An Education Worth Struggling For
Benjamin B. Sargent
A recently empty-nested father looks back on the frustrations, foibles, and unexpected outcomes of far-reaching educational decisions made by a young family in its formative years.
We never intended, at the beginning, to give our children a different education. We had no money, for one thing. But if we thought about it at all, our opinions were probably along the lines of, “We should keep our kids in the public system—if everyone pulls them out, the schools just get worse and worse.” This was, to be sure, a naïve and self-congratulatory attitude. As our oldest child got to the age where school was imminent, we asked around and were pleased to discover she was slated for “the best school” in town and “the best kindergarten teacher” (on the planet). But by then it was too late to do anything about it, even if the assessment had been otherwise. We were never activist parents.
We laughed in horror at the insidious mimeographed homework sent home with the four-year-old scholars and made our way to evening events to hobnob with the other proud parents in our privileged district. But a fly was in the ointment and barely three months had slipped by before we noticed the smell. Our beautiful and precious child, whom we had unhesitatingly handed over to the unctuous authorities, looked decidedly confused. We took note, but initially took no action. By observation, we suspected her uncertain looks stemmed from a clash of cultures. We were a family without a TV. We were a family that ate tofu. We were a family that made things by hand: knitting and sewing, sawing and nailing. We were young parents—and that meant we had ideals and set out to live by them. Once noted, the disjuncture between worlds was soon too much. The manners cultivated at home were at odds with behaviors assiduously taught at school. The daily culturalization of the classroom was being undone each night by principles pressed upon her at home.
We wanted to shield our child, but perhaps more so our way of life. Nor did it seem right to ask Zoe to bridge such a gap. And so we set about researching the private schools in our area. One school we found was called The Sudbury Valley School; where, apparently, children had absolute freedom. This idea was way too radical for us. We thought, we’d never send our kids to a school like that. Instead we settled on a nearby Waldorf School—rather the opposite of a “Sudbury” school. At Waldorf everything was controlled down to the color of the classroom, different for each year of a child’s progress. The values we found much to our liking and we remained happily ensconced in that community for four more years, until our youngest child was out of diapers and the thought of three private school tuitions forced us out. We sold our home and moved to another Boston suburb, well known for its highly-rated public system.
By now we were a little less young and a little less idealistic—prepared to swallow hard and except a re-socialization of the family. We even bought a TV. And here is where “not being activist parents” really hurt us. In a system like our new one, parents had spent years jockeying their kids for placement in “the right” school with “the right” teacher. But what with selling the house, moving, and establishing my wife Joanne’s daycare business in a new town, that kind of activism never occurred to us. We had selected the town, after all, on the basis of its excellent reputation for education. That meant, in short, we got the worst teachers in the worst school—in classrooms largely made up of immigrant children whose parents had no clout; or others, like us, who had no clue.
Our son Jonathan’s first-grade teacher was a nightmare—a diabetic who, on those rare days when she actually made it into the classroom, spent her time making sugar cookies with the kids and hallucinating. Zoe’s fourth-grade teacher was a scream—only not in the funny ha-ha sense, but in the screaming-at-kids-for-no-reason sense. We learned, later, that this behavior was a daily phenomenon. But not something Zoe felt so bold as to mention to her parents. This only came out when, one day in the spring, she came home with the streaks of tears still visible on her face… another thing we learned was a daily occurrence. We called a meeting with the principal. She insisted on bringing the teacher into the conference and spent the entire meeting defending her protégé so energetically that we never got a chance to ask why our child was being subjected to verbal humiliation on a daily basis. As the principal escorted us out, she implored us in a hushed voice, “please don’t do this to poor Mrs. So-and-So, she’s having such a hard time.”
Another curious tidbit we picked up in that exchange but did not have time to inquire about was “the other remedial class.” We knew that Zoe was in a remedial math class (Waldorf delays starting math until the child is eight years old). But what was this other class? It was another tacit humiliation that Zoe had been enduring daily, but had spared telling us. We learned it was a speech class, and when we sought an explanation, the school told us it was because our child was “reticent in class.” Reticent, perhaps, due to a hostile teacher? Zoe had been off-the-chart verbally since she started speaking at the age of 10 months. When we caught up with the teacher of that remedial speech class and asked her point-blank, “what is Zoe doing in your class?” She said, without hesitation or irony, “oh, she’s wonderful, she’s such a help with the other children!” I kid you not. Verbatim. She even grinned while saying it, completely convinced that we would be glad to hear the news.
