Secret Worlds of Learning at SVS

Over the past few months I have noticed, and been fascinated by, the proliferation of “secret worlds”. As I’m an invited guest to these meaningful and sometimes sacred endeavors, I must omit names, locations, and other details, so as not to break bonds of trust. That said, I will attempt to convey the multifaceted substance of what has truly amazed me.

A majority of secret worlds I’ve observed have “rooms”, designed and constructed by the individuals who inhabit them. These rooms often appear in, beneath, or between trees. They include large stones, pieces of concrete that jet from the ground, logs, and other stationary items. These elements form the foundation of their living spaces. As in a traditional home, the foundation of each room serves as a base on which to build. The construction process may last for an hour, the better part of a day, or over the course of days or even weeks. Each room reflects the interests, tastes, personality and talents of the student who creates it. Rooms are sometimes made comfortable with leaves and other items found in nature, or with fabric carefully positioned or stuffed and sewn into pillows.

The creativity of SVS students is increasingly revealed as their rooms take shape. I was intrigued watching students create tools from found objects in order to build, sculpt, and decorate items in their rooms. Rocks and sticks initially played a central role in construction. A turning point occurred when a box of slate from the bridge roof, removed last summer, entered the scene. Students began using pieces of slate for various tasks. They sharpened them with rocks to improve their effectiveness. They used string, yarn, and fabric to firmly attach the sharpened pieces of slate to sticks. Among other uses, these refined tools cleanly and precisely chopped sticks into desired sizes. As time went by new and more efficient ways to carve slate were discovered.

I should mention that there is no set group of students engaged in these activities. Rather, students of different ages and genders may or may not be involved in these endeavors at any given time or day. Students sometimes form “clans”, not to be confused with cliques. Clans have evolving missions and rules. Their memberships ebb and flow; I was temporarily a member of two clans. Groups and individuals work alongside each other, learning new techniques through observation and occasionally instruction. For example, when one student discovered a particularly precise method for carving slate, others quickly adapted it to suit their purposes.

Slate is not only used as tools, it is also sculpted into pieces of art that adorn rooms or used for stand-alone installations. In one case, walls of a small house were erected complete with a walkway. Paint is used to decorate many of the artistic pieces. Of note is that the paint doesn’t come from the Art Room. Rather it is painstakingly made by grinding brick, slate, and other objects into a fine powder and adding liquid. Crushed berries and petals also serve as the base for paint. Paint brushes are made from a combination of sticks, grass, leaves, and other natural materials.

The rooms display students’ artistic sensibilities. While many of the same materials are used, the environments created are as unique as each individual. On a sunny day, one student relaxed in her room surrounded by a carpet of petals. She transformed the puddle in her room into a Japanese water garden, complete with carefully selected petals and leaves that floated on the water’s surface. In addition to decorative sculptures, functional objects are also built. Several pieces of slate, carved into precise sizes, were assembled into a sturdy and quite beautiful table.

Finally, many of the students themselves become part of the ambiance of their abodes. Sticks, blades of grass, feathers, and/or flowers are woven into hats, hair extensions, and hand-made headbands. These accessories harmonize with the look of the room. Paint made to decorate sculptures is also used on students’ faces. Thought and care is given to the color and design of the face painting, so that it reflects the concept of their room.

I’m continually inspired by the ingenuity and boundless energy and imagination of SVS students.

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Separation and Transition

There was a Separation and Transition Workshop for parents at my son’s college orientation that I went to, and I don’t regret going, even though I thought I would.

