning to me, "Shall we, then, Bigelow?"
As we turned to make the walk up to the well, we paused to let a group of students pass. They were led by a tall, slim man, dressed rather dandily in grey tails and striped trousers with a full top hat, who was holding a book open in front of his face with one hand as he strode by, the children dancing along with him, some holding hands, all listening avidly.
" 'Where's the second boy?' 'Please, sir, he's weeding the garden,' replied a small voice. 'To be sure,' said Squeers, by no means disconcerted. 'So he is. B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, bottin, n-e-y, ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants. When he has learned that bottinney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and knows 'em. That's our system, Nickleby; what do you think of it?' " - the man was reading - and then he suddenly stopped, looking down and smiling as the children bumped into him and one another, squealing.
"So, Rosa, what do you think that means, eh?" he asked.
"I - um - b-o-t-t-i-n-e-y isn't what Ms Marian taught us about how to spell botany, sir, Mr. Charles, sir!" replied a sweet young blond-haired child dressed in a pink frock, "I - ah - b-o-t-a-n-y, sir!"
"Ho ho!" laughed the tall man through his mustache, "Listen, now, we've walked all around the schoolyard two whole times while we were reading - what say we sit down by the fence here in the shade of this lovely wall, and you can tell me what you think of this story now, and maybe read a bit more yourselves, eh?"
And so saying, he took a few steps to where a large wooden table sat as he said by the stone fence that fronted the school here, with a scattering of chairs around it and shaded by a large maple tree growing on the other side of the wall but whose branches overhung both wall and table, creating a pleasant shady nook. As they arranged themselves, we started our trip to the well.
"Was that the famous Dickens, then?" queried Thoreau, looking back with a slightly bemused look on his long face.
I looked around, frowning a bit in thought.
"An actor, I believe, although you never know around here these days who is going to show up - we do have quite a lot of acting talent here, though, and we like to give the young people a taste of things in the original when we can, it's a very effective learning tool. And we like to get the children involved in reading at an early age, and encourage them in every way we can think of - reading is a wonderful way to learn, and to learn to have an open mind, and think about things, and set a spark to all the creative drives, I'm sure you would agree. Look - " and I pointed to a place further along the fence, standing tall in some kind of brown ensemble, with red and yellow patches here and there, small goatee, holding his hand out even as we watched a small sparrow come and alight on his finger as he threw back his head with a laugh as the sparrow chirped furiously in surprise, but did not leave the finger, and the children oohed and aahed - "there's old Will himself, now - or maybe an actor, I can never remember who is here and who isn't! - but we have some wonderful renditions of his plays here - the children love it, and they themselves love to act the many roles."
"Excellent, indeed!" mused Thoreau, More looking around and smiling as well.
"And not only that," I continued, "I'm almost a tad embarrassed to admit it, but literacy in most of the western world in the late 20th century and on has fallen to quite an abysmal level - the popular term for the trend has become, among those who watch such things, 'dumbing down', and it describes things quite well. We saw through the Renaissance, and the Age of Reason, and such historical periods, humans were becoming ever more intelligent, ever more able to think and reason and write about things with wonderful eloquence, as the texts of the time indicate - but sometime during the 20th century things changed, very much for the worse, and by the time we started Green Island, why - as I told you before, just for instance, rather than overflowing with eloquence as one might expect in such an advanced society, quite the contrary, university students in Canada were required to take remedial English courses, and often remedial courses in basic arithmetic and science..."
"Shocking!" muttered More.
" - yes indeed, it was and is shocking. It has to do with many factors, not the least of which was the propaganda of the corporate state, which did not really want thinking individuals, as such people are quite disinclined to be office drones or factory robots, and thus 'education' slowly transmogrified into 'training' of various sorts, and 'school' became a kind of code for 12 years of enforced intellectual lobotomization, training students NOT to ask certain questions, but to do what they were told. The invention of the television, which you have seen a bit of, I think, was also instrumental in the decline of people's ability to think, as it is very much a one-way medium, and encourages people to absorb things unquestioningly."
"Yes," More said, "we did have a chance to look around the television last evening for a bit, but except for the Green Island news channel most of those other stations on the satellite cable or whatever you called that thing we found rather stupid, if I may say so, and unintelligent in the extreme, and we switched it off after only a few minutes it was so awful in every way - you mean people actually spend time watching those things?!"
"Haha!" I laughed, "Not on Green Island they don't, at least not very much anymore according to all our surveys of such things (something else we are being sued for, I believe!) - but sad to say, the average for Canada and the US is still 4-5 hours per day, and .."
"Four to five hours per day!!!" interjected Thoreau, in an unbelieving voice, "Four to five hours per day!!! Of that illiterate and stupid drivel?!?! I cannot believe it!!! No intelligent person could do so ...." he stopped with a bit of a surprised look, realizing what he had said -
"Haha! Indeed - most people today do not seem very intelligent, at least about anything important. Oh, it is true, it was true - as I said, people have been 'dumbed down' quite a lot the last few years, 20 or 30, really, as the television really started becoming dominant here by the 1970s. And you must remember, they were taught no better in the schools. We do not try to censor anything here, we feel that the best way to 'protect' our people is to let them see or hear or read everything, and let them see for themselves how stupid it all is - which most of them seem to be doing. But the last couple of years we have started doing more things ourselves - we have broadcasts of all important public meetings, and news shows, and shows about Green Island things, and things from other parts of the world where things are going well - we have developed a connection, for instance, with some broadcasters from Norway, which is one of, if not the, most advanced country in the world in terms of social democracy, and they have a lot of good ideas - they have been at it for a lot longer than we have, so have more experience with many things. But our shows are made to inform and educate, not to sell commercial products, which makes a considerable difference - the television is, after all, simply a technological tool, and like so many such things can be used for good or evil purposes - and like most other such things on Green Island, we choose the good. If you do have time to look again at some television, try to find one of our stations - you can find a schedule on the AGORA."
"The AGORA again," smiled More, "quite ubiquitous altogether, and evidently most useful as well. I am already understanding how you have come to depend on it so!"
"Anyways, you will have lots of time to read and talk with others about such things. I simply wanted to point out that it is for such reasons we place such emphasis on instilling a love of reading into our young people - reading for oneself things one wants to read, and thinking about what one reads, is a central necessity in guaranteeing intelligent, well-rounded and caring citizens, we believe - and thus we do what we can, such as having a variety of interesting people read to the students and talk to them directly, as you recently saw. We had Charles Dodgson a while ago - he was a great hit, too - I think he's actually still on the Island somewhere, doing mathematical games and talking about rabbit holes - Brittany loves to spend time with him when she gets a chance, he has a mind that can go anywhere, as hers does, and when they bounce ideas around some amazing things can happen."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Thoreau, looking back to where the two groups of children we had noticed were animatedly discussing things with their companions, and other groups could be seen, nodding in approval, "Altogether excellent!"
A few seconds later we approached the well, and a couple of the children ran out to greet us.
"Hi Stephen," one called out, reaching out his arms to me.
"Hey Ernie," I said, as I grabbed him under the arms and swung him over my head, then lowered him back to the ground, smiling, "How are you? And how's your parents? I haven't been around Pine Valley in awhile, and we haven't even talked on email! Early summer, I guess, and everybody on the land is busy, eh?"
The young lad smiled, his white teeth and long scraggly blond hair under a white and blue Blue Jays baseball cap set off against his reddish one-piece overall and green shirt; with his brown, scruffy runners. I could almost hear Brittany's voice in my head, sniffing a bit as she did sometimes, on how we must know the same color coordinator or something.
