Sacramento Valley School—a Return Journey

This is a speech delivered at Sacramento Valley School in August of 2008.

Coming to Sacramento Valley School nourishes me and my work as a Sudbury school staff member because it always makes me feel really good that the people in Sacramento Valley are doing the same kind of work here that we’re doing in Massachusetts. When I walked in tonight, Charlie Wright said, “Do you want onions on that?” Charlie is the husband of Mary Lou Wright, one of the founders, and first time I came here, which was in the Spring of 1992, Charlie and Don Gustin, the husband of Brenda Gustin, another founder, were assigned to take me out to eat before a performance, I guess you might say, in the evening. Since then the founders and their families have all treated me like family.

So that was part of my first introduction, meeting the biggest public relations assets the school has. I had already been to the school. I had walked into their school and realized something that I had never known—that it doesn’t take that many kids to have a real Sudbury school. It was a tiny little school then, and it was operating rather illegally in a beautiful grange building in a gorgeous park somewhere in Sacramento. The were just doing it. They truly never considered whether it was legal to have a school in that building, but they were soon ousted not so long after. Anyway, there it was: all these kids were totally self-motivated and totally doing their own thing, and happy, and relating to each other. And there was this incredible group of adults that were founders of the school. I thought, how can you fail with this going on? And they haven’t, they’ve succeeded extremely well.

It was the first Sudbury school that I visited because it was right in that year when there were just beginning to be other Sudbury schools. It served as a model of what can be done anywhere, maybe, if the people are strong enough and determined enough. And I think Sacramento has something—in the water? in the air?—Sacramento must be a place where strong determined people are. But KayeLynn Peterson, MaryLou, Brenda, David Peterson—these people have true grit and determination, and they are fabulous models for children. The parents whose children go to a school like this are very, very fortunate because their kids are being exposed to adults unlike most adults in the world—adults with moral fiber, character, strength, determination—just the kinds of things you want your kids to have.

I’ve been working at Sudbury Valley for forty years. These ideas began rolling around in my mind, serendipitously, in 1968 right before Sudbury Valley was founded. The founders’ meetings were going on and somebody told me about them. I had been complaining, pretty regularly, because I had a seven year old child who was going through a horrible experience in first grade; he had started first grade, unfortunately, feeling like he could make his own agenda in life. He thought that from the day he was born. He had his father and me trained really early that we didn’t interrupt that agenda if we didn’t have to! But first grade was interrupting his agenda, and it was giving him stomach aches. We decided, of course, that there was nothing wrong with our child, it was the schools. It is forty years later and we are still doing cutting edge work in every one of these schools and we’re still on the absolute far edge of what’s acceptable in education. It shouldn’t be that way: we should be right in the middle. I’m going to talk a little about why we are still the avant garde.

Everybody knows that we live in the Information Age. We live in a time now where there’s so much exposure and stimulation just by accident, every single day, that nobody really ever has to be sat down and be schooled. We have information at our fingertips all the time—more than we can ever assimilate. All of us are exposed to more stuff than we can ever get straight in our own little brains. And it’s not because we’re stupid. It’s because there’s so much happening around us all the time. I feel almost bereft when I don’t have a laptop with me. If I don’t have wi-fi with me 24/7, then it’s awful and I start whining about it. My granddaughter has been traveling with me for a few days, and we have not had the internet and it’s been, “Oh no, we’re probably going to perish.”

Kids have always been born exercising their minds and striving. There is an adorable baby back there—she is absorbing, she’s learning every day, she’s totally curious. Soon her mother is going to stop thinking she’s so cute and start thinking that she needs to be reined in a little, because she’ll be a lot more mobile and her curiosity will be getting her into a lot more trouble. That’s the way kids are, they’re constantly asking questions, they’re constantly pushing the envelope. They ask so many questions that we need to have that wi-fi connection so we can look up the answers with them. The insatiable curiosity of people is the primary factor that makes this kind of education reasonable. That is not something that’s changed in the Information Age, it’s just our accessibility to it that’s really changed. The amazing availability of information is just the icing on the cake, letting us fulfill our cravings more easily.

