Hear Ye! Hear Ye! The court is in session!

Sudbury Valley’s big drama in November was a trial.

Trials are rare. Almost always, when the Judicial Committee decides, after careful investigation, to charge someone with violating a rule, the person charged accepts the fairness of the process and pleads guilty to the charge. Sometimes, however, the plea is “not guilty,” and that gives rise to a full-fledged trial before a jury of six School Meeting members.

This trial involved one of the most common infractions of the rules – running in the school building. Two thirteen year old students, who in the past had faced numerous charges of running, to which they had happily pleaded guilty, decided this time to plead “not guilty,” and to opt for a trial.

The trial took place on a Friday at 1:00 in the School Meeting room, which was filled to capacity. Seven staff and several dozen students of all ages were in the audience. The defendants were represented by Mikel, and the prosecution team was made up of Sam (A JC clerk) and Jonah. The School Meeting Chairman, Olivia, was the presiding judge. Court records were kept by Emma S., the Law Clerk, and the jury was composed of six students between the ages of 12 and 17.

The scene was pure cinéma vérité. There was tension in the room, expectation, and curiosity. The two sides presented their cases. The main point of contention was whether, at the time and place of the complaint, the method of locomotion by the defendants was “walking fast,” which is allowed, or actual “running,” which is not. The witnesses, called in from a sequestered room and cross-examined by the two sides were: Mimsy, Scott, Emma S., Emma F., Kyle, Brenna, Caleb Elfland, and Suzanna. (Some witnessed the activity, others the accused’s description of the activity during JC.) Closing statements were made, and the jury was handed the case. Everyone had to leave, with the jurors, the Chairman, and the Law Clerk being the only ones present during the jury’s deliberations.

The verdict turned out to be a unanimous one of “guilty.”

What was fascinating to me was the combination of seriousness on the part of the participants and the audience, combined with community support for all the people involved. The defendants, as expected, accepted the verdict with grace.

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I just remembered something, and very vividly.

When prospective students and their families describe their days, their schools, or their camp experiences, the word “activity” pops up frequently. They ask about what “activities” students are involved in during their days here at SVS, or what kinds of “activities” we offer?

Something about that kept nagging at me, beyond the fact that I know I don’t like organized activities, and that there are many good reasons not to.

And now I suddenly remembered what this something was: my very own first (and last) childhood experience with an organized activity.

This is what happened: A craft-loving neighborhood mom had organized some courses in our local community center. There was some buzz about these activities, my classmates were signing up for them, so perhaps I should sign up too? Didn’t I like crafts? Yes I did! Learning how to knit had been so exciting it kept me up late into the night. In the stationery store, I always begged my mom for clay and craft paper, and I was always making stuff. So indeed, why not?

The class in question was some kind of a metal etching class involving copper metal foil, some acidic chemicals, finishers, and stuff to mount the final results. So far so good. Somehow, it still sounds as if it could have been a good thing.

But it wasn’t. Probably because of the chemicals, or the expensive metal foil, or the fact that things had to progress on a very particular schedule (Tracing design day 1, chemical treatment day 2, etc.) this turned out to be an encounter with a highly structured activity of a kind I have avoided ever since. It was so structured in fact, that I still feel I do not remember much about what I actually did, but the “stepness” of the process. And that the mom/teacher and I did not seem to like each other much.

There was something else wrong with it. Whatever it was that we were doing did not stand on its own. If it was an approximation of some existing artistic practice of technique, it was not quite recognizable as such, and I have never seen anything else produced in this manner.

Or perhaps it just was no fun because it was entirely circumscribed:

We could choose from a number of designs to trace onto the copper foil. None of them appealed to me, and there was no option of creating your own design, so I chose a particularly ugly one for the sole reason that the mom/teacher said it would probably be too hard for anybody to finish in time. (I had a more competitive streak back then.)

So I struggled through the few afternoons, fueled to some degree by this drive to prove that what I had chosen could be done (even though the mom said it was not really possible), and in the end, I held in my hands an ugly (if well executed) and useless craft object that I would have probably happily forgotten about, if it hadn’t been for the profound sadness I was overcome with at the same time.

It was a horrible feeling of having been fundamentally cheated out of my time. Several afternoons had come and gone, and now they were lost. I had a very clear sense of how valuable every one of those afternoons had been, and that I had given them up for this meaningless piece of copper and plaster. Outside it was getting dark, and my day was over without me having had any chance to do something.

It was a new emotion, and a feeling that could not have been more different from how I usually felt when I was just doing something on my own at home or around the neighborhood: drawing, rummaging, roller skating, playing with other children, just doing stuff. I wasn’t always happy, but I was always somehow fulfilled at the end of the day.

The absolute emptiness I felt that dusky evening moment taught me how satisfying those other things that I usually spent my days with were, and I missed that feeling of fulfillment intensely.

Do I even have to spell out the rest?

That class was probably the only activity that would have counted as an “activity” in today’s educational world, with the tags that seem to matter in today’s parenting universe: structured, supervised, creative, parent involvement, community. This was the kind of activity I could have put on my childhood résumé for a private school if that had been an issue at that time, and if the mom in charge would not have been so annoyed at arrogant little me, she could have written a glowing letter of recommendation about how I did the thing that was so hard she didn’t think anybody could do it, at least not in time.

But in effect this course was memorable to me only for its pathetic nothingness, for some truly wasted time, as an encounter with estrangement, and as an experience of loneliness reserved, I think, exclusively to engineered activities in community centers.

Well, maybe it was worth doing it for that one might say: an early lesson in the modern condition has its own merits, and yes, I did learn a lot from this experience.

But the point is of course that the idea of this class was not to convey a lesson in emptiness and estrangement – which it brilliantly did to me – but to be fulfilling. And that this craft course that was to be about something, taught me instead what nothing really feels like, while all my doing-nothing afternoons and evenings, with no immediate result or finished project, were the real something: my life.

So you’ll understand why I’ll happily share doing something with others, but I will not cajole them into it. It can be great to do things and learn a skill in a course if you really want to do it, but it has to be a real interest, real skills, and, dare I say, real people doing it.

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Frogs and calculators

This post was written by our Office Manager, Jean Cote.

Recently, I had the opportunity (privilege) to introduce a calculator in all its glory to a young, inquisitive student for (I don’t know it to be fact, but it seemed to be) her first time. After giving her a brief explanation and demonstration of my desktop tool, she then had to know what each symbol meant and what it was used for, and then she was off to explore its magic on her own.

This is how it all came about.

Hole on the front of jeans desk showing pieces of paper that have been shoved inside



I know, I don’t get the attraction either but there it is–an irresistible plaything with moveable parts and a peek-a-boo view through my desk–for the young and the not-so-young.






I know, trash can waiting to happen, right? And when it inevitably did . . .







. . . a sympathetic Isabel made this to prevent unwanted things from accumulating under my desk. (Thank you, Isabel.) It holds its multi-purpose real estate, beautifully, on my desk, as has . . .






. . . inherited office desk fixture, Pepé Le Pew (who really has nothing to do with this writing, but who is worthy of mention), and





. . . this pitcher — also a beautifully functional, treasured piece made by Emma when she was four or five and presented to me early in my Office Manager years at the school





–which later came to serve as a perch for this little frog . . .







. . . who reminds me to show off another popular, prized possession.






But, this student wanted the real thing:








I love my job.

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