Rainbow in the Snow: Another Fantastic Ski Experience at SVS

I myself am tired of my stories about SVS trips in general and of skiing trips in particular. But I just can’t help it!

The truth probably is that what I see happening on trips happens all the time at school, but it happens so privately that I almost never get to see it. On a trip I am in closer contact with the kids than in school and I get to see things which are delightful to me and which shed light on what the school is all about.

Dr. Seuss said, in The Cat in the Hat, “It is fun to have fun but you have to know how”. The kids at SVS really know how to have fun no matter what situation they find themselves in. Thus, for example, we have had many days of rain and terrible conditions on the Wachusett day trips. In fact one rainy day we were the only skiers left on the mountain. It was so bad that people got vouchers to ski free on another day (we did too) and they all went home. Our kids just kept skiing. It was absolutely exhilarating to be with them. The cold wet rain gave them new ways to enjoy the sport. They were laughing with joy and made the rain their friend. For me it was almost more fun than skiing in perfect conditions. This day all the kids went together, waited for each other and helped each other. Then when I joined them I was included as part of the gang. It made me feel young again, light hearted, and without a care in the world but to get myself down the mountain in one piece. When I was done I realized that skiing in the rain was a case of enjoying what is rather than complaining about what isn’t. I had been tempted to complain, but the kids showed me how to have great fun instead.

Downhill skiing costs an obscene amount of money. It is almost embarrassing to announce what we have to charge for the five day trip to Sunday River. Yet, I think that it is worth every cent it costs. The kids think so too. Sometimes I am in the lounge alone, just resting between runs, and then I get to see person after person coming in. Their faces are flushed from the cold, and they are all beaming and smiling. They tell me what they have done and with whom and time after time they say how wonderful they feel. They always challenge themselves and each other to the limit while at the same time they watch out for their friends, help the ones who need help. I must admit that their patience exceeds my patience. I know that at their age I would be more concerned with having fun myself than with taking care of other kids. Not so on this trip. People chose to ski together and the slowest one set the pace. No one gets ditched, no one is hurried. This made it possible for the adults and me to trust the kids and enjoy the mountain. I often think that it is a shame that the parents aren’t seeing what I am seeing. It is a joyous sight which would make their hearts thankful for all the effort that they put into their children.

It happens occasionally (and unfortunately) that someone gets hurt in a fall. Sometimes it is serious and the student can’t ski for the rest of the trip and has to sit in the lodge while the others are skiing. Then they have to find ways to fill up their time in a place which is designed for skiing and not much else. Yet I find that in every case our kids manage not only to amuse themselves but actually to stay in good spirits. I believe that it is a result of their doing just that at the school. After all they decide what they want to do all day at school without help from others to fill their time and so they are able to do so everywhere. I envy that in them because I find it hard to do myself. I know that I would be bored, uncomfortable and in ill humor if I was stuck in the lodge with an injury and everyone else was having a grand old time skiing.

Don’t think that I am being overly sentimental. I am getting to the difficult part of the trip. On all the SVS overnight trips we cook our own meals. That means that everyone has to help prepare and serve the food, and clean up the dishes and the pots and pans. We make a chore chart in advance and people sign up for the number of chores required before we go. The staff is responsible for making things run well but by and large we don’t need to cajole or force anyone to do their job. However, it occasionally does happen that a kid balks at doing his or her chore. Getting up earlier than the others to make breakfast is no fun, neither is washing fifty slimy dishes or ten greasy pots late in the evening while all the rest are relaxing.

So what can one do when a kid refuses to do their work? Yelling or scolding destroys the good mood for the whole group and anyway it is not really effective. Reasoning usually works but sometimes it doesn’t. This trip I was faced with such a situation when a student who had signed up to wash pots after dinner reneged, saying that it was mindless, disgusting work which he had no use for nor the skill to do. I was too tired to teach anyone lessons and decided that it would take less energy for me to do the pots myself. But before I had a chance, another student who was not on the cleaning crew and who evidently saw my dilemma took things in hand. He told the balking pot washer that he would wash with him and teach him how to do it. In fact he shamed him into doing it. Fifteen minutes later the kitchen was clean. Then the student came over to me and told me that the kid had to learn and that I shouldn’t have to wash dishes when a student is signed up to do it. It was beautiful.

Next morning, who was doing the dishes cheerfully but the kid who had refused to do them the night before! He said to me that he was glad that he learned how to do it and it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. Very nice to hear.

And then we were given the rainbow. It was the second day of the trip. The day before had been warm and rainy and the snow was horrible. The kids had a wonderful time by and large but I skied terribly. On the second day the sun shone among the clouds and it was balmy. After a brief rain we saw the rainbow. It was the first time that I had ever seen one with a bird’s eye view. It was at eye level not painted above my head in the sky. This rainbow was wide and magical. It spanned the sky and the snow clad mountain and it lasted for fifteen minutes or more. Many of the kids saw it too and it became the emblem of this trip. I will always remember it as the “rainbow in the snow” trip!

