From interivews by Hanna Greenberg; Edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg
I came to Sudbury Valley the first summer we were open. I was seven. I was really surprised when I saw the school. The picture I had before I came was nothing like what it turned out to be! I had imagined it to be a place with rooms that had labels according to what you did inside the rooms a room that said "Science," and a room that said "Reading," and I don't know what else. My picture didn't look like the public school I went to, but it also didn't look like a house; it looked institutional.
The school is such a great looking building to a little kid, big and old and kind of mysterious. It was exciting to go there and find out that it looked like some old mansion, where you can get lost or hide from people if you want to and not be found, and things like that. I remember just feeling joy at being at this place where I could do what I wanted where I wanted. The school was physically beautiful, and to be around this beautiful place and not be constrained was wonderful. The grounds were also incredible, and walking around on the rocks were really frightening! They were big. They were several times higher than I was, and people were jumping around on them. It amazed me that people were just going up there to this far away, scary place and nobody was attempting to make them not do that.
I had gone to public school the year before. I had ambivalent feelings about it. I liked learning how to read. That was fun, and the teacher I had was a nice woman. When fall came and I was at Sudbury Valley instead of in public school, I started to get worried about whether I was going to be learning enough, and whether I was going to be missing things; so I went back to public school at the beginning of second grade, for maybe a week. That was long enough for me to realize that I had made a mistake. Second grade in public school was horrible, boring, and incredibly tedious. So I came back and re- enrolled at Sudbury Valley.
The whole time I was enrolled, I wasn't concerned about my education. I never felt I needed to create a "program of studies" for myself; I didn't ever again feel that was an important thing to do. I knew enough people outside of school to feel like I wasn't any worse educated than they were! I never asked myself, "Am I satisfied with the way I'm being educated?" I usually just came to school and tried to figure out what was going on, and if there was something going on that I was interested in, then I would do it. If there wasn't, I would go read. In general, I don't remember thinking, "Is what this person is doing ok?" I had the idea that it wasn't really my business what someone was doing. He was doing what he was doing and that was sort of the beginning and the end of it.
The first thing I remember clearly spending lots of time doing was the Plasticene Village, a table in the art room taken over for full-time use for plasticene. On some days, I would do it from the moment I got there to the moment I left. I don't know how long it lasted, but it seems like it went on forever! We made houses and people; those were pretty basic. The more complicated things were machinery and stuff like that. You had to convince people your machinery worked, so you needed some superficial knowledge of how it ought to work, and you had to be able to point to where the different parts were. It was wonderful fun.
All of us graduated many years ago, and it turns out that it wasn't a bad thing at all to be doing plasticene all day for a year or so! But I don't know how I would have dealt with that if I was a staff member then, and a parent said to me, "I can't believe it. My kid is playing with plasticene for a whole year. This is terrible." It's hard. I'd have to tell the parent, "Look, what's wrong with your kid doing this? He's having fun, he's probably learning stuff, although who knows what." I don't know how the staff dealt with it.
Until I was thirteen or fourteen, I read a lot of science fiction and not much of anything else. At thirteen or so, I started reading other things, like Russian literature; that was because everybody was interested in Solzhenitsin. His books had just been coming out in the West and people were reading them and talking about them. That was the first Russian literature that I read. I read The Gulag Archipelago, Part I and I think I may have read Part II sometime, but I was much more interested in his novels: The Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life. Then I started reading a lot of other Russian literature too, because in his novels there are references to other things and that always made me curious to know what the other things were. I was always reading at school, sometimes a lot. Just like there were days when I would play with plasticene all day, there were days when I would come in and read all day.
Outside, I played a lot of soccer. The soccer games were really great, mostly because of Mitch. Everybody would play, people of all different sizes. Mitch always made sure that all the little kids got treated fairly and that nobody got left out. He was gentle, and I think he held the other big kids who may not have been so gentle in check. I thought of him as sort of a role model; he was the only older kid who I looked up to.
The other thing I did outside a lot was play war. We used to go off either to the area around the barn and stables or behind Dennis' house [no longer there ed.]. It was always an all day thing. You would go out mid-morning and you wouldn't come back until it was time to go home. This was a problem because people weren't ever sure when they were going home and parents would come looking for them and they just wouldn't be there; and their mothers would have no way of finding them.
The game involved dividing the group into two teams, and then everybody would have a stick and you would kind of tramp around hiding in the jungle and in the forest and trying to shoot people on the other team with your stick. If you got shot you had to walk, usually to the parking lot, and then come back, and then you could be alive again. This was a big incentive to stay alive, because that's a long walk!
