Hanna reads her blog, Celebrating Fairhaven At 20 posted June 18, 2018, in which she gives her perspective as a visitor at Fairhaven the day before the Interview took place.
Mark: We’re here with Hanna Greenberg, who is a guest, and we’re going to talk about Sudbury Valley and Fairhaven School. My name is Mark McCaig. I’m one of the founders of Fairhaven School. We’re celebrating our twentieth year and my guest, Hanna, is one of the founders of Sudbury Valley School, which is celebrating their 50th year.
My first question is, who do you think gets the most out of their SVS time, which students, and why do you think they get the most out of it?
Hanna: This is really an interesting question. If you send your little kids to this school and they have a whole life experience of freedom and responsibility, they become extremely wholesome, true to themselves, the type of individuals who know how to work hard, set goals, achieve them, learn from mistakes—all that good stuff. But, they take it for granted. To them freedom is like air, and the school is like their home. Their home has heat and food, and the school has freedom and respect, so big deal, that’s how they grew up. On the other hand, someone who really suffered in public school, and they get to our school at age twelve or fourteen, says: oh, this school saved my life. I was depressed, I was bullied, I had no direction in my life, I was miserable and I came here and played computer games all the time and now I know what I want to do and I feel so confident and grateful to you for what you are doing.
I want kids to have the whole experience if they can. But I also think it’s very gratifying to watch what the freedom does for others, as a healing experience.
Mark: Hanna and I have both been on Diploma Committees, and one of the experiences that’s very interesting is that when a student—and we use the word that Sudbury Valley uses: a “lifer”, someone who’s been at the school basically from five years old until graduating—is asked questions about their schooling, in some ways they find it more difficult because it’s just what they know. They can’t separate it from who they are. It was the experience of my daughter, and I think it’s true: the longer they’re here, the harder for them to step back and reflect on it.
Hanna: It is so painfully true. Absolutely. And you do have to remember that we are such outliers from the prevailing culture, and that weighs heavily on the children who are there all their lives. It’s only after they leave that they realize how important the experience is. It might take five or ten years, it really might, and it’s a painful experience for the family to adjust too.
Mark: What advice do you have for students, because the outlier thing I think is very real. I’ve heard students talk about how nobody thinks they learn at school, it’s a waste of time, or parents are wondering about it, or friends, cousins. What advice would you have for people who are experiencing that kind of feeling as students?
Hanna: My daughter always told her older brother: why don’t you just change the subject? When they ask you those questions, don’t answer: just change the subject.
I think that it’s very hard for people to understand something that is so contrary to their own personal experience. I also think because a vast majority of adults when they look back at their school, don’t look back on it fondly—only socially and maybe athletically, or the drama club, or whatever. Mostly the academic stuff blurs and is not exciting to them. I’m going to be extreme here: it’s twelve years of bondage. You come to school, you’re told what to do, you get homework. Nobody asks you what your opinion is. You have to do it, that’s your duty. People go through it, and have no alternative. Sometimes they’d rather go to the place where they can justify that it was good for them. To relinquish that feeling causes a lot of sadness and a feeling of loss and they don’t want to go there. Who can blame them?
Mark: I agree. Another question: So fifty years later, is Sudbury Valley what you thought it would be like? Is it what you envisioned that the experience would be like for the students?
Hanna: No. When we set out to do the school, it was sort of like a political thing about rights and freedoms, all kinds of sociological ideals, criticisms of public education, but I had no imagination. I hated school. So boring. Hard to sit still. A waste of my life. But I didn’t have the imagination or the psychological experience to know the beautiful stuff that happens at our school and this school every second. All you have to do is sit and watch the JC, or watch the kids outside, or go see one kid helping another find something, or two little girls cleaning a room, even though it wasn’t their mess.