"Oh, yea, Stephen," he replied, looking up at me, "EVERY-body's real busy at home right now, with the strawberries and potato beetles and that GARdening thing - whaddya call it? Community Something Agriculture, you know - a whole truck of green onions and small beets and early taters into the Rustico North Shore Market yesterday I almost DIED carrying baskets of stuff!! And tonight when I get home we're going to Charlottetown I think for some meeting - I almost had to cry this morning to come to school - Mom thought I should help pick radishes geez! But there's so much to do here I don't like to miss any days and ..."
"Ernie!" a voice interrupted the child, laughing, "Let Stephen get a word in edgewise, child! He has some guests with him, and I expect they want to get on with their visit, not listen to you all day long!"
"That's ok, Summer," I answered, looking up to the woman who spoke, named Summer Hill, a friend of Brittany's whom I had gotten to know over the years as a dedicated and extremely gifted teacher who had come from England to the old Prince Edward Island many years ago - she had never managed to find a permanent job in the old days, being constantly fighting with the administration about what she wanted to do with the children, but she was absolutely perfect for the new system; "I haven't seen Ernie in awhile, and we always have good talks. But you're right too, we are hoping to get on to Alberton by the early evening, and here it is getting on to noon already, so we should be getting on with things if we're not to be too rushed. So Ernie," I said kneeling on one knee to be on eye level with him, "I'm sure you'll survive your gardening ordeals ok, eh? And tell your parents I'll be around to see them as soon as I can, maybe tomorrow if we find the time, we'll be passing by quite near I expect, or if not next week for sure! But for now - can you find us a couple of clean glasses? My friends here have just walked from the station, and we'd all love a glass of this wonderful cold water here..."
Ernie didn't seem to mind being interrupted, and just laughed as he raced off looking for the glasses, which he seemed to find instantly, for I had no sooner got back to my feet when he raced around the other side of the well carrying 3 stainless steel cups, shining brightly and dripping clean looking water, which he gave to the three of us, adding a "Here you are, Sir" for both More and Thoreau, who seemed impressed at the lad's manners, and then even more impressed at how delicious the water really was after Summer acted as the host and hoisted up a fresh bucket from the well. Green Island water, from deep in the earth, fresh and cold and pesticide-herbicide-fertilizer-free after several years of strict control of what the potato farmers and others were allowed to spray on their crops, and the implementation, finally, of strict greenbelt controls along all of the waterways - with few exceptions, we all felt that safe clean water and brooks with healthy fish were more important than another few acres of spuds or corn.
Another of the children was tugging at my sleeve and I looked down. "Edna! Good morning - how are you today?" She was the daughter of another friend of mine, 11 years old and in that particularly precocious stage that some young people go through, and it was always a pleasure to see her and find out what new things she was getting up to. She would have been a memorable child even had I not known her well, however, because of her tendency to speak rather loudly with a squeaky voice.
"Fine Mr. Bigelow," she answered, "And how are you? And who are your friends? I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before. And I don’t think I’ve even seen anybody dressed like that before either - they look like something from our history book! Mr. Newton dressed a bit like that though last year, but he wasn't much fun and I don't think I understood a single word the man said, ever, and I'm supposed to be pretty smart too!"
More and Thoreau were both chuckling as I answered all of Edna’s questions and introduced her to them and told her about our visit.
"Well, welcome to Hunter River Basic, Mr. More and Mr. Thoreau," she finished, "and is there anything you would like to see? We got practically everything here, I think, eh Stephen?"
"Well, there seems to be a great deal here to see," More replied, not at all disturbed by the forwardness of Edna, seeming to be able to meet her at the same level, even enjoying it, "and all of it quite interesting. Why don't you think of something that you think is particularly interesting today, and tell us all about it? That is, if we have time, Stephen?" he finished, looking to me.
"Of course," I answered, :we have plans, but there's no great hurry - if we do get involved with something interesting and don’t get to Alberton today, there’s always tomorrow. And as for the school, we have lots of time - we don't run on the old 8-4 ideas of the old schools, but take advantage of the longer days of the summer and often start at sunup and go until dark - with no objections from anyone, as they can leave to go home if they need to, although they rarely do. So - what DO you think is happening today that is interesting, Edna?"
"Well, let me see...," she said, turning in a semi-circle as she surveyed the schoolyard and buildings, where many mid-day activities seemed to be underway. "There's Mrs. Parkinson's horse-riding group, going up the river a few miles to do some cleanup - I like her, but she's too bossy sometimes ... Or - there’s Mr. John's civics class - there’s some sort of South Shore Council meeting this evening that they're going to, and he thinks there might be some excitement about the 'No Rules Driving Park' or something... or .. there's Ms Andrea's English class inside - they're studying about how we have to watch carefully everything we read or see on tv for proper gooses or something like that, or Ms Vivian's algebra class - I already know all I need to about that, my dad taught me calculus when I was 4 years old because we were studying Eisenhoover or some guy like that who talked about light and stuff - or - there's Mr. Tom's building class, I think they're starting something new today - and Ms Rachel's ecology? Orrrrr - lemme see, there's Jeremy and Jennifer, I think they're working on Mrs. Crosby's Code or something, you know, what kind of Constabletution we'd make if we not-yet-adults were making one, it's kind of interesting except I don't understand yet why they think we can't have trained robots to pick the broccoli, sure makes sense to me. There's lots of stuff, Stephen, holy cow! Well anyway - I was just on my way to Mr. Caine's Kungfu class - Mom says I really need to work on my self-disciples because she has this you know totally like outrageous idea that I talk too much sometimes, and anyway, Mr. Caine is kind of neat - you should have seen him take care of Mr. Toms and THREE of his brothers last Friday night at the exhibition!”
"Well!" exclaimed More, as Edna seemed to run down for just a second, or maybe was catching her breath, "is there anything you _don't_ teach at these Basic Schools? Horseriding and housebuilding alongside of English and math and civics! Tell me one thing, Mistress Edna, do you enjoy coming here every day, and do you think it is good?"
Edna frowned for a second, still catching her breath, thinking.
"I don't think I'm anybody's mistress yet I'm too young, Ms is fine or just Edna, really, I'm not picky about that. I haven't got that sorted out yet, though so maybe I misunderstooded what you said. Do I enjoy coming here every day?" she continued, a small sort of puzzled frown passing quickly over her forehead, "Well - I haven't really thought much about it - I can't think of much else I'd rather be doing - all my friends are here, and we have lots of chances to play together, even when it rains we study the weather and erosion too and the physics of water splashes sometimes and how rainbows happen, that's really weird but interesting when Mr. Dr. Chaos Theory comes to talk to us, and we’re learning things that we all want to learn because we all want to go to university some day and be doctors or maybe veterinarians or maybe even go to Mars on the space shittle or study the ecology of the deep ocean - my friend Sally talks about that sometimes, although I myself don't find the idea of traveling for months like until you're 18 or some way old age like that through space or going 50,000 miles under the ocean very exciting, it's actually a bit scary maybe too but we're not really, like, you know, scared or nothing like that not really. We have learned in our history classes about how school used to be, and I can't think I would have liked that very much - sitting at a desk all day listening to some teacher, and learning a lot of things that weren't true anyway apparentdently so the older guys say, and so many children from poor families who couldn’t study because they were too hungry and didn't have money to buy books and stuff, and all the other children teased them .." she was frowning by now - "it all sounds quite horrible, anyway, like Dickensesian times or even hell or something. But I don't know if I believe it or not - OUR school, as you can see, is none of those things, and we all think it is just the right thing for us, and we even get to run it a bit, we have meetings every week about how things are and if we want to do anything different, and they really listen to us too, except about why we can't have robots to shovel the snow or some things like that you know or maybe if I want to just you know maybe have ice cream for lunch instead of stirfry they don't like always listen but it's ok really I know stirfry is good for me like that. My friend Giselle's friend's sister said one time that school was so boring they'd rather watch tv and talk about boys, which they did too, but frankly I find watching tv pretty boring and boys not much better like so there you know. Anyway - I really have to run!" she exclaimed, "Mr Caine likes us to be there on time he usually picks latecomers to demonstrate painful stuff to, and it’s almost 1 o’clock! If you want to come, it’s just in the big clearing over there," she finished, pointing to the edge of the woods where a small trail wound off through the trees. We could see a slim pony-tailed man dressed in a long, loose white shirt just disappearing down the trail.