People always argued about whether they got shot. Somebody would be running from one tree to another and say, "You couldn't have hit me," or "What kind of a gun do you have?" and things like that. We played that mostly in the spring or fall, because in the winter it's just too cold to sit still behind a tree for hours and hours.
During the winter sledding was the thing. We used to sled down to the millhouse, which was kind of bad because the millhouse was at the bottom! If the ice was frozen, we used to sled down the hill toward the pond instead, which was much more fun because we'd go sliding across the pond. You could go from one end of the pond to the other on the speed you picked up on the hill.
At one time, there was a fort that some kids built, that I used to go to. It was a secret for a while. Frank hit me once when I tried to follow him there, but somehow I ended up going anyway. It was kind of neat because it was made out of tree limbs, draped over a frame, with pine branches on top of the tree limbs. If you were inside of this thing, I doubt that you would stay dry in the rain, but you felt pretty sheltered. There was also a "well" there. It was this big hole that they had dug, and it wasn't really a well. It was just a deep hole that would fill up with rain water all the time.
My favorite room in the school was the sewing room, and the place that I particularly liked sitting was near the solarium. I can read in a noisy room, but conversations sometimes bothered me, and then I'd go to a quieter place; or if I was in a quiet room, I would try to get people to be quiet, which was sometimes not so easy.
When I first got to the school we all had the idea that the school was going to be a raving success and that pretty soon we were going to have 1,000 students and lots of buildings and things. This sounded great, and it was something I thought would happen. Later on, when the school wasn't that big I was conscious of there not being many people around, and I would really have liked to have a lot more people to talk to. There wasn't anybody else interested in things like algebra and I felt it would have been fun to talk to somebody else who was interested, not to get help, but just to talk about it.
While I was there, I desperately wanted the school to be bigger. I think for me as a student there, it would have been much better if it was bigger. Most of the time I was there, the only friends I had my age were Gabriel, Judy, and Rudy, and that wasn't because I wasn't friendly. That was because there wasn't anybody else my age. The people who were my friends were really intelligent and interesting, but it would have been great to have more. I have to add that I don't remember feeling that individual friendships were that important. What was important was being able to join a group of people that I liked.
I did math sometimes during those years not generally at school, but usually at home with a mathematics book written for adults to learn elementary mathematics. Everything that I learned before I started to learn algebra I learned out of that book, or by asking one of my parents to show me.
After I had sort of figured out all the elementary things to do, I wasn't very interested in it. Then, at some point, I became interested in understanding why and how nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors work. So I would go and pick up books that I couldn't understand. The first thing that was identifiable as being incomprehensible was the mathematics in the books. It was easy to see that one of the reasons I couldn't understand anything was because the mathematics made no sense to me whatsoever, because it was algebra and I had never thought about algebra at all. There were other things too, but that was the first problem. So I decided to learn algebra so I'd be able to figure out things more easily. I looked at the algebra textbooks in the library until I found one that seemed OK and I just read it and did all the problems. It was something I did on my own. I didn't need any help with it. When something puzzled me I just worked at it until I figured it out. There were people I could have turned to, but there was nobody that I did turn to.
The algebra took me something less than a year. There were two books, Algebra I and Algebra II. The thing that was really stupid was that I did all the problems in the book. I didn't realize until a long time later that this was not the way anybody ever learns anything out of a textbook! It just takes too long. Then I found that I still couldn't understand the things I wanted to read. I figured, well, the thing I should do now is try to understand more elementary physics, and so I asked Danny to help me with that. I had a physics textbook, and I just started at the beginning and read it and tried to work out problems. When I would get confused, I would go find Danny and make an appointment to talk to him sometime and ask him questions. I enjoyed it until I got to studying something that I couldn't make any sort of sense out of, the part about how gyroscopes work, which was somewhere in the first quarter of the book that I had, and I just couldn't get that to make sense to me, because the way gyroscopes work doesn't make any intuitive sense. So I stopped doing it because I was frustrated, and I was tired of trying to think about it and not having it make sense.
My learning algebra was more or less goal oriented, although I never reached the goal I was aiming for, which was to be able to read papers and books about nuclear physics and understand them; but it was still goal oriented. It's just that it was for a goal that I wanted instead of a goal that somebody else told me I should aim for. I think this is how people make themselves miserable: instead of living their lives according to what they want to do, they try to use some other standards to live their lives. I think people are supposed to be happy. They're not supposed to be unhappy. It's selfish, but I also think it's right.
