By Zoe Wallis
“Peace is not mass-produced, but handcrafted every day by individuals” – Pope Francis
Seventeen New Earth School students sing merrily as their bus carries them to their final class in descriptive writing. Each carries writing materials needed. This last assignment has the purpose of displaying their mastery of this art and skill; having this work carried out as a field trip is rewarding and exciting. The class has been briefed: Their destination is a beautiful, large old house, now preserved through the Historic Society as a community treasure. They are all familiar with this building, but their assignment intrigues them. They are to settle each at a different window, and there proceed to write all they observe from that viewpoint. They have an hour to write and polish to perfection their descriptions. As when in the school, students who finish before the allotted time are free to roam the premises, but there is no talking. They remain focused on their work. Sometimes one who has left gets an idea or realizes an error made and returns to the task, hoping for time to complete a revision or correction.
This class in language composition is typical of NES. The students range in age from a gifted and precocious ten-year-old boy to a seventeen-year-old girl whose talents are not linguistic. There is no progression year by year of the same students; this school runs every class entirely according to developed ability, each pupil progressing in all studies as personally able. This school year’s extreme is a class in musicianship whose youngest is eight and oldest is eighteen. No opprobrium is attached to older students. All recognize that talents, gifts, and interests differ according to individual Life purpose (during school years, usually as yet to be discovered). All accept exposure to the full panoply of Humanity’s achievements so that preparation for adult responsibility in the world can best be carried out and, more immediately, that personal passions and delights can be unveiled and nurtured. There is no grading. A student who masters the class work is finished with that study. Those students still lacking achievement when the class ends go on to other studies, repeating the incomplete subject later when more capable – because of what has been learned from other successes – to accomplish what is individually difficult.
The school bus arrives at the glorious old mansion, and the students stand and proceed in the order decided before their trip. NES, from kindergarten through graduation from high school has a practice of chance determination who goes first and next. The students find this fair and adhere to the practice faithfully in varied circumstances. Every student has a fabric ball, identical in size and material, but individual in color and decoration. This ball is presented at kindergarten (or later) entry and is personally guarded and cherished during all the years of schooling. When who-goes-when is to be determined, the students involved put their balls into a suitable container and the teacher or a selected student draws forth one at a time. The student whose ball is drawn sings out the number of the drawing, so each student from 1 on knows the order of progression to pertain in this activity.
Now a student sings out “1!” and stands, first to leave the bus. This student is also the first to choose what window is desired. Every student selecting a window yields if that window is already taken by someone with a lower number. This method is so familiar to all of them that they take it for granted, and good nature prevails. Their teacher is alert but is not surprised that no supervision is required. When “17!” is called out from somewhere upstairs, the teacher knows that all are located in position and are ready to begin their work. A loud hand-bell is rung to announce the beginning of the hour for writing.
The premises of this building have been preserved, but the environment has changed. The house is situated on an elegant tree-lined but now busy street. The front lawn is extensive and handsomely landscaped. The rear windows look over a slim expanse of grass and blossoming gardens bordering a narrow river, in this pleasant weather carrying a number of small sailboats and other craft. On one side the students perceive a commercial establishment: an attractive busy music store. On the other side of the house there is a community home for care of young children. This is enclosed by a high fence which partially obscures view of the premises from downstairs mansion windows, but the second story looks out upon a large play yard beside the adjacent dwelling.
The teacher carries a few dictionaries which he distributes throughout the house where the students can easily locate them. He then settles in a central location in case he is needed – which he does not expect – and reviews his notes. Education at NES is planned for the development of the whole person. The students know that their composition is not the only purpose of this study; they would indeed be surprised if any teacher’s only requirement was a piece of paper with some writing on it. An assignment is like a launching pad for young minds: Students know that every lesson is important for its academic content and must be mastered perfectly, but every lesson is also an occasion for developing non-academic thinking. There had been lively speculation during the bus ride as to what subject could be raised by a visit to an historic building and the scenes from its windows!
When the hand-bell sounds the end of the hour, the students have ten minutes in which to stretch and perhaps run around outside for a few minutes, visit the restrooms, get a drink of water, and present themselves refreshed and ready for intensive mindal activity. In a large upper room, closed off today from casual visitors, the teacher has grouped folding chairs in wide semi-circles. The students settle, friends sitting together; they are free to move chairs as desired. When all are seated the teacher touches the bell and they are immediately quiet.
