Friday, June 19, 2009

An Open Letter to Superintendent Grimmel

Dear Superintendent Grimmel:

I have received your letter asking why
my daughter Greta is not attending
your school system.
I want to try and answer that.

I would like to avoid conflict between us by saying that
Greta will be attending a private or alternative school,
but the truth is that she will
not be attending any school.

I would also like to be able to say that my

wife Jane and I are not aware that
Greta must attend school by law.

But we are. We are also aware that the State has
penalties in such cases.
But we don't care.

I assure you that what we
are doing we are not doing lightly.
We don't break laws lightly.
Where the touch of the State
is soft on the shoulder of our family, we do not shrink.

We pay our taxes, we get shots for our

dog, we register our car and drive it slowly.

We don't disturb anyone's peace, and we don't litter.
We are good neighbors and good people.

But at this touch - where compulsory
education touches the life of our
daughter - you must excuse us if
we tell you to lay off. This law we
choose to break.

In a word, no.

This is our beloved daughter,
whose body and soul were given by God into
our keeping, and you cannot have her.

This is the heart of the matter.
Let me try to explain.

Greta is more ours than yours certainly,
but she is really God's. Jane and I are her mother
and father because God needed a woman and a man to lie
down together and prepare a place for a human soul that
was ready to incarnate on earth.
God wanted Jane and me to take care of that soul - to
nurture and protect it - until the time it is ready to go
out on its own and do the tasks God has appointed for it.

Our responsibility, as we see it, is to protect that
soul from all harm so that it may grow according to
its own laws. Sometimes I think of myself as a
temple guard, standing before the sanctuary of the Lord,
making sure that the unholy do not enter.

Does this seem silly and overblown to you?
It does to me too, a little. I mean, all I want to do is
answer the question, "Why aren't we sending
Greta to kindergarten?" The problem is that every
time I think I have answered it, I say to myself,
"No, that's not it, there's something under that."
and then I go to that deeper level, and there's a
level under that,and so on until at the
bottom of it all is God.

I have a responsibility to God to protect this being
that He has sent me. That is the heart of the matter.

I don't know you as a man, Superintendent Grimmel.
All I know is that you share the values that
inform the compulsory public education system in the country.
You, your principals,
and your teachers share those values.
Some more, some less, but you've all got your fingers
in that pie.

Frankly, I don't trust a one of you with my daughter's spirit.
This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am so well pleased
that I sometimes cry just thinking about her, and
I will not hand her over to you.

Let me introduce my daughter.Greta is five, fair,
blond, blue-eyed,
and quite beautiful.From birth she has "toed-in",
especially her
left foot, so she has to wear orthopedic shoes.
We do special exercises every night.

One evening when she was two, lying in bed waiting
for her story,
Greta started singing the words,
"My tushy feel good, my vagina feel good."
The tune was quite pleasant, and she sang it for
about ten minutes,
the same words, the same tune, over and over.
Then, with one last "My tushy feel good, my vagina feel good,"
rising to a kind of crescendo of pure
well-being, she looked up at me and said,
"Know that song?"

When she was 18 months old, she fell while
carrying a glass of juice and
slit her right wrist down to the nerve.
She lost feeling and control in
her hand and had to be operated on by a team
of surgeons with fancy equipment.

She was in the operating and recovery rooms,
on her back with masked strangers doing strange and
hurtful things to her, for eight hours.
The operation was successful though.
The nerve has regenerated completely,
and except for her index finger sometimes
wiggling about
aimlessly, her hand is perfect.

There is a scar that looks like a wishbone
on her wrist.
There are scars inside too. To this day,
she distrusts many strangers,
especially men, and she doesn't
like to be separated from us, and she is
frightened of people wearing masks.

She loves to swing on swings,
and play with other kids, and carry small
objects around all day, and tell time,
and open car doors, and eat, and
talk. She dearly loves to talk.
I have never met anyone who talks more
than Greta.

When she was three,
she fought for and won the
right to choose her own
Sometimes she comes down the stairs
looking like a pile of laundry.

She has an incredible memory.
Sometimes she'll say to me, "Hey Papa,
remember the time when..." and then she'll
narrate an incident that
happened so long ago and with such minute
detail that I, who have
forgotten it entirely, just listen in amazement.

She is very smart. I'm smart too, and I know the
expectations people lay on you when you're smart,
and I am frightened by how smart Greta is.