I didn't think about math and physics very much after I stopped learning physics. Actually I didn't think about math much until I started teaching some people at school. When I was twelve, I probably would have said I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up because I was interested in animals.
I started taking piano lessons when I was thirteen. I just wanted to be able to play some songs I liked. After a few weeks, my piano teacher tried to get me to play classical music and I soon found that I really liked a lot of the things she was getting me to play short, easy pieces by Haydn or Beethoven, people like that. Also, I started to listen to a lot of music after I started taking piano lessons. Before, I didn't listen to much music at all.
I practiced mostly at home for a couple of years, and then after that I practiced some of the time at school. There were days when I would practice a lot more and days when I would practice a lot less. I kept it up for ten years, practicing progressively more and more hours a day. I would have a vision of wanting to be able to play certain pieces, and then I'd get to the point where I could play those pieces and I'd want to be able to play other pieces that were harder. I didn't think about what it would do for me. I just thought it was something I wanted to do. I believe that everything you do helps everything else you do, because if you're doing one hard thing, it's not that different from doing another hard thing. It may take different physical skills, or maybe different mental habits, but it takes the same kind of concentration and requires the same kind of thinking.
For some reason, I fell in love with the way a harpsichord sounded and I really wanted one. It seemed like it would be fun to build one, and it wasn't that expensive. I had been working part time so I had enough money to buy a kit. I made it in school, and I got a lot of advice from Sam at various stages. The directions were reasonably explicit. A lot of it was tedious and time consuming, but there were only a few things that were hard. The beginning was especially fun; what you're doing is putting the case together, gluing big pieces together and trying to get joints to come out right and stuff like that. Then later on, there's a lot more stuff that it's easy to mess up on and you have to do over again a bunch of times so you get it right.
During the years that I was doing music, I still played outside. Maybe less, but the things I did outside were a little bit different. I still played soccer a lot. I played Capture the Flag some, but the problem was that by then I was too much bigger than everybody else. It's no fun unless you're more or less the average size. Everybody's too scared of you and you can't be invisible. If you're small you can slip behind the line and nobody notices you. I also went cross country skiing and walking and digging in the woods for bottles and riding my bicycle around the area, usually with a friend.
In my teens, I became interested in the administration of the school. I don't know why, really. I remember thinking that it was fun to be involved with certain things, like the judicial stuff and the trials. I also thought that the more people that were involved with administration, the better. I felt some sort of civic duty to be involved with it to a certain extent. Everybody felt loyal to the school, but people did different things about it. I don't think I felt more loyal to the school than my friends who were not interested in administration.
I was Building Supplies Clerk for a while. That was just somebody who went around and kept the toilet paper and the paper towels and the soap in stock. I had to get somebody to take me to the store to buy cases of paper towels and toilet paper occasionally. The soap we had then was terrible, a powdered soap that was so abrasive you could hardly use it. If you had to wash your hands more than three or four times in a day, you'd have running sores.
I was Building Maintenance Clerk one year. I really wanted to know about these things and I wanted to do them and see what they were like. But I never felt I was doing a good enough job at it. It wasn't as big a job the year I did it as it is most of the time, because there wasn't anything major going on. There wasn't any money to spend anyway. All the little things that came up, I could easily fix, like if a doorknob fell off someplace, or a window pane got broken or something like that. Also, I liked fooling around with electrical and electronic things that the Audio Visual Corp. had, so I would keep them going.
I was Law Clerk when I was thirteen. The work was awesome. The judicial system is streamlined now compared to the way it was then. We kept track of everything by hand then. There was a listing of each trial by trial number, and there was a listing by charge, and there were listings for each individual too. So there were all these records to be kept, and the first time I had to do it I was overwhelmed; it took getting used to so I wouldn't forget to put something down some place. I remember sitting at the table with all this stuff and just trying to figure out what to do with it all and where to find what I needed and where to put everything.
I can remember the first time I had to go around and notify people of trials. The scary thing was talking to a little kid who didn't already understand what was going on. Lots of times complaints could go through, testimony could be taken, and School Meeting could vote a trial for some kid who was new to the school and still didn't really understand what was happening.
