Eight people sit in foldable chairs and on upside-down recycling bins around a backyard fire pit in Seminole Heights one night earlier this summer. Lance Burnette is one of them. By day, he is a language teacher at King High School in Tampa. This night he is leading the fire ritual. Stridulating crickets and the crackling of wood reacting to fire are the only sounds. Then, he begins to speak.
"Today is a very auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. It's Guru Poornima,'' he announces. "And Guru Poornima,'' he explains, "is a day to celebrate your teachers, or your gurus -- or someone who means a lot to you.''
Welcome to a gathering of Tampa Free Skool
, which encourages people to share and expand their own knowledge with anyone else who wants to listen and learn and engage in conversation. On any given day, there are Free Skool classes being conducted in homes, coffee shops, parks and a variety of nontraditional places throughout the Tampa Bay region by St. Petersburg Free Skool
, Sarasota Free Skool
, New Port Richey Free Skool
This day -- July 22 -- resides on both Hindu and Buddhist calendars. It also takes place during the full-moon phase of the lunar cycle. Cloud cover prevents the moon's appearance, but the bright fire carries the "neo-tantric'' ritual along.
"Fire is our symbol today,'' says Burnette. "That inner fire, that solar fire, that electricity everyone needs these days -- you're all representations of fire.''
Small cups of fragrant contents are given to each member of the circle. This will be the offering to the deities who are the subject of tonight's mantras. While the offering contains items that are familiar, their purposes are not. The rice, Burnette explains, represents the physical. Benzoin resin is for the mental and emotional, and sage is for the ethereal. After each mantra, the participants cast a handful into the fire, offering it to the deities.
One mantra in particular causes Burnette to preface it with verbalized introspection. The mantra is OM GUM GANAPATHEYEI SWAHA. This mantra is a salutation to Ganesh, an elephant-headed deity who is the remover of obstacles.
"I heard something once that really meant a lot to me: [Ganesh] also puts obstacles in our way, so we can move beyond,'' revels Burnette.
The participants say they are not particularly religious, but instead consider their beliefs more spiritual. However, they all believe in the power of mantra meditations.
"The last time I threw something into the fire -- emotionally, something I wanted to get rid of -- it worked,'' says Jenny Kahn. She's attended other Free Skool classes from mead-making (honeywine) classes to bicycle basics.
Burnette, a member of the Tampa Bay Healing Mantra Cooperative
, is no stranger to Free Skool either. The idea of it is in sync with his faith in community.
"Tampa Free Skool is like a community that gets together and we just teach one another. There are lots of things going on, lots of different reasons why Free Skool exists. It's just a really cool environment.''
Equally important, Burnette says, Tampa Free Skool aligns with his personal view on access to education.
"Personally,'' he says reflectively, "I believe education should be free.''
Tampa Free Skool's Zine Fest
It's twilight at The Roosevelt 2.0
in Ybor City on July 27th. The "click-click'' of vintage typewriters, the sound of lively conversation and The Naked and Famous's "Young Blood'' booming from speakers fills the air with melodious dissonance.
It is Tampa Free Skool's Zine Fest
, perhaps one of the biggest collective experiences on their calendar. Local, independent fanzinesters have their works on display. The subject matter ranges from light-hearted humor to heavy social commentary and activism.
Corellete Damme is one of the many independent zinesters displaying their work. One zine of hers, "Things That Stink,'' received such acclaim during an earlier St. Pete Free Skool Zine Fest that she was asked to display more of her work for Tampa's Free Skool Zine Fest.
"Things That Stink'' is "more of a visual zine than a story sine,'' says Damme. It contains her illustrations of things that can produce undesirable odors, like cheese. The end, however, uses the word to describe the feeling of a broken heart.
Across the room, and across the zine spectrum, resides the Rev. Bruce Wright, and his partner Dennis Seagall, with their zine, "Crysis.'' Crysis is a zine that is composed of the works of local artists and writers who are incarcerated.
