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Solstis School

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Once upon a time, the word "Altemative" had real meaning. I believe it was during the time when "awesome" meant something majestic and sublime, which provokes an emotion of mingled reverence, dread and wonderment. l'm quoting the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines "Altemative" as the choice between two mutually exclusive possibilities. Dictionary definitions are not all that important. But one senses our language is teetering on the brink of becoming meaningless. Nowadays "awesome" means real ly cool, and Bud Light is being sold as "The Altemative Beer." This slogan, so horrifying and idiotie, grew from that company's investments in contemporary pop music. Jeff Taras, of PJ's Used Records & CDs, tells me he encounters scores of college students who think that "Altemative" describes rock bands with two guitars, bass and drums. Nirvana was an Altemative rock band until they became part of the gross national product. Apparent ly you cannot be Altemative and make lots of money at the same time. So how can Budweiser be Altemative? l'm getting confused again. From today's point of view, "Altemative" music would mean something not in the mainstream. Like Omette Coleman, who will never receive his proper rewards. In life, Altematives are what help to prevent stagnation. Stagnation is probably most likely to oceur after consuming large quantities of Bud Light. A healthy altemative to beer would be marijuana. And so on. Lew Welch, my favorite Beat Zen Lunatic Poet, pointed out that America likes to pretend that there are scarcely any Altematives, even with vivid and exciting Altematives everywhere, waiting to be experienced. With this in mind, let's discuss the possibilities of Altematives made accessible to young people during their formative years. Ann Arbor has a history of Altemative Education which needs to be celebrated and taken seriously. The first such school I attended was not even plugged into the accreditation of the public schooling system, and it hovers in my memory tunnels with all the charm of a childhood daydream. The year was 1 971 . They started it up on the summer solstice, and, choosing an Altemative spelling, called it Solstis School. Now, what follows are impressions from my warpo recollections, and there are certainly others who could describe Solstis with greater clarity and acumen, but they're not writing this and I am, so you're stuck with me. Several of my friends had told me about Solstis and encouraged me to stop by the school because it was the coolest thing in the worid. I forgot the address and walked up and down Oakland street, stopping f or awhile in front of an ugly brick apartment building and assuming for awhile that this must be the school. It looked like every school l'd ever been through. America had only shown me ugly-assed schools! Imagine my delight when I found Solstis near the corner of Oakland and Monroe, in the form of a beautif ui turn-of-the-century wood frame house with a hand-painted sign on the front porch: "Solstis School," red letters on yellow background. The first thing which struck you when you stepped inside the front door were the two walls of the front hallway, covered with announcements in two categories: classes being offered and classes being requested. So there was a leaming exchange happening in this old house, and virtually anyone could be a teacher or a student. The living room was large with many armchairs and couches. There was another room with a piano, and a groovy old kitchen with a narrow stairway winding up into the recesses of the higher levéis. And this place had an endless number of rooms and closets upstairs! We thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds ran like ferrets through the structure, raising heil and having the time of was almost too good tobe true. The house belonged to the University, and I believe it had come to be a school through the efforts of college students who proposed an experiment in f ree and cooperati ve education. To the U of M's credit, they provided us with an intímate environment f orsharedleaming. The young adutts who ran Solstis were remarkable and sweet. Us kids stretched their patience to the limit on a regular basis. At times it could resemble Lord of the Flies. You know how kids are. In retrospect I realize how difficult it must have been to have steered the school. But steerthey did, and it flew for awhile. I have trouble looking back on my own behavior. Most of my friends had grown up in happy, intelligent neighborhoods, whe re professors biked to their lectures and college students met in secret sessions to plan the overthrow of the govemment. Ann Arbor was a focal point for counterculture and creativity. I was new in town, a thirteen-year-old asshole, utterly clueless as to nteraction with others, and l'm af raid that my unhappily confused energy did not contribute in a good way to the unity of the school. But there were older folks who took the time to talk with me and try to help me sort things out. Sam Bemstein, with his broken nose, scragglybald head and sharp eyes, never hesitated to engage me in conversation and offer some insights from his own life. Later he changed his name to Raoul. The last time I saw him was at the Blues and Jazz Festival in 72. He gave me my first hit of acid that night, brightening my future for all etemity, and sadly perished in an apparent barbituate 0.0. suicide a couple of years later. Dammit Raoul, where the heil are ya? We got lots to talk about, man. Another fellow was Kenny Komheiser, with fuzzy red hair and beard. He was gentle and supportive, almost like a psychiatrist, but really a spiritual healer. Ken led us with his mouth harp in the Solstis Jug Band, where I specialized in kazoo. We played at the perpetual potluck dinners, rough attempts at square dances, and on the camping retreats in settings like Sleeping Bear Dunes. One night, sitting around the fireplace in the darkened living room, we jammed with improvised percussion and anything else at hand. A woman with long frizzy black hair played flute and we sailed along on the theme of Pink Floyd 's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." It's magical looking back on the best parts of this story. I often wish I could see some of these people again. An Asian-American woman called Ro was one of the central figures of the school, as was Paul-with-the-wire-rims, who often played Mozart alone at the piano. I recall their dismay at my boy-thing enigmas, and I still regret having caused so much divisiveness. But there's no changing what's gone down. The Solstis School house came down in 1 974. The university had plans for a parking lot, and we tried for some time to dissuade them. We picketed the president's mansion on South University. Signs read SAVE OUR SCHOOL and NO PARKING - SCHOOL ZONE. But by 1973 the house was essentially condemned as unsafe, and most of the creative energy in the school had frittered away. Strange men came, demolished the house, swept the rubble away; the university got their asphalt lot, and there it sits to this day, metered parking if you're lucky. Fortunately, there's more to say about Ann Arbor's Altemative schools. Next month l'll teil you about Community High in '72. See you later.


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