To thyself be true

This piece was originally published in the Sudbury Valley School Journal, Volume 2, number 4, June 1991.

We were talking about birthdays, Audrey, Ben, Christine and I. All three children had just turned six and their birthday parties were recalled with much joy.

As a normally foolish adult I asked the kind of questions that kids consider really dumb. Either the answer seems too obvious or the question has a meaning which the children don't quite fathom. At any rate they indulge me patiently and I persist because it helps me to understand how they feel and think. This particular conversation proved to be a winner.

I asked, "Do you feel different now that you are six?"

Christine answered vehemently: "No I don't!! Why should I? I am always myself, what difference does your age make?"

"How true!" I thought to myself feeling both stupid and chastised.

However, later in the day as I was reflecting about the meaning of what Christine had said to me while her friends heartily agreed with her, I realized that I wasn't that stupid after all. My question was all too appropriate for many of the older students at SVS as well as to most of the adults that I know. For, in truth, so many of us lose our own sense of self as the years go by and as the process of socialization grinds on. The better we learn to fit ourselves into the mold, follow our teachers and do what is expected of us - the further we stray from our true selves.

People of all ages over ten suffer from bouts of identity crisis. They can be highly successful professionals facing retirement, newly unemployed steel workers, college graduates who don't know what to do now that they have to enter life in the real world, or teenagers who are trying to figure out what to do when they grow up. It seems that as life flows on and changes face us these kinds of cross-roads await all of us. It is those among us who know themselves that weather these crises and actually use them as times to deepen their self-understanding and improve themselves.

But those who have been deflected from themselves find these times painful and unproductive. They aren't emotionally equipped for making changes because they aren't at home in their own selves. They don't really believe anymore that they have a great measure of control in conducting their lives. They accepted what society wanted them to accept. Perhaps this worked for them for a long while but when social conditions change suddenly they feel lost. They feel cheated by the society which promised security and stability in exchange for doing what was expected of them. They bartered inner harmony for external success and they feel hoodwinked.

Our schools are the foremost instrument in this process of molding the young. It was a useful and possibly a justified goal when society knew what particular skills its economy required. Then it worked for a large number of the population over the span of their lives. Now, times have changed. We no longer can foresee what the future holds for us. We don't know what skills will be valued above others. When I was doing research in biochemistry many years ago, I used a slide-rule for my calculations. It was a slow inaccurate process. Now, everyone has a calculator on their phone, and the need for arithmetic computation is obsolete. Oh, how many hours and hours did we waste on them! Same with handwriting and spelling. Almost all written communications are electronic.

What our schools need to teach children is to be flexible in their thinking, to be confident in their ability to make decisions and above all to feel responsible for their own lives as well as for their own communities. These teachings can only be imparted to people who know who they are, to those who are themselves.

I believe that this happens at our school. It happens inside each child in their own mysterious private way. We, the adults, don't do it -- we allow it to be done. Still we get thanked by many of our students for giving them back what they had when they were six and subsequently lost. Many tell me that this is what being a student at SVS meant to them. Those students who came to us before attending other schools aren't aware of this process, they just live through it. But those who came to us as older children often tell me a variant of the words Jennifer used when she was sixteen:

"When I was six I knew who I was. Then I went to school and I forgot. Now after three years at SVS I found myself again and I know who I am."