Afterword to the New Japanese Edition of 'Free at Last'
After one has read Free at Last, it is tempting to think that the anecdotal sketches in it are idealized, and that there can be no such school in the real world. However, the school exists, and while attending is not quite a fairy tale existence, it is a place where children are very happy. Over the years, many studies have been done of the graduates of Sudbury Valley School to see whether an environment that is beautiful for childhood can also be a beautiful beginning for adult life. Any doubts should be put to rest by a new study, the result of in-depth interviews about the quality of their lives with former students who had spent many years in the school. The study was published by Sudbury Valley School Press in 2005 in the book The Pursuit of Happiness, by Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky and Jason Lempka.
We wanted to know answers to all sorts of questions about our graduates. How did they fare in the job market? What types of jobs do they want? Did their education make it easier or harder for them to continue their educational pursuits in a more formal setting? Did they find that having no externally imposed structure to their days or their years made it uncomfortable for them to accept externally imposed structures later? Was their unusual background a detriment or an asset in forming new relationships in life? How did they react to the big bumps that everyone encounters on the road of life? What sort of community members did they become? And, most important of all, how did they feel about themselves: what are their values, how competent are they to manage their lives and how confident are they in their futures? In the following pages, I will try to summarize some of the findings of this comprehensive study.
Sudbury Valley graduates are able to manage their searches for satisfying work assertively in all the ways as people are expected to in modern societies: they network, they write self-assured resumes, and they are articulate in interviews. To facilitate their acceptance, they get internships and apprenticeships, they meet people who can help them, and sometimes they just fall into great situations. In other words, they find jobs in the ways one would expect.
It turns out that there is a much larger than usual proportion of entrepreneurs among this group. There is also an enormous range of careers. In our study we looked at how their jobs compared to those held in the society at large. What we discovered is that there is a great deal of difference between our alumni and the society at large in the following areas: our alumni are engaged in management careers to greater extent; a higher percentage are in computer and mathematical careers, and in educational fields; and the proportion of alumni in the helping professions - social service, community activities, health care - is many times higher than that of the society at large.
Perhaps the most striking result of all was the spectacularly high number of our graduates pursuing careers in the arts. This did not come as a complete surprise. We have watched through the years as hundreds of students pursued music or art or dance or acting or writing and became very accomplished. We began to put the picture together after a little help, in fact, from one of our alumni, who understood and explained what was going on: verbal and artistic expression is present in every society. Creative expression seems to be almost a basic drive. It is also the way people use their leisure time, quite often, when they have leisure time. So it makes sense that people who feel they control their own lives become extremely accomplished in these fields. We saw it play out in their childhoods; we were excited to find that it continued into adulthood.
The attitudes people bring to their career choices and career changes bear a little examination. The following quote is representative. It is from a college professor:
When I was in college I had summer jobs programming computers and those were essentially to make money, although they were also really interesting. I was working at Kodak in an internal computer programming department. Somebody would come and say, "We need some programs to run the computers in our warehouses to go and fetch merchandise when we order it"; or, "We need computer programs to keep track of inventory"; or, "We need programs to keep track of how long operators are spending at their terminal and what they're doing." So they would come ask my little department to write the software for them.
It was kind of an interesting look into the big business world, and it was also a really interesting job to have, because I'd always done a little bit of computer programming, and it's something that I'm reasonably good at because the skills required are sort of things that come naturally to me. But one of the things I learned at this job that I thought in retrospect was a good thing to know is that the hard part of doing this kind of thing for a living is not writing a computer program but actually figuring out what the client wants. It's the same thing in software design, where you're not doing it for a specific client. The difficult part isn't actually writing the software; the difficult part is figuring out how to make the application easy to use and make it do what people are going to want it to do. The difficult part is the design process, as opposed to the code-writing process.
