When I was five years old I found out that I was different.
The first clue was when my parents and I visited my maternal grandparents, Mamoo and Bapoo, one evening and their friends, Jack and Lil, were there.
The women, Mom (then known as “Mommy”), Mamoo (aka Myrne White), Lil (I’m allowing people outside of immediate family to remain anonymous) and I, were in the living room. The men were either outside or in the basement.
Lil said something like,”It’s almost time for you to start kindergarten. Are you excited?”
I told her I wasn’t and proceeded to tell her why.
I had philosophical, ethical reasons why I thought compulsory school was wrong, why I thought people should be free to educate their child at home if they thought that was best for their child and found the public school inadequate to their child’s needs. It was wrong that strangers had the say over my life and that neither I nor the people who knew me and loved me best had the freedom to choose what we deemed best. The USA was supposed to be a free country, and to be free means you belong to yourself, not to others. Your life belongs to you. Your mind belongs to you. You should be free to think and to choose your path, as long as you don’t lie or cheat or steal or kill or beat people up to get what you want, as long as you live by the underneath idea of (the principle underlying) right and wrong and freedom, then you have the right to go your own way.
I don’t remember how much of that I actually said to Lil, but that’s a pretty good capsule version of what I already held to be true by that time. It was why I was morally outraged over compulsory school. (Note that I’m saying compulsory school, not compulsory education. I recognized that parents were responsible for seeing to it that their children had the opportunity to learn what they needed to learn to live a good and happy life, and if the parents couldn’t or wouldn’t do that job, others needed to see to it that the unfortunate child did have that opportunity. But outside of that situation, hands off. Compulsory school was against the thing in a person that made liberty necessary, and it was therefore morally wrong.
Anyway, I said some of that to Lil, and her reply was something like: “Who told you that?” or “Where did you hear that?”
And I said that I didn’t hear it anywhere. I had worked it out myself.
And Lil said that a child as young as me could not think that way yet. I had to have heard it from some adult.
I was stunned.
I did not know what to say to that. I knew that I had spent my nights lying in my crib (until I was a month shy of age 4) thinking into things – many things – and that I still had that practice. (I called this kind of thinking – whether I did it in bed or during the day – my “crib thinking”.) I had already identified that as the theme of myself and had put it into words sometime at the age of three, and used those words to myself over and over again: “I love to go into things and find everything that’s in them.”
Thinking into things was my way. And there was so much in every little thing.
Is this not how every little child is? It had never occurred to me that it wasn’t.
And my mind was suddenly flooded with the implications of the possibility that I was different in this way – and that that kind of flood was natural to me, but maybe not to others. The first time I remember it happening to me was sometime at age two, when implications of a very interesting life situation came rushing into my mind, seemingly all at once. I was astounded by this automatic abundance of new ideas, and on the spot I took it in hand and worked a strategy for sorting the implications out. I abstracted several guiding principles for myself that day, based on a traumatic infant memory that had risen up in the midst of my greater age two context of knowledge. It was an astonishing intellectual banquet of new insights that could have been overwhelming, but it was obvious to me that this banquet was full of necessary guidance for my mind. So I did what I had to do to mine this gift of abundance, to organize it, and to do my best to not let any of it get away from me.
From then on, automatic mental flooding and conscious sorting was my normal. From then on, that’s what my young life was going to be about.
But I didn’t know how to say all that to Lil. And I didn’t know how to prove it. I had so much rushing up into my head of so many memories, of so much thinking I’d done to get to my present mental place, that nothing could come out of my mouth.
I looked back at my mommy, who was behind me.
She told Lil that I had, indeed, come up with all of that myself.
My poor mother had listened to me all summer, every day, telling her why compulsory school was wrong, finding new implications along the way. Not only did compulsory school go against my ethical understanding, but I also had my own personal reasons for being so adamant. I had my own plans for my mind. Strangers should not have the power to interfere. Why did the adults not understand the “underneath idea of right and wrong and freedom”?
No one in my family would have wanted to turn me against the idea of going to school. They would not have wanted to create an ethical stress in me over the fact of compulsory school, even if it had occurred to them that compulsory school was wrong – which it hadn’t.
To my relief, Lil accepted what my mom had said. And then Lil said:
“Maybe she’ll grow up to be a philosopher.”
