Serious frolicking

By Mimsy Sadofsky

This year we had a three-week summer session at Sudbury Valley, open to those who were regular students during the school year. It is hard to explain how lovely it was. I don’t think there were more than 15 or 16 kids for any of the three weeks, and few of them — I can only think of three right now — were there for the entire time. So how could it be school?

Well, how could it not be? They all know each other. There was a different atmosphere each week – different sorts of friendships were formed – but the basic SVS atmosphere, the ability to be and let be, was always there. While the dominant feeling of our regular school year is intensity, it seemed to me, as an observer but not a participant in summer session, that the dominant feeling this summer was spontaneity. Yes, they were all intense. Always. Wherever they were, whatever they were doing. But the particular configuration of students, including those who were there to help, gave everything a different flavor.

As a leitmotif of the three weeks, though one that caused no problem, the school was half unusable. Three porches and three entrances were off limits since they were being worked on, as were any adjacent rooms. A large portion of the outside area was roped off. There were tons of construction vehicles. But not one person crossed any yellow tape — or complained about any part of it. You couldn’t rip-stik everywhere? No sweat. You could do it plenty of places.

There were Zombie games in the building. Too loud. They took them into the cellar! There was a game called Mafia. Mafia is also for the cellar. What, you may ask is Mafia? I asked, too.

“It’s very complicated.”
“Too complicated for me to understand?”
“No . . . .”  Then silence.

I got the message. In Judicial Committee meetings, we often have to understand a complicated game. The explanations can be entertaining, but they’re often time-consuming, and take a lot of patience and insight. Just asking a question in passing won’t garner an explanation. You have to really care.

Several times throughout the day, the sewing room would be a mass of Minecraft players. A few minutes later the computers and shoes and lunches would still be strewn around, but the game players and the other kids would be out playing “Nuke ‘em” (All I know about this particular game is that it involves a volleyball net and Jean enjoyed playing it.) Or Frisbee. Or climbing trees. Or there would be rain. Rain trumped everything — even Minecraft.

Hannah and Tinuviel, who both graduated in May, were the summer staff, under Mikel’s hands-off supervision, and they were like angels. I can’t describe them any other way. They were everywhere and always sweet. All of the kids, I think, felt very good about them. At some point in Week One they decided to try out an old ice cream freezer that was sitting in the attic. Their first ice cream was chocolate chip. Yum! But it was more of a practice ice cream. The flavors the next time were peach maple and mint chocolate chip. The grand finale, Week Three, was Oreo cookie ice cream. Best ice cream ever. I remember making ice cream at school years ago as a lot of work. This group, including the staff, didn’t feel that way. “Who cranked,” I asked the first time. “Everybody!”

They initiated chalk art on the driveway. That kept changing over the three weeks. One day, almost everyone brought something in to tie-dye. The results were lovely. Not just beautiful objects. Beautiful activity.

Ava had a birthday during one of the weeks. Her mom, Robyn, asked if she could come with cupcakes. She brought three different kinds, which really amazed me and gave me a(nother) glimpse into why her children are so careful, so sensitive, so caring. There were chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting, vanilla with vanilla frosting, and gluten-free chocolate with vanilla frosting. It blew me away. To cater to all the desires, needs and preferences of the little group so sweetly and naturally was extraordinary. Oh, and they were homemade and plentiful!

To me that one little moment was all about what Sudbury Valley is and the way in which it is just a spot softer in the summer! These kids are so joyous and so easy. My last impression was Harriet jumping into a tree for a last climb. She looked utterly free.

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Men at work

Mimsy took the following photograph at school recently:

men-at-work

She gave the photo the title “Men at Work.” At first sight, the title seems whimsical, though the photo itself is a perfect gem.

I couldn’t stop thinking: is there more than whimsy to the title? And it got me pondering the meaning of the word “work.” The dictionary defines it as “productive activity.” But the more I considered it, the clearer it became to me that, like so many other words, its meaning has undergone major transformations over time.

For thousands of years, people considered all their activities to be productive. Everything they did was seen to contribute to their survival. As soon as a child was old enough to contribute something beneficial to the community, s/he was enlisted to help. There was no gender or age discrimination. There was also little coercion. It was assumed that children want to grow to be adults who contribute to sustaining the community, and therefore will welcome opportunities to learn how to do that. In general, people of all ages were expected to do their share for their own good and for the good of their community. Spontaneous activities were considered no less productive than others, since they contributed to the overall well-being of the individuals concerned, and thereby to the community as a whole.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Machines dominated the scene, and what they did was the primary productive activity of industrialized societies. Work came to mean anything that contributed directly to industrial output, and that in turn was highly standardized, not subject to deviation or spontaneity. “Playing around” was detrimental to the improvement of the condition of society or of the individual. “To play” came to mean “to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously.”

Our post-industrial Information Age has freed human beings from the tyranny of standardized and routinized activities, leaving those to be managed by the new information technology. The distinction between productive and non-productive activities has vanished. Anything to which people voluntarily turn their minds contributes to their growth and deepens their understanding of the world around them. There is no longer a distinction between “work” and “play.”

Look again at the photograph. Don’t you see “men at work?” I do.

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Chaos

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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