At this point we started talking to other parents to try to make sense of what was going on. It was not hard to discover. This is what we learned. When a child is in two or more remedial classes, the school is not required to include that child’s standardized test scores in the cumulative results for the town. Each town is ranked, and our town’s test scores were at that time amongst the highest in the nation. Bingo. Zoe’s presumed-to-be low test scores in math—and Mrs. So-and-So’s mental condition—were what mattered most to the school, not the well-being of a new child entering the system. Of course! That’s why it’s called a system. So everything made sense after all.
Well. That was our “radicalizing” experience. After that, upon brief reflection, we decided The Sudbury Valley School (SVS) was just our ticket. We pulled Zoe out of school the next day. Then we sold (our worst-ever financial decision—and that’s saying something) our new home and moved again, this time out to Framingham, enrolling all three children into “that radical free school.”
Now, one of the first things you learn there is that SVS is anything but free… of rules. The Lawbook is about a foot thick and a primary activity every day is adjudication. Timmy was running in the hall. Susie littered. Robbie threatened Ricky. And then there are the teenagers and the expulsions—sex, drugs, and metal and all. The thing of it is, kids are running the show, not the adults. The “JC” (judicial committee) meets every day at 11:00 and is chaired and populated by students of all ages. At this school, even the 4-year-olds have the vote and are encouraged to use it.
Bucolic SVS is set on a beautiful 10 acre campus abutting a State forest. The main building is an old stone mansion with a mill pond and bubbling brook in back. There is also a large barn with music studios and a video-games area. Most organized activities are run by corporations, which in turn are run by students, who raise and manage their own funds. Kids generally run everything, but you do find a staff member here and there on campus, trying to look inconspicuous. Parents are generally not allowed to muck about at all during school hours. The general drift is that parents bring in bizarre influences and inhibit the genuine unfolding that otherwise occurs among the pupils. You laugh, but after a few years this clicks, and you find yourself grinding your teeth at the new parents that hover about making inappropriate comments while dropping off or picking up their kids, dallying as long as they can get away with. It’s generally understood that all parents who “get” the school wish they had gone there, or better yet wish they could go there now. But as best they can, without being too obvious about it, the staff goes about shooing away the moms and dads that wander in from the parking lot.
In the reverse of most private schools, the pride here is in high student-to-teacher ratios, not low. Which is how, by the by, we could actually afford to send all three kids to the school. It’s cheap, relative to any other private school I know of. And another thing, they are not called “teachers” here at all, in favor of the less-charged formulation “staff members.” These fortunate adults (who are lucky enough to be voted onto the island each year by, you guessed it, the students themselves) are generally expected to profess an avocation; for example, writer, photographer, or carpenter. And generally they are expected to be doing that sort of activity during the day, only interacting with kids when sought after for advice or instruction—which they grant sparingly, and only after much convincing that the seeker is serious about learning something.
On one of my first visits to the school—as I was trying to wrap my mind around this concept of not-teaching—I remember standing outside with Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the school. We were near the huge and borderless “sandbox” where the little ones tend to congregate. I asked him “so, what do you do all day, then?” He shrugged, looked down at the throng of youngsters milling about our feet and mused, simply: “tie shoes?” His eyes twinkled. The joke was on me. As I soon learned, kids don’t even wear shoes during school hours. At any rate, not the ones young enough to be wanting bunny ears made for them. The shoes come off first thing, and stay off for the duration, and must be retrieved later by parents, usually from the lost and found.
It’s an all-day recess school. All day every day. It’s recess in the morning, recess at noon, and recess after noon until closing time. Nothing but recess.
How cool is that?
The decision to put our kids in SVS was not an easy one. My mother was an educator with a master’s degree from Harvard-Radcliffe. My father was a professor and senior researcher at MIT. My sister and her husband are both Ph.D.’s, too. And here we were, sticking all three of our kids into an all-day-recess school. A school where kids can go all the way through to graduation without taking a single class. It happens. Oh yes. They take this not-teaching thing very seriously. At SVS it takes convincing to get a staff member to convene a class. They will not come right out and say this, but I believe the assumption is that when a child asks for a class, more often than not a parent has put them up to it. And when that is the case, more harm is done than good if some poor staff member gets suckered into teaching it. The kids soon lose interest, the class folds, and the students are left—inadvertently—with an experience of failure. You see how it goes? Elementary.
There are famous classes, however, such as the seminars on history, religion, and current affairs led by Dan Greenberg himself. My kids raved about these. From the little I was able to gather, they are run like Oxford seminars, with freewheeling roundtable discussions. And the kids loved to get Danny going. But this is the kind of thing we heard about later. Much later, well after the classes were over. Probably years after. I never heard my kids talking about classes in the present tense.
