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Janusz Korczak Biography

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Taming the Beast

Life is a circus ring, with some moments more spectacular than others.
-"Theory and Practice

    It is morning in the orphanage. The children bow their heads for a brief prayer before breakfast and sit down excitedly. They are going to vote on a newcomer who has been in the house for a month. Korczak walks through the dining hall, handing out three cards to everyone: one is marked with a plus, another with a minus, and a third with a zero. If you like the person being voted on, you are supposed to drop the plus card into the slot of the wooden box that is being passed around; if not, the minus. if you are indifferent, you put in the zero. The number of pluses, minuses, and zeros the new child receives will determine his citizenship rating.

    A child who gets along easily with others is certain to receive a majority of pluses, which will earn him the top rank of Comrade. Those with a fair number of pluses become Residents; those with only a few pluses are regarded as indifferent Residents; and those with none, Difficult Residents. Comrades, of course, have more privileges than the others: they serve in the parliament, go to more movies, and have their pick of work assignments. The rare boy or girl who receives all pluses is called King or Queen, and has the first choice in everything.

    Voting on each was another way the children could assume autonomy in their own community. Rather than being subject to adult judgment, they learned to see themselves through the eyes of their peers. They were also empowered to vote on their adult caretakers, who were expected to show respect to the young citizens of the republic.

    The newcomer was voted on again in six months, and annually after that. Korczak always followed the voting with great interest. He was intrigued-as in the case of a girl named Pola-by an unusually low rating. He knew that while children might fool adults, they could never fool one another. Pola gave the impression of being well-mannered, but he often heard the children say. "Don't touch that, it's Pola's." (The equivalent of one of his own sayings: "Don't touch shit, it smells.") When he asked why everyone avoided her, he was told: "Don't you know that Pola is quiet water? " (Meaning someone who on the surface seems honest and agreeable but is actually deceitful.)

    Korczak believed that children like Pola, who were stuck in a low citizenship category, wanted to be accepted by the group but didn't know how to go about it. " A child with a vice feels it as a burden, but is at a loss what to do," he wrote. "Unless he has guidance, he will make a few disastrous attempts to change, and after failing, will give up." The challenge was to make his "clinic"-as he often called the boarding home- a place of "healing" if it didn't become "a health resort of the spirit" it was in danger of becoming "a source of infection."

    But even as he gave his tough street children baths and clean clothes, Korczak had no illusion that he was washing away their "dark memories, bad influences, and painful experiences." There were limits to what he could accomplish: "I can hold up standards of truthfulness, tidiness, hard work, and honesty, but I will not be able to make these children other than what they are. A birch will stay a birch, an oak an oak, a thistle a thistle. I may be able to rouse what is dormant in the soul, but I cannot create anything new."

    His hope was to help the children win the battle with themselves in ways that would not undermine their pride. For example, until they learned to control the rage and frustration that had built up inside them over the years, they had to let off steam, and so fights were allowed. But with the proviso that one sign up for them in advance and that the opponents be evenly matched. "If you must hit someone, hit-but not too hard," Korczak would tell them. "Lose your temper if you must, but only once a day.'' He liked to say, with a touch of his usual irony, that his educational method was contained in those few sentences.

    He avoided the psychoanalytical jargon being bandied about by his colleagues, which he felt reduced the child to formulas. ("I will surely provoke an indulgent smile or a wry grimace when I say that a two-volume work dealing with laundry and washerwomen would be just as dignified as One on psychoanalysis.") He had an ambivalent, even contradictory, attitude to Freud (calling him a "dangerous maniac" in a letter to a friend), for he believed that his stress on sexuality "besmirched" the child and reduced childhood to a psychosexual stage. But he did admit (in that same letter) that "heartfelt thanks" were due Freud for revealing the "unplumb- able depths of the unconscious.~~

    Korczak prided himself on being a practitioner rather than a theo- rist-although, paradoxically, he felt there was no difference between the two. "Thanks to theory, I know" he wrote. "Thanks to practice, I feel. Theory enriches intellect, practice deepens feeling, trains the will." Behind his creative strategies with the children was a keen psycho- logical understanding oftheir nature, which came from years of practice- experience that most doctors, including Freud, who worked with adults, did not have. "I am a doctor by education, a pedagogue by chance, a writer by passion, and a psychologist by necessity," he told a friend. He knew that in requiring two hotheads to set a date for a future fight, he gave them time to cool off, to reconsider the importance of their quarrel, and, in the process, to learn how to choose their battles. if one strategy didn't work, he pulled something else out of his "pedagogical arsenal."

