The Whole is More than the Sum of Its Parts

From a speech delivered at Spring Valley School’s Fifteenth Anniversary Celebration, in February 2012.

Strangers coming to our campus often say, “When I got out of my car in the parking lot, I could feel that this was a joyous or a beautiful or a peaceful place.” Or some variation thereof. I knew that I felt that way too, but I was aware of its uniqueness, so that made me more sensitive. But what about some family of strangers, already wary that maybe we have bizarre ideas, coming for an interview when the temperature is 40 degrees, and seeing a bunch of barefoot kids playing boisterously? The feeling strangers express is an intuitive one, something they can feel in the air. But how can they, I wonder.

What do you actually see when you get out of your car? Random students of all ages doing what look like random things with great jubilance and/or great concentration. Together or separately. Kids who run like the wind, without thinking they are training for a race! People who will greet you without fear. People who are 4 or 14 who act like they are your peers—and you quickly know that they are. The school is constructed that way, it is a democratic institution, but only the people in it can make it into a democratic community.

But that just never seemed enough to validate the statement about knowing from the time you get out of your car in our parking lot that you are someplace amazing. I was missing part of the picture. I have been privileged in the last couple of months to have a glimpse of several things that are sort of below the surface at Sudbury Valley at all times, but contribute greatly to what we mean when we say that you can “see” SVS right away.

The first in-my-face examples happened in an unusual manner. I organize a yearly activity that has been going on for over 35 years: the making of gingerbread houses in December. Helping kids do that—helping them go from raw dough to a beautiful house—or perhaps even something more exotic, like the Taj Mahal, or a dump truck, or the Hogwarts Express, if they are advanced builders and designers—is a very hard day’s work, and even requires me to have assistants as 6 or 7 kids go through the process. I am busy almost every second of the day with it. I notice which kids are easier or harder to work with, which kids are pains in the necks (somehow, none, this year—maybe for the first time!), how much some kids have matured since the last time they made houses, and notice who has extremely imaginative ideas about decorating.

I start the day with “the lecture” about, among other things, the fact that no one is finished until everything in the kitchen is clean, whether or not you finish your house early. I emphasize discipline in a bunch of different ways. This year I had reason to wonder why I feel I need to.

This year, the last (of 5) days of gingerbread house making was filmed. The group making houses was a group of close friends, which does not usually happen. It was a group of kids that play and work together virtually every day, and are not so different in age—maybe from ten to thirteen or fourteen. It was also a group that is extremely rambunctious, sometimes, spends a lot of time outdoors in all seasons, and have all done houses before. Most have gone to no other school but Sudbury Valley. There were five boys and two girls, which is also a bit unusual.

Everything went smoothly. Our kitchen is not that big, and there were three or four extra people in it all day because of the filming, which was a logistical burden, but there were no grumbles.

A couple of weeks later, the raw footage appeared on some dvds for us to look at and decide what to do with. Us, in this case, was my partner in crime as Public Relations Clerk, Dan, and me. I didn’t want to watch the footage; I was afraid I might be in it, and of course I was. But it seemed, as an idea, intensely boring to watch all those hours of people rolling dough, cutting dough, decorating pieces, “gluing” it together with boiling sugar.

But it wasn’t boring at all, to us, because all of the themes of a Sudbury school came out in almost every minute. The focus and concentration of the kids—and their helpers—was intense. Each had their own style of working, and ended up with their own style of house. The work went smoothly, the mood was great, the laughter frequent, the mess large, and the products were quaint little homes. All as it should be. Dan looked at the dvds and saw the making of a village. He was right, but also he was wrong—the village was not what they were aiming at, it was just what happened, and in that way he was insightful. But the village broke apart as each kid took his house home, so that was not it.

The essence of the joy of the day was in the creating. The whole desire to do it was the desire to do that work and have a great time with each other doing something that you only can do once a year. On that day, the specifics of the outcomes were totally unplanned, and flowed from the pieces, the decorations, the candy, everything. No one who came to make a house that day knew what their house would look like in the end. The anticipated—and actual—fun was all in the work, and in doing the work together. And yet, the way the group dynamic flowed, it created a village in spite of itself.