And off she trotted, with a wave and smile. Leaving behind four adults entirely out of breath from listening to her. At least we each had a glass of cold water to sip on, as we looked at one another. I was somewhat used to the scene, but I could see More and Thoreau looking around with some amazement, just smiling at the sheer exuberance of the entire schoolyard. This was indeed the cradle of our civilization. Good cradle, good civilization. Bad cradle - 20th century corporate feudalism or Jim Brown and special koolaid scenes of one kind or another. The problem always being, if you have been stuck in a bad cradle that's got a fresh coat of paint so it looks like a good one but is rotten under the paint, and they've painted over your eyes and brain too so you think the superficial shininess is pretty fine stuff, how do you figure that out, and what can you do about it?
"Begin?" said More, a couple of minutes later, thirst quenched, as we waved goodbye to Summer who had entertained us briefly with a story of Edna and a scientific experiment involving the well and a small dog belonging to one of the other students and parachute theory, was on her way to a class, "why, wherever something interesting is happening, no doubt - we’ve got quite enough background to go on, I think, and it certainly looks interesting so far, and now I would like to see how it is working - and I presume our tall friend Henry as well!" - Thoreau nodded in agreement, smiling; when standing side by side they made a bit of an odd couple, the tall lanky Thoreau dressed mainly in black and the short, somewhat pudgy More with his somewhat more colorful attire - "So I suppose most of the teaching is inside one of the buildings, I presume?"
"Oh, no, not necessarily at all," I said, "there are as many classrooms and learning opportunities outside as in, in our schools, at least in the summertime - somewhat fewer classes outdoors in the winters, though - it only takes so long to learn to snowshoe, and with the ground covered in a few feet of snow there's not a whole lot to look at - it doesn't change much from day to day when nothing new is growing, although quite a few do like to snowshoe around looking at animal tracks and studying life in the winter and whatnot - our budding biologists - and the world looks a bit different from four or five feet above where you are used to standing, on some of the big snowdrifts we get here. But look over there, then," I said, pointing to a small meadow-like clearing in the middle of some willow trees down by the Hunter River, where a knot of perhaps fifteen children of mixed ages stood and kneeled around looking at something, "that looks interesting. Let's go have a look, shall we?"
And we strolled over towards the gathering, but had only taken a few steps when we heard a voice off to our side and behind, which quickly increased in volume, before dropping off again - as we heard the words, we heard the voice reciting a poem - not just reciting, no, but presenting it, living it -
"..Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
"It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
"Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d..."
It was quite a wonderful rendition of the poem, the way a poem ought to be spoken, with continual glances and challenges to his listeners, the young people around him who followed every word of this strange but compelling figure, and we three stood also quite entranced as we watched a tall, burly man, old middle age, young old age, as you will, long white hair and beard, battered brown Fedora, wire-rimmed spectacles, dressed roughly in blue jeans and checkered shirt and work boots, as he led a group of entirely captivated young people, walking sometimes running a few steps as the mood took him, reading from a book, waving his arms for emphasis, voice rising and falling, stopping for effect, roaring out with laughter or lowering his voice to a whisper according to the passage.
As he reached the end of one section and paused for breath, looking around to see how his charges were faring, he noticed us.
"Ah, Bigelow!" his voice boomed out, a great smile parting the thick beard, "How are you all today?? It is a wonderful day, is it not? It is a wonderful day on a wonderful journey, and I have, as always, been blessed with wonderful companions! And who are your friends? Are they new companions I should like to meet, or someone to waste no time with?? Hoho! I jest, Stephen, you have brought me nothing but wonderful companions in this place of my dreams, this great Odyssean vessel you have pulled from some dream!"
As he spoke he had approached us, and stuck out a great hand to meet mine, clasping it strongly for a good Yankee shake, then reaching out for More and Thoreau to do the same.
"Walt!" I exclaimed, "It's so good to see you again! I had no idea you were here at Hunter River!"
"Oh, I ramble and wander, and rumble and wonder, and rimble and wimble and bimble as the fancy takes me, as you know," the big man answered, "I have now walked the full length and breadth of this fair isle, but tasted only briefly of its wonders, and look forward to many more such walks. I have been made most welcome most everywhere, although the occasional ruffian has mistaken my nature and required a small lesson in manners hoho!! But I see you have more companions - would I be mistaken if I guessed that you have brought the great Thoreau to visit this day?"
Thoreau appeared somewhat surprised to be recognized, but somewhat flattered as well.
"Indeed, Sir, Henry Thoreau at your service," he said with a smile, giving a small bow in the way of gentlemen as our hands parted, "and would I then be speaking to the author of Leaves of Grass, a book I have now had the great pleasure to read, and enjoy immensely for what it says of the human condition, and what we might all be, and the wonderful way in which these things are said, the wonderful voice that resonates from those pages - and all, of course, words very much in agreement with my own feelings?"
"Hoho!!" laughed Walt, "A favorite of my own also! You're a bit more solitary than is my own nature, but there is surely room in the world for us all, as long as we are of good heart, which I ken yours to be!"
Thoreau smiled, "Indeed, I could hardly have said it better myself - but then, you are a master of the spoken as well as written word."
"Hoho! You flatter me Sir! And your other companion, then?" he said turning to More.
"Thomas More, Sir," said More, with again a small bow, "And my compliments also on your verses - you have a very unique way of reading them, very - ah - compelling, I might say, somewhat more forthright than any other I know of, except perhaps my old countryman Chaucer, who was said to be quite entrancing when he read as well..."
"More, is it? Well, Sir, it appears you have come to the right place, although I wonder if the current ideas of what might comprise the ideal society would be entirely congruent with your somewhat more ecclesiastical version?"
More paused for a moment. "Indeed, Sir, there are many things to give one pause for thought here, but then I see that most of the citizens seem quite happy and apparently sound of mind, and prosperous, and well taken care of in all ways, and it occurs to me now that that surely counts for many things by any reckoning - I have seen much of misery and suffering in my time, and it is a most unpleasant thing - I have seen none here, and that is not to be mocked, I think. In any event, I was ecclesiastical, as you phrase it, in my younger days, but perhaps I have become a bit wiser in my older days, and have somewhat less certain about many things over the years - am, indeed, somewhat more like my new friend Thoreau, I think, inclined to less worship of unseen spirits and to paying more heed to my own muscles and mind and the things they teach, if one can listen to them with a sufficiently open mind."
