Life at Sudbury Valley
From Kingdom of Childhood
"If you're doing one hard thing, it's not that different from doing another hard thing."
I came to Sudbury Valley the first summer we were open. I was seven. I was
really surprised when I saw the school. The picture I had before I came was
nothing like what it turned out to be! I had imagined it to be a place with
rooms that had labels according to what you did inside the rooms a room that
said "Science," and a room that said "Reading," and I
don't know what else. My picture didn't look like the public school I went
to, but it also didn't look like a house; it looked institutional.
In my teens, I became interested in the administration of the school. I
don't know why, really. I remember thinking that it was fun to be involved
with certain things, like the judicial stuff and the trials. I also thought
that the more people that were involved with administration, the better. I
felt some sort of civic duty to be involved with it to a certain extent.
Everybody felt loyal to the school, but people did different things about
it. I don't think I felt more loyal to the school than my friends who were
not interested in administration.
I think I always knew, as long as I can remember, what the School Meeting
was: the place where things got done and decisions got made. Before I
started going regularly, I did what most little kids do; they go when
something germane to them comes up. At some point I can remember feeling
maybe that wasn't right and maybe everybody should go all the time, and then
at some other point I decided that, yes, it was ok, it was alright for me to
let other people decide things that I wasn't interested in. The image I had
was that somebody else was taking care of most things and I didn't have to
worry about it very much where "somebody else" was staff members
and older students, but mostly staff members. But the thing that went along
with that image was that I felt I could complain if there was something I
thought wasn't right or something I thought should be changed.
I was really nervous about defending my thesis. I was seventeen. People
usually talked about their last several years of school, and what they were
planning to do in the immediate future. I didn't really want to do that.
This was a leftover from when I was a little kid. I had the idea that you
should be somehow specifically defending the thesis that you are ready to be
responsible for yourself, and I didn't want to do it by telling what I had
been doing recently and what my plans were. So I decided to talk about what
I felt responsibility meant and explain why I thought I was ready to live my
life in accordance with that. I was a little bit nervous because I hadn't
seen anybody do that before and there were weird questions people could ask
me. As it turned out people did ask some weird questions. It was certainly
meaningful emotionally, as a rite of passage, getting up in front of all
these people who I'd known for a long and telling them that I was ready to
leave and why.
From Kingdom of Childhood
"We were a small group of people bouncing ideas off each other."
Plasticene was probably one of the most intense things I've ever done. There were days when we'd show up, go right to the art room, work steadily at it until lunch time, eat lunch at the table, and keep on going until we had to leave that night; and we'd never, never leave the room once. The villages would evolve. Sometimes you'd be building a gold mining community. Sometimes it would be a bunch of towns with hotels and saloons. It usually involved a lot of buildings, a lot of vehicles, a lot people, and you'd make all this stuff. Then you would enact various scenes with it. You would drive your cars around and have certain battles and blow them up on occasion. But for the most part, you were building. You'd be building tanks and airplanes, just one thing after another. I did it at home too; you could bring them in already built.
I think about it every now and then, and I did exactly what I'm doing now, except I'm doing it now in real life. I'm building a factory and making machines and talking to people all day long. Same exact thing. And very intensely. Day in and day out, the same exact thing I was doing in plasticene. Except that when you're a kid you don't really have as many of the same complications you have when you're an adult. If you're working on a plasticene village, the worst that can happen is you can lose your razor blade or something like that. And maybe you can find another one pretty quickly. There aren't setbacks like you would have in real life, later on. You won't run out of bricks for your building, because you're making the bricks yourself.
With the plasticene, I was making businesses. I made a lot of factories. I had a cannery at one time. I had a still. I had a bottling plant attached to the still. I could picture it -- I had seen films and gone through books that would show you pictures of bottling plants and such things. It had to be realistic.
It was the fascination of creating. You were creating things that you couldn't have yourself, maybe, but you could still make them, and by making them, you could have them. And if you were going to do it and have it, you might as well have it as realistic as you could make it.
We only had so much clay and the fun was in the creating. Afterwards, the only thing you could do with it was to smash it and start over again. It was a constant build and smash. Sometimes we would decide to change modes. For a while everything would be Western. From there, it might go to a battlefield. From there it might go to factories. Western was probably the biggest thing.
It lasted two or three years, on and off. Probably more. We were not being influenced by any outside source. We were a small group of people bouncing ideas off each other and leading ourselves wherever we took ourselves. We learned from what we could get out of books and from our own interests. We took all kids in, and let all kids be part of this.
My parents were supportive of me during the troubles I had in public school. I was in sixth grade, and I was doing anything I could to rebel against the system. That's not a good way to learn. It's not a good way to go forward in life. I noticed as soon as I got to Sudbury Valley that I no longer had anything to rebel against, so there was no reason to do all those other things that I was starting to do, like starting to smoke. If nobody's telling you to do things that you want to rebel against, there's no more point in rebelling. So we just played.
I was a little nervous about coming to Sudbury Valley because it meant leaving conventional types of schools. But I was encouraged by my parents, and from the interview it seemed like a much better sort of school. The philosophy of it made so much sense. Basically you could do anything you wanted as long as you didn't break any laws or infringe on anybody's rights. You could pretty much write your own rules because you knew, instinctively, that if you were going to throw a handful of gravel at somebody, that was going to infringe on their rights. You didn't have to look up in the rule book whether it was a violation to throw gravel or not. You already knew.
I think maybe for me it would have worked to stay at home. My father was very helpful on weekends, and at night when I came home from school. I had a very nice workshop of my father's I could use. I would work in there, do things, and then go out and play.