I knew that word, but I didn’t know what it meant. Was a philosopher someone who loves to go into things and find everything that’s in them?
I was relieved that Lil now knew I wasn’t lying. But I was not relieved about the implications of what she had said. I had taken for granted that the work I had been doing all my life was normal for a little kid. To me, this was the work I needed to do – not just the work I loved to do. A mind needs to know how to guide itself, it needs to discover principles from its experience, it needs to go into things and find everything that’s in them because that’s how it learns how things work and why right is right and wrong is wrong. Nothing could be more important. What do other little kids do with their time, if not that? How can a mind at its beginning stand to not do that? How can it stand to wait, when there’s so much in every little thing?
I wondered what being different in this way would mean to me when I got among children my own age. I wondered if being different in this way would be a problem for me my whole life long.
On the way home in the car that night, with Daddy driving and Mommy beside him, I began to ask these questions aloud. Oddly, I don’t remember the answers. I just remember that they didn’t help. My worry engulfed me.
When I came home from my first day of kindergarten – an experience I won’t go into in this introduction – I was even more convinced by my experience that I was right about compulsory school and I kept saying over and over again: “Nobody understands.”
And one of the things that occurred to me, as I stood beside my little red card table in the living room, was that there were several differences I knew about myself, and that maybe they were all connected.
One was that I had done my crib-thinking much earlier than most people.
Another was that I had lots of memories from infancy – memories that were important to me, part of the core of my being, my sense of self that I had learned from and built myself upon. But my mother had told me when I first told her one of these memories that she didn’t know anyone else who remembered being a baby.
I knew that I had been especially small when I was born and had to stay in the hospital for 3 weeks until I got up to 5 pounds.
I knew that the night nurse had told my mother that I didn’t sleep much on her shift or on the day nurse’s shift. The night nurse had carried me around with her much of the time and engaged with me, because if she left me in the boring old incubator I would cry and cry and cry until she paid attention to me, so she kept me with her and I was perfectly happy. (No, I do not remember that far back.) When Mom brought me home, she found that this was true. She had to wheel me around with her in a basket wherever she went in the house so that I could see or hear her. I did not sleep during the day and woke up several times at night to be fed, taking a long time to get back to sleep.
And now at age 5, I wondered if all of those unusual aspects of me were all part of the same thing. I made a promise to myself to find out.
Another promise I made to myself that day was that I must never let myself forget my life up until that point in time. All the experience, all the thinking, all the foundational memories that made me who I was must never be lost.
It had occurred to me – and no one had put this into my head – that the reason school was compulsory was because the people who had made that law wanted to brainwash everyone to their way of thinking. It was clear to me that they didn’t understand the Underneath Idea of Right and Wrong and Freedom, and I knew about Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (which I thought was pronounced “Silviet” Russia). I knew that some adults who gained power could go way off the track and do horrible things, believing somehow that they were doing it for the greater good. If it had happened in those places, it could happen here. I was afraid – even more afraid after experiencing my first day at kindergarten – that this was where America was heading.
Also, it had occurred to me that if you had to pay for education through taxes and had to send your child to school whether it turned out to be good enough or not, then maybe they wouldn’t feel obliged to make school really good. As a business, they had it made. Their customers couldn’t say “no”.
(There was much more to my thinking process on this issue at that point than I will say in this essay.)
The third promise I made on that day was to write down all my memories once I could write well enough. My purpose was multiple.
First, I knew that if I could write everything down that I remembered of my first five years, by putting it all in chronological order, I would be able to see patterns that I couldnt see until those memories were in order. When you put your thoughts in order that’s what happens – you make new discoveries. Now that I knew that something different was going on with me I wanted to be able to harvest the fruits of order in regard to my life. But I knew that this was too big of a job to do all in my head. I would need to be able to read and write first.
Second, but just as important to me, I wanted people to be able to see how my mind worked. I wanted them to be able to see what I thought and why. I wanted them to know what I understood about the Underneath Idea of Right and Wrong and Freedom, and I wanted them to understand it, too. Because it was important. Freedom was crucial to me. I didn’t want it to be lost to my country. And people have to understand the Underneath Idea if they don’t want to – intentionally or unintentionally – give their freedom away.