A Short but Deep Adventure in Europe

In May, the Sudbury schools in Europe usually get together at one of their schools for a few days of deep conversing and even deeper collegiality building. Mostly staff attend these conferences, but some students who are particularly interested in their institutions also come.

This year the conference was held at the Sudbury School Ammersee. The Sudbury School Ammersee was formed after many years – about 10, as I recall – of work, and is located within not-so-easy commuting distance of Munich. It is located near a lovely lake and (it is said; you can’t prove it by me because it was too overcast while I was there) there are beautiful views of the Bavarian Alps in that entire area. One thing is certain: the little town (Ludenhausen) in which the school is located is a lovely, bucolic landscape, and the people in the area are very happy to have the school in its midst. It is in a comfortable building with all the things you need for a Sudbury school building (or for a conference) – small rooms, large ones, kitchens! – and is thriving.

This is the Ammersee school’s first year of operation, so the conference was very much a celebration of that milestone, as well as others, and a sober consideration of the forces that are challenging the existence of European Sudbury schools. Staff attended from the Neue Schule Hamburg; Demokratische Schule X, in Berlin; Newschool.nu, the Netherlands; Sudbury School Gent, Belgium; Roskilde Sudbury Skole, Denmark; Fokus School, Switzerland; Jerusalem Sudbury School, Israel; Kanaf Democratic School of Golan Heights, Israel; plus Derry Hannam, from England, who has been influential in helping several schools; me, representing SVS; and from very serious groups forming schools in Paris (Ecole Dynamique, which will open this fall), in the Czech Republic, and in Munich proper. I may have missed one or two, but I hope not.

The lingua franca was English. That was not for my benefit; it was the normal state of affairs. It is in fact the language all of the attendees speak extremely well and have in common. Since I only speak one language, English, (fairly) well, it always wows me to be among so many fluent multi-lingual people.

In general, I felt that I was in a rarefied stratosphere. Any group of Sudbury school founders is a group of people who are strong, clear-headed, and very determined. Starting and maintaining a Sudbury school in Europe, where authorities have been ruthlessly attacking them for quite a few years – most forcefully in the last few years – takes tremendous grit and determination. At this moment, those in Belgium and Denmark are particularly under fire to compromise, compromise and compromise some more. Several schools, notably two in the Netherlands and one in Belgium, have been forced to close because the parents involved were sued. Nevertheless, Dutch founders have gone on to form a new school.

I already knew a lot of the people from other venues. Some had come to Sudbury School Workshops at SVS, or at Fairhaven, in Maryland; many have visited us as founders. Others I had met during earlier trips to visit European schools and groups. Quite a few are in correspondence with the larger group of schools all over the world, through an email list run by SVS. What was more important was that most of them had found ways to get to know each other via the internet or visits to schools. It was exciting to be in every large and small conversation and meeting with these people. To me, they are all heroes, and I am thrilled to renew acquaintances and make new ones.

I had always wanted to go to the European Sudbury school conferences, but work here prevented it – May is a very busy time. This year, we, the Public Relations Clerks at SVS, felt the time had come to express our solidarity. The time to say, even more loudly, “we are all in this together”, although we know that what we can do for any other school or group is extremely limited. This year we decided at sort of the last minute, in a hurry, that I would go. I flew out on Wednesday night, and home on Sunday, so I missed very little time at “our” school; on the other hand, the jet lag took a while . . .

Everyone treated me like a visiting queen for two reasons. One, because someone came from SVS and they are very respectful and grateful for our existence; the other because I had a cast on my left (dominant) hand, and needed a lot of things done for me. Of course the second thing might have caused people to shun me, but the opposite happened, including at my adorable hotel, where they didn’t even have any particular feelings for me, but worked very hard on my comfort! From cutting up my food, to rolling my spring rolls from delectable fresh local ingredients for me, and driving me at my whim, people were extraordinarily solicitous. There is no way to express the grace with which these things were done. It was as if I somehow deserved it!

One of the things that made the experience so delightful, for all seventy of the attendees, was that there were two men associated with Sudbury School Ammersee – one as staff, among other things in his life; one as the husband of staff – who love to cook together, and are basically professional-chef-level non-professional chefs. So mealtime was always a surprise, always a delectable surprise, and usually Bavarian in content. Their desire was to show off the best of Bavarian cooking, and we were mighty appreciative of their non-stop work. They, too, went out of their way, at every meal and even at snacks, to be kind and considerate of my well-being. The atmosphere, fueled by everyone’s general bonhomie, was high-spirited. At night there were bonfires and continued fun. Music seemed to spontaneously erupt many times during the day and evening.

There was a major threatening cloud hanging over the conference – nothing to do with the weather! How to make Sudbury schools more secure in the EU was the major point of discussion, and will continue to be. All of the other things are trivial in comparison! I think that some of the schools that had felt most threatened this spring took some comfort and courage from the support and advice offered by their peers. All of us wish that the freedom from interference we enjoy in so many states in the United States will soon be the norm in the European Union and beyond.

The people who are forming a school in The Czech Republic asked if I knew of any Sudbury alum (with some administrative experience in our school) who might want to come spend a year, or even half a year, helping and advising them next year. I wouldn’t be surprised if other schools and groups would be thrilled to have that kind of help.

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Living In the Moment Intensely

I am often asked why I keep working at Sudbury Valley after so many years, doing the same things over and over and over. People wonder what sustains my interest in going camping at Nickerson State Park for five days, followed by an overnight at school for the younger students (ages five to ten) the week after – or how come I am not bored by being with the kids who are basically quite self-sufficient, or by cleaning the art room at five o’clock several days a week, a task that does become tiresome at times, but one I am happy to do because I am always amazed to see that by and large the students of all ages who use the room constantly without adult supervision do take care of the materials and equipment most of the time.

Yes, it does make me happy to see concretely how the hope of creating a place for children to be free has become a place where they thrive, and learn to become aware of the community and its needs and to care for the materials that are shared by all. But while this is very rewarding, it is not what draws me to SVS year after year.

So what is it then? I have asked myself that question often. I find my answer difficult to pinpoint, but I will try to articulate what I feel as best as I can.

What I love about young children is their sheer optimism. No matter how hard it is for them to learn new things like walk and talk and eat with a utensil like the adults, they never give up and try and try again. I find this ability inspiring and at times when I am about to give up I tell myself that if a baby can overcome disappointments so can I. At SVS we see this kind of optimism all the time.

At our school young kids “get out” in Four Square often and before long they master the game and get better and better at it. They learn how to read, write or use the computer, they get good at skiing or snowboarding, they climb higher on the trees and jump farther at the rocks, they become JC members and vote, and so on in every endeavor that they undertake. And they do new things endlessly.4-square077

On the last day of this school year I noticed that the younger population of the kids were busy doing the kinds of things that they always did while the older ones were saying goodbye, crying, and writing in their yearbooks. Of course the younger kids knew it was the last day of school and that a long vacation is going to prevent them from seeing their friends (they all complain about vacations) but they were able to enjoy the day they had together and played their games, worked in the art room, etc. They enjoy the moment at hand, and will deal with what comes next, next.

In truth, it is not what they do that astounds me; it is rather the calm serenity coupled with focus and determination that is unique. I ask myself how come adults have to work so hard at achieving the same state of being, while under their noses their own children know how to do it naturally. I wonder why or how we all lost what we knew as children, and I feel privileged to live close to it on a daily basis. Every day I find myself learning from these kids how to live in the moment, and that more than anything is what keeps me at SVS.

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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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