But I'm a relatively social person as well and, as a kid going to school with all these other people, having somebody else to talk to, to bounce ideas off of, was very important. If I was all by myself, I would not learn how to relate to other people, and also not learn one of the most important things Sudbury Valley taught me: nobody at the school knew much about what I wanted to know, but they all could teach how to find the information. So if I needed to find something, they might show me how to use a card catalog, or how to talk to somebody who did know. I think the school taught me how to learn better than if I was just at home.
What was important to me was seeing how other adults acted and related. I picked up a little bit here and a little bit there. Nothing that I could say, "Well, I had this great revelation. I learned this from so and so." It was just nice to be amongst adults, seeing what they do. And other kids too. Everybody had different interests, but in a small school like that, it was more a matter of age and interests combined, so if there was only one other person your age you were probably going to be friends, and if somebody was not at all your age and had the same interests, that would also make you friends.
We went on walks into the woods right from the very beginning, building little forts. It wasn't too much later that we started playing with little race cars and plasticene. Then we had projects. We'd try to make go-carts out of old wheels and things. We used to go down into the "morgue" in the basement and fix up old stuff people had donated -- bicycles and things like that. There were so many places at school to explore: the barn, the stables, the basement, the attic, you name it. We also found old dumps in the woods, and we started collecting "antique" bottles. Then there were trips to the Sudbury town dump, getting people -- staff members or other students -- to take us. There were certain items we always looked for: anything that had anything to do with a bicycle or a tricycle. We'd take those parts back, and build new ones. It was like a little business. We'd fix them up, and sometimes we'd paint them. We put price tags on them -- 50 cents, 75 cents -- and we would sell them.
We'd experiment a lot. At one time we wanted to crash-test the tricycles we were selling, so we took one and went up to the top of the fire escape to drop it down and see what would happen. It was a good long drop. Usually not much happened; tricycles are pretty durable. That was something one of the staff brought us up on. We told him it was a study and we had a safety person at the bottom to make sure nobody would run out and get conked on the head. We were very apologetic. We said we didn't really realize it was bad and we wouldn't do it again. We talked to him quite at length -- at least I did, because I was named on the complaint. So he dropped the charges. We never wanted to get brought up if we could avoid it.
I felt that for the most part the things that I was doing around the school were innocent, although a lot of them maybe were wrong. Take the case of throwing a tricycle off the fire escape. I had gone to the dump many times, picked the tricycle parts up, built it right from scratch, every little nut and bolt, fixed it all up. We had done that to so many, that we had an extra few tricycles, so I dropped it to see what parts would break first. Now, you take somebody who built that tricycle right from scratch, knows every part of it, and then drops it off -- the act of dropping it seems quite harmless. But if you take somebody else who runs and grabs some other kid's tricycle and hauls it up there and throws it off, all that person is doing is trying to break a tricycle. It seemed that people at school, including the staff, watched me, and saw that I had built that whole tricycle. So even though they might not have understood what I was doing then, they let me get away with it. Because in every case where I did something like that, I was doing it as part of a learning process. An act that might have been considered bad, or something that somebody else would get censured for, was just one part of the whole picture for me. For example, if I had alcoholic beverages on school campus, it was because I had made a still. To me at the time, it really did seem a learning experience and innocent. There's a big difference between a kid who smuggles a fifth of whiskey into his lunch box and a kid who, over a period of three or four months, makes a still, grinds his own grain, makes some whiskey; and the fact is I never even drank the whiskey I made. What fascinated me was how to make the stuff. So I made whiskey at the school, and I possessed it at the school because I had made it there, and I was allowed to, because I had gone through all those steps. If I had just said I want to have whiskey at school, everybody would have said, "Forget it, that's against the law. Kids can't have whiskey at school." But I said I want to make a still, to see how whiskey is made, and then it was ok.
In general, we knew a lot about what we were doing. We had a whole series of books on science and technology, at school mostly, and in my house too. I would read at school all the time. I spent hours and hours and hours reading, and going through the school's library. I knew every book in the library, upstairs and downstairs. I'd crawl into a corner and read. People usually didn't notice me. There's something about a kid at school reading that doesn't attract attention. A staff member walks by and sees some kid reading: that's a kid who does not need any help at the moment.
A lot of times, I read was when the weather was really bad. Or there were times when I just wanted to be alone, so I would go off and read. Those library rooms upstairs were usually the rooms I would be in. Not many people were up there. I read a lot of books on what other people had done, people who had gone off and lived in the woods, people who had invented a lot of things. Biographies. And then I read a lot of "gee whiz" adventure books -- Tom Swift's and Nancy Drew's. I could go through a Nancy Drew book in about an hour and a half, and I read them all. There were a lot of books in school that I didn't like reading but I still knew where they were, and I knew that there was nothing of interest in those books because I had opened them to see.
Probably one of the best early moves the school ever made was to get all those books. Where they ever got them, I don't know, but getting them and cataloging them was really good. I was usually too impulsive to want to use the public library loan system. I wanted it now.
For the most part, I did stuff in big blocks of time. I would start each day by continuing what I left off on the day before. So if I was building a tree fort somewhere, I would start again on that tree fort. I would work on the tree fort until I got hungry enough to come in for lunch or, if I was smart enough, I would have brought the lunch to the tree fort in the first place.
Certain times I would leave the tree fort and go and do other things for a while and then maybe come back later on and spend another day at it. After it was done, I'd only go there every now and then. Once a tree fort was done, it was no longer as interesting. Building something, like making a tricycle, is more fun than once you have it. That's why breaking a tricycle after you have it is not that big a deal, because the fun was in building it.
