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High School

Early 1960ies: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We went to the Montessori Lyceum. The educational system developed by Maria Montessori (1870-1952) is child directed. She bases it on an idea of Socrates seeing the teacher as a midwife: not filling the child with ready to swallow knowledge, but helping the child to get out of him or her what is potentially there. Montessori implemented this approach by using the method of self-control of error. For each task that was given to the child, it was absolutely clear whether it would be performed in the right way or not. In this way the child does not become dependent on the judgment of the teacher, which in traditional education so often is humiliating (not because it comes from an adult, but because the reason behind it is usually not made clear). Moreover, if something is not done right--and one usually is not right at the first attempt--then there is no need for the teacher to tell this to the child: it will be clear. As a consequence, children do not get frustrated by the many times they hear `wrong', nor get the improper motivation to work for compliments when they hear `very good', as they would in a traditional educational setting. Montessori education makes happy people and happiness is very precious in this world. It was recognized that small children do not like to sit still on a chair behind a table. Therefore at Kindergarten we were always allowed to take a small rug, roll it out and perform our work on it, while crawling around the material.

The Montessori method is developed at its best for Kindergarten and Elementary School, less so for High School. Nevertheless, in the early 1960ies, the general atmosphere at the Amsterdam Montessori High School was that of freedom in restraint and relaxed concentration.

We had great teachers. There was the fascinating Rein Bloem (`Bloom') teaching Dutch language. In his field he would point out unusual phenomena. ``Take a noun like `straw'. You drink your soda with a straw. It is often a plastic or paper straw. In rare cases it is a straw straw. Note the expression `A straw straw'. We call this phenomenon reflexive1 usage.'' But Bloem taught much more. To analyze movies (his treatment of Fellini's movie $8\frac{1}{2}$ was masterful); or how to behave among hypocrites2. Also he would every other year undertake the full production of a theater play. In my years he did The Tempest of William Shakespeare and Under the milk wood of Dylan Thomas. Many pupils of school got involved: acting, making costumes, technical support, taking care of the make-up, etcetera. But Bloem was not just the producer, above all he was the grand director and inspiring teacher how to act on stage.

Then there was Fred Fischer, a brilliant mathematics teacher. ``So $\sqrt{2}$ is only in approximation 1.41212. As I just showed you, no matter how many decimals we provide, it remains an approximation. So you may wonder why we say that $\sqrt{2}$ exists. Well, it exists because WE WANT IT TO EXIST.'' Compared to Bloem the style of Fischer was introvert. For example he did not undertake school-wide happenings. But he would invite pupils with an interest in 20th century classical music to his home. There we listened to Schönberg's second string quartet and heard the added soprano sing `Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten3'; to his wind quintet, about which Fischer commented ``Dry as dust, but just listen''; and to Bartok's violin concerto.

There were other good teachers. But Bloem and Fischer are singled out for a particular reason. One morning in class Bloem would wait until everyone was quiet. He showed us a piece of chalk and asked ``What is this?'' We ventured to answer the obvious. Then Bloem threw the chalk against the heater, breaking it into smithereens, and shouted ``WHAT IS IT NOW?!''. We were flabbergasted. In this way he started his lesson on Zen. About `Zen and the Art of Archery' with its quintessential `It shoots4' (not the archer), about koans, about the unconventional in Zen. I did not understand it, but it all was so consistently absurd, that it had to mean something.

Fischer had his other approach. When one would ask a philosophical question, he would discuss it at length, provide background material and advice. Through these discussions we also came to speak about Zen and Buddhism in general. He advised me to go to an exhibit of the unconventional Japanese monk artist Sengai in The Hague. Seeing `The plum-blossoms' I was struck. By the effectiveness of the brush-strokes portraying a branch of a fragrant plum-tree in twilight under the moon (there was also a poem on the scroll, so that helped appreciating the fragrance part).

This was the general climate in which we were introduced to Zen. And yes, in the early sixties we did read Kerouac (On the road and later Dharma bums), did read books of Daisetz Suzuki on Zen, did read Lao Tze (who was our biggest hero), did burn incense at parties where we danced on music of Gerry Mulligan. At one of these occasions--the house was affluent--I saw with my friend Ernst for the first time a sitting Buddha statue. We liked it, not knowing Buddha had any relation with Zen, and tried to torment ourselves into the full lotus position. It took some weeks, but we succeeded. Then we tried it out by positioning ourselves in two adjacent alcoves along a not often used passage at school. When nevertheless a girl walked by, she freaked out, and we felt great. Later we became better at the full lotus and continued reading our books.

But we were not only interested in books. A few months later we had our first yabyum with two girls: we in lotus position and the girls like a rider on a horse face to face with us. We did not do it though in the way of our fantasy: we were all completely dressed. But in this way I did get my first kiss.

next up previous contents
Next: The consciousness problem Up: THE QUEST Previous: Buddha's puzzle
Henk Barendregt