How can you visualize any of it when you yourself went to public school, you sat in a chair, you listened or didn’t listen, you did your homework, or you didn’t, you learned or you didn’t, and that was it. How would I imagine? So yes, I thought it would be like summer vacation, it would be like family reunions, it would be something like that, and it would be exhilarating. But I didn’t have any context. Very few times in life is the reality better than the fantasy. And that’s the school. You feel the same way, right?
Mark: Yes, of course. I’ve spent 25 years, and you’ve spent fifty years trying to explain the school to people. I think it is such a challenge to explain without being here and seeing it. Whenever I go to Sudbury Valley or other schools and spend one day there, I can come up with twenty examples of why it works. And it’s almost always anecdotal, it’s almost always stories of what you see—that, and meet the alumni.
Hanna: Yes, but let’s be frank. We basically have two schools in each school. One of them is for people who fall in love with the philosophy and enroll their kids. They ask you questions to verify that what we’re doing is what we wrote we would do. And that’s lovely. However, most of the people that come to the school come because they’re facing some kind of crisis, or problem. They have a perfectly adorable five year old, six year old, seven year old and they go to school for two years and they’re depressed. “The light goes out of their eyes”—that’s what parents tell me. Or they have a teenager who is depressed or unhappy or a brilliant child who is flunking. Or a lonely person. It could be any reason. So they look for an alternative. They read about us. And, again, just as I didn’t have the imagination to see what would go on in the school, these families lack it. They didn’t experience it, so they can’t feel it. So when they come for an interview, I usually ask them what brings them, or if they have any questions, or if they have any anxieties or challenges, so that I can go directly to what they are thinking about. Because, otherwise, how am I going to reach them?
Mark: What do you say to students who are worried about the school, who are worried about their future? Have I thrown my future away? Because that’s what they hear from people all the time. How do you address that question for them?
Hanna: Every single kid who goes from our school to college or advanced institutions does very well, although sometimes it takes them a couple of months of adaptation. Isn’t that true for you?
Mark: It is true.
Hanna: How is it possible? Do we only get brilliant children? So I ask them: what happened to you, what drug did you take that you’re so smart all of a sudden? And they say Hanna, it’s so simple, I decided to go. I paid money for this course, or this university, or whatever. I wanted to do it, I made up my mind to do it. So I focus, I listen, I pay attention carefully, and I do my homework. And of course I get an A.
Mark: Also our students are so excellent at talking and listening. You and I both went to college and all of that—did what we were supposed to do. And so I’m fascinated by the question how do our students make this work? They say that they talk to their teachers. They are the ones who hang around and they go to office hours, which most college students wouldn’t be caught dead going to.
Hanna: Absolutely. My favorite story is about a student a long time ago. She wanted to study sociology and she had to take a statistics course. She never did any algebra. She went to the professor’s office hours and said, “I don’t know any algebra, can you give me a book?” And he said, “You’re the first person in my whole career who admitted it to me. I am going to tutor you.” Of course, she got an A in the course. And she went and worked for one of those financial consulting companies in New York City. She was born to do mathematical analysis.
Mark: What did she do at Sudbury Valley?
Hanna: She was Chairman of the School Meeting, she did ice skating, nothing to do with math. She hung around, she talked to her friends, she played. Lots of socializing. What I hear from kids is that—actually I read it in one of your interviews of former students—walking and talking is it!
Mark: Yes, yes.
Hanna: My son, Michael, wrote a little essay and he said from time immemorial, from the time people were social, they had three things: they had music; they had art—they always decorated; and they had conversations. Stories around the fire. All teaching was done by talking to people. So talking is like an absolutely essential human need, like eating and sleeping. Even people who are unfortunately unable to hear still talk. People who talk about sign language say it’s extremely expressive and colorful. I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about communication.
Mark: It’s what we’re wired to do. It’s what all these thousands of years of evolution and genetic selection and everything leads to: we’re supposed to sit here and talk. Which is exactly what we’re here to do. And the unfortunate thing—I don’t want to spend too much time talking about traditional schools—but that is forbidden, often; it is sit down and be quiet. It’s the opposite of what we should do. And schools say “no”.
