The Meandering River: Memoir of an alternative life
Excerpt by Brigitte Ryley




Crystal Palace Park

» Kirkdale School


Kirkdale School

The school was set in a big Victorian house surrounded by extensive gardens. I think the council had rented it to the founders. As soon as you stepped inside the grounds and closed the gate you were aware of entering another world, the world of childhood. As you went to explore you saw children playing, learning around a small table. Children alone rolling on the floor, others painting, hugging, mingling, squirting water, climbing trees, asking the visitor what they where doing. All this seemed to be happening in some strangely ordered chaos. Life seemed to develop organically. It was very lively place and at first I felt quite uncomfortable. I could see children of all ages learning and really expressing themselves. All that spontaneous life I had been forced to suppress starting in the nun’s kindergarten, I could see what life and vital spontaneity looked like in those children who were given the space and resources to get educated in a different way. It was exhilarating and scary at the same time. At first I was taken right out of my comfort zone. The main motto was: to let live. The creative learning atmosphere was only made possible through a well thought through internal structure. Pupils were divided according to age groups. Sometimes there would be mingling between ages. A little one may become fascinated by an older child woodwork project and would be allowed to watch and ask questions. The older ones were generally patient with the younger ones. The actual learning, reading for instance, happened in small groups and sometimes on a one to one. This was a possible thanks to the sufficient number of teachers and parental assistance. The teachers were emotionally present and they created a nurturing holding space, such as described by the psychoanalyst, Winnicot. A child’s distress was emotionally held and contained. There were rules regarding safety, disturbing others, respect for materials, environment and possessions. The atmosphere was never coercive. The teachers would try to understand why some children might be stuck in destructive behavior. So children picked up a certain code of conduct though experience and dialogue with other children and adults. Children learned because they felt motivated. They enjoyed engaging with the teachers, their interest was kept alive. The loose structure allowed for good balance between play, rest and learning, time alone and time spent with others. There was a process of self-regulation at work, which was made possible by the holding environment. A lot of creative activities were available. The atmosphere nurtured the imagination and encouraged actualisation of the children’s sense of self. Children were taught to act from within rather than by compulsion to please. There was a policy of equal opportunities between genders. Boys enjoyed learning to cook and sew. Girls were encouraged to do woodwork and basic DIY. I seem to remember that most children learned to read and write. The most resistant cases were pushed a little and got there in the end. However if some of the children’s achievements had been compared with achievements of state school children, how well they reached the target dictated by the school’s curriculum, Kirkdale children were probably lagging behind. The whole point of A.S. Neill philosophy is that he believed that each child is different and learns at different speed. He was very much in line with the philosophy developed by Karl Rogers, founder of person-centered psychotherapy who believed respect and unconditional positive regard for the client and student leads to inner growth. What still impresses me whilst reminiscing is the fact that Kirkdale was a happy place. The children really enjoyed going to school. Teachers too were happy working there. For most of them Kirkdale was a way of life. They were a bunch of very dedicated individuals who felt passionately about the A.S. Neill philosophy. To work in the school you had to be incredibly resourceful, super organised, yet creative at the same time. You had to be capable of tolerating chaos and be flexible. You need super-human stacks of energy. You also had to be emotionally congruent, honest, and present. Kids could see right through and act out the state of mind of the adults in charge. To be able to have creative dialogues with the teachers when they were angry or disagreed gave the children confidence in communicating. They learned to trust themselves and were encouraged to take some initiatives. What I find most inspiring in my daughter and other Kirkdale children who are now adults, is their ability to learn without too much fear. I have personally never learned to approach new things without fear. I think it is because most learning I did was generally taking place in an atmosphere of fear: fear of making a mistake, fear of being told of, fear of humiliation. I have only been able to free my creativity in writing during the last ten years.

Being a parent had many advantages. You didn’t have to worry about fitting in. The children dressed, as they liked. Clean school uniforms in the morning were never to be required. Children came home usually very dirty having played in muddy sandpits and having been able to cover themselves with finger paints. Sometimes I was very envious of that new generation. I wished I could be a child all over again and go back to school at Kirkdale. Parents were involved in all kinds of ways, sharing skills, admin, taking kids on outings. The school had a vibrant community of people from all walks of life supporting its success. Although called a Free School, it could only exist through parent’s paying required fees. I did sometimes resent the financial commitment Peter who became a teacher at the school, paid for some hours of Marjolaine's schooling with his work. I cleaned the school in the evening for some time and helped as an assistant at some point. I worked as a model in various art schools. I sometimes wonder how I got to send my child to a private fee paying school for the privilege of choosing not to learn. Meanwhile I was for years living in communal houses and up to this day have never had a mortgage.

Marjolaine took to the little school housed in the big white Victorian dwelling like a house on fire. She developed a life of her own, lived almost in a parallel universe to mine whilst I held the space for her life to unfold. Kirkdale became like a second home and provided her with an extended family. She made life-enduring friend at the school. As her life unfolded over a few years, I became more and more overwhelmed by my life’s circumstances. I felt the full impact of being dislocated, exiled, and marginalized. I was lonely, ungrounded, hovering at the edge of the abyss. I often had moments of deep depression making me unable to cope and function. I did bitterly regret not having completed my psychology degree in Belgium. However, my years spent at the university had not been in vain. My interest in the human potential movement had been ignited. I had been moved by the works of Francoise Dolto and Maud Mannoni with children. Deep inside the desire to work with people was still very much alive. To help others reach their potential seemed like something I could feel passionate about. Having reached an impasse in my life as a drop out, I felt the need to look inside myself for answers. I decided that I needed psychotherapy myself. This is of course a requirement for trainee psychotherapists.

Whilst living in the commune I had met a German woman who was training to become a psychotherapist. She was a student at the London School of Biodynamic Psychology and Psychotherapy founded by Gerda Boyesen. I met her to discuss my issues and desire to train. She seemed to think that having therapy there would help me. She also thought I would be a very suitable trainee. I went for an interview and was accepted for the next training. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Although I had been interested in new developments in Psychoanalysis whilst studying in Louvain, I was now drawn to a school of thought born out of a coming together of Psychoanalysis and revolutionary ideas generated by the counterculture of the seventies. Humanistic Psychology came alive under the influence of thinkers such as, Mallow, Wilhelm Reich, Fritz Purls, Carl Jung and many others. Having myself been deeply affected by the counterculture, it is not surprising that I chose to train in a form of psychotherapy encouraging Participation, engagement with direct experience, body-mind integration, creative expression and altered states of consciousness.