In general, we were everywhere. During good weather, we were mostly outdoors; in pouring rainstorms and stuff, we would be inside. There's only so much time you can spend outdoors in the winter, even if you're skiing. But we were always building snow forts and there was a lot of outdoor activity.
We would occasionally go off on bicycle trips and we'd ride around. Nobody knew we were going. We'd just take off. We had bicycles we had fixed up, also from the dump. We'd go up to the Primate Center. We'd go to the Wayside Inn. We'd go all over the back, northern woods of Framingham on the road system.
One day we found a car on one of our trips through Callahan State Park. It was abandoned and had crashed into a tree. We took it back and fixed it up a bit, got it running, and then whoever had originally stolen it (or whatever they had done) found out that we had it and they stole it back again. Then they rammed it into a tree again. These neighborhood kids were just into smashing things up, obviously. So this time it was really wrecked. We towed it back somehow. We got it back in one piece. It was too wrecked to use so I stripped it, and made what parts were left into a tractor. That was my winter project. Once it was all done, I remember not having too much more to do with it and I sold it. I spent more time futzing with it than actually using it.
Then there was the mini-bike. I pushed certain rules and got the school to actually buy me a mini-bike. They bought a bunch of parts and it took me a solid year, because I didn't know anything about welding at the time and it was a pile of pieces. It was a big challenge to build, but I did build it and I learned an awful lot from it. I also learned a lot about how not to be frustrated because the thing wouldn't start. I used it for a few years, but after a while, I realized that I had to sell it because there wasn't anything more I could learn from it. I never used it that much. It was one of those things -- the dream of having a mini-bike was greater than the reality of having it. The freedom of a mini-bike is not the same as the freedom of a bicycle. A bicycle you can ride on public roads. They don't break down all the time. You can go all sorts of places, be free. A mini-bike is never that way.
Once I got a Hillman that was beyond my abilities to fix. I never got it running, but it was my car. I would have kept it until I finally got the thing to work. Getting parts for it was hard. I really didn't understand too much about what I was doing, but I kept on working on it, getting the brakes to work, getting the fuel system to work, getting this or that to work. But I needed a new fuel pump for the car, and it cost $30. That was more money than I wanted to spend. I had very little money. You have to work and I didn't work. I was too busy playing, I guess. There were very few things I really needed money for. We had a small allowance, and there was work we could do around the house to get money. Or I would sell a tricycle for fifty cents or a dollar. I always had what money it seemed like I needed.
I did find something funny out though when I had that car. Some local kids ruined it one day. I had to have it towed away because they smashed it. But the funny thing was that after they did that, that day I had a type of stomachache which I had not had since public school. I used to have some really painful stomachaches, but I wouldn't let on that I had them. I would be quite miserable to the point of practically fainting. Sometimes I'd go home and just lay down and they'd go away. But for the most part, I'd lay down at recess time and it would go away, so I could live with it. After that car was wrecked, that stomachache recurred, and I realized that it was all stress. I finally understood what those stomachaches were caused by: school.
Somewhere in these books I was reading, the idea of farming as a way of life, self-sufficiency, homesteading, became a real interest. With that interest came raising some animals. We talked it over, my friends and I, and decided that we were going to raise goats. We got permission from the school. We built a fence, made a pasture, got everything ready, bought the goats, raised them, had them bred, and had the kids. We had them about four years. They were purebred goats, so we could always sell the kids. With the goats came other rights. We could now stay at the school after hours, because there was always something that needed to be done with the goats. That was nice. We had a whole bunch of us to take turns on weekends. There was always one of us who could go over and take care of the goats at the school. That was no problem during the school year. During the summer vacation, we had a garden at the school, so we were coming over all the time anyway.
I never really got used to goats' milk, but there were the goats: you're going to drink the milk and like it! We could sell some of the milk, but basically very little. Overall, the goats were a financial loss. So was almost any agricultural thing I ever did.
We ate one goat, once. We had a goat that we had castrated, and the vet didn't do the job right; it also wasn't dehorned properly. So we could not sell it as a companion for a horse, which is usually what we did with all our male goats. Around this area there are a lot of people with horses who can't afford two horses, and a goat is a super horse companion. A goat isn't afraid of anything. A horse is afraid of everything, including its own shadow. So if you have a goat, which is a very sociable animal, and a horse, the two will become friends. If anything is going on, the horse will look at the goat and the goat'll look up and say, "Yuh, that's just a truck driving by. No big deal." -- and the horse stays real calm. So not only does it give the horse company, but it calms the horse down. That's why a lot of people buy a goat, and they might as well get a fixed male goat, because they're cheapest; that's how we would sell ours. But we had this one that wasn't going to be useful for that, so we butchered him and had a big feast at the school after hours.
The rabbits were also part of the farming. I had an interest from a long time before. I had sent for some material from the American Rabbit Breeder's Association and became a member. I always had in the back of my mind that I'd like to do that. We raised them for a while and it was a lot of work, particularly in the winter. It was also quite expensive to feed them. We bred them according to the scientific process, the right bucks with the right does, trying to keep track of the pedigrees and making out papers on them and trying to sell some of the kits. It was an awful lot of work. We butchered them for meat, but for the amount of work it was to butcher a rabbit, you got such a small amount of meat! At this time I could already make more money per hour fixing somebody's car than I could butchering a rabbit that I'd put all this energy into raising. But we had some good rabbit meals at the school after hours where we would cook a rabbit as part of our agricultural experience!