Hanna: Isn’t that remarkable?
Mark: It’s bizarre. Have students changed over the years?
Mark: How have they changed?
Hanna: I think that as much as we’re outliers, the students live in a society to which they are born and to which they belong, or choose to belong, and they reflect it—the clothes, the music, what they are. I’m not even talking about technology. I think our society, in general, has become more tolerant of individual differences and less tolerant of freedom, which doesn’t fit but is so.
Mark: It’s ironic.
Hanna: The helicopter parenting: constantly being in electronic touch with your parents and asking them what to do all the time. Kids were much more private and independent before.
Mark: We’re going to take some questions from Fairhaven students.
Student A: What do you think of Fairhaven as a school, because they say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery?
Hanna: I think it’s awesome. I told Richard that when I work in my school, I do what I have to do, you know, yell at kids, bring them up, clean up a mess, talk to parents, whatever, right? But when I come here, I see the whole picture. And I’m telling you it’s fantastic. Your school looks beautiful. It’s very elegant, it’s clean, it’s aesthetic, it’s interesting. And the kids are calm and nice. You look like you are comfortable in yourselves. It’s beautiful to watch, it really is. I’m so happy I’m here.
Mark: What does it feel like, as a founder of Sudbury Valley, to visit another school? Does it warm your heart to see other schools that have really adopted your ideas and made them our own?
Hanna: On a personal level, it’s very flattering. But it’s much bigger than that. It is a reinforcement: we had an idea, and made it work in our own little corner, and then, it works everywhere. And I don’t care, you can walk into any Sudbury school—in Japan, or in the South of the United States, or Massachusetts, or here—the feel of the place is the same. The details vary, the culture varies, the essence is the same. That’s a fantastic reinforcement to yourself that what you’re doing is not cuckoo, but it makes a lot of sense, not just as a system, but also emotionally for yourself.
Student B: I was just wondering, since you were talking about differences in the culture and the aesthetic and everything, what are the differences you have noticed, being here today, between Fairhaven and Sudbury Valley?
Hanna: I can’t really see much difference actually. But we’re both American and in the East. Maybe a school in California will be a little different. But you guys are dressed the same way our kids would be. Everybody’s wearing whatever they want.
Student C: When you try to describe Sudbury schools, what are the reactions you get from other people who aren’t as used to that kind of structure of school?
Hanna: It’s a good question. It’s not easy to answer. But the two things that you face when people ask you the questions—because they come with their own life experience—is that they have gone through school whether they liked it or not. Let’s assume they didn’t like it. They have to justify to themselves that it wasn’t a waste of time, that it gave them something, it made them successful in life. Most adults feel that way. If they liked it, then of course, they don’t want to hear that it’s not a good system. But the other thing is the minute you say freedom, they go to all the bad things they would have done if they had freedom. So they think this place will be chaotic, there will be drugs here, etcetera. Does that fit your experience?
Student C: Yes. That answers my question. Thank you.
Student D: My question is kind of similar, but I’ll ask it anyway. My question is the reactions that your family and friends had when you first had the idea, I guess, when you were first explaining it to them at the beginning.
Hanna: They were appalled, disgusted, worried. They thought we should go to see a psychiatrist. In the beginning, I used to be angry: why were they so closed-minded, they weren’t even listening? But now I’ve matured and I have this analysis: psychologically, they’re protecting their own past, they’re justifying their own suffering.
Mark: And sometimes they’ll say it: “I had to go through it, so my kids should go through it.”
Hanna: Oh, and “It made me better.” “I didn’t like it. You’re right. I didn’t like it. But look at me now.” I love the example of the piano. How come you’re not forcing your kid to practice the piano? You’re paying for the lessons. How come you’re not forcing the kid to play the piano every day? And my answer is if he doesn’t have music in himself, he is not going to be a pianist. And the person then says, “And I got so much out of the fact that my parents forced me.” And I’m thinking to myself, right, and you’re a real concert pianist. How come I never heard about you? But I don’t say anything like that because I have to stay polite and I say well, the real reason is maybe you could have done something else with that time that would be more precious to you for the rest of their life.