"Well spoken, Sir, well spoken!" boomed Walt with a smile, "but I fear I have no time right now to visit, and I must leave you all, for I have taken the responsibility of these several young people today, and promised them a wonderful journey, a full explanation of how we tie the past and the future together, and how what I feel is what they feel, and their grandfathers felt and their grandchildren will feel, and it has been a most enlightening time for me at least, and I hope for some of these young people as well, but I have barely begun now, and we have far yet to go on this day!"
And as he looked down at the young people around him, both young men and young women, they were waiting with patience as befitted the young with their teachers, but also some evident fidgeting, whispering among themselves, a couple of them practicing the words and expressions and gestures of the poet while they waited, and there were many glances of anticipation and eagerness as he looked to them, ready to continue his particular lesson.
"Be off then, Walt, and it has been an excellent surprise to encounter you even briefly! Mayhap we shall meet again!" I said, with a smile and a wave, as More and Thoreau followed suit, and the large laughing man opened his text again, asking the crowd of young people in general, "So, then, who can tell me where I was...?"
" 'What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not. ..' ...."
- said a young and somewhat timorous but trying to be bold like the poet voice, reading from a book he held, "But what's 'avail' mean, Mr. Walt, Sir...."
"Hohoho!! Well, you see, first you've skipped a few lines, I believe, but then we are all free to make our own choices ...." - and soon their voices were fading out as they had faded in a few short minutes previously.
"My my my, what a wonderful place, amazing place, so interesting!" mused More, as we carried on in our original direction, still smiling at the recent encounter. But we did not have long to muse, as we were almost to the small group I had been originally leading us towards, and as we approached, we could hear a lively conversation going on.
"But it's only grass, Miss Rachel!" one young voice was heard exclaiming, "there’s millions of it! - them! - it’s everywhere! It doesn't do anything! Look at it - so small you can hardly see it, not even any branches or flowers!"
A gentle laugh wafted over the heads of the children, and as we approached closer we could see a thin, grey-haired lady smiling at one of the children, as the others watched interestedly. The child, a young boy, 10 perhaps, was holding out his hand, with what appeared to be a handful of rather ordinary appearing green grass upon it.
"Well, young Master Harold, people are everywhere too - would you say because of that that people are not interesting? Your mother and father, or Miss Jessica here?" A ripple of laughter ran through the assembled throng, as one of the young ladies beside the boy blushed ever so slightly.
The boy, Harold, frowned a moment, as if running into an unexpected obstacle in his path. "Well, of course not - people are people, and we do lots of interesting things - what's it matter if there’s lots of us or not?"
"Well, exactly," replied the lady known as Rachel, or Miss Rachel to the young people. We saw an older lady, dressed rather properly in a blouse and skirt, grayish hair tied economically back in a short pony tail, white cardigan draped casually over her shoulders. Her words were somewhat more than ordinary, however she might have looked, however. "I simply wished to point out that whether or not there is lots of something doesn't really have any bearing on whether or not it is interesting or useful. As to 'it doesn’t do anything' - well! Let's start making a list - I'm sure at least some of you have been studying with Miss Sampson's biology class, or Mr. Hunter's farming class, or many other classes that would have mentioned grass at some point. Who, for instance, has heard of or studied photosynthesis?"
Several students raised their hands, or said 'I have,' or something akin.
"Well, then, Andrew, in photosynthesis, what, basically, happens? That is to say, what gas do plants - such as grass - breathe in, and what do they breathe out?"
"Well," said the lad, "plants breathe in carbon dioxide, and breathe out oxygen. The opposite of people, who breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, so we sort of depend on each other, somehow."
"Good, let's leave the people part for another time," smiled Rachel, "and, Beth, what can you tell us about those two gases?"
"Hmm..," answered a somewhat studious-looking young girl. "Well, carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases, that are causing global warming and if the seas rise very much then Prince Edward Island - or Green Island - will get badly flooded, because so much of it is only a meter or two above sea level - lookout Charlottetown, for starters. And oxygen, of course, is the main gas that people and other animals breathe, and is necessary for life."
Rachel smiled fondly at the girl. "Excellent!" she said, "So, Harold, as you have noted, there is indeed a lot of grass around here, on Green Island and everywhere. And because there is so very much of it, it is one of the main supporters of life on earth, by doing those two things - breathing in CO2 - slowing global warming - and breathing out Oxygen, which we people need to breathe. Ok?"
"Well, yeah, ok," the boy replied, with a somewhat reluctant smile, "but lots of things do that - all the trees, for instance, and the algae in the sea...."
"Very good!" answered Rachel, "of course they do, and both of those things are probably more important than grass as carbon sinks and oxygen generators - but grass does play a very important role here nonetheless - millions and millions and millions more little grasses, all breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen - it adds up, you see. But let us carry on a bit, there's lots more. You have seen the many summer meadows on this beautiful Island, and studied the great grasslands and plains of North America, Asia and Africa. And you have also studied the great deserts, such as the Sahara and Gobi. And what, of course, is the main difference between the two areas?"
"Grass, of course," replied the lad, "the Sahara doesn't have any grass, or anything else except a lot of sand."
"And which do you think is more useful to support life, for human beings, and animals, and everything else?"
"Well, the grasslands, of course," replied the boy.
"Certainly." carried on Miss Rachel, "For grass is one of the great stabilizers of the natural environment - you might ask some of your history teachers about the great Carthaginian forests some time, and what happened to Rome when they finished cutting them all down. (a couple of the students quickly scribbled something in their notebooks) Look here," she said, moving a few feet over to the edge of the river and pointing, "what were we talking about yesterday? Annie?"
A girl with long red braids answered, "Why, we were talking about trout, and spawning grounds."
"Exactly. And what do trout need for their spawning grounds? Jonathan?"
"Well - they need cold, clean running water. And a clean gravel bottom," answered another lad.
"Good. Now, let's have a look....," and she took a handful of red soil from near the edge of the water, and sprinkled it over the surface. The water underneath quickly became murky and opaque. "As you know, if a bunch of dirt gets washed into the water, it becomes dirty, and very poor habitat for most fish, and certainly trout. Now - we have quite a bit of rain on PEI - and rain washes soil into rivers. But what will stop the soil from washing into the rivers?"
A chorus of voices spoke out, having seen where this all was going already.
"The grass, of course." "And trees.." "..a greenbelt ..."
"Certainly!" smiled Miss Rachel, "and nothing else anywhere works as well as grass for binding the soil together, and holding it in place. And why is that?"
"The roots," spoke up one young girl, dressed in blue coveralls, a baseball glove hanging from a loop on her pants.
"Good, Kelly from Pine Valley," answered Rachel, "you've all seen how strong the grass root system is, both in meadows like this one, or out on the sand dunes where we went a few weeks ago. It's amazingly important..."
I drew More a few yards back. "So," I said, "that’s Rachel, and she's one of our most popular teachers. She does biology and environmental things - and all the children love it - a few sessions with her over the course of a few months, with the supplementary reading she gives them, and they have an excellent understanding of general ecology - as good or better as students previously got only in university - they're perfectly suited to learning these things now, and find it very interesting as well."
"Well, I can quite understand that already - I'd like to listen longer myself! She certainly seems to have a good manner of going about it," replied More, "You mean that this is a regular class, then?"