Then there is the story of the squirt. It was April Fool's Day. I figured that would be a good time to do it. The school had an annunciator control panel in the kitchen. It had been used to call the maids when the building was someone's private home. It went to all different places, but it rang in the kitchen and a little arrow would show up. I don't know what happened to that system, but after it was taken out the wires were still there, and some of them went down into the basement. I connected a windshield washer pump to a battery which was downstairs and hooked it through a little squirt nozzle which I stuck between the two stoves, aimed at a certain spot. I would wait until somebody would sit in the seat that the thing was aimed at, and I would push one of those little buttons that was already there, and they would get squirted. I also squirted Margaret, getting her on the glasses, and she found out about it. She wasn't mad, because she had a pretty good sense of humor that way.
One of the things that I remember as being kind of humorous was when we learned how to make bombs out of caps. There's a way of folding them together so you could make quite a powerful bomb if you spent enough time. We made one that had quite a bit of power and we waited. We dug it about five feet underground. We waited until Danny was walking by and, when he stepped over it, we fired it off. We knew that he would never know it because it was down so deep. It was great fun for us to know that we had done it under his nose. It was big enough that we felt it, but nobody else knew what it was, because it caused such a little vibration. People were wondering what these kids were doing poking rods into the ground and running wires around and giggling, but they never knew.
I never really took a class in my life at SVS. Say something came up and I had to divide. I would learn how to divide in a matter of a couple of days and that was it. All I wanted to do was learn how to divide. Everything that I learned at public school that I really didn't have an interest in, I do not have the foggiest recollection of. So if somebody had told me I had to take English literature, it would have been a total waste of my time.
Every now and then I would worry, "Am I learning anything? Sooner or later I'm going to grow up, and I'm going to have to earn money. Is sitting at this plasticene table all day teaching me how to learn?" Visitors would come in quite often and they'd say, "This is a school at which you're not learning anything and you're going to be a failure and nobody's teaching you how to make money when you get out of school. What are you going to do?" There was always that worry. But I don't remember ever really doing anything about it.
I remember talking to people and they would say, "What do you do?" If it was in the winter and I had just come in from building snow forts all day, that's what I would tell them about. And they would look at me kind of shocked. That would reinforce that little feeling of, "What am I going to do when I grow up?" That's how I was always aware that sooner or later I had to grow up.
After a certain time it became obvious that, just like once I had that car and tractor built, I was done with it, after a certain amount of time the school was something I had to be done with. I had to graduate. I had to go on and do something else. That evolved slowly; it wasn't that I felt pressed. It came from inside and I was ready. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I was prepared to go out and do whatever it was. I don't think I had the confidence to go out until I was really ready. Whether I knew what I was doing or not, I knew I had the confidence that I was going to go out and try, that I would do the best I could and let things happen the way they were going to happen.
In general, my experiments weren't done in a dangerous manner like, say, a guy testing a parachute by jumping off a big cliff. I would prefer throwing a brick tied to a parachute. If that brick hit the ground and broke, that was my failure. I would test the waters before I jumped, always. My failures were never catastrophic, they were just, "Well that parachute didn't work. I'm going to have to build another one -- and very cautiously when I do." So I wasn't about to jump out into the real world and do something that would cause me to have a catastrophic failure that would crush me to the point where I would say, "Oh, I'm not going to do that again and I'm just going to pump gas." I still live my life that way. I don't throw all my eggs in one basket.
I enjoyed being at the school, and I have no regrets that maybe I missed something. There was a lot I could have done, but I didn't know I wanted to do it, or how to do it, when I was there. That's why I was at the school, to learn to be who I am now and to learn as much as I could while I was there, every day. I am the same person now as I was then, and I cannot say that at such and such an age, this happened to me and I was a changed person. Did the school make me the way I am now? It's something I wondered often. I don't know if it did, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did. It certainly helped. It took away those stomachaches, and it kept me from wasting my time doing silly things of protest.
I had the shortest thesis defense ever. There were no questions. I said -- it must be on record somewhere -- "I believe I'm responsible enough to leave the school and to get a diploma." That was it. "Any questions?" None. "See you later."Return to table of contents
From Kingdom of Childhood
"Communication with everybody was the biggest thing we did."
I remember well the first day I was at Sudbury Valley. The atmosphere was "little house-on-the-prairie-ish," because the building was so homey. The first place I went was into the art room with Joan. I stayed in there the whole entire day. I was painting. I made this yellow sun, and I painted over it with green and I thought, "Wow, I'm gonna get in trouble for this because suns are supposed to be yellow and I made it green." I showed it to Joan; I guess I just wanted a reaction. She looked at it and said, "That's very beautiful". I said, "Yuh, but it's green". She said she loved it, thought it was the best thing, and I was so shocked by that.
I was four. My brother who is four and a half years older than me had already been there a year. I felt secure with him at school. It was nice to have him there. Sudbury Valley's something we have had in common, something private and special, that we can still talk about.
I don't remember very much of when I was younger. I was just being a little kid. When we were little there wasn't any one thing we always did. It was always new or different. From eight on, I was always with a clique of older kids, girls and boys. They were not my age, but I used to take the same classes they took. We'd talk about the same things. I just went with everybody else, did what they were doing. We'd sit around and write on people's shoes and listen to music. That was a big thing, listening to music. We played cards until Danny said gambling was illegal and to get all the silver off the table. The major activity was to sit around with all the other girls and talk. Communication with everybody was the biggest thing we did. We'd talk for hours. About anything. I was always the youngest one, until everybody started graduating. That was actually better for me because then I became more independent and I did things that I really wanted to do, as opposed to doing what everybody else wanted to do! But I missed having everybody there. Of course, I had established new friendships in the meantime, so it wasn't like everybody left and then there I was hanging out on the end.
