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.

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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.

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The Animal Hospital

Part 1 – The Architects

Where can insects, rabbits, and snakes go when they’re sick or injured? Two young SVS students not only pondered this problem, they took action. They had a history of creating entire worlds out of sticks, leaves, rocks, acorns, and other items found in nature –materials found in nature is their signature brand. The students invited me to the rocks to show me their latest endeavor. The materials were well on their way to becoming a hospital. Or so I thought.

Two days later I found the students drawing in the Art Room. I asked what they were working on now. “Now?!” The carefully constructed shelter by the rocks was the beginning of a much longer process. The day I had seen the pair by the rocks, they were getting architectural ideas by experimenting with their materials of choice. With a clearer idea of what was possible, they went to the next step: putting their designs to paper. And as two minds are better than one, they each drew their vision of the hospital and then compared notes. A couple of weeks later I thought about their project and wondered if their designs ever made it to the construction stage. So I asked them. The students stared at me as if I had two heads, and then one replied in an exasperated voice, “It takes a long time to build a hospital!”

Part 2 – The Veterinarians

Weeks later the architects caught me in a hallway, and brought me to a list of library holding locations. The girls explained that they had searched several rooms and combed through every book about animals they got their hands on. None of them contained useful material. They asked me for suggestions of other rooms to explore. And they instructed me, in no uncertain terms, which rooms not to mention; they had already been there. It took a moment, but I remembered that the Red Couch Room had stalks of National Geographics. We headed upstairs. The colorful photos intrigued the pair. I left the room feeling good that I had helped them on their quest.

I was wrong. After a thorough examination of our National Geographics collection, the girls determined that the magazines were useless. Before they could admit patients, they needed answers to some very practical questions: What do animals eat? How does one care for them if they’re sick or injured? I realized my mistake. Stories of elephants, tigers, zebras, and other exotic animals were irrelevant. Their hospital was designed to treat animals that roamed the school’s grounds.

Given the specific nature of their quest, I thought the Internet might be their best bet. We went to the computer room and pulled up Google. But where to start? After listing the various species they were likely to encounter, the pair settled on garter snakes. One of the girls typed, “What do you do if you find an injured garter snake?” Several links popped up on the screen, and I left them to conduct their online research. Later that day they enthusiastically shared their findings. Two hours prior to their search, a man had posted a description of his experience caring for an injured garter snake he found on the side of the road. He fed the snake a mixture of chopped up earth worm and water, and the injured reptile recovered. This was exactly the type of concrete information our students needed. The next step would be interviewing vets for advice on how to diagnose problems and what medicines to administer.

Part 3 – The Master Builders

Winter brought new developments to the students’ endeavor. Armed with information on how to care for future patients, they were ready to start building their hospital. Eventually it would spread throughout the campus. They began with an emergency room. I was brought there in secrecy; they had spent much time and effort on it, and didn’t want their work in progress to be disturbed.

Large low hanging branches of two pine trees functioned as the doors to the emergency room. Once opened, they automatically closed behind us. The trees themselves served as a sizable shelter for patients. I was given a tour of the premises. A circle of stones with a tent of sticks formed the fireplace needed to keep injured animals warm on arrival. Nearby, the girls had dug a well, to help revive the sick with water. A separate location was designated as the feeding area.

The emergency room was created not only to meet animals’ physical needs, their emotional health also entered into the equation. Animals that were sick or injured would likely be afraid. To sooth the animals and lift their spirits, the master builders had fashioned a musical instrument from a piece of wood that one could play with a stick to elicit a variety of tones. Sticks hitting broken off branches and knobs of a pine tree also made different sounds. The girls thought the animals would be comforted by lullabies, and they played an early version of one they were composing.

While the emergency room was created to ease suffering, the girls knew it was surrounded by a potentially dangerous world. Animals in need of medical attention or in recovery would be easy prey for other animals. Security was needed. The girls had fashioned daggers to protect their patients. The weapons were made of pine cones sharpened by rubbing rocks on the tips, and leaving the wider edges of the cones intact to serve as handles. They hoped that the sight of the daggers would act as a deterrent to predators, and that they wouldn’t actually have to use them.

As I inspected the weapons I asked what, in hindsight, was a ridiculous question: Would the daggers be used in surgery? The girls were struck by my lack of knowledge regarding basic hygiene. “Those are dirty,” one girl explained. “When we operate on an animal we’ll need sterilized knives.” In an awkward attempt to recover from my stupid inquiry, I made matters worse. They had been conducting research on healing sick animals. I asked the girls if they could train me. They had important stuff to do, and my second question only added to their frustration. “You can find that stuff on the Internet, you know!”

We dropped the topic of training, and continued our tour of the emergency room. The girls showed me their bunny transport. It was fashioned from a cardboard box. They acknowledged that this particular piece of equipment stretched their “all things found in nature” rule. But as cardboard is made from paper, which is made from trees, so it passed muster.

The tour concluded, but not their work. They proceeded with their major project for the afternoon – building a snake ward. They gathered sticks, roughly the same width and height; most were deemed unsuitable and discarded. Slowly and carefully they laid out the sticks, so that each snake would have the space they needed to rest and feel secure. After a considerable amount of time they finished the ward. I presumed they would move on to something else. Instead they inspected their work and discussed the concept behind their design. Their initial premise was that snakes would feel secure in a tightly knit ward. On further thought, it occurred to them that snakes might prefer privacy while recovering. In seconds they scrapped what they had painstakingly built, and embarked on creating prototypes for individual snake huts. The base of each hut required thin sticks of the same length and width. Then came the roofs made of tiny twigs meticulously placed in rows.

Once their work was complete, they explained some of the foundational principles that guided the design, building, and future operations of their hospital. Their principles were based on a profound respect for what occurred in nature. For example, when a wounded animal died, they’d feed it to another animal that was “food chain” appropriate. However, when a sick animal died they wouldn’t feed it to any of their patients, as that could make other animals sick and potentially start an epidemic.

They ended the tour by sharing their underlying philosophy. While designing and constructing each section of the hospital, they tried not to think like a human. Rather they attempted to get inside the mind of each animal they’d likely admit, and create an environment that would make each animal comfortable. Having spent time in human hospitals, I couldn’t help but wonder how the students’ approach might improve quality of patient care. I was also struck by how well the girls worked together. At no point did I sense any tension, as a myriad of decisions were being made. Their focus was clearly on creating the best possible hospital for prospective patients and providing excellent care. It didn’t matter whose idea was adopted or whose was rejected. Some of the world’s most successful companies have adopted a similar approach to innovation. For these students, negotiation, trial and error, creative and analytical thinking, and perseverance came naturally.

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