"We felt like it was real important to have a vehicle to not only express these artists and musicians and writers stuff out there in the public,'' says Wright, "but also give some of our thoughts about issues of justice.''
Not exclusively justice in the prison system, "but justice at-large.''
"I think the free school movement is very important,'' says Wright. "As someone who has college degrees and is working on graduate school, I think that too often skills, thoughts, artistic endeavors -- things of that nature -- are reserved for segments of society that aren't accessible to the working class, to the poor, to people struggling.''
His overall assessment echoes Burnette's.
"I feel like education should be free anyway,'' Wright says with burning passion. "The whole notion of paying for any kind of education, to me, is anti-human and it's anti-justice.''
Reviving Arts & Culture
Patrons browsing around speak equally enthusiastically about the idea of local, independent zines.
"It's awesome,'' says one patron. "I just like the randomness of it all,'' says another.
Malcolm Johnson, a patron and a zinester, uses a combination of small presses to create zine work.
His journey through zines began nearly four decades ago. And he wears a T-shirt to prove it. On the back, it reads, "MAKE A ZINE!'' in a "Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back'' font.
"I actually started doing this back in 1972, during what they call the small press era,'' reminisces Johnson. "I bought an open-drum mimeograph machine from Sears and Roebuck and I started cranking out my own little magazines.''
Johnson is excited about the influence that Free Skool is having, and will have in the surrounding region. He remembers when Ybor City "was basically nothing, there were no bars here.''
"There were only art places like Three Birds Bookstore, [Blue] Chair Music, and Baby Doll Art.''
Then, he says, the city began passing out liquor licenses, which made the crowd go from artsy and cultured to rowdy. But, Free Skool is bringing art and culture back to the community.
"I think the Free Skool movement is great,'' Johnson marvels. "I actually want to see if I can teach a zine-making class. … This is just great. I think this is totally great.''
Writers Workshop At Kalesisa Tea
The next afternoon, Cole Bellamy sits at in Kaleisia Tea Lounge
on Fletcher Avenue just east of Interstate 275. He is the instructor for a writers workshop. He mentions last night's Zine Fest.
"I was really happy how everything turned out,'' he says. "It came together easy. We started working on this maybe a month-and-a-half ago. Just as soon as we put the idea out there, people ran with it.''
Since its nascence, Bellamy, an English professor at Saint Leo University
in Pasco County, has been an influential member of the local Free Skool movement.
It began with him hosting writers workshops at Cafe Hey
in downtown Tampa with friend Nyssa Hanger. A group was formed in which members read and critiqued each other's writing. That's when Hanger mused, "Hey, why don't you do this with Free Skool?''
For Bellamy, Free Skool is "an interesting project, in that it's a way for people to connect.''
Local author David Sautter is in attendance. Bellamy and Sautter critique each other's works. About his own piece, Bellamy jokingly says that he is channeling Margaret Atwood.
French 101 Over Bieres
The Independent Cafe & Bar
in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa is bustling with an energetic after-work crowd on July 31. Amid the indecipherable jovial conversation, and clinking glasses indicating a toast sits a class that finds itself regularly on the Free Skool calendar: French 101.
Remember Lance Burnette, the instructor of the fire ritual? He's this night's French teacher. Burnette leads the class in describing what they're doing and their surroundings. The most popular phrase seems to be:
"Nous buvons une beer et amuson-vous a l'Independent Cafe et Bar,'' which roughly translates to, "We drink beer and have fun at the Independent Cafe and Bar.''
When asked to describe the allure of Tampa Free Skool, one attendee says, "because it's free and [I] get to meet new people in Tampa.''
Another student simply responds, "If you have a talent or a skill, why not show it?''
For Cole Bellamy, Free Skool is about something even bigger. It offers the opportunity for people to interact without “a tiny screen” as a barrier.
"When I get more idealistic about it, it's what we need to do to raise our quality of life,'' Bellamy says. "At the same time, it's a new model of how to do these things -- how to build community.''
Quincy Walters, a freelance journalist in the Tampa Bay region, writes about local people and culture.. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.