When I was younger I never did classes: I did fun things like play in the playroom and cook with Margaret, which was a "class." I was outside a lot. We used to play on the swings, or play football, or play kickball, or capture the flag, and several of us would go on walks. Between the ages of eleven and fifteen I spent a lot of time in class. After that I slacked off for a while until my last year there. I took French for three or four years. I love the language, and I love being able to speak it, but I dreaded the class. I persisted because I wanted to learn French and I knew that, if I was going to learn, I'd have to do it. My biggest help with my English grammar was the grammar I learned in French, but I just don't have a knack for grammar.
Ice cream day was always a big celebration. That was something everybody looked forward to. The day before, Margaret would get a bunch of kids and we'd make the base for it, then we'd plan how we were going to serve it. We'd all wear the same thing and make it like a business. I remember one year Jenna, Amber, and I were the only ones doing it and we all wrote up little slips about who owed what. It was like running your own little ice cream shop.
I always used to go on the camping trips to the Cape. I was never allowed to go on the mountain ones. They always said I was too young and that I wouldn't be able to do it. That was very aggravating to me because at Sudbury Valley you'd be able to do whatever you want, and then all of a sudden there was that restriction. They didn't let me go until I was old enough that I didn't want to go any more because I was having too much fun at school!
I could talk about pranks for hours -- hiding people's shoes, or putting somebody's lunch where it doesn't belong or stuff like that. I remember some of the boys pulling pranks on the girls, more than the other way around. My brother and his friend used to catch mice down in the basement and take the trap with the mouse in it and run around and scare the girls with it.
One day we were all sitting in the kitchen and Ryan and Jenna were coming down the hill. There was a big joke between all of us that no matter who's eating what Ryan would want some. Cal was there, and at the time he had a dog and he had some dog food in the school. He was also known for having the best sandwiches, so my brother came up with the idea of making a dog food sandwich and Cal pretending to eat it. Everybody got involved with it, throwing little tidbits in: "Here, put this on, put that on it," and they even cut out a little bite to make sure it looked authentic. They said, "When Ryan comes down guaranteed he's going to ask for a bite of the sandwich." So sure enough Ryan walks in the kitchen and says hello to everybody and the first thing he does is look at Cal and say "Hum, that looks like a good sandwich. Can I have a bite?" Of course he took a bite and everybody in the room cracked up.
When I was younger the School Meeting was boring. As I got older I participated in it more. I was very shy in School Meeting. I never spoke. I would vote and I'd listen, but I didn't feel what I had to say was important, or I felt it was important but I thought that everybody else would find it ridiculous or not understand the point I was trying to make. I would basically sit there and then discuss it afterwards: "I totally disagree with this," or, "I agree with this," and I'd either get really mad or I'd be happy about it. And I'd say, "Ok next time I'm going to say something." By the time it came to my last years I started speaking, but I had attended meetings regularly from about age eight on! I realized that if I had something legitimate to say, I was listened to. When I was eight I wouldn't go every week as I did when I was older, but I would go. Sometimes, there were things I was involved with, and I wanted to see what was going to happen, like things with the Cooking Corporation. I was a director of the Cooking Corp. for a long time.
I remember being young and thinking, "OK I'm going to bring this person up. I have a legitimate complaint against them and they're going to get in trouble for it and they should." And it would go through the whole judicial process and somebody would come over and say, "Look, let's mediate this," or something, and I normally would, but I'd get really annoyed about it because I thought I was proving a point. I felt the staff always wanted to mediate to reduce the aggravation that was going on. But the laws were enforced, and for the most part if you went against them you paid the price, you either were fined or you had to do something. Most kids abided by the rules. Of course, we had our typical trouble-makers, who thrived on going against the rules, but not for the most part.
I was about fifteen when I became a Judicial Clerk. I wanted to know who was doing what, and when, and I figured I should be a clerk and really learn it more because that's also when I started saying to myself, "Hm, you like this type of stuff. Maybe you could do something with it." I've always been intrigued by criminal justice. It's interesting to see how people's minds work against laws, or with laws. When I was very little I found the judicial committee boring because I was taken away from playing on the swings or doing something.
Having a close relationship with the staff was very important for me because I could learn to deal with my problems in school with the help of staff. What I learned from that type of contact helped me through a lot. Margaret was rough on me, which was good. She didn't let me get away with what I wanted to get away with. I'd be cutesy about something and she'd say, "Hey, you didn't do it. Do it." I'd say, "Oh, I'm tired." And she'd say, "Get in that kitchen and wash those dishes. You cooked with me, you made something, you finish." That was really good for me.
Criminal justice was something that I was always interested in but I had other interests as well. Biology really appealed to me, but I slowly lost interest in it. Margaret used to say, "You're a perfect person for the military." This was intriguing but I never could see myself doing it. Joan would say, "You know, you could be a lawyer someday" or something like that, and I would think, "Yeah, I do like this, don't I?" I always had encouragement from people saying that I could do anything I wanted to do. Even Mimsy, who I never really talked to much, would say, "Look, you can do it if you want to, and you will."
People who had nothing to do with the school gave me a hard time about my education because they never understood the philosophy of it, and I'd have to sit and argue. It annoyed me because they didn't know what it was about. They never had been there. When people said, "What, you're not doing algebra?" I would say something else I was doing or I would say, "If I want to do it I will do it and I have that over you, because you're doing it because you have to do it." It made me very defensive, but it enhanced my confidence. I was confident in school because I was happy there. I also thought I was one step ahead because my friends were older and I was doing the same things they were doing. But I missed a lot of the social aspects of other schools. Sometimes I thought it would be fun and exciting to have proms and the things you could have in a school with a lot more people.