She laughs hysterically when tickled.
Cries unmercifully when hurt or mad.
Sometimes, if she doesn't get her way,
or if she's lonely or just bored,
she whines and whines until I go crazy
and tell her I can't stand it
anymore, and then she either stops
and gets it together or bursts into

She loves all beings littler than herself.
Babies, chipmunks, birds,insects.
Her favorite stories are the ones I tell her
about Thumbelina,
who lives in a hole under a tree near our cabin.
One morning, when I was in a rage at our cat
and hitting him
because he had peed on the floor, I looked
over at Greta
and saw a look of such intense personal hurt and
disappointment in me that I stopped and
went over and held her.

She has a basically bipolar view of the
To her way of thinking, a thing is either Yuk or Yum.
One does not have to probe very deeply to find
out her opinion of something.
"Hey, Greta, wanna help me clear the table?"

She writes songs, flowing spontaneous songs
that she sings all day. Her latest
one is called "Flowers":

Flowers at breakfast time

Flowers at lunch time

Flowers at dinner time

Flowers flowers flowers

Boom boom boom

Flowers Flowers Flower

Boom boom boom

Flowers in the spring

Flowers in the summer

Flowers in the sun of the east.

When Greta feels insecure, she likes to
stick her thumb in her mouth or
her fingers in her vagina. Once she's plugged in,
she feels better.

She is not conscious of being naked.
I have seen other little children
titter at her when she was naked,
and she just looks back, mystified. How
long she can stay in her prelapsarian
innocence I don't know; I know that
she will eventually fall and join the
rest of us, but it hasn't happened

Once in a while, she pees in her pants.
Sometimes it's because she's

laughing very hard, sometimes she's just
playing so hard that she forgets
it, and sometimes she's mad at someone
and it's a revenge.
Once when she was mad at me,
her revenge was to go upstairs
and break all my toothpicks.

She doesn't close the bathroom door
when on the toilet.
She isn't yet ashamed to be seen doing
what human beings do.
As a matter of fact, not only is she not
private about defecating, she's quite
social, and often
invites passer-by in for a chat.

She has seen me and Jane and other
grown-ups display some pretty intense

emotions. She has seen us cry and scream.
She has seen us angry and

frightened. She looks on, curious, a bit awed,
but she seems to accept it

all as part of being human.

She's always picking fights
with me these days.
I tell her to go wash her

face, and she tells me she
doesn't have to.
"You're not my boss!" I tell

her it's time for bed, and she
says it isn't.
I tell her it's cold outside

and she should wear a sweater, and
she tells me
it's not cold and she can

wear whatever she wants to. I think
she's separating
her ego from ours and

feeling her power, which is great,
but it drives me nuts and I often feel

like strangling her.

She gets so mad at me sometimes! She screams
and hits me.
She calls me a

dummy. Her electric little rage.
One part of me hates it. Another part is

just so damn proud of her that all
I can do while I'm getting punched is

watch in admiration.

So, what will you teach this creature
in your schools, Superintendent?

Will you teach her that every single part
of her body, from her eye to her

anus, is holy? Will you teach her that she
- she herself, inside out - is

from God and therefore perfect? Will you
teach her to love herself? Will

you teach her that whatever feeling she
is feeling at any given moment is

valid and okay? Will you teach her that she
is better than no one and no

one is better than her? Will you teach her not to
judge anyone or argue

with anyone? Will you teach her that
television is empty,
that newspapers

and movies and stores and cars and
cosmetics and clothes are narcotics,

that money is guilt, that the American
middle-class is desperate, that

disease of the body is disease of the spirit,
that 90 percent of the food

in supermarkets is poison, that
capitalism sucks?
Will you teach her about

suffering beautiful humanity? Will
you teach her to
every moment choose

life? And what I mostly want to know,
Superintendent, will you teach my

daughter that she is God?

I know you won't. I didn't go through
twenty years of schooling for

nothing. I know what goes on
in those classrooms.
Christ, I'm a teacher! I

get them at the end of the line in college.
I see what's been done to

those kids. I see their hot, angry pimples.
I see them slump and cower in

their chairs. I see their boredom and their laziness,
which I know is

really rage. I see the horrible thing in their eyes,
the overwhelming

question they keep asking with their eyes and
which I can never answer. I


Listen. I will tell you two stories.

