The Lives of Alumni
A Fortieth Anniversary Celebration, April 5, 20081
Nikole Beckwith, Mark Christianson, Jeannine Bouffard Moore, Greg Richard, and Hal Sadofsky
Mimsy Sadofsky, moderator, opened the event.
We are going to visit tonight with five alumni, and they're going to share something of their life stories, and perhaps even their value systems, with us. Thinking about tonight has given me a chance to think again, as I do often, about how much we care for the kids who go to school here. When you send your kids to school here, we don't promise to love them, we only promise that we're going to let them be free. But it turns out that we get pretty fond of them.
The people who are going to speak tonight are very different from each other and I think that in itself is a reflection of Sudbury Valley. They were here different numbers of years, they came here at very different ages, they are even very different ages from each other now. But they have attributes in common and they are attributes that you find in pretty much all of our graduates: they're very competent, and they set high standards for themselves in their lives. They're also brave. They were brave to come here in the first place, as our current students are. They were brave to trust themselves to get their own education. And they were brave in the paths that they forged since they left here. As I introduce them, I'm going to talk just for a minute about each one of them. I'm not going to talk about anything that's happened to them since they left school, but rather the random memories that I have of them when they were students here.
The first one who's going to speak this evening is Mark Christianson. He was one of our original students. So he really took a chance. He enrolled in 1968 when the school was just opening. He was fourteen. He had a commute from hell--he might mention it; I don't know, maybe he's tried to blot it out. He was always totally, completely devoted to music. While he was here he spent hours and hours practicing several different instruments. He was always very serious about everything he did, and totally devoted to the school at the same time. One of the memories I have is of him sitting in the office typing School Meeting Records. Every week before our School Meeting, all the stuff that's going to be on the agenda gets typed out. Now it gets typed on a computer, a modern thing. At the time we were using mimeograph stencils. A lot of people sitting here--three people sitting here just on this little panel--have had a lot of experience with mimeograph stencils but nobody typed quite as many as Mark.
There was another thing about Mark that no one can forget. His mother's carrot cake, which is still the gold standard in carrot cakes, and was always the most sought after dessert at all parties. Happily, Mrs. Christianson, his mother, is here this evening.
Mark Christianson, 1968 - 1972
I'm really thrilled to be back at Sudbury Valley, some forty years from first coming here and having a talk with Joan Rubin about what I wanted to do with my life. It was a long time ago.
Why don't I begin by telling you where my journey to come to Sudbury Valley began. I had just turned fourteen years old in 1968--quite a time in our country. And actually, quite a time in my hometown of East Boston where they had just initiated bussing into the school system. It was pretty rough at the high school that I was about to be enrolled in that Fall. My parents and I had some trepidation about where they were sending me. They were worried about putting me into a school that was literally a war zone. The teachers and the students were at odds with each other. The community of people wanted to have a community school. They didn't want to have people bussed in from every part of Boston because they didn't know these people. Rightly or wrongly, it was a problem, and I looked at what I wanted to do even at that early age, and said I'm not sure I want to go into that fight, so I looked at some of my alternatives.
That Spring I had taken a test for Boston Technical High School, which is a very good school for math and science boys. Much to my surprise, I got accepted. When you're picked for something, it's hard to turn it down so I registered, thinking that I would go there. It was a heck of a commute to get there from where I lived. It was at least an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes. So those were my two alternatives.
That summer we kind of did some soul searching and thought well, could we go to a private school, could we even afford it? Is that something I would want to do? Even at that early age I was interested in music--I started the trumpet at eight or nine. I really did love music. I wasn't sure that I wanted to do that as my life's calling, but had I accepted the offer to go to Boston Technical High School, I would have been channeled immediately into a kind of technical education. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, it's just that I didn't particularly like math or even science that much. I was actually quite surprised that I did well enough in that test to be accepted.
My dad said, well, let's look at some other things. And one of those other things was, let's take a look at this Sudbury Valley School. So some time in that summer of 1968 we came for our meeting with Joan. That was really quite a day in my life, because Joan kind of acted as a therapist and also as a parent; she wasn't my parent, but she represented a parent to me, and said: what do you want to do with your life? Do you want to go to this technical high school? That could mean giving up your music because you're going to be channeled into something like MIT. Maybe I would have been good enough, or had the energy, to do a couple of different things in my life such as science and music. But I didn't think that I had it in me to do that, so I said, you know, I'm not ready to give up the past few years of a burgeoning interest in music and instrumentalism for that.
She said you're going be allowed to pursue your dreams here at Sudbury Valley. And she said it may be a little bit scary at first because we don't have quite the same structure as Boston Technical High School. You're going to have to create your own structure here. That summer we decided that I should go here, I should just give it a shot. Well, I wound up spending four years at Sudbury, graduating in '72. So I guess you could say that I was in the first four-year class of a high school graduating class. I successfully defended the thesis that I would be responsible in the community for my life and for my career, and I hopefully showed that as I set forth on basically the rest of my life.
That spring I auditioned for the New England Conservatory of Music and got accepted as a Freshman French horn player. Throughout my years at Sudbury I was diligently practicing the French horn, and also on Saturday mornings going to the New England Conservatory Prep Division taking lessons not only in French horn but also in additional music theory, and I had some wind ensemble experience in the community. We didn't have a band or orchestra here at Sudbury Valley but we did have a staff member or two who were musicians and developed and fostered my education here as a musician. I played small ensembles with them. Jan McDaniel, in particular, really helped me a lot in my early days of deciding to become a musician and helping me to find my own way to do that. So I spent a lot of time here pursuing that dream and I've been lucky enough to be in the music profession as a performing musician now for some twenty-seven years, making my living at that. It's not an easy profession to be in and as many of my teachers said, it's really a business because these organizations have to make ends meet.
After my freshman year at the New England Conservatory I did some soul searching. I had some physical problems with braces, which I had gotten in an attempt to help my playing, and I took a year off trying to figure out what my next move would be. The braces were kind of a mixed result. Would I go back, I wondered? I did some soul searching, thinking about taking a different path but I just couldn't do it.
Eventually, I wound up developing roots at the University of Minnesota. Of course, I didn't have traditional transcripts. They wanted to know what the heck I was doing with my four years of high school. I had taken the SAT tests my last year here, and they were respectable. But they made me write a thesis--what have you done? They wanted something like 15 or 20 pages, and I think writing my thesis about responsibility at Sudbury Valley, in order to graduate, helped me then. My credits from the New England Conservatory did transfer. They said, we don't know what to call you if you're not going to be majoring in the French horn. You've got some music credits here and history and theory of music but we need to figure out how to get you into this institution if we are ever even going to accept you. So I wrote a fifteen page essay and luckily got accepted and I wound up with a degree in music--a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree--with a speciality in oboe.
In my twentieth year of life I had switched to the oboe and it was a very natural fit for me. I then applied to Northwestern University in Chicago and I got in as one of the two graduate students majoring in oboe. I studied with the principal oboist at the Chicago Symphony. I was his graduate teaching assistant and had a great couple of years there--really, really wonderful years. I got to play extra in the Chicago Symphony with him. It was very hard because I had taken up the oboe rather late in life, although I had a real background in music and it was in my heart, it was in my blood, that I needed to be a musician.
