The following is a speech (very slightly edited) delivered on June 29, 1993, to a public meeting sponsored by a group founding a school, Timpanogos Village, in Provo, Utah.
I’ve come here this evening to talk about the Sudbury Valley School. The founding of Timpanogos Village, which bills itself as “A Different Approach to Schooling” has brought us all together in hopes that I might have some ideas about how that different approach works in practice.
I think I do. First of all, the choice of the name Timpanogos Village tells you something right off the bat. The model you have chosen represents more than a different approach to schooling; it is really a different way for children and adults to approach both maturity and lifelong learning.
I have been aware for some time that the word “School” in Sudbury Valley’s name leads people in the wrong direction from the beginning, but we don’t have another word in the language yet for a setting in which children gather daily to lead their lives. Village strikes me as a closer match, because in so many ways Sudbury Valley is like a village, and in so many ways we try to insure the freedom of action of a village life-style. I think you will see that, as I read from the words of former students of our school, and I hope the reality and the atmosphere of Sudbury Valley will reveal themselves to you this evening through their words.
They talk about learning at Sudbury Valley in the following sort of non-school – perhaps village – context:
I learned so much. It was just ‘life’ for ten years. It was everything. I didn’t really go to school in the morning thinking that I’d go there to learn. I woke up in the morning feeling, I’m going to school and I’m living life. This is my life and I’m in it. It’s as if all my learning came about without really having it set up. It sort of unfolded that way.
Here is a description of the atmosphere from a teenager approaching the school in its first fall, in 1968:
The school was more than I could have hoped for when I first started. What an interesting crew! There were the people I had been looking for, the people that I’d seen in Life magazine and on TV, but I didn’t see in my home town. When I came to Sudbury Valley, immediately – right there – I saw people interested in what I was interested in. I saw people sitting with sketchbooks. I saw people kicking back and reading for the joy of reading. I saw a kid playing guitar.
What an explosion of things going on! You could smell the fresh food being baked in the kitchen, and you could hear music being played upstairs, and you could go through rooms full of books and books and more books; and the pond; and just the way people were dressed and the way they looked. Girls wore flowing things, some of the guys wore flowing things – it was great. People were just letting loose, not afraid to sit outside and read a book or play a guitar or be interested in something. It wasn’t the same old vacant stares on the street corner.
I was right there. The place was made for me.
Another graduate who came at the age of five, says this about the atmosphere:
One of the things I remember from when I was younger is that there was always a lot of physical space for us as kids. We had the freedom to move around and do what we wanted. Something about that quality of space still comes back to me. You could be by yourself, or you could go and set up your own activities or go and be a part of somebody else’s activities. There was always a sense that you could do what you wanted to do and you could be who you wanted to be, because you had the space. That is something that goes back to the very beginning for me. I was aware of it when I was little.
In the last few years a great many in-depth interviews were done by Hanna Greenberg with former students now in their late twenties or thirties. I have been working extensively with the material from these interviews. I feel that our former students have a lot of benefits in talking about the Sudbury Valley School experience that I don’t have. First and foremost among them is that they have the experiential perspective on their daily lives there. I find them very wise. The second is that they are clearly intelligent, educated, articulate adults. That is of course what we are all hoping our children will become, and it helps to know that our twenty five years of experience have produced basically nothing else.
I would like to talk about what we as parents, and then we as citizens want for our young people. I think we want them to become highly functioning adults with as much knowledge about the world they live in as is possible for them to get. To me, this implies emotional, intellectual, and social maturity. I also think that we would all agree that children are born learning and master a great deal of what schools call “material” and “skills” very early on. No one that I know, for instance, thinks that learning to read is anywhere near learning to talk in complicatedness and in the amount of effort it requires. And yet children who are born in places where people talk in their presence learn to talk. With no instruction. Sudbury Valley’s raison d’etre is the belief that people continue that level of effort to master their environment, to do what we call building models of reality, and constantly refine, change, and expand these models throughout their lives if we can manage not to thwart and frustrate them totally. So what we do is step back and let nature take its course, and we are consequently surrounded by people doing what comes naturally, which is mastering everything of interest to them in their environment in order to fulfill their biological destiny to become adults that carry forth the species.
A former student says:
I didn’t really think about getting an education. I didn’t understand the idea of having to artificially ‘get’ an education. I thought that you lived in the world and you got smarter because every day you were learning stuff. I thought that there was no way to get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain. It seemed to me that one day you were talking to someone about one subject and another day you were talking to someone about another, and that eventually you’d get around to all of them.
Strangers would ask you questions which showed that they had no concept of what you were doing. It was as if some Russian citizen came to America and said, ‘So, what do you do when the Secret Police knocks on your door?’ It’s like, wait a second, I don’t think you’ve got the concept here. They would say ‘What classes do you do?’ And you’d be thinking, ‘Classes? We don’t do classes, you know. Look around. There are no classrooms here. ‘And then they’d say, ‘What did you learn today?’ And we’d think, ‘What did I learn today? What are you talking about?’ Because it wasn’t like you went into the library and learned your facts for the day. You had a dozen conversations with people. We weren’t learning subject by subject. We were learning in a much more organic manner. You would be doing a lot of different things and you would learn them in little bits and pieces that would start adding up to much bigger pictures. And you wouldn’t really know where it came from a lot of the time. By the time you were done learning about something, it was coming from so many different sources, from books and from people you were talking to, and from a long drawn out experience.
