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Friendly Prison Wardens

A few years ago, a letter from a Singaporean school principal went viral. Lots of people shared it and held it as an example of how school teachers/authorities ought to approach schooling. You may have read it before, or not, but just for proper context, here is that letter:

Dear Parents

The exams of your children are to start soon. I know you are all really anxious for your child to do well.

But, please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for the exams there ls an artist, who doesn't need to understand Math... There is an entrepreneur, who doesn't care about History or English literature... There is a musician, whose Chemistry marks won't matter... There's an athlete... whose physical fitness is more important than Physics... if your child does get top marks, that’s great! But if he or she doesn't... please don't take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it's OK, It's just an exam! They are cut out for much bigger things in life. Tell them, no matter what they score... you love them and will not judge them.

Please do this. and when you your children conquer the world. One exam or a low mark won’t take away...their dreams and talent. And please, do not think that doctors and engineers... are the only happy people in the world.

A lot of people praised this principal and shared this letter and hoped that more principals were like this one, and maybe a few years ago, I would have done the same thing. Now, however, I have a different view, and I look at this principal's letter as just a way to assuage his own guilt, yet doing little to fight the very same system he is enforcing. Yes, the artist doesn't need to understand Math, and the entrepreneur doesn't need history or English literature, but the very system which you are a principal of contradicts your words. A low mark won't take away their self-confidence, dreams and talent? Then why are those marks used to determine if the child can go on to the next level or to college, or find a job? It judges them even as you hypocritically implore parents not to judge their own child.

This principal is like a prison warden who is friendly, but is a warden nonetheless. True, he makes life a little easier for the inmates, but he is doing nothing to change the unjustness of the system that puts the inmates in his care in the first place. In his case, the inmates are children, whose only crime is being of "school age" -- children who want nothing more than to run free, or draw, or paint, or climb, or play or chat or do anything to their hearts' content -- but are instead told to sit in a square room, in neat little rows, and told to be quiet and listen to teacher because THAT is learning and whatever else they like doing isn't.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying this principal is an evil person -- no, I believe he is a very good person with very good intentions. But I've had enough of people with good intentions who stay and perpetuate the system when they see something clearly wrong with it. We need more people who will stand up and say "no more" to this system of forced education that is outdated, irrelevant and causing so much unnecessary stress when better methods exist and have been around for decades. The reason why the system just keeps rolling along is because so many want to be "good" teachers and "good" principals in the system. So many want to be good wardens in the prison that they don't see the prison itself is the problem, and as long as people want jobs as wardens, the prison will persist.

I wish more school teachers would brave the path of the late John Taylor Gatto, who though he was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990 and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, finally had enough of the system and quit, saying he no longer "wished to hurt kids to make a living." He then proceeded to speak out and write numerous books criticizing the school system. In the book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, he writes “School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.”

This is why I started Freedom Academy to be a safe haven for kids who want to get out of prison, or who don't want to be in there in the first place. Children are not empty vessels waiting for us to fill their minds with a standard curriculum. They are people with so much to offer, some with wisdom far beyond their years, if only we would listen, if only we would give them enough time and space to bloom, if only we would give them a chance to be themselves.

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