I spent a year in Chicago after I graduated--freelancing and learning a little bit more about the trade of being a professional musician. As a freelancer, hitting the audition circuit is really putting your life on the line for what you love to do. I took a chance because I felt that I had to be a musician. I didn't want to do anything else. Quite a few of my music teachers told me, don't do music unless you have to. It's a tough business--it's like being an actor in Hollywood where you go to LA and you wait tables and you hope for a lucky break. If you're good, it helps a lot. But there's no guarantees. But then again there's no guarantees in life either.
After I graduated from Northwestern and spent that year in Chicago, I got my first professional job in a symphony orchestra. I knew that I would probably have to travel the world to get my start, and I got my first job in Mexico City with the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra. I loved it. I loved seeing Mexico, but I hated living there. It was a rough and tumble country, but it was the height of the oil boom down there and they had a lot of money that they were devoting to the Arts, and they were bringing a lot of foreigners in.
The conductor felt somehow that he could abuse Americans. My first few months there he would have me play my solos in front of the orchestra. He'd say, Mark, play that for us. I kind of got my trial by fire and that was actually good for me. I was actually filling a maternity leave for someone, and at the end of the six months, the conductor, in front of the orchestra said Mark, I've decided that you can stay. Well, in my position in the orchestra, which is either as an oboist or as an English horn--I was the solo English horn player in the orchestra--there's just one position, one person who does that. One of the oboe players was the husband of the wife who went on maternity leave. He was from Guatemala, and there was a bit of a Guatemalan mafia that kind of ran the show there, and I thought if I take this job it's going to be a threat to him and his wife, so I said I don't think so, maestro, thank you very much, but I have an offer in Hong Kong.
I had actually auditioned. I didn't know that I had the job, but I decided that I would leave Mexico because my stomach couldn't take Mexico. So my next pro full-time professional engagement was in the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Right after leaving Mexico I got a telegram--they had telegrams back then--and they offered me a position. I thought this is great--they pay my way out there, they're offering me a salary. I'm getting paid to do what I love to do, and it was for the position of solo English horn and associate principal oboe. So I would get to play some principal oboe and keep playing English horn, which is really an instrument that I love now. English horn is different than a French horn. I said earlier that I started on French horn but English horn is the bigger relative of the oboe, which is a woodwind instrument.
I spent six seasons in Hong Kong and I truly loved that. And then suddenly I was in my early thirties and thinking: perhaps I need to come back to the States while I maybe still can. I had the option to stay in Hong Kong and settle down and make a life there, but it never felt to me like it was home or would be home although I loved every minute I spent there. I felt that it was time for me to, so to speak, face the music, and come back to the States and see if I could win another job. I came back in the summer of '87 and hit the audition circuit and came close to landing jobs. A music audition is where you may fly anywhere in the country for one opening, and there'd be maybe fifty or a hundred other people who are there that same day and want that same job. In the music industry maybe only about two percent of people who graduate with a music degree are actually going to get a job. So it's rough. I hit the audition circuit knowing that I had six good years of professional experience behind me and feeling confident that I would get something.
I told myself I'll probably give it until age 35. But actually at that time I enrolled in Harvard night school for some math and science brush-up, just in case! And it started coming back to me, although a little slowly. So I hit the audition circuit and spent that summer living with my mom. I spent a really hard summer of just working and practicing at my music in an attempt to win a paying job in my profession. That October or November I came close to a job in the New Orleans Symphony, which has since kind of disbanded and reformulated, so it's probably best that I didn't get that job, but in November there was an opening for the United States Marine Band job, and, yes, I am a Marine, a 20 year Marine, 20 years in the Corps. I'm a performing artist in the President's Own Band. I never had to go through boot camp because in the military the two professions that don't have to do boot camp are the musicians in the Marine Band specifically--not any field band--and the doctors. The Marine Corp doesn't specifically have doctors--the Navy's are the doctors for the Marine Corp. The way they look at it is that our boot camp is our training for what we have learned to do in our life. A lot of classical musicians like myself are kind of snobby about playing in a band, but I did some research and realized that not only was it a band--a world-class band--but it also had a chamber orchestra with full-time string players and pianists, and it is actually the orchestra for the White House. I auditioned and luckily got accepted and moved to Washington, DC, some twenty years ago and that's how I come to you today--with twenty-seven years as a working musician really being able to have lived my dream which was nurtured and fostered here.
That's my story. I'm just thrilled to see all of you here--staff members whom I know and loved for such a long time. It has been such a long time since I've seen so many of you. Also former students, some of which I've just gotten to know tonight but also others that I grew up with--Hal and I played soccer out here on the fields when he was much shorter that I was! I never forgot Sudbury Valley but I did lose contact over the years because I've been busy. I've been busy leading my life. I'm thrilled to be getting the ball rolling here for the evening and look forward to talking to many of you afterwards.
I hope that I've given you a little insight into myself and my journey here. I was just a kid from East Boston who was not sure that SVS was going to be the right fit for me but I think in my time here I decided that I was going to make it the right fit. Success can be a choice and you certainly can learn to make that choice here. You can go on any path that you like. You just have to decide what that is going to be in your own mind, and that can change too, but you can do that here. And you can do it on a very high level and there is going to be a future for you for whatever you do.
Our next speaker is Jeannine Moore. To me the most amazing fact about Jeannine is that when I first met her, she was shy and scared. I think she was probably school phobic. She was about 14 and she was kind of hard to get to know. A few people eventually got to talk to her but not that many adults. It took me awhile to get to know the depth and the range of knowledge that she already had when she came here, which sort of gave a little hint about who she would become. For instance, the first thing that I remember finding out about her that didn't fit anything else was that she knew everything under the sun about tropical fish. Here's this poor little scared teenager and she knew everything you could possibly know about tropical fish!
This was the '80's, the beginning of the computer age for most of us, and she could program things without even thinking about it, which also kind of made you wonder. She took all this stuff for granted. She had a great breadth of interests and I think she has put them together in a way that has brought her to where she is now, which she is going to tell you about. But there's one other thing about her--she can run anything, she can run anybody, she can manage anything, except perhaps her children--I'm not sure about that because they're probably as strong as she is--and it was very easy for her to run the rather obstreperous people who work at Sudbury Valley.
Jeannine Bouffard Moore, 1986 - 1991
I spent some time this evening trying to think what Mimsy might say, what she might remember about me, because all the staff members seem to remember something that you've conveniently forgotten!
I'd like to start by just telling you how I got to Sudbury Valley, and then what I did here, and where I've been since. I remember my first physical fight with my mother about not going to school. I was five years old. It was in our kitchen. The bus came to the bottom of the driveway, tooted its horn, and I grabbed the chair rail. My mother said: no, you're going to school. And she ran up to me and started pulling and I just held on to the chair rail harder. I'm sure there was kicking and yelling involved. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity to me, but was probably 30 seconds to a minute in reality, she said, okay, you don't have to go. And I remember the release. She waved the bus on. For my whole childhood, through grade school, that's what it was like. The physical fights ended but every month or so I decided, no, don't want to go, take a couple days off--two, three days. My mother at that time had just resigned herself to the fact that I wasn't going to go. At about twelve or thirteen, I really just stopped going. At that point the truant officer said to my mother, well, we're going to have to come and get her in handcuffs and take her to school. Thankfully, my mother said it was not such a good idea.