I also ran the mimeograph machine for years and years, and collated whenever we had something long to do, like a long newsletter or when somebody would publish a long article. I can remember collating with Gabriel. We'd put down long planks on a table so you'd get more pages on them. We had a lot of fun doing that. We would just walk up and down talking to each other and collating these long things. It would sometimes take hours to do. It's funny, I don't think of myself as being talkative, but I guess I talked a lot, to a lot of people. I talked to Gabriel probably more than anybody else, and I talked to Margaret Parra a fair amount when I was older.
For years there were water fights and nobody ever made a fuss about them because they were always done covertly, and nobody was aware of them or nobody knew exactly who had done them. The best ones were with paper towels which we would soak in water "gloppies" and throw at each other. The best times were at night in the winter, when it's dark at 4:30. The staff members would all be up in the office and there wasn't anybody working in the kitchen, so the downstairs of the school didn't have that many people in it, particularly the art room, the main lounge, the library workroom and then down the stairs into the basement. The basement was the main area for the water fights. You had to be careful running from the art room (where you usually got the paper towels and water) to the basement, but once you were in the basement, there wasn't likely to be anybody there. It felt really neat to be in the building when there weren't very many people around and it was dark and mysterious. Actually, at the time, water fights weren't illegal. There was a special law made about them later.
I liked the pot luck dinners at night a lot, but wasn't so crazy about the spring picnics because I liked to be in the school after dark, running around outside. That was fun and different, whereas when I was a little kid the picnic was always just a pain in the neck. You'd go to school and there would be your school, but you couldn't really do the things you wanted to because there was way too much stuff going on and there were too many people around and the only people you wanted to spend time with were your friends anyway, who'd be there, only it was harder to do things with them because you were at the picnic.
I think I always knew, as long as I can remember, what the School Meeting was: the place where things got done and decisions got made. Before I started going regularly, I did what most little kids do; they go when something germane to them comes up. At some point I can remember feeling maybe that wasn't right and maybe everybody should go all the time, and then at some other point I decided that, yes, it was ok, it was alright for me to let other people decide things that I wasn't interested in. The image I had was that somebody else was taking care of most things and I didn't have to worry about it very much where "somebody else" was staff members and older students, but mostly staff members. But the thing that went along with that image was that I felt I could complain if there was something I thought wasn't right or something I thought should be changed.
When I was older, I got really impatient at meetings. I remember thinking that it takes people so long to understand what other people are saying and people miss the point of what other people are saying, and then say things that are way off the point themselves. More recently I've learned that people do these things a lot less at School Meetings than they do in almost any other setting, and the School Meeting works as well as any democratic meeting that I've ever seen.
Once I started going to School Meetings, I went to Assembly meetings too. I never thought the Assembly had much role in what went on in school and I was usually perfectly happy with that. As a student I always felt a little bit resentful about the Assembly, as if it was the School Meeting that should be deciding these things and the Assembly was sort of beside the point. I'm not presenting that as the truth. I'm just telling you how I felt.
Everybody was on the judicial committee, so we were aware of the functioning of the judicial system in a much more intimate way than the other parts of the school. I think as a little kid, it's more a part of your life than the other functions of the school. Not only are you using it, but you're also taking part in running it at some point.
The judicial system was an interesting center of conflict in the school. Especially trials. All the time that I was involved, trials were very rare, so that having one was kind of a special occasion. There would be a lot of buildup and people would talk about it, and then there would be people arguing their cases and trying to convince each other, and it would come down to what the jury thought at the end, so that was always really fascinating. I think the drama of it was very interesting to me. I mean, the justice of it was nice, but I don't think that was interesting in and of itself.
There was no way not to get fair treatment if you got brought up. The committee investigated and they made some kind of report, and if the report was wrong, then it was not that important because it could get cleared up in the trial. There were enough checks and balances. It was quite difficult to get convicted of something that you weren't guilty of.
This was important to me because I took advantage of it sometimes. I was a real stickler, and if people brought me up for things that I knew were wrong, but weren't against the rules, I wasn't about to let myself get convicted of breaking a rule that I know I hadn't broken. As a defendant, I wasn't scared, but I was nervous. It's more like the fear you experience when you're going to talk in front of a group of people, than the fear that you experience when you're afraid of bad things that are going to happen to you. I was always more afraid of being embarrassed than being convicted. In general, it was important for me to learn that I could defend myself and convince people that I was right.
The major interaction I had with the staff was talking to them. They meant something to me because of who they were. I grew to feel really emotionally attached to most of the staff members who were around the school a long time, because they were people I really liked and respected not necessarily because of things they did for me, and not just because of things they did for the school, although that was important too.
