Appearance and reality

We’ve all been brought up on the old adage, “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” The point of this well-worn piece of ancient wisdom is simple: don’t judge the reality of a situation from its outward appearance. Even if you are put off (or attracted!) by what first meets your eyes, hold off any judgment until you have looked more deeply into the substance under the surface.

Well, that may often be true, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a school such as Sudbury Valley. The reason is simple. The first thing that comes to most people’s minds, when they hear about a place where children are not constantly supervised by adults, is that it must be utterly chaotic. After all, they think, look at all the mischief their own children, and their children’s friends, get into. If you don’t keep an eye on them all the time, chances are pretty good that you’ll find your home turned upside down when you next take a peek. Just think about how their rooms look before they’re commanded to clean up or else!

Of course, it helps to be fortunate enough to have a luxurious campus, like ours at SVS. But think about it: the reason we could afford it in the first place was because it was a total white elephant! Here was a huge hundred-year-old granite building in far less than pristine shape, with overgrown grounds. It was not insulated, had an old heating system (probably installed when oil heat first came into use, to replace the coal-fired furnace and coal bin in the basement), and very old electrical wiring. The total electric service coming in from the street was 200 amps, on old wires strung on poles that disfigured the grounds. The water came in from the street on a 1-1/2 inch main, fed by a town supply that had such poor pressure that it took about five minutes to refill a toilet tank on the second floor, and washing your hands was possible only if you had mastered the art of soaping and rinsing in a trickle. You get the picture. It was not marketable as a residence and very expensive to tear down. In fact, the prior owners were a teaching order of nuns, who were using it as a novitiate to house thirty novices who were training to get their teaching certificates at what was then called “Framingham State Teachers’ College.” And even they couldn’t afford to stay.

From the beginning, the staff and students who ran the school through the School Meeting understood the challenge, and set the rehabilitation of the plant as the first priority. It was clear that there were two separate issues at stake. First and foremost was survival, which depended on the ability of the school to establish a usable physical plant and provide for its long-term preservation. Second, and understood by all to be no less important to survival, was proving that a school run by children and adults together, all having an equal voice in all decisions, could create an aesthetically pleasing environment and maintain it as such.

Everyone understood that the expectation out there in a highly skeptical, if not hostile, world of education and institutional management was that we would fall flat on our faces. We knew that we had to do more than just scrape by. We had to show that, as a community, we stood for a high standard of excellence in all that we did – and the first thing everyone could see, long before there were personal outcomes to validate our approach, was the condition of our grounds and building. A ragged, decaying old estate that was continuing to fall apart, with a messy and dirty interior, would serve as more than adequate “proof” to outsiders that we were in fact what they thought we would be: a scraggly crew whose idea of providing children with an education was to let them run amok in a decaying castle.

An incident that I will never forget brought all this home. The headmaster of the oldest private boarding school in New England – an elite, tradition-bound institution that charged a huge tuition and sat on a large endowment – came to visit. As we were walking down from the old parking lot to the building, he noticed the slate roof (the original one, installed a hundred years before), and mused at how hard it must be to maintain it. He had just discovered that the staff was not getting paid (in fact, we did not have anything that could be called a “salary scale” until 25 years after the school opened). I assured him that the School Meeting set plant maintenance as a top priority, and the integrity of the roof was one of the key areas on which the school focused. He turned to me and said, “Right there is the key difference between our schools. Our roof could be collapsing, and our staff wouldn’t care in the least whether we had the funds to repair it; paying their salaries in full is the only aspect of finances that they care about.” He then had a chance to interact with our students and staff, and came away in awe – something we hardly expected when he arrived!

For us, appearance and reality are inextricably intertwined. Every student knows it just as well as the staff. The whole community takes pride and joy in the beauty of our physical surroundings, inside and out. Thus, for example, there was no question that when, four years ago, the dam was compromised and the loss of our pond loomed, we would use as much of our small reserve fund as necessary to repair it. Repair it we did, and the 250-year-old landmark regained its pristine glory.

Visitors, including families considering joining the SVS community, invariably tell us that the experience of approaching the school from our parking lot on top of the hill sends a wonderful message: that we are competent, caring, and, most of all, know how to do things with excellence as our goal.

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Doing Nothing

There is a stigma against people who are perceived to be “doing nothing.” The greatest fear that most adults have, vis-a-vis children enrolled in Sudbury Valley, is that those children will do nothing. These fears arise from the failure to see just how little “nothing” people actually do here. When those people are already disrespected (as children are in the wider culture) the very idea of those people doing nothing is treated with contempt and fear.