The teacher gazes around at them, his affection plain on his smiling face.
“Our subject of discussion is truth,” he announces.
This is not a new topic, but not one they had thought of on the way here; they grin at one another.
“What is truth?” comes the question.
The teacher is willing to sit in silence as long as necessary. This is not an unexplored concept and not the first time this question has been presented. Thinking is required, however, because the answer must relate to the activity the class has just undertaken.
One hand after another goes up and the teacher points to the student who is to respond.
“Truth is accuracy in describing what is viewed.”
Several hands go down as this answer speaks well enough for others.
Another speaks out, “Well, this isn’t really different, I was going to say that truth is not embellishing the physical scene, like saying how great it is or something.”
The teacher smiles. “Anyone else? Tracy?”
“I was wondering if truth is related to ability – whether truth depends on one’s capability of observation as well as of representing that in words.”
“I think that’s more about being realistic than being truthful,” an older student pipes up, interest in discussion taking over from receiving permission to speak. “Truth isn’t decided by how much reality has to be included to be truthful – I mean not as a general principle, in terms of quantity. If you wrote about only thirteen things out your window although there were really fifty, it wouldn’t mean the writing wasn’t truthful, would it?”
One after another, students skilled in the art of discussion and stimulated by one another, air their thoughts.
“I want to say something about the personal assessment idea. Since when is it not truthful to say what you think about the quality of something?”
When the statements and questions run down, the teacher gestures that the discussion is at an end.
“You have all spoken truth,” he assures them, “but suppose I ask about the truth in a different way. Suppose I ask this: What is the truth of the surround of this house? Keep this exact question in mind as you read what you have written. Read in order of your numbering and go from one to the other without comments, please.”
After seventeen compositions are read aloud, the teacher announces that every student has demonstrated mastery of descriptive writing and therefore has completed the course. Smiling, he waits for their typical applause, foot stamping, and noisy cheers to pass.
“This class is not over, however. My question stands. We are going to have a skit.”
The students love spontaneous skits.
“Find a partner who looked out a different side of the house from you and perhaps from a different level. Then forget what you know; assume both of you have looked out the same window because there is only one window. Here is the question the skit deals with: How do you describe the site of this building? Don’t repeat your writing; summarize in a few sentences, and you can also say what you think about it.”
Some students begin to get the point; all enter enthusiastically into the skit. Eight pairs of students confront one another with varying degrees of humor, indignation, incredulity, and courtesy (or lack of it) in presenting opposing statements describing the site of the house as seen from one window. They are too accustomed to spontaneous theatrics not to try to make some sense of what they are doing, and the farther along they get the more pronounced becomes the drama. The teacher is paired with the odd student, and their dialog closes the skit.
“Too bad this lovely old building is now next to a commercial enterprise instead of the house that must have been there once,” says the student. “Shoppers coming and going make these premises now sort of out of place.”
The students are keen to hear the teacher’s response. He replies gravely.
“Well, that depends on your point of view; this place brings visitors from the street for commerce in music and keeps up the tone of the area.”
Students, as always, applaud the skit, and the teacher joins in this as he returns to his seat in front of the group. He smiles around at them.
“Good work. Is anyone ready to speak? Glen?”
“Well, it seems evident that you have to look out the same window as someone else if you both want to have the same truth.”
Other hands drop. The teacher nods.
“You speak truth. Nevertheless, those who did look out at the same scene from two windows next to each other didn’t write the same description.”
There is silence, then one hand goes up.
She speaks slowly.
“Even though we're all in the same community, speak the same language, go to the same school, we all know how different each is from the other, like Dan from Dell.”
The students erupt in laughter at this comment about the very different twins in their midst. Ellen smiles.
“This always has intrigued me, how we can all be so different in some ways, even though from our birth, all our parents and teachers seem to agree on everything major. So you might say the reason that we view things a bit differently is that we have an individual window our brain looks out of, onto the moment-to-moment scenes of living.”
The teach nods and smiles. They are on the right track.
Another student adds eagerly, “We have various ways of viewing happenings, as we know from sharing the same experiences in school but not feeling all the same about them. That’s what we’ve learned about truth. Truth is personal, it depends on who and why and where you are, what’s true for you. So those differences are valid and affect even looking out windows on to the same scene. Even if what we all see is the same, which as we just heard it really isn’t, it’s not necessarily described the same way.”