We heard about Sudbury Valley. And I came. It was late June, right at the end of school, and I interviewed with Hanna. We interviewed downstairs and I remember there were swans on the pond and it was very peaceful and everyone seemed so happy and I couldn't figure out what was going on because there were people everywhere. They just seemed to be doing their own thing. The only thing I really remember Hanna saying, was that shy people sometimes turn out to be social butterflies here. I remember thinking, no, that's never going to happen.
I enrolled mostly because I didn't have a choice. I knew handcuffs was the other option. I thought SVS was too good to be true. I didn't actually believe it. And I remember talking to a friend over the summer and I had the catalog and her reading it and saying that can't be true. I didn't actually admit it to her but I was thinking the same thing: this really can't be true. But I came and I would say it took a good year to really get comfortable and to even start comprehending what was going on here. I remember thinking this is a great school for teenagers, but I don't know who would ever send their four year old here. Of course, that changed.
My first year was getting to know some people, getting to understand what was going on, and just formulating what might happen every day. My second year I really hit my stride, started to get to know more people and started to do more things. I had always loved horses. I grew up with older siblings. My older sister rode. We were fortunate to have a couple of horses when I was a child. I rode with her, and I always loved doing that. I continued to do that at Sudbury Valley. I had a horse of my own at that point. But I didn't just ride my horse, I wasn't solely focused on that. I did a lot of photography here. I did some cooking. I did traveling. I worked in the office a lot. I was School Meeting Chairman. I ended up doing a lot of different things. I left here five years after I started, really feeling like I was ready to move on, but having no clue what I was going to do.
I left and started managing a retail store, a gift store. It was great because it paid some bills. It wasn't my love but I was doing it. I did that for about two years or so when I got a call from Sudbury Valley. Judy, who was working in the office at the time, had to take a leave of absence, would I come work in the office for a couple months? Sure, that sounds good, I'll do that. So I came in and worked in the office and we had a good time. It was interesting working in the office instead of being a student. It was definitely different, but somewhat the same. I had to separate myself from being a student to actually working within the school. I stayed on and worked in the school for a couple of years and decided that I love the school but I felt I needed to step away and do something different, and since I had that love for horses all my life, I really wanted to do something with horses. However, you don't make a lot of money doing things with horses. Actually you lose a lot of money doing things with horses! So I was in a quandary. I don't want to train, I'm not going to make any money that way. I don't want to breed, I'm not going to make any money that way.
Suddenly it dawned on me that one of the biggest retailers of equestrian goods was down the street in Holliston: Dover Saddlery. So I decided that sounds like a good place to work, it's what I love. I wrote up a resume, which I had never done before. I didn't really have much to put on it, but I did the best I could and I sent it cold turkey to Dover Saddlery and waited for the call. Didn't get a call. So I called them and said, did you receive my resume? I was persistent enough that they called me and said why don't you come in for an interview, which I did. At the first interview they said, well, we don't have any openings at this moment but we'll keep your resume on file--you know, the typical response. I said okay and about three weeks later I called back and said, just wondering if you had anything open. Oh, no, well, why don't you come in for a second interview. Okay. Went in for another interview and at the time they were very interested in the fact that I had done some financial bookkeeping work at school and they wanted to hire me into their financial office, in their accounts receivable. Well, I'm not really loving that. I can do it but it's really not my cup of tea and I'd really rather be in the graphic end of the job because they do catalog sales there. About three weeks later I called again and they said well, why don't you come in for another interview. Somehow between the first interview and the third interview they began to think it might be a better idea to put me in the graphics area. They offered me a job, which was wonderful. I took it.
The big hurdle there was they were using a software called Quark Express, which I had never used before. I ran out to the bookstore, and bought a book to learn Quark so that I could get up to speed. I learned as much as I could in a week. There was actually another former student who was working in graphic design locally who was using it, and she was nice enough through Mimsy to let me go to her office after hours and play on her computer and get some hands-on experience during that week. And lo and behold, I had my first day at work and it went really well--lots of things to learn. I was very excited. I was in my element. I had horses, I had photography, I had computers--it was perfect. But about four days into my job, my boss said she was quitting. Her boss came to me and said, so, do you think you can do her job? I said sure. So I was suddenly the Art Director at Dover Saddlery. And I had a lot to learn. I remember she left exactly one week later. The phone started ringing and I had to start answering, and it was a bunch of other graphics people asking me specific questions like: can you send me that .tif? or, have you brought that optical over? I had no idea what they were talking about. So I spent a lot of time just bullshitting on the phone: yes, absolutely, I'll get that right over to you. And then scrambling to figure what they were talking about and doing it. You learn a lot under pressure.
I loved the job and the company started to grow. About two years after I started, a new group of people came in and bought the company from the owners. It had been a family-run company. They sold it to a man who used to own our prime competitor. So there was a lot of change happening. When your competitor comes in and takes you over you never know what's going to happen. I took the opportunity as soon as I could to talk with him, to figure things out, see what he'd say, where we're going with the company and see how I thought I was going to like the job.
When I had started with the company, there were forty employees. I've been with the company for eleven years. We now have over 575 employees and we've also gone public. As the company has grown, I have grown with the company. I started out as the graphics clerk, I guess you'd say, and quickly moved to the Art Director who did all the designs of the catalog, all the sponsorships and all the advertisements.
I did that from about 1996 to 2000, when we launched our first e-commerce website. The president of the company came to me and said, you've done such a great job, we want to start an e-commerce site, we'd like you to head it up. Great. Once again, I know nothing about this but it sounds good to me! Does it come with a raise? It did, fortunately. So I spent the next year from 2000 to 2001 figuring out how to design, implement and execute an e-commerce website. Within our first year we made about $1,800,000 on the website, so we were pretty happy with that. I continued to work on the website, to grow my department, and continued to do all the design, and work with third-party vendors to work on the programming and such, until last year when we were fortunate enough to receive the award of one of the top fifty retailer websites in the country. And I thought, okay, yes, I'm here with the likes of J. C. Penney and Williams Sonoma, here's little old Dover Saddlery. It felt really good to grow that business and to be recognized in the retail community, not just in the horse community, which is a very small part of retail, in general.
In August of last year again the CEO, the President, came and said to me, you've done such a great job at building our e-commerce business, we'd really love you to move over into merchandising and become the Director of Merchandising, which is what I've been doing for the past six months. So now I'm in charge of picking and making sure we have the right merchandise across all channels, and helping our buyers. I'm managing a staff of twenty-two people. It's very exciting, and we're also rolling out retail stores at about four to six a year, so I'm busy working on rolling out the retail stores.
I think it's interesting that some people have told me that I'm so lucky because these things have happened to me. I always say I don't think I'm a lucky person at all. I haven't won the lottery yet and I don't win the scratch tickets. Really, I think people confuse luck and opportunity. I think I've been fortunate to have opportunities and I've been very fortunate to recognize them as opportunities and have been able to have the guts--even though I've been scared--to take them on and to try. And fortunately I've tried hard enough that it's worked out. I think if it's just luck then it wouldn't be work, but it was a lot of work. It still is a lot of work today, as my husband knows, since I never come home. I'm always working, but I think that's really the difference. Some people think I'm so lucky and I guess I am lucky to see the opportunity, but I do see that difference.