There was one story we heard during the admissions process that really struck home for me. It was the story of Mimsy’s own son (Mimsy is another of the founders). This boy never took a math class in his life. But he discovered an interest in physics. Calculus was a prerequisite. He is now a tenured professor of mathematics at a major university. Okay, so that story is like the founding myth of Rome, with Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf. It makes for a fun story but will never happen a second time, right? Still, without hope of something like that in the back of my mind I don’t think I could have put all three of my kids into SVS.
It was one thing to put Zoe in. She was “special”—an artist soul, dreamy, creative, not-in-the-least academic. We knew the school was perfect for her, with its gardens, forests, and well-stocked art room. But our other two children could not have been more different. Jonathan loved the public school. Even with that useless, incompetent teacher he’d had, he was in bliss. He loved that he got to sit at a desk. He loved that the desks were in straight rows. He loved the brainless homework, endlessly repeating the same problems. He loved that there was a schedule each day. He loved when the bell rang. He loved everything. How would he react to no desks at all? No straight lines. No bell. No assignments. Actually, we came to think… this could be good for him. Force him out of his shell, perhaps? But we were not at all sure he would make the adjustment. This was a shot in the dark.
Our youngest, Freya, had just turned four, the minimum age for SVS. But she was a pistol. We knew in public school she’d be blacklisted from day one as a troublemaker, a talk-backer, a miscreant. In public school, she’d spend more time in the principal’s office than in the classroom. So in she went to SVS—what did we have to lose?
Several months into the first year, Zoe surprised me one day. I disremember what I had done to deserve it, but she stood up to me and looked me full in the face and yelled emphatically—my sweet, precious, “special” Zoe—“Dad, you’re a flaming asshole!” That was something I did not expect. I did not know how to react. It’s a vivid memory to this day. I was thinking, “Oh my God, so this is what they’re learning at the new school?” But I recognized, immediately, that this was a remarkable change, a very different child than the “hidden” Zoe of the previous year, who wouldn’t even rat out an abusive teacher. So I bit my tongue and thought, “Wow. That’s good. That’s really, really good!”
During these first years my wife Joanne and I had many soul-searching talks, worried about where all this would lead, and what would become of our kids—were we consigning them to a non-college future? And if so, what did that mean? A colleague of mine at the time, who was a confirmed wunderkind, had not gone to college, was successful in every way, both in personal terms and financially. He ended up essentially retired before he was thirty. Always after our talks we would come back to the thought that the world probably did not need any more cookie-cutter kids, and if nothing else, our kids would be different. Very different. That was little consolation, but enough to keep us going.
In the end, it took several years—three, really—before we were sure about it. One of the things you notice when your kids go to SVS is that the kids don’t want to come home until 5 p.m., when they get physically thrown out. When you start your second year you notice something else. The last day of school in June had been rough. Tears shed and much wailing heard. Then the first day of school in September is like a celebration. Huh. The kids are really digging the school. And so it went every year for the next 12 years: the worst day of the year is the last day of school. The best day of the year is the day school starts in the fall. What the heck is going on here? That yearly punctuation helped foster a feeling of confidence, that we were doing something right.
The first year was hard for Jonathan. He was shy and did not make friends easily. He spent his time watching others play and rarely left the safety of the big house. Toward the end of that year, Danny approached him one day and asked him “hey, do you like to play video games?” When Jonathan nodded, the venerable master took the boy’s hand and walked him up to the barn and introduced him to the older kids playing there. For the next two years, Jonathan spent all his days playing video games, eventually becoming the Executive Director of the Videogames Corporation and helping to raise the money to purchase its first computer. Next thing I knew, Jonathan was buying parts and building his own computer. About age 11 he had played enough computer games and decided to go outside, where he discovered the woods. The outdoor kids also played games, but they were games of strategy like capture the flag, or rainy-day games of imagination, like Dungeons & Dragons—collaborative games with lots of conversation.
For Zoe and Jonathan the school was wholly engrossing. At home each night they wanted to be left alone in quiet, solitary tasks. They never wanted to go out and play “like normal kids.” This worried us, until we realized, of course, they are playing and talking incessantly for six or more hours each day. No wonder they needed space when they got home!
Freya, who started at the school having just turned four, was the one child who eventually found a second life outside school. At age 11 she quite suddenly established a whole other center of activity and social relationships in the world of dance. Then at 15 she created a third constellation of friends in the theatre world. For her graduation and “sweet 16” birthday she threw a party where over 60 people came and every one of them was a close personal friend of hers. Even the boyfriends and girlfriends of good friends were excluded if Freya did not know them well. I’ve never in nearly 50 years accumulated so many friends. And, even for this jaded veteran of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, it was the most fun I’ve ever had at a party.