The first thing somebody sees when they walk into this school in action—or our school in action—is that the students are free. Mostly visitors walk in and think they must have come at recess. And then they kind of look around and they can’t figure out what it’s recess from, because there aren’t any rooms that really look like classrooms, and there aren’t any places for people to be tortured behind desks. That’s really important. Students are trusted and they behave in a way that shows that they trust themselves, they’re confident. They’re free to be wherever they want to be, with whomever they want to be, and to pursue whatever activities appeal to them—to skateboard, to learn a musical instrument, to draw all day, to read Harry Potter seventeen times, to study history, to play magic cards, to play basketball, to do whatever they want all the time. They’re free to pursue most of the infinite variety of things that are available. And they’re accountable only for how they behave, not what goes on in their heads.

This level of freedom has enormous implications in the way people develop. Before I began to speak some of the founders talked about their journey with Sacramento Valley. David Peterson, who is an artist, was talking about it for himself, and I feel the same way that Dave feels. I feel that Sudbury Valley has freed me to figure out who I am too; I don’t have to be what somebody else tried to make me be. The fact that children grow so marvelously in this kind of environment is what scares parents off, what makes us stay on the cutting edge, mostly because most parents are too frightened to let their kids develop freely. It’s too, too scary. You don’t know what will happen. You don’t know how powerful they’ll become. Being on the cutting edge means you have to always remember to trust your children, to always remember to let go. It’s hard. It’s hard for everybody.

The freedom here means trust. You don’t just trust them to take care of themselves, although that is a large part of it, but you also trust them to figure out what they need and how to get it. You trust them to decide, seemingly by accident . . . later, 20, 30 years later when you look back at your children’s lives you realize it wasn’t quite such an accident . . . to figure out what they need. And you have to trust them to do it even though it looks like they’re not doing anything worthwhile. They are. You have to trust that they’ll become educated somehow or another. It also means that they’re going to be empowered. The real truth is most people do not want their children empowered. They just don’t. And you have to figure that out and decide whether you do before you send your kid to a school like this. They become self-actualized. That’s terrifying. Who wants their little kid to become self-actualized? The students who are in this school become certain for their whole lives—and they don’t lose this—that they’re in control of their own lives. They’re as in control as they can possibly be. It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen because bad things do happen to people. But it means that they can change as much as it’s humanly possible to change in their own lives and to create as much of their lives as they can.

It also means that they’re responsible for their education. Every time a parent tries to influence what a child is doing, or to convince them that something else that’s not what they want to do is the right thing for them to do, they subvert the child’s education. It’s vitally important in a school like this that you don’t subvert your children—even a little is a little too much. You have to let them build their confidence. And the only way they can build their confidence is by supporting their decisions and not telling them, gee, that’s really nice that they’re doing long-distance swimming every day but you kinda wish they were studying physics too. You have to trust their judgement. You have to respect them the same way you respect adults in your life.

So now I’ve touched on the things that we talk about all the time—the sort of key words: freedom, trust, responsibility, judgment, respect, self-actualization, plus the ability to be in control of your life for your whole life. I don’t know how anybody could want more for their kids but obviously there are a lot of people who want less. And the kids are in charge. At the age of five you don’t expect a student to begin studying calculus, necessarily; you might hope they won’t because life is hard for them if they decide that’s what they need to do then. But you expect them to be able to pursue activities that interest them without any interference, without endangering themselves or anybody else, and to be as responsible as any eighteen year old. And that’s what we get in our schools.

People who pursue activities that they choose are constantly learning. We talk about building a wider or a bigger or a better world view. A world view is just the way you see the world and the amount of knowledge you have about it and how clear you are about it. Everybody’s changes every day, because every day you add new information to it. Ours changes, mine changes, yours changes. Kids change too. We refine our knowledge of what interests us, and that’s what children do all the time too. You don’t have to worry about it because you can’t stop them.

People in Sudbury schools learn really fast. They learn somehow not in little defined pieces but rather amorphously and they live kind of an Information Age life in the Information Age. There isn’t any expectation that everybody will learn the same things or that everybody will learn things in a certain order or at a certain age—only that they’ll be able to know what they need to develop into high-functioning adults. We expect them to become adults who pursue happiness throughout their lives and who feel that they are the guardians and leaders of their own lives. A little while ago MaryLou talked about her daughter, Monica, a recent Sacramento Valley graduate, tutoring math in college. A couple of years ago, I remember Brenda saying that her daughter, Amanda, was tutoring college English. Nobody taught Monica any math to speak of here; Amanda herself was slow to learn how to read, slow enough to test her parents faith! It’s okay. She still started tutoring English almost the second she walked into college. And the reason is that students here learn really fast and they each become really clear about their own way of assimilating knowledge. It’s easy for them to help other people learn things because they’ve been in a mixed age community their whole lives so they’ve been naturally helping other people learn things, and naturally talking about things to people that know less than them, as well as constantly learning from everyone. That serves them in very good stead.

