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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No Morning Bell Rings at the Sudbury Valley School

Recently I was struggling with ideas on how to get the kids to help out more around the house. I found myself pondering what leverage I had over the kids. We have chosen not to make their allowance dependent on chores and I don’t want to regulate or dictate screen time limits. Much to my amazement, I found myself thinking, “I could threaten to pick up the kids from school earlier if they are not more helpful at home.” I quickly dismissed the idea as rather backward thinking. The idea of “taking away” part of their education seemed draconian. It is not like I need to take the kids out of school during harvest time, because I need their labor to bring in the crops.

But the mere fact that such a thought crossed my mind is another example of how the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) reshapes how we and our children think about school. For our kids, school is no longer a dreaded chore. We no longer struggle over going to school, in fact the kids look forward to school. The ultimate paradox for me is that the kids were somewhat sad about the start of summer vacation, because they wouldn’t be able to go to school!

This year in particular my kids have been asking to go earlier, and stay longer, than prior years. This elastic school day, with a minimum of 5 hours any time between 8:30 and 5:00 pm is a wonderful by-product of the school’s philosophy of learning. That philosophy relies on an unstructured environment to promote learning through independent play and organization among the students themselves. SVS’ abandonment of the structured schedule of classes, that were designed to mimic the rigors of the early industrialized world, mean that arrival and departure times no longer need to be as rigid as the old time-clocks used in factory jobs.

Scene from Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industrial Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The mural depicts how industrialization required men to work in synchronization with the machines in repetitive demanding work. Our traditional education system, public and private, hails from the same period, designed to produce workers who can adhere to the stifling demands of factory work.

When Linda and I were first thinking about sending our kids to SVS, I remember spending considerable time on the SVS web-site trying to figure out “drop-off” and “pick-up” times. We were so conditioned to the faux industrial work schedule of pre-school, public school and after school programs, that it never occurred to us that a school would not have a precise and standardized start and end time for the students.

In public school we would read with great interest the complex drop-off and pick-up rules, trying to fit our family’s work and play schedule into that of the school. One year when a large snow storm resulted in a multi-day snow emergency, which restricted parking in the entire town, the schools put out a multi-page set of instructions on how drop off and pick up would work. Depending on the age of your child, you were to queue up at various school entrances at various time ranges, you were not to leave your car, instead, teachers and staff would deliver your child to your waiting and running car. The instructions even clarified which entrance and time range you should use if you had a family with multiple children of different ages. Overall it was an organizational marvel somewhat akin to the Berlin Airlift.

The flexibility of SVS drop off and pick up is now something we take for granted. As a stay-at-home dad, it allows our lives to follow the rhythms arising from our needs, passions and desires. If we stay up late watching a presidential debate, we can sleep a little later in the morning. If there is a big sewing project planned for the day, they can stay a bit later. If we have a doctor’s appointment, we can leave early. None of these require special permission nor do they generate reprimands (unless the kids end up with less than 5 hours at school).

The five-hour rule means that despite the lack of drop off or pick up times, the kids still learn responsibility regarding attendance. The students must log their individual arrival and departure times on a central school attendance sheet. These logs are reviewed and you can be “brought up” for failing to meet your 5-hour requirement. My kids have become adept at doing time based math (which is tricky with a 12-hour clock).

So for example, this morning we did not get to SVS till 9:15, a little late by our recent schedule, my oldest is leaving early today as part of an internship program. Our original plan was to leave a 2 pm. But looking at the car clock in the driveway, she asked, can you pick me up at 2:15 instead of 2:00? Sure, no problem, we have flexibility and responsibility at SVS.

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