When I was seventeen I decided to leave school because I knew there were other things I wanted to do, and I had done everything I had to at Sudbury Valley. I was at the point where I wanted to travel. I wanted to move on. I was ready for college. I wanted to have a professional education.
It was important to me to defend my thesis because that was something established in school that you did to end it. There was a feeling of accomplishment when it was over with. It was a goal to prepare for. One day, I woke up in the middle of the night and said "Oh, I have to put this down on paper." And I just started writing. I woke up in the morning and I read it and said, "Ok! I think I'm ready to do my thesis." I grabbed Joan that day and I said, "I'm ready to do my thesis, this is what I want to do." It was really scary being in front of all those people. It wasn't something I was used to. But I thought the questions that were asked were the stupidest questions I ever heard. I'd built myself up for all this and I thought, "Ok, if this question's asked I can handle it. If this question's asked . . . " I got there, and after saying in my thesis what my goals in life were, people asked me, "What are your goals in life?" I said, "Well, not to sound redundant but... this is what I'm doing, this is what I'd like to do." I thought it was going to be more challenging than it was. But the minute it was over my stomach just dropped and I thought, "Hm, that's it. It's over. No more Sudbury Valley for me."Return to table of contents
From The View from Inside
On the Nature of Sports at SVS
Have you ever noticed the uniqueness of the way that sports are played at S.V.S.?
The experience is a beautiful one which brings out most of the noble characteristics which a person can possess. It also illustrates a point about language and the S.V.S. experience that is worth thinking about; for, although we give our activities at the school the same names as activities that take place elsewhere (for instance, “soccer games” or “history class”), what is actually happening during those activities at school is so fundamentally different from what happens elsewhere that the name becomes misleading. This is why it seems impossible, at times, to explain the school to people who haven’t actually seen it.
To describe the school, we must explain what actually happens, mentally and physically, step by step, because people have no direct experience that is the same as ours. At best, their idealistic, utopian ideas may resemble our day to day experiences at school. People can be reached by showing them how their ideals of freedom and responsibility, of democracy and fair justice, translate into day to day actions. We know that people in other schools have no direct experience of these things. What we forget is that, even after school, most people don’t have a direct experience of true democracy, fair justice, freedom, and responsibility in the full sense that we know them at S.V.S., just as people in other countries have no idea of what day to day life is like in the U.S.A. through reading the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Which brings me to how utterly incomplete and misleading terms like “soccer game” and “history class” are in describing those activities at S.V.S. I will take soccer as an example.
In other schools soccer is a game where all players on a team are of a similar age, sex, and, if the school is big enough, ability. It is played at designated times selected by the school. It is highly competitive both as regards an individual’s performance on the team and the performance of team against team. There is a lot of peer pressure and one’s status and sense of worth is highly dependent on physical performance. The fact that people manage to have some fun in spite of all these negative aspects says a lot about the deep human satisfaction that arises out of physical exertion and play.
This is what usually happens in other schools. The players arrive at the designated time wearing their uniforms. They are told by their coach how to improve their performances (not how to have more fun). They go to their designated positions. A team will always have more players than are allowed on the field so the people who don’t perform as well as others will not be allowed to spend as much time playing. They play the game. They ‘work’ the game” might be a more appropriate phrase, because traditional, organized amateur sport is almost as regimented as professional sports.
People who are paid $200,000 a year to beat other people in sports should be performance oriented. The average person who simply wants to enjoy the physical process of play, or who wants to improve their own ability to kick a ball simply as an athletic challenge, should be enjoyment oriented, not process oriented.
Here is what happens at an S.V.S. soccer game. One person says, “Let's play soccer” to some other people. Whoever feels like playing at that moment comes to the field. There are six year olds, ten year olds, eighteen year olds, maybe a staff member or parent who feels like joining in. There are boys and girls. Teams are then chosen with a conscious effort at creating evenly matched sides. Someone who hasn’t been there would not believe the amount of effort that goes into making the teams even. Given the diversity of the players, this often consists of one team having an extra “big kid” who can play well and the other team getting a small army of six year olds to get in his way. People want even teams because they are playing for fun. It’s no fun to play a game with lopsided teams.
After a game starts, someone will often come and say, “Can I play too?” and the teams will be rearranged to accommodate them, trading players back and forth. If that proves impossible, they will be told “Get someone equal to you to play also.” The game is played by whomever wants to play, for as long as they feel like playing. There will always be certain people who value winning, but there is little peer performance pressure. Most people don't really care who wins.
Now, you might get the impression that people are not trying very hard to be good at the game, but that’s not true. Because the process of play is only fun if you exert effort and challenge yourself. That is why people developed the idea of games like soccer in the first place. Running around for no reason gets boring, but running around trying to kick a ball between two posts that are guarded by people who are trying to stop you – that’s exciting.
The people who play sports as we do at S.V.S. learn far more profound lessons about life than those that can be taught by regimented, performance-oriented sports. They learn teamwork – not the “we against them” type of teamwork, but the teamwork of a diverse group of people of diverse talents organizing themselves to pursue a common activity – the teamwork of life. They learn excellence, not the “I’m a star” type of excellence, but the type of excellence that comes from setting a standard for yourself to live up to and then trying your best to live up to it.
I'm twenty-three years old and I’ve played a lot of soccer. It would be pretty silly for me to try to be better than the three eight-year-olds who crowd around my feet every time I try to kick the ball. I think that the eight year olds are too busy running after kids who are three feet taller than they are to worry about being the best eight year old. In this game, as in real life, the only standard that matters is one you set for yourself. One of the profound truths you learn is that we are all so different from each other that peer pressure and comparisons of worth are meaningless. If you’re eleven years old and you are only allowed to play with other eleven year olds, it’s very hard to glimpse this profound truth which unlocks the true meaning of excellence.