    It is Friday afternoon. A long line of children waits in the main hall Outside the small supply room, which Korczak transforms every week into a gambling casino with one croupier-himself "What do you bet?" he asks Jerzy, an eight-year-old rascal who is first in line. The idea is for the children to place a bet on some bad habit with the goal of overcoming it, and winning a few candies in the bargain. "I bet I~ll have only one fight this week, " Jerzy says.
    "I'm not sure I can accept that," Korczak responds, without looking up from the ledger where he keeps the records. "It would be unfair to you. "

    "Why?"
    "Because you will clearly lose. You beat up five boys this week, and six the week before, so how can you stop so suddenly?"
    "I can do it."
    "Why not try four fights?"
    "Two, " Jerzy argues.
    After some more bargaining, they compromise on three. Korczak records the bet in the ledger and slips Jerzy a chocolate from the candy basket in good faith. If Jerzy manages to win, he~ll collect three more candies the next Friday. if he loses, he'll receive a sympathetic look, some encouragement, and perhaps another piece of candy for consolation. Jerzy knows that however many fights he reports, Korczak will not check up on him. It is an honor system.

    The next one in line is Antek.
    "What's your bet?"
    "That I~ll swear only five times this week."
    "Too little,"
    "Six."
    "How about seven, one for each day ofthe week?" Korczak suggests.
    Antek accepts the offer and goes off beaming, determined to win the Pola is next.
    "What do you bet?"
    "That I~ll do my math homework every day."
    "How about three days?"
    She shrugs: "All right, three days."

    He records the transaction, slips her a candy, and the next child steps up. The gambling casino stays open until the last child has placed his bet or the gong announcing it is time for their Sabbath bath sends everyone scurrying up to the dormitories.

    A strategy that was effective with one child might not be with another. Sometimes Korczak had difficulty devising a method that would work with a particularly resistant urchin. His purpose was not so much to make the children change as to enable them to train their wills as he had once trained his own. It meant removing their compulsions, and allowing their wounds to heal. '< Believing that an educator should also be part actor, Korczak might pretend to lose his temper with an incorrigible child. He would shout, his face and bald pate turning bright red, but his words were not the obvious admonitions "Shame on you!" or "Don't do that!" Reaching into his "jar of strong scolding expressions," he would pull out: "You torpedo! You hurricane! You perpetual motion machine! You rat man! You lamp! You table!"

    Knowing that the power of an expression was diminished if it was repeated too often, he was constantly expanding his repertoire, borrowing words from nature or the arts: "You rook! You bagpipe! You dulcimer!" He also experimented to find just the word that would get through to a particular child. There was one scamp on whom he tried everything- nothing worked. He used every kind of noun-to no effect. And then, a sudden inspiration: "Ah, you F-major!" The boy was subdued for the rest of the day.

    Another strategy: he would tell a misbehaving child, "I'm angry at you till lunchtime or supper" If the crime was serious enough, he would extend the sentence until the next day, and he would not speak to the boy or girl during that period. if the child's friend acted as go-between and asked: "May he take the ball?" Korczak would reply: "Tell him he may take a small ball, but he may not kick it." The child would understand that he was being punished, but also that there was a time limit, after which he would be forgiven and could begin anew.

    And so, "from grumbling, snarling, chiding, even rebuking," Korczak worked through his "pharmacopoeia." He made it a point never to say
    "I must have told you a hundred times!" for that was imprecise and nagging, and the child would deny it anyway. Rather, he would say. "I told you on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, and so on."
    Or. "I told you in January, February" and so on."
    Or: "I told you in the spring, summer, fall, or winter." Not only was he being precise and fair; he was accomplishing two other things at the same time: teaching the delinquent child the days of the week, the months, or the seasons of the year, and enriching his vocabulary.

    In the rare case when none of his strategies worked, a child might be ordered to sit in the corner behind the piano on the podium at the far end of the main room, for anywhere from five minutes to an hour. One of the boys, Johann Nutkiewicz, remembers that he always felt "imprisoned" as he sat there watching other children playing nearby. And Hanna Dembinska, who received a sentence of one hour in that corner as punishment for being suspended from school for a week, sneaked out and bought herself a raisin bun with a few pennies her mother had given her. As she sat brazenly eating her bun, a bee that had settled among the raisins stung her. Her face swelled up to twice its size. "We~ll make a human being out of you yet," Korczak said fondly as he took her off to the hospital.

