The last days of the fiftieth birthday year of Sudbury Valley were days of fun, of laughter, and also of tears.
The fun part was greeting the 35 students returning from a five day camping trip to Nickerson State Park on Cape Cod. Despite having to set up their tents in pouring rain, the kids and the staff had a fine trip when the weather improved, and the usual excursions to Brewster beach and to Provincetown took place. It actually really does not matter where you are or what you do, the essence of the trip is about old friendships strengthening and new ones being formed. That is because what the students at the school value above all else is human relations, and community stretching across the whole age spectrum from four to nineteen.
After all these fifty years, that is the most astounding and beautiful thing to see happening all the time here. Most of the interactions happen out of sight, but occasionally I stumble upon them. For example, watching a group of older teenage boys talking about the youngest kids’ personalities – who they like and don’t like and why. Or being told by a 17 year old boy that he wants to be a helper at the school’s overnight sleepover for the youngest students, so that he can learn how to be a better dad. And of course if any little kid needs help to reach anything, to tie his/her shoes, or to microwave something, in seconds any older student will help them whether they have to stop what they are doing or not. They just do it as a matter of course.
Just as remarkably, there is no teasing or shaming by older kids of the younger ones. When I was growing up that was part of life in school and in the neighborhood. It was accepted that the young and weak will be harassed just for laughs. I am perfectly aware what human nature is all about, and I am delighted that by creating a community with respect for all its individuals, we created a place where the inborn instinct of caring and nurturing the young is stronger than the need to dominate and exploit others.
Back to telling about the last week of school. Over the years a few traditional activities have developed. The younger kids observe the campers returning from Nickerson with awe, and with a bit of yearning to be older already so that they too can go to what looks to them to be such an amazing experience. To compensate them, we organize an overnight at the school on the Tuesday of the final week. This year, 27 students ages 5 -12 participated, as well as two staff and 3 teen helpers. That was a student/staff ratio of 27/5 (one staff for 5.4 students). You might wonder whether this sounds a bit excessive, but it is not! Let me explain. First, we give them a small snack and gather them for a “mandatory meeting” at which we tell them the plan of the evening and the rules they must obey. One of the rules common to all after-hours activities is the “staff as dictators” rule, which is unique to those activities. It requires the students to obey the staff about any matters that may come up that the staff feels are important for the smooth functioning of the activity. (At school, of course, during the regular day, staff is not endowed with that kind of authority.)
Then while the kids go outside to enjoy the campus in the evening, we rearrange the furniture in the sewing room by removing all the big chairs and bringing down the folding chairs from the dance room, then making one long table so all 27 kids can eat together. After a dinner of pizza and ice cream, out they go to play in the dark – games the teens lead. It is a little scary maybe, but oh, so much fun! Bed time is at ten, but it takes a long time to settle down. That is when many get homesick and we let them call their parents. The rule is: if you go home, then next year you can’t come, unless you went home due to illness. So they choose to stay, of course.
In the morning we eat bagels for breakfast, clear out all our stuff, put the furniture back in place, and by 8:30 we are ready for school to open as usual!
Another tradition is the water fight on the last day of school, in which whoever wants to participate brings a water gun, a cup or any container, and joins in a multi-age melee of a huge number of kids having a blast soaking each other. Then there is digging a giant hole in the sandbox all the way down to the groundwater, which the younger kids delight in climbing a ladder down into. And last but not least is writing in yearbooks. Again, it is engaged in by all ages. I observed a nine year old girl approach the older teen boys, and timidly but courageously ask them to write something for her. I loved seeing how strong and sure of herself and her place in the school she was after attending just one year. I spent a lot of time writing personal and meaningful things, and so did others on the staff. It was evident that lots of the students view the staff as people who they respect and like. They value the staff’s work on running the school for them so that they can be free to spend their time as they see fit.
There is no free lunch as the saying goes, and there is no laughter without tears either. The last day of the year is also the goodbye day to best friends and students who are moving on. It is difficult to let go of a person who was here for ten or so years and who was loved and respected by all of us. So, yes, it was a fun day indeed, but at five o'clock when everyone left I was quite sad. But I was also exhilarated that Sudbury Valley has been around for fifty years and is here to stay!