White-faced Heron

White-faced Heron


“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau



Late yesterday afternoon I received a call from my sister in Canada saying my mother was dying. I had just returned from a swim with Asha and I was planting seeds in trays on the front deck. Symbolic somehow.


My mother only entered the hospital one and a half weeks ago complaining of some abdominal pain near where she’s had an operation for a hernia in the top of her stomach in December. She’d been healthy until then. The only pills she was taking when I visited her last September were calcium tablets for osteoporosis. She is 77.


At 2.00am I called the hospital. It was 8.00am there and my sister was able to hold the telephone receiver by my mother’s oxygen-mask-covered face. Her voice was weak but she was lucid. We were each able to say the three most important words I know, “I love you.” When I called at 6.00am she was sleeping, but I was able to speak with my sister, who had spent the night by my mother’s side. I indicated that I would not, at this point, attempt to get flights for the 27 hour journey from New Zealand to Ontario. It’s a tough call, but I have been connecting consciously with my mother each night for the last two weeks. Part of me has known something was up.


And now I sit here at 9.30am. The sun is shining, burning off the last of the morning mist. I’ve been for my walk to the Pa (the lookout) and along the beach. I’ve rescued a crab which was stranded on low tide, returning it to the wet sand at water’s edge where it quickly burrowed in. A White-faced Heron had stalked the shallows of the estuary, in search of breakfast. kingfisher-in-flightA kingfisher dive-bombed a passing dog. I returned to the garden to stake some tomatoes and Jerusalem artichokes toppled by a recent storm. I am happy. Nature is my balm. I feel and know I am connected with all beings. I see my mother’s imminent passing as part of the continuum of life, as an essential part of the vast tapestry of existence. And I am grateful for the technology that allows me to remain connected by voice with ones I love who are physically so far away.


Excuse me. I’ve got go and use that technology, the telephone, so that I can once again utter that essential three word phrase, “I love you.”

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All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.


A.S. Neill 1883 – 1973, founder of Summerhill School.


Our two daughters have been raised in America, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands. We have touched on Montessori, Steiner, democratic schools and a variety of state-run public schools. Based on experiences of bullying and teachers who didn’t really acknowledge the individual needs of our children, we have been home schooling more often than not. kinesthetic learner. Lucia and I have read with the girls from birth. Authors like Louisa May Alcott and Charles Dickens were introduced early because I believe that without a sense of history, without knowledge of what has come before, we cannot make informed choices today.

Amira is now 18 and Asha 16. They have been home schooled continuously for more than four years. We choose to unschool them. We teach no lessons and never have. Each of the girls taught themselves to read—Amira by reading quietly to herself while home schooling at age 6. Asha at 7 by listening to Dutch language tapes of nursery rhymes, and following along with illustrated books that came with the cassettes. Dutch is her first language and she’s an auditory and

Both girls are superb readers. We had no television until recently and even today all that gets watched is movies; although I must say Asha is grabbed by Disney Channel. We got our first computer two years ago. That was a conscious choice. While attending school in Holland a few years ago our children were the only ones in their school who didn’t have a computer at home. Amira was recently acknowledged by our district’s mayor for having read more library books over a three year period than any other young adult in the area—several thousand books. She writes and has recently become the youngest person to complete the Proofreading and Editing course at the New Zealand Institute of Business Studies. She has recently finished editing my first book, In Search of Simplicity: A True Story That Changes Lives.
Neill believed that the happiness of the child was of paramount consideration and that this happiness grew from a sense of personal freedom in the child during childhood. He went on to say that most psychological disturbances in adults could be attributed to the suppression of the natural tendencies of the child.

Our main educational inspiration these last years has come from the examples of two schools. The first is Summerhill, founded in England by A.S. Neill in 1921. summerhill-coverIn his inspiring book, Summerhill, the founder writes of his experiences.


Neill’s groundbreaking work greatly inspired the founders of Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1968. The school, an old refurbished estate with extensive grounds and a lake surrounded by national forest, is a place where people choose for themselves what they want to study or teach. SVS has pioneered the “one person, one vote” model of democracy in education. Children from three to eighteen attend. None are taught to read, yet every child learns to, some very well. You can do no better than to read Daniel Greenberg’s book, Free At Lastfree-at-last to gain a valuable appreciation for the pioneering work SVS has done. Its example is being emulated all over the world, with schools mushrooming in countries as diverse as Israel, the Netherlands and Australia.


I believe that when we are told what we should learn, rather than choosing for ourselves, our ability to make informed, discerning choices atrophies. We become sheep and vote for leaders with charisma, rather than substance and choose for jobs that pay us well rather then nurture our deepest longings. I have spent my lifetime unschooling the conditioning of my youth. Travel and life in many countries has helped my eyes to see truth clearly rather than through the filter of conditioning. My wife and I want our children to grow into caring, compassionate adults who choose directions that recognize their heartfelt wishes and the unity of humanity and all of life. We have raised them to question everything including us. This can prove to be uncomfortable for a parent at times.


Our girls show no interest in university, contrary to some of their friends and their many adult role models. Like A.S. Neill, they see the value of practical knowledge and skills rather than the purely intellectual. Unlike so many young people today, they are prepared to follow their hearts, rather than the sometimes stilted suggestions of educators, parents and society.


Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed,

 and in such desperate enterprises?

 If a man does not keep pace with his companions,

 perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.


Henry David Thoreau 1817 – 1862



With the current trends in education to increased testing and assessment the danger is growing that new adults entering the working world will know only competition.walden-book-cover-gif Cooperation is the answer to most of the world’s problems; cooperation and education with heart. One day humanity will look back upon these times and wonder at all the competition in the worlds of schools, business, politics and sports. Our descendants will see clearly why we have so often chosen the path of war and oppression. And they will be glad for our sometimes stilted example, and happy they have chosen for cooperation and peace.


Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, more examinations and more qualifications. It seems to be a modern trend that assessment and qualification define education.


If society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a violation of human rights. But for most of the world’s children this is the normal expectation from parents, school and the society in which we live.



John Taylor Gatto from http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/pages/