Convinced that the last thing my SVS educated son needed on his first day of college was a hovering parent, I resisted the idea of spending any extra time on campus after dropping him off, but I have to admit that I’m very glad I went for a little bit. It was very good to hear some of the very clear headed staff speak and I very much appreciated exchanging a few words with fellow parents. I’ll be happy to tell you more about it some other time – maybe at our next SVS coffee. But what I want to talk about here, what really struck a nerve and continues to keep going through my head, apart from this whole separation and transition business, is this: At some point during the truly excellent Separation and Transition Workshop, a somewhat spooked parent brought up the issue of “substances” on campus, you know, alcohol, marijuana, maybe worse, and how from that on, it was quite difficult to steer the conversation away from things people were afraid of for their children, to name just a few, in alphabetical order: alcohol, cigarettes, gender identity changes, hair changes, health issues, heroin, laundry, marijuana, relationships, sex, and get back to our topic of separation and transition. Who, the only question in the room suddenly seemed to be, was going to take care of all this, now that we parents would not be around? Which office, please, can our students contact, and how can we be sure they know that and make the necessary call?

Where we were talking about different facets of the separation process and transitions one moment, we were suddenly focusing on this, that or the other thing we were worried about for our students, and while worry is part of life as a parent, worrying is not the whole story of separation and transition. If we knew our children would leave for school and never get into any trouble, enjoy only positive relationships, have zero interest in any other substances than bottled water (wait, that could be contaminated and lacking the fluoride they need for healthy teeth, or have they outgrown that?) and wear their hair exactly the way we think looks best on them, we would still have to deal with the fact that at any step of their development they are moving away from us, that our houses are getting emptier and quieter, and that we ourselves are now definitely getting older.

Or, put another way, even if our children would always stay close by, there is, at some point, not so much we as parents can do to protect our children from something if they really want to explore it, be it those dreaded substances, those disastrous relationships, or unflattering (in our eyes) hair colors. Being parents, we tend to focus on things we can perceive as threats from some outside source, things we think we can battle, things we can make choices about, for us and for them, but there comes the point when what we can do for our children has been done, and our contribution to their health and happiness is what we did or didn’t do in the lives we lived closely together. If they have seen us reaching out for help when needed, we might have to worry less about if they figure out how to find the health service. But we don’t know that. Maybe they don’t want to be happy and healthy, somehow, the way we envision it for them. Maybe they want to explore other aspects of what it means to be alive and to learn.

So what is a school to do about that? Parental worries?

Suddenly, I was transported back in my mind to a conversation I had with a doctor shortly before that son I was now dropping off at college was born. Stubbornly in breech position and refusing to come out of it, the doctor’s reaction after evaluating the possibility of turning him around, was “he has to come out now. The amniotic fluid is low. Do you have any questions?”

Well, the only question I had was if my son would be ok, and of course it is the one question the doctor would not answer, at least not in any way I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to hear percentages of risks. For me, all percentages reduced to a 50/50 chance, a yes or no. And honestly, I was pretty much too scared to even ask it like that, because what if the answer would have been no? We danced around the big question of whether he would be alright or not for a while in this uncomfortable way that was so much like the conversation we were having now here between the parents and administrators at school. All we wanted to hear was that our children would be ok, yes? But a school cannot just say that, perhaps even less than the doctor could have, for many reasons, the biggest perhaps being that our children are the ones making the decisions that will contribute to them being ok or not, not we, and not the school.

I felt a bit bad for the administrators who had to navigate explaining what would happen to somebody caught crossing campus with a six-pack of beer, addressing simultaneously the parents who are worried that it would be their son or daughter caught with the six-pack, and the parents who’d prefer six-packs would simply not exist in any proximity to their students, and that any student who would ever dream of bringing such a thing to campus would have been carefully eliminated already in the admission process. There is very little a school administrator can really say faced with parents’ worries about their children being ok or not. For some people, hearing impressive lists of available resources and safeguards in place to protect students is reassuring, others might wonder why all this is necessary if it’s not a dangerous place to begin with.

When I, as a concerned parent, become aware of the fact that there is open talk about things I conceive of as threatening, it can easily look to me as if a school is condoning whatever it is that people are talking about, such as drinking, smoking, and substance use. Or, thinking more particularly of our campus right now, candy, the smoking area, and computers. Does letting people buy candy mean we all think it’s healthy? Haven’t we heard about the dangers of smoking? How can we not restrict computer time?