So although this was a job primarily to make money, it was an interesting job too, and because when I was finishing college I was thinking, "Okay, what should I do now?" One thing I could do was work as a computer programmer. That would be an easy job to get, it would pay well, and it was clear to me that if I went someplace like Kodak I could also get promoted pretty quickly because I was good at the sort of human interaction required to determine what's needed in software design. On the other hand, it was also a boring job and I looked at it like, well, it's not going to be interesting for very many years.
So then I ended up going to graduate school.
Another person told us that what she does - her second major career, as a lawyer, after first having trained to be a psychologist - is perfect for who she is. Many felt that an important factor in their choice of pursuits was that it fit their native talents. This was a constant theme from our graduates:
I have pretty good empathetic skills so I can kind of key into people and better enable them to be who they are or express who they are. As a nonfiction film-maker, I'm very interested in this. I have no interest in doing fiction work; I have no interest in writing things and putting words in people's mouths. I'm fascinated with real people, how they live their lives and what they do. It's the greatest sort of privilege to be able to hang out with people and have them open up and reveal who they are and how they live their lives - to share that and be able to capture it and make stories out of it.
Well over half of our respondents talked about having a passion for their work. And an impressive 35% chose their work for the pleasure of serving others. Typical is this quote, from a woman who works for a Non-Governmental-Organization (NGO) devoted to aiding people in underdeveloped regions:
When I was in East Timor, I started out doing grants for the first few months. We were setting up our operations there and trying to put together some proposals to get funded so we could actually work. Then I was put in charge of the shelter program, so it was a matter of going into communities, identifying beneficiaries, working with staff, training staff, and then doing distribution of shelter materials so that people could build homes. About 70% of the houses in Timor had been destroyed when the Indonesians left, so people were basically living under nothing or under blue tarps.
In Sierra Leone the work was more administrative in nature, because I was overseeing one of our field offices that had a number of programs. Some of the programs involved reunification of children with their families who were separated because of the war - for instance, some of them were abducted and forced to be soldiers.
Now I work on the Africa team and I'm the main contact between our office and our heads of staff in the field. Right now we have offices in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and we're opening an office in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I'm sort of the main person. If a policy issue comes up, if a procurement issue comes up, if somebody needs a truck, I'll do that. If they need to discuss how to liaise with the Ministry of Health I might support them on that. I'm basically a sounding board and a support person. My role is to make sure that they can do what they're there to do. I must say, I think I enjoy the field work more.
A frequent question we hear from people interested in our school concerns how our students will fare when life is not easy. These questioners make the mistaken assumption that children free to pursue their interests will never choose to face difficulties. We know, and think everyone should know, that a life full of challenge is the most desirable life. It turned out that our former students feel exactly the same. They also talked a lot about seeking work that has meaning for them. Here is what a social worker had to say about her grueling and often thankless work:
I worked for the Public Child Welfare Agency . . . for nine years, and that was really meaningful. The bulk of the time I was a protective service case worker. I worked with children at risk of abuse and neglect and I provided the families with services. I removed the children from the home when they weren't safe and tried to reunite families that were apart. It was super meaningful work and very hard. Then I became a home finder. I trained foster and adoptive parents and made the placements. I coordinated which children went to which home, and re-evaluated the homes and lent them support. I really, really liked that job.
One of the biggest worries most parents and most educators have about allowing children to be in charge of their own education is that those children will not be able to go on to higher education, or will not be able to take competitive exams and be admitted to what are considered to be excellent universities. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. From the earliest years of the school, every student who has wished to has been able to attend college; those that have wanted to have also gone to graduate schools to receive advanced degrees. Close to 90% of our graduates decide to continue to pursue their education in a formal setting. Often in the beginning of their first year they are worried that the other students, who spent so many years in traditional schools, might somehow have gotten some vital skills and information that the Sudbury Valley School kids didn't want or didn't know that they needed. These worries are quickly discovered to be unfounded.