    No matter how incorrigible the child, Korczak never resorted to methods used by other orphanages, such as beatings or withholding food- punishments he considered "monstrous, sinful, criminal." But when nothing he tried had any effect on a child, there came the distressful moment when spanking had to be considered-distressful because Korczak believed that striking a child could become an addiction for an adult rather than an educational technique. "But if you must, never without warning, and only in necessary defense-once. And that once, without anger."

    The educator spanking a child was not unlike " a surgeon grappling with an incurable disease: only a daring operation might save the patient's life-or terminate it." The risk had to be taken. Three warnings had to be given first, and only when the last one was of no avail should the spanking be administered-for one should never issue an empty threat with no intention of carrying out the punishment. During the spanking, the teacher was to be calm and deliberate, never angry.

    In two instances where Korczak delivered the spanking himself, the children were "impressed, and reformed." In two others, the children continued their destructive behavior and had to leave the orphanage.

    When a child improved his behavior or skills, he was awarded a picture postcard signed by Korczak. If he didn't improve, he still might get a card as an incentive to try harder. The postcard had the virtue of being colorful and inexpensive; and since it was small, it could be stashed away and treasured by the recipient. The decision as to who received cards was made by the twenty deputies ofthe parliament who were chosen from those who had had no court case for dishonesty against them that year. The pictures on the cards corresponded to the occasion: For rising immediately at the sounding of the morning bell in the winter months- a snowy landscape; in the spring-a spring view. For peeling a bushel of potatoes-a flower card. For fights, arguments, unruliness-a tiger card.

    A picture of Warsaw was given to children who conscientiously carried out their monitoring duties. (Korczak considered the Orphans Home a "district" of Warsaw and the children its "citizens.")

    When a woman visitor asked: "What's so special about cards we can find anywhere for a few pennies?" Korczak snapped: "There are things that some value and others don't. I know of some people who use their mother's pictures as hot plates."

    Korczak valued everything connected with his children; he even collected their baby teeth. It was a common sight to see an orphan rush up to him with a tooth that had just fallen out. Korczak would take the tooth, examine it, comment on the number of holes and its general con- dition, and bargain over the price he would pay for it. It was a good way of providing a child with a little spending money, while at the same time marking the important rite of passage that losing baby teeth represented. The children knew that Korczak would take his new acquisition upstairs and glue it into the tooth castle he was building.

    "We imagined the castle was like the one King Matt lived in, " one of the orphans recalled.

    "We couldn't wait for a loose tooth." Sometimes the children opened their mouths and asked Korczak to jiggle a tooth and judge how soon it would be ready. If a child tried to sell one that was dangling, Korczak would say, "I don't buy a cat in a bag." He would never pay the full price for a tooth before it was out, but he might put a down payment on it. Once, when a boy tried to pass off a pebble as a tooth, Korczak asked suspiciously to see the hole it came from; the culprit burst out laughing and confessed. Everything a child collected was also important to Korczak. Seemingly worthless items-bits of string, beads, postage stamps, feathers, pinecones, chestnuts, tramcar tickets, dry leaves, ribbons-might have a story connected to them or be emotionally priceless:

    "They all hold memories of the past, or yearnings for the future. A tiny shell is a dream of a trip to the seashore. A small screw and a few pieces of thin wire are an airplane and the proud dream of flying one. The eye of a doll broken a long time ago is the sole reminder of a lost love. You may also find a photograph of a child' s mother, or two pennies wrapped in pink ribbon that were a gift from a grandfather now dead."

    He had harsh words for the disrespectful teacher who had the nerve to throw out these treasures as if they were rubbish: "A gross abuse of power, a barbarous crime. How dare you, you boor, dispose of someone else's property? How dare you demand after such a crime that a child respect anything or love anyone? You are not burning bits of paper but cherished traditions and dreams of a beautiful life."

