Recollecting Homer Lane

A. S. NEILL, who kindly sent us these recollections of Homer Lane, is headmaster of Summerhill School. His example, and his seventeen books (including “That Dreadful School”, “The Free Child” and “Summerhill”) have had a widespread and liberating influence on schools everywhere. His article “Summerhill vs. Standard Education” appeared in ANARCHY 11.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

I HAD WRITTEN TWO BOOKS BEFORE I EVER HEARD OF LANE, and three before I met him at the Little Commonwealth. I had been groping and Lane introduced me to child psychology. The idea was that I should join his staff when free from the army, but by the time I was discharged the Commonwealth had been closed. However, when I went to teach at King Alfred School in Hampstead, Lane had set up as a psychoanalyst and sent two of his children to K.A.S. For almost two years I dined at his house every Sunday night.

No need to go over the facts that appear in Talk to Parents and Teachers and The Little Commonwealth. That is old history. I’ll take the personal angle. Most neurotics choose for themselves when they go to be analysed, but my analysis by Lane happened otherwise. “Neill, you can’t be a good teacher unless you are analysed. I’ll analyse you.” Of course I soon found out that I was as neurotic as the next one. I thought and still think that Lane was a bad analyst. He was brilliant in symbolism, and his interpretation of my dreams was like a fascinating play, but he reached my head only, never my guts as it were. I had the same experience later when I went to Stekel in Vienna, indeed I did not get any real emotional abreaction until years later when I went through Reich’s Vegeto-therapy.

Lane had a tremendous power over his patients and disciples. He had only to say: “Every woodworker has a mother complex,” and we sat at his feet and believed him. Old Homer must have chuckled inwardly at our naive faith and worship. I think he exploited us, pulled our legs, for he told us yarns about his youth which, according to David Wills’ investigations in America, never took place. He told us he had run away as a boy and lived with the Indians. Apparently that was an invention. It made no difference to us; it makes none now. We loved Lane, his humour, his smile, his tolerance, his charity, yet he was not always tolerant. I recall one Sunday night when I found Flossie, one of his Commonwealth girls who lived with them, crying on the front steps. She sobbed: “Daddy won’t let me go out with Bill.” Bill was the postman. I tried to ask him why and he scowled and said nothing. Often he would sit the whole night looking worried and unhappy. In his consulting room, however, he was always cheerful.

Lane’s tragedy was that he left youth and took on adults for analysis. He never grew up emotionally, a proof of this being that his downfall was in part due to the fact that he accepted a gift of a car from a woman patient. His realm was the Commonwealth, the most exciting and brilliant piece of delinquency reform known at the time and still far ahead of his and our time. A few good men have followed his example and set up schools and homes for dealing with problem children with psychology, approval and love, but I have not seen evidence that the Home Office has learned anything from his work. I hope I am wrong here. Lane’s great phrase … being on the side of the child … should be the basis of all work with delinquent children, yes, and grown up ones too. I think, however, that Lane made things too easy, too simple. That case of Jabez who wanted to smash crockery and with Lane’s approval went on smashing cups and saucers long after he felt he had enough. Lane claimed that incident had brought one shattering experience that made the boy’s authority complexes come tumbling out, curing him. Long experience has convinced me that a dramatic cure does not exist; the incident was only the beginning of the cure, just as my rewarding a boy for stealing was. Curing takes a long time, often a very long time. Poor Jabez died in France and I never knew him, but Lane said he had become a fine citizen.

Lane was born in New England and he never quite lost what can be called his puritanism. At his study circles we used to heckle him. Why was he against a sex-life for adolescents? (A question long before Reich made it a burning one, and, by the way I had wonderful luck in knowing two really great men, Lane and Reich.) I forget what reasons Lane gave for not approving of adolescent love, but I am sure they were not the ones we thought rational—fear of pregnancy, fear of the Home Office and the law. And his attitude to religion was vague to us. He talked of God and Christ but did not seem to believe in original sin.

He had that uncommon ability, the ability to laugh at himself. Analysing one of my dreams he said something like this: “The word lime. Lime, the stuff for holding stones together. You are a split personality, Neill. Lime is me; I am the cement you want to piece you together. Lime almost, not quite, rhyming with Lane.”
“But, Lane, I didn’t dream about lime. I dreamt about line, a railway line!”
He roared with laughter.

I want to boast a little here. Never have I failed to acknowledge my debt to Lane. The self government of the Commonwealth was the foundation of my Summerhill self-government. I have had staff and visitors who later set up self-government in homes and schools but I can recall only one who confessed to getting the inspiration from the Commonwealth via Summerhill. Lane himself was too big a man to claim a success that came from others. Note that I am subtly calling myself a big man too.

I have often wondered what Lane would have thought of Summerhill. He died in 1925, six years before I founded my school. I think he would have disapproved of much of my work. I think that his personality had a stronger influence on the Commonwealth than mine has on my school. He was called Daddy, but I pride myself on not being a father symbol, perhaps wrongly, yet I can recall only one occasion on which an old pupil came to me for advice. I do not think that he consciously played for a transference situation as Aichhorn did in his school for problems in Vienna, yet I think he got much transference. Definition of transference: the attaching of infantile emotions to the analyst as a father or a mother Ersatz. Mind you I still feel that Lane was a greater man than I was and am, and that isn’t mock modesty. He was braver in his approach to erring youth; he had an intuition that startled one. In one way I was and am probably better … I can suffer fools more gladly than old Homer could. I end with an anecdote. When he came to lecture at King Alfred School a woman asked: “What would you do with a boy who hammers nails into a grand piano?”
Lane smiled and went into a long explanation of the psychology of such a boy.
“But, Mr. Lane, you haven’t answered my question.”
Another long and extended analysis of the boy.
“But, Mr. Lane, you haven’t answered my question. What would you do?”
Lane gave his beautiful smile.
“Kick his bottom and chuck him out,” he said with some impatience.
I often wish I had Lane’s talent for evading direct questions.


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