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 clothes. 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 tears.
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 universe. 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?” “Yuk.”
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 Flowers
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 yet.
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 see!
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 title 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 what 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, first-grader, 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 girl - 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 Greta 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 then 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 seat 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.
* Please note this is note my letter , nor my child. It was written by Robert Alter . I do not know the origin of this letter. Though if you have any information you would like to share please feel free to contact me ...