Visiting Fairhaven School

During February break, I took the opportunity to visit the Fairhaven School in Maryland, one of our sister schools. I am so glad I did! It brought key aspects of our work at Sudbury into sharp focus for me, and I returned to our school energized and elated. Here are some of my impressions, and some of the lessons I learned from my wonderful visit.

The morning after a long ride through snow, sleet and rain, I woke up early, in the dark, with a start. I’m nervous: What will my visit to Fairhaven be like? Will I find the school alright? Will people be nice? I hope they’ll like me!

I am instantly reminded of how similar this is to when I first visited Sudbury, and how this is what it must be like for other people when they come to visit our school too - prospective students, their families, staff members from other schools: very exciting, and a bit nerve-wracking. How important it is to be welcoming and NICE to those who come to our doors! First lesson learned from visiting Fairhaven, before I’ve even gotten there.

Then I check my e-mail and Kim, one of Fairhaven’s founders, has already written to me at 5 in the morning to let me know that the school is closed because of the continuing terrible weather. I’m suddenly sad. Another lesson learned from Fairhaven, before I’ve even gotten there: it’s a real bummer when there is no school.

And: there are some amazing folks keeping this school going! Kim continues to impress me. Not only has she told me that the school is closed, but also, as I’m going to find out later, given me excellent restaurant recommendations. Over the following two days, she will - aside from running a school together with the other amazing people there - help deliver a baby, teach Yoga, cook me dinner, and take the time to talk with me at length and in depth about Fairhaven and Sudbury education. And I think we were just getting started. But before all that, with the school closed, I have time to explore the area and figure out where Fairhaven actually is. I find that there is more space between things here than back home in Framingham, and a lot of these things seem to be churches. Or farms. Or shopping centers. I see a few flat, blocky structures, and those are schools. Gulp.

What a relief then to turn onto a side street, drive through a woody area, and see, up on a little elevation, what looks like a giant tree house: that’s Fairhaven!

I’m even more excited to come back to visit the next day. And still a bit nervous.

If my arrival the next morning would have been a hospitality test for Fairhaven, they would have passed it with flying colors. Becka and Richard, the first two people I meet, are really welcoming, demonstrating to me the power of being nice - and professional - in action.

If it seems that I am harping a lot on “being nice,” there is a real point I want to make here: I’m familiar with how much energy it takes to keep a school running, how many tensions need to be kept in balance, how many demands - administrative, judicial, emotional, philosophical, and so on - need to be dealt with constantly and usually at short notice, and I also know what kind of energy it takes to tear yourself away from this body of live activity that you are part of, to look up, smile at visitors, and to assume the very different function of being a conduit between them and the school. Being kind, welcoming, and professional to a curious visitor can be very hard work, and it’s terribly important. Slacking in this area is a hard thing to recoup from. Who would want to send their child to a school where people seem distracted and perhaps even annoyed at being disturbed? And how hard will it be to set the boundaries between school and home straight if a visit is not professional?

Becka handles the paperwork with me and we quickly start talking about the library, an area she manages. Similar to our school, bookshelves are everywhere, and the questions of how to acquire books, what to get rid off, and how to organize books, are familiar: do people really touch the older books, the ones with the dull covers, the frayed edges and the yellowed paper? Shouldn’t we get rid of them?

Perhaps, but the next day I see a student carrying around a book just like that: a dull, well worn and yellowed copy of Sigmund Freud’s writing. Hmm. Somebody wasn’t deterred. Maybe let’s not throw things out too fast.

Because Becka is called away (people here are very busy, just like at home!) Richard continues to show me around: There is an old and a new building, computer room, art room, music rooms in the making - things are both similar and different here. Where our building is quite New England, granite, and historic, Fairhaven is “New” Maryland, built by a group of founders mostly out of recycled wood and glass, reminding me of buildings I have seen in nature conservancies and parks, very much in harmony with its stunning natural surroundings. The impression of a nature conservancy or natural park proves to be not entirely wrong: the school’s grounds include not only woods and a large grassy area, but also a stream carrying fossils. An interesting entry in the Fairhaven Lawbook concerns carrying fossils away from school grounds (only allowed with School Meeting approval), and Mark, one of the school’s founders, and Jessica, a student, show me amazing examples of fossilized shark teeth, vertebrae, and shells.

I realize I haven’t said anything about students yet! Obviously, the best things have to be kept for last, and here they are, the most important part of any school, the students. Fairhaven students look you straight in the eye, are unafraid, and happy to engage with you in conversation - only, of course, if they are not deeply engaged in something else at the moment, which they tend to be a lot.

As a visitor to Fairhaven’s Judicial Committee, the School Meeting, a Theatre Corporation meeting, and sitting around the kitchen table, I found openness, fast thinking, wit, and self-command everywhere. There is a straightforwardness and ability to articulate oneself here that I admire and feel extremely comfortable with. It is these qualities in students that most impressed me at Sudbury Valley too, when I first visited, and it is the most compelling argument to me for our educational endeavor. Being unafraid to think, speak, and do, comes from being members of a community in which your voice and your actions matter in equal measure to everybody else’s, every day, all the time. And where you can think and do what you want to, freely.

I mentioned in the beginning that I came back energized and elated. I can only describe this elation with an image. Visiting Fairhaven was like looking at the many pieces of SVS education in a kaleidoscope: it’s all familiar, but, with a little twist, suddenly also different, and oh, so beautiful.

Thank you everybody at Fairhaven, for allowing me a glimpse of the beauty of our common goals!

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.