Mark: Or they could have found their own motivation for something.
Hanna: Just the other day I did say, “This person is doing a lot of music. He’s not going to be a musician, but he puts a lot of work into it. This is something that will stay with him the rest of his life. He’ll come back from work and play music or listen to music better. This is fantastic. The family was wondering if they’re wasting their money and time. And I said, “No, it will be something.”
Mark: Well, you know a number of graduates who are adults. Do you think that they continue this love of learning as adults, learning new things and doing new things?
Hanna: Yes. I think the main thing that you kids learn is, if I want to do it, I will be able to do it. Is that how you guys feel? Do you know how extraordinary it is? What do you mean you can do it? What, you think so much of yourself? No, it’s an inner feeling. If they’re willing to put in the work, they’re going to get something out of it. You want to hear a funny story? This little boy was playing the piano, and he was so little that he sat on his knees on the piano bench, playing Beethoven. So I walked over to him and I said, a little bit like an adult, “Oh, what are you playing?” He said, “Beethoven.” I said, “Who’s teaching you?” And he looked at me like I was the dumbest person on this planet: “YouTube.”
Mark: That’s right. That’s how they learn now.
Hanna: “You idiot. You need a teacher? I have YouTube.” I do however think that sometimes a teacher is very helpful.
Mark: Yes. I think so too, when you want to have the one-on-one relationship of someone who’s very skilled.
Hanna: And the critique.
Mark: What’s the experience of students doing classes at your school?
Hanna: They do them less and less. They used to come to staff and ask fact questions. Now they just look it up on their phone.
Hanna: So now I’m going to ask the students here a question: do you ever use adults to learn anything from?
Sam: Well, yeah, I think that if there’s something I want to know and I don’t like looking things up that much, because I could just go up to someone and ask, so I feel like I ask people things if I want to know, but I also will just start having a conversation with a fellow student and I’ll end up learning something from it. So, I think I do learn stuff from adults, but I also learn a fair amount from my friends who I’m with most of the time. I wonder if that actually is how it is in the adult world.
Hanna: Actually my son, Michael talked about it. He said: we learned our facts at random, but it added up to a lot of knowledge after many years. But there are things that you do in life that need more organization. Let’s say you want to be a physician, you have to know anatomy, you have to know physiology, would that scare you? If you wanted to do it, would you go and do it?
Sam: In my opinion, yeah. How I would explain classes, if we want classes, to all my friends and everything, is that it’s easier to learn something when it’s not being forced on you, when you actually want to learn it. With all that stuff, if I wanted to I’d figure out a way to learn it all.
Hanna: So you all have confidence that you can go to college and do okay? Do you know how to write essays?
Sam: Yeah. I learned through lots of practice through the JC system here. I was clerk maybe six or seven times and I did a lot of writing and I preferred to do writing after I found out hey, this is a really cool skill. Then I started challenging myself to write small stories and got better at writing from there.
Mark: I’m going to tell a story about Sam. He is 12. He said, “Mark, we need to have a history class.” I said, “Well, what kind of history do you want to study?” And one hour later, after he told me all about World War II, I said, “I need to take a class with you.” I think it was just his mind set is very deep and I happen to know that Sam’s siblings go to traditional school, and I think that sometimes people worry like: oh, I should be taking classes. But it became very clear to me that he had more knowledge about World War II than I did.
Hanna: So, Sam, your siblings, are they older than you?
Sam: They have definitely thrown criticisms at me, but over time I think I’ve come home with more knowledge and more things to say, and more topics, and they’ve been like wow, this school is really changing him and really developing him into a completely different person. I think this school has done a lot for me.
Hanna: How long are you here?
