Loud shrieks emanated through the worn walls of the curious red brick building on Elm Street in Albany, New York’s South End neighborhood. The little girl gazed up at the crooked sign on the fire escape, swaying in the wind. “The Free School” the sign stated proudly, towering above her head. She struggled to pull open the doors. The stairs made clicking sounds as she tripped over herself, stuffed animal in tow. When she reached the top of the stairs she cautiously shuffled through the door. The girl was welcomed by her new classmates who were busy chasing each other with arms flailing above their heads like flags, and the smell of crayons and dirt permeating the room. She hugged her stuffed dog close to her chest, eyes wide with astonishment. There was a light tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, she was greeted by a lady with a big smile. “What’s your name?” the woman asked kindly. The girl looked down at her light-up shoes and mumbled, “Harmony.” She didn’t like to talk to people much. When the lady left, she sat in the corner and buried her head in a book. She stayed in the corner most of that first day and spoke sparingly.
But that was nine years ago…
I’ve spent the past years in an educational environment with no grades, homework, or testing. Now I’m thirteen, and it’s my last year at The Free School. Back then I would shield myself from any social interaction by encasing myself in a fortress of books. Now I find myself approaching, and addressing groups of strangers without a second thought. The Free School has let me do things at my own speed. During my time here, I’ve been able to wait until I was comfortable enough to participate, and had the safe environment to be able to step out of my comfort zone.
At The Free School, every day is an adventure with new opportunities. During this past year, especially, I’ve discovered the extent of what I can do if I set my mind to it. Being at The Free School has taught me how to dream big. I’ve done things I could never have even imagined I’d be capable of with the support of the people around me. I’ve gone from barely uttering a syllable to being a confident public speaker. I’ve come out of hiding in the corner and become a vocal youth leader in my community. And one of the beautiful things about being a student at The Free School is that everyone has a voice, and everyone can be a leader.
After discussing recent events of racial injustice happening across the country in our class meetings, some classmates and I were empowered to take action. We organized a die-in protest at the Empire State Plaza to express our unity with the national Black Lives Matter movement and gave support to others who were speaking out. I also had the confidence and took initiative to apply and earn a seat on The Free School Board of Directors as Student Body Representative (the first seat ever to be held by a student). I attend board meetings and am treated with the same respect and given the same amount of attention as more experienced senior board members.
The Free School does not have a principal. We do not do detentions. Instead we use council meetings as a form of problem solving (we follow Robert’s Rules of Order). I’ve learned how to communicate and listen to solve problems in a more effective way than simply, “Go sit in a chair and wonder if what you did was worth it.” The whole school gathers and discusses the issue, and council meetings are a safe space to talk about how you’re feeling. This is just one way that being at The Free School has taught me to be aware of what I say and do, to take responsibility for my actions and the impact that I can have as a person. At school we often talk about current news and events. We have very informative and intriguing discussions about what’s happening in the world around us, and what we can do about it. I will always remember that many years ago students from The Free School even got Hillary Clinton to pass a bill to give money to Harriet Tubman’s family for her service in the Union Army!
At The Free School we get lots of opportunities that I don’t think we could receive anywhere else. We’ve gone on annual class trips to a location we decide on and fundraise to be able to travel to. We’ve gone on virtual trips by doing learning about the culture of wherever we’re visiting and eating a lunch from there. We’ve had a couple school plays. But most importantly, we’ve been able to really connect with each other in a way that will last. I’ve known some of my classmates since preschool and we’re all like family.
People are always skeptical about what happens after students leave The Free School and go on to high school. They wonder how a school that gives no grades, no state tests, and no homework can teach a student what they need to learn to be prepared for high school. I’ll admit that at times I questioned that too and worried about the future and what would happen after The Free School. Well that future is now and next year I’ll be going off to high school.
After exploring the local public school options, I made the decision to apply to several private high schools in the Northeast. The process was long, hard, and very stressful. I had to take the upper level SSAT’s which was the first timed and graded test I’d ever taken. The upper level SSAT’s are entrance exams taken by students in 8th through 11th grade. I took the test twice, and, the second time I took it I was scored overall on the 88th percentile. I ended up applying to four schools, three as a boarding student and one as a day student. With four applications plus other school things, I ended up having to send in some late supplementary materials after I submitted my application. I would hear from the schools soon. I started worrying if I had given the right answers and sent in the right things. Eventually I got the admissions decisions notifications. I got in to every school I had applied to! Most importantly three of the schools wanted me to attend so badly that they offered me very generous financial aid packages. I guess I had nothing to worry about after all. The Free School had prepared me just fine.
The Free School teaches so many things but one of the most important things I’ve learned here is self-confidence and to trust in myself. For so many years I was never really sure of myself or if I was doing things “right” or as well as the other kids in public school were doing it. But teachers at The Free School always pointed me in the right direction, but never pushed or forced. They were there for me but encouraged me to figure things out on my own. These are the greatest lessons that students learn at The Free School: that we are all unique, intelligent, powerful, creative, and amazing in our own unique ways.
Harmony Bickerton will be attending The Cambridge School of Weston this fall and is destined for big things!