Of course we all have opinions!

Today I was engrossed in contemplating how difficult it is to tell the “bad guys” from the “good guys”. I have had that trouble since I was a little girl watching cowboy movies. It wasn’t that I didn’t have some clue that Roy Rogers, or the Lone Ranger, was always going to be the good guy. It was more that I had trouble telling who was fighting on his side and who was fighting on the other side. After all, they all wore boots and hats and chaps and spurs and vests!

As I got older I avoided war movies that were mainly about combat. I couldn’t tell which people to root for. Once again, they usually had very similar costumes.

It grew more and more troublesome as I (oh so gradually) became an adult and started actually trying to figure out what I thought about issues both moral and political – and sometimes even what the difference between those two were. This was all in spite of being brought up in a household where daily life included ferocious discussions of politics, world events, the economy, elections – all the things I am lucky to have been exposed to, from a pretty good-sized group of intelligent adults for whom my family’s home in Houston was an interesting place to be. They came with a large variety of accents – a dozen parts of Europe, New York, Philadelphia, or none (as in “Texan”!). What they mainly had in common was the lust for an intellectual fray, and the experience of the first half of the incredibly violent 20th century behind them. I can remember heated arguments that I heard, and felt sympathy to both sides of, that would end with friends of my parents stomping out in anger (only to be back in a few weeks, or less). I thought all families lived like ours. But even though I grew up seemingly genetically pre-disposed to form strong opinions, it was always hard for me to figure issues out. Never do I jump to conclusions about important things, although I certainly can identify important things and turn my mind to them.

So where did I end up? In a place where, while I don’t have to express political opinions about the world at large, I am constantly challenged about right and wrong, about the moral and the not quite so moral. Even about whether to write a complaint about a minor rule breaking or just let it go. Because that is the nature of Sudbury Valley. When I say it is an intense environment to prospective parents, they just kind of look at me. I know what they are thinking: they think it is a place where no one has to challenge themselves and where probably people don’t. They are wondering if anything besides winning a game of Scrabble or four-square could possibly be intense. They think that being on the Judicial Committee – if they can even imagine such a thing – is all about crime and punishment, when it is really about figuring out knotty situations, getting them straight and deciding what to do next. So they totally miss the point.

The point is that children have the best chance in this environment to figure things out. They are never told what to think or what to do. (Sometimes they are told what not to do.) Their heads are free. They can develop, in a place where the decisions are not necessarily easy, but not as convoluted and impossible as in the world arena, the ability to set their own moral compass, to become confident in their own ability to make choices about everything in their day – watercolor or acrylic; chocolate bar or cookies; read a book or play basketball. All of this prepares them to make decisions and have good judgment when they sit on the Judicial Committee. Which is, in fact, real world decision making, but in a context we can all appreciate. Decision making at SVS is (according to our alumni!) the best training for a meaningful life, for continuing to figure out knotty situations. It was what I needed to always practice, and what I wanted my children to experience.

People often ask about our democratic process. They worry that their children may have to vote – may have to express opinions not quite like the majority, may not be able to vote differently than their friends. May have to skulk away a loser. But in fact, it is the most wonderful thing. Sometimes I “know” I am right and I vote my way and discover (not a surprise after heated debate) that no one else agrees with me. I love that right to be wrong! I love that no one jeers at me when I am a minority of one. Generally, we try to keep working until there is some general agreement, but we never insist upon it. We talk, in the Judicial Committee, in the School Meeting, and in all the other meetings of school organs, until we are blue in the face ironing things out. That is why it is okay to be the lone “no” (or “yes”) vote. Because you know everyone has heard you and thought about what you have said. And you can be totally comfortable with the outcome. No one ever walks out of a meeting (well, hardly ever) muttering about what idiots the other people were. We work until we get as close to agreement as we can. Then we vote, because we know that everyone has said what they want and been heard. What a powerful right to give a child – the right to sometimes win and to sometimes lose, but know you have been heard. It is heartbreaking that most of the children in the world never develop the confidence that vigorous debate gives us at SVS.

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.