School of Hard Knocks

By Kate Russell, a.k.a. HoneyBee

Bouncing through the Black Rock Desert in the back of a pickup truck with billions of stars visible overhead, my friend and I had one of those conversations that ends up changing lives, and not just our own.

After swapping deeper, really private life stories, we came to the conclusion that many of our adult decisions had been contaminated by lies we were told about ourselves as children. Being children, we had believed those lies and acted accordingly, for decades. Those beliefs and actions had, over time, hardwired our brains to think and work in predictable patterns of self-destruction — and all because of a lie. At first, we laughed it off as having survived The School of Hard Knocks, but then we realized that there wasn’t anything funny about it.

schoolofhardknocksWe asked ourselves and each other what would happen if people could see those lies for what they really were — fictions created by others — and perhaps even find more of the person they were born to be, without those lies. In a matter of minutes, The School of Hard Knocks interactive art piece was born.

Mounted on a kiosk in Center Camp Café in 2016, The School of Hard Knocks was a 2D one-room schoolhouse, complete with bell tower, featuring a chalkboard divided down the middle with an old yardstick. The simple instructions told participants that lies from childhood had created scars that self-perpetuate themselves in adult choices. They were asked: What lies were you told about yourself that you’ve had to unlearn? What truths do you now know about yourself? They were asked to share their lies and their truths on the chalkboard to help others see that they are not alone on this path.

The response was overwhelming.

The chalkboard filled up within just a few hours. It had to be erased twice a day (after taking photos, of course) to make room for more responses. People gathered, talking quietly or silently reading. The most common sight was a person standing in front of the chalkboard, hand over mouth, as if they were unsure about declaring their own truth, or horrified at the lies faced by others (and some of those lies really were horrifying).

To put it simply, many of the lies were atrocious attempts to make another person feel unworthy and unlovable. In most cases, we must assume that the lies were told in response to lies they had been told. Some of the lies were unintentional, or even accidental. Here, we must apply Hanlon’s razor, when he tells us, “Don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.” Of course, there were also the funny lies about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. This is Burning Man, after all! The best part of the piece was reading the truths that had been realized. They were were boundless and joyful. People claimed their own validity and practically shouted their intentions of creativity, love and self-acceptance.

Because of the response, we have decided to petition the org for an art grant (and start a crowd-funding campaign) to fund building a free-standing one-room school house on the playa in 2017. We hope this larger installation will give more participants a chance to recognize and put aside the lies they were told and to start celebrating their truth.


(Top photo by Debra Wolff)

About the author: Tales From the Playa

Tales From the Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by participants. Submit your story here.

25 Comments on “School of Hard Knocks

  • anon says:

    Post the photos you took of the completed boards! This is the Internet–there’s plenty of room and electrons are free!

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  • Playaplato says:

    Please share your crowd funding weblink when it is available. Your project touches the soul of every person.

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  • Dr. John says:

    Please post the photos, it will be helpful for so many others.

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  • The Silver Fox says:

    Good for you! BurningMan can be a place for transformative change. Part of the counterculture/alternative attraction for some of our fellow burners is the search for healing, or some form of redemption – seeking help and pain-reduction for very very tough things that happened to them as children. (I help take care of such souls, both on-playa, and in the default world.) On-playa, there have been a number of wonderful healing spaces over the years. Yours sounds like a great one. This is a beautiful part of BurningMan. Thank you!! I will look for you next year.

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  • Silmarien says:

    Good job, and good luck!

    In “The Four Agreements”, Don Miguel Ruiz speaks extensively on this issue. He asserts that 85% of what we’re “taught” is false, which generates an incredible amount of suffering – at a personal level, and by inflicting pain others due to acting on these false beliefs. Highly recommend the book.

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  • Shepherd says:

    Pics, or it didn’t happen!

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  • Rayman says:

    You can’t tell us you took photos, then not give us a link to the photos!!!

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Hey y’all. Just uploaded a big gallery of Kate’s photos at the bottom of the post. Explore and enjoy!

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  • Partycurl says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I missed this and am sorry I did. Reading through others messages brought tears to my eyes as well as a smile to my face for some. I hope you get the funding and I see you on the playa in the future.

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  • Alex says:

    Rrad this minutes before walking into a talk therapy appt. sparked a wonderful session and will lead to continued discovery and healing—thank you!

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  • Monkey Fist says:

    Thank You so much!
    I hadn’t thing like a blis during this first BM experience, only nearly-reached ones from times to times.

    My shell was too hard… for now. I know that if I shake it hard as often as I can, I’ll finish breaking it and open Pandora Box.

    Your post, while listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (best combo ever), just shaked it hard.

    Thanks again, I want to see this project on 2017 playa!

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    • HoneyBee says:

      Thank you, Monkey Fist.
      Shaking off old stuff can take time and circling back around a bunch of times. I grew up believing that I was ugly, stupid, and that no one liked me. It wasn’t until I reach my late 30’s that those lies even started to falter. Now, in my mid 50’s, they don’t hold me. Losing the lies was sort of like dieting – toxins had built up in my belief system that were uncomfortable and even painful to get rid of, but the end result is SO worth it. I love Beethoven’s 9th and I wish you a fruitful journey.

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  • Jim says:

    In 2014 I was a participant in a one sided conversation. I was informed that since the day I was born, my place in life was way below whale crap. For 65 years I heard voices that confirmed that assesment. Being the only information I had, I lived that life. As the 2014 conversation progressed I was finally able to put a face to the voice. I never talked too anyone about my revelation. However, six months later, the reason I’m alive, asked me if I knew I had not sworn for a very long time. Swearing in my family is almost like a second language. I’d tried many times to tone it down, but I’d learned I didn’t need it anymore. Lot more to the story, but for now None of us have any control how we start life, but we have control over how we finish it.

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