"Well, regularly irregular, as are most things here, we get things done, but without much of a formal schedule, studying things as they arise one way or another," I nodded, turning to start to walk away from the group so as not to disturb them, Henry and Thomas following, talking as we walked. As we passed under the spreading branches of a large Beech tree, I noticed a middle-aged man sitting leaning against the trunk, long brownish hair, white shirt with suspenders over the shoulders, legs stretched out in front, crossed. There was a satchel on the ground beside him, from which several books spilled, an apple, bottle of water. He held a long blade of grass up, twirling it lazily in his fingers, staring at it thoughtfully. As I looked his way, his bright eyes met mine for a minute.
"I do believe, you know," he said, smiling briefly, "that a blade of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. If we could understand this one thing, all would be clear. Maybe your children here....?"
My companions had not seen the sitter, and my attention was drawn back to a question, as I looked back to them.
"But what about regular classes in classrooms?" Thoreau was asking, "Sit down and be quiet!, and all that, as school has been taught for generations - they were even starting in my day!"
"Well - that’s exactly what we're trying to get away from here, as I was talking about a bit on the walk up from the station," I replied, "We don't really consider that to be learning so much as training - dog obedience school kind of thing, you know, as I may have said before - sit and do as you're told, and if you do what teacher wants she'll throw you a treat! And all kinds of studies bear us out - why, for years, studies have shown the same thing - almost no Canadian adults could do simple long division, or name the capitals of the country, or had any clue about simple geography, many other things - things they went to school for for 10 or 12 years, compulsory, to learn, and supposedly were taught, and passed examinations saying they did know such things! But as it turned out, their basic knowledge was very little, and their ability in the basic skills little more than rudimentary, for most of them."
More was staring at me. "Astounding!" he said, "But what were they doing for all of those years, then?"
"Well - not everyone agrees with me entirely on this," I answered smiling, "but in my opinion, school served as exactly what I said - the human equivalent of dog obedience school, where children were, and still are in most places, taught primarily one thing - to go somewhere every day in the morning, and do what they are told to do all day without asking questions. Most unnatural, for any kind of creature, in my opinion, and that's why it takes so many years, to beat the spirit out of them. There were various exceptions, of course. The ruling elites had special programs of various sorts for their own children, of course, as they had higher destinies than day labour in a factory for 40 years, and the smartest of the non-elites were given opportunities to acquire sufficient training to be of use to the elites in various managerial capacities, but by and large, the dog-obedience school idea holds true, I think..."
"And by and large, I've said it before and I'll say it again, you're full of you-know-what, Mr. Stephen Bigelow!" a voice suddenly spoke up from behind. I turned, smiling, recognizing the voice.
"Hello, Ada," I said, "how are you today?"
"I'm fine, thank you," replied the new arrival, a lady of at least 70 years, but spry and chipper for all that, attired neatly in a rather fetching blue flowered print dress, silvery hair cut short. Her name was Ada Sampson, and she had been teaching school on the Island for the best part of 50 years - had taught me, in fact, in what at the time had been High School. We had always gotten along fairly well, although many of our new GI policies concerning education did not meet entirely with her approval. "And yourself?"
"Oh, well as can be expected, I guess," I answered, reverting to an old Island saying, smiling, "things are pretty busy these days, what with the Referendum coming up, and one thing and another. But today is kind of a break, as I have the pleasure of showing a couple of somewhat distinguished guests around our little Island..." and I introduced More and Thoreau.
"Well, Mr. More, and Mr. Thoreau," continued Ada, after the pleasantries had been concluded, "I do hope you're not believing everything our Mr. Bigelow is telling you! He is, after all, himself a graduate of our dog obedience school system, you know! And it doesn't seem to have done him a great deal of harm, if I do say so myself!"
"Indeed, indeed!" said More, as he and Thoreau joined in her laughter, "but what I have seen so far is certainly interesting, and things do seem to be working fairly well here, in this new way of doing things.."
"Yes, some of the new ideas seem to be alright," replied Ada, "but so were the old ideas! Some of us believe that the children require to be taught discipline, and manners, along with their 3Rs, and the old system did that quite well enough, I think. And it’s just nonsense to say the children never learned anything - our universities had been turning out successful graduates for a good many years, you know, before Stephen and the rest and all of these new-fangled ideas!"
"Yes," I interjected, "and you know as well as I that for years prior to our new system the first year students at the old university, and most in Canada for that matter, were required to take remedial English classes as well, as I said, since so many of them were barely literate when they entered!"
"Well, nobody said it was perfect, dear," Ada responded, with something of a chilly smile, and so it went - we had had similar discussions many times before. But not too long this time - after only a couple of minutes of chatting, or perhaps civilized sparring would be a better term, Ada glanced down at her watch, saying "Oh, my, I have to run! I promised a bunch I would meet them at 1.30 for some demonstrations in their Kung-fu class with that Mr. Caine - they have trouble believing a Granny can hold her own against a man!, and I'm late, and that man is a stickler for being on time, for some reason! Good-bye, Mr. More, Mr. Thoreau, it has been a pleasure meeting you, and I hope you have a good visit - I know I argue with Stephen sometimes, but he and his group really do have some good ideas, as well as some wacky ones, and are certainly bringing a new spirit and life to our little Island, which will hopefully get a chance to spread further - I would certainly never have imagined myself teaching a Kung-fu class 10 years ago - or 50 for that matter! Bye all!"
And so saying, she turned and headed off up the slight incline towards the school, at a quick walk, swinging her arms a bit as people about to exercise often do. It made an interesting sight.
"Interesting woman," commented Thoreau with a bit of a smile himself, watching her with some amazement as she walked away, "What is this, ah - kufung? she is going to teach?"
"Kungfu," I answered, with a smile, "Oh - I suppose that is something you may not know about. It’s a kind of fighting, martial arts, we call it, that relies more on subtlety than brute force - you saw a small, for real demonstration actually yesterday with the GRIPP. There are several forms, and they all came from Asia originally, but now it's very popular all over the west as well - it is also a very good form of exercise. Perhaps we’ll have a chance to see them later."
"Well, a woman of her age boxing?" laughed More; "That would be worth seeing, I think!"
We had begun to walk towards another small group of young people as we talked, who appeared to be building something, the sight of which had made us a little curious - for me, a new project that had not been underway since the last time I had visited HRB, and I was always eager to see what new things fresh young brains could come up with, when encouraged to do so and given the freedom to run with their ideas. More and Thoreau seemed interested in many things that were occuring in the schoolyard, and constantly were pointing out things and chatting together.
"Hi, Jamie!" I called out as we got closer, and I recognized the son of a friend of mine who lived in nearby Oyster Bed Bridge, "What are you all up to, lad?"
"Oh, hi, Mr. Bigelow," said a boy of about 14, turning to us, "How are you? We're just building a little shed so a few of the town kids can raise some sheep and pigs - they’ve been studying looking after animals, and the way that raising animals can interact both positively and negatively with the local environment, and want to get some hands-on experience, they said - and since none of their families live on farms, we thought maybe they could do a bit here - be good for a lot of the younger kids too, you know." Jamie was conscious of his senior status among the kids, and dealing with it very responsibly - a good example of the kind of young citizen we had been hoping would be the result of teaching them freedom with responsibility. He would be missed here - but would undoubtedly be a good addition to wherever he went next.
"Great!” I smiled, "sounds like a good plan. When ...."