They learn responsibility and restraint. In all the years of playing very physical games like football, soccer, and basketball, there has never been an injury beyond a minor cut or bruise. People play all these sports in their regular clothes without any of the standard protective equipment that is normally required. How can this be explained when people wearing protective pads injure each other with alarming frequency? Because in a regimented, performance-oriented way of looking at sports (or life), making sure you don’t hurt someone becomes less important than winning. So it doesn’t matter how much you talk about “sportsmanship” or how many safety pads you wear, people will get hurt. When you approach sports (or life) as a fun, exciting process, as something that is done for the sheer joy and beauty of doing it, then not hurting someone, not impairing their ability to enjoy the same process becomes a top priority.
This whole experience of sports at the school is just one of the many ways in which the kids answer the question, “What activities produce a meaningful life?” or, to put it more simply, “What is the meaning of life?” For people at school, freedom is not just a tremendous wonder, it is also a tremendous burden. This freedom to do what you want forces you to decide what you want. People play because they are free to, they want to, and they are alive. At the school, sport and physical play are magnificent expressions of the people who play them.
To participate in an activity where the clash of unequal bodies is transformed through teamwork, pursuit of personal excellence, responsibility and restraint into a common union of equal souls in pursuit of meaningful experience has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. I am sure it has had a similar effect on others. This can be easy for anyone to understand, but not if I simply tell them that I “played a lot of soccer at school.
When I was eight years old and people asked me what I did with my time at S.V.S., I said, “Nothing.” I now realize what I meant to say was “everything.” Education is not so much a matter of learning facts as it is a matter of learning how to think. What the school teaches (or, rather, allows people to learn) is how to think. It does this by allowing people to talk, listen, play and contemplate as they see fit. It is this rare and wonderful privilege that colors and gives meaning to every activity.
The language that we use to describe the school must take into account the uniqueness of the context within which things happen here. We must speak the language of philosophy. We must talk about the processes that occur when one of the deepest needs of the human spirit, the need for freedom, is fulfilled: the process that occurs when a young mind is forced by that freedom to find activities which it considers meaningful (because humans hate to be bored); the process that occurs when you do things because you want to, not because someone or something makes you. This is not a school to be compared blandly with other schools. It is a way of thinking and of living.Return to table of contents
By Daniel Greenberg
We have to be careful with words. It's a miracle they ever mean the same
thing to any two people. Often, they don't. Words like "love,"
"peace," "trust," "democracy" -- everyone
brings to these words a lifetime of experiences, a world view, and we know
how rarely we have these in common with anyone else.
The class deals have all sorts of terms: subject matter, times, obligations of each party. For example, to make the deal, the teacher has to agree to be available to meet the students at certain times. These times may be fixed periods: a half hour every Tuesday at 11:00AM. Or they may be flexible: "whenever we have questions, we'll get together on Monday mornings at 10:00AM to work them out. If we have no questions, we'll skip till next week." Sometimes, a book is chosen to serve as a reference point. The students have their end of the deal to meet. They agree to be on time, for instance.
Classes end when either side has had enough of the deal. If the teachers find out they can't deliver, they can back out -- and the students have to find a new teacher if they still want a class. If the students discover they don't want to go on, the teachers have to find some other way to occupy themselves at the appointed hour.
There is another kind of class at school, from time to time. It happens when
people feel they have something new and unique to say that can't be found in
books, and they think others may be interested. They post a notice:
"Anyone interested in X can meet me in the Seminar Room at 10:30AM on
Thursdays." Then they wait. If people show up, they go on. If not,
that's life. People can show up the first time and, if there is a second
time, decide not to come back.
By Daniel Greenberg
It's a problem with words again. The way I just described it, learning
sounds casual, loose, laid back. Easy come, easy go. Random. Chaotic.
Richard was followed soon by Fred, whose love was drums. Drums in the
morning, drums in the afternoon, drums at night. Emergency action was in
order. We fixed up a drum room for him in the basement, and gave him the key
to the school so he could play early, late, and on weekends.
It isn't only music that brings out the stubborn persistence we all have
inside us. Every child soon finds an area, or two, or more, to pursue
Then there was Bob.
From Reflections on the Sudbury School
At 7:48 each weekday morning, I hear First Bell. I'm usually sipping my
coffee. Early in the school year, when the days are warm and my kitchen door
is open, I can listen to the low monotone of the female voice pushing
through the P.A. system. Soon after, another bell sounds (it's certainly not
a ring), and I imagine roomfuls of like-sized and uniformed students moving
through corridors like cars through a trafficked intersection. By this time,
I'm making the final preparations for my commute to Sudbury Valley. Although
the school with bells is only a stone's throw away from my back steps, I'd
much rather commute 45 minutes twice a day to have the freedom that is the
keystone of Sudbury Valley.
By Daniel Greenberg
The Physical Plant
We got a great deal of insight into good campus design accidentally. We went out and looked for a place and found our campus, and it happened to be an old, distinguished estate. We might have ended up with a plot of ground on which we had to build; or we might have ended up with any number of other things. I don’t know what we would have thought then, but probably we would have been thinking along pretty standard lines had we designed a campus from scratch. We would have tried to decide what kind of design would best suit the needs of the school as we envisioned these needs in advance, and we doubtless would have come up with an art center, and information center, and this and that. It’s called campus planning. But as it turned out, none of this came to be, because we had a ready-made building. And we found out something from our experience with this building that, not surprisingly, reflects much of the very early centers of learning in medieval and early modern Europe.
