Free Books, Free Students

Especially at the beginning of the school year, a new student, or somebody who has just not gotten around to it before, might ask about what’s the deal with the books at school. They might want to know if you can borrow them, and how that would work, or where we have books about a certain topic. Or perhaps there will be a new batch of books, and somebody will jokingly say, oh, look another bunch of books nobody may read. And we’ll laugh, and look at them, and eventually some or all of them will be on the shelves, and we all know that we don’t really know if somebody is or is not going to read this that or the other book anytime soon, because, you know, books are free at SVS, just like our students.

Let me explain: first of all, most books at school these days come to us as donations from families, friends, and staff members, so they are free for the school. Then, students are free to take books off the shelves and look at them as they please, and yes, take them home if they want to. It’s good to get them back, but we don’t have a regulated system for borrowing, and I don’t think anybody wishes we had that kind of system either. If we have more than one copy of something we know is popular, we might keep the extra, just in case. All we ask of readers is to put back books by placing them on a shelf horizontally, so we know they have been moved and can put them in their place.

So yes, books at SVS are pretty free-floating entities, easily accessible for all. One thing I personally like a lot about our school is that books are everywhere, and that they are not delegated to a special area designated as a library. That way too, our books are free, and they can come off the shelf and go outside just like that.

But our books are free in yet other ways. Apart from the very broad class of books that I would describe as “books people affiliated with SVS have read or looked at and thought to give to us,” a less random criteria of selection it turns out than it might sound, our books are not part of any classroom reading list, course schedule, or curriculum, even though you might find a good number of them on such lists. Apart from the extremely small number of books we have that are text books originally designed for use in classrooms, our books are books that have been written, first and foremost, for readers to read.

When I was a student, I sometimes used to think of something like this in the middle of a seminar: Studying literature, like I did, can make you feel like books exist primarily to be discussed in a classroom, with a professor, students, and perhaps some other learned people surrounding them; but that is not so – except for books and articles about books, authors write for readers, and anybody can be that reader. I still think it’s thrilling that everybody who picks up a book has the same right to it, and is at the same distance or proximity to whoever wrote it, no matter if they were sitting in a seminar discussing it with other people, or at home alone in their own room with it. It did confuse me sometimes that something I had read waiting for the bus would be the same thing we were talking about with a professor, but in the end that’s something I really like about books, how these worlds within worlds move about on subways, trains, and in airplanes, from bedside tables and kitchen counters to waiting rooms or the beach. And between times! Something might have been written 1 year ago or 100 years ago, and the time in the book might be a present, past, or future, but once you are reading, the time of the book is always now, it’s disorienting and exciting.

Here, I feel some objection rising, a voice saying that you know, you can pick up a book and find that it doesn’t quite seem to be written for you, that there are books with specialized audiences, or archaic vocabulary, or books that, starting with their cover design, try to draw some people in and keep others out, or that you need to be educated to have access to certain kind of books. But I think if you put books on shelves without too much ado about them, people can figure these things out for themselves and try to crack the code of a book or leave it, it’s really up to them. And if googling doesn’t help or appeal, there are certainly a good number of enthusiastic and experienced readers around that are more than happy to talk about books and help decipher reading material of all kinds.

As a school, we don’t try to preselect our students’ reading or access to books. People can read magazines, philosophy, literature on gardening, self-help books, novels, history, sports, architecture and art, science, in short, almost everything. Even if students never open any of these books, or use them for anything else than propping up a laptop, the relationship is friendly, a signal that yes, books are part of a world that is open to thinking, imagining, and discussion, and perhaps a reminder of the fact that we live in a culture that is unthinkable without the written and printed word. This might all seem so basic, but whenever I go to the Strand bookstore in Manhattan and see the table of books that are banned in some place or another in the United States (Harry Potter among them), I see how special it is to have this abundance of books and people in every room, no strings attached.

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On the passing of Alan White, January 2, 2017

It is hard not to think that the passing of Alan White this winter marks the passing of an era. Alan has been the voice of calm, the voice of reason, the voice of gentleness, and the voice of steel as Sudbury Valley has gone through 49 of its first 50 years. As our fiftieth anniversary approaches, we must make do without him.

We have always had Alan to turn to for support, the kind of support that may not always agree with your ideas, but will not assume you are worthy of disdain if he holds different views (that turn out, of course, to be correct). Alan always offered the kind of support that urges you to consider your own beliefs, and he believed, it seemed, in every person’s fundamental high moral quality and intelligence.