To begin with, there are misunderstandings that come when the word “nothing” is used instead of the more complete and accurate response: “nothing that would make any sense to someone who doesn’t have the same level of knowledge and caring that I do about the particular set of interests, questions, ideas, concerns, events, places and things on which I spend my energy.” When adults tell other adults that they’re doing “nothing,” everyone assumes it is a polite way to avoid a great deal of effort describing things of limited interest. But it’s clear that few adults understand that word in the same way when it’s said by children.

Some of the “nothing” that people agonize over is clearly “something.” For example, conversation with other people is often minimized as just “shooting the breeze.” In fact, all such connections are part of broadening horizons, gaining insight from others around by examining how they see the world, and trying out ideas and thoughts with other people.

When looking at items published by the school about exciting things going on, one can watch fascinating videos about students making gingerbread houses, music, art, justice and legislation.This all looks like something. One reads about hikes, camping trips, construction projects, weddings, snow tubing. One sees photos of skating, skiing, dances, printmaking, fishing and intense work of every kind. Something each time.

But some of the most important and intense work will never make it to videos or photo albums, precisely because the work needs to be done on one’s own without interacting in any visible way with people or the world around. Consider the following activities:

  • Meditating – letting go of worries and concerns for a little while and cleaning out one’s conscious mind.
  • Reflecting – having an internal conversation, and straightening out thoughts about things that have already passed.
  • Examining – fishing for information about the world, letting the stream of life flow by, eyes and ears open.

Because these mental activities are private, and how they’re practiced varies from individual to individual, we never know for sure what is going on. This only adds to the impression that people engaging in these activities are “doing nothing.”

Yes, there is always a lot of buzz in the school. There are always happenings. There are always things to do. But I want to offer my thanks to the school for being a place where so much that seems to be “nothing” can happen without interference.

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All the right moves: The SVS “ballet”

Welcome to the new school year. We are more excited than ever about starting school this year and about (okay, I admit it) the incredible quality of the student body. Yes, we have new and visiting students, and yes they may only make it better, but what we have already is just so darn good.

We have been working all summer in various and sundry ways. The building and grounds got a bit of a facelift and we made many changes to ensure that the school is prepared to withstand the onslaught of students for another year (or 20).

Not all of our hard work is apparent just from a stroll across campus. Many of our “upgrades” took place in the digital realm. A glance at our new online bookstore instantly pulls you into the magical life of the school. We spent much of the summer working together to make this bookstore as perfect as possible.

Meanwhile, two SVS graduates, Kelly McCarthy and Emma Tunstall, have been helping us step even further into the digital age by scanning and organizing decades (and reams) of school records from before the age of computers. This project has given them plenty of chances to laugh at – and with – some of the staff foibles we keep repeating to this day! Their efforts are part of the new Content Management System we’ll be rolling out early this fall.

Other current and former students have been part of the lovely scene this summer, as well as several staff members. Three huge porches were rebuilt from the ground up. New floors have appeared. The bathrooms have new curtains, new soap dispensers, and new…. toilets! The outdoor landscape has changed in various ways, some sad and some beautiful. But we are ready!

Meanwhile, last week, as the contractors rushed to put the final touches on the summer projects, I witnessed a beautiful scene. The cleaning service we use is run by Matt Warilas, a dynamo of a man who can clean anything and everything, and in the process, leave it better than it was before. For example, one day last week I arrived to see that every cobblestone had been dug out of the turnaround in front of the school. A new kind of material was put between them to avoid the normal weeds/grass/movement, etc., that occur. They were put back in a more beautiful pattern and, should you think this was an enormous job, it was all accomplished on the same day.

Later that day, our buddies, the DiModicas, delivered a mountain of new sand for the sandbox. Matt went out to rake the sand into a perfectly smooth, flat circle. This involved pulling weeds and moving large quantities of sand back and forth — with just a rake. Matt was observed by another of our contractors, Dave Erickson of Erickson Landscaping. Dave was moving bushes back into place with his backhoe/front loader. Seeing Matt out there pushing sand around with a rake, he swung over and and started hoisting large gulps of sand with his machine.

They worked together, seemingly wordlessly, until the sand was “just right.” I figured they were buddies – most of our contractors know each other by now, and many of them came on recommendations from the others. It was an act of friendship. It turns out it was even more beautiful – an act of one guy helping another guy get a job done much faster. Together, their work was like a ballet.

And now to the most beautiful ballet of all – the school year!

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