My relationship with them individually was always good. There were certainly times when I was really irritated with Danny, particularly, but I don't remember anything that was a long term irritation. It was just always about small things that were happening in school. And it didn't adversely affect the real relationship that we had. In general, I liked the staff to be friendly and I liked them to be there, but I didn't want them to come seek me out, particularly. I certainly didn't want them to try to get me to do things, but I didn't even particularly want them to talk to me unless they had something specific they needed to talk about. I was much happier being able to seek them out if I wanted to. It wasn't usually a matter of wanting to arrange to do something that was large scale and time consuming with them. It was mostly just getting help with individual things, or wanting to ask somebody a question about something. An example is woodworking, which I did for a while. When I wanted to make something out of wood, I wanted to be certified to use the tools and sometimes I'd want help doing a particular thing, but I wouldn't want somebody to do it with me the whole time.
If I was somebody who was less determined not to ask people for help about most things, then the staff might have had a larger role in doing things with me or teaching things to me, or trying to help me figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to be left alone, and in retrospect nothing has made me think that I was wrong to have wanted it. I wasn't going to go start a class if I was peripherally interested in something; I would just go read a book instead.
I was always worried a little about staff elections. There have been periods when individual staff members were temporarily unpopular and there would be really bad election results which always seemed sad to me. Most of the staff had been there a long time and had put so much into the school that it always seemed horrible when they would get a rash of fifteen "no" votes one year; it must have felt horrible to them. The other thing was that crazy people would come and want to be staff members sometimes, but we were always too smart to elect them, so that wasn't really a problem. I think it's a good idea for children to choose their teachers. Everybody makes wrong decisions and I'm sure that we've occasionally elected people for staff who probably ought not to have been elected, though I don't know if we've done the reverse. But I think that chances are we've made better decisions than any other method. The problem is, who's going to make the decisions if we don't do it ourselves? Whoever is, they're probably not going to do as good a job. I don't know any good alternative. The alternative of the students not being the ones who decide who works at Sudbury Valley would undermine one of Sudbury Valley's main points, which is that the students decide what's good for them. To have everything the way it is and to change that one thing would be really two-faced.
That's one of the things that makes Sudbury Valley easy to talk about. In a lot of ways the school's hard to talk about because it's hard to get people to believe you when you start trying to describe it, but one of the things that makes it easier is that it's really honest, so that when you say something you can really mean it; and when you say that the school is controlled democratically and the students essentially have the power, there's no lie there. There's no lie like, "Well, they have the power except that there are certain decisions they can't make." I was saying this to somebody recently: "The students can do anything they want." She said, "Oh, it sounds like a Montessori school," and I said, "Well, not exactly, because if you want to go outside and play soccer all day in a Montessori school, that's sort of hard." And she said, "You mean, you could go outside and play soccer all day?" I said, "Yuh, the students can do anything they want." And she said, "Well, I heard you, but I didn't really believe that."
People would ask me about the school sometimes, but nobody ever tried to convince me that I shouldn't be going there. I was probably more obnoxious about it than the people who asked me about it, because I would try to convince them that everybody should be doing it. I thought that it was completely obvious that this is the kind of education everybody should get.
I think my parents worried about me a little bit. I'm not sure about my mother. My father said that he worried some about me, but he was also able to leave me alone, which was good. I imagine I would end up doing the same thing. I would probably worry about my children, but that's the way it is. One worries about one's kids. Everybody I know worries about their kids, no matter what, and no matter what their kids are doing, so I'd worry about it, but I hope I'd be able to leave them alone. If I can't do it, I don't know why anybody else should be able to do it, because I've got better reason than anybody else to leave them alone.
Recently somebody was asking me if I was well prepared for college. I was telling them about Sudbury Valley and they kept asking me, "Was this hard for you when you went to college?" and "Was that hard for you when you went to college?" and I finally said, "Look, nothing was hard for me when I went to college. I did some hard things there because I tried to learn things that were hard to learn, but college wasn't hard for me." Yes, I was well prepared. I think that people from Sudbury Valley are, in general; not necessarily because they have exactly the skills that are expected of them, but because they have the skill of knowing how to take care of themselves in a general way, so that when it comes time that they have to do certain things, they can do them. The people I knew in college who had problems were all people who weren't used to trying to figure out what to do with their day, what to do with their month or what to do with their life.