I was six in 1968. My parents started the brainwash pretty early. They started telling me what a horrible place my local public school was, and how the kids had to sit for six or eight hours in a chair and they weren’t even allowed to get up or go to the bathroom without permission. My understanding was that when Sudbury Valley School opened we were going to be in a place where we wouldn’t be told anything, and we could just run around and do what we wanted to, and that this was a great advantage. That was what I had been doing all my life up to that point anyway. I had my life as a kid, which was running around and doing what I wanted, and that was going to continue at SVS, instead of going to a school where I would be sitting down and reading books and learning things in a set order, with my time all divided up.
To me the whole idea of sitting down was just anathema. I was not into sitting down! I was a runaround kid. I liked moving about. I couldn’t understand how the whole idea of being penned up related to being a kid at all. When you’re a little kid, adults seem really tired and slow and there’s this big feeling that that’s gonna happen to you one day, so you better play and have fun while you have all this energy.
It’s strange trying to describe what I did at school. Life is something that’s happening to you all the time. If someone asks you to describe your life, if you really want to do it justice, you’ve got to describe what you’re doing all the time, which gets to be impossible, or your life quickly changes to doing nothing but describing what you’re doing. And in a sense, that’s what my education was like, because my education was what I was doing all the time. I spent some time in conversation with adults – I’d hang out and I’d talk with staff. But learning for me never happened in formal situations, not in anything where I could say that at a particular time I was inquiring into some particular thing. I wouldn’t spend two months on a subject. I probably wouldn’t spend a week on a subject in general, but if I got curious about something, I’d find out who knew and I’d go ask and find out what it was. Immediately, or as soon as possible. If I was deep in the middle of the woods and I got curious about something, I wouldn’t run back, but I’d wait until I got back. To the outside observer it was random. If I would see a leaf fall and start wondering about aerodynamics, that looks random, but it isn’t. They weren’t big things. It’s like a million little bubbles, not a dozen big ones. I absorbed a huge amount.
We want our children to be able to live satisfactorily in the society into which they are born. So we want them to learn to live with other people. We want them to learn to be self-governing and responsible for their society as well as themselves. We want them to be highly individualized – this is the United States – and still to be able to live within the governmental framework – after all, so far, democracy is the best system we’ve got. We want them to prize and protect their freedoms and their rights so that future generations can follow their biological drive to become high functioning adults.
So not only do we want people to develop in a holistic manner, we want them to be strong citizens in a free society. These two ideals seem to lead to the same thing – a culture for children in which they can learn responsibility and freedom by exercising it, learn respect by being respected, and develop creativity fully by allowing its flowering. So we at Sudbury Valley have felt from the beginning that each individual is best served at every age by allowing that person’s native curiosity and creativity to be undeflected and uninterrupted. We believe that the best way for children to develop is in the way that least impedes the mind’s exploration of the environment. And we believe that citizens of a direct democracy become most experienced at responsibility for their community. Therefore, the school is governed by a School Meeting, one man/one vote, by staff and students. This meeting arranges all administrative functions, budgets all moneys, makes all rules, hires and fires all staff, and protects the school from disorder by supervising a sub-group that handles all disciplinary complaints.
Let me read some more comments of alumnae:
I had such a good time. I did what I wanted to do for eighteen years. And I don’t have a chip on my shoulder that I never got to do what I wanted to do.
I know people who say, ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with my time if I had a month off.’ And I look at them and wonder,‘What are you talking about? Just use your time.’ I never feel like if the structure in my life was lost, what am I going to do? I don’t feel lost. My ego doesn’t fall apart in chaos if I don’t have a schedule. I just live. I make my time what I want it to be, or I avoid what I don’t want it to be. That’s what you do learn at school. We used to tow the line because you can’t blame anybody else. Which is really hard. It’s the hardest thing about the school. It’s not hard when you’re a child, but it’s hard when you’re an adolescent. It’s hard when you’re fifteen. Little kids want to be responsible for themselves. When you’re six, you know what you want. You want to absorb the world, you want to be busy, you want to do things. You don’t want to jump over the same ravine you did the day before! When you’ve been at Sudbury Valley since you were six, it’s only you. It’s always been you. You’ve always made the choices so you can’t blame the principal or blame the structure. But you’re also more used to dealing with it.
A close friend of hers says:
Most of the things I learned, I learned from other kids. I’m not saying I didn’t learn in seminars or from other classes I took. I did. But the bulk of what you learn at Sudbury Valley is life. You learn about life and how to deal with people and how to get things done and how to organize all the things you learn. Some of it you learn from seeing the adults do it, or participating with the adults. I was part of committees and things like that where there would be other people showing me. But most – I think 99% – of what you learn, you learn from the other kids, and it has to do with life – how you live and how things happen and what goes on. You learn that from each other, and it’s a process. It’s not like, ‘I learned it from so and so.’ We just learned it together. Some of it you learn from other kids in a direct relationship, where you can sort of see how it’s coming. But most of it is just because you’re sitting around talking, or somebody is saying something and an idea comes up and it sort of gets put through the mill, and evolves.