I do think where I was lucky was to find Sudbury Valley, because we stumbled on Sudbury Valley and I didn't recognize it as an opportunity at the time. It definitely changed my life. There isn't a day that I don't think about Sudbury Valley, because when you interview people for positions, you interview a bunch of different types of people from different backgrounds and I see qualities in Sudbury Valley students that I want to see in my interviewees. The school is unique, it's an amazing place, and somehow the nurturing, the freedom, brings out these qualities in people that are very sought after in the business world, at least in my experience. They're very sought after. So I am lucky and fortunate to have found Sudbury Valley and to really be able to apply what I learned at Sudbury Valley out in my professional life. I'm very happy to be back, and I'm very happy to see lots of students at Sudbury Valley and happy that next year my son will come.
The next person who is going to speak is Greg Richard. Greg was fifteen when he came. I can't even imagine what school was like for Greg before he came here because he was a bundle of energy. [He must have been what they would now call ADHD or some combination of letters.] At Sudbury Valley that energy was always an advantage. He was so intense and so focused all the time. He was just into whatever it was he was doing. I think first--but maybe not first, just in my memory first--he was into every single thing that made the school work. And he was into every single kind of physical activity that was related to the school. He and Hal, who will be next, were talking today about the kinds of trips that they took here, and I remember Greg as a big trip organizer. The same administrative skills are some of the attributes that he's used in life and I think he'll talk about them.
Greg Richard, 1971 - 1977
It's hard to believe it's been thirty-five years since I enrolled. It actually almost seems like yesterday. I come back periodically; every few years I stop by. But it's always been very dear to my heart. I know you want to hear a little bit about what we've all been doing and I'll certainly tell you a bit about that but in some ways I'm not even sure that's the most important thing. I thought I'd tell you a little bit, just as the others have, of my experiences at the school, and maybe you'll get a little idea of how it's led me to where I am. I don't know if there's a "normal" student at Sudbury Valley, or an average lifestyle. I don't think I was it if there is. Before coming to Sudbury Valley I was a very unhappy student, very unhappy person and so I feel very lucky that I was able to come here.
I'm going to tell you some of the most important things that I did get out of Sudbury Valley, which aren't really career-oriented, although a lot of them did help me in my career. In the last few days, I've been thinking: what were the important things at the school? The age variation in the school is probably the number one thing that helped me. Even though it was a small community back when I first started, I think there were forty or fifty students, but what always so impressed me was that I went to school with four year olds. And you could learn as much from those four, five, six year olds as from any adult or any peer, and that has followed me through my whole life. It's really allowed me to understand and view people not from the perspective of what their job is, not what they know how to do, but for who they are. That is a hugely important thing.
Other lessons that I learned--and there are all kinds--were related to children and how children were brought up. During the time that I was at SVS there was a lot of discussion about child rearing. Danny wrote a book about it. At the time Hanna had a little baby and so another very important aspect of my growing up and being at the school was sort of learning about the child rearing aspects. That to me was one of the most important things that I learned, because I got married late in life--I got married five years ago, had a child late in life, I have a year and a half year old right now. And I have to say that what's allowed me to be a happily married person and a happy father is my experiences from this school. It's been incredible. The things back from the hippie days--you know the '70's--about how you took care of your kids. My child was born at home, we breast feed our kid. These are very important things, so if you're looking for the stories that mean a lot, that's the kind of things that really have meant a lot to me.
I really did get involved in this school. It was very exciting to me. As I said, I wasn't happy prior to coming, but when I was here it was great to have the freedom. Probably the first year or so I really didn't do much. I observed, I looked, and that was a very helpful thing for me. And then when I did get excited and kind of had the time to think about it I got very involved in the administration of the school and it became a big focus of what I did. Anyway, you can see that I had a pretty good experience, so where did that lead? Well, generally, when you finish school you kind of go off into the world somewhere and do your thing.
My progression was probably a little bit different because I sort of left but I sort of didn't. A group of people from the school actually decided to go into the natural food business, which back in the mid '70's was a very small niche market--obviously, a little different now--you'll see the correlation when I tell you what I'm doing or have been doing over the years. But back then what we did was kind of revolutionary. Back in the '70's the natural food business was a lot of little mom and pop health food stores, and one of the visions of this group and Danny, in particular, was to bring natural foods to the mainstream and to bring it out of the backrooms and the small little hippie-dippy thing--not that there was anything wrong with that because we were sort of all a little hippie-ish--but to take organic foods and natural foods and bring it to the masses. I don't think anyone else was talking about it back then. Now everyone talks about natural foods or organic foods--it's a huge business. But back then it truly was revolutionary and we opened up what I think really was the first natural food supermarket in the country, called "The Natural Grocer".
I was just out of school, I had the privilege of being part of the group that started that and they were unbelievably exciting times. We opened up a store that had supermarket shelves, it had cash registers, it had meat cases, it had real grocery carts. It was small but it was a real supermarket. We had a warehouse. We actually got computerized. Computers were really hardly even used for anything back then. It was the very beginning times for computers. And the business got computerized. So I was very lucky to be part of that. And as I say, I think it was the forerunner of where we are today in the natural food business. We expanded very rapidly, we did a lot of great things but we probably did a lot of stupid things too, and ended up over time sort of fading out and going out of business. But it doesn't take away from the fact that it was a really exciting time and it was a pioneering part of America really in a sense. That sort of formed my business mentality going forward.
I did that for I think about eight years. It seems like my jobs go in eight to ten year cycles. I don't change jobs very often, but then again I don't do them forever. After about eight or nine years, I actually got kind of burned out with it and tired of it and changed jobs. I stayed in the food business but went to a small gourmet store in Harvard Square. I wouldn't say it was moving forward in the business aspect of my life, but actually it was a great move for me personally, even though work-wise it may not have been that great: it was an okay job. But what it allowed me to do--and I did that for like eight or nine years--was to have a lot more time. I didn't work nearly as hard as I did in the Natural Grocer, and it gave me time to do things that I had never done when I was either a kid or even at Sudbury Valley. I did a lot of things that I had thought about for a lot of years but never did--sailing; I took up competitive sailboat racing and just like in other things in my life, I really got passionate about and just loved it. I took up bicycle riding. I really got into biking, and all sorts of physical activities that I had never done much before. It was sort of an eight-year period of life where work wasn't the priority but it paid the bills. I've always been comfortable, but it allowed me to develop personally.
From there I ended up going to work for Whole Foods Market, which is sort of the flip-side of the Natural Grocer. Whole Foods--I imagine most of you probably have heard of it--is a pretty big company these days. I've actually been there for fourteen years, which kind of is over the eight or nine year limit, so something's not right, but I'll give you a little history of that, because that's a pretty interesting story in itself. For people that are interested in business, or business and natural foods, Whole Foods would make a great business study. They sort of started out around the same time that Natural Grocer did--maybe a little bit later--and have developed into a mega, mega company. I've worked my way up in the company, starting out at just an assistant manager level in a department, and worked up within a couple years to a regional manager, and got to travel the country, to open up stores in London. We have done a lot of acquisitions of other companies. One of the big things I've learned about acquisitions is how important--and this kind of relates back to some of my experience at Sudbury Valley--it is to be respectful of people in business, especially when you're taking over other companies. It's very difficult for people in the companies you're taking over. And one of the things that really always stuck with me is that it's so important to be respectful to people, to have integrity, respect. You can forget about all kinds of educational things; if you have integrity and respect, you'll do well in life because it doesn't matter how much you make or what you do, it means that you've done well for yourself and you stuck with what's right. Those are the biggest lessons that I think I've learned.