The schools are participatory democracies—another challenge that keeps us on the cutting edge! Everyone has an idea of what student government is like in most schools and it’s not what it’s like here. In most schools student government means that there is some elected group of kids who are allowed to make certain decisions, like what color the flowers should be at the prom or maybe, maybe what night the prom should be that year or, if they’re lucky, something about the cheerleading team. But basically not that much and in very defined areas. That’s not what this school is about. It’s about the kids and the adults who are here every day running the school all day every day. That too is extremely empowering. When you know that you’re voting for things like who the staff members are going to be next year or whether to spend money on buying a new stove for the kitchen, you know you’ve got some real power.

The adults in the school are called staff because we want to make it clear that their main focus is not to be teachers. It’s not like they don’t teach by chance and by exposure all the time but they don’t teach on purpose much of the time. They’re mainly models of what it’s like to be self-actualized adults so that students can learn from that. They’re also models of what it’s like to be different kinds of adults, so that students brush up against a lot of different philosophies and a lot of different ideas.

All of these people are School Meeting members. We call the group that governs the school the School Meeting. It’s a government of everybody. Everybody can debate on any issue. No one is ever condescended to. It’s assumed that every person in the school will always debate at their top level, so MaryLou is not going to sit in a School Meeting and debate in a way that talks down to the “poor little children”. She’s going to talk about the way she sees things and she’s going to talk straight from the hip because she doesn’t know any other way to do it. But also because it’s the right thing to do. That means that kids are learning from people who really are showing themselves to be the best they can be. If you’re in a School Meeting and you don’t understand, it’s assumed you’re going to ask for an explanation and you’ll get an explanation. You will get a calm and clear explanation. Pretty much every year at our school we see new students come in and begin to attend School Meetings and have insights that they articulate and sway others with. We assume it’s going to happen. Sometimes little bitty kids have insights that make everybody sort of drop their jaws—we’re just used to it.

Also, lobbying is something kids in a school like this learn really early—the wonderful skill of lobbying, making sure your voting bloc comes to decision-making meetings. However, a voting bloc is a slippery thing because everybody in your voting bloc is susceptible to changing their minds when they hear debates, as are you.

There’s another side to the school government which is extraordinarily challenging for people who do not take the time to study the model closely, and that is probably, for most kids, just as important as the School Meeting, because it’s where they realize first that they’re empowered, and that’s the Judicial Committee. The Judicial Committee in our school, and I think also in this school, meets most days. They consider written complaints about possible rule violations. I can make a complaint about anybody doing anything, and the Committee will not assume that my complaint is true. It will assume that they should talk to the people I mention and try to find out about what happened. And that’s what they do.

The Judicial Committee is basically where the rubber meets the road for most kids. It’s where they begin to realize that their freedom comes with community responsibility, that personal responsibility and community responsibility are what the school’s about; that there is empowerment of the most fundamental nature in this school: there’s fairness. The fairness is shocking to most kids, because most kids have come from other schools where they saw unfairness. They saw arbitrary decision making and arbitrary judgements about things that had to do with discipline. In Sudbury schools no matter how trivial the complaint, the Committee is going to decide what really happened and find out whether anything happened that was against the rules. If something happened that was against the rules, they’re going to probably, after writing a report saying what happened, charge a person or people with having violated particular rules. The next part of what happens is really interesting because a lot of people think: “Oh, crime and punishment; oh, my poor child; oh, it’s going to be so traumatic, because this group of people will say, did you do such and such, and the poor kid will always say yes because—what choice do they have.” But that’s not the way it is. The Committee is made up of kids. There’s an adult that sits with it every day but it’s basically kid-run and it’s kids of all ages. The kids who come in and end up being accused of having done certain things do not feel that they’re in a “crime and punishment” situation. Maybe the first time they do, but they know that the Committee is going to take the time to find out what happened. Finding out the truth is really central to the Committee’s work. That has a lot to do with how seriously people view themselves and view the model of the school.

