A matter of priorities

This week’s post was written by Hanna Greenberg and was the featured essay on our website in May, 2010.

A young girl of nine or ten asked me to teach her math. I gave her some problems which she enjoyed doing. Next day she came to me with many sheets of paper covered with similar problems which she made for herself and then solved.

She is obviously doing math with great motivation and so when she asked me to help her again, I responded by setting time for her immediately. We walked into an empty room, flipped the “Do not disturb” sign and just when I sat down she told me that before she could work with me she had to go help her friend C. find something in the coat-room. She was gone before I could react. So I sat there waiting for her not knowing for how long.

At first I felt patient and indulgent. But, as time went by I was starting to feel angry with H. for wasting my time, for ditching me and being inconsiderate towards me. I decided to stay put and wait and see what would happen.

Indeed, when H. returned, looking pleased that she helped her friend find what she had lost in a different place than they first thought it would be, she looked totally innocent of any unkindness towards me. I understood that in H.’s mind it was clear that to help her friend was much more important than to learn math and she took it for granted that I, being a nice person, would think the same.

It occurred to me that if all of us could have our priorities so clear, our relationships with others would be so much better. It seems to me that most of us are less wise than this child of nine is. We seem to defer each others’ emotional needs in favor of our work, duties, monetary considerations and such. I am glad that H. made me wait for her math lesson and that instead she taught me a more important lesson which I hope will stay with me.

Later that day the very same H. lost her jacket. She came to me and asked me if I had seen it (now that she sees how much math I know she thinks I know everything). Of course I didn’t, but remembering how she helped C. I offered to help her.

She was in distress and refused to look for it. She said that her mom was waiting in the parking lot, and she didn’t want to make her wait. But she was upset about losing her jacket. I told her to go and ask her mom if she had time to wait and if not I assured her that her jacket would be in the Lost and Found the next day.

Again I was privy to this wonderful girl’s habit of weighing choices between material things and people’s needs and deciding to opt for others’ feelings. It flashed through my mind that I have in the past not been sensitive to a child’s distress at losing things and have scolded them at a time when I should have been comforting. Anyone observing H.’s dilemma would have seen this clearly, but I must have missed such situations many times, too many times. We adults are quick to assume children need our guidance when in truth they need our support and understanding, as all people do.

If you enjoyed this essay, you can read more from our archives.

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Looking good on paper

I would bet every student at Sudbury Valley has at some point been pushed by someone outside the school’s community to defend the school. As a student, I’ve gotten used to full-blown interrogations about my school’s “effectiveness.” It has happened countless times and I’ve developed a pretty good script. Yes, my peers go on to college. Yes, they take the SATs. Yes, they look good on paper. But what I realized recently is that I don’t care if my Sudbury education ever shows up clearly on paper.

Sudbury Valley gives students the space, time and outlets to get in touch with themselves. It is by no means a therapeutic school, but the best tools I’ve gained are in dealing with myself. The pressure in traditional school goes beyond the academic. To have a good looking college app, they say, you need to be well-rounded. Kids play sports they don’t want to play and join clubs that don’t interest them. At SVS the things you’re engaging with are by your choice, and kids learn pretty fast that it’s not helping anyone to do things they don’t like. With nothing to live up to, students have a reason to and are essentially forced to engage with themselves on that level everyday. What do I do today? Well, what do I like to do? What do I say in this meeting? Well, what do I think?

For me, this growth happened in lots of meetings related to the governance of the school while I was trying to figure out what to say. I figured out pretty quick that what I really thought was often a bigger hit than repeating a version of what previous speakers had contributed or what I thought they wanted to hear. If people liked what I really thought, it could affect the school in a way that could make me like school even better. In the same way, saying something I didn’t really mean, because I didn’t want to try or for whatever reason, made me feel less engaged with the school and certainly didn’t serve me. Engaging with my opinions and sharing them has given me a more immediate relationship with myself that has set me up to be more effective in what I do, even if I end up going to the same college I would have. It’s not about the information quota I absorb, but richness of experience. Even if I learn the same amount, I’m better at knowing where my brain really wants to go and so the learning I am doing is way more rewarding.

People don’t ask me or other people involved in the Sudbury Valley community questions about how honest students’ experiences are, or how self-aware they are. I get why, but that’s the part of my SVS education I’m most proud of. People do comment on how confident SVS kids are and I chalk that up to the immediacy kids develop to their honest, original thoughts. Even if it never shows up on paper.

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The SVS generation gap

This week’s post comes from a presentation given by three SVS parents in November, 1998. It was also a featured essay on our website in April, 2011.

How do you parent a child who is having a school experience totally different from your own?

I can’t really refer to William as a child anymore, now that he is sixteen. We actually went test driving pickup trucks over this past weekend. He has pictured himself in a red Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Laramie for a long time now, and I have no doubt that if that dream persists, he will make it happen. When we moved to a lake, he wanted a boat, so he made it happen. At school, he thought there should be new backboards and basketball equipment, so he made it happen. I’m told he was also a driving force in getting new kitchen equipment. He knew it would be good for the school and he also had a passion for cooking at the time. Now he is more drawn to computers, so he went to several auctions until he found a laptop that was the best value for the money he had to spend.