Most of our former students felt that they had big advantages once they entered universities. They had already developed the attributes that most entering students have the most trouble learning: they are competent; they are self-motivated; they are used to working independently; they are able to assert themselves in order to reach their goals; they are not waiting for constant feedback or help; and, last but far from least, they are going on to college because they want to, not just because it is what many feel is the next step for an eighteen year old. They are going on to higher education, in general, because they have something they want to pursue that is easier to pursue in that setting.
These following statements sum up the general attitude of those who went on to higher education:
I think it was a lot easier for me than it was for a lot of my peers at college. It seemed like they had always been told what to do in school, so they were used to following directions. Suddenly they had the freedom to pick their classes, and to have less time in class relative to the time it takes to do the homework, and things like that. I think that also there was not a good understanding of cause and effect: if you do your work you'll get a good grade, and if you drink yourself into a stupor and don't get your work done you'll not get a good grade, you know?
For me it wasn't that hard, because for five years I'd been in an environment where I learned that there are causes and effects, and if you want to get something done, you need to look at the steps to take to achieve that.
In spending your whole life at Sudbury Valley making your own decisions, and going after your own passions, you're constantly having to make new decisions every day and change how you are. Anything you try to do - if you decide to go apprentice with a mechanic - the Sudbury Valley student will learn faster. They'll adjust because the environment is so dynamic. So to me college, mechanic school, massage school, starting your trade or working for a living, they're the same thing - learning to acclimate. The beauty of Sudbury Valley is: you strengthen the natural abilities, and then all other things will follow.
Some knew what they wanted before they started; others discovered their dreams while moving along the road of life:
I took a couple classes at community college - I took a Spanish class and I took art classes and this and that - and at some point I just kind of realized I didn't want to keep working low-paid menial jobs forever, and I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. Actually my original plan when I went back to college seriously was to be a midwife. Being a doctor followed out of that.
I got to Sudbury Valley because of an odd set of circumstances: in seventh grade I wanted to skip ahead to eighth grade, since all my friends were in eighth grade and I was intelligent enough to do so. I had some fights with the guidance counselor. I was doing very well in school - there was no reason I couldn't skip ahead a grade and be with all of the kids I considered my peers, but the guidance counselor said, "Oh! Well, skipping grades is reserved for very special cases." I thought I was a very special case! So I made a deal with my mother: if she'd let me go to this alternative school for four years - that would catch me up to all my peers instead of the five years it would take to go through the regular high school route - I would go into college early. That was our deal.
So I went to SVS for four years, had a fantastic time, and I thought I was ready to go right into the "real world". I was managing a coffee shop at the time and I thought I could stay there and maybe purchase it someday. But when the four years were up, my mom said, "Well, now it's time to apply to college." I didn't really want to, and I sent out a half-hearted application. Little did I think they would accept me, but they did. So I went, very convinced that I would not like it, and that after two or three weeks I would just leave. But I got there and it was the greatest thing! It was so interesting, so much fun, and so easy compared to some of the processes and learning experiences I had at SVS. Basically, when college came around all I had to do was go and sit in the room and listen and I'd do well. I was way ahead of most of the other students who were sitting around me. I met a lot of people who really did a lot for me, and adjusting was very quick and very easy.
Like the student above, most people enjoyed their college experience. They felt it expanded their horizons, exposed them to interesting teachers and discussions, allowed them to meet a wide variety of people with similar interests, and was just plain fun.
Of course, we feel certain that all of our students are life-long learners and whether they continue in an institution of higher education or not, they are continuing their education. This person explains:
I had to work on my rock star lifestyle and persona from the first time I started picking up on it, and I couldn't do that in the constraints of public school. College really would have put me off on the sidelines for another four years.
When I left the public school system, I really never wanted to go back into a classroom situation again. Usually that's not the way I prefer to learn. I like to follow my own instincts. I know how to reference things that I need. I feel that I'm a unique character who really doesn't need much of what's being taught in a sterile atmosphere.
We were interested in discovering what sorts of things make our former students enjoy their lives. Relationships were at the top of the list; realizing personal goals were second; activities that they were passionate about were third; being in a personal environment that they chose was also important; and to a very lucky few, everything in their lives made them happy!
