Being Who You Are

I am writing this on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Neue Schule Hamburg, to offer congratulations and a tiny bit of retrospection. I work at Sudbury Valley School, in the United States, and we are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. I think it could be fairly said that Neue Schule Hamburg has been, as much as it could be, based on their founders’ understanding of our model, and the extent that they could adapt it to the environment in their locale. So, we are all working under the same sets of expectations and beliefs. That unity in itself gives all of us a great deal of strength!

Over the last 25 years (and not at all until then, when we were proudly existing in our own school for 25 years, trying with all of our might and often against tremendous odds, not to compromise what we conceived of, and happily still do conceive of, as a whole and integrated model of schooling; trying with every ounce of grit and determination that we could muster to be viable and to be a true model should anyone ever notice) many groups of people, in a tremendous number of parts of the world, have tried and often succeeded in forming similar schools. These schools are not exactly alike, and although we try to offer any guidance they ask for, including a great deal of material, and they have each other for advice at this point too, we don’t have any ownership of these schools. Each one fits their own culture and their own sensibilities. But in every such school, when you walk in every student looks you in the eye, often asks who you are, often tries to help you if you need help. Every one considers you a peer. One instantly feels at home. I can’t say that enough times. Each such school represents respect and freedom in very complete ways. Each one is staunchly independent, and even though many wish at first that they could be sort of a franchise of Sudbury Valley, not one of the schools or the students in them would give up their independence either. They all realize it is vital to their own existence as an integrated, holistic entity.

This leads to some pretty amusing exchanges: “Can you finance our school starting initiative; it is hard to find the money to do it”, people ask. Well, no; if we were able to do that—we aren’t; it takes all of our meager tuition money to run our school!—then you would not have the joy, the difficulties or the intellectual and psychological growth of solving the problems of starting a school yourselves. The annealing strength would not have come to you! We are democratically run institutions; what our School Meetings say is what we do. We want to only be responsible for our community. We know that everyone ends up wanting exactly that.

Meanwhile, quite a few things cause groups to give up, and even schools that are going along to flounder or disappear. One is that in fact there are some funds needed to get and stay going. Good fiscal management (good fiscal sense first!) is extremely important. Good public relations, in a myriad of ways, has been important to us and to every school that is able to survive for anything close to its first ten years. Luckily Neue Schule Hamburg was founded by people who had a lot of prior knowledge in that area and have been able to enjoy relationships with the State/City, etc., that have kept everyone comfortable.

A surrounding population that has enough of a subset of people that are willing to believe that children really learn best when free, and that children with adults can manage very successful executive, legislative and judicial branches of the school’s government, is also a must. The necessities for surviving for 10 years go on and on. There have to be people in the school, before and after its founding, and certainly for at least the first 50 (all we know about so far) or 100 years, who are able to intelligently present the ideas that the school is modeled on in a way that is persuasive. We all hope that someday trust will be commonplace; the understanding that people of every age can’t stop learning will be part of everyone’s belief system.

I do this sort of work daily. And I am far from alone in our school! Philipp Palm, Nena and many others do it daily. Their family have lived and breathed these ideas for (at least) a couple of decades. I know people in every Sudbury model school that do it daily, but that isn’t all—the students and the staff also have to live the model with each other, believe in what they are doing, and present it strongly to the public, to government, and most of all to prospective parents.

Which brings us back to where the rubber meets the road, I think. We are thrilled that Neue Schule Hamburg is at its 10th anniversary. But what all of us are most thrilled about, of course, is the generation (and in our case several generations) of young people who have gone into adulthood with the maturity and seriousness of having had the responsibility for their own education and their own educational community. That is what I have been thinking long and hard about—why, I ask myself, am I not more elated that we have been doing this work for 50 years? Well, I am, because it is amazing work. But that is not, in the end, what is wonderful. And it is why I say, “wow, 10 years, pretty cool”, but don’t really feel like baking a cake or sending up fireworks.

Our fireworks are out there, for both schools. They are the students who have been able to build their own lives, who feel in their bones the strength of self-empowerment. Who know their own agency. Who understand that they are excellent problem solvers, because they have done it almost without giving it a thought for a lot of years. I love that people who are interested enough to engage a child at all, can have perfectly sensible, and often deep, conversations as peers with students, with young people who conventional schools usually think of mostly as people to be managed.

I can talk to a 5 year old, or an 8 year old, or a 55 year old about the real world, not just what they had for lunch or where they are going on vacation. Every single day. That is the drug that keeps me addicted—when you treat children as people, they act like what they are: people. When you assume that they can be giddy and serious, happy and in control, deeply related to other people, and it turns out to be true, it is hard to measure the daily celebration. So, yes, both of our schools are going to celebrate, but the most important thing we are celebrating is the influence this sort of schooling has on people, the importance of the example of allowing children to self-actualize, and be who they actually are. Not to become, to be.

I wrote once about how I felt when I walked into a room and a 17 year old boy said to me, “Hey, Mims, do you play this game?” about a game on a cellphone that was capturing everyone’s brains at that moment. I was into it, just not so good at it as most of the kids. But he asked me just like he would ask anyone else. “Hey, Mims”,—you cannot get any more equal than that.

And when I paused coming down a stairway one day and a girl, who had been with many others in the room at the bottom of the stairs, asked, “Did you stop to think how wonderful the conversations in this rooms are?” “Well, yes”, I answered.

They Are!

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.