When I went to college, I felt prepared beyond the needs of college in some ways. I felt that I knew a lot more than the other freshman students just about life. I had been at Sudbury Valley where you get things done yourself, where people don’t spoon feed you; and I had traveled and done al lot of things. I felt that a lot of other people were flat compared to me.
Her brother says:
Today somebody was asking me if I was well prepared for college. I was telling them about Sudbury Valley and they kept asking me, ‘Was this hard for you when you went to college?’ and ‘Was that hard for you when you went to college?’ and I finally said, ‘Look, nothing was hard for me when I went to college. College wasn’t hard for me. I did some hard things there because I tried to learn things that were hard to learn, but there weren’t things that were hard for me.‘ Yes, I was well prepared. I think that people from Sudbury Valley are, in general; not necessarily because they have exactly the skills that are expected of them, but because they have the skill of knowing how to take care of themselves in a general way, so that when they have to do certain things, they can do them. They haven’t gone through years and years of having other people tell them what to do, and when they get to college and people aren’t telling them that much what to do, they don’ t feel like they’re at a loss. The people I knew in college who had problems were all people who really weren’t sure what to do because they didn’t know why they were there and because they weren’t used to trying to figure out what to do with their day, what to do with their month or what to do with their life.
People ask ‘How do kids from Sudbury Valley feel when somebody tells them what they have to do?’ To me, that’ s just nonsense, because we’re responsible people. I may not like my supervisor and the way she goes about telling me to do my job, but I know I have to get it done. I chose the work I’m doing, but I don’t have to love the system just because I chose it, if the system stinks. I struggle to make the best of it. Going to Sudbury Valley doesn’t give you a problem with authority. If anything, you just have more understanding that the person in authority is the only one taking responsibility in many instances: and you have an idea of responsibility, so you can look at what they’re looking at. If you’ve been to Sudbury Valley, you realize that this stuff has to get done, and you chose to work there and get it done. So even if you can’t stand your boss, you realize you have to get it done. You’re not at a disadvantage because you never had a boss in school.
Most people at SVS are doing things not done in most other schools, and most are doing things with a very unusual intensity and concentration. This focus on whatever pursuit they are engaged in is a hallmark of people pursuing activities freely, and has certain results which I will describe in the words of former students:
When I started doing chemistry, it fascinated me. That was amazing. This was at about thirteen or fourteen.
It even interested me to the point that when I couldn’t learn any more until I knew how to do some math, – I got someone to teach me math for a while. What I’m trying to say is, the school made me self-sufficient. There was something that I wanted to do, and this is how you do it, and you go and talk to the people you need. It felt good to be able to do something on my own, to put something together that I wanted to do and contact all the right people so that I could say, ‘Yes, look, I can do this.’
In most of my ‘classes’ I’d say, ‘This is what I’ve done, where can I go from here,’ and then maybe I wouldn’t even talk to the person for two weeks until I’d say, ‘ Look, this is what I’ve done,’ again. It was a good school and it was an enjoyable place to grow up because you grew up academically and socially and physically all at the same time. It didn’t come in stages.
There are a lot of things about Sudbury Valley that I think public school students never have a chance to achieve. They don’t have to challenge themselves to go out and learn what they want to learn. When you’re responsible for your own time, and spend it the way that you want to, you tend to put a lot more enthusiasm into what you do. At Sudbury Valley almost everybody really went all out. We would go about doing what it was that we wanted to do to the utmost. And, when you end up the way you want to end up, you know you’ve been responsible for it. It’s a lot more rewarding, than when you end up the way somebody else wants you to end up.
At Sudbury Valley children are certainly teaching adults more often than adults are teaching children. After all, there are a lot more young people than there are adults. But most often people are just learning and unconscious that “learning” is what they are engaged in. As one says:
The atmosphere was a mixture of everything. It was exciting. It was colorful. There was always something going on. You could walk around the school and find somebody baking cakes or telling lies or having a heated argument, or talking about Hinduism, or making modifications on the barn. You could just find anything to suit your mood. You could go sit in the sun or you could go sit in the smoking room.
Another person says:
There were always interesting things happening at school. The atmosphere was always buzzing. I always felt that I could take part in some of whatever it was. It could have been older people dissecting something in the lab, and I knew I could go in. I could check it out. If I didn’t like it, I could take off and go somewhere. Everybody was receptive to what your interests were, whether it was kids or staff members or anybody. People were friendly and wanted to share things.
And a third:
I always thought I was grown up. At every age I felt like a whole person; not a little kid or a big kid, just ‘me’. Like, ‘Of course I’m not six. I’m just ‘me’, a person with a vote.’ I wasn’t a less powerful person than this fifteen year old, or adult, and I thought that was normal.
