Moving On

I'm here because this group of young adults, about to move on in their lives from Sudbury Valley School, has asked me to say a few words. They might have chosen someone else; but, although they don't see much of me--I'm not part of their staff, nor do I spend much time around the School when it's in session, I perhaps represent some official part of the School to them.

Perhaps they also know that I won't deliver a classic graduation speech with motivational thoughts, and remarks about working hard to achieve one's goals. These young adults already know that they alone are responsible for their futures; They have been exercising personal responsibility and the independence that goes with it throughout their years at Sudbury Valley School. But, perhaps another reason they asked me to speak tonight is that they know I am a person of few words, and from their perspective, fewer is better.

I do want you all to understand that this evening belongs to the group that is in fact moving on. They planned the event, organized the evening, arranged the building and the room, and will clean up later. Those are responsibilities they have assumed for themselves.

Some of you are invited guests. Perhaps you're friends or family and have heard some things about this unique School over the years. I want to talk a little bit about what it means to attend Sudbury Valley School. It is indeed unique, and I know it's not easy to understand the School and to comprehend the richness of the education that this environment can provide to those who choose to take advantage of it. (I struggle with this question of how to describe this School whenever I'm called upon to speak with any group of people. I don't know how familiar they may be with this model and whether they'll understand what goes on here. But here goes.)

At Sudbury Valley School, kids are free to pursue their individual interests all day long, every day, every year they are enrolled. They may talk and play; they might read and discuss or not discuss what they read and how they interpret it; they might study on their own, or never seem to study at all. They may ask a staff member for guidance or assistance or for a class, or they may go through their days just feeling that the staff are older acquaintances, people they may chat with about anything of mutual interest or just have casual conversation. They do what they want to do. They follow their interests, not our curriculum; we don't have one for them to follow. Oh, sure, there are rules. But the rules that exist are there to ensure that one's activities don't interfere with the rights of others, to ensure fairness and equal treatment, and to ensure that no one's activities make the School and the campus unsafe for anyone.

Sudbury Valley School provides an environment free of exams, free of evaluations, and free of teachers in the classic sense. There are staff members--adults engaged under contract to keep the School running (with the many and varied tasks this implies), to serve as resources for the students, to teach requested classes or otherwise to provide academic or technical support to a student seeking assistance.

But our staff members are NOT here to create and administer a curriculum and certainly NOT to evaluate student's progress.

So what is this School? It's many things.

It is a place where young people are free to mix and exchange ideas, impressions, viewpoints, etc. They can (and do) talk to their hearts' content. They can perhaps find someone who shares an interest in some arcane idea or in a more mainstream topic. Maybe it is someone older; maybe someone younger. Students are not segregated by age or academic level. Maybe it's an adult staff member who they can speak with as a peer, another person with common interests and perhaps knowledge and experience of value, but the conversation or sharing takes place in something different from a classic teacher-pupil relationship. Conversation is big at Sudbury Valley School.

This is also a place where people can play in any way or form. Whether on the fields or in the music spaces. Whether on the computer or around a table. Whether with a game or an idea that can be explored six ways to Sunday.

It's a place where one can think and investigate. About one's self. One's interests. One's ideas. One's ambitions. It's a place where anyone can learn anything they put their minds to. That's not really different from people anywhere. But it is different from schools everywhere. We don't judge the path that individual students choose to take. It's their life, their responsibility, their individual path. And they know and understand this, almost from their first day here.

The School operates as a participatory democracy. In conventional schools, debate and discussion about governing the school, making rules, dealing with allegations of rule breaking, and so forth, are things kids are never exposed to, let alone asked to participate in. Here one is exposed to all the issues, the costs, the potentials and alternatives, the trade-offs. What is the cost of utilities? How much insurance should we purchase and why? If we buy this, we don't have money for that. If we can't maintain the building, we might not have a building we can use. If we pay staff at one level, we can hire this set of people; if we were to pay at a higher level, we would be able to hire fewer; if we were to pay at a lower level, we might be able to hire more--but who would they be and could they provide what we, the students, need? The students here at this School, those who wish to be involved, participate in resolving such questions and in making the staffing decisions. One person, one vote makes these decisions. The vote of the four year old means as much in each decision as the vote of the most experienced staff member.