I was really nervous about defending my thesis. I was seventeen. People usually talked about their last several years of school, and what they were planning to do in the immediate future. I didn't really want to do that. This was a leftover from when I was a little kid. I had the idea that you should be somehow specifically defending the thesis that you are ready to be responsible for yourself, and I didn't want to do it by telling what I had been doing recently and what my plans were. So I decided to talk about what I felt responsibility meant and explain why I thought I was ready to live my life in accordance with that. I was a little bit nervous because I hadn't seen anybody do that before and there were weird questions people could ask me. As it turned out people did ask some weird questions. It was certainly meaningful emotionally, as a rite of passage, getting up in front of all these people who I'd known for a long and telling them that I was ready to leave and why.
I decided to leave the school when I did because I felt there wasn't anything I wanted from the school anymore. It didn't take any time at all to decide to leave. I suppose in a sense it took me eight years, but when I felt I was ready, it didn't take much time at all.
The first memory I have of the school is that it was a community, a supportive community. The people were invested in the community. People's attitude staff and students was not only warm, accepting, and sharing, but also a pointed commitment to the educational philosophy. It's good as a kid to see other people who are committed to something you believe in too. It gives a team camaraderie; it's kind of like a goal-oriented friendship.
I thought it was a funny kind of school. I had gone to a private school and a public school, and I thought there would be set up classes. I thought the administrators would tell us what to do, although from my interview I realized there were no tests, marks, quizzes, or that sort of thing. It was totally different from anything I'd participated in before, besides living on the street.
I was fifteen when I heard about the school. I had been having some trouble in public school that was "unexplainable." I was labeled an "underachiever," and the school administrators and teachers thought that if I was challenged some more I might do better; but that didn't work out. I went to a prep school for more challenge, I guess. While I was there, there was a lot of academic pressure and social pressure. I felt like I didn't fit in. I went to the famous rock concert at Woodstock in the summer of 1968, and when I came back to school that fall, my summer vacation went right through till Christmas! When I came back from the Christmas vacation, the administration asked me if I really wanted to be there, and I said, "No." So I went to a career counselling service and they mentioned Sudbury Valley to me. They said, "We've directed some kids there and it might be something for you to check out," which I did. My parents supported me in any decision I made.
When I enrolled at Sudbury Valley, most people were friendly. Some of the staff had kind of a "wait-and-see" attitude; more like "What is this kid about? Will he come to me?" The staff had the kind of mindset that said, "What does this individual need? What is their style and how do I respond to that?" And that was appropriate.
I settled into the school very quickly. I was oriented towards the smoking room. Later, in turn, I helped take in new kids. I saw myself as being a part of things, and felt that it was important for me to be hospitable and treat them the way I was treated. I was just passing along what was passed on to me, really.
It didn't take me long to understand the philosophy of the school. I had been in other types of participatory democracies. One was a Unitarian Church group for kids, and I had been on sports teams and those sorts of things. That aspect of the school was important to me as a kid who was kind of formulating where he was going. It allowed me to go in the directions I was interested in.
I come from a politically, socially, and religiously liberal family, so the school fit in with my life expectations. I don't mean to say that I expected that from schools; that's why it might have been hard for me at first to catch what Sudbury Valley was. I expected to sit in a chair for eight hours a day, and to have a certain time of day to run and play and a certain time of day to eat. When I went to my first School Meeting I started to see the difference. That was about the time that the blue and white paperback [The Crisis in American Education] was published so discussions of ideas about education were always flowing around.
For the first month or so, I spent a lot of time in the smoking room, getting to know people, listening to music. Then as time went on I got into photography. A student who had a camera showed me how to develop and enlarge. Later I became more involved in other activities, like baking bread. But even at the height of my involvement in organized activities, I was probably engaged less than half of the time. A great majority of my time was spent talking to kids my age, some a little younger or a lot younger, and some a little bit older. We talked about kid things, like who's in what band. Near the beginning of my enrollment a lot of the talk was ventilation about different school systems I'd been in. We'd also spend time planning activities outside of school. I don't think I was ever bored.
The school helped me go in a direction I was already going, but it really accelerated and helped focus it. For me, Sudbury Valley was a graduate school for community organizing. I look at my first organizing experience as taking place there. Another one shortly followed it, but a lot of the specific techniques and basic philosophy that I used later in community organizing were almost lock-step with a lot of the educational philosophy behind Sudbury Valley for example, the idea that self-motivation is a key to learning. In organizing, self-motivation is a key to participation in the organizing effort, whether it be building a water tower in rural West Virginia or forming an alternative PTA for the Chicano population in California. Also, the "participatory democracy" idea in organizing is like Jeffersonian Democracy in that the issues come from the bottom and go up as opposed to a lot of other systems where community planners generate professional plans of what is needed for the citizens, what I call "talk down."