People often wonder whether the older kids who had graduated and came back helped us know what life was going to be like? The answer is a simple, ‘No.’ We were in life. We didn’t think about life as ‘going to be like’.
Doing what they choose to do is the common theme; learning is inevitably the by-product. It is first and foremost a place where students are free to follow their inner dictates. Play is the most serious pursuit at Sudbury Valley. This is not an accident. Psychologists generally agree these days that allowing the mind to roam freely has the most potential for mind-expansion. This process cannot be forced, but creativity grows well in such freedom.
I would like to read some quotes from graduates who talk about the various types of play they engaged in at Sudbury Valley, and its aftermath. I am going to concentrate for the moment on the reminiscences of people who were part of an intense, creative, society-modeling activity with plasticene, a modeling clay that is very flexible, and stays malleable so it can be reused over and over. All of the items discussed – factories, mines, cars, houses, people – were made out of plasticene. Listen for the ideas that repeat and that point to constructing, refining, and reconstructing models of reality.
When I first started going to SVS, the plasticene table was working in the art room. Someone had a mine, some type of coal mine or something, and he made tracks running into it. There were all these carts and things that were going into it. And I looked at this and I said, ‘This is totally intriguing.’ The school at the time was selling pounds of this clay for $1 and I couldn’t wait. I could go home, get a buck, and buy a block of this stuff. I loved the smell of it and I loved the color of it – terra cotta. All the kids doing it at the time were much older than me, but I picked it up very quickly. I saw the tools you needed: a razor blade, a pen and a jar. The jar was for rolling out clay, a big perfect-sized glass jar. I was pretty good at it, because I watched the masters.
I don’t remember thinking, ‘Can I do this?’ It was just, I got clay, I started doing it. They made room on the table, which meant that I had land on Plasticene Island. Realism was important. The cars had to have engines, and the engines had to have air cleaners, fuel pumps, everything. And everything had to be to exactly the right scale, HO scale. I did a lot of copying – not exactly replicating what somebody did, but seeing it or watching a technique and doing it. The way I thought about it was, I could have read a book and I could have copied something exactly, but I felt that I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to think about it myself, from what my life experiences were, what I knew about it. And that’s really how I learned how to do things and how I still do. I remember working entire days – aside from eating lunch. I wouldn’t realize how starving I was and then I’d grab some lunch and head back and work some more. Weeks maybe years at a time.
Plasticene was reality; it was a life on its own. It had an economy. It had currency. It had laws. The currency we had was actually made out of paper. There was a treasury mint made out of plasticene. There were stamps to print the money out of wood. We had tiny squares of paper that were ones and tens.
One of the first scenes that we made was an older town; it never really had a time. But the cars and things that people made were really old fashioned. And there were general stores and mail, post offices and hotels and things like that, things from movies or just things that you saw in life.
Sometimes I wish I could go back there and just hover above that table and see it again.
There were times at the table when it wasn’t easy. For example, when somebody would want to go to war with you over something. Sometimes, we decided to actually have a full-blown war cause we wanted to destroy the table and start over. Q always had the upper hand. He would be working late at night at home making masses and troops of these guys that had guns and tanks and different equipment.
Every building pretty much had to have a block foundation. So you would do the block foundation and you would put the beams across underneath so that you could support a floor. You’ d make a solid piece of clay for the floor. You’ d cut it out and you’ d draw on floorboards. You wouldn’ t just put a flat piece of nothing. I mean, it had to have detail. You’ d poke nail holes and you’ d draw lines where two boards came together at a certain part of a wooden floor and you’ d put two nails in either side of it, cause that had to hold it down. On the outside there were nails on each shingle, the right number of nails. There were several different kinds of roofs. First, the corrugated roofs; you just took a pin and you would draw vertical lines for a corrugated roof. The kind of roof you’ d put on barns, for instance. If you had a hotel, something with a flat roof, you’ d put a gravel roof on it which was pretty much taking your pen and poking holes in it.
I definitely bonded with a lot of people I did this with. And everything I learned about economics I learned there; I learned about currency, using money, what it means to buy something, or to lose something and get it back and rebuild it. It was almost like a society of its own, that we ran.
Here is another perspective, from a non-participant:
There was a whole checklist of things you had to have that made your engine realistic enough to be able to actually run a car on Plasticene Island. People also manufactured them for others. There was a factory called The Plotzmobile Factory. There were little templates that were all drawn out to make all these little Plotzmobiles and sell them to kids for the money that was also made on Plasticene Island. Q would sell the Plotzmobiles and his brother, E, had the Sprint, which was a much sportier car than the Plotsmobile. The Plotsmobile was the workhorse. But then someone would get bored and you’d suddenly see him rolling out about a thousand men and you’d say, “What’s going on?” And suddenly all the men would have little rifles. You’d come in and suddenly you’d realize that the birthrate over at his place had gone out of control. And he would attack all his neighbors. He would totally overwhelm them. At one point Q got bored with the conventional attack strategy and he built a huge factory capable of making large machines. Then he had the factory build this enormous bulldozer and he proceeded to push some of his less favorite people into the sea. He just bulldozed their houses into the sea.
