Wednesday, March 12, 2014

no more pencils, no more books

We got new next-door neighbors a couple years ago. A seemingly nice young couple with a little boy around five years old. Mom and Dad were quiet and cordial. The little boy was animated, imaginative and pretty funny, too. After a week or so of friendly waves while backing out of the driveway or a smile and a nod as I passed their house on my walk from the train station, Mrs. P and I formally introduced ourselves. And, as would be expected, they introduced themselves.

We later discovered that the name they gave as theirs, was not.

Then things got weirder.

We live in, what is colloquially referred to, as a "twin" house. That is a single building comprised of two single-family dwellings sharing a common wall at the center. The individual floor plans of each home are usually mirror images of each other. (In some areas, this type of structure is called "semi-detached" or "duplex," but "duplex" means something entirely different in the Philadelphia area.) Many times we see the boy, Fan, playing outside on his small front lawn. He is usually clothed in some sort of role-playing costume, like a policeman or a construction worker. Fan builds elaborate displays of traffic cones and wooden planks, imagining himself directing traffic around a cordoned-off crime scene or shoring up the foundation of a skyscraper. He chatters to himself and then happily describes his plans to his disinterested father, his zoned-out mother or, frequently, an attentive Mrs. P.

Since our house is connected to our neighbor's house, every so often, we can hear loud noises through the common wall. The clang from a dropped pot in their kitchen, though muffled, is still quite recognizable, as is the stomping of someone angrily descending or ascending the stairs. Sometimes we hear other sounds. Like screaming. And scolding. And hollering. And crying. Considering the age of our home (nearly a century), the walls are pretty thick. The noise has to pretty loud to penetrate such thick walls.

During the final weeks of December, we saw Fan playing in the excessive snow that covered and lingered in the Philadelphia area. When the other children from the neighborhood went back to school after Winter Break, we still saw Fan dragging his little sled through the snow during weekday mornings. One day, Fan's mother, a woman reminiscent of the flower children of the middle 1960s, explained (without provocation) she and Fan's father decided to pull Fan from conventional schooling and further his education at home. She called the program "unschooling." A subsequent Google search identified "unschooling" as a question-based method of teaching, promoting understanding and learning through the natural curiosity of everyday life experiences. I suppose that includes screaming, because the noise levels from "their side of the wall" escalated and became more frequent, sometimes erupting at an hour when a five-year old should be asleep.

On a particular Sunday, I was once again shoveling snow (as I found myself doing many times during this winter) and Mrs. P was clearing off her car. Fan's mom approached us and asked if my wife could explain to Fan what it means to "keep kosher." She knows we are Jewish and that we maintain a kosher home. The always helpful Mrs. P, a former teacher and proponent of early education, was only too happy to oblige. She began to describe the basics of keeping kosher to Fan. Fan, however, was more interested in riding the gentle slope of our snow-covered lawn on his sled. So much for learning through inquisitiveness.

When I came home from work yesterday, Mrs. P and I decided to head out for dinner. As I was putting on my coat, my wife told me that Fan was playing outside all day, climbing trees and riding his bike up and down the sidewalk. We locked the door and made our way to the car. There was Fan. Outside. Climbing a tree. We waved "hello" and he rattled off some details of whatever fantasy game he was making up. Then, he said, "When I used to go to school...." and sort of trailed off — laughing.

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