Instant Availability Without Continuous Presence

This blog was originally published as an article in our journal, May 1, 1994.

Somewhere I read this quote by Lotte Bailin:

Instant availability without continuous presence is the best role a mother could play.”

A lovely quote, I thought, and I let it languish on a little piece of paper in my desk drawer. Last week two unrelated events took place which clarified to me why I saved this quote and what it evoked in me.

As sometimes happens at school, we had a little accident. A young girl did a cartwheel and slammed hard into her friend’s R.’s arm. It hurt a lot and Mikel who used to be an EMT, attended to her. He put a splint on very carefully in case a bone had been broken and called R.’s parents to come and take her to the doctor. Mikel’s judgement was that R.’s injury didn’t need urgent care and that it would be better for the child to be with her parent rather than be taken to the hospital in an ambulance which is more traumatic.

This happened during School Meeting when an important issue was being discussed, but from time to time a concerned staff person would slink out of the meeting to find out how R. was doing. We all knew that Mikel was taking excellent care of her, but we just could not settle down to the meeting’s issues without seeing for ourselves that R. was alright. In the evening I called R. to find out how she was and her mother talked to me about the incident.

What she said stunned me.

She said that only now after this happened did she really understand how the staff works at the school. R. told her how concerned and caring we were and how good she felt about it. The mother realized for the first time in almost two years that what looks like benign neglect on the part of the staff is purposeful, and is not neglect at all. It is giving the children space to develop and grow unhindered by adult interference. (I am putting into my own words the gist of what I was told.)

The other incident had to do with Ben and his trip to the White Mountains. His mother published parts of her diary in the SVS Journal in which she too says, in the following quote, how it helped her understand SVS’s philosophy better, after being involved with the school for over a year.

“Another thing is that the fact that so much attention has been focused on Ben over the past five days, by us and by the staff at school, is a good message of caring and support for him. Most of the time I see SVS operating by benign neglect, but in this case a different approach was called for and it happened in spades. I appreciated that, and it helped me see SVS in a new way. Basically, what I saw happening was them responding to Ben’s intense and unwavering desire to go by deciding to support it, provided a way could be shown that he was up to the trip, even though by doing so they took on more work and more responsibility.”

What astounded me in both of these parents’ words was how long it actually takes even for parents who send their little children to SVS to see how it really works. They trust their kids enough to bring them to the school and allow them to be responsible for themselves, but they don’t really know how the staff operates. In truth I am unable to explain it too well myself and I think that this is one cause for the difficulty that many parents have with enrolling their children in our school. The problem is that benign neglect appears as neglect. Only in extraordinary occasions can parents see how the staff is interacting with their kids. On a day to day basis the caring and empowering take place all the time, but in such subtle and undramatic ways that no one takes notice — not the staff, not the kids, and not the parents. It just happens naturally. But from time to time the circumstances call for people on staff to galvanize all their resources and direct all their attention and energy to one student’s issue. When that happens the exaggerated activity sheds light on what goes on at SVS every day in a more quiet and subtle way.

So it seems that “availability without continuous presence” is in fact what we do at SVS. We don’t always respond instantly to every request because we are usually busy with a student or whatever we are doing to keep the school going. We have to use our judgement and decide in each case whether to continue what we are doing or to stop and attend to a request. Usually we set up an appointment for a later time and it works out very well. Often the wait forces the kids to solve problems on their own and that of course is another way to give them confidence in themselves. But occasionally something happens which can’t wait and we have to drop everything and tend to it. Then it is easy for us to respond with alacrity because all the kids feel it’s necessary and they want us to help their friend in pain or trouble. The support that the children give each other is of the same quality and style as that of the staff. They help when asked to help and they give each other space when that is wanted.

As the years roll by we become better at being staff at SVS. We have learned the art of letting the children be our guides in answering their needs and we do more for them by doing less — not interfering, while listening carefully to what they want.