Making money on the Plotsmobile wasn’t enough, so he built an oil refinery on the island, which was totally realistic. He built it right out of a book on oil refineries and we all learned at that point how oil refineries worked. Then he sold gas, because once there was an oil refinery, you couldn’t just run these Plotsmobiles around on air. You had to go buy gas from him too. There was a whole world, totally fascinating, in miniature that evolved. Even more amazing than the way they actually built it was the social world that evolved. There was a frontier element; however, it was a technical world.
And another student:
Whole cities would spring up, and each day you’d add a building or something. To do this some little plasticene person paid another one money made in the plasticene mint to get wood and supplies and stuff. It was like a model of lots of different activities of people. When we had wars, the value of a piece and the amount of destruction it could do was based on the detail and the craftsmanship that went into the piece. Something that was very good was hard to destroy and could easily destroy other things; so if you had put a lot of work into it, you were pretty much assured that it wouldn’t get easily destroyed. But it could get destroyed. It was a war. Houses could get destroyed by tanks and things.
Learning and playing. I’m sure many other people have thought about the process of a kid’s adaptation to his environment. I think it’s important to have fun when you’re a kid in whatever you do. It’s part of the growing process. I suspect that kids when they play are trying out constructs, mental constructs, that they see other people using. They’re not really in a position in the real world to use those constructs, so they play and imitate them and figure them out. If it wasn’t fun, they probably wouldn’t do it. The motivation for figuring out all this stuff around you is that it feels good to do it.
We have to understand the world around us because certain information that we need to survive cannot be passed down through DNA and genes. So we have a body of knowledge which we gain after we’re born, which is really a cultural knowledge. You learn it as an individual, but it’s passed on. That’s really what we need to survive, and if it wasn’t fun to learn that, we wouldn’t learn it. So, for some reason, it’s ingrained in us that play is fun, and play is modeling what we see around us. In school I did playful learning. I think it’s natural.
Being part of a brand new idea in education felt natural to me. Looking back on it as an adult, I realize that whatever you go through as a kid, you are learning it. It’s all new. So how do you know what’s new to some other people except to hear them say that this was new? Whatever is around you when you grow up you take totally for granted and you use that as a basis for everything else that you learn for all your life. I’m sure kids being born now will take for granted things that I would consider completely mind boggling. (It’s like comparing kids that grew up before tv and kids that grew up after tv.) That’s just the way it is.
The expansion of your awareness of things around you I think of as relating to a bubble. Everything within the bubble I know and understand and it’s part of my world. Outside, I haven’t learned yet, but I may be aware of it. That bubble expands as you grow. One year when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I became really aware of that growth. Before that you’ re not even aware of your own growth. You’re just learning, and the things you know are all you know. But eventually you become aware of your own process of learning which is kind of interesting. That was kind of fun. It was interesting to me, to become aware of myself, and even now I still feel like there are things that I’m aware of which are still not inside my bubble, and I’m still growing. I follow my curiosity and then bring it into the bubble.
Now, here is what the infamous “Q” says:
I think plasticene was probably one of the most intense things I’ve ever done. There were days when we’d show up, go right to the art room, and work steadily at it ‘til lunch time, eat lunch at the table and keep on going until we had to leave that night. And we’d never, never leave the room once. The villages would evolve. Sometimes you’d be building a gold mining community. Sometimes it would be a bunch of towns with hotels and saloons. Then you’d do battles and wars. You’d be building tanks and airplanes, just one thing after another. But it usually involved a lot of buildings, a lot of vehicles, a lot of people, and you’d make all this stuff. Then you would enact various scenes with them.
I think about it every now and then, and I did exactly what I’m doing now, except I’m doing it now in real life. I’m building a factory and making machines and talking to people all day long. Same exact thing. And very intensely. Day in and day out, the same exact thing I was doing in plasticene. Except that when you’re a kid you don’t really have as many of the same complications as you have when you’re an adult. If you’re working on a plasticene village, the worst that can happen is you can lose your razor blade or something like that. And maybe you can pretty quickly find another one.
It was the fascination of creating. You were creating things that you couldn’t have yourself, maybe, but you could still make them, and by making them, you could have them.
What else do people do at Sudbury Valley? As they describe a few of the things they do, I think once again the common themes will be clear:
When I was thirteen, I started taking piano lessons. I just wanted to be able to play some songs I liked. After just a few weeks of piano lessons, my piano teacher tried to get me to play classical music and I soon found that I really liked a lot of the things she was getting me to play – short, easy pieces by Haydn or Beethoven, people like that. Also, I started to listen to a lot of music after I started taking piano lessons. Before, I didn’t listen to much music at all.
I kept it up for ten years, practicing progressively more and more hours a day. I would have a vision of wanting to be able to play certain pieces, and then I’d get to the point where I could play those pieces and I’d want to be able to play other pieces that were harder.