I mentioned "rules" a moment ago. "Rules" are made the same way and abolished when they no longer serve the School. The community discusses them and votes on them. One person, one vote. And those who make the rules also enforce the rules. A representative committee meets every day to deal with allegations of rule infractions. Each person involved in the life of the School sees what is going on around them and can complain if they feel rules are broken. Only then does the Judicial Committee step in to investigate, assess, mediate or ameliorate, and report to the School at large.

Ok, let that be enough about this School.

Let's move on to our MOPS (Moving On People) of 2011.

There are seventeen of them. Their apparent interests are as varied as any seventeen of you taken at random. Sports, physical fitness, carpentry, animal care, auto mechanics, theology, psychology, sociology, organic farming, music, cosmetology, business, science, social change, technology, computing, art and design, criminal justice, journalism, politics, travel, and more have all been mentioned by these individuals. Some are planning academic work in September; at four-year schools; at community colleges; and some pursuing education directed to their choice of a trade or a craft. Some have jobs now and expect to be working full time. Not surprisingly, many haven't yet figured out where they want to be a few years from now.

This evening is about them, and I want to share with you some of their own words about their years at Sudbury Valley School and their vision of their future. I won't tag the quotes that follow with the individuals who wrote them, but let their words speak for this entire group that is moving on. I find common sentiments among all their words, and I've chosen a few paragraphs to paint this picture of what they have to say about their experiences here and about themselves.

One day I opened my eyes and the world seemed different. It wasn't the same anymore. I didn't see it as a child. I don't think it happened overnight. . . . It has been a process. I am now ready for the adult world. I now know what I want to accomplish in life.

When I was getting ready for the PSAT's, I asked Danny Greenberg if he could help me prepare for the test. I needed help in the area of math, and he told me to get a PSAT study book from the library and bring it to him. He guided me through some note-taking steps and then told me to try studying myself at first, and if I had any questions, I should talk to him. I started reading the book, and I found that it was easier and faster teaching myself the math, as the book had everything I needed to know.

I still find it funny that I learned to read playing Pokemon Silver. … I also learned how to write and do basic math playing Dungeons and Dragons. … That's why I love Sudbury Valley, it gives people the freedom to grow and adapt in their own way.

I had the opportunity to apply the skills I had gotten from being involved in school politics. I was impaneled on a civil court jury. … I was incredibly nervous that the other jurors would not respect my opinions because of my age. I was very shy around them until it came time to deliberate. I found myself debating with the other jurors. If I had never gone to SVS, I believe that I would not have spoken at all in that meeting.

I've spent my last twelve years in this accepting place finding out what I enjoy, what I'm good at and what I'm less than good at. Now I have a general sense of myself, I am ready to, and need to, go into the grittier "adult" world and try to compete with the best of them.

I could learn anything I wanted to! And that's what I did. … SVS simply let me be who I was. They didn't try to change me. They just wanted to teach me anything I wanted to learn. Isn't that just amazing when you think about it? … That's why I feel so lucky growing up here in the world of SVS. I found a school that not only teaches me what I want to learn, but teaches me when I want to learn it. Now after many years as a student, I have grown up. I am proud to say, I have become a young responsible adult.

An adult is someone who can take care of themselves and others without getting overwhelmed. If you can't take care of yourself and others, how can you expect to take care of a job, or a community? Adults need to be able to shoulder responsibilities instead of relying on others to do it.

Accepting myself allowed me to develop passion. I became more and more aware of all the things that I care about. I re-explored my creativity. … I now had gained freedom to choose what to do with my time.

Then I started to realize why I was getting bored with SVS; it was because I wasn't challenging myself enough, or putting as much effort into learning as I should have been. . . For students at SVS it is up to us to learn what we want, and need, to learn, and when we want or need to learn it.

I know whatever I end up doing, the responsibility, sense of community, self-respect, open-mindedness, and everything else I have learned from SVS will help me, and those are the things that made me the adult I am today.

If you let it, the school has so much to teach you. It teaches one how to be a good person and it gives you the freedom to pursue your own interests. I couldn't have learned in a better way.

And finally,

I know exactly what I want to do with my life.

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The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.