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Activity vs. “Activities”

It is not uncommon for people who come to an interview inquiring about enrollment to ask, “What activities do you have at Sudbury Valley?”  After all, it is a school, and schools usually have, in addition to regular classes teaching the required curriculum, all sorts of activities for students to choose from.  Things like athletic programs, chorus, orchestra, theater, science club, and so on.  The people who ask about activities know that we do not have scheduled classes (they have come to us looking for an “alternative” or “free” school, and have found out in advance that we don’t “do” the curriculum), but they expect that we at least have “activities”.  Otherwise, what would students do all day?

I have never quite understood that question, especially not coming from someone who has walked down to the school from the parking lot, past our beautiful outdoor campus, and through several rooms before they have gotten to the interview.  If there is any single word that sums up life at SVS, it is activity.  Students of all ages are visibly active all day, all the time.  The place is like a beehive.  Walk into any room, or past any area outdoors, and you will always find the occupants engaged.  They are talking, or playing basketball, or working at a computer game, or on the four-square court, or running across the campus, or throwing a pot, or drawing, or studying something on their smartphones or notepads, or cooking, or selling, or at a meeting.  As are the staff.  All day, a flurry of activity is going on – and it is all in full view.

But there is no smorgasbord of activities prepared for them by the staff, offerings that are there to choose from.  No list on the bulletin board of stuff to do.  Yes, there are occasionally planned functions, but the initiative for them comes from the community, and they live or perish according to the degree of interest of people in the school.  There is no way to reply to the question, “What activities do you have at Sudbury Valley?”, because those few planned ones that happen to exist on the day the question is posed may well have vanished before the child being interviewed even begins his or her visiting week!  Today’s answer would look to be a purposeful misleading if it is no longer true tomorrow!

The key difference, of course, is what lies at the heart of the school: all the activity that goes on here comes from within each student, and represents the interests and passions that drive the students to act.  The result is to imbue the students with the feeling that what they strive for counts, and that the effort to achieve their internally-driven goals is a worthy one.  One could hardly ask for an “educational outcome” more relevant to, and worthy of, the twenty-first century world.


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On the Idea of a French Edition of ‘Free at Last’

Aurelien Dumas

[Aurelien was one of the founders of the Ecole Dynamique, in Paris, and is presently staff at Fairhaven School, in Maryland]

Ever since I heard about SVS, I began thinking of ways to develop an awareness of the Sudbury model in France. Founding Ecole Dynamique, in Paris, was a fascinating adventure that reached well beyond the circle of the families involved in the school. It sparked a huge interest in ‘democratic education’ in France. But as you know well, all ‘democratic schools’ are not created equal. And with so many opening in France at present, francophone readers need to be able to access materials which can help them refine their understanding of the model and discriminate between so-called ‘democratic’ practices. That is why I am so happy to see “Free at Last” translated into French.

Some Memories

Like many others in our field, “Free at Last” was the first book I read about Sudbury Valley School. I can remember vividly how I felt while reading it. It was during the hot summer of 2011. My wife, was pregnant with our daughter.

I had become frustrated and depressed with the school I was working for and what seemed, at the time, to be the whole education system.

I had decided to work in the field of education because it seemed one of the most noble things one could do. But after a few years working in it, I started to despise it. I could not find even one colleague with whom I shared the simple idea that children need to be respected. Of course, all educators agree openly that children deserve respect. But none of my colleagues at the time equated ‘respecting children’ with respecting children’s desires. Everybody I met believed that allowing children’s desires to drive their education would only result in chaos and ignorance. They all had a way of justifying why we, educators, have to constantly force children to do what they do not want to do in order to help them become competent human beings.

I was feeling very lonely entertaining these ideas while doing some research to find like-minded thinkers. One day, I ordered a used copy of “Free at Last” on Amazon for only a couple dollars. When I opened the book, the voice of Danny, like a magic spell from an old grimoire, started instantly to quell my loneliness. I immediately ordered many other books from the Sudbury Valley School Press. I read them mostly on an inflatable mattress in the basement of our house where we sought shelter from a steamy Washington DC summer.

Through your books, with my wife and daughter-to-be, your voices, Danny, Mimsy and Hanna, became my friends. And I did not feel lonely anymore. I felt exhilarated with a renewed sense of purpose that has continued to grow since then without pause.

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