I didn’t think about what it would do for me. I just thought it was something I wanted to do. I believe that everything you do kind of helps everything else you do, because if you’re doing one hard thing, it’s not that different from doing another hard thing. It may take different physical skills, or maybe different mental habits, but it takes the same kind of concentration and requires the same kind of thinking. I suspect that’s how I was born, but I think that Sudbury Valley helped me maintain the attitude. I think that’s how everybody’s born. I don’t think that’s how everybody ends up.
Here’ s another picture:
The big kids played soccer. So C would say, ‘You little kids should play soccer, too.’ He was really into us playing soccer with them. Now, we’re six and they’re sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and we would get picked as a group. There would be a wad of two or three of us. C would tell us to just basically cluster together, and attack anybody who had the ball who was on the opposing team. We would all run after the person with the ball. It was a completely unconventional approach. We were running in a frenzied pack after some big kid who had the ball. And, of course, there would always be this great moment where someone would kick the ball hard, trying to take a shot, and it would cream one of us little kids. Someone would say, “Time out, time out, everyone!”, and all the big kids would cluster around us for about a minute. And then we would get up proudly, because you can’t really get hurt much by a soccer ball hitting you. It would just stun you for a second and the game would continue and we would just feel so tough for doing that. Later, when I was a big kid playing with little kids in the same way, I realized how incredibly hard it is, because you’d be wanting to take a shot, but there’d be some little kid that you were trying to avoid launching the ball into. And, of course, eventually you would launch a ball and it would smack some little kid right in the face. “Time out”, and you’d all run to the little kid and see that you hadn’t killed him. And then you’d breathe this total collective sigh of relief when the little kid got up. And then you’d remember: this happened to me twice a day when I was a kid and there’s nothing really harmful about it.
Back to the pianist:
One thing that I did a lot was play war. We used to go off, either to the area around the barn and stables or off behind an abandoned house. This involved dividing the group up into two teams, and then everybody would have a stick and you would kind of tramp around hiding in the jungle and in the forest and try to shoot people on the other team with your stick. If you got shot you had to walk, usually to the parking lot, and then come back, and then you could be alive again. So this was a big incentive to stay alive, because that’s sort of a long walk!
People always argued about whether they got shot. Somebody would be running from one tree to another and say, ‘You couldn’t have hit me,’ and ‘What kind of a gun do you have?’ and things like that. We played that mostly in the spring or fall, because in the winter it’s just too cold to sit still behind a tree for hours and hours. It was always an all day thing. You would go out and do this mid morning and you wouldn’t come back until it was time to go home. This was always a problem because people weren’t ever sure when they were going home and people would come looking for them and they just wouldn’t be there; and their parents would have no way of finding them.
Another kind of activity:
D was a kid who became a mortician. As a teenager he was fascinated with autopsies and all kinds of medical things. He would bring in whole heads of cows or pig fetuses or cats – any animals he could get. He would dissect and we would watch and we would dissect little things. When he was cutting open the skull of the cow, which was actually an amazing thing because you could look at the brain and everything, he would give us the eyes and we would dissect the eyes and see the lens and the retina at the back. This was big time. This was very exciting. I remember the pig fetus and the cows skull specifically because they were so powerful. When there was a dissection going on, there was a buzz, and we would all run there and D would be there in his white gown, and H would be showing him where to cut.
And challenges . . .
I played a lot on the rocks (boulders 10 to 15 feet high). A friend and I played on the rocks together. He was really good at it. He would jump from the top of a rock to the top of a rock. I couldn’t do that. It was easily ten feet. He wouldn’t use his hands because he was so amazing on his feet. But I remember jumping from one to the other and I would just sort of jump down with my hands and feet and I’d go to the next one. We would play tag on the rocks. I remember running on those rocks, just running from one to the other. You couldn’t touch the ground in that game; you had to stay on the rocks. I bet you still do. I had so much fun playing tag on the rocks. They were pretty dangerous, but they were a lot of fun. I don’t think there’s anything forbidding about the danger.
I learned that you have to try some things. If you’re going to take something apart, you can do it. Just look at how you’re taking it apart so you can put it back together. Q really taught me that. Now, I’m not afraid to do something, not afraid to go up on a ladder, rip open the eaves and take a look at something if I need to fix it. I’m not worried about it. I know if I look at the way I’m taking it apart, I can deal with it.
We loved the ‘mountaineering hike’ [which was around the perimeter of the school, on the building, on a ledge of granite an inch or two deep that changed height because the land sloped] around the building without touching the ground. I don’t remember if I ever made it all the way around or not. I think the part just over the garages may have been too difficult. If you slip, you pay for it. The rest, there are just some bushes or the ground, or whatever.
A contemporary of his has this point of view:
We had all kind of adventures. Games that would last weeks, like some games at the rocks. It was a big challenge to learn to jump certain rocks, and it could take days until you built up your confidence. You learned how to do it by watching other people do it. You have to go from rock to rock to rock never touching the ground, and it was a big thing to watch people do it and build up confidence and attempt it on your own, with the support of your friends, encouraging you or teasing you.
Another game was going around the building without touching the ground. That was a challenge that could last weeks: to think about doing it, to talk about other people who were doing it, to watch people do it, to try to do it, to talk about big kids who used to do it.