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Some Days Are Too Good to be True!

I can’t believe I even wrote such a sappy title. Me, the tell-it-like-it-is gal, who never exaggerates. But let me describe a bit of a very recent day. As I was walking down to school, on an absolutely perfect morning, a young boy (7), whom we will call Jack, was biking down behind me. He slowed down to bike at the same rate as I was walking and to say good morning. Of course, all his “goods” were with him, mostly in his backpack, but in his hand he had an oddly shaped object that looked like an extremely large gavel, clearly made of plastic and non-threatening.

There were two teenage boys sort of poised on bikes at the picnic table that is near the entrance to the cellar of the school. They both called out, “Hey, Jack, is that Thor’s hammer?” Of course it was. I had asked him what it was, and he told me that it was Thor’s hammer, but I confess it meant nothing to me. In fact, I even wondered if I had heard him correctly! But the 16 year olds were quite interested in the hammer, and spent some time talking with Jack about it. It was age mixing at its most lovely – building relationships with people much younger and/or much older. They tried to explain the context of the Hammer to me too, but clearly I was culturally insufficient.

Then one of the teens starting doing wheelies. He could go all the way up and down the driveway on one wheel, easily – “that’s nothing”, someone else said, “he can go all up and down his street”. I was thinking to myself, please don’t practice on Winch Street!

I went in and sort of floated around through the building for a short while. The next time I noticed the outdoors, there was a noise like a motor, and I went to the office window to see. Another child (11), had a large and powerful radio-controlled car. It was the fastest remote controlled car I have ever imagined. A fairly large crowd (maybe 20 people and it was still fairly early in the morning) was watching. It came to a stop. I left the window. Sadly, the car had to visit the mechanic shortly thereafter. People who arrive later in the day often think the early part is dull because the school isn’t “full” yet. They miss so much!

Next glance – basketball in full swing with minimal teams (sometimes they are larger than really fit on our little court), the swings were fully occupied, and a group of half a dozen 8 and 9 year old girls were about to start a picnic. And yes, it was then 9:30.

Sometimes wonderful things happen that are a little too subtle to see unless you are totally fascinated by observing such things. In our school, a couple of young girls made friends four years (5?) ago, and were quite usually together. Maybe always together. And until last spring, they were also really not very welcoming to others. They had a lot in common, and of course they built up a lot more in common over the years of exclusivity! Last spring, several families came for visiting weeks, one at a time, from Florida. All were seriously considering enrollment. Two of the families had a daughter roughly the same age as the exclusive duo; one had two daughters roughly the same age. Each time one of the girls came for a visiting week, the exclusive duo happily included her, as if it had never occured to them to do anything else. Now we have four girls from the Florida visitors enrolled – unbelievably delightful each and every one (as were the exclusive duo); all six happy, charming, and loving school. Hopefully they will still feel that way in the February weather!

So all of a sudden we have a cadre (mob?) of happy girls of a certain age. What does it mean? Not that the new group is closed, which I was concerned about; not at all. It means that they will play with everyone, and make days at school better for everyone who interacts with them, outdoors, in the art room, on a field trip, in every part of the school. The whole group is in heaven, and is totally inclusive of people that are younger, older, whatever. This day, I saw several of them playing with the much younger (and sometimes annoying) kids. This morning again, I saw one of them in deep conversation with a four year old girl, who was explaining a “My Little Pony” book cover in detail.

Later in the morning, when they were starting a “capture the flag” game and looking for people to play, I told one of the organizers, who is new, that usually people just roam through the school once sticking their head in every room saying “capture”, and a crowd assembles. She said she was more interested in getting the game going without a bunch of kids who were used to leading it, and having others come and join. Of course, they did. So, think not that the darling girls who are really and truly 100% pleasurable to be with are little wimps or pushovers! They are women who are training themselves to fight for their rights – just in case they may need to!

That same day, I learned from a bunch of teenage boys in the main lounge that breakfast from a certain donut store is “awesome”. It sure looked good and smelled good. Why do I always eat home made breakfast, I wondered? Do all teenagers explain to adults what brand jeans they need or what is good for breakfast bought outside?

At another time a gang of boys, and one girl, were playing war. (Sometimes, by the way, that involves wearing a sling of “arrows” in your backpack; those arrows, even though they remind one of “The Hunger Games”, are as seriously cool as anything I have seen. Those who have them do look like warriors! And the girl who was wearing them that day looked like she would be wily and fast enough to win in “The Hunger Games.”) The youngest of the group, as they approached the stairs to the downstairs said the most startling thing I have ever heard come out of a seven year old boy’s mouth. And he didn’t sound like a goody-goody when he said it, either! He said, “Guys, we can’t run in the school.”

Okay, still in the morning there was one more startling encounter. This was with two girls and a boy, in the 9 – 11 age group. They were putting on their rubber gloves, assembling some equipment and supplies of some sort. I looked at the gloves and looked inquiringly at the kids. They explained that the stream needed some cleaning, and they had worked on it all day the day before, and intended to continue.