    To protect the property of his orphans, Korczak provided everyone with a little drawer of his own, complete with a lock and key, in the main dining hall. If the children wanted to trade any of their treasures, they could post a notice on the nearby bulletin board. Covered with announcements, warnings, requests, schedules, pictures, thank-you notes, crossword puzzles, headlines from the daily paper, weather reports, weight and growth charts, the bulletin board had a life of its own. It was like a shop window for the children, who stopped to look whenever they had the time and inclination. Even the child who couldn't read learned to distinguish his name and developed an appetite for words.

    Korczak also set up a lost-and-found box as a reminder that " every little thing has an owner"' it gave the children a sense of security to know that their meager possessions were safe, as were they, from being per- manently lost.

    In 1921 Korczak's dream of a summer camp for the home came true. Dr. Eliasberg convinced a wealthy couple whose daughter, Rose, had died to donate eleven acres of land in an area known as Goclawek, ten miles south of Warsaw. The camp was called Little Rose in honor of the deceased child. Korczak asked the Orphans Aid Society to lease the adjoining land for small farming. A, barn was built for a cow, two horses, a goat, and chickens. The only thing the camp lacked was a pond or river, which meant that the children had to travel by train to another town when they wanted to swim.

    Life in the country was more relaxed than in the city. After breakfast, Korczak would walk around with tiny pieces of buttered bread, calling, "Ice cream! Ice cream! Who wants ice cream!" (It was an opportunity to fatten the children up.) Every day there were games, sports, and excursions into the surrounding pine and beech forests to gather wild flowers and berries. Sometimes Korczak would lie blissfully on the sandy ground and open his mouth to let the campers pop berries in. He kept track of his flock by blowing a toy trumpet, much to the children' s amusement; his love of music was not matched by talent. He was fascinated with ants, and would sit with the children for hours observing them.

    "You can learn a lot from ants>> industriousness and their skill at organization," Korczak told his small companions. There were things to learn at night, too. Often he took the children to see the phosphorescent glow on the trees emitted by tiny insects and plants, so that they would realize it was nature and not ghosts that caused the eerie lights.

    During those more leisurely summer months, the little republic operated with the same structure and rules as in the city. Everyone was assigned work duties. The younger children fed the chickens and picked up litter from the grounds; the older ones were given most of the hard farm work. Flower and vegetable plots had to be fertilized, planted, and tended, as did the tomatoes and cucumber plants in the large glass green- house. The stable had to be cleaned, and someone had to keep the goat out of the fields. Whenever the older boys and girls complained of being too hot or too tired, Korczak would say, "Roast pigeons don't fly into your mouth by themselves, they have to be prepared."

    When the children staged a sit-down strike over picking apples from the long row of trees that lined the path from the gate, Korczak called a meeting of the strikers and offered them the younger children' s job of spearing litter with sharp sticks. They agreed, but then, deciding it would be beneath their dignity, they hid in the blueberry bushes, giggling and eating berries. When Korczak discovered them, he gathered them once again for a talk.

    "Listen, kids, I offered you hard work. You didn't want it. I offered you easy work. You don't want that either. Now tell me what you want to do."

    They didn't know. Then, noticing the gravel path in front of the veranda on which it hurt to walk with bare feet, one boy suggested they convert it into a dirt road. Korczak agreed. For the next week the strikers busied themselves digging hard clay from the surrounding fields, which they brought back in wheelbarrows and dumped where the gravel had been. They succeeded in making a soft path, easy on the feet and smooth enough for croquet games. But when it turned to mud after the first rainstorm, the strikers understood the practicality of gravel-and that there was a reason behind many of the things they took for granted.

    At three o' clock one morning Korczak heard some of the older boys complaining that they couldn't sleep because of the gnats. He whispered to them to dress quickly and meet him at the potato bin. The door of the bin was locked, so he told Srulik, who was the smallest and thinnest, "Crawl through the window and let us in." They gathered potatoes and headed through the woods for a small sandy clearing where picnics were often held. After playing games and telling stories, they made a fire and roasted the potatoes. When one of the boys asked Srulik what would happen once it was discovered potatoes were missing, Korczak answered for him: "I am responsible, not Srulik, for everything we've done."

    As soon as they arrived back at camp, long after breakfast, Korczak signed himself up for a court case. He confessed to leaving the grounds after hours and taking food without permission. The boys signed up as well, since they were accomplices. The children' s court, which met on Saturday mornings there as it did in Warsaw, found them all guilty. But the judges forgave Korczak because his motives were good, and ruled that the boys had already been punished by having missed breakfast that day.

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