One day I told my students (freshmen at a prominent
east-coast university)

to pull out a piece of paper. They all did.
I told them to print their

names in the upper right-hand corner. They all did.
I told them to tile

the paper "A Syllabus of Syllables," and then
underline the title. They

all did. I told them to write the
following syllables
next to the numbers:

"ge, sha, la, urb, orb, go, vin,
sko, sti, cer." They all did.
I told them

to form a word from each of the syllables.
They asked me a few questions -

they wanted to be sure exactly what it was I wanted
from them - and then

they all hunched over their papers and did it.
I told them to fold the

paper in half. Deborah asked which way.
I said lengthwise. Then I told

them to hand in their papers. They all did.
I stood there with a handful of

15 papers folded lengthwise. Everybody was looking at me.

Not one of them asked me why we were doing this.
Not one of them told me

to go screw myself. Not one of them - not one -
even looked at me strange.

Why should they? Nothing strange had happened.
this was school. School is

where you give up your power, you do what you're told,
and you don't ask

questions. In school, we all learn not to
care anymore, not even to care

that we're being humiliated, because everybody
keeps telling us that we're

being educated.

Another time, later in the semester,
I walked into class purposely late.

They were all seated, talking. I sat down and looked around.
They stopped

talking and looked at me. I looked back and
said nothing. They kept

looking at me. I kept saying nothing.
It went on for about five minutes

clock time, but it seemed like an eternity.
Finally, Russell asked the

class, "Why isn't anybody saying anything?"
Nobody answered. Then Marilyn

asked me, "Why aren't you saying anything?"

"What do you want me to say?" I asked.

"I don't know. Run the class, I guess."

"It's your class, You run it."

She looked at me as if I had just asked her
to stand on her head and

bounce out of the room. They all began to
realize that something was

happening here and everybody began talking.
Different people were putting

it in different words, but the message was for
me to take power. I either

said no or just said nothing and watched.
One or two students tried to get

things started by running
the class as I would have run it.

"No," said Miriam, "don't you see that's what
he's trying to tell us? We

can't do things his way!"

They didn't know what to do. They
were stuck. Then they started getting

mad, first at each other, then at me.

"Teach us something. It's your job,"
complained Terry.

"I'll be glad to. What do you want to know?"

"I don't know"

"You don't know what you want to know?"



Then I got mad and
said sarcastic things.
Then they got mad and started

defending themselves and
accused me of being unfair.

Things went on like that all class.
By the end of the hour, two had broken

down in tears, five
or six had just up and left,
one had stormed out and

slammed the door muttering nasty things,
one just kept repeating, "I'm so

confused, I'm just so confused,
I don't know what I'm doing here."

Oh yes, I know what the schools teach,
Superintendent Grimmel. They don't

teach anything. What schools do is socialize.
The main function of our

schools is to produce good Americans, small
humble helpless people who

look and think and dress and talk and hope alike,
mechanical people

programmed to tumble from school into
ticky-tacky houses and fit into the

machine. Some fit high, some low, but
the purpose of the schools is to

produce parts for the machine.

America is the machine, we are the parts.
Factories need workers,

corporations need executives, offices need
secretaries, and schools need

superintendents. Everybody must fit.
But the slots aren't very big, and

the human spirit is huge, so you have to
whittle people down pretty small

to fit them in, and that takes a long time,
so school takes many years.

And nobody really wants to get whittled down
like that, nobody really

wants to be made small and afraid, nobody
really wants to have the God

pumped out of them, so let's make school
compulsory! Let's kidnap the

little gods and put them in yellow buses
and transport them to schools.

They have to come and get made puny by law.

I was once talking to a high-school kid and
asked him what year he was in.

He said, "I only got two more years to serve."
He wasn't trying to be

funny. It was a slip of the tongue.

I am sure you are not a bad person,
Superintendent Grimmel.
I bet many of

your teachers are good, gentle,
loving people.
But because they are

working for a system, they are the system,
and they will teach my daughter

the teachings of the system.

I know that you will teach her.

You will teach her first
that she needs a
teacher to teach her. That

knowledge and power come from
the outside.
The message is that she doesn't

know anything inside herself, she's
an empty
ignorant helpless vessel that

must be filled. I can't begin to tell
you how
wrong that is.