Here is one person's summation:
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.
We were not surprised, since so many students enjoy the outdoors at school, to find that our graduates continued to appreciate Nature so much. One woman said:
I seem to have sidestepped the speed and the time constraints and that hurriedness that our culture seems to be so bent on. I regulate my own time. I choose what I'm going to do. My work is very varied. I can do stuff outside; I can garden when I want to use my body and have a workout, and I have a studio, my very own studio, that I go to and do artwork in. And I have time to write. Another thing I like about my life is that I'm in nature a lot. I live in a field within the woods, so I kind of have the best of all worlds. The area between a woods and a field is really attractive to animals, so I see a lot of wild animals. It's got gorgeous birds flying all over the place. It feels like paradise. If I want the lake, it's just five miles away, so I can go to a beach. Life is good. Especially after traveling, I appreciate my choices even more.
Few talked about economic issues, except occasionally to remark that they were fundamentally not worried about money. Some would have liked more economic security; most felt it was irrelevant. None felt that they were in financial distress. About 70% felt that they were living in their ideal location. For those who were not, it turned out that they tended to be the youngest group; by the time our graduates reach their mid-30's they are usually pretty happy about their circumstances.
Alumni remarked, one after another, on the beauty of their level of freedom, of the availability of options in their lives, on how comfortable they were with their own maturing and learning processes, and how satisfied they were with their own character development. Here are two comments:
This is kind of a general broad sweeping statement - but I guess what I like about my life is my capacity to enjoy life, to be able to meet any challenges that I face without a great deal of difficulty. Probably the greatest skill that I learned attending Sudbury Valley was being able to teach myself and being able to problem-solve. By being on my own I learned how to be competent and independent and when I needed to consult someone, one of the staff members, they were always more than happy to help. I just learned how to learn, and I relearned how to enjoy learning. So life is just an endless source of fascination and of pleasure for the most part.
What I like about my life is that a lot of the things that I have put forth as intentions in the last ten years - things that I have wanted in my life and things I have wanted to contribute to the world - are really coming to fruition. I'm really enjoying my schoolwork. I'm enjoying learning how to become a therapist and the work that I've begun doing as a therapist has been really rewarding. I'm very, very happy with my home life. I'm enjoying living in a residential Zen community. Spiritually and emotionally, I'm happier than I've ever been. I have strong friendships, good connections with people. I also feel that my relationship with myself is very healthy, and I'm having a good time. There's a nice balance between the serious effort being put forth in my meditation practice, and school, and work, and a nice balance of all that with having a lot of fun. I'm just really enjoying being alive right now.
Realizing their goals far outweighed making money. As one person said, "It's really hard to make a lot of money doing any of the things that I really want to focus on" - but that hasn't stopped him from going right ahead and focusing on what he wants, which in his case happens to be art and music. As a brilliant inventor, who lives in a non-electrified house in the woods, without running water, in northern New England, and runs a cutting edge high-tech business, said, "My style of living is what most people would consider poverty. And I love it!"
For those who were still working hard to become happy, unrealized personal goals were the primary complaint - but those goals were constantly being worked on. The types of personal goals that alumni are striving towards and have not yet reached include a less hectic and less stressful life - something that puts them right in line with others in the 21st century.
Beyond their lifestyle choices and satisfactions, we talked to these people about the values they held dearest. The interviews revealed that this is a group of people who give a great deal of thought and attention to their value systems. These are people who live an examined life and are constantly in touch with their own ideals.
The following person's values encompass a great deal of what we generally found:
I value materialistic things less and people-oriented sorts of things more. It's important to me to be able to take care of myself - to be happy on my own without being dependent on somebody else. It's important to me to get along with people and to take care of my family. And it's important to me to be able to provide a good life for my family - not just my kids, but parents and siblings and aunts and uncles - and friends.
