In 1967 I was miserable at Berkeley High School. I was a tiny cog in a wheel containing over 3,000 students. The wheel was crushing me. Racial tensions were palpable and uncomfortable. Cliques were exclusive little clubs and I felt like I didn’t belong in any of them. My years at Walden School had showed me what education could be, and traipsing from one dreary class to another wasn’t it.
Starting to crop up increasingly in the Sixties were schools experimenting with education and trying to widen its perspectives. Collectively they were known as “free schools,” since they had less formal structure and allowed more freedom for students to grow than in public institutions. In 1967 a new high school was started called The Urban School of San Francisco. The name came from the school’s intent to utilize the various resources in the city of San Francisco as part of its learning tools. Students would explore the city and all that it had to offer. There were no grades, only occasional “progress reports.”
A friend from summer camp was attending Urban and told me how wonderful it was. I leapt at the opportunity like a drowning person grabbing for a life saver. However, my parents had no intention of sending me to private school again. No matter how much I begged them, they opposed the idea. I was so intent on going to Urban School that I secretly applied anyway. One part of the application procedure was for prospective students and their parents to meet with the headmaster and the teachers. I cut school and took four buses to Urban to meet with teachers on my own. I made an impassioned case for being accepted to the school. When the headmaster asked me where my parents were, I fabricated some excuse for their absence.
I received word that I was accepted to Urban. I broke the happy news to my parents and they still refused. Instead, they sent me to a psychologist with the idea that she would steer me back to Berkeley High. After our talk, the psychologist agreed that I would be best off attending Urban. My parents were furious. To this day I have no idea why they were so opposed to the idea. It certainly wasn’t the expense. Fees were nominal.
The fall semester was coming to an end at Berkeley High. I was supposed to sign up for classes for the next semester. Instead, I dropped out of school. I had had it. Their hands forced, my parents begrudgingly agreed to send me to Urban School. They were angry. I was jubilant. One semester after I started at Urban, my parents decided to send my brother there as well, congratulating themselves on their forward thinking. Go figure.
Urban School was a dream come true. Every day I left home at 6:30 to start classes at 8:30. There was a bright yellow van to pick up the Berkeley students from the bus terminal and the Peninsula students from the train station, manned by a cheerful law student and his bulldog Roscoe. Instead of the usual message on the back of school buses, “Stop when red lights flash,” ours proclaimed “Flash when INSERT red lights stop.” When a lawyer on the board of directors found out about this, the school changed it back.
At the beginning there were about eighty students. The teachers were for the most part young, idealistic and experimental in their approaches to teaching. We called them by their first names. We were free to take whatever classes we wanted. In philosophy class, we wrote our own progress reports to our parents. I liked art class best. Patti, the teacher, hired nude models for us to draw. She had me and some other girls spend a weekend at her picturesque cottage in rural Marin County. We slept out on the deck, sunbathed, cooked and made art. All was copacetic until Patti hitch-hiked to Mendocino one day, met some people there she wanted to hang out with and never returned to the school.
Urban hosted weekly after-school encounter groups for the students led by a trained facilitator. One of my classes went to a teacher’s cabin on the northern coast for an encounter group weekend. My brother’s class took a weekend field trip where the teachers and students all ended up taking a shower together.
There was a week every year for doing a special project that didn’t fit into the normal school schedule. The math teacher took a group of students to Cuba to cut sugar cane for the revolution in a Venceremos Brigade. I wanted to spend the week with another girl in Marin County, foraging for all our food. However, the teachers laughed off the idea, pointing out that there was an Indian tribe that starved in that area and had to move elsewhere. However, two other girls and I elected to spend the week on a deserted beach in Northern California, being as self-sufficient as possible. We packed in sacks of rice and beans. A teacher was supposed to be our chaperone. However, he brought his ex-wife with us, with whom he was in the process of getting back together. They wanted to be by themselves, so they disappeared. We three spent the week on the beach, making driftwood fires over which to cook our rice and beans and sleeping under a makeshift shelter that we constructed from pieces of driftwood. We had a ball, didn’t see another soul for the week and didn’t think it strange at all that we were unchaperoned.
One day, a teacher cashed in part of his salary for dollar bills. Our class handed them out in the financial district, feeling utterly superior to all those materialistic capitalists. I felt ashamed when a down-and-out looking man sincerely thanked us for the money and said how much he needed it. The afternoon was capped when a man in a pinstripe suit approached my brother and said, “Hey kid, we’re not all squares. Take this.” He handed my brother a twenty-dollar bill. We all applauded. Game over.
