This post was written by Hanna Greenberg and was originally published in The Sudbury Valley School Journal, volume 30., number 4, March 2001.

“When God began to create heaven and earth, the universe was chaos and disorder, and darkness enveloped the void.” (Genesis 1:1)

One day I was driving along, listening to the radio. I don’t remember what the subject was but the word “chaos” was mentioned and it got me to thinking about my grandchild, Bella. She is six months old and as you may assume I am absolutely besotted by her. What is so alluring, compelling and fascinating about her is the way she is devouring the world with her wide open eyes. I hold her in my arms and watch her looking around. I feel that she is calm, yet at the same time she is working hard at focusing with concentration and purpose on what she sees. It occurred to me that for a newborn infant the whole world is a stranger. Only the mother is familiar, somewhat–not visually, but auditorily. The baby knows the inner sounds of its mother’s body from being in utero for nine months and hearing her heartbeat and her voice. We all are familiar with the mutual staring of mothers and their newborns. It seems that though they know and love each other from before the birthing, they still need to see each other.

At birth, the mother and baby, who have just become separate entities, are at the same time bonding and falling in love with each other. All new mothers and their infants spend the first period after birth in mutual staring at each other. When they know each other visually the staring of the baby is diverted to the whole world around it. Everything in the world is new to the baby. Nothing makes sense or is predictable except its mother. The world is chaotic. The baby’s job is to make sense and understand this chaos. I know that I am very uncomfortable when things are chaotic around me, when they are unpredictable or not understandable. Bella is at ease with chaos. She sits there serenely in my arms and she looks and looks at everything. By the time she was several months old she started to grab at things and again I noticed how well she coped with her own lack of muscle control. She simply worked at grabbing and accepted not succeeding with total calm. It seems to me that she knows somehow that there is a lot of work to be done to make sense and order out of the chaos of this world. She is comfortable in this situation. I daresay she embraces it with joy. She finds the chaos interesting, challenging and exciting.

To a large extent, the life of the children at Sudbury Valley is chaotic. Every day they do what they want to do without a guiding adult showing them the way to learn about the world and prepare them for adulthood. It is their job and it is done in their own particular way. They are busy and intent on their pursuits but they don’t seem to be uncomfortable or anxious about their ability to do their job of growing up and figuring out the world around them and their place in it. It is the adults who are worried about them. I think that is because we are uncomfortable with chaos. We hate unpredictability; it makes us insecure. The children are fine. They go about their lives with confidence and joy. And in fact by the time they are grown up and ready to enter the world at large they acquire the tools they need to be effective adults. How they did it we don’t understand, because it was in a haphazard, unsystematic manner, but we do see that they have done it. The challenge to us the adults (parents and staff) is to acknowledge the fact that children are equipped for making sense out of chaos from the day they are born. It is our responsibility to nurture them and allow them to figure out the world on their own. We have to learn to appreciate the chaos for its richness and wonder. We need to relinquish our own need for order and control. We need to be calm in the whirlwind of activity of the children and trust it to lead them to understanding of the world without our anxious interference.


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Staff have to check in, too?

By Scott David Gray

From the point of view of a brand new student, the school is an astonishing (if sometimes overwhelming) place. The freedom to manage one’s own time is generally the first aspect of the school noticed, and it is what attracts a new student first.

The fairness of the school and its systems, exemplified through the Judicial Committee, is eventually discovered. The power of the School Meeting, and its careful, thorough examination of whatever comes before it, is also part of the picture that develops.

Respect is underneath it all. The genuine community sense that every person in the school is capable, intelligent, thoughtful, and worthy of respect, informs everything the school does. The clearest sign of this universal respect, which is its own little shock, is that the whole community is equal before the law.

I remember my first days as a student, and just how amazing it was when I first realized (in my gut, rather than just intellectually) that the rules applied equally to staff and students. This realization is key to understanding the school. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Once in a long while, a student writes a judicial complaint against a staff member for something mundane. Perhaps the staff member left food unattended, or had a hot drink away from a table. A great deal of fulfillment comes from writing such a complaint, and seeing the complaint to its conclusion.

This morning, I greeted two students at the check-in list (where the school keeps track of people’s attendance, and who is present, by having people record their times of arrival and departure). One of the students has been enrolled for a few years, and one was brand new. After our greetings passed, and we had each checked in, a shocked and joyous expression crossed the face of the newer girl. “Staff have to check in, too?”

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That which is seen and that which is not seen

In 1850 the noted French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote a famous essay with the same title, and with a very insightful point: lots of times there are situations where we have no trouble seeing their good side, but don’t think about another side, not so obvious, that turns out to be no less important.

With the summer break upon us, I feel that message has particular relevance to what went on here during this past year. So many good things happened that were “seen” – were obviously things that the community could point to with pride. Quite a few were written about here in our blog. For example:

  • The school’s governmental apparatus continued to run smoothly.  The weekly School Meeting conducted the main business and policy-making of the school, continually re-examining all facets of the school’s operation. The Judicial system continued to reflect the community’s values of fairness, order, and personal rights. And the Clerks and Committees ensured that the day to day operation of the school unfolded seamlessly.
  • There were several art shows in the dance room, displaying the rather amazing talents of many of our students, young and old. Some of these shows had a new twist: instead of featuring the varied works of one student, they displayed selected pieces by a number of students, with the result that the range of visual imagery was significantly broadened, and the wide extent of talent throughout the population became vividly obvious.
  • On a similar note, five of the large sound baffles that were installed last year in the barn, to improve the sound quality of musical performances there, became the canvas background for large-scale paintings by five of our older students. It was an ambitious project – 4′ by 8′ paintings executed in the barn over a period of months. You can’t walk into the barn without seeing them, and marveling at them.
  • The annual Coffeehouse musical talent show put on by the school’s Music Corporation continued a tradition of showing off a consistent element of life at school since the beginning: the presence of extremely talented musicians – instrumentalists and vocalists – in our midst. The works of pottery produced at school seem to become more exquisite every year. Photos of many of these pieces are featured on our Facebook page.
  • A private business at school, run by students – the famous (or infamous, depending on your degree of orthodoxy regarding the evils of sugar) noontime concession – showed its proprietors to be particularly competent as retail managers and financial planners. The inventory was imaginative and usually extensive, and the bookkeeping involved was competent and clean. They ran a real business, not an “educational project!”

All of these are things that are seen, and generally held to be praiseworthy. What is not seen, however, is no less (and perhaps more) important to the individuals who come here, and has been present this past year in abundance:

  •  the personal growth that every member of the community undergoes, day after day, month after month, year after year.
  • the passion and intensity with which everyone, regardless of age, engage their activities.
  • the kindness which people exhibit to each other, and the generosity of spirit that manifests itself in so many interactions, large and small.
  • the sheer joy shown in so many ways, the liveliness, the bright eyes, the movement, always movement.
  • the marvelous conversations in every corner of the campus, now darting from one subject to the next, now probing more deeply into a vexing question.
  • the games, those wonderful games, challenging, exciting, frustrating, satisfying, many the pure inventions of the participants.
  • the competence that permeates every activity undertaken at school – the universal aspiration to do things well and, when done well, to do them even better.

And, maybe most striking of all, the sheer intelligence exhibited by everyone, old and young, a trait so striking that outsiders often comment that the school “works” because we skim the cream off the top of the mass of children!

It’s been a good year indeed. Like every year since the beginning, I’m tempted to say, “It’s been the best year ever.” Maybe in fact they all have been – all the years, like the children in Lake Wobegon, “above average.” Or maybe they just keep getting better, as the school’s culture continues to develop and flourish.

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