We found out that there was something extraordinarily suitable about an estate-size building, a building planned and built as a large estate, as a design for a school. Let’s put it this way. You can start by pointing to some of the features of a planned campus, in the standard sense of the term, that really are inappropriate to the kind of school we’re talking about. The main feature is that it’s planned in a linear fashion: there’s a planned use for each building, there’s a restricted degree of flexibility. You build a laboratory and that’s what it is. You build a library and that’s what it’s designed to be. There’s a tremendous degree of linearity to the use of the buildings, which reflects the linearity of the institutions they serve and is very much out of character with our school. There isn’t the kind of flexibility, the kind of give, that could respond to change and fluctuation in needs of various student bodies. You program what can be done at other schools so tightly that you lay the groundwork for channeling a student’s possibilities for activity.
The second thing wrong with these buildings is that they’re like jails, they’re cold, they’re mass produced, everything about them smacks of the regimented linearity of the industrial age. Long corridors, big rooms with lots of chairs lined up in them, toilets with urinals lined up next to each other, cafeterias where everybody eats at the same place at a given time, and so forth. They have a character that’s very compatible with modern society. When you look at modern architecture the thing that’s striking about it is the basic similarity between structures; and that’s to be expected because they all share the linearity, the aspiration to linearity and the aspiration to regimentation, that modern society has. So whether you’re looking at a place of entertainment, a shopping center, a prison, a school, a college, a factory – whatever you happen to be looking at, you get the same kind of structure that has become almost synonymous with the word “institutional.” And that’s really what’s wrong with modern campuses.
Another thing that is also not in character with our school is very small intimate buildings like homes. There are a lot of educational reformers who talk about small family-type units. This is a tremendous fad in education. They talk about the “family” group and the “family” room – we used to call it “home room,” now it’s the “family grouping.” Or they talk about reorganizing schools into small units – tens and twenties – with a teacher who has a sort of parental role. For our school, this can be ruled out on the grounds that I’ve already discussed, because it hybridizes the personal and the institutional relations of people in a way that we’re not interested in.
The thing about large estate type structures is that they avoid linearity on the one hand and the small homey family intimacy on the other hand. What’s a big estate? You’ve got all sorts of rooms, and you’ve got a lot of them, so you’re never in danger of falling into the trap of thinking you’re a family. There are rooms of all different sizes. They’re comfortable, they’re thought of more in terms of human comfort than regimenting the activities of their occupants. You get design in an estate that looks to the comfort of the inhabitant, looks to a wide variety of multipurpose rooms; so you have much more flexibility, hardly any linearity at all, and a sense of ease and comfort. This is enhanced as I’ve already pointed out, in furnishing the place with comfortable home-type furniture. Not to create a home, but the kind of furniture you would put in your home for comfort rather than regimented row-type chairs and desks.
What I’m trying to say is that if you look around at the various forms of current architecture, the one form that is presently known and available that seems particularly appropriate for school design is the estate. That doesn’t rule out some special purpose buildings. That doesn’t rule out building an auditorium, or any particular single purpose building. But I would say that the need for these is relatively small in a school. You’re better off making use of the specialized buildings in the community. They can be shared by everybody, by the community, by the school. You’re better off building a really good bona fide theater in the community and giving access to all groups; and if you need more, you build another theater in the community rather than having each school have its own specialized theater. That’s a terrible waste of resources and a linearity in the institution which ends up either in having the building not used most of the time or forcing people into the dramatic arts simply to use the facility. Actually, in the present day education, it’s more the former than the latter. For example, the average modern school outfits TV multi-media centers and computer centers and so forth, rather than make use of these facilities in the community at large, and most of these facilities sit unused in the schools much of the day. In the few schools where they put up facilities and then insist on their use, it leads to a tremendous regimentation of the whole school in order to justify the outlay.
So I would say that of all the types of structures that are sensible today, a really good campus is one in which you have several large villas, and grounds in between. You can have this in the heart of a city. There are large mansions, and if instead of putting art collections in the Frick building and the Guggenheim home or something like that you put schools in these large buildings, you’d have the same effect in the city. True, you wouldn’t have green and trees and outdoors around it, but then you don’t in the rest of the city either, so it would be in line with the rest of the city.
I’m not saying that there might not develop in the course of time other styles of architecture that might not be equally well suited to schools, and maybe even better. All I’m saying is that if you look around at the present available architecture, this style stands out as by far the most appropriate one. It has the added feature of being reasonable as far as the expense of constructing it and maintaining it are concerned. The outlay on such a physical plant is a fraction of the outlay of a big modern building. There are lots of reasons for that, but I think the basic reason is that linear institutions tend to waste a tremendous amount of space and equipment because so much is put into providing things that aren’t really needed.Return to table of contents
Books by the Sudbury Valley Press ® are available from bookstore.sudburyvalley.org, by calling (508) 877-3030, or by sending a fax to (508) 788-0674. You may write to the Sudbury Valley School Press ® at The Sudbury Valley School Press, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA 01701. You can contact the school here
Permission to freely copy and distribute this document is given, provided that the text is not modified or abridged and this notice is included. For more information about SVS titles available electronically, check this web site periodically.
The Sudbury Valley School ® is a democratic school run by a School Meeting. Students and staff each get one vote on all matters of substance; including the school rules and hiring/firing of staff. The school has no grades, tests, or scores.
Home PageSudbury Valley School • 2 Winch Street • Framingham, MA 01701 • 508-877-3030