Sam: Seven years.
Hanna: So Sam, why do you think kids like you who are obviously capable of doing intellectual academics, get into trouble? Why do they need a free school like this?
Sam: I think that public schools, and private schools, can be really harsh and totalitarian to people. You always have to sit down and you’re punished for not following these really strict rules, for not doing the stuff right. And there are a lot of issues that arise from that. You don’t have personal freedom to learn what you want, ask people questions, have free conversations. In class you’re studying, you’re not allowed to talk to people. But here you’re allowed to have conversations, you’re allowed to go anywhere, you’re allowed to ask anything, you’re allowed to just learn all this stuff and it’s at your reach so if you need it, you can have it. But at the same time, you have other options like conversation and experienced people to talk to.
Hanna: Would you say just from yourself and from observing other people that kids here are pretty much self-confident?
Sam: I think that is mostly correct. But I think that typically for people who are new to the school and how it works, at first it’s hard to tell, but you watch their journey as they stay here for awhile and then over time you can see the confidence kind of like build up.
Hanna: Do you think their parents see it?
Sam: That’s the hard part because the parents usually come, drop their kids off and they just leave. So I think the parents throughout the whole situation, are kind of iffy-iffy, because they don’t really fully understand actually how this process works or what’s going on.
Hanna: Do you have friends in public school or in the neighborhood, or in athletics, or anything? So when you’re observing them and the kids here, do you think the kids here are more confident, or is it a case of “kids are kids”. What do you say?
Sam: I definitely think kids here are a lot more confident. I was in a public school, I took a break from here for a little bit last year, and I made a good friend. We would sit outside at recess and he was talking to me about how he was so terrified about his future and if he was going to graduate. And if he didn’t, what would happen. At that moment I realized that I was completely confident.
Sudbury schooling was what I grew up with and so it was completely normal to me, it was like a first language to me, so I was used to it. But people who would try to understand, and I try to explain to them and they look at me like I’m weird or like I’m dumb and going to fail at life. When that happens you kind of just have to shrug them off. And I feel bad in a way for them for not being open-minded about the whole situation. It’s interesting. It’s hard for people to understand this kind of structure, considering that traditional public school structure has been around a long, long time, and so for them growing up as kids that was their thing. They didn’t know anything other than public school structure. So I think it’s just hard for them to understand.
Mark: If you zoom out farther, what Sam said is traditional schools have been around forever, but as you know, they’re actually a relatively new invention. End of the 1800s. But if you look at human history and human experience, compulsory school is only a blink.
Mark: Is there anybody else who has questions that they’d like to ask?
Veronica: I just walked in and this is more of question, slash, personal experience for me. When I first came here—and everyone can attest to it—I was very, very introverted and I kind of hid myself off into a corner and played on my computer all day. I was fourteen, I had just left public school. I was going through a really bad time—depression, whatever, at a young age manifests itself into something a lot worse for kids. Coming here I broke out of my shell, I’m much more extroverted and loud, as Mark would say. So my question is kind of like: Do you see that a lot where kids kind of come in and they’re very sheltered and once they start acclimating to their environment they break out of it and they feel like a whole new person? Is that something that you see, or is that something that you pride yourself on with this kind of schooling? Was that your purpose a little bit?
Hanna: Well, I think that it’s a normal need. Think of a dog or a puppy, if you keep a dog in a room and you’re constantly giving it orders and you don’t give him time to run around and be a dog, and catch things and chase things, the dog is going to get depressed, isn’t it?
So a human being has a more complex brain and you do that to a human being, what is going to happen? They’re going to be depressed. You have no idea how many children in this country where you are not hungry, you are not cold, yet so many people in this country are depressed and you ask yourself: if you give people food, give them shelter, won’t they be happy, won’t everything be great? And it turns out that it isn’t that way, because that’s not enough for human beings. Human beings have a soul, they have a spirit. They have to feed that spirit, and if you’re giving them food to eat and taking away their spiritual freedom, they’re going to be depressed. And actually the more creative a person is, and inquisitive, the more they suffer.
