Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Peanut-Table Legacy

Last night, I felt deep nostalgia for the 70’s. The catalyst was the excellent play, Humor Abuse, the story of a boy growing up in the San Francisco Pickle Family Circus. (Local folks, get your tickets fast—ends Feb. 5th!) The Pickle Family Circus was one-of-a-kind, a departure from the Barnum & Bailey variety that paved the way for future “alternative” circuses (most notably Cirque du Soleil). It featured a great band (at one time including Body Musician Keith Terry) and clowns Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin and founder Larry Pisoni (the subject of the above play) who took clowning to a high exalted level of physical comedy far beyond (but not excluding) squirting flowers. It was run as a collective and often raised money for other causes (day care centers, health clinics).

That got me thinking about other similar ventures in the SF Bay Area of the 70’s, artistic and otherwise. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Center for World Music, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, the Oberlin Dance Collective, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Art Lande’s Rubisa Patrol and La Bomba Jazz School, Cazadero Music Camp, the SF Zen Center, the Community Food Stores. All shared in common the spirit of some form of collective leadership, some on-the-edge thinking seeking to break through the too-narrow boundaries of mainstream American culture, permission to imagine and create in a culture of collaboration. Nobody made much money and nobody needed much money to survive—this was the time of affordable rents (like my ocean-view upper Haight place that I shared with my sister and husband for $45 each per month), food stamps, CETA and California Arts Council grants. They were glorious times. We lived on vision, on possibility, on brown rice and vegetables.

Another place that grew to adulthood in the 70’s was The San Francisco School where I started working in 1975. With an administration consisting of two people and a parent at the front desk, we built a culture that served the inmost needs of children—and the teachers as well. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place where you were entrusted to follow your passion within the boundaries of making sure kids could read, write and do simple arithmetic? A place where we could bring our dog to work, play Sardines at staff retreats, have an evening brandy at the camping trip after we had sung the kids to sleep? A place where we dodged the health-inspectors, ignored the standardized tests, kept the gates unlocked, but closed to anything that ran contrary to our stated and unstated (but deeply felt) values. Most importantly, a place where we gathered weekly around the homemade peanut-shaped table for the staff meeting and collectively made the decisions that would shape the school as we came to know it.

Now that world, both in the school, San Francisco and the world at large, has changed enormously, as change it must. And some for the better. Heck, we children of the 60’s and 70’s were kids, sure that we could do better than our parents and in many ways we did— changed prevailing notions about race, gender, war, diet, exercise and beyond. But we were kids making it up as we went along and with the freedom and exhilaration of that vision came all the dead-ends, weird notions, naiveté, as well as the usual squabbles and conflicts that are part and parcel of any human gatherings.

But now at my school and in institutions of all sorts, the gates are locked with video cameras and yet the toxic ideas of mainstream culture are coming through, sometimes even invited and welcomed in by a new generation of leaders who seem short on vision and long on law. The culture of litigation has its stranglehold on us all, skyrocketing rents and mortgages has cut out the young folks’ period of experimentation and market research is replacing innermost conviction that we’re on the right path.

"I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows, superior for doors," wrote Emily Dickinson and I’m grateful to have lived through that 70’s world of possibility. And I can’t help but feel a touch of sadness for my young teacher colleagues at school. They are bright, imaginative and ripe to stamp the school with their own imprint and character the way my generation did. And left alone in their classrooms, I believe they are doing that with the children they teach.

But what’s missing for them is the peanut-table. They are mostly having to respond to directives from an administration that has grown 10 times larger and is gathering ideas from Conferences or corporate structures far away from the children. What’s missing for them is the glorious—and yes, at times tedious and agonizing— gathering around the table each week to build a living, breathing culture collectively.

But I am ever hopeful, for them and for us all. The halls are starting to buzz with long-needed conversation and some of these young teachers are on the front lines. And outside the gates, there are other kinds of Renaissance signs, some descendants of our work in the 70’s, some new directions—community gardens, farmer’s markets, a burgeoning world music culture, a more inclusive and responsible hip-hop culture, full zendos at the SF Zen Center, corporations loosening up the old hierarchies (like Google) and beyond.

And when someone builds a new peanut-table at our school, then I can rest easy that all will be well. 

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