“Good.” The teacher waits a few moments; the students understand that there is something more they need to get. “Let’s take this house as being a metaphor for Life. Can you do something with that?”
After some thinking time, discussion breaks out.
“So this house is a metaphor for Life. Is every window a metaphor for one person’s Life? So even those looking from the same side form the same level didn’t describe what they saw exactly the same. I mean, we already said that, but then it is Life that’s different for everyone.”
“That explains why Mona saw all that stuff I missed! I thought it was just because I didn’t know how to look!”
The teacher raises his hand for a chance to speak.
“You know how to look. You described what was in the treetops in your view. Mona didn’t even mention the trees.”
“Yeah! What someone else sees doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with what you see! But how come Mona looked at the river and Hardy looked at the trees?”
“Because something about her Life is different,” a younger student exclaims.
Another chimes in, “Or because something about each of them is different so they are different in Life.”
Mona leaps to her feet, her pleasure in having at last mastered creative writing spoiled.
“Stop talking about me as if I’m not here! This has nothing to do with who I am or how I see! I can paint you an exact picture of what I saw out the window, and it doesn’t have even one tree in it, that’s why I didn’t describe treetops!”
Dell stands and says firmly, “Peace.”
There is immediate silence and Mona sits down.
“Sorry,” she mutters.
Sally reaches out her hand and smiles at her. “It’s our fault for the way the discussion went, Mona.”
Mona squeezes the friendly hand and regains her composure. The teacher takes over.
“You all pass the class.”
The students laugh, released from tension.
“You’ve also learned about individuality and about truth. There’s a specific element of Human development involved in what’s just disturbed the peace here that is equally important for you to come to realize.”
The students are again focused, intent on listening. The teacher looks around at them; no one indicates understanding.
“What do you learn from your studies of art about describing what you see from a window? Steve?”
“What I think of is how, in Victorian times after the Middle Ages, perspective was lost and everything was painted flat, as if all in view was in the same place to the painter. Then came the renewal of the enlightenment of realization of perspective.”
“Perspective!” exclaims a student. “None of us said anything about perspective – but you said we all demonstrated mastery!”
“We did write about perspective,” another corrects. “Several of us said something like ‘from this upstairs window, the view is…’ and so on.”
The teacher intervenes.
“You weren’t asked for perspective. You were asked to describe what you could see, which you did perfectly. Perspective is, however, the key to what happened here to disturb our peace. Remember the house as a metaphor for Life. Can anyone explain?”
He looks around; they are not getting it. Then he sees an expression change.
Ted stares blankly at him for a moment, called forth from his epiphany.
“I have an idea,” he admits. “Haven’t thought it through.”
“Come up here and think on your feet,” the teacher suggests.
Ted comes to the front as the teacher sits down. The students are transfixed as he looks around them.
“Well, ok, let me think out loud. What happened was because individuals who didn’t know what they were talking about made remarks that sounded as if they did. I mean, we took it for granted that Mona and Hardy had the same view, but I recall how many times we’ve been called on for making assumptions. I’m thinking how often that kind of thing disturbs the peace, we think we know something but find out we’re mistaken, and haven’t even been aware of some belief or other. Mistakes are all right, but these kinds, making remarks that sound as if we speak everyone’s truth when it’s really only our own views, this disturbs the peace. Why do we do that?”
Ted lifts his hands and lets them fall.
“Looking out windows is a metaphor for what we all do but we don’t think of it that way, don’t realize.”
He smiles at the small signs of recognition from his audience; realization is a major topic at New Earth School.
“If this house is a metaphor for Life, then looking out windows is a metaphor for what we see, and in Life, what we see has a lot to do with our perspective. It’s not that we get perspective from looking out the window, no, I don’t mean that, I mean what we see out our window is actually determined by our perspective.”
Ted closes his eyes for a moment. The students’ attention does not waver.
“Ellen said we go through Life looking out the window of our brain,” he resumes quietly, confident now that he’s able to get this across. “Our Life experiences shape the window through which we view everything. We know that we each have a window that is individual, personal to us, but we haven’t realized this is our entire Life view. I mean we know we have different views, but we haven’t recognized that all these, and really all our behaviors, stem from our brain window, because what we see is what we believe – no, that’s what we take for granted – but the truth is, what we believe determines what we see out our personal window!”
Ted stops, looks at the teacher, who stands, smiling his approval.