While Freya is certainly a standout in this arena—and that is partly to do with her constitutional makeup—this trait is something I’ve seen as a general truism for SVS kids: an unusual ability to establish and maintain relationships with lots and lots of people. What is doubly fascinating to me is that Freya is not necessarily even “nice” with everybody. She isn’t. She’s very picky about her friends and can be quite ruthless. I don’t understand how this works at all (I am “too nice” according to everyone who’s had an opinion.)—how can someone who is prickly and harsh and discriminating have hundreds (now) of close, intimate, long-lasting friends?
There is something about the socialization that happens at SVS that is different. It affected Jonathan as well. When he was young, before SVS but also during the first several years there, we just accepted that he was an out-and-out nerd—always had been, always would be. He was good with technical stuff, bad with interpersonal stuff. He would never have the “social graces.” We parents noted it, ruefully, but there was nothing to be done about it. At two years old he figured out how the tape deck worked and showed his five year old sister how to operate it. Etc. There was nothing in his genes or his home environment to indicate he could ever overcome his eternal geekdom. That was then. Now, you’d never have any such thought about Jonathan. By the age of 16 he’d completely outgrown it. He was gracious, courteous, well-spoken, considerate, handling social interactions with aplomb. We can only credit SVS with this change. It was so totally unexpected. Today there is no trace of awkwardness or nerdiness.
For a while after departing the Videogame Corporation, he still played computer games at home after school. But he was playing the guitar, too, and discovered that computer use was aggravating the carpal tunnel in his wrist. Soon computer games were forgotten completely (his decision) and he was performing at the SVS music shows put on by kids throughout the year. By the time he graduated, Jonathan had performed dozens of times on guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. He wrote numerous songs and learned about recording and live sound production. A year after graduating, Jonathan enrolled in a technical school, earned a degree in studio sound engineering, and then went on to get a bachelors in music business. He is now performing and recording with a band in Winter Park, Florida. The definition of cool. But also unashamed of his technical abilities.
Zoe-the-non-academic spent an extra year at the school, graduating at age 19. She had already been published as a knitwear designer and knew she wanted to pursue fiber arts and design, but had a hard time finding a college-level curriculum to suit her needs. She wanted clothing design, but not a degree in fashion. She wanted to grow plant dyes and work with sheep, but not an agricultural program. She wanted surface design, too. The one school she found where she would have access to all of these elements in an interdisciplinary setting was at the University of Oregon, Eugene. She applied to only that one college. While readily accepted into the art school, the University itself would not admit her due to insufficient academic credentials. They required math and language, neither of which she had studied at SVS. Undeterred, she enrolled at the Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.
We were worried for her. How would she pass with the grades they required, while working and living on her own in Boston? In short order, she not only passed her math and Spanish, she passed with flying colors. When Zoe called the admissions officer in Eugene, he was surprised. “We never expected to hear from you again,” he said. Then he saw the grades. “We’ll be happy to admit you.” Once in Oregon, Zoe switched from Spanish to Italian and she is still taking that language, for fun. She just returned from Italy where she worked for a month in a weaving studio in Florence—one of the last remaining non-industrial silk-velvet workshops, anywhere.
Our youngest has just graduated as well, at age 16. She was accepted into three out of the four schools she applied to (the fourth being Juilliard) and is now studying in Toronto with a professional dance company, living on her own, out of the country, at age 17.
After so many years raising children and struggling each fall to refinance the house and somehow come up with tuition payments for all three kids, these last few years happened rather suddenly. We used to shake our heads and wonder if any of the kids would go to college. Because the prospect of Zoe heading to academia seemed dim at best, we see now how we bent over backwards, all along the way, to tell our children (and ourselves) college is not important. That’s what we said. And we, the parents, said it so often we even convinced each other. We acted as if college did not matter, at all. And maybe it doesn’t. But it won’t hurt either—even with an onerous debt load. Suddenly I am pinching myself and wondering what we did right. How did we pull this off?
For the record, it’s not over yet (it’s never over) and we can’t point to anything and say “success”—that would be unforgivable hubris—but the SVS part is complete. The part of child-rearing called “pre-college education” worked out way better than we ever imagined or even could have dreamed. Remembering the story of Mimsy’s son, who aced the calculus class… got that right. If that was the school’s advertisement, then the product has worked three times over and “better than advertised.”
What is the purpose of education? Not for society; I am not talking about education policy or how it benefits the state or the world at large. I mean, what is the purpose of education for us as individual families making decisions about our kids and their futures. What do we seek when we put our faith in one school or another—that our kids will come out the other end and be better off, be well-served by their education. What do we want?
