We took our son, Eddie, for a walk along the boardwalk yesterday. He pushed his stroller like it was a walker for about five city blocks, so far that my husband, Bruce, was pestering Eddie to stop. We then went for a drink at a bar along the boardwalk. As Bruce and I had a drink at a table near the bar, Eddie sat in his car seat at the foot of my bar stool yabbering endlessly as if he was telling you about some dramatic event he’d just witnessed.
“How old is he?” asked a woman seated alone at a table nearby.
“11 months,” I said.
And as often happens, we went from Edwin’s age to fact that he was conceived from a donor egg and how she had breastfed her son until he was about two-and-a-half, the personal information going back and forth in loud voices over the wide aisle of a restaurant. She said she was from Connecticut and that she and her husband had moved to New Jersey recently and their daughter was enrolled in a program called The Sudbury School, where they learned by democratic vote. That is, the children, and not the teachers or school board, determine what the kids are taught. Her husband, who joined us at the restaurant, said at the Sudbury School in Massachusetts, the children wanted to take mathematics and wound up learning eight years worth of math in 60 hours.
“But how do the kids even know what to ask for? How would they even know to ask for something like chemistry when they don’t even know what it is?”
“They do research. And if they like something, they hear about other things related to it,” the husband said. “It motivates them to investigate what they want.”
But they said the founder of the branch of the Sudbury school to which they sent their daughter was being dictatorial, failing to put certain staffing and curriculum matters up for a vote. They were considering switching their child to another branch.
The hypocrisy of it reminded me of a situation a friend of mine experienced this week while on vacation in Washington State. He and his girlfriend drove for 15 miles at 10 miles an hour on a road filled with pot holes and then hiked uphill for another five miles in order to reach these hot springs that were supposed to be magical. But when they finally arrived, the hippy environmental group charged with protecting and overseeing the springs were running it like a hotel and turned them away because they didn’t have a reservation.
“We weren’t even allowed to look at the springs,” he said.
I liked the concept of the democratic school but found it hard to imagine children knowing what they want or need, in life and in education. Like most, I was used to the idea that you tell a child what they need to know, you present it to them in the driest possible way, and you then test them to see if they retained it.
That night, we gave Eddie his dinner and then placed him in his ExerSaucer – a donut with a seat in the middle in which the kid is placed, and he can play with an assortment of balls, wheels, buttons, and a rubbery star. It seemed like a good way to keep him in one place while we ate our dinner. We usually eat in the living room, at 1960s-style TV tables. When Eddie is allowed to roam freely, the first thing he does is crawl over to our tables and rock them incessantly until the water spills out of the glass, the salt and pepper shakers fall over, and our dinner plates are at risk of flying off the edge. It’s like eating on an airplane with violent turbulence. Putting him in the ExerSaucer with a pile of Cheerios seemed like the perfect remedy.
But last night, I can’t even remember why – perhaps he’d been cooped up in a car seat a lot recently? – we decided to let him out of the ExerSaucer before I was done eating. Bruce had already finished, but I was still eating my soup, and as soon as Eddie was free, he made a bee-line for my table. Bruce put his leg up before Eddie reached my table, but the child was driven. It was like the baby was a dog, and my food tray was lathered in bacon. Eddie tried to go over Bruce’s leg, but Bruce raised it. Eddie then tried to go under Bruce’s leg, so Bruce lowered it. This dance went on for a minute or two, with Bruce going one way and the baby going the other, until Bruce dropped his leg for just a second to let it rest and inadvertently created a sliver of an opening, and whoosh! Eddie darted through the hole like a greyhound at the dog track. Within seconds, he was at the base of my TV table shaking the legs like an animal shaking a tree to make the fruit fall.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I said, watching the salt and pepper shakers sway and then fall over.
“I only put my leg down for a second,” Bruce said.
The funny thing was, Eddie didn’t even know what was on my tray. All he knew was that he wanted it badly.