The teachers and students played friendly games of touch football in a nearby park. Another “free school,” Pacific High School, challenged Urban to a football game. We treated the whole event as a satire. Only jocks played competitive football, not hippies like us. We dubbed our team the Urban Virgins and theirs the Pacific Perverts. Two kids decided to be cheerleaders, and constructed psychedelic makeshift pom-poms. They enthusiastically led us in their cheer, “Give ‘em the clap!” followed by rhythmic hand-clapping. Urban was so uncompetitive that the Perverts, many of them tripping on acid, seized the day. We had one lone touchdown to their many.
Ray Raphael, my favorite teacher, told me,“I got into teaching through the civil rights movement. I trained in an inner-city school and thought that’s what I was going to do. Then Black Power came in. Stokely Carmichael, whom I met during Freedom Summer in Mississippi, said, ‘Don’t teach us, teach your own. Go teach the white folks.’
“I was twenty-five when I came to Urban. The teachers and students were basically in the same boat. We were all part of the youth culture world, experiencing some of the same things. It was a wide-open teaching situation. I was hired to teach social studies, but there wasn’t a state-wide curriculum so we had a lot of freedom to teach what we thought was germane to the students’ lives. I created a course in philosophy, ‘World Views,’ and ‘Comparative Economics’ — the free market, Keynesian, and Marxist models. I also combined anthropology with sociology for a class I called ‘Tribes.’ Three of us teamed up to teach a class we called ‘Whole Earth.”
“Every hippie fad that was happening we would do. It was a good combination of teaching and learning, when everyone is alive and excited and engaged in the world. A couple of times a year there would be a really nice Southern storm. The surf would come up to twenty-foot waves. We’d say, ‘What are we doing in school?’ I’d grab the van and take the class and we’d go out to Sutro’s Baths, which featured abandoned caves. We’d climb through the fences to the caves and experienced this dramatic thing that was happening in our world.” (My brother, Peter, recalled one of those days, “I played my violin inside the caves.”)
“One year, for project month, I went up to my land in the woods with four Urban students and built a livable cabin. Two of those four went on to become professional carpenters. That summer, 1970, there were sixteen people living in and around the cabin, including Urban’s Rob Wasserman with his stand-up bass. The bass took up one-third of the sleeping space in the cabin, while people slept outside. He built a box around it—a big, clumsy thing to protect his precious instrument. After that summer, the box became our compost bin. Rob went on to become an innovative and renowned bass player. So for years afterwards, when Rob was playing at Carnegie Hall and with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, I was throwing shit in his bass case.
“I had some wild schemes, such as teaching history backwards. The notion was that you can’t understand anything without understanding what came before. Example: To understand the conservative trajectory of our nation today, we need to grasp the resentment that Trump-land has to the liberalization of the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently, to the Obama administration. So we’d start by asking a question, then go back to look for explanations. That didn’t work out too well, however, because students just didn’t have enough familiarity with basic chronology.
The most successful class was Tribes. Hippies at that time were romanticizing elements of nonwestern and nonindustrial cultures, so we studied such groups as pygmies and gypsies. The class didn’t have a lot of academic rigor, but it certainly was expansive, and it helped us look at our own society, with its various subcultures, from fresh perspectives.
“Teachers had to write progress reports, but I didn’t want to be in a position of judgement over vibrant teenagers. The way we were exploring life together, it didn‘t feel right to judge you, report on you, analyze you; it wasn’t a standard teacher-student relationship. Sometimes I allowed students to write their own reports, which encouraged them to look at how they were learning and was actually quite constructive. But once I went overboard, writing haiku-type poems like this:
ran across these words
before they were written
At the time, I must have thought this was cool, but now I think it was an insult to the parents and of no great benefit to the students. That sums up my feelings about those times. For the most part our experimentation provided open avenues for student growth, but as with any radical movement, it could be carried to excess.”
Former student Phil Richardson remembers the music class, “Laura Weber taught music on the Public Broadcasting Station KQED, and she got me my banjo. The manufacturers would give her instruments hoping she would play them on the show. She took her music classes to the show. We sat in with Christopher Parkening, Pete Seeger and Elizabeth Cotton, just sitting at their feet.”
At my graduation, the first of the school’s, one of the teachers baked hash brownies for the graduates. We were all bombed at the ceremony held in a park. A former teacher told me, “There was a funny situation with the drugs because we were all smoking a lot of pot and we’d all do it together. I would smoke pot with the kids, but I drew the line at taking psychedelics with them. This was an ethical distinction that would only be made in the Sixties.”
I hated to leave Urban. It had been one-and-a-half years of heaven. The day I graduated, People’s Park was raging in Berkeley.