I first met him in the early years that I was associated with Sudbury Valley. In the early 1970’s, I began to go to Trustees meetings, because there was nothing about the philosophy of, or the history of, or the running of the school that I was not interested in. I had two kids, and eventually three, who went to school here for virtually all of their lives up to graduation, but two started back in the early days, when we were not yet so positive from experience (more from theory) that this really was the right way to educate children. We all thought so, but so do lots of other people think that some startling new ideas are correct, when they often are not. It was a philosophy reached by reason, but do any of us believe life is really reasonable?

Alan was the rock. And he continued to be the rock through a couple of decades as President of the Sudbury Valley School, Inc. He was a regular, on the ground, educator – I certainly was not – and he thought these avant garde ideas were worth putting to the real test, the test of time! He was a regular guy. He did not ever seem eccentric. It is hard to say which of the others of us weren’t when I think back, even though I’m sure most of us thought we weren’t!

For me, Alan embodied the determination and fortitude to see the ideas of the school through. And he did. Through disagreement after disagreement, in the Trustees, but also in the Assembly, which included parents, and met twice a year. Debate was civil. Debate was courteous. Because Alan had that demeanor and quietly assumed it from others. He was a beautiful human being for his entire life, and always an unselfish and unassuming person. He will be deeply missed.

I think about so many different things when I think about Alan; I knew him as the years went on in several different roles. I think how unstintingly he gave of himself to forward and expand the development of this model of schooling. And I think about his habit of daily unstinting exercise which allowed him to work and stay healthy well into his last years. I also think how he (alone, and not when he was young, either) turned our barn from a barn into an all-season building so that we had so much more room and so many more facilities. A friend, a founding member of Fairhaven School in Maryland, sent me a beautiful photograph of him wearing on-the-job clothing in a framed area, that was taken during the original creation (they did it themselves, from the ground up, with Alan’s steady help) of their school’s building in 1997-1998. He had the creds – he had followed his long career in education with a career as a builder. One of their main rooms is named after him. She, Kim McCaig, wrote, “This is how I remember Alan from the summer we built the school and a picture of our circle room dedicated to him. The plaque has been there all these years–the kids often ask who is Alan White, and we get to tell the story.”

Mark McCaig, one of Fairhaven’s founders, said, “We received the news about Alan’s passing yesterday, and we are saddened by the loss. The main room in our first building is named the Alan White Room to honor his generosity and support back in ’98. A singular fellow, that Alan.”

He went on to say, “Alan’s gift to me was to carve out moments to impart wise little nuggets about “Sudb’ry Valley” and “Fai’haven” in his thick accent that summer. His secondary gift was witnessing my crappy construction skills and not dogging me about them.”

Neither this work nor the several times he visited other Sudbury schools for as long as a year to help with staffing problems was paid work. It was Alan’s work to help what he had come to believe in so strongly. He found ways to travel frugally and to live frugally so that he could do everything possible for this model of schooling. Yes, a singular fellow.

Just before winter vacation we received a thank you card from a woman (she is probably 57, but she will always be a girl to me!) who had visited this year, one who had been a founding student of SVS, and a remarkable example to so many other people. She said, “The school feels like I remembered it – full of life and vibrant. I feel more than ever we need to have Sudbury Valley Schools everywhere. . . . The school is a treasure for the betterment of society and a sweet memory for me.”

I am not at all sure we could have done it without Alan’s leadership.

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Alan White, 1926-2017

Every death is a loss to those who have to continue their lives without the one that passed. Nothing new or remarkable here except for me and Danny and SVS. That is because throughout the past fifty years Alan was the rock that kept us anchored. He was there when we faltered or got discouraged and he was always able to give us strength to keep going and fight for what we believed in. In his quiet, calm and common sense approach to the many issues and crises that faced us, as all new institutions are bound to face, Alan was clear headed, open minded and fair. He was able to see both sides of any controversy, listened carefully to what concerned people and thus bring resolution to problems and make everyone able to move on and work together for the benefit of the school.

Alan knew how to be a true friend. He knew when and how to help and when to stay back and let us find our own way forward. Few people are able to be helpful without expecting anything in return, to be a strong backbone without weakening the one leaning on them. Alan was. He had a magic touch which made us able to stand strong on our own even as we leaned on him.

Sudbury Valley was lucky to have a man like Alan always willing to stand behind us and help us bridge many gaps in our thinking and execution of our ideas. He was practical and knowledgeable of the world of public education and taught us a lot.

I mourn his passing and feel grateful for the help he gave us and the school to overcome so many hurdles. He was a man who brought us peace and that is what I shall miss.

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