There’s another aspect of the Committee, however, that always amazes people who see it in action. A kid comes into the room, and his testimony is taken and then for some reason he tells the truth. We don’t know why, but they almost always tell the truth. Then they may be accused of a “crime” like littering, or running in the halls, or something. And they might, if they plead guilty, be sentenced. Sentencing is really where parents start getting really nervous and saying, “Oh, no, I don’t want that to happen to my child.” But sentencing is really a cool thing. I don’t think it’s where people learn to change their behavior. I think having things heard in the Committee and talking about it is where they learn to change their behavior. But sentencing means you pay your debt to society; you walk out of there, everything’s okay. It’s over. You don’t have to stand around for weeks thinking, “Uh, oh, I wonder if somebody’s going to think I’m going to litter again or run in the halls again.”

To succeed, a Sudbury school needs to have several things. It needs to have a well-defined philosophy and it needs to stick to it through thick and through thin. That’s not always so easy. It needs to have staff who are intellectually engaged in the school and who are models to the students. But none of those things are enough unless it has parents who trust their children. That’s the primary need of any Sudbury school. We see children as trustworthy. We think that trusting and respecting a student causes them to become trustworthy. We’re certain that it’s true.

There are enormous difficulties in trusting children. If you are a parent, you’ve brought them up from the time they were crawling around so the whole idea is that you don’t trust them and you have to watch them all the time. And then you try to separate from that as you slowly let them test their lives and the world. When they come to a Sudbury school you’re asked to really let go. It’s sort of counterintuitive because you feel like being a parent is basically a sacred trust. It is. You want to make sure that your children’s lives are good. So to let go of them and say, “Hey, you take care of your life now,” seems really just as scary as it is. But trusting them causes them to become so trustworthy. And respecting them causes them to become so very respectful. All of us who are adults remember that, even as adults when our parents say something to us that has even the faintest tinge of disapproval, we get really nervous about it. I think that that tells you how much influence a parent has over a child. You are not going to lose your influence over your child when you allow them to be free. You can’t lose your influence over a child. They have depended on you since birth and that’s why it’s such a strange sort of shift and very difficult for everybody. But you have to be able to respect them and let go.

I could talk about a lot of aspects of the Sudbury model but I’m only going to mention one more. The one that makes it seem like we should be mainstream by now: the kids are pretty darn happy. They’re very, very involved. They’re intensely involved people. They go about all their activities full bore. One of our alumni talks about the school producing kids who are leaders. It’s not so much that they’re leaders as in captains of industry, which happens too, but they learn to lead their lives in a way that’s very satisfactory. They become leaders of others often just because of their strength.

We asked former students in our survey what kinds of jobs they had and we got nowhere. There are no stereotypes. But some figures do stand out from the data. About 21% of our former students are engaged in vocations that involve art or design, which is kind of astounding. In my generation I’d say if 1% of students managed to be engaged in a profession that involved art or design it was a lot. But this is the Information Age and that’s pretty exciting because there’s a lot more art and design available everywhere. A lot of them have other kinds of Information Age related work. Many are managers. Quite a few are involved in helping professions like health care, but basically we don’t have any few types of former student. That’s very reassuring. They’re as varied as the whole population.

The search for meaning in their work and the putting of meaning into it is vital to our alumni. That’s one of the themes of the next quote I’m going to read. “Since I’ve been out of college I’ve been working in libraries—children’s libraries. And I find that really meaningful. It’s kind of my mission to change libraries to be more open. I think there’s a lot of potential for libraries to use their meeting space for a whole host of activities that they don’t use them for now. For example, I have teenagers that come into the library and they bring bands and they play music after the library’s closed. This summer we put on a play where the high school kids were teaching the younger kids improv. I think libraries in the old-fashioned sense are unfortunately or maybe fortunately kind of defunct. My vision of a library of the future is a space where information on all kinds of different platforms can be exchanged.”