Let me tell you a specific practical outflow. About halfway through my experience at Sudbury Valley I had some friends in the public school system who were complaining about different things that were happening at their school. I guess I kind of brought some of Sudbury Valley with me and helped form what we called "the Progressive Student Party." The way it started was kids thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, sitting around, almost like a board of directors, at one of the kids' kitchen table talking about what was going on. One of the girls took notes. She said "I'll be the secretary," and then we generated these notes into a newspaper for which one of the churches donated a mimeograph machine, paper and ink; and we handed them out at their school. The school administration in that town was up in arms and called it "outside agitation." I was the only one involved who was not a student there, but they demanded we all get off the public school property. So each week from then on we handed it out at the edge of the school property. People in that town still come to me and say, "Ah, I remember you: Progressive Student Party!"
I attended School Meeting and added two bits here and there. I saw it as the core of the school. This was how we ran our school and I wanted to be a part of that to learn about what was going on as well as have some input in directing which way it went. I can't say specific outcomes that I suggested came out the way I said, but I have a definite feeling that, in subjects that I talked about, my opinions were blended with others into acceptable outcomes.
Some of it was, to me back then, "high-brow" business. School Meeting talked about money and stuff, and I just said "Hey, I don't know how much a dollar is worth. People who have the skills or interests can take care of those issues." I'd leave if that issue came up and it was something I wasn't interested in. Money is dry and boring to me, even today. I realize it's important but... Overall I really had the feeling of giving the best I could give.
The judicial committee was "the news." It was what was going on. Who made a mistake and who did they make it against and what were the consequences! Once I was involved in a little prank where three or four of us picked up and turned someone's Volkswagen "Bug" around in the parking lot. That was an infringement on the owner's rights which was brought before the judicial committee for punishment. I don't remember any big incidents, though.
Mrs. Parra was so much older than a lot of the rest of the staff. That was real good because that made it more of a complete community; also that was somebody I could look at and say "Hey, even people that age believe in the kind of things that are going on here." She was very giving. I look back at myself as kind of a punk, and having some punk come into the kitchen and try to learn how to make bread didn't scare her away. She would show me, and she was very gentle and understanding as she taught me.
In general, though, I wanted to be left alone by adults. My special interest while I was at school was making friends, building a support system, sharing, getting to know each other. I wasn't consciously thinking about these things. I was just being a kid, an outgoing kid.
I decided to do a thesis defense because I wanted to have a high school diploma, but also because I wanted to live the whole experience of Sudbury Valley. Everyone who comes there doesn't have to get a diploma, but that was one of the things that meant success to me. It wasn't something that I casually entered or planned in one day. I spent a lot of time by myself working on it, and some time with my advisor. It really pulled together and summarized my experience at school, and made it more clear in my mind.
The thesis defense gave me self-esteem. There was some real pressure put on, which there has to be. I made one little comment about God or religion or something and that opened the door. "What's your belief in God?" and so forth, and it took direction, which was good. It was a challenge.
I think the school is a definite positive institution. One reason is because it's part and parcel of what it's trying to get across. In other words, it's sort of like the medium and the message. I don't know how else to put it. And I can tell you from my own experience that the kind of issues and philosophies that Sudbury Valley advocates are core to my life now.
I grew up in an upper middle class community that was supposed to be "sheltered" from a lot of things, but it really wasn't. That was a hard time to grow up. The Vietnam War was raging on. I had a lot of exposure to what oppression was even before I was out of grammar school, specifically around racism and civil rights issues. My father was wrapped up in that. He was one of the freedom riders who went down to Selma. He was a public school teacher, and he went to the school department and said, "I'm going to go. I have to do this." They respected him for it, and they said, "Ok. If you have to do that, go ahead. Your job will be waiting for you when you come back." I had an awareness of injustices at a very early age.