Me? I went and planned a blog post! I always wished I knew what my kids did all day when they were students. I hope that this can help people have some clue about what happens here. You have to be able to see and hear between the cracks to figure out a bit of the real significance of any of these scenes.

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Parenting an SVS Kid

Editor’s note: This was published in our Janury 1998 Journal; a note from Jean and Rick Leif about what their daughter is up to now has been added.

Quite a lot has been written about what it is like to be a student at Sudbury Valley School, but I would like to share some thoughts on what it feels like to be a parent of a student at SVS. While I endorse the philosophy that children can and should be responsible for their own education, to actually give over that responsibility to my own child was not an easy thing to do, especially in a society that seems to hold parents directly responsible for every facet of their child’s life.

We first came to Sudbury Valley three years ago when my daughter was 14 and looking for an alternative to the pressures of public high school. Erin immediately found the philosophy of the school intriguing, but I really wasn’t sure just how this would work with my kid, who was shy and quiet, and not extremely self-motivated. My husband and I decided to let her make the final decision, since we felt it was time for her to take more control over her life. We probably didn’t realize at the time just how much control we were giving her (as far as her education was concerned) by sending her to SVS.

Erin’s first year was definitely an adjustment period for both of us. It takes a lot of courage for a teenager to voluntarily leave her friends and go to a new school where she not only doesn’t know anybody, but has to find her niche in a very unstructured environment. She spent a lot of time reading that first year; a good thing to do, but maybe it was easier to read than to become involved in what was going on at school. She said she liked school, but we had constant arguments about what time I was going to pick her up, because she didn’t want to spend more than the mandatory 5 hours there. (She’s now in her third year, drives herself, and spends as much time as possible at school.)

I can deal with giving up control of how my child spends her time at school (how many of us with kids in public school have any control there either). I’m learning to trust my child enough to feel comfortable giving that control to her rather than a teacher. The really hard part for me is not knowing how she spends her time. Although I’m interested, Erin’s not interested in telling me. A typical conversation goes something like this: “Did you do anything interesting in school today?” “Nope.” “Did anybody do anything interesting in school today?” “Nope.” “So all of the kids sat for 5 hours staring blankly into space?” “Yes.” End of conversation. I think this is Erin’s way of making sure I don’t meddle.

The other hard part is the occasional knowing, but not approving. Erin once came home from school and told me she has spent most of the day at the mall. I’ve given my daughter responsibility for her education, and this is how she chooses to educate herself?

I guess I had an idea about the school that the kids would each find something that really interested them which they would spend a lot of time doing or learning about. I’ve seen this in fits and starts with Erin, but for the most part I think she spends her time socializing (or engaging in meaningful dialogue, depending on your perspective). I once said I hoped she was taking advantage of the opportunities at school to learn different things, and not just hanging out with her friends all day. She answered me, rather indignantly, “Hanging out, as you call it, is probably the most beneficial use of my time; that’s where I’m forming my ideas and developing my self-confidence.” I am learning that this is very true, but something inside me still wishes she would someday choose to learn geometry (fat chance!).

I also sometimes wonder if the school doesn’t work better for kids who have been there since they were very young, than it does for kids who come as disgruntled teenagers. It seems like the younger kids in the car pool enthusiastically sign up for everything that comes along.

On the other hand, listening to Erin and her friends, it’s apparent that they can all think for themselves, and they come up with some exceptionally creative ideas. I am impressed by the compassion and understanding the kids have for each other. They are protective of each other and the school, because these are the things that are important to them. They are becoming thoughtful, caring adults.

At one of the school discussion groups I attended, Alan White commented that the hardest part about being a parent is staying out of our kids’ way. I’m trying to learn to do that, and at the same time provide support and guidance, as well as trying to figure out how to rein them back in when they push the limits. Erin once said about SVS, “It’s a school for non-conformists, and I fit right in.” These past couple of years have been an education for me too, and I’m continuing to learn to be a parent of one of these non-conformists.

April, 2016
An Update from Jean and Rick Leif

Erin relocated to Australia in September of 2014, when her two-year stint with the New England Center for Children in their Abu Dhabi operation ended. She had been in communication with a company called Lizard Autism Services, in Adelaide, Australia. They were looking for a clinical director in their autism program. She had the educational background and work experience that they were looking for, and the job was a great career advancement opportunity.

Since then, things have worked out well for her. The use of Applied Behavior Analysis for autism treatment is just beginning to catch on in Australia, so Erin is one of the few experts over there. She is involved with training the therapists who provide the treatment to the autistic children serviced by Lizard, and managing the supervisors for the therapists, as well as speaking at pubic forums about the benefits of the ABA method and working with a couple of universities to develop Masters and PhD level programs in the field. They recently promoted her to National Assistant Director!

As you would expect, we are very proud of what she has accomplished, and although we wish she was closer to us, we’re happy that she’s on a great career path. We appreciate very much the great impact that Sudbury Valley School had on her life. You all should also feel really satisfied about the job you did preparing her to head out into the “real world”.

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