The One and Only Best Class

The one and only “best class’‘ I have ever attended is the Judicial Committee at Sudbury Valley.

Basically, the JC is the organ of the school which keeps the school safe, deals with interpersonal conflicts, and ensures that the physical plant is not abused or vandalized. It took us many years to create the concept of the school’s judicial system and even longer to develop a tradition which  is now embedded in the culture of the school to such an extent that it runs really smoothly and effectively.

I went to a private high school, to college, and to graduate school at an Ivy League university, and I learned things about science there. But watching many generations of our students run the Judicial Committee, I am impressed by how much they learn about life – lessons which undoubtedly will be valuable to them throughout their lives. I am astounded by how serious and responsible the members of the Committee are, working every single day to do their job for as long is it takes. And I am always moved by how they care about each individual student, as well as about the welfare of the school as a whole.

The JC is comprised of two clerks who are elected by the School Meeting and serve for about ten weeks; five students from all the age groups, who are chosen by the School Meeting chairman who serve for one month; and one rotating staff member, who serves approximately once every two weeks. So eight people come to the “seminar room” everyday at 11:00 a.m. sharp and sit around the table and deal with all the complains that have been filed.

It is truly amazing that kids of all ages and personalities arrive on time day after day and sit there quietly attending to what comes up. Five year olds are expected to do their “jury duty” just as everyone else in the community is. All the students sense that they are equal to all others regardless of their age, and that with equal rights comes equal responsibility to participate in ensuring those rights.

The JC clerks  run the meetings. They lead the questioning of the witnesses, write the reports, keep records, and go to the School Meetings to answer any questions about JC matters. From time to time the Meeting votes to send a report back to the JC for clarification. In fact, one of the hardest “lessons” for the clerks to learn is to cope with  criticism at the School Meeting and not become defensive, but rather accept it graciously and with open minds.

So, what did I learn in this class called the JC? I learned that when you trust children and expect them to take upon themselves the responsibilities of keeping the peace in the school, as well as seeing to it that the place is safe and the property is not damaged and kept in order, the students are capable, trustworthy, fair, and eager to do their share of work carefully and patiently.

The JC is the heart of the school. It is where kids from the youngest age feel the freedom in their bones, and the respect to which each human being is entitled.

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What’s in a hat?

ruby847Often we as adults don’t get why kids make a big deal about things that seem trivial to us. A good case in point is the matter of fashion. It probably has been a bone of contention between the young and the old since the beginning of history, but recently I encountered it with respect to a public school rule that students are not allowed to wear hats in school.

At the school’s Open House on October 18, 2014, I was talking to a lovely girl, age eleven, and her parents, and the first question she asked me was: “Do you have a dress code at your school?” The idea was so foreign to me that I was stumped for a minute and then said wryly: “Yes. You can’t come to school naked.” We all laughed and the girl said quite seriously that this made sense to her, but that in her school students were forbidden to wear hats. It made me think why this was so uppermost in her mind, instead of the usual queries about tests, homework, boring classes etc. And then it all fell into place for me like the last piece in a 3000 piece puzzle.mar687

Here I was, sitting with a young person with a strong personality, who has decided that she needs to guard her very self from encroachment by others at all costs. Wearing her hat is important to her not because of the hat, but because she perceives that allowing others to dictate to her about her self image is a very threatening situation. Giving an inch here can result in losing her whole self. sarahw-g647Being young, she senses this truth, but she is unable yet to articulate and explain why the hat issue is so important and why she is digging in her heels and refusing to comply with the adults who demand obedience to arbitrary rules. She, like so many young kids everywhere, understands full well why the schools make these arbitrary rules. It is a matter of control, and stems from a desire to break the students in order to fit them into a predetermined mold. Lots of kids comply, but some don’t because they have figured out what this scheme is all about. They refuse to obey rules they consider unfair and end up being intensely unhappy in their schools.

nickhatThe lucky ones find Sudbury Valley, where they are respected and accepted for who they are, and thus are free to use their energy to become who they need to become.

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Our friend, Rick

Rick on RoofThe school has had few friends in its 47 years to rival Rick Burns. Actually, you can’t rival Rick – he is too much of an individual! Nominally, Rick is our roofer. That’s how we met him. We were looking for a skilled slate roofer. Even over 30 years ago, skilled slate roofers, with all the knowledge that came from years of apprenticeship and practice, were few and far between. We had already been stung by people who claimed the skills, but didn’t have them.

I don’t know how Rick first came on the scene, but he was the answer to our prayers. At first Rick tries to come across — as many people from Maine do — as less knowledgeable and sophisticated as city folks. Of course, it rarely turn out to be true of any of those other deceptively simple folks, and it’s even less so with Rick. In fact, Rick knows everything – he certainly knows everything that I don’t know, and almost all of what I do. And what he doesn’t know, he has enough electronic devices in his truck to find out!

But that wasn’t the reason we first came to respect and admire him. It was his consummate skill with slate roofing. Eventually we began to understand who Rick was as a person. He has the sweetest personality of anyone I know. He’s kind, generous, painstaking, loyal, and has very high standards, which he gently makes clear to student after student!

At around the same time we realized what a personal asset he was to the school, we began to realize the devotion that he was showing to our property. It turned out that he not only loves old buildings, he especially loves this old property, and all of its facets. He likes spending hours on the roof with the life of the students going on around him on the ground.

Over the last couple of decades, while replacing every single slate on our very complex roof, Rick was getting to know every part of the campus. He saw everything. He knew which kid was “the squirrel” (as in flying squirrel)! He also has a complete idea of how things should be. He knows more about these buildings than anyone I can imagine. He always sees what’s right and what’s wrong about the physical plant, and what the long term solutions should be. He’s actually saved the school, physically, by pointing out problems that have to be attended to, on more than one occasion.

Yet, it is still hard to explain how we value Rick Burns – and how valued he makes us feel in return! When I was talking about my frustration with explaining it, Hayden, who has worked with Rick for a long time said, “he is a complete genius.” Kelly said, “All of the students know exactly what you mean when you say ‘Rick the roofer,’ but like the school itself, you can’t really describe him.” And they do know what they mean.

They mean that Rick is more than just our roofer, though he’s responsible for keeping our roof in peak condition — freeing it of ice and snow this winter, even when it meant taking an emergency trip back North from Florida. Rick is a reflection of what Sudbury Valley is as a community.

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