Just then I was interrupted by a loudish cracking sound, followed by a young girl's short scream ending with a bang and a clatter, followed by silence for a few moments. We all hurried around to the other side of the building plot, where several of the kids were heading already, and where a pained cry was arising from. We quickly followed them over. A girl of about 12 was just struggling to her feet, holding her wrist.
"What happened, Doris?" asked a large man dressed in work clothing who suddenly appeared from behind one of the rising walls.
"I saw it all, Mr. Toms," piped up one of the smaller children in the crowd, "Doris was up on the crossbeam tryin to measure an angle, and the board just broke under her! And down she came," finished the girl, eyes wide, slowly opening her arms and dropping a few sticks slowly, with a thoughtful look,at the end of her recitation, apparently to mimic the sound of Doris’s fall.
"Faw dow go boom!" whispered one of the younger children, catching a moment of silence.
More turned to me, "Well, Bigelow, I do have some medical training, you know, perhaps ...."
I touched his arm and drew him back a step. "Why don't we just wait and see what happens? We could hardly have planned this, but I think it will be instructive - I assure you that there is nothing to be worried about."
The girl, Doris, was cradling her injured wrist in her good hand, moving it experimentally around a bit, a few tears trickling from her eyes from the pain, but her lips firmly clenched as she tried to be brave after her initial cry of pain. She looked up at the man who was in the act of kneeling in front of her, one hand reaching out to hold her shoulder protectively.
"I think it's broken, Mr. Toms," she said, sobbing just a bit from the pain, but in control of herself, "but it's just a simple fracture, I think, the skin isn't broken..."
The man named Toms smiled at her. "Good girl, Doris. Let me see, now...," and he carefully felt the girl's wrist, once evoking a short gasp of pain ("Sorry!"). After a few seconds he returned her wrist to her cradling hand.
"Yes, I think you're right. Well, everyone," he said, looking around at the group of children, "so what do you think we should do with Doris?"
One small girl, a bit excited, immediately said "Charlottetown! My mommy says the First Green Island Hospital is the best in the whole world!"
Toms laughed a bit. "Yes, Mirandy, it is one of the best in the whole world - but do you really think we need to bother the busy doctors there with a little broken wrist?"
A slightly older boy spoke up. "I think we can fix a broken wrist ok right here, Mr. Toms - isn't that why we have the Basic School First Aid Center?"
"No, Andrew," another lad interjected, "broken bones always go to a Town Medical Center! We have to take her to Hunter River - she might need shots or special treatment or ICU or bed rest or something!"
And so it went for a couple of minutes. While they were talking, Thoreau turned to me, with a small smile. "The new form of medical consultation or something?" he asked.
"Actually, it is, in a way - but here at the school it is also a learning process. One of the things we are getting away from is the idea that there are many things that only a person with specialized learning can do - such as doctors. The creation of such people was, of course, one of the main justifications for the way the old education system worked. We feel it is not necessary - many things that such 'specialists' do are quite do-able by ordinary people everywhere, if they are allowed to learn such things. And also, it was very central in creating and maintaining the hierarchy which the power system of that society depended on, a rather subtle but firm indoctrination message to most citizens that they must always accept the advice of their 'betters' for almost everything - a hierarchy which we have been trying to deconstruct, as we think all people should be more or less equal. And also - "
" - also, Mr. Bigelow, letting any Tom, Dick or Harry pretend they are a 'doctor' can do untold damage," a voice interrupted me from behind; we turned to see Ada Sampson arriving at the edge of our gathering. "I forgot my handouts for the Kung-fu class," she said, briefly brandishing a small slightly bulging brown envelope, from whose top could be seen some sheets of paper, "and I see it is fortunate I have returned."
She pushed her way past us, kneeling beside Toms and in front of Doris, a look of concern on her face.
"What on earth are you people doing around here!?" she asked, looking briefly, accusingly at Toms, then turning a softer gaze on Doris while gently taking her by the shoulder, "Can't you see she needs to be taken into the Hunter River Clinic immediately? She must be suffering terribly! Come, child, I'll get the school car and run you in right now!" - and she rose to her feet, taking Doris's shoulder and starting to guide her away.
Doris held back.
"Wait, Mrs. Sampson," she said, still snuffling a bit, "it doesn't really hurt that bad, and I think we can fix it here..."
"Posh, child! You don't know what you're saying. Now..."
"Please, Mrs. Sampson, calm down a bit," said Toms, also getting to his feet. "The situation is entirely under control, and it's important that we do what we're doing here, so that if more serious situations come along, we, or more importantly the children, if no adults are around, are at least somewhat prepared to deal with them. I ..."
"No, Mr. Tom, YOU calm down!" interrupted Mrs. Sampson, getting a bit excited, "I will NOT stand around having theoretical discussions while a child is in pain and needs medical attention! I..."
"Please, Mrs. Sampson!" it was Doris speaking this time, a bit louder, as the heads of the surrounding children - and More and Thoreau and myself - swivelled from one to another speaker, "I don't like to argue with teachers, but we've talked about these things before, and now is a real time to do what we talked about - I'm maybe just a kid, but I have some rights too. Anyway, I know you're just trying to help, and thank you too, but the pain isn't too bad, like I said, and I think if we just go to the school clinic and see Mr. Leslie he'll be able to fix it up fine! He's a good doctor, and if he thinks I need to go to Hunter River or Charlottetown, I will. But let's go now, ok?" she finished, pulling free from Mrs. Sampson's grasp, and looking up at Mr. Toms, "It does hurt a bit, and I would like to get it fixed!"
Mrs. Sampson looked grimly at Toms, and then over at me, reluctant to stand down from what I think she really believed was her duty, and the right thing to do - which, of course, in an earlier time, it would have been.
"Ada," I said, stepping forward, "Please - we've been over this sort of thing before as Doris has said - I know you think the old ways are better, but just look and exercise some of your fabled calmness - there is no real emergency here, nobody is dying or about to, the girl is hurt but things are under control and she does have a right to participate in her own treatment, and I think you can see that yourself. This is exactly what we are trying to do here, encourage people to be as responsible for themselves as they can be, with the help of those around them - when we let experts be in charge of everything, and depend on them for everything, and normal citizens forget how to speak for themselves - well, the whole mess that was the modern world is the result. Our way IS better, Ada - and I think you know that. You know that Doris will get good care right here at Basic School, and will be monitored ably and carefully, and should there be any sign, any sign at all, of more serious problems, she will be able to go to the Hunter River Center or even Charlottetown for medical treatment as good as she could get anywhere in the country - but I don't think any of that will be necessary, by the looks of things."
As I spoke to Ada, I could see the other children and Toms beginning to walk with Doris up the slight incline towards the main building, a couple of the children running on ahead to alert the doctor that Doris was coming. One of the children said something, and I could hear Doris give a small wet laugh as she leaned her head over and rubbed her friend's shoulder with it, her hands being otherwise occupied.
Ada looked as well at this sound and touching brief scenario, and I could see her relenting, not really having anything to point to to validate her position when even the 'victim' she was trying to speak for did not want her type of help. She looked back at me with a sigh, and a small smile. "Yes, Stephen, I guess I do know you are right. But I care for the children so much - they are so precious - and yes, I will admit too, that for the last couple of years here they seem to have been ever so much brighter, and aware, and able, and happy and less troublesome in every way than they used to be. But I was teaching for many, many years before all of this started, you know, and the old ways do die hard."
I reached out my arms to her, inviting. "They are very, very, very precious to us too, Ada, I think you know that, and really, at the bottom, we want the same thing for them, I think, an excellent life - I just think that our way is much more likely to result in that excellent life than the older ways. Friends?" I asked.
