Post-SotA Reentry Feels

A couple months ago I posted about School of the Alternative – a self-directed art camp for grownups that I applied to go play at. This week, I went and came back again. I’m still processing, and there’s a post that I’m dreaming up about slime and soma and distributed networks and non-hierarchical education for all (or maybe a book I’m writing, or a notpoem, or a big ole’ installation…) but I’m not ready to write it today. Today I’m writing about reentry. It’s been hard, and I see three reasons for it.

One is that I’m simply tired – I ran my body to the ground because I wanted to get the most [waking hours] out of the 6 days that I was playing with the brilliant humans who came together at SotA. Your human body is made of meatstuff and it needs sleep and water and good food and regular schedules to feel good. Fine. I live with these choices.

The second is that I feel a real loss of the intimacy of the community of SotA – the shared vocabulary that mushroomed up among us after days of Clump and slime and sharing and falling and late nights and early mornings and workshares and meals and being present with one another and our bodies. I miss my friends and the liminal space we created staying up until 2 in the morning making stickers, or walking through the woods in the pouring rain to go scream into the void. I’m unbelievably grateful to have had the opportunity to be there, to make obscene amounts of slime, to commune with other weirdos, to yell about my soma, to hold and be held by the brilliant, creative, generative artists who are collaborating there and carrying on the legacy of Black Mountain College. The depth of my grief is a testament to how powerful the spacemaking at SotA is. I’m grateful for this grief.

The third reason that re-entry has been hard is that, for as much as ALC-land is aligned in principal with SotA, there is a massive difference between being an adult communitying with other adults, and being an adult who is responsible for the safety of children. This is the bit I’m working out here, today.

Part of my intention behind going to SotA was to experience being facilitated, to be a participant in a space that I was not actively coherence holding. A coherence holder, as I’m using it, is the person who makes the thing happen – who makes sure everyone’s dietary restrictions are accounted for and there is enough to eat, or that the right doors are unlocked, or the tape and scissors are where we need them, or the schedule is hung up, or the translation work is done, or everyone on the email chain is clear which piece of the puzzle they’re holding. In the abstract, as an adult coherence holder for this ALC space, it’s my responsibility to make sure that ALC-NYC is as physically, mentally, and emotionally safe as possible, so that the childpeople of this community are free to play, explore, learn, create, choose, heal, and thrive. It’s a job I don’t take lightly.

I’ve noticed, upon reentry, that we aren’t our usual May selves this year. Usually by this point, the school culture is so strong that safe-space-making is held between the ALFs and the kids easily, lightly. When I think about May, I remember the feelings of twice-a-week field trips and playing with visitors and going to the park every day and finishing all the last-minute magic that comes up. I’m acutely aware, this week, just how much energy I’m expending reminding people not to bring their chase game into the quiet room, or that pushing someone is breaking our “respect yourself and others” agreement, or that you should only have to say “stop rule” once. I’m expending energy on volume management and clean-up logistics. I’m repeating myself. At other points in the year, this is par for the course – in May, it’s frustrating.

The primary difference between this space and any other where I might be working with kids is the amount of agency they have – the degree to which they are empowered to collaborate in our culture. I’m curious how we found ourselves, this May, expecting the adults to hold cleanup, and conflict resolution, and community care. I do this work because I believe in science fiction – I believe that children are brilliant people who have the ability to generate visionary worlds. Looking at the last four (ahh!) weeks of school, I’m wondering how we can aid and abet our best selves, the ones who actively care for one another, rather than do the minimum of harm. I’m thinking about how care is pleasure, and dreaming of ways to share these thoughts that are careful not to use my power-over to impose these beliefs on children.

Not all of these last two days has been frustrating, and I don’t want to overemphasize the parts that have been hard. Some of these frustrations will always be a part of this work – I’ve never been to a self-directed space for kids that isn’t constantly talking about how to make cleanup go more smoothly. The nature of this work [with children] is that children are constantly changing – they ramble through chaos which crashes back through them as they change and that’s growing. The place of difficulty is also the wellspring of magic.

In the last two days I’ve collaborated with children in playing at least 6 varieties of tag in two parks in the rain and the beautiful spring sunshine, singing the Steven Universe theme song really, really loudly, watching ants crawl on our hands, making art messes, hugging a tree, hanging upside down, learning how blood clots, punning around, and discussing the healing power of visionary fiction. I’m dreaming of ways to spend the last weeks of school putting my attention on collaborations like these (what you put your attention on grows!).

I’m deeply grateful to my #SuperALFTeam for making space for me to leave and come back again. I’m grateful to School of the Alternative, for making space for me to come play with their magic. I’m grateful to all the past-three-years Mels who did the work of holding contradiction so I could write this post. I’m grateful for slime, and flocking, and Emergent Strategy, and the lessons of distributed networks that are clamoring all around me. And I’m grateful we’re not done yet.

Thanks for witnessing.

<3

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Mel

Mel Compo is an interdisciplinary artist, playworker, and facilitator at the New York City Agile Learning Center. Their work with children centers play, art-making, city adventuring, and open conversation about language, bodies, gender, networks, emotional intelligence, brain plasticity, and cycles of growth. Mel studied the intersections of SDE, poetry, and the history of American education NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. They live in Brooklyn, New York.

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