Sometimes I can’t believe I spent the first eighteen years of my life trying to get around the building without touching the ground!
And another friend of theirs:
As teenagers, we did the same kinds of things as when we were little. Some days we would play all day. It depended on what you were planning on doing or what you had evolved into at that stage. For example, I spent a certain amount of time – although not really that much time when I look back on it – studying academic things that I thought were important as tools to get into college, or that I thought I was going to need later in life. I think this started at around age fourteen or fifteen. I studied mostly English. I felt that I needed to read more books that were considered classics, or important, in order to be more worldly wise. I had one class with one other person, sort of organized reading. We read 20th century literature, people like Saul Bellow and Henry Miller and John Updike; and we read some Greek classics, stuff like that. We read a book a week and then we discussed it. We had the commitment, and that forced us to actually read the book by the week, so we could discuss it. This lasted about a half a year, and then we started doing other things. We didn’t stop reading, we just stopped discussing everything we were reading. We had gotten to a stage where we learned how to pick out what we needed and there was no point in continuing the exercise. So we took to reading on our own, and I read a lot.
I studied math with that famous group of people that learned everything. Actually, the class was not at 11 a.m., which somehow got into the literature; it was more like 8:30 or 9 o’clock. We couldn’t always get there on time, but there were no excuses! It didn’t matter if you were waiting for a ride from someone who was still in the bathroom and couldn’t leave her house yet. It didn’t matter what your excuse was; you had to be there on time. We met twice a week, I think, for a half an hour or something. And we would do these exercises. We did all the exercises in the class, pretty much, and we had a little bit of homework. We had to memorize the times tables, and D. drilled us and drilled us and drilled us until we couldn’t be drilled anymore. We had fun, but it was hard work. It was a totally mixed crowd of people, people that you wouldn’t normally see in a room together, all different ages, all different people.
When I was little at SVS, I spent most of my time outside, in the woods behind the pond, or up in the beech tree, or in Callahan State Park. It was vitally important that I could be outside. I’d be a very different person now if I couldn’t have been outside then. I don’t even know what I used to do in the woods.
There was one particular day later in life, probably when I was about twelve when I actually didn’t go inside the school all day, except to put my lunch away and to pick it up at the end of the day, uneaten. I would play with different friends. What I did depended on the day and the weather and the season. If the pond was frozen, we might go out on the pond and have a snowball fight. There’ d be four-square most of the year. There were various indoor sports, like paper football, and stuff in the dance room too – foot hockey. And brushball, which is a derivative of baseball that uses cleaning supplies for bats, which then we tended not to be able to do because we made a lot of noise. I spent a lot of time reading too. I didn’t just read fiction. What else depended on what I wanted to know. The encyclopedia was great. I used to have a lot of fun with that 1911 Brittanica. Research is something I’ve been doing for so long I don’ t remember when I started doing it. If I had a question, if I had something I was curious about, I’d go and find out about it.
One of the things most adults notice first about Sudbury Valley, as you might have guessed from what you have heard, is the ease of communication. People, no matter what their age, look right at each other, and treat each other with tremendous consideration and easy respect. No one is afraid. Things are almost never quiet, and there is an exhausting intensity, but the activity is not chaotic or frenetic. Visitors speak of a feeling of a certain order, even though it is clearly a place full of enthusiasm.
There is also an underlying seriousness – even the six year olds know that they, and only they, are responsible for themselves. They have been given the gift of tremendous trust, and they understand that this gift is as big a responsibility as it is a delight. They are acutely aware that very young people are not given this much freedom or this much responsibility almost anywhere in the world. But growing up shouldering this responsibility makes for a very early confidence in your own abilities – you get, as one graduate says, a ‘ track record’. Self-motivation is never even a question.
This is a school for the post industrial age. It is a school for the age of decentralization and individualization. It is a school that gets kids ready for a world that is changing with breathtaking speed, where the biggest need people have is the need to adapt to new situations, to learn new material, to work independently, to be able to use their leisure time in ways that give them satisfaction.
I want to read to you from some of our former students’ descriptions of what it meant to them to be in a democracy. The first is from a girl who came when she was 16 years old:
At first I was scared of the School Meeting – afraid somebody would ask me to say something and I wouldn’t even know what to say. I went anyway, just because I was interested. I wanted to listen. L was the chairman. I had read in books about how meetings were conducted, with minutes, and agendas, and a chairman and everything like that, but it was my first experience with a structured meeting. At first I was confused about L. I didn’t know if he was a student or staff. When I found out he was a student I was impressed. I thought that he did a great job and I really admired him for doing it, and looked up to him.
I was amazed that one boy who was younger than me – he was nine or ten – spoke right up. I think he had been disciplined and he was trying to explain why he had done something, and he just stood right up and spoke his piece. I was so amazed that he had no fear at all. It turned out that he had a good reason for what had happened and everyone ended up rescinding his sentence.