As an SVS parent, you have very likely come up with answers to these questions yourself, and you know that it is not an easy task. At school, many interesting discussions and conversations come from exploring and negotiating difficult topics with each other. But just like with that doctor, I do find that in school–parent interactions, it is me and my own fears and anxieties as a parent that can make the much wanted and needed open communication about unnerving topics difficult if not altogether impossible. I don’t want to hear about how a school is dealing with substances because I don’t want there to be any substances other than food from the school owned farm, and milk from happy cows to begin with. Students, especially the somewhat fearless kind you meet at our school, are often very good at talking about challenging topics, but as a parent, I think I am just not an ideal partner for this conversation, because I’m already worried, and if something happens to my child, I’ll be inclined to find the school at fault, no matter what. So not only did the question about substances threaten to derail the conversation about separation and transition, it was not really a good, or perhaps I should rather say not even a possible conversation about substances on campus either. At some point, I guess, a parent just needs to leave.

Back at home, flipping through the students’ orientation program we somehow picked up accidentally, together with our own separate parent schedule, I saw there was something called Real Talk coming up for students later that week, about substance use. Judging from the people I met at the Separation and Transition workshop, the students I had seen, and everything else I learned in my visit to my son’s school, it will be a good thing. If he attends that session or not, I’m feeling relieved because I know that where he is now, real conversations, about things both interesting and perhaps sometimes a bit frightening, the kind of conversations he is used to having as an SVS student, can continue to happen, so I can go back to quietly cleaning my fridge, an excellent way of dealing with separation and transitions of all kinds, in case you are wondering how I’m coping.

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Always Exploring

“It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” said The Cat In the Hat. It seems to me that Dr. Seuss, who obviously understood children, nevertheless, like most adults, was blind to the ability of kids to extract pleasure out of any place or situation that they find themselves in. I used to go out of my mind with boredom and impatience in the waiting rooms of our pediatrician, while my children invented games with whatever was at hand to amuse themselves and pass the time more calmly. At SVS they do this all day long. They gather sticks and build forts and earth shelters. They ride their ripsticks in a hundred different ways. They make amazing little miniature designs with pebbles or leaves. They explore the world around them in infinite ways and have a blast doing it. So it seems to me that kids should be left to use their time without much help from us adults, or from The Cat in the Hat; they are doing great on their own, thank you very much!

So why, one might ask, do the staff members responsible for the annual five day camping trip at Nickerson State Park on Cape Cod go to the trouble to plan any activities at all? As one of the planners, I used to think that we were doing this to enhance the experience of camping in nature, and to explore the unusual environment of Provincetown, so different from the one they are accustomed to at home. To be sure, this is so. But there is more, much more, that occurs on these trips which we, the staff, have nothing to do with and which took me many years to finally see.

It’s all about the special connections that people make in isolated situations like ship voyages, outward bound adventures, or the like. It seems to me that even with persons who see each other daily, having a different place to be together for a time changes the usual social dynamics between them, and makes it possible for new and wonderful things to happen. They interact with people with whom they usually don’t in school and really get to know them. They talk for hours. They make up games. They shop in Provincetown and show each other what they have bought. They joke and sing and eat together. In short, they deepen their feelings of community, venturing out of their comfort zone, forming relationships with new people, and deepening the ones with their friends. On every trip they tell me that they stayed up all night talking. “But you have been together all year at school,” I say; “What is left to talk about?” And they tell me that it is different on the trip – but they don’t offer an explanation.

So, while camping is fun, it seems to me that the real reason for going to Nickerson is very personal indeed.

Actually, the same things happen at the sleepover at school for young students. Boys and girls across the age spectrum play and talk together in a way that they don’t do usually. They have a great time laughing together and making up games during or just after dinner, and that is what makes the overnight such a special experience for them and makes all the extra work worthwhile for me.

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