Once people have accepted, which I hope you have all by now, that they don’t have to worry about the three “r’s”, that kids are going to get them somehow or another, one of the things people start to worry about is “oh, oh, no, will my kid be accepted into college?” And then how can they adjust to being told what to do when they’ve always been able to make their own decisions? Because of my job I answer that question a lot. And it’s always surprising to me because people with four year olds will come and ask me, but what about college. And I’m thinking what about college, what about wiping your face when it’s covered with chocolate? I’m going to let alumni talk about their experience in this too. I hope that their experiences will put that to bed. One said, “It wasn’t difficult academically at all. I had specifically chosen a large university because Sudbury Valley was so small and I thought well this will be great, I’ll go to a big school, meet lots of people. So I did that. I went to a big school and met lots of people. But I didn’t feel like I fit in with any of them. I felt like I had a level of maturity that these people might never achieve in their lives, let alone had not achieved the first time away from home. These were seventeen to eighteen year olds who had never experienced any freedom, so college was quite a shock for them, though socially it was quite difficult for me. I transferred.”

Another person says, “I think that in a lot of ways Sudbury Valley made it easier for me. I remember how my roommate and his friends would never, ever work up the energy to read the books or to prepare themselves for any aspect of that class until the night before a test, that sort of thing. And I remember feeling astounded because it always seemed to me that there were more efficient ways, that you didn’t have to work any harder, but you could prepare yourself in a more leisurely way if you simply kept up with the reading. I think that’s an aspect of having taken charge of how you spend your own time as a kid.”

A third person said, “It was an adjustment but it was also clear to me that it was an adjustment for everybody. In particular, at a prestigious college like the one I attended, the students were used to being in the top five percent—maybe the top one percent—of their high schools without ever doing all that much work. So to suddenly discover that oh I’m not automatically one of the best students because everyone else around here is of a similar caliber, was kind of a strain on a lot of people. I was fortunate because it was plain to me beforehand that college was going to be a big change. In my first semester I got the first letter grade I’d ever had. It was kind of a big deal in the sense that it was sort of bizarre for me. I realized it was a good thing that I had gone to a school that didn’t have grades. I would have been a very competitive, annoying sort of teenager if I had been in a regular high school trying to get all A’s.”

We poked a little deeper to see what sorts of things gave adults satisfaction who had attended Sudbury Valley and got this very nice compliment to the school. “I like my books, I like the internet, I like my friends, I like the fact that I went to Sudbury Valley. I think I’m able, as a result of going to Sudbury Valley, to ask questions all the time and I think that’s very important.”

Many commented on other sorts of things that dealing with younger, and older, people at Sudbury Valley had contributed toward their parenting. “At Sudbury Valley I was exposed to, I lived with and had as part of my community, a wide range of ages. That meant whether I was fifteen, or sixteen or seventeen I might be in a situation where I was effectively caring for a much smaller person. Even though the relationship between the big kids and the little kids is not official, if there is a little kid there, somebody is sort of supervising them. And it may not be a staff member. If there’s a ten year old kid and a five year old kid, the ten year old’s going to look out for the five year old. And if there’s a fifteen year old and a ten year old, the fifteen year old’s going to look out for the ten year old, and so on. So there’s that sort of sense of watching and making sure people are okay. A lot of the parenting I do really involves relating that way to a child.”

Of course I want everybody to feel that sending children to such a school is the most intelligent thing you could possibly do. I think it is. It’s worked out for me, it’s worked out for everybody here that’s spoken so far. It’s worked out for my grandchildren so far. It enables them to pursue happiness in a very full and complex way. So I’m just going to blow our horns a little more before I open the floor for questions. Our alumni are grateful for the experience of being in charge of their own lives from a very early age. People who start making as many of their own decisions as they can when they’re little and continue through their childhood to gain more and more autonomy, never have to be pushed into other people’s molds. They are strong. They’re really strong. Their intellects and their psyches soar.

I’m going to end with two short quotes. “I think the one thing I got out of Sudbury Valley was ding, ding, ding, I got the clue, light went on. I am responsible for my own outcomes. The day is good when I wake up. I can screw it up if I want but I can do something good with it if I want. That was the main thing I learned at school. I’m responsible for myself. No one else is. That definitely stayed with me and will be imparted to my own kids.”

The last quote is “Sudbury Valley School gave me a chance to look inside myself and see what I was about. It also gave me a chance to learn about other people and how they act in situations when they’re in control of their day and in control of their lives.”

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