Where does happiness come from?

This week’s post was written by staff member Mimsy Sadofsky.

I confess that I wasn’t thinking about happiness in 1968, when my husband and I decided to send our children to the almost-open Sudbury Valley School. We had unfortunately noticed that public school seemed to cause our little son to feel something worse than “just” unhappy, and also seemed to interfere with what he had been doing since birth — figuring out fruitful ways to spend his time. The idea that people could do that — educate themselves — was in the air in the ’60’s. Learning that there was in our area, in the planning stages, a school that was based on the idea that people could figure out for themselves what they needed to do to have a meaningful life, from early childhood, was a pretty wonderful — and terrifying —idea. It wasn’t that easy to have the courage of our convictions, but luckily we did.

But the point is we were not thinking so much about happiness. There was too much else to think and worry about! In fact, I don’t think that was even an aim for our family. Erasure of misery certainly was an aim! But they aren’t necessarily the opposite of each other. What we wanted for our kids was not the absence of problems, but the ability to be a big player in solving their own problems. We got that. In fact, we got more: they became players in solving the school’s problems too.

However, it is impossible during this long, cold, snowy winter, or even truly any other season, not to see what is going on at Sudbury Valley. I have always known (and am not alone in knowing) that it is impossible for the young children in our school not to run. I am talking about inside, where it is against the rules, not outside. They have too much joy to stick to the ground! No children who aren’t happy could possibly move so lightly — or cheerfully say “sorry,” and continue running, every time you point out that it is against the rules.

Faces that we see every day are filled with light and with kindness. A child may enroll who is just average looking. By the time they are here for a few months they exude beauty. It is no accident. They are, as a parent said to me recently, so generous with each other. She wasn’t talking about money or goods, which they also very generously share. She was talking about the way that the kids in the school give each other the space to be exactly who they are. No one is ever pressured to be like anyone else. Could this possibly be true? Close enough!  “Not one of them is like another” – a perfect line from Dr. Seuss. And it allows for the most active and wholesome kind of diversity one could ever imagine. Everyone can be self-actualized. Well, in the end, it turns out that a much more sober aim — treating children like fully empowered people, because here that is what they are —  leads to the most beautiful atmosphere of happiness.

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The piano

On a beautiful fall day in October, Sudbury Valley was the scene of a long-awaited event: the arrival of a new baby grand piano.

You see, for several years our trusty old baby grand had been bravely carrying on, kept alive by the loving ministrations of Tom Driscoll. Tom is an expert piano restorer, a scholar of the instrument, and an old friend of the school. The piano has been a challenge since it first arrived, and he only recently told us its history. It was built in the 1930s by a manufacturer determined to produce pianos at a reasonable price — and at a lower cost — than other comparable instruments built by famous manufacturers. It was expected to have a relatively short life expectancy, about 30 years or so, giving a generation’s worth of enjoyment at an affordable price.  Old PianoWhich meant that our particular piano, going on 80 years old, had miraculously lasted almost three times as long as anticipated, partly thanks to Tom’s skills. But it was living on borrowed time. And Tom was on the lookout for a replacement that would be within our budget, and have the longevity and sound that we were looking for in a new piano.

His search went on for years, without success. We waited patiently. Finally, a possible candidate appeared – a Yamaha that Tom had bought and completely reconditioned. The only problem: it was spoken for.  He had gotten it on behalf of a buyer, and it was now ready to be moved to its new home. Except that the buyer was indicating that he might want out of the deal.

Opportunity knocked. But we had to move fast. We got the news on a Monday, and by the end of the day on Thursday, the Financial Management crew figured out the possible sources of funding, the Music Corporation met and approved its part of the deal, and the School Meeting gave the whole transaction a green light. Six days later, the new piano         came – Up the fire escape


up the fire escape,







through the dance room,








down the hall,







into its home base; in pieces, and carefully assembled.







And there it settled down for what we expect to be a long and happy sojourn.






Welcomed by our growing crew of pianists, who had played the old piano —







and who, along with the rest of us listeners, love the action and tone of the new one.


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Okay, Let it NOT Snow!

Aren’t they adorable, all those little munchkins, big munchkins, bigger than munchkins, playing in the snow? Isn’t it nice that the school has so many good sliding places? One can even slide right onto the middle of the pond—not usually an option, but due to our concentrated continued super cold weather this winter (am I smiling about that, no), quite acceptable right now. Celia-sledding969I wonder if anyone this year will figure out a way to slide from the hill near the old parking lot all the way onto the middle of the pond. Of course, it is even better with several people on the sled! I don’t remember there being such a cold and snowy stretch in the last few years when the ice was super safe and we had plenty of pillowy white stuff. (No melting this week. Or last week. That pond is safer by the minute.)


Extra-snow-removel984Yeah, but. To get this snow we have to do something. It may look to passers-by like nothing, but it isn’t. One has to live where it happens, and let it happen. And happen. And happen some more. And I will leave out the part about removing it from all the wrong places, since I personally do very little of that. But I have plenty of friends and relations who do plenty of that removal. One just left the house this minute shoveling his way towards the shed with the snow blower.

Snow days — when you know the night before it opens up possibilities. Last week I spent an entire day cooking more elaborate food than I usually do. That was fun. Once. The night before the snow day you can over-indulge in Netflix. And then read for a while without too much guilt. And then sleep late. Except your body doesn’t want you to sleep so very late. It likes habit even more. Oh, well. And then your day is free for you to construct in any way you wish. But then. Instead of seeing lots of adorable children creating imaginative games without freezing to death, one is left looking out the windows and watching the snow pile up. Come down. Drift happily into all the wrong places. Pile very up.

Sledding-hill-Emma-Holly976So it is kind of lonely. No flushed cheeks, no wet boots, no requests for help getting those beastly mittens on — the super-warm ones that really you can only put one hand in, because you need a hand to put the other one on, and you are suddenly only equipped with paws. No watching people push each other down hills. This is not the shoving of the Patriots or the Seahawks. It is the most gentle help for a soft tumble. In general, lots of rough and tumble play without the slightest antipathy. And then one stops and thinks: the world is not necessarily like Sudbury Valley. Children are not always nice to each other. One cannot peacefully watch them out the window knowing that they are constantly watching out for each other everywhere. But you sure can here. Hard to remember that everywhere else kids are both age segregated and closely supervised — partly for their “safety,” but partly because there tend to be angry outbursts. Not here. And if anything happens that isn’t solved immediately by the participants, the whole game will be related to the J.C., with a lot of excitement and rollicking amusement, by the J.C. and often by the participants too. We are not heaven, but we are a place where each and every person knows that life will be fair. How rare is that?

One of the best scenes — which if you look carefully at our Facebook pictures you can see, but not necessarily grasp — this year was on the first or second day the ice opened. There was no snow then. It was 17 year old Sam, a hockey player with a long history of excellence in that sport, gently coaching 4 year old Josie in how to skate without falling all the time. It reminded me of Sam the Judicial Committee Clerk, earlier in the year, sweetly dealing with the little kids who didn’t know the ropes yet. He didn’t have to — watching him skate is so beautiful — but I imagine he wanted to impart a little of the joy he feels.

I know that the kids don’t like snow days and don’t like holidays. It is time to fess up — the grownups miss school too!

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