Where am I now? I like telling this story, but I don't think I've ever told it to a group, but this will let you know where I am now. I don't know if any of you know what a labyrinth is; it is somewhat like a maze but it's not really a maze, and it has some kind of somewhat spiritual connotations to it. It's something you place on the floor and you walk it like a maze, you have a beginning point and you walk around and you kind of meditate as you're going and when you get into the middle of this circle, you stop and you stand there and you close your eyes and ideally something comes to you. You don't know what it is, but something comes to you. From the moment that I started that journey of going through this labyrinth--and I went with a large group from my company, but most of them were making fun of it, thinking of it as a hokey spiritual thing--I took it very seriously and thought, wow, this is a cool thing. I got to the center and sat there and closed my eyes, and what came to me very pronouncedly was, I want to take a sabbatical. I remember coming home and telling my wife: I just went to a labyrinth and it said something to me; it said, take a sabbatical. I was ready to do it right then and there but it really wasn't practical. I had just gotten married and had a mortgage payment and this probably wasn't really going to work but I thought about it all the time. I really did. I talked to my wife a lot about it, I mentioned it to friends--it was like, sabbatical! sabbatical! Well, the time finally came and this January I took it. I'm on a six-month sabbatical. I'm over my cycle so it's time for something new and I'm using this time to figure what that new path in life is. I feel blessed that I have a family that's supportive of that. I don't think of myself as old but it's scary to make changes like that with a family and a mortgage and a little baby, but at the same time it's very exciting, and I feel prepared.
I don't have any way to introduce the next person without really embarrassing him so I won't even try. It's Hal Sadofsky and he's the reason that our family has been associated with Sudbury Valley for forty years. Hal was born with his own agenda and he was really determined about his own agenda. He had trained his father and me, by the time he was about three, not to interrupt the agenda if we could possibly help it.
Then he went to school. And at school somebody else had an agenda that they thought was more important than his. We thought that he was a perfectly fine kid as he was, so maybe there was something wrong with the school system. He was seven. And we started looking into what might be better for him than what he was doing and we stumbled upon a school that was about to be founded, and that was sort of the end of the journey. We knew where we were.
But a lot of other things happened after that. He was old enough to understand that the first few years of a new school are exciting but also horrific. What probably none of us understood is it can happen over and over, year after year, and that having a school like this is an endless struggle. But that's sort of beside the point. During his whole childhood he said he was never, ever going to be part of founding a school because it was awful, it was terrible, it was very wearing and it was nothing any human being should do. And he wasn't part of it--until he had children of his own. And then he was part of founding a school for them and others in Oregon and has worked very hard on that school.
Hal Sadofsky, 1968 - 1980
I'm sort of an old-timer because I started going to Sudbury Valley when it opened in the summer of '68. But we have Mark Christianson here who I remember this way: it's 4:30 in the afternoon at Sudbury Valley, most people have gone home and I can hear the sound of him practicing French horn in the dance room, echoing through the school. That's one of these vivid memories from my early childhood. And Greg's a few years older than me, I'm not sure exactly how much, but when he came to Sudbury Valley and started getting interested in all of the sort of administrative things, I remember watching him do these things and thinking, huh, that'd be an interesting thing to learn how to do and look, Greg's doing it, I could learn that too maybe. So it's really fun to be here with them.
I was sort of worried that by the time I had a chance to talk I would be too overwrought to actually do it but hopefully that's not going to be true. When talking about Sudbury Valley, and talking about what it was like to be a student at Sudbury Valley, I would always like to be able to talk about how Sudbury Valley has affected me, and I can't really do that. It's too hard for me to sort of unravel the tendrils of what Sudbury Valley is to me from who I am, because I started coming here when I was seven, when the school opened. And so I thought I would instead just try to talk a little bit about what life was like at school for me.
I want to start with a couple stories that are about what I was like when I started coming here. I was seven. It was the summer of 1968, and before I came I remember my parents asking me, what would you think about going to a school where you could do anything you wanted? And I had this immediate vivid picture in my head, which I still have, and it was a hallway with doors that were sort of marked by subjects and I just pictured this door marked "science" and I could go in there and do science. That's what I thought Sudbury Valley was going to be like. I got here and of course it was not really like that at all. There were ways in which it was like that, but it wasn't physically like that, and I was a seven year old, it was summer, there were lots of other fun kids and I spent a lot of time playing.
I remember playing in the playroom, playing soccer and all kinds of things that we did as little kids. But meanwhile, nagging at the back of my mind all summer long, was the fact that I wasn't actually doing anything that involved going to classes and learning things. It was summertime, but as the summer was going on, it was sort of in the back of my mind, and I was getting more and more worried about it. At some point I decided that I'd better go to second grade and see what's that like, which is strange because I'd been to first grade at the public school, so I don't why I was so worried about it, but my parents said okay. So I went to I don't know how many days of second grade--it may have been one, it surely can't have been more than five; I can't remember--but I knew almost instantly that I'd made a terrible mistake. I can't even tell now why I knew that this was a bad thing to do and going to Sudbury Valley was a good thing to do, but I was sure about it and I never doubted it again after that. I don't remember the thought process. I just remember feeling that I had to go to second grade to make sure I'd learn stuff and then realizing that there wasn't actually any learning going on.
I was thinking about what the things were that we did here and what I spent most of my time doing. I was enrolled for more than a decade, so there are a lot of different things, but it's always interesting for me to list them because when you hear this list you think, oh, what a perfect preparation for the rest of your life. We spent a lot of time talking. We spent a lot of time playing. We spent a lot of time playing soccer. I spent a lot of time reading. We had a period of I don't know how long--maybe two or two and a half years--when there was a table in the art room that was consistently covered with this plasticene village. We each had our own plots that were about the size of a placemat, and we had houses and people and cars and incredibly intricate rules about how realistic things had to be in order to count in the village. You couldn't just take a blob of clay and call it a bulldozer and then knock over somebody's house, but you could build a sufficiently realistic bulldozer and then go over and knock over somebody's house if you wanted to.
I think about how Sudbury Valley works and how hard it is to explain to people. I know these are the things that occupied a huge amount of my energy for a long, long time. There are other things--I spent a lot of time playing the piano when I was older; I started playing the piano a lot when I was about thirteen. I spent a lot of time, like Greg, learning and doing some of the things that involved helping run the school like being Law Clerk, which for those of you who are students now was the then equivalent of J.C. Clerk, and being School Meeting Chairman, and being School Meeting Secretary for that matter, and taking minutes at these long, long meetings.
I guess there are a couple other specific things I want to talk about just in terms of trying to talk about what Sudbury Valley was like for me and maybe what it was like for my parents too. When I was almost fifteen, my best friend, Michael Greenberg--he was fourteen--and I decided that we wanted to take a tramp steamer to Europe. So after using this threat for several weeks to kind of soften up our parents, we kind of reduced the threat to flying to England on a charter flight and spending six weeks traveling in England in youth hostels. Now I have a fourteen year old daughter and I can't really believe they let us go, but they did.