Visual things are very important to me. It's amazing how what I see affects how I feel. I think that's because I'm an artist and I take in everything that I see. I'm passionate about my art. There's just something about creating something from nothing that gives me a sense of satisfaction like nothing else.
The environment is important to me - taking care of the environment and not wasting resources. I like being outside and I like being in nature. I spent a lot of time outside at Sudbury Valley. I used to spend a lot of time in the beech tree. That's where I received my first kiss. I spent a lot of time climbing trees. That was one of my favorite things to do. And in the winter almost every single day I would cross-country ski.
I like adventure and I'm passionate about love. I think I'm passionate about life and about living life and not letting it pass me by.
Many people spoke about the centrality of spiritual values to their lives. Others felt that the values they learned in school at Sudbury Valley, such as egalitarianism, freedom, respect for others, and responsibility informed their daily lives. These are the central tenets of the school as an institution, and it is not surprising that the same people who came to the school resonated with those values. Here is a typical description:
I'm committed to democracy. One of the things I am passionate about is politics. I've always been interested in politics. I guess the way I'd explain it is that I developed a view of society while I was at Sudbury Valley and of how a society could work. Sudbury Valley was a small society - around 100 people most of the time I was there. But there was fairness and there was democracy and there was self-rule and that gave me kind of a blueprint. Where I see that blueprint failing or not being mirrored in the society at large has troubled me, troubled me greatly. Those types of issues are very important to me.
In their own lives, dozens commented on the importance to them of excellence, dozens more on the importance of leading a meaningful life, and many talked about wanting to make a mark in the world. Usually that mark was one of service. Here are some comments:
If you decide to do something, do it in a real way with your best energy and your best will, as well as you can do it. That feels like kind of a core thing to me, not that I always succeed in doing that, but it's a yardstick.
I realize what I said is kind of abstract, but somehow that feels like the most important thing and everything else that I can say feels unduly concrete. Music is important to me and I value music, and careful thinking is important to me and I value that, and good writing is important to me and I value that. The parts of my research that seem really sort of critical and interesting I feel passionate about. And teaching, when I get very involved with a graduate student, it's something that I often feel passionate about. And my family I feel passionate about in various ways. These are all specific examples of my general desire I talked about above.
I like to be around the energy of Sudbury Valley School and I think I bring a lot of energy to the school as well. I feel so fortunate to be anxious to get to work every day and to feel that I'm really making a difference and that there's great meaning to every day.
I like to feel that at some level, in some way, I'm making the world a better place. I also like to interact with people a lot in a relatively positive way. This relates to why I'm a geologist and why I teach geology: people need to take the natural world into consideration when making decisions. I think the best way for people to do that is to have a better understanding of the natural world, although, there are situations where I think some government coercion could be appropriate. That's one thing I'm passionate about.
Some talked about how they were able to manifest their goal of helping others - a goal mentioned explicitly by a third of the interviewees - in their professional lives.
I like to empower people, to get them to see themselves for who they really are. That's really an important aspect of my personality and I certainly try to provoke that in every person with whom I come in contact in my professional environment. I like to think of myself as a good professional, somebody who works really hard, and is outspoken, and is able to motivate people.
In my present job [as a lawyer] I feel like I really do help people. Most of my clients are very grateful for my help. They are going through very tough situations and I feel good about what I do and how I treat other people, so that is important and gives me satisfaction.
Self-realization ranked very high in the values mentioned. Being challenged was an explicit goal for a great many, as was intense involvement in their work and daily lives. For more than half the people, happiness itself was a goal.
I really want to do something that I'm happy doing. It took me a while to figure that out. I worked for a while feeling, "Well, this is alright," and then I realized, "No, I don't want to do this for the rest of my life." So working in a field that I'm really interested in has become very important to me. I'm very excited to be going into Egyptology, and being able to focus on that.