You will teach her that she is not
a person
but a role: a little girl,

bright child, advanced reader,
sophomore, Phi Beta Kappan,

graduate, Ph.D. She will look up
to those in superior
roles, and down at

those in inferior roles, but she will not
look straight at people, behind

the roles, at the persona and the God in
the person.
In time, she will

begin to identify with her role. She will
forget who
she really is. In

every sense of the word, she will
then be lost.

You will teach her that she is weak and that
authority is strong. In the

name of practicality, you'll suck the
fight out of her.
I really hate it

when Greta fights with me, but I hope she
never stops.

Above all , you will teach her fear. First,
she will fear teachers and

then all grown-ups. She will fear failure,
which means that she will fear

endeavor. She will grow to fear the feelings
natural to a human being and

a little girls- feelings of terror, rage,
vulnerability, power, and love.

She will grow numb to the best stuff inside her.
She will be ripped and

uprooted out of her own dark human soil, and like
the rest of us she'll be

left to rot in the dryness of her intellect.

You will teach her that life is
compromise and
choices are limited. Some

nice teacher will give her the choice
to write a
paper about her summer

vacation or about her neighborhood,
but I don't
think that the teacher

will give my daughter the choice to
write whatever
she wants, including

nothing at all - and that's
the choice that takes
the bullshit out of the

other choices.

You will teach her that there are places
and activities of her own little

glorious body that are ugly and dirty.
That will be a subtle teaching,

although the first time that Great gets
insecure in school and sticks her

fingers in her vagina, the scene will
probably not be subtle.

I wonder what you'll teach her the
first time she calls you a "piss-ass."

She calls me a "piss-ass" all the time.
I call her a "piss-ass" back,

which makes her laugh. Will you, Superintendent Grimmel,
laugh with Greta

when she comes to your office
and calls you a "piss-ass?"

You will teach her competition. It won't
take long for her to realize that

her 'A' means nothing unless her friend Julie
gets a 'B', better an 'F',

so in some deep corner inside her Greta will be
hoping failure for Julie.

Hoping failure for your best friend (Rusty Swartz!
Forgive me, I loved

you!) is an evil thing, and schools are evil for doing
that to people.

Schools corrupt friendship. Where
there is supposed to be equality, trust,

and cooperation, you put hierarchy, fear,
and competition. People secretly

competing with each other never look each
other square in the eye because

their real loving selves are hiding under
their scared competitive selves,

and who wants anyone to see that in your eyes?
Do you really think I will

allow you to tamper with my daughter's
clear gaze?

You will teach her that the purpose of
learning is a good grade and a

teacher's approval. You will move the
source of her own sense of

achievement - her very pride, joy,
and independence - outside herself into

an authority. When little Johnny gets
that 'A', he feels great, but if he

gets a 'D', he is wretched with shame
and guilt. You will make my daughter

dependent on the outside world for
her own opinion of herself. In the end,

she'll be like you and me, like all
of us who went through it, looking out

of scared squirrel eyes always asking
everybody, "Am I okay? Am I okay?"

Not by accident but on purpose, at the
very center of their purpose,

schools make people feel not okay.
Who else but people who felt not okay,

people emptied out of all their hard
proud stuff, would willingly fit into

this social system? Schools rip the You
out of you, and by the time you're

done, you sit there burnt-out, gutted,
soft as mush, ready to do what

you're told. Then they call your
name and you go up and get your diploma.

You will teach her that at age
five she should know her alphabet and at

six she should know how to read,
at nine she should know this, and at ten

that. There is one clock in all
your schools, and it tells time for

everybody. I don't know who first
suggested that the human spirit grows at

the same rate in every human being,
but whoever did should take a walk in

the woods during spring and see if a
maple buds the same week as an oak.

Superintendent Grimmel, you're
going to tell Greta that she should read at

six, when maybe she won't want
to read until she's ten. Maybe she has

better things to do. When she
wants to learn how to read, she will come to

me and say, "Papa, help me learn how to read,"
and I will. It will take a

month. We'll have a ball. And for the rest of her life,
she will learn

what she needs to know when she needs to know it. her
learning will always

be a voluntary inner response to an inner need. If she
needs a book or a

teacher or even a school, she'll find all of those.
But it will always be

her need, not your curriculum.

You'll teach her all about time. The school day
runs from 8 to 2:30. For

50 minutes you sit in a room and ten a bell rings
and for 5 minutes you

walk through the halls and then a bell rings.
Don't be late. Pink slip.

