City and Country: The school where it all began for me
- 15 June 2014
- From the section Magazine
Computers and new technology have changed a lot of schools - but one institution in New York City is much the same as it was when I went to school there 50 years ago.
A hundred years ago, Caroline Pratt opened a progressive school in New York's Greenwich Village and called it City and Country.
She was convinced kids knew as much about their own education as the teachers, and Pratt's motto, and the title of her book was I Learn From Children.
The school soon occupied a couple of brownstones in the heart of the village. The yard between them became the playground.
This week, on the 100th birthday, the yard is filled with scores of graduates, some from as far back as 1931, some as recent as 2013.
City and Country feels almost unchanged since my own time here, 50 years ago.
"The school was a wonderful refuge from a troubled home-life," says my classmate, Carl, now a cattleman and farmer in New Hampshire.
"The school made me who I am," adds Catherine, a New York attorney I once played with in Yard, as the sports period was called.
We drink wine and sing old folk songs - Pete Seeger was the music teacher here for a while.
We tour the school, which is bigger now - a couple of adjacent brownstones having been added, as have some computers.
There is also homework and test prep (learning strategies for exams), a necessity in a more competitive world.
In my time, there were no grades, no tests, no homework, the classes are known as groups, from the "2s" to the "13s".
The little ones still learn by playing with blocks, a method of early education pretty much invented at City and Country.
There is a full programme of art, music, history, languages, science, math, current events. There are field trips. There are plays.
But at the heart of the school is what has always been known, simply, as Library.
The book-lined library has comfortable armchairs as it did 50 years ago, where every kid spends half an hour every day, reading for pleasure. The kids choose their own books - any book.
Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia's most famous journalists, spent his childhood in New York and started at City and Country in 1941.
"I was all of seven," he says.
"It was one of the luckiest breaks in my life. No tests, no stupid rote learning. And did we learn! We learned to make documents on vellum like ancient monks. We felt the joy of discovery, and of devouring books in Library," he adds.
I get together with a quartet of current students. Emma, who is a 13, is currently reading The Master and Margarita - her group studied the Soviet Union this past term.
Sam, a 10, says: "If you love your school, you learn to think outside the box and be flexible."
Sam's older brother, George, is a 12. "This is a community, we all grew up as brothers and sisters," he says.
At City and Country, every group has a job. The 8s run the post office in aid of learning arithmetic; the 9s run the old printing press, which my own father, a printer himself, used to demonstrate.
A 13, Hal's favourite job is taking care of the 4s and 5s. "The little kids cheer you up," he says.
The school, they all agree, is about freedom and choice.
Over the years, I had wondered if this school I adored, an idyllic, progressive little outpost of all good things in Greenwich Village, perhaps the most liberal and lovely part of the United States, could also teach kids to deal with an increasingly complex world.
After I meet the current students, I'm convinced it's not only still viable, but better than any other system. These kids actually love learning.
The fact that no personal phones are allowed in the school isn't an issue for them. They are very bright and articulate, but neither pretentious nor self-regarding.
Curious, thoughtful, intensely aware of the world at large, they are eager to learn more about it. As far as I can tell, they are ready to take it on.
I loved this place. I still love it. So, seemingly, do my classmates.
Out in the yard, we reminisce as the stars come out over Greenwich Village. Alan, a poet, and one of my classmates says: "It's as if we were just on pause, and we've picked up after 50 years without missing a beat."
This is the first time back in 50 years for John, a doctor. He is euphoric about it. He keeps turning to us and saying: "I'm just high. I'm really high on this place."
As for me, I wish I were four years old again and just starting.
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