I'm quite happy. My philosophy is that if you're not happy, you're not doing it right. So if I'm ever not happy with something, I change it. It's kind of bending your path to make sure that what you're doing gives you options that you're going to enjoy doing. So as you're going down that path, you always head toward the directions that will end up giving you those options rather than the ones you don't like. The ones that get you in trouble from past experience, you don't do again. So it's really a not a conscious thing so much as something you learn as you go, and you avoid situations and things that you have found, in the past, you really didn't enjoy that much.
We were extremely gratified to find that virtually all of the people interviewed felt that they were in fact living their values. Only a very few thought that they were failing to live up to their own ideals.
We all tend to admire people who can find satisfaction in their relationships with others and who feel well-equipped to form good connections. A childhood in school in an environment where people of all ages mix freely must, we felt, foster such skills. The results of our survey on this point were unequivocal. Fully 90% of the people surveyed felt that they were quite good at relating to others, often in spite of a fundamental shyness. Communication was quite important to them, important enough to overcome basic reticence in order to enhance their lives. Often they spoke about having learned to negotiate and to speak their minds in order to enhance their comfort with co-workers, with friends and with family members. Here are some of their thoughts:
I've worked for so many different kinds of people that I've learned how to make things easier, how to not rub everyone the wrong way all the time. Not that you have to keep the peace at all costs; if you feel strongly about something, you should speak your mind. But in matters that are just day-to-day life, you learn to cope with people being different individuals.
Most of the things I've been involved with have been non-hierarchical structures. My own businesses I've run not as a boss, but as part co-op, even when they're kind of my idea. I've always only really been comfortable working with people when they're as excited about, and invested in, what we're doing as I am. I've been in bands, and when it's not a successful money-making band, you're all doing it because you like the music that you create together, and they tend to be very cooperative too. There are certain people who write the songs and kind of decide the direction the band is going, and I'm usually one of those people, but other than that, everyone's there because they want to be there. Everyone's doing something together that they make together in that spot.
I try to listen to what they have to say and then I tell them what I feel we should do. We usually try to take a little of what they know and a little of what I know and try to figure out the best and safest way to do what we have to do, whether it be forming some colossally huge, dangerous, one-sided concrete pour that could break and spill out eleven yards of concrete on us, or simply just the way we should build something. That's the only way that you can do something - to listen to both sides and then pick a little bit from each one and try to come up with the best situation out of whatever you're doing.
I'm good at verbalizing what's actually going on and getting people to see that they're actually kind of saying the same thing but just in two different ways - that there's a conflict because communication has broken down. They normally accept this. I think that's one of the things that has given me a lot of respect. It usually starts out when one person comes to you to tell you the horrible thing that the other person did to them, or how mean they are, or how they can't work with this person, and then when you get the two of them together and you sort it out with them, there's a great reward for everybody.
Many talked about using the skills they had developed in order to form good relationships with significant others, and with their children. Quite a few said that their general open-mindedness towards others enhanced their ability to parent.
One important area which we were curious about was the resilience of our graduates. Everyone's life includes changes and setbacks and everyone has to figure out how to deal with them. Our former students were proud of the resources that they used to cope with change. They felt that they had a great deal of perseverance and a lot of trust in themselves to deal well with minor and major catastrophe. A generally high level of self-confidence defines the group. Plus grit and determination! Here is one young woman's tale:
One of the darkest periods I had was when I was pregnant, and then right after I had my baby, because my husband was out of work, I was out of work, things were really looking bleak for us financially. My husband then got a job, but he was working in a factory doing 12-hour shifts, and I never saw him. We were living near the beach, but I never liked that town. I never liked living there because it was just too chaotic and too frenzied and I never saw the color green - there were no trees there at all. The ocean was beautiful, but I was living right next to a biker bar and I was in this mindset of, "Oh, is this going to be it? Is this going to be my adult life? I'm not going to see my husband, we're going to be stressed, poor, and broke." Then I thought about it and I said, "No. I learned at Sudbury Valley that I can make my own future. I don't have to accept this; we can move forward." I just drew upon a lot of the knowledge that I kind of inadvertently picked up at the school, and then it was my decision to go camping for the summer. It was scary, but I said, "Let's do it! Let's just save some money by camping and be out in nature and leave this beach." Because we were there camping we got an opportunity for the store. And then again it was scary to go into that, but I just knew that I could handle it if I wanted to.