She looked at me for a second, then stepped forward, giving me a brief hug, then stepping back, again smiling.
"Oh, yes, Stephen," she said, "friends. I do know you're doing some good things. My goodness," she said, looking back towards the other side of the schoolyard, "my Kung-fu-ers will be wondering where I am - I may even have to show Mr Caine a thing or two now! I'd better get back to them!"
And off she rushed, skirts flapping. More was watching her with a small bemused smile, and as I looked to Thoreau, I could see him busy scribbling once again in his journal.
"Well!" exclaimed More, as we sat around a small table back at the Hunter River GRIS-RT station coffee shop a couple of hours later sipping on various beverages while waiting for the GRIS-RT-(EX) to Alberton, "that was indeed a most interesting afternoon! Are all of your children so able, then?"
"Well, first," I answered, smiling, "I know I say it sometimes too, but really, we try not to consider them as 'children' too much - rather, we think of them as young people, small people, in the process of gaining the basic education to be good citizens - the whole 'children' thing is, again, part of the training in accepting hierarchical systems, and more importantly one's station forever somewhere near the bottom of that system, for most of them, having to take orders and be accountable to someone higher up. And from there, in regards to being able - well, the question naturally flows - what do we mean by 'able'? What is a good basic education anyway, and at what point does it begin or end? What, actually, is it that we should know, and teach our children? - the whole range of philosophical questions can begin with such a question! But we really just try to give our young people the learning, the knowledge, the various abilities they need to be able to participate in our society and think coherently about it and contribute to it, and live the lives they wish, which involves different things for different people."
"Well, yes," Thoreau got into it, "but to keep it more in line with the school and what you are doing, haven't we pretty well managed to settle that over the last many hundred years of western civilization? We teach them to read, write and do 'rithmetic, basically, don't we? The so-called '3Rs'? Plus a little dollop of history and geography, things like that? And then they're 'able', able to participate in our society..."
"Well, that seems to have been the theory," I answered, "but as I sort of referred to when I was talking with Ada back there, it seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. Regardless, there's no need to go through it all again - what we are trying to do here is somewhat different. They are getting the '3Rs', of course, but so much more as well, we think, and I think you have seen a lot of that today. But most importantly, I think, we have removed the coercive elements from it, and the training elements, which makes it an entirely different situation. The children who come here do so because they truly want to - are eager to, indeed, as you saw with Jenny and many others - as with young creatures everywhere, one of their most basic desires is simply to become adult and participate in their society at a real level, and their natural learning drives them to do that. Of course, in a human society so dependent on a long history of things that came before, you find it pretty difficult to participate without first somehow learning to read and write as well as speak, and master some of the basic techniques we all use, and some kind of school where a lot of people can learn together is pretty much the best way to do this. It has been a slow process to make our schools what they were always meant to be, to remove the cancer from this body as well, the cancer of training and indoctrinating rather than teaching and enabling, but it is improving each year, almost at an exponential pace, as more yearly cohorts pass through the system."
"And I see they help each other so much, too, not just relying on teachers, but interacting with one another, leaving none behind..." observed More.
"Exactly!" I answered, "Children have always had a great loyalty and identification with other children, quite naturally, I think, and we certainly encourage it here. But there is quite a bit more, at least we like to think. For instance, one of the great disincentives previously for not coming to school, or leaving as soon as possible, or not trying to do well, was simple poverty - and we have more or less removed that as a factor, by largely removing poverty from our society. Almost, anyway. Children are not too malnourished to take advantage of the learning situation, and they are provided with any learning materials they require for free. And for the occasional child whose parents are not supportive of their education, we have a wide support network for everyone which includes them - while also, of course, providing counseling for the parents - we try not to be too intrusive, to respect the rights of people to bring their children up as they see fit - but we also feel that has to be tempered somehow, somewhere, with the rights of society to ensure that our citizens are compatible and well educated and not full of dangerous psychoses derived from their upbringing, and also the rights of the children not to be abused when they are more or less helpless or dependent on a certain caregiver. It's a tricky line to draw at times no doubt - but at least we try, and with enough people in the community involved, we think we certainly prevent more abuse than cause such - abusive situations are more common in poor isolated areas, with low education, and there were various pockets of such around the old Island that we have started to improve."
"Yes, I see, I see," replied More, thoughtfully, "but what then of the curriculum here at your schools? No regular classes, learning carpentry and first-aid and this kungfu fighting and horseback riding and acting - all well and fine, of course, but what can you say they have achieved when they graduate in, what shall we say, an academic sort of sense?"
"Well, to answer your last question first," I answered, "they never really graduate from Basic School. They attend here until they are somewhere between 12-15 years old, and then carry on to other things, as they desire - there are many options available, but most choose some form of what used to be called higher education - university, mainly. And you mustn't think they learn only carpentry and first aid! - we only had a short time there to observe, but I assure you they have access to every kind of modern knowledge - one thing, for instance, you see, is that at this time of the year it is natural for anyone to want to be outside in the nice weather, so outside activities are what we have - but on rainy cool days, or cold winter days, of which we have no shortage in this place, I tell you!, they get up to much more book-type learning, and we have some small but excellently equipped laboratories in every school, where they can perform such experiments as they wish, with the guidance of excellent teachers. I think you must have recognized from talking to the ones you did that they are all very well educated for their ages."
"Yes, that was plain enough, for sure, and it makes sense too what you say - what a terrible thing to be forcing young healthy children, or small people!, into musty classrooms in the nice weather, as has been so widely done!" exclaimed Thoreau, "I quite agree with what you are doing here, in every way. But still, universities have entrance standards of various sorts to make sure those who enter are ready - but your students just leave here and go to some university of their choice? How do the people in the university know what their qualifications are?"
"Oh, that is absolutely the least of their worries," I answered, "As you have observed, at least a little, at Athenia, we have structured our university along parallel lines with the Basic School, although at a somewhat higher level. But each faculty where a student may wish to go for further learning has rather rigorous entrance examinations and interviews which an applicant is required to take, and achieve a rather high score on, before being admitted. There was a bit of give and take for a few years as we worked out a few bugs, but the system is now functioning very well - very few students are ever rejected, that is, fail the entrance test (although quite a large number of applicants from outside universities do, much to the chagrin of both universities and applicants - but we do NOT do remedial reading or 'rithmetic courses at Athenia!), and the faculties are very pleased with the caliber of entering students they receive. One interesting statistic - during the last decade before we began the new system, the first year attrition rate at the old University of Prince Edward Island was somewhere around 20%, and that is seen in most Canadian universities, for various reasons but simple inability to deal with the work was one of the main ones - last year at Athenia it was under 1% - with demonstrably higher standards as well, according to every test we have devised to monitor our performance and compare it with other universities in Canada and other countries. The last couple of years Athenia has been getting quite a lot of interest from 'away', as we say, and has begun accepting quite a few international students who qualify as well to enrich the variety of experience available for everyone - although many of these students, even after passing the entrance exams, are finding they have to do quite an amount of catch-up work to work on an equal footing with our students from here, and their wide variety of non-academic achievements - such as carpentry or first aid! You'd be surprised how much more creative and intuitive, and able to see the bigger picture with some insight about things, a person with such a broad background can be, than one who has concentrated solely on academic pursuits as suggested in traditional calendars and tested in their exams, pursuits which generally involve memorizing a lot of facts rather than learning to think, as a true scientist - or citizen! - needs to do."
