Appearance and reality

We’ve all been brought up on the old adage, “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” The point of this well-worn piece of ancient wisdom is simple: don’t judge the reality of a situation from its outward appearance. Even if you are put off (or attracted!) by what first meets your eyes, hold off any judgment until you have looked more deeply into the substance under the surface.

Well, that may often be true, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a school such as Sudbury Valley. The reason is simple. The first thing that comes to most people’s minds, when they hear about a place where children are not constantly supervised by adults, is that it must be utterly chaotic. After all, they think, look at all the mischief their own children, and their children’s friends, get into. If you don’t keep an eye on them all the time, chances are pretty good that you’ll find your home turned upside down when you next take a peek. Just think about how their rooms look before they’re commanded to clean up or else!

Of course, it helps to be fortunate enough to have a luxurious campus, like ours at SVS. But think about it: the reason we could afford it in the first place was because it was a total white elephant! Here was a huge hundred-year-old granite building in far less than pristine shape, with overgrown grounds. It was not insulated, had an old heating system (probably installed when oil heat first came into use, to replace the coal-fired furnace and coal bin in the basement), and very old electrical wiring. The total electric service coming in from the street was 200 amps, on old wires strung on poles that disfigured the grounds. The water came in from the street on a 1-1/2 inch main, fed by a town supply that had such poor pressure that it took about five minutes to refill a toilet tank on the second floor, and washing your hands was possible only if you had mastered the art of soaping and rinsing in a trickle. You get the picture. It was not marketable as a residence and very expensive to tear down. In fact, the prior owners were a teaching order of nuns, who were using it as a novitiate to house thirty novices who were training to get their teaching certificates at what was then called “Framingham State Teachers’ College.” And even they couldn’t afford to stay.

From the beginning, the staff and students who ran the school through the School Meeting understood the challenge, and set the rehabilitation of the plant as the first priority. It was clear that there were two separate issues at stake. First and foremost was survival, which depended on the ability of the school to establish a usable physical plant and provide for its long-term preservation. Second, and understood by all to be no less important to survival, was proving that a school run by children and adults together, all having an equal voice in all decisions, could create an aesthetically pleasing environment and maintain it as such.

Everyone understood that the expectation out there in a highly skeptical, if not hostile, world of education and institutional management was that we would fall flat on our faces. We knew that we had to do more than just scrape by. We had to show that, as a community, we stood for a high standard of excellence in all that we did - and the first thing everyone could see, long before there were personal outcomes to validate our approach, was the condition of our grounds and building. A ragged, decaying old estate that was continuing to fall apart, with a messy and dirty interior, would serve as more than adequate “proof” to outsiders that we were in fact what they thought we would be: a scraggly crew whose idea of providing children with an education was to let them run amok in a decaying castle.

An incident that I will never forget brought all this home. The headmaster of the oldest private boarding school in New England - an elite, tradition-bound institution that charged a huge tuition and sat on a large endowment - came to visit. As we were walking down from the old parking lot to the building, he noticed the slate roof (the original one, installed a hundred years before), and mused at how hard it must be to maintain it. He had just discovered that the staff was not getting paid (in fact, we did not have anything that could be called a “salary scale” until 25 years after the school opened). I assured him that the School Meeting set plant maintenance as a top priority, and the integrity of the roof was one of the key areas on which the school focused. He turned to me and said, “Right there is the key difference between our schools. Our roof could be collapsing, and our staff wouldn’t care in the least whether we had the funds to repair it; paying their salaries in full is the only aspect of finances that they care about.” He then had a chance to interact with our students and staff, and came away in awe - something we hardly expected when he arrived!

For us, appearance and reality are inextricably intertwined. Every student knows it just as well as the staff. The whole community takes pride and joy in the beauty of our physical surroundings, inside and out. Thus, for example, there was no question that when, four years ago, the dam was compromised and the loss of our pond loomed, we would use as much of our small reserve fund as necessary to repair it. Repair it we did, and the 250-year-old landmark regained its pristine glory.

Visitors, including families considering joining the SVS community, invariably tell us that the experience of approaching the school from our parking lot on top of the hill sends a wonderful message: that we are competent, caring, and, most of all, know how to do things with excellence as our goal.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.