When I looked at the films, I did not see making a village. I saw ballet. I saw a group of kids who worked together so fluidly, so beautifully, that every motion seemed to be not choreographed, but somehow synchronized with the motions of everyone else. And I saw community. I realized that on the best gingerbread days (which is most of them) that is what happens. It is Sudbury Valley. It is what the school is about: the beautiful manner in which every student goes about their day, their week, their year, their life, basically marching to their own drummer, but also in tune with the whole mass of people around them. In tune, and tuned in to the group. Totally without being conscious of it. The whole was bigger than the sum of its parts, and that was true of the whole day, and true of the results. I called it improv, and it certainly is like that. Improv in theater is when a group of people take an idea and make it a reality through their talents at working together and their inherent intelligence.

As I was puzzling and marveling over how well this was shown in the gingerbread dvds, and trying to figure out how to best turn the footage to a short piece that illustrates the school to a stranger, there was a school dance. Dances occur several times each year. This one was at the end of January. We have a Dance Corporation, which is a group of people, simply, who are interested in producing dances for the school community. There is always one at Halloween, and one in the dead of winter, and another in the spring. This is an activity that has always been totally the domain of students; the dances wouldn’t happen unless students wanted them to and figured out how to make them fun. In January, there was a “cliché dance”. What is a cliché dance? It is one in which each person dresses as a cliché. There were cheerleaders, artsy kids, studious kids, schoolmarms, athletes, nerds, boys dressed as 16 year old pregnant teenagers, etc. You name it, we had it. Once again, each person was into what they were going to be and their costume. (Once they get to the dance itself, only having fun counts!) The Dance Corporation was also into making it all fall into place—decorations, refreshments, ticket sales, chaperones, disc jockey. (When the one they wanted was busy that night, they were not perturbed, but how many dj’s can there be in a school of 150 or so? It turns out to be more than I would have thought. Good ones.) The result was mind-blowing. The Dance Corporation, once again, produced a party at which even the producers, though they always have to work hard all evening to keep things going well, had a blast. As people say after most dances, it was the “best dance ever”.

But that is not even the thing that struck me. I knew all that for years and years.

What struck me was something that happened the day before. I walked into the art room and about 5 or 6 kids of various ages, all of whom were going to the dance, were sitting around a big square table making posters. They were doing it all together and all separately. No one was making anything that related to anyone else’s poster. Someone was making “vote for [whoever] for class president” kind of poster. A cliché for sure! Another was making a poster that had to do with a school “club” of one kind or another. Other posters were about upcoming events (of a traditional high school nature). One girl was making an SVS Squirrels poster—an idea that has been floating around for some time; that our teams, which we have zero of, would have a mascot of a squirrel. It was a beautiful scene. And I realized once again how smoothly things work out, generally, in our school. And how much taken for granted by the students is the way they work together—a thing I rarely see in other settings. Improv for sure!

A third experience, that happened this month, while we are still trying to figure out how to show the gingerbread in a way that illustrates the themes we see in the activity, was the Coffee House. We have Coffee Houses showcasing school talent every year on a Saturday in February. In the past, we have had a staff member who was front and center in organizing these shows. Now, a whole bunch of kids wanted to do that work. It was sort of terrifying and exciting to see what would happen. Could these kids pull it off, I wondered. They had done it in December. Could they do it again?

They do two shows the night of the Coffee House, because more people want to come than fit into our little venue. The first show, which I went to, is usually about ½ to ⅔ full. This time the room was almost packed. There were very few empty seats.

But here it was again. The same phenomenon. Some kids, with limited experience of working together on anything, and with even more limited experience of putting together a performance, put one together that must have had 40 people in it, as well as a bundle more who were only in the production side, so it was a big load to handle. The show lasted 1¾ hours. It included many acts. Some were groups of kids who were friends who did a song and dance together. Okay. Easy enough. One act was a 4 year old and a 6 year old who sang a song together, a capella. How did those tiny girls even know who to talk to about wanting to do an act? There were quite a few soloists, some quite young. There were many teens, there were many pre-teens, but most of the group acts were not composed of groups of friends, but of groups that played a particular piece of music together. That is what brought tears to my eyes: the mixture of ages and personalities striving towards a common goal. It was almost the polar opposite of the gingerbread day that was filmed—it is easy to imagine how that worked; that was on a small scale with friends—but somehow the same sort of ballet occurred here. The same level of improv. The feeling of community is so much a part of their lives at school they don’t ever even talk about it.

