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.

Posted in General, Parents and School, Underlying Ideas, Vignettes | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Separation and Transition

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.

Posted in General, Life at Sudbury Valley, Underlying Ideas, Vignettes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Always Exploring

Summer Reading

Through a series of coincidences involving shelving books at school, I recently found myself spending a weekend reading through Cynthia Voigt’s “young adult” cycle of books about the Tillerman family, starting with volume number two called Dicey’s Song.

I haven’t been a young adult for a long time, but this was riveting reading, starting right at the worst of my childhood fears of losing my mother, here pictured in the even more unthinkable scenario of four children being abandoned by their mother on a hot summer day in a car parked in a mall parking lot in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She goes to the mall, apparently to run an errand, and simply never returns. As I later learned from volume number one, this was the final turn of the mother’s slide into a catatonic state of depression, but whatever the reason, the story begins with this abandonment and follows the children as they survive day by day on their journey first to an aunt’s house and then to their grandmother, led by the oldest girl, the 13 year old Dicey. (The father, in case you wonder, has been absent pretty much all their conscious lives.)

Now I don’t want to spend time discussing the likelihood of any of the particular conceits or events, because what really interested me were three very real things these books address: How to survive the loss of a parent, how to become an adult and live your life, and what role school plays in this process.

Written by a self-proclaimed enthusiastic and devoted former English teacher, school – to start with number three – plays a surprisingly secondary and pretty negative role in both Dicey’s Song as well as the other six volumes. Everything really important seems to happen in the summer or during vacations. School is reserved for scenes of humiliating misunderstanding of children by adults, ignorance of the complexities of students’ lives, minds, and learning differences, bullying, and loneliness. Dicey and her siblings, including her academically very gifted brother, don’t seem to have much to take home from school, except a well-founded weariness when it comes to dealing with adults, and particularly teachers, who Dicey sees misjudging her younger sister as mentally handicapped and her little brother as unmanageable. It’s not that the children don’t want to trust those adults around them – and the reader sees them struggling with their desire and need to do so – it’s just that the adults don’t seem to quite perceive them as full human beings in their own right, and are usually limited in a clear view of the children by some agenda or issue of their own.

So while school is mostly just one of their problems, what the four siblings really need and manage to draw on in order to survive their life threatening predicament, are the hands-on skills they have somehow acquired and developed in their lives so far: reading maps, finding shelter, rationing money and food, making fire, cooking chicken and potatoes; but also estimating your and other’s strength and endurance, dealing with everybody’s and your own emotions, being able to trust each other and, especially for Dicey, making leadership judgements based on all these different factors, all the time. Sounds like a management crash-course, right? No wonder professional development and personal improvement courses not infrequently take people into the woods: managing the basics of human survival – food, shelter, hygiene sleep – helps you feel like you can survive in the world at large, paperwork and all. While reading about every meal the siblings gather, how they prepare it, and how it makes them feel left me sometimes exhausted just from reading it – it’s so much work! – I remember reading and re-reading similar things as a child and being absolutely fascinated by them. Descriptions of how to make tea out of fir-tree needles in the wilderness, or how to catch a turkey and prepare to cook it are forever etched in my memory. I suspect some of the appeal of camping lies somewhere in this area of survival in the world, no matter what.

But back to issue number one, how to survive the loss of parents: apart from their combined survival skills and trust in each other, in their suddenly parentless world, the children actually draw on their mother: we don’t learn too many details about her, but puzzled, hurt, doubting and traumatized by her action as they are, it is also clear to the children that their mother loved them and tried to do good things for them. They have a sense of home, the essence of which they are setting out to recapture, somehow, and they know when they have found it at their grandmother’s house. Carrying her own burden of loss, grief and regrets, the grandmother initially does not want them, but is eventually won over by their fight to stay. Because she is honest with herself and them, and because she does not have ulterior motives and needs connected with them, her house does indeed become their, a place where they can be themselves.
And then schools starts…