And here is another:
What I've always done is try to pinpoint why I'm not satisfied or what it is I'm unhappy about and then try to figure out what I can do, if anything, to change that. How I can look at something differently or change what I'm doing in my life. Change the job if it was a job. There have been moments when I've been unfulfilled personally because I've dropped something that is very important to me, like photography, or like horseback riding. At these times, I realize I have to bring my focus back again and do the things that I love to do, to get that center back.
Change is the beauty in life for this person:
The influence that the school had on me is a lot more than you even realize when you're there. I think that the way that the school is set up, and the philosophy behind the school, sets you up for life. It's a realistic version of what happens when you come out; I handle change really well. I'm pretty adaptable.
When people found out that my wife was pregnant, they'd say, "Wow, your lives are gonna change," and they said it in the most derogatory way, like you don't know what you're getting yourself into, or, just you wait. It was almost insulting, and my response always was, "You know what? I like change! I like things to change! I don't like to stagnate, I like things to move, and I like to discover and learn." Without change, life would be pretty darn boring. Watching that kid come out into the world, and experiencing that whole miracle - yeah, everything does change, and it's for the better.
Many former students talked about the influence that attending Sudbury Valley had on their lives. Here are a few:
I miss Sudbury Valley so much! I say this to everybody. That was the best time of my life. It had such a huge impact on how I developed and the person that I am now. It is really amazing.
Well, I don't want to sound cliched - but the school was very important to me. My parents were divorced, my mom was depressed, things were screwed up in my life outside. The school was an opportunity to really think about life and it was an amazing influence. I spent 11 years of my life there, and I'm talking 8:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night. I hated when summer came around. I didn't want to not be at school.
Had I gone through a traditional educational system, I think I would have turned out very differently. I think that my confidence in myself, and my ability to tackle whatever it is I want to tackle, in large part came from having been given the trust to shape my own education, and the trust that I would know what was best for myself from a young age. I never find myself in a situation where I feel like I don't have the tools to tackle it. Sometimes it takes a while, if it's something new, but I never feel like I don't have the inner strength and direction and ability to do whatever it is. That's a huge part of how I see myself.
Sudbury Valley School gave me a chance to really 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 they're in control of their life. I learned how to talk to people and how to communicate and in turn learned a lot from communicating with them.
These people related their self-knowledge and self-confidence to having been treated as an equal in very basic ways during their formative years. For the people whose comments follow, it was being treated as an equal by both adults and young children that had an impact:
Sudbury Valley was a major, major, influence. I really don't think I would be where I am now or who I am without it. I'd gone to private school before Sudbury Valley where there was such big age segregation. You know, the teachers were like Sir and Ma'am and I remember everyone laughing at me - nicely, but laughing - my whole first week at Sudbury Valley because I'd go up to Denise or Mimsy and say, "Excuse me, ma'am." And they'd be like, "My name's Mimsy." It was just mind-blowing to be able to relate, to have these adults talk to me like I was a human being, not that I was underneath them, but just like I was a regular equal. And then to have these little four year old girls coming up and talking to me so boldly, not bratty, but just like, "Hey, I'm just like you. I deserve respect." It was just by being in that environment that I relaxed a lot and realized that in real life age is not important and it's who somebody is inside that matters.
We were all pretty well equal. There weren't very many of us at that point, but the staff and the students, there really wasn't too much difference between us as far as any status was concerned. Everybody had their own say in any matter: I think this is one of the most delightful examples of something like that: A little girl got a complaint form and went to somebody - she couldn't write - to get that person to write out a complaint against Danny. And she won! Everybody was listening just as closely to the five-year old little girl as they were to Danny. It gave you a sense of belonging, equality. Your self-esteem was probably better. Mine certainly was a lot better.
