After so many years of learning about Sudbury schooling, and starting several similar schools in the Netherlands, as well as helping others in Europe start schools, I finally visited Sudbury Valley during its regular school year. I have been here before twice during Summer workshops, in 2005 and 2008. In those days I saw the building, talked with the staff and had an impression of what life could look like here. We (my husband and I) were building our own school(s) in the Netherlands from 2003 onward. My husband visited the school in 2003. My daughter was allowed on an exchange in 2007 and was here for two months. But I had never visited the school while it was functioning. So finally here I am.
Being here it all seems so common. The running of the school, the rules, the way it functions is not new anymore. I am not surprised anymore to see what I see, to experience what I experience. I have no questions about how it works or if it works. I am not questioning this model anymore. Yet, I feel an outsider getting a peek into the lives of others. I feel an intruder in the daily business and life of the people living here. They don't know me. I am walking around looking through the windows of the doors and it hits me. I feel an outsider looking in a world that I know so well, but I am not part of it. Yet, I feel accepted. People talk to me, young kids come to me and ask my name. I have intense discussions with staff, we share deep thoughts and understanding, and I am happy that we can get to know each other a bit better during this week.
I don't want to share what I see. I respect the life of individuals here, and don't want to tell about their daily activities. Many people ask themselves how children learn here. But I know that whatever I share about the activities I observe has no meaning in answering this question.
I would rather share my experience with the atmosphere here – the culture – and how that is different or similar to our young school. The whole school breathes a laid back, easy going, relaxed atmosphere. Over fifty years of experience is expressed by this atmosphere.
The school has its formal structures, the daily Judicial Committee meetings and the weekly School Meeting. In JC, the number of complaints per day were almost similar or less to what we have. Also the content does not differ, nor the discussions that take place about the content. What struck me was the ease by which the people fulfill their duties here. The humor and interactions of the JC clerks, the laughter and, when needed, the seriousness to pass a motion. It struck me that there is much less formality needed here to deal with the JC cases, everybody knows and accepts their role. It creates a light, almost playful atmosphere – except in serious complaints. For an outsider, it would be difficult to understand the structure that is beneath it. In our school the formal structure gives clarity to the processes that still need to develop, but can sometimes feel heavy. But here, the structure is in everybody's veins.
In School Meeting, the discussions about where to draw the line to build the culture are similar to discussions we have. I heard some of the same arguments that would come up in our School Meeting. Impressive that these discussions do not seem to change, nor to become different after so many years. Finally, the majority decides. Again, the meeting looked less formal than in our school. No hammer for the chair to open or close the meeting and no special table that the chairperson and secretary sit behind. Still it is well organized, the chair keeps the order.
The whole school breathes the vibrant interaction of people of all ages. This is a community that defined a way of living together that respects each other's rights and freedom. This means that violating agreed upon rules made to create a culture of respect for being in this place peacefully is the core of this established culture. That learning isn't the goal, but a by-product of all activities taking place. This deep realization that it is your life, and that it is your own responsibility to define how to pursue it is the education happening here.
I wish that more people could understand how the formal structures of this school build this culture by which young people develop into self-reliant, educated adults. Yet, this culture is not finished, it is never finished. Debates will take place over and over again, the culture is always in motion, as every year new students arrive and experienced students leave the school by the end of the year. This school is a special place, a unique place. I am happy to realize that we have a lot in common. Though our school is relatively new and much smaller, the activities, atmosphere and processes that take place are comparable. Finally, by the end of the week I feel an insider, I feel a common ground, though we are culturally different. Deeply inside we are all human.
I am grateful to have been able to be part of the school for one week, to see this place and experience it; to have had the opportunity to get a peek as an outsider into the lives of those thriving here.