Some other things that are, in retrospect, sort of significant to me about the time that I spent at Sudbury Valley include the mimeograph ink, which I don't think I got completely out of my fingerprints until about five years after I graduated, from running off School Meeting Records, and Newsletters, and things like that.
I was very interested in music, but I wasn't like Mark. I wasn't driven or certain that I wanted to be a musician, and that this was the thing that I was pursuing with a huge amount of energy. Music was something that I liked and I was interested in. I loved Bach. I think his music is just the most beautiful and emotionally moving music ever written, and I wanted to be able to play Bach on a harpsichord. So one of the things that I did at school, which was an important thing for me to do, although it didn't really go anywhere in and of itself, was that when I was sixteen, I drove down to Connecticut and bought, with money I had saved up, a harpsichord kit. I brought it back to school and spent the next, I don't know how many, months very slowly and painstakingly putting it together.
After this description, when I tell people what I do now, there seems to be sort of a disconnect, and I don't know how to make the connection. I graduated from Sudbury Valley and then I spent a year working full-time at The Natural Grocer, which Greg mentioned, and then I went to college. I went partly to study music. I mean, I wanted to go someplace that had a good music school, but I also wanted to go to a university where there are people who are interested in books, where I was hoping to find sort of a community of people who are interested in some aspects of the life of the mind. You do find some of that in college, some of the time, depending on where you go and how hard you look. I went to college as a music major. I studied music and I also was very interested in mathematics.
I liked mathematics. I hadn't done an enormous amount of mathematics at Sudbury Valley. I had done some just because things that I was curious about required you to learn a little bit of mathematics. I took a wonderful math course the first year I was in college from a really good teacher and I kept taking math courses. At some point in my second year, I definitively realized that other people in music school with me were really, really, really good and that I was not ever going to function at that same level as a musician. That didn't mean that I couldn't have some kind of a career in music, but it was not looking to me like it was something that was going to become my career. And the other thing that I was realizing is that math was really interesting, and really fun, and strangely enough you actually can get paid to do mathematics.
Hanna said that she thought I was going to be an explorer when I grew up. I have tried to convince her that I am an explorer and she doesn't really buy it, but this is sort of what mathematics is--you're trying to understand new things about how mathematics works, and you're sort of starting in the known world, which feels very small. Once you know a fair amount about it, you realize how small the known mathematical world is and you're trying to take avenues out of the known world and to understand what's just beyond the horizon, and then what's a little bit further beyond the horizon, and so forth. So I ended up in college learning a lot of mathematics, and doing music at the same time, and when I finished I got a one year scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University in England. And then when I finished doing that I went to graduate school at MIT and got my Ph.D. in mathematics.
This was another one of these experiences that was in a way like going to music school, because suddenly I was with a group of people who were really intensely focused on this relatively narrow part of the human endeavor. But it was also different because I was really focused--when I was in music school I was also focused on music, but I didn't have the technical skill, or maybe whatever is required in the mind, to do this at the level that the best people were doing it. With mathematics that wasn't true. I was with a group of people who were very focused and who I could keep up with.
I don't know how many of you have read the Harry Potter books. One of the things in the first Harry Potter book that J. K. Rowling does really well is to depict this poor, beleaguered orphan in this world that he has no real part in, and then--this is a standard theme in children's literature, it's a common theme in literature in general--he gets to Hogwarts, to wizardry school, and suddenly he's in this place where he belongs and he has this wonderful feeling that this is what he's been waiting for. Well, I'm not saying that was my experience in graduate school, because I wasn't a beleaguered orphan, but there is this experience that you suddenly have a huge piece in common with a group of people that you don't have in common with a lot of other people. It's kind of an amazing thing. I think that to some extent I was probably looking for this experience when I went to college and I didn't find it as much there. But I did find my wife there so that was something that helped make up for it. In graduate school there was this very intense feeling of a bunch of people who were very interested and very focused on this beautiful but hard to understand and really interesting area of human study.
I finished graduate school in 1990 and then I was a math professor post-doc at Johns Hopkins University for the next five years. That was an interesting period because I was in a job that I knew was temporary, and I was just starting out in this new field, and my wife had also just finished her professional training and she was starting her first job. We didn't have any kids so we had a lot of time to devote to our work and a lot of time to travel.
At some point we decided that we wanted to have kids. My daughter was born in 1993, and my son in 1995, and then in 1995 we moved to Oregon where I'm a math professor at University of Oregon. That was in some ways a wonderful move although it was also kind of a low year in terms of my life because all at the same time we had two kids in diapers, one a newborn, moving across the country, starting new jobs. It was sort of too many things at once, if one could really plan things out. There's a quote attributed to Einstein that "time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once." But occasionally it doesn't work, and that was one of the times when it wasn't working.
We've been in Oregon since '95 and in 1997 I had a phone call from somebody in Cottage Grove, which is sort of a neighboring town to Eugene--it's over 20 miles south on the highway, but Oregon is sparsely populated so that counts as "neighboring". Some people in Cottage Grove had ordered a Sudbury Valley School Planning Kit and said they wanted to start a Sudbury school. They wanted to start a publicly-funded Sudbury school. I said, no, you don't, you don't know what a Sudbury school is. You can't possibly have a publicly-funded Sudbury school. I had this conversation on the phone with a woman named Leslie Stine for about half an hour, and after awhile I became convinced of one thing, which is that she actually did want to start a Sudbury school.
I wasn't convinced that it was possible to start a publicly-funded Sudbury school any place. But I went down to meet with them and they really did seem to want to do this and they really had put a lot of effort into sowing the ground to make it possible. Leslie Stine was sort of an unstoppable force. We worked very hard over the next six months or so to get things going and we started a Sudbury school against my better judgment in 1998. Blue Mountain School is now in its tenth year--sadly, probably its last year, because if you're a publicly-funded school of course you have to follow the rules that go with public funding. We believe we have, but at some point the system finds a school like Blue Mountain School threatening to have in its midst. And somebody in power gets threatened enough to find a way to show that you haven't been following the rules, or to find a way to pretend to show that you haven't been following the rules. So we've been in sort of a life-and-death struggle with our sponsoring school district for almost the last year. We have won the struggle so far, because they tried to shut us down before this school year began, and we're going to be able to finish the school year, but the long-term doesn't look especially good. However, it has been ten years of a nice school that has been good for lots of kids, including my own. So it's sort of this mixed thing: I'm glad that we did it, and I'm wishing there was some way that it didn't have to be ending. I'm sorry that this is a low note to stop on, but it seems like a good stopping place.
It's really hard after every one of these people so far, and I'm sure it's going to be hard after Nikole, not to feel so thrilled about the lives that people who've gone to this school have been able to lead. When Nikole first enrolled, she was just sixteen. She came from Newburyport, which is another one of those places where it's basically an impossible commute. And let's get one thing out on the table: she still doesn't know how to drive! But from the very minute she walked in, everybody in school went bananas, because she just was so amazing. She makes an impression that's unforgettable, as you will see when she talks to you. She lives and breathes theater and art and she is theater and art. She always has been. She took the school by storm and I don't want to take one more second of time away from her taking you by storm.