That kind of internal motivation, that knowing what you want, not only in material things, but in knowing what you want to do in your life, what you want to get out of living, what you want to give back to others, that is what I had hoped Will could retain and build on from the preschooler that he was before he came to Sudbury Valley. He started here at five years old instead of going to kindergarten. My hope for him was that his school experience would be very different from my own, and it certainly has been.

My first years of schooling through the sixth grade were spent in parochial schools. Yes, they were authoritarian, some might say rigid, and they reflected the parenting that I was receiving at home. But I found that public junior high and high school were not very different. I had no trouble, though. I learned to color inside the lines. My penmanship was exemplary. I could figure out what the teachers wanted and I gave it to them. But I am still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. I often have a very hard time deciding what I want from almost any menu.

Will’s early years at SVS were what I had hoped for, for him. He got to just be a kid, to play, to explore. When he was five, his favorite place was the woodworking shop. He gained in confidence as he was able to use more of the tools and equipment. For him, I think, being able to use the equipment was more important than any of the projects he produced. Later, fishing in the pond was a major activity, mastering the art, science, and sportsmanship of it. He played four-square, spent hours with legos, did a little pottery, and had friends of various ages to be with.

And of course there was Callahan. I have to admit that it was difficult to sign the off-campus policy every year. But I really wanted him to have the opportunity and the freedom to roam in the woods and across the fields, to play at the creeks and the ponds in all kinds of weather. I remember doing those things out behind my house at first, later in woods in the neighborhood (after school of course) and usually by myself (when I could get away from my younger siblings). It seemed safer then for a kid to wander alone. So my solution to my safety dilemma was to have an agreement with him to only go to Callahan with at least two others, never on the road, and never anywhere else off campus. Times change. Now he goes off campus with other kids in cars!

The relatives have had a few things to say about that policy. They had more than a few things to say about how much he wasn’t learning like all the other kids his age. It felt fairly easy for the first several years to patiently explain the philosophy of the school and then agree to disagree. But as Will became eight and nine years old, and then ten years old, and he was still not reading beyond a few words here and there, it was impossible not to worry that maybe there was a problem here. Hanna and Denise were very helpful in their reassurance that reading would come when he was ready, but the growing worry was often nagging. I’m sure that he felt some pressure from his parents as much as we tried to keep it in check.

To illustrate a point, let me tell you a little about Will’s experiences with Cub Scouts. He had the choice to join the local Pack and he stayed with it for almost three years. He enjoyed the activities, the camping, and I think just to experience some of what other kids do outside of Sudbury Valley. But one thing that other kids of that age do is to read their Cub Scout handbooks, fill out forms, and make holiday cards with writing on them for their mothers. He has subsequently admitted to some embarrassment over his lack of skill in those areas in various situations. But the tremendous thing is that it didn’t keep him from participating and it didn’t bring down his self esteem. His social skills, greatly aided by his years at SVS, carried him through. But he also had a firm sense of confidence in all of his other strengths, a great backlog of accomplishments, large and small, that he had accumulated doing the things that he had set out for himself to do.

I think how differently I would have felt and reacted if I had been that age and lacked those academic skills in a similar situation. My embarrassment would have been enormous. The conformist and competitive culture of “school” was all I knew. I think that I always needed to be looking around me at how I was doing in comparison to others, not to put them down or to think less of them, but just to be sure that I was as good as or better at most things in order to maintain a sense of being alright, having to wonder whether I was measuring up and, of course, fearing the inevitable wounds. My great task during that time with Will was to curb my own fears for him. Not wanting him to feel what I had felt, I needed to trust that his experience could be different than mine and be alright for him. It was very hard to resist pressuring him to follow my timetable or one that others thought was “typical and to be expected.”

Although Will did feel some embarrassment at his lack of academic skills and did feel some external pressures to “get on with it,” he still didn’t really start reading “near an age appropriate level” until he was around twelve. Neither embarrassment nor pressure drove his learning to read. It was his own need to read that made it happen. He learned through playing in Magic card games at school and in tournaments outside, through playing board games and other role playing games at school, and through his use of Nintendo and then computers. His reading was aided by the vocabulary he picked up from home and from the rich verbal environment of Sudbury Valley. He is still learning to write, but he has little present need, although keeping up with his E-mail and visiting chat rooms is changing that. He now reads mostly technical material and an occasional article in a newspaper or magazine; never a novel (despite the fact, or is it in spite of the fact, that I have bought him quite a few).

I have found that the early fears of the relatives about how Will would turn out going to such a school as SVS have completely dissolved as they have seen him grow to be the person that he is. For me, it has been a process of learning to trust the process that is Sudbury Valley, to trust “my child” to find his own path, and to trust myself in having made the right decision.

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