Mark: And so you see the same as we do.
Hanna: We see it all the time.
Mark: Yeah, all the time. And we see how long it takes to decompress, to unwind, to get over that.
Hanna: At least a year?
Veronica: I feel it’s like a process. For a normal person, I’ll just say from my experience and my sister’s experience as well because she’s also a student here, it took us about four months until the end of the school year to come out of whatever we were in. And then last year it was so much freedom that it was all really wild. I was very loud, and obnoxious.
Hanna: You overshot.
Veronica: I overshot completely. Over the summer I realized: wow, you were amazingly obnoxious for a time. I came back and I found that I have a knack for JC and that I really like doing that and I’m kind of decompressing. I made amazing friends here. I feel that is what kids go through. And the same thing happened to my sister, sort of.
Hanna: Look, Mark. She did it all on her own, her own insight. Just listen to it. Here is a 16 year old: I was obnoxious and I bothered people, and I thought about it over the summer. I came back and decided to start a different path. How many people that age do that? Most people do it, if they are lucky, when they are thirty.
Mark: It was interesting—Veronica and her sister were depressed and very introverted. These guys set up in the Circle Room, the room right in the middle of the building. But they would have their computers and their earphones on and we would walk by and ask is everything okay?
Hanna: But they were still looking.
Mark: They were. That was what was cool because that’s the crossroads of the school so they were there but they were very much to themselves.
Veronica: I have one more. I’m not technically a lifer, my sister is. We’re three years apart so she came when she was six and I came when I was nine. But I’ve been here for seven years and plan on graduating next year. Earlier, you guys were talking about how you found that lifers had a harder time with the graduation process—because it’s harder to step back.
Hanna: It’s much easier to say, “I was depressed, an alcoholic and now I’m clean,”—that’s so dramatic. And what do you have to say? I played here all the time and now I’m ready to leave. That’s so not dramatic and hard, but it’s awesome!
Veronica: Yeah, well, just that just my question was like advice that you have. I’m sure I will ask all the staff, but you’re here right now so I’ll ask you too: sort of an easier way to reflect or to talk about it in a way that is sort of dramatic, because it is. I was wondering what your advice would be, probably based on stuff that you’ve seen to help articulate the experience.
Hanna: If you came to me on a private way, I’d probably ask you a few more questions. So I can’t really answer it, I don’t have enough knowledge. But in general, if you are ready to move on and you know what you want to do the next step, that’s very impressive. But basically, when you’re really ready to leave, you will know what to say. You really will. I think it will come to you. Right now you’re really not ready yet.
Mark: I also just tell people with this question, if you’re feeling anxious about it, look at the procedure, look at the actual language of what they’re going to focus on, because the committee focuses on that language. And be prepared to answer those questions. Part of it is what Hanna was talking about—what are you doing next and what do you think you need to do? And focus on problem-solving and adaptability. Because that’s always the fallback. When I’m on a committee, eventually it ends up on those questions.
Hanna: But the interesting part is you can have a kid who’s an awesome musician and everybody knows it and yet they are not quite ready and they don’t get a diploma. And another kid who is basically pretty run-of-the-mill, nothing special about them, and they will pass. A lot of the kids that didn’t make it, come back and the next year they just do great.
Mark: So I want to thank Hanna for being with us this afternoon and answering some questions. We owe you and Sudbury Valley School a debt of gratitude which we feel all the time. I feel very fortunate to have met you guys and appreciate your advice. You’ve really done something for us and all of these young people and so many young people. So we really appreciate you coming down and spending some time with us.
Hanna: Thank you. You know you have your little garden and you get the flowers and you enjoy your own little flowers. And then other people take a seed from your garden and plant it in their own garden and they have their own flowers—that’s how I feel about your school.
Mark: Thank you very much.
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