Nikole Beckwith, 1996 - 1999
I feel as though I'm kind of a very classic Sudbury Valley School success story, whereas pre-Sudbury Valley I was an absolute textbook bad kid. I was awful. Even as a very young kid, my distaste for the public school system and my not fitting in with that learning method and that environment was clear. As young as elementary school I was getting my much more academic and by-the-books younger sister to do my homework, even though it was just coloring. I was like: do this. I don't want to color in the lines, it's boring. That got progressively harder as you start to reach middle school and high school, it's not coloring anymore, it's even worse. Get me out of here.
I started to get kind of angry. I felt like a puzzle piece that wasn't fitting into the bigger picture. There was no place for me. So I became vocal. I became angry. And I became very upsetting. If there was a rule, I would break it. It didn't matter what the rule was. I was loud when they wanted me to be quiet; I was quiet when they wanted me to talk; I was skipping school when I was supposed to be in school. Then they would suspend me, and I'd show up. Whatever they didn't want me to be doing, I was doing. The vice-principal used to chase me down the street to try to get me to not skip class. Once I had outwitted him and he would return to the office, I would come back and spray-paint everywhere.
It was like this horrific thing. My parents did not know what to do. That's the very condensed version. In public high school my parents were on the speed dial of the principal and vice-principal. Eventually, I was suspended indefinitely. And again the handcuffs, the truant officer. I was fifteen at the time, so it was illegal to be out of school for a certain amount of time, so then I fought to get myself back into the school and they're, like: we hate you. I was, like: I hate you more--and I'm going to show you every day. So then I fought my way back into the school and promptly after doing that, left. I'm skipping again, I'm out of here.
My parents didn't really know what was going on or what to do, and then I found Sudbury Valley School. And I was, like: look at this, this is perfect. And they said: that's not a school, but we have no choice. So they brought me in for an interview and immediately I knew this is the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life, this is exactly where I should be. In the interview they were listening and nodding. I don't really know what they were thinking. Afterwards, they were pretty silent. We had a meal afterwards--lunch--and there was silence. They had no input and it was upsetting to them. I understand; especially when, of course, they just picture me in this building with my spray paint, and my aha-ha-ha, and I'm just going to keep being bad, which wasn't actually the case.
I came to Sudbury Valley and I made a complete change. It wasn't really a gradual change, it was just, ahh, I'm here! This is what was going on: when you're given respect, you give respect back; when you're given responsibility, you take that responsibility. It was really kind of instantaneous for me. I went from being 100% negative--bad, detention, suspended, horrible poster child for a future of living in a gutter--and then in my entire time at Sudbury Valley I was brought up once. I brought myself up for flicking a lighter in a room where I believe I was alone in the room. If I wasn't alone, there was only one other person sitting in the room. It was back when there was a smoking room and I was stressed out about something, I was talking about something and I just flicked the lighter out of habit. I said, I have to bring myself up. If the person was actually in the room, they kind of looked at me and said, well, I'm not going to say anything, and I was like: well, I am, this is wrong. And so I brought myself up. I might even have been J.C. Clerk at the time and I may have referred myself to School Meeting. I'm not sure, but I know it went to the School Meeting. So that's a drastic change.
At Sudbury Valley what was I doing? The first year, I had changed. I was like now I don't have to worry about this fight anymore, I don't have anything to prove anymore, I can just be, I can just absorb, I can just be here. Finally, I'm kind of shaking hands with who I really am. That was really what the first year was--like taking that giant weight off of my shoulders and seeing how I can move without it. And it was classic: lots of time reading, lots of time talking, lots of time sitting in the sewing room for four hours at a time doing nothing. My parents learned very early to stop asking what I did at school today, because I'd start saying, well, I played checkers. Okay, as long as you're not killing anyone, we're fine. It's better than we thought it was going to be. They just kind of stayed out of it. That was the first year.
I think I started doing theater when I was ten. So I was doing that at after school programs through my horrific public school experience. And then coming to Sudbury Valley, I had the freedom to read plays and study whatever on my own time--just kind of delve deeper into the thing and have it not just be my release--my only outlet, my only release, my punching bag basically, which is what the theater classes were while I was in public school--and actually become just part of my routine, part of what I'm doing and an art form that I was gaining expertise in. I was assisting acting classes in Newburyport to pay for the acting classes that I was also taking there, so that was great. Then my second year here I started a Drama Corp. with Molly, and we ran it. We were doing improv with younger kids, and that kind of thing. Also a big thing in my second year was becoming J.C. Clerk. I wanted to give back to the community that I was getting so much from, and I wanted to get really involved with the school, so I spent two terms being J.C. Clerk and they were unbelievably intense terms--unbelievably intense. Then I was a J.C. master, and again going the complete opposite direction of where I'd started in public school. The second year I was a staff brat. I was in the office all the time. I was like: let's talk office stuff. What's going on in this school, let me type anything up, this is great.
I remember the Boston Globe doing a story on the school--one of their wonderful, "this new thing that's happening, this crazy experimental school, what's going on?" - and it's like: it's the thirtieth year! So they had interviewed me for the article and it said, "Nikole Beckwith says blah, blah, blah. She's the current J.C. Clerk" and, in parentheses, "a position comparable to the principal of a public school". So I read this and I was like, YES! I highlight it and I run down to Newburyport High School and say: check this out. They were as white as ghosts; what are you talking about? That was my second year and so much was going on for me that year. It was like the meat and potatoes of everything. The next year, I wasn't doing the J.C. stuff quite as much, but I was still very nosey, and I'd sit in on J.C. all the time.
Eventually I also had the freedom to be working outside of the school in the community. I was doing actual shows in Newburyport. One of the shows I did was a play called "SubUrbia" by this guy, Eric Bogosian. This play really changed my life. I knew this was the type of theater I wanted to be doing. It was this huge deal to me, it was really life-changing. I knew this is what I want and then I started reading his monologues, writing my own monologues, really starting to write things and get my own storytelling out there. I was completely inspired and changed by this playwright and his work.
I was going into the community in Newburyport, so it was a balance of school time and bringing it out into regular life time. So then I left that year and I went to Newburyport, and did not go to college. I felt I'm not going to go to college because if you want to be in the theater, you should be in the theater. Let's learn from experience. I've been learning from experience this whole time and what am I going to go to college for? They're going to teach me how to annunciate "strawberry". Well, I had done that a really long time ago, because for fifteen years I had studied theater and so I wasn't starting at the same spot. I just wanted to get out there, to get into the theater. Right after I graduated, I was offered a head teaching job at the studio that I had been studying and assisting at, and so I took it. I was also slinging coffee, and working retail, and doing all those things that actors have to do. It was really amazing. I was nineteen and teaching these kids, and again the age integration at Sudbury Valley totally made that possible--I knew how to communicate to anyone, to parents, to other teachers, to the young kids I was teaching. It was because of this school's environment where I was with the staff, I was with the kids, I was with my peers, I was learning and observing everything and communicating, and it's just huge. Some of my students then--we kept it a secret--weren't that much younger than me. I had fake eye glasses that I would put on to look more mature when the parents would come along because basically, I looked like one of the students. Actually, the total time from when I was assisting to the time I left that studio, I think was about twelve years.