I had some very early negative experiences in the public school system. I had a lot of trouble learning how to read when I was in the first grade and I obviously frustrated my teachers, but it was really sickening how they dealt with it. I can remember at the end of my first year my teacher saying to me in front of the entire class, "The only reason you're going to pass here is because your father is a teacher. He's going to tutor you all summer long to read." Then I remember a teacher in second grade. She was kind of eccentric. One day I could not differentiate a 'b' and a 'd', and she absolutely flipped out and couldn't accept it. She humiliated me in front of the class, saying, "Look, he cannot differentiate between a 'b' and a 'd'. Can you imagine that?" And it didn't stop there. She took me back to my home room and humiliated me again in front of my entire home room to my teacher: "He's so stupid, he can't even do this." I was in a rage, as much as you can be when you are seven years old. I don't think I told my parents about it because I was too ashamed and humiliated and angry.
It was depressing for me. But then I had a really unique experience in the summer of '69. I traveled abroad with my parents all over Europe, and I met a lot of kids who were high school age who I really got close to. That was a time when "hippies" were prevalent, and I just fit right in and really started to feel good about myself for the first time. When I went back to begin the second year of junior high, they were giving me constant grief about dress codes. At that age, to look a certain way means more than just about anything else, and to be told, "Your hair's too long," or "You can't look this way or do this" set off a lot of resentment toward the administration right off the bat. So when we heard about Sudbury Valley, and when I first went, it was a welcome relief.
My whole thing was, "Why won't people leave me alone, why won't people let me do my own thing?" And then when I was in the Sudbury Valley environment, I was just so taken aback, I didn't know what to do with it or how to take it at first. But I really have thought on several occasions that to be in that predicament was the best thing that ever happened to me just to be left alone and to go ahead trying to sort things out and be myself and develop self-confidence, in and around people a lot younger and a lot older too, and not to be hassled all the time.
A lot of my immediate family and relatives never understood me or my parents anyway. Not that we didn't get along with most of them, because we did, but I think there was a lot of skepticism: "Oh, what a totally radical place. Who do they think they're kidding?" That became a lot less of an issue when the school became accredited. But the first few years the school was open, I'm sure that the skepticism was a lot more prevalent in society at large when they came to hear about the way the school was, because there hadn't been a chance yet to reflect on people who had been through the system as students.
When I first came, there was a long period of time when I kind of sat back and watched the world go by and took in as much as I could and tried to sort a lot of things out in my own mind. Initially, I was more apt to hang around in the main lounge. Other people around my age spent a lot of time there, and then there were some younger kids, who were pretty entertaining. After about half a year or so, the place to be, for whatever reason, became the smoking room. We lived in there. I also used to love to go out and walk around on the grounds quite a bit, around the pond and state park.
When I first went to the school, I was fairly confused for a lot of different reasons: my experience in public school, as well as what was going on in the world at the time. It was a pretty hard time to grow up! When I got to know people better, I developed more self-confidence just sitting around and doing anything from talking about anthropology to chatting about how you felt about things, where you were going, and what your expectations might be in life. What gave me confidence was the environment of the school, where you had such a great cross-section of humanity, from kids four years old all the way up to people who were there doing graduate studies. So you really had a lot to reflect on and many experiences to share with people. I think a lot of us who were in that environment developed an edge in everything from communication skills to not being afraid to go out and deal with things and with people.
We had days we did nothing but sit around and smoke cigarettes all day and listen to music and just talk. We had days when we would play Monopoly or different games all day long, constantly. We had days when we would go out and walk around on the grounds and be involved in different athletic activities. I had days when I was really wrapped up in different types of art work ceramics or painting or hanging out with people who were involved in photography. I had days when I would be in the library for a good part of the day, picking books off the shelf just at random, whether it be a Rolling Stone magazine or an encyclopedia, just sitting there and reading it. I spent a lot of time listening to music no question about it. The first couple of years, that seemed to be the focus of a lot of our attention, just hanging out doing that. I used to hang around with Peggy in the darkroom. She was a sweetheart. I never really got involved in learning how to develop photographs and all that, but I was with people who did. That's when I started to cultivate one of my main hobbies, being an amateur photographer. I would say that at one point or another I used almost every different part of the main building. I even got involved in the art room in my last year.
Then, during my last year, I also had my first job, working for a geotechnical engineering firm. I did everything from developing sepias to working on the job site with geologists. I also worked as a carpenter's helper. So, towards the end of my experience at the school, I spent more time off the campus as opposed to actually being there. But again, the concept of having an "open campus" and seeing what was out there in the job market was part of the way the place was run.
I really needed the breathing space that the school provided me with to sort things out in my mind or speculate about what I might want to do.
Voting for the staff was a pretty radical thing. What student ever had any say over who was going to be a teacher of theirs? It certainly was far out that students had an input into it. The staff always seemed to be wrapped up in something, involved in something. But they were