I think people gain a skill by going to the meetings; they learn how to be in a meeting and how to participate. Now I get quite intolerant, because I’m a part of a committee and we have meetings that are just a farce. Nobody says what they mean. Nobody gets anything done at the meetings. When there’s something that needs to get done, it has to get done after the meeting’s over, and I’m really intolerant of it because I just think, ‘This would never happen at Sudbury Valley. This would never happen with people who know.’
Feeling equal is so important; that’s the whole thing. As a kid, it’s extremely important, because you feel like you have some authority and that you can express your feelings and somebody’s going to listen to you. If somebody just throws a rule or something at you, it’s almost like a natural reaction to want to rebel against it. But if you have something to do with it, if you’re part of the decisions to make the rules, that whole democracy feeling, that situation is an advantage. I’m talking now as an adult, but as a kid I was aware of it. I knew that I had certain powers, like, “Hey, we voted staff.” You knew you had powers to vote people in, vote people out.
We operate with a staff to student ratio of about 1 to 15. Once you realize that in this atmosphere learning and teaching are constant and spontaneous, you also acknowledge that everyone is a teacher and every one is a self-educator. Mostly what kids need from adults is very little instruction, but help fulfilling some of their expressed needs.
Here are some descriptions of the role of staff to kids at Sudbury Valley:
The staff were just a dozen more interesting people that were at the school. We hired them to be there, so we could be sure we had this core of interesting people. Then you add all the students to that. It was an interesting chemistry to get it all put together. It’s just an amazing combustion that happens there.
The staff was important to me as examples of things I could do or ways I could be or things I could learn. Learning about raising children was also really important to me. In terms of forming a world view or just seeing the world as a bigger place than what I knew it to be, the staff was really important to me. Also, just the fact that I went to a school where there were so many people who were really smart and interesting, students and adults, has sort of set a standard for the rest of my life. It took a lot of years for me to realize the importance of that. There are a lot of people who just don’t think about things or don’t have a whole lot of passion for what they do and it’s only recently that I’m realizing how important that is to me. That there were people who existed who felt so strongly about how their kids were educated that they actually started a school in itself was really important. Not that many people are willing to put in that kind of time and effort. So they’re all idealists in some way or another. I think that’s a great environment for a school. I think it’s great for kids to be around people who are idealists.
Another thing that’s nice about the school is you’re not hiring someone who just teaches math, science, or social studies. You can talk to the staff and they’re knowledgeable in more than one thing. They’ve spent thirty years more than you taking things in. You could learn from that. I used the staff more as a reference source than anything else. You felt you could be honest with them. But, it was hard to take staff members being mad at you. As soon as a staff member was mad at you, subconsciously, it was like, “Well, how do I get back on their good side?”
The staff at school is important because they’re resources, they’re like taps into the outer world, the world of academia and the world of experience. There’s a real blurring between what’s staff and what’s older kids and it has to do more with degree. It’s mainly a gap in experience. In some areas, staff will have more experience, and in some areas, the nineteen year old will have more experience. Everybody there is part of a network of human interaction. It’s like climbing a tree. You get up to a certain point and you can see so far and you get a little higher and you can see a lot further. It’s like sharing the view from different places in the tree.
In order to graduate from SVS, students must present and defend a thesis on the subject of their readiness to be a mature adult in society. They are then, for the first time in their careers as responsible people in our community, judged by the community. Here, some talk about their thesis defenses:
Defending my thesis was the traumatic moment in my entire life, except for maybe being born, but I don’t remember that. That was just the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. After that, I could do anything. You’re getting up in front of everybody you know, and you’ve known all these people for so long, and basically, what it comes down to is, you’re saying goodbye. I broke out in tears. I just couldn’t. ‘ I’m saying goodbye. After I get done with this, I’m not gonna be back next year. This is it. ‘It was a challenge to try to prove to all your peers that you’re ready to graduate, but I don’t think that was as hard as the fact that I was going to miss all these people, that these people were part of my life.
I guess eventually I just reached a point where I thought I was grown up and I was ready to embark on the next stage of life. I was 18. I was very shy when I was younger, but speaking at School Meetings made me get over quite a bit of that. I also had a little exhibit at my defense. That was kind of a unique experience. Just the fact that you really had to think about what it was that you were embarking upon and the momentous occasion that it was, and put it down in writing, I think is something that very few people actually do. They just finish up their studies and, bang, there they are, they’re done. Now what, right? But at Sudbury Valley you really had to prove to this group of people that you were ready, that you had thought it out, and that you knew what you wanted to do, or at least you knew that you were ready to embark on the next stage of your life and that you were mature enough to embark upon it. I knew what I wanted and I thought that people would see that.
You were handed the opportunity to be your own person and cultivate your own interests and academic pursuits as an individual, but you weren’t handed the diploma. You, in turn, had to recognize as an individual when you were ready to go out there and pursue whatever you were going to do and you had to convey that to all the people involved. That’s the opposite of how it works in society at large, where you’re made to conform to a certain mode of thought and structured environment and then you’re handed the diploma. We were left to do and pursue what we wanted to, but when we were ready to leave we had to convey that we were at least partially ‘together’ – responsible enough to be able to go out into the world – and I don’t think a lot of people could do that.