I started working professionally in the theater--community theater and some theater in Boston, in New Hampshire, and production companies in Newburyport. It's a very artistic town. My life was really the Sudbury Valley kind of thing: you want something to happen, make it happen. I'm not going to just sit around and wait for stuff to happen; let's do this, let's do a play. I want to do this play. Let's go. We would do art shows, and we would put on theater, and we would put on music shows, and do whatever. I started working with a second production company called Independent Submarine and we were like, let's get this going. It was constant. People from other communities would come and see these shows and see me in these shows and be like hey, let's do this over here and I'd be, like: yeah, this theater's great. I want to do another show. We are going to make it happen, we're going to write it, let's do it. It was kind of that extension of what was going on at SVS for me that translated directly into the world--making things, not waiting for something to happen or looking for cool things that other people were doing. It was: we're the cool people, let's just go with this. I ended up writing two one-woman shows, and I was doing that and traveling around with it, and doing parts of them at different places, and anytime I was short on rent, I was, like, let's do this one-woman show! So it would work out that way.
Then I got word that Eric Bogosian was actually doing a residency program in Florida. He was picking three actors and three actresses--to go down to Florida and workshop some new plays of his, and he was also bringing five writers and they were going to write some plays. And then everyone had to make their own monologues, or whatever. I was like: wow, my like total hero--this author that changed my life--was doing this residency. This is unbelievable. But he's only picking three girls. This is crazy. So I wrote out the application, I got my recommendations and everything and then it sat. I was a little nervous about it, it sat in my house until the day before it was due. Then I decided: forget it, what's the worst that can happen--they say no? Boo, hoo, I'll do something else! So I overnighted it so it would get there on the due date. And then about two weeks later, I got a message on my answering machine: Hey, Nikole, this is Eric Bogosian calling. I'd like you to come for an interview. Can you be in New York tomorrow? I said yes. And I jetted down to New York and did the interview. Thousands of people were in line for this; hundreds of people were interviewing, and I was thrilled to get the interview--just getting in the door, sitting there. I'm going to shake his hand and that is just going to be the icing on the cake--signed, sealed, delivered, I've made it, I'm never going to wash this hand again. I was so excited. I got into the interview and we were talking--it was about a half hour interview--and it was really great. I was a little nervous because I found that I did not mention doing "SubUrbia", I had not mentioned reading his monologues or writing my own monologues, I was talking about this other playwright, I was just talking about all this other stuff. In my head I was, like: shut up, shut up! But we were really getting into it and he said you know you're really different from all the other applicants that have applied to this residency. And that could be really good or it could be really bad.
At the time I was 22 or 23, and he said no one else has as much experience as you have at this age. He's looking at my resume, and he said, I've never seen a resume like this on someone so young. You don't have a single college production on here. Apparently I was one of, if not the only, applicant that hadn't gone to college and had been just making theater, making stuff happen. He was kind of boggled by that, and so then of course I spent the last portion of the interview talking about Sudbury Valley. And then time was up. So I left and I had no idea how it went. About a week later I got accepted. I was one of the three girls that was going to go and do this residency with him. I was just shocked. But I didn't have the money to go. I have to pay for the air fare, I have to pay my rent while I'm gone, I won't be working, I won't be doing this, what's going on?
Newburyport, as a community, kind of caught wind that I had been accepted to this residency, and at this time I had been doing a lot of theater there and was pretty well-known in the community as an arts gal. So they had a fundraiser for me. They had a show. I picked up the paper one day and there was a picture of me and I thought, oh, I'm doing a show? I forgot. What am I doing? It was Beckwith goes to meet Bogosian, help her out, get her into this thing. They did the show and they raised so much money, it was just unbelievable.
I went to the residency and it was really incredible. It was really life-changing, terrific. Because I had had so much experience organizing production companies and arts initiatives in town, which comes directly from the organization and the get-go that I had at Sudbury Valley, it was obvious to me that the residency was a little disorganized. The J.C. Clerk in me came out, and the producer in me came out, and I was like, hear ye, hear ye, let's get this meeting in order. I was just kind of taking charge. I said, we need a schedule. That's too much time for you in the theater, we're going to move you over to here, and then we're going to get these people in, and the actors need a break, okay? And so that was kind of happening.
Eric was kind of beside himself. He'd never done anything like this before either, and so I kind of became an unofficial gal Friday for him. I was pushy, I was bouncy. I got in there, and instead of people going to meet with him, they would meet with me. Everyone would meet with me at the end of the day, and then I would go to him with a list: this is what everybody needs and, well, this is what I think, and don't forget this, and you need to finish those pages, and I'm not going to have anyone come to your cabin during this time because you have that phone conference in LA, alright, see you later. Then I would go and that was kind of what was happening and it was great.
After the residency, he offered me a job to come to New York and be his assistant. I thought about it and said I can't really do that right now. I'm not done with what I'm doing here in my life now. But thank you, that's really nice of you and see you later. So I left and I went back to Newburyport with this freshness; I just did this residency, this is unbelievable, what can I now put into what I've been doing? I co-authored three musicals and took one on tour and it was really unbelievable--totally fun. I was a recipient of the Johnson Award in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which is excellence in and great contributions to the performing arts for the town. It's like the art key to the city, or whatever. I'm the youngest recipient to date. I was like well, wow, this is the diploma. Like here's my thesis, thanks for the award, then my diploma. Alright, now I'm going to go. I ended up randomly touring the country with an Indie pop band. There was me and one other person and I'm not a musician, this is scary to me, this is challenging, let's do this. I can't carry a tune, teach me to carry a tune and let's sell some CD's. And so we did that and that was another kind of acting role, because I was acting like a musician, like I knew what was going on.
Then I just thought to myself, hey, pick up the phone, and I called Eric Bogosian and said, remember me? Do you still have that job? It had been a year or two since the residency, and he said, yes, I've been waiting for you, come to New York. I said, alright I will, see you there. And I packed up my stuff and moved to New York. I'm his assistant today.
I've been in New York for two and half years. I studied with the Labyrinth Theater Company, which is a really terrific company in New York. I applied for their master class, got in and studied with them. That was really wonderful. Then I was doing a monologue competition--the Manhattan Monologue Slam--let's get up here and try this--and so I was winning and winning the competitions, and went to the Nationals, and got second place by one point. But since I don't believe in grades, it's okay! I was doing that, and also doing the auditioning thing.
I started out this little guppy, and then I became a big fish in a smaller pond, and now I'm off and now I'm like a guppy again. But it's great and I'm adapting. I've submitted some of the plays that I've written to the Fringe Festival. I'll find out at the end of this month if it happens. But if it doesn't, I'm just going to go put them on myself somewhere else, because that's just my philosophy. It's the way I live my life, which has grown from my experience here at SVS. Doing auditions is crazy; it's a lot of rejection, it's a lot of difficulty, but I don't care. I'm strong, I have thick skin. I got a line on a TV show. I have an IMDB page. And, you know, I'm just starting out. I am also writing stories, essays kind of, about my time. I'm a country mouse in the city and so I began a series called "Country Mouse in the City", and it was published on a website. I go around to places in New York and I read these stories and people actually give me money and it's pretty, pretty great. So now it's just wait and see what happens in the future and keep going. Sudbury Valley!
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