Why I am writing about this? And what does it really have to do with school?
Because both as a child, as a parent, and as somebody working at a school, I’ve been dealing with separation issues all my life it seems, many of them surfacing around school, and the two step plot line of 1) parent(s) disappear(s) 2) children have adventure, resonates with me.
One might, as people have, question whether it is really necessary for the mom, dad, or both to die or otherwise disappear for the children’s growing up adventure to take place. Bambi, Cinderella, Nemo, The Secret Garden, The Boxcar Children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter… can’t folks stay alive and children still grow up, get their own lives and have adventures?

Of course. In real life! I don’t know if film makers and authors are “killing” mothers and fathers to make way for other cool relatives to step in and enable kids’ exciting adventures, as some people interpret the phenomenon of the disappearing parent plot-line. I just see its persistent appeal in how it addresses one of the challenges everybody has to face at some point in their lives. And schools – or daycare centers, nursery schools, or kindergartens – play a particular place in this because they bring up the issue of separation often quite early in the child/parent relationship. A daycare where I tried to leave my son who was about three years old informed me through a pamphlet (I wish I had the original text here), that a child’s early separations, such as being in day care for a few hours, are a preparation for the final separation from their parents when the parents die. Gulp. Nursery school as a training program for a parent’s death? That’s not really what I was aiming at for me or my son at that point. I just wanted a few hours to get my unfinished school work done. Or just be by myself. But this pamphlet did touch on the truth of how every one of these separations felt, a life and death situation, and the fear of one of us not coming back. Maybe that’s why he – and I – were resisting it so much, because we were not quite ready to get used to living without each other.

But is this really how you get prepared for the big departure, by practicing separation in little installments, and then, one day, miraculously it doesn’t matter or doesn’t hurt anymore? Could I train my son to be used to separation in case I would get hit by a bus during my time away from him, so he would be able to handle it better? Or was his absolute refusal to stay without me a clear signal that I better stay alive because he was not ready for this? Maybe he just didn’t like the daycare enough?

If this kind of athletic separation muscle building would be the whole truth, how then did clingy little me who always, always wanted to be home with her mom, refused sleepovers at her grandmother’s house and skipped her elementary school overnight trip without giving it a second thought ever grow up, move away from home, and even survive her parents’ death, although admittedly, it came much, much later? Though much less dramatic, in essence not unlike the kids in Cynthia Voigt’s novel: by developing along the lines of my own inclinations and talents, by integrating images of my parents in myself and my own life, and by developing my own family context. It’s not some outward separation “practice” that prepared me for handling my parent’s death, but an inner growing up and having my own life that helped me to live on my own. I have the feeling it is, somewhat paradoxically, any time spent with your children that helps them eventually live without you, not how much time you have, by whatever reason or necessity, spent time physically separate.

Perhaps this is getting a bit too complex to handle in a blog, so back to the book, back to summer, and back to school, our school. Thinking of how the story of Dicey and her siblings always kind of stopped when school started again, and pretty much the only thing they got from school was misunderstandings and more problems, I am simply hoping that our school is not like that, and that here, students have at least a chance to develop in their own directions and at their own pace. That they won’t be subject to the quick and fast judgments many in the teaching profession are used and of course required to hand out. I am hoping that our students encounter adults who treat them as developing but complete and complex human beings, and who are honest with them, and themselves. That school can be part of where and when things that really matter happen. That even the youngest students will want to brave the fear of separating and that they will learn things they really need to learn to feel that they can make it in this world. For the parents, I hope that the feeling of having just abandoned your child when you leave the parking lot, a feeling I remember vividly from dropping off my children at SVS in the early days of their attendance, will soon be replaced by a feeling of closeness that comes from your child being in the right place, and from you having stepped aside just the right amount for you and your child to develop freely.

Posted in General, Life at Sudbury Valley, Underlying Ideas, Vignettes | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Summer Reading