"Well," said Thoreau, joining once again, "I don't know that I'd be that surprised at all, from what you've said - academic learning has never been a match for practical experience. But you mean this works with even the higher professions, such as medicine or engineering?"
"Oh, yes, indeed," I answered, "actually, those are turning out to be our main strengths. We have a high requirement in our Basic Schools for science and math, which are, of course, the main things required for the type of things you mentioned. It's a matter of how it is taught, to some extent, and encouraging the young person's natural interest - as you saw when we first entered, with Ms. Carson. You may not have noticed, and it may not be that evident, but we require a rather high caliber of teachers here. There are very few younger teachers - we do not feel they have the skills nor knowledge to teach properly - everyone is encouraged to spend several years doing a variety of things to gain experience in living before they start teaching, as good teachers are very involved with teaching all-around living skills, so they temper their 'school learning' with practical experience - most people coming of age and graduating nowadays get involved with the foreign exchange programs in one way or another, to truly broaden their horizons. Teaching is truly a calling here, and we require a great deal more than a couple of years in some so-called Teacher's College, which was all that was required before. Truly,” I laughed, “in the old system, many more teachers turned the children off of learning rather than on to it!"
"Oh really!" said More, "But how can that be!?"
"Well, as I said with Ada, and it is true regardless of her protestations, as even though there were many dedicated and conscientious teachers, the system itself functioned with the primary purpose of instilling the students with certain habits rather than actual education, and that required a different set of tools than we require, and a different way of regarding what they were doing. It was a most destructive arrangement, actually, for the young people, and had a lot to do with the problems faced by the whole society - adults with bad attitudes and habits in almost all cases learned such things when they were younger, and that is the best place to start fixing such attitudes. There were exceptions, of course, there were many Adas in the old system who really did try to teach conscientiously - but they received very little governmental support for their dedication, and it was much easier in the old system to fall in line, and become a trainer-jailer rather than a teacher - indeed, the system functioned to de-humanize teachers as well as students."
"Here, we value the children - and all of our teachers have this in common - and well understand that they are the key to the future wellbeing of society, and not only encourage, but demand, that they become good young citizens who care about their fellow students and their community, and who think for themselves, as early and as much as possible. Our goal is that these young people become intelligent, questioning, participating members of our society - quite the antithesis of the old way, I might add, when non-thinking, obedient robots were much more the desire of the authorities and the business owners - and regardless of the fact that many teachers tried to actually teach, as we are here, with the entire system working against them, their success was naturally limited. And with that in mind, our job is both much easier and much more demanding."
"Well, the children all certainly seem to appreciate it," said Moore, "Do you do anything special to make them love their school so?"
"Well. We let them be what they want to be, to a very large extent - because we have found that what they want to be is what we want them to be - accepted, knowledgeable and useful members of our society. Reading is something they all learn quickly, most of them before they even enter their basic school at the age of 5 or so. We do have special courses in arithmetic and higher maths, things that are hard to intuit from outside activities - a solid grasp of basic arithmetic and algebra is a requirement for all university entrance tests, in any field, and such things are much easier to learn with a good teacher leading the student the first few steps along the path, switching on the lights, as it were, when possible. After that, we try to give the young people their own head as much as possible, while offering a broad general education in things they need to know to be able to participate in the things in our society knowledgeably - things like history and geography, for instance. We have ongoing situations wherein we help everyone with things like conflict resolution, talking things through and coming to some sort of compromise, recognizing the rights of others as well as one's own. Also along those lines, and probably most importantly, we incorporate into several of our teaching areas something we call 'Citizenship' - in which we have the students discuss what it means to be a citizen in their community and country, how it is what they are learning fits into that framework, and what not only their rights are, but what their duties are - duties such as being knowledgeable about the issues currently occurring in their society, duties such participating in local meetings when some contentious issue arises and being part of the discussion and decision about how to deal with the problem. Duties such as helping others, and always having time to spare for the education of those younger and needing help, as required. Duties such as participating in social activities for the benefit of the community as a whole. Things like that. And only after they have demonstrated an awareness of such things are they considered ready to move on to the next level of their education, the more formal one offered in universities and such. If they choose to go, of course - but even if they don’t, when they finish with Basic School, they are basically ready to become functioning citizens - we do need carpenters still, as much as if not moreso than doctors. Still with much to learn, of course, but ready with the tools to learn what is necessary, and to participate in their society, and help refine it according to any changes they and other new generations might desire."
"Well," answered More, "sounds quite idealistic, I must say. And it really works?"
I smiled once again. "Well - that's always the question, isn't it? That's really something that only history can judge properly, but we do believe it's a considerable step forward from the way things were, and we are always discussing what we are doing, and trying to improve it. During the last couple of decades of the 20th century most citizens became almost completely disenfranchised, for several interconnected reasons, and the governments became very bad, and actually encouraged this disenfranchisement - a single vote, in a more or less fixed election once every few years, was considered ample to call the society a 'democracy'. We feel it is absolutely essential, if we are to have a prosperous and decent society, that all citizens take part in making it that way, and for that you need a decent education, to understand and discuss the issues of the day, whatever they may be. During that recent time I refer to, there were serious economic and environmental issues that few people really understood, thus much of the government decision-making was left up to so-called experts - and the citizens of the time had been trained to accept this - and making the problem much worse, in that sadly corrupted culture, many if not most so-called experts were for sale to the highest bidder, usually some corporate interest whose primary interest was subverting government to their profit-making ends, leaving the average citizen hearing conflicting reports and not knowing what to believe."
"Scientists!" exclaimed Thoreau, "for sale! That's awful!!"
"Yes, many of us thought so too, but that was, and still is in much of the world, corporate culture. Truth in such a climate is what you want it to be, or what you can make it. So a large part of what we do here is trying to help the young people learn to think for themselves - it's fine to listen to 'experts' in a field, but you must be able to judge for yourself how much credibility they have, and be ready to dismiss obvious nonsense - of which there was a great deal being offered in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, but the people were unwilling or unable to dismiss it, and were led into all sorts of bad places because of that inability to think and judge and act for themselves - an inability very directly and purposefully instilled in them by the education system, which trained them to listen to 'experts' and not quarrel with such opinions, no matter how demonstrably nonsensical they were upon thoughtful examination - remind me to tell you about the 'trickle down theory' some day."
"Somewhat of a shocking idea, I should think, to most governments," observed More, as Thoreau returned once again to scribbling in his journal, "having citizens capable of, and ready to, think for themselves!"
Our reflections were interrupted by the distinctive 'toot-toot-de-toot-toot' of the GRIS-RT-(WES-EX), and we drained the last drops from our glasses or cups and watched it approach.
"Well, gentlemen," I informed my companions, "we shall have a leisurely journey of perhaps two hours or so to Alberton, one short stop in Summerside and another at West Cape Junction, I believe, and there is usually a table available in the dining car and we should have time for dinner - the food really is quite good on the train, and we will be well fed before our night's activity, an Alberton Council Meeting. And the scenery along the way at this time of year is really quite beautiful, so it should be a pleasant journey."
Thoreau closed his journal from where it had been resting on his knee, a finger marking his page, and returned it to a recess in one of his many pockets, took More by an arm to give the older gentlemen a brief boost to his feet, leaning over to whisper something in his ear which evoked a small companionable laugh from both, and we proceeded to board the train.