Faith is the operative word here, since putting your child into any school or system requires a leap of faith. Will they learn? Will they succeed? Will they come out OK? Will they get into a good college? Will they have a good life? How can you know, and why should you choose one system over another, these methods over those, this group of people over that group? We want our kids to succeed; which means we cannot push them so hard they fail or founder. But it’s hard not to push. We want them to emerge into the adult world with marketable skills so they can find employment. Who will push them if we don’t?
Another parent once told me: “I don’t care if my kid grows up to be the garbage collector… as long as he goes by whistling.” It’s hard to argue with that, but most of us want more and have a hard time sitting still. We advocate for them and strive to clear a long, straight runway for them so they’ll have the best chance to get aloft, get some altitude, go places. But in trying to clear the runway, too often we get in their way.
For parents at Sudbury Valley, the big question has always been, will they go to college at all? How will they even get in, without an academic track record—coming from an all-day-recess school? “You have got to be kidding me,” is the refrain you hear in your mind every day, every night. How can this possibly work? Somehow we got lucky, and some combination of factors worked out so that we managed to avoid pushing. Joanne and I managed to stay off the runway they were clearing for themselves. At SVS, they found their own volition. They propelled themselves into pursuit of their own careers, chosen for themselves. They are out in the world, barnstorming their dreams.
I am into history and culture myself. So I wanted my kids, as adults, to know what the Magna Carta was, what city the Alhambra is in, how to read and comprehend Kierkegaard. But I also had the instinct to stand clear and let them find their own way. Now that they are all adults, it is clear that none of them will do any of these things, anytime soon. But it is also clear that those things are not what matter to them, right now. They have other passions, and deep knowledge in other areas I would never have been able to show to them.
I am older now and see life and success in simpler terms, for myself and for them. In the end, we hope they will be happy, well-adjusted, contributing members of society—responsible adults who participate in their communities, earn a livable income, support themselves and, if they choose, start their own families. Ultimately, the ability to gain and hold a job—any job—and the ability to form and maintain relationships with other people is chiefly what matters. If my kids can do that, then they will have the time and attention to participate in the world and contribute to the lives of others. And that is what I want for my children. That is all I want.
I have known friends of my children at Sudbury Valley who were academically inclined, and went on to academic success at big-name schools. Others did not go to college at all, but went directly from SVS to jobs or travel. Some have seemed to flounder a bit. But even these, when I meet them working at the grocery counter or waiting tables, all of them know how to smile, look me full in the face, and take responsibility for their actions. All of them, that I know, are effective adults.
There seem to me to be three central tenets of the Sudbury Valley educational process. The first is self-determination, within an egalitarian, participatory, and rigorously enforced legal framework—from which arises accountability for one’s own actions. The second is that the most crucial learning takes place through imaginative play and simple conversation. The more play and conversation a child gets, the more connections they make—not only in their brains, but out in the world as well. The third element is that “free range” kids try everything, and they learn well what they are good at, what they enjoy, and what they don’t. SVS kids don’t necessarily graduate with a full-blown career in their hearts, but they’ve got some real experience in their hands and their heads.
Finally, there is the synthetic process all students must go through in order to graduate. While there are no academic requirements, per se, while attending SVS, graduating is no cakewalk. All graduates must have written an essay on—and defended orally—the thesis that they have prepared themselves to enter society as an effective adult. Not everyone is convincing in this regard. As a result, some do not pass go or collect their sheepskin. Those who do have at least given thought to—and constructed a personal narrative about—the adequacy of their preparation and what it might mean to be an effective adult. Which is way more than I had to do to graduate high school.
There are whole books written on the subject of Sudbury Valley style education, but I never read them (not an activist parent, remember?). But you can read them. And schools now dot the globe calling themselves Sudbury schools. You can find them (go to sudval.org to start). But before I end… one more anecdote. While we rarely asked, the occasional what-did-you-do-in-school-today would slip out. “Nothing” was the usual reply, with the obligatory rolling of eyes to indicate just how unworthy the question was of a response. But one day Zoe answered without filter. And it was a simple “I had tea with Denise.” Denise is a staff member at SVS. On further prying I was able to uncover that Zoe had spent several hours that day, and on other days as well, sitting with Denise in the kitchen of the big house, sipping tea and talking about this and that. And Denise is exactly the kind of person you’d want your teenage daughter taking to—wise, warm, and worldly. She is a photographer with book credits and a keen eye; a shrewd observer of the human kind. Every teenage girl should have such a person to share tea with and talk about this and that. And that was when I really knew. This is what we want for our children. Definitely not cookie-cutter. Definitely an education worth struggling for.
Maybe we were activist parents after all.
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