“It is clear to me, but I need to think out the implications,” Ted says as he walks back to his seat.
The students rouse themselves and applaud gently. The teacher looks around, focusing for a moment on each face.
“I see the light dawning for some of you,” he tells them. “Do you know the name of this window in your brain which is so definitive in the way you perceive, think, act, and live?”
“Perspective,” three or four voices say.
The students let out various sounds; they are getting it and they are vitalized with this new idea. The teacher briskly brings their attention to the present.
“The practical application of this lesson is to practice awareness of perspective.”
He lets this sink in for a moment.
“Our bus is waiting. Gather your belongings and put your minds to boarding in order. No talking on the way back. Use the trip to come up with a summary statement of this final class.”
Summary statements are customary, but not always easy. After the return trip when they’re settled in their classroom the teacher calls for their final activity.
“Please state your summary, 1 to 17, no comments please.”
When all have spoken the teacher asks, “Is there one that seems to say it all most clearly?”
“Number 11!” “Clara’s!” a few voices ring out almost in unison.
Clara is number 11 today. At the teacher’s request, she stands and repeats her summary of their lesson. “Perspective determines personal truth. Be aware of this, and when there are disagreements, seek the perspectives involved. Knowing perspective enables understanding truth, your own and that of others, explaining differences so we can all be peaceable while we work things out together.”
Clara sits down to cheers, whistles, stamping of feet, and applause. Experienced in these typical demonstrations, the teacher waits until the noise peaks and then lifts his hands for silence, which gradually prevails.
“You’ve been a great class and you’ve done excellent work at all levels. I would like to close by affirming an instruction our youngest student presented as summary. I agree that he has yet to master summaries, but I want to emphasize that he has mastered an important understanding for peace. Please reread your statement, Ralph.”
Flushed with pleasure, the ten-year-old stands and recites without looking at his notes.
“When there is disagreement, stop arguing and work to find out what window each person is looking out of.”
The students, high on success and the end of a semester’s class, again make a din of approval. Then Don stands and yells, “Perspective for Peace!” Grinning and shaking his head a little, the teacher opens the classroom door for them to leave and walks out to the corridor. Almost before he turns around, the students in a 1-to-17 row approach him, each with hands on the shoulders in front of them, marching in cadence and shouting “Perspective for peace!” He moves out of the way as they surge past. 1 leads them down the corridor to the first classroom door she comes to, opens it – being in front, her hands are free – and the group leans toward the doorway and yells out their slogan. 1 closes the door and they tramp noisily on to the next room. Swiftly but missing no room, they disappear around a corner and a few minutes later can be heard pounding up the stairs to continue their campaign.
Their teacher stands gazing after them. Shortly after they reach the school office, the Principal joins him. “Your class, I believe?” she asks mildly.
“I admit it. They may have gone over the creative edge this time. Discipline seems called for.”
The Principal gives his shoulder a friendly pat. “I’ll take care of it. Let them go.”
The teacher laughs, relieved. “I couldn’t think whether or how – or why, to tell the truth – to stop them.”
The last room the performers come to is the Privilege Room of each year’s graduating students. This room is for them only, they congregate here with no supervision but with self-selected coordinators, to snack in the kitchenette, loaf in the overstuffed chairs, and carry out discussions for fun and enlightenment, as well as to work on plans of all kinds. All the grads are in this room at the time the shouting begins throughout the building.
One of them opens the door and looks out. “Something interesting is afoot,” she says, laughing. “A conga line of kids acting up. Let’s get some cookies and juice out for a reward and have them in to explain!”
Two others get up to help bring the refreshments. When the seventeen arrive, they are surprised to be ushered in and told, “Let's hear it for Perspective for Peace! Three cheers now, all together!” After the cheers, the flushed and overexcited students are urged into comfortable seats, presented with cookies, juices, and milk, and when they have caught their breath, commanded: “Now tell us all about this!”
The following morning in all-student assembly, the emcee of the day reads this announcement:
“The seventeen students who interrupted classes yesterday afternoon will undertake the following disciplinary measure: You have one week to prepare a presentation for this assembly for the explanation of your behavior. Whether there will be further disciplinary measures depends upon School Governance’s assessment of the nature of your presentation.”
The requirement of student silence in assembly is not breached by seventeen pairs of hands lifted exuberantly into the air, making the sign of jubilant victory.
Zoe Wallis is a wordsmith, a Human development specialist, a channel, and a futurist.