And then I remember what a man named Harvey Diamond once said, who came with his daughter for an interview and subsequently enrolled her. He is a jazz pianist. He said, after asking a lot of questions, “Oh, I finally get it. It is a jazz school.” Of course. He was right. It has everything that jazz has: you start with a fundamental structure that totally respects everyone, kids and adults, and expects virtually the same things from each of them. And then you start improvising on that. Everyone builds a life through that improvising. People can’t help doing it. It is in their fundamental drives. But the miracle is how the improvising works so well together—like the musicians in a jazz band—that the whole is always much greater than the sum of its parts.

That is the main thing I am trying to say: how the school works, how a community is formed, what a real community can do, and how beautiful it is to participate in. It’s not about how they learn this or that subject. Anything else is relatively easy once they can make a community and learn to work with diverse people as equals.

But there are a couple more things I want to say: it was necessary to leave fairly quickly after the show, because the crew had to get ready for the next show. So there was not a lot of standing around and talking to parents, etc. But I had three different short conversations with parents that made it clear that only the people in a community can have the least idea of what makes that community tick, and even they have trouble verbalizing it. Which leaves me, at the end, apologizing for not being clearer.

I talked with the mother of one of the 18 year olds who has been most instrumental in organizing these shows. He is not suave and sophisticated. He is just a regular guy. Sure everyone loves him, but mostly because he is sugar-sweet. His mom has no idea that he has executive talents! Sure he is bright, but that is almost universally true of the students in Sudbury schools. He certainly didn’t come to SVS with self-confidence or any feeling of brightness. He had a terrible time until he came to us at age 13. I said to the mother, “Do you realize what kind of work he has done to make this show happen?” She knew he was a good drummer, but did not know that he had production responsibilities—or talents. She said, “I don’t know anything: You see more of him than I do”, which is probably true for any 18 year old! She was thrilled to find out how pivotal he was for the whole production, but she never would have known had I not happened to have a very short conversation with her.

Another mother said, “Sudbury Valley is amazing. I saw another side to my child tonight.” I said, “It is the same side we see everyday!”

I just had a chance for a hello in passing to a third set of parents, whose 16 year old son had done a star turn with a group by singing. But what he did that was even cooler was not, as he usually does, play an instrument, but use his body and the microphone stand as an instrument. His parents had no idea he was capable of what he did—they heard distant sounds in their house of rehearsing, but . . .

Those were just the few I talked to! So, the moral of this story is? You will never know how your child puts together a world view and a life from attending a Sudbury school daily. But I can assure you—they do! And it will be much greater than the world view you could imagine for her.

As I had finished writing this, wondering if anyone would want to hear or read it, something else crossed my attention.

I read an article in the New Yorker. It was written by Jonah Lehrer, who has written several books about something no one really understands: how minds work; how creativity happens. The title of the article is “Groupthink, the Brainstorming Myth”. I knew most of what it is about, about the fact that brainstorming doesn’t work well most of the time, and more gets done with other methods of cooperation. He talked a lot in the article about a building at MIT, called Building 20, which is evidently a ramshackle low building that was created in the 1940’s, in a big hurry, in order to house facilities to develop radar. It was called the Rad Lab. Eventually, the Rad Lab moved on and the building began to be used by all sorts of groups that spilled out of other university buildings. It has an accidental design feature that turned out to be very propitious for the creativity that is expected there. (Steve Jobs built the same kind of space for Pixar, a space where you are forced to move around a lot, and by chance run into a lot of people you would not necessarily see in your particular area. The Pixar building, which is enormous, tried to force that by putting all of the restaurants and all of the restrooms in one place, off of a big atrium that had lots of shared space in it.) At MIT, building 20 was long referred to as “the magical incubator”. Lehrer’s last paragraph sort of sums up what I have been saying above, I think, only better:

The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

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