Time's up. Tick-tock. But kids' time is timeless,
they live in one vast

moment, and it is a great sin to put them in time,
and time in them. Oh, I

know, it will happen to Greta eventually, and to some
extent it already

has. She too will forget that she floats in a sea of
eternity, but please,

not when she's five for heaven's sake.

Somehow she'll learn that sex is bad and genitals
giggly. Somewhere along

the line she'll learn that you don't cry
or shout in public, and you don't

get mad at grown-ups, and you hold in burps
and cover yawns and apologize

for sneezes. She'll end up saying
"Please" and "Thank you" when she

doesn't mean it. She'll probably
grow up being rational instead of

intuitive, cool and judicious instead
of hot and spontaneous. She'll talk

softly, think small, and write like a corpse.
Somehow the message will get

to her that the purpose of life is work
and the purpose of work is money,

She will be somewhat of a sexist and
somewhat of a racist and somewhat of

a patriot. Probably she'll end up being
a consumer, and she'll think that

consuming will bring her happiness. And
she'll get the message that you

really can't do much to change things, that
ya better like what ya get kid

because you are powerless.

Probably no one will ever actually
tell her this crap, but there's an

osmosis that goes on in your schools,
and the medium is the message, so

she'll get it. Oh boy, will she get it.

God help her, she gets a lot of
this stuff from me and Jane and her

grandparents and playmates. I know
that everything I have said schools

will teach her she will learn anyway.
It's called growing up in America.

It's also called falling from grace,
and it seems to happen to all of us.

I know that Greta will not be spared,
whether or not she goes to school.

But with all the forces threatening the
integrity of her soul, and with

such a long hard battle ahead of her, she
doesn't have to face the Goliath

of your schools too.

So, if she doesn't go to school, how will
Greta learn, you may be asking

yourself. But I am more concerned with,
What will Greta learn? You see, I

don't really care if Greta knows where
Guatemala is, or who the President

of Ethiopia is, or how to write a compound
sentence, or what seven times

seven is. While all the other little
children are learning that stuff,

Greta might be out in the garden with
Jane learning how to grow pole

beans. Or she might be in the woods
with me learning how to cut down a

tree for wood. If Greta never learns to
distinguish a noun from a verb,

she still might learn how to distinguish
a black maple from a sugar maple

and know which one to tap. While all
those other little children are

learning how to add and conjugate and type.
Greta might be learning how to

survive in a world that is falling
apart around our ears. Given the state

of the world today -the shortages,
the pollution, the horror of the cities

, the horror of our weapons - can you,
Superintendent Grimmel, say with

confidence what a person will have to
know in order to make it in this

world in twenty years? I am scared about
what's happening in the world,

and scared for my daughter. Things are
much too serious for her to be

wasting time in school.

Not to mention all the time I want her
to be playing, purely playing,

instead of sitting in a set in a classroom learning.

And while all those other
little children are learning where Guatemala is

and who is the President of
Ethiopia, Greta, alone out in the woods, might

be learning where she is and
who is the Lord of the Universe. Maybe she'll

never talk to a guidance counselor,
but maybe she'll talk to an angel.

I'll tell you what. If you start
offering courses like Introduction to

Wisdom, and Advanced Happiness, and
Fundamentals of Ecstasy, I'll consider

sending Greta to your schools.

An old friend of mine met Greta
for the first time this morning, and said,

"You know, your daughter... there's
something special about her... a light

in her face. I don't know what it is.. just a light."
I know what it is.

It is the light of God which
we are all born with. The light dims and

flickers as we grow up, and in some
of us it is all but out. Some of us,

like me, lose it for a long long time,
and then in some mirror we get a

flash of it, and then lose it again,
but we've seen it, there it was, our

real self, our peace, God - and then
we know that for the rest of our

lives our job is to find that light again.

"Ye are the Light of the world." We are.
We really are.

My daughter's face radiates light. Light
spills from her as she strides.

She dances and spins in light.

She hasn't lost it yet. Not much of it anyway.
I bathe in it. I am fierce

in my protection of it, like any animal
fighting for the life of its

young. If I have said extreme things, that is why.
I am sorry to be

extreme. I think schools are extreme.

Please excuse my daughter from school today.


Robert Alter


  1. wow! I am sharing this post! thanks so much!

  2. I am sharing this also.


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