For many people the freedom that the school gave them saved them a lot of time:
When I was going through 6th grade, I was headed in the wrong direction. If you gave me a rule or an assignment, I would say, "Why?" and if it made sense, "Well, that's a cool rule. I like that . . . I'll do it." But public school didn't have a lot of that. It was teaching me a lot of things that bored me greatly, and I've always been very poor at memorizing dates and numbers and things like that. I like learning concepts and ways to look things up. So whatever they wanted me to do, I wasn't going to do it. Sudbury Valley School came along and gave me absolutely nothing to rebel against, because every single rule was explained, made perfect sense, and I could understand that. There was a reason for it. It was logical. There was no point in rebelling against something that made sense. The laws of the school made sense. I stopped making that effort of rebelling. That probably saved me more than anything else, because I was able to channel into learning all that energy that I had been spending creatively rebelling against the system.
The alumni in the study were asked if they felt in control of their own lives. The feeling of control over your own destiny is powerful, and intensely exciting, and the vast majority of our alumni do feel that they have that control. Of course, no one can escape random things that may happen, and the alumni knew that, but they had amazing clarity about the issue of empowerment:
I have every influence on where I go, what I do, and I've planned out every step of my career. I've set goals and reached those goals, and now I have to go through setting a whole bunch more goals because I reached my goals so fast. Everything that's happened in my life is the way it is because I made it that way. Obviously my wife has some part of it, because we're a team; but everything that I've done to this point has been my doing. It was even my choice to go to Sudbury Valley. It wasn't like my parents said, "You have to go here." It was an option that was given to me.
The final area that I would like to return to is happiness. The overwhelming impression we got from the interviewees is that they were seeking happiness, a deep happiness that has to do with all of the aspects of life talked about above - a feeling of being in control of your own life, of living your own personal values, of having the activities in your life that you enjoy, of being able to learn and pursue the things that interest you, of having found - or being on the path towards - work that is fulfilling, of being able to form stable and deep relationships; and, first and foremost, a deep sense of freedom.
One young man with a strong intellectual bent, summed it up this way:
I am very attached to the realm of activities which are usually classified as "academia". I always tell people that the main reason I went back to Sudbury Valley as a staff member is that I have never been in a more intellectual community in my life. I have never seen another place where people would talk about everything starting from first principles, and mean it - and not for grades. People are in the conversations because they want to be there. They're not trying to impress anyone with their knowledge, they're not trying to win praise, they're just talking about these things because they're so interested. I wanted an intellectual community, I wanted to be part of that kind of give-and-take, and I really have seen very little of it outside of Sudbury Valley, although I've been to a lot of universities.
And, finally, another described his life like this:
My family, my friends, and my art have always been most important to me. Artistic creation and the time that you spend with the people that you love are probably the two most important things in life. I'm much more cued in now to how creating the work that you need to create, creating some beauty, creating something interesting, is totally tied to the people that you love. I need to make stuff, I need to make interesting things happen. It's the thing that I do as an expression of my own humanity. Even if the only people I'm sharing it with are the people I love, those are the most important people to share anything with.
I've totally divorced it from outer ambition. I used to be, I think, more outerly ambitious. Now I've realized that my real ambition is to simply do really interesting work. The people who you actually know and care about are the people who see it anyway. If it spills onto a few other people, that's nice too, but you are fundamentally creating it out of your striving to break through your own barriers, to achieve your own excellence. You're never going to do more than a tiny slice of all the possible art that can be created. You do your own little slice as well as you can. You get out there and you share it with the community that you're in, which for me is now a pretty big community, because it includes a huge swath of the musicians in the area. So it's not just my family in the direct sense; I feel a kinship with a very large group of fellow musicians.
I have presented some glimpses of the lives of Sudbury alumni. The questions we posed revealed them to be, overall, a remarkable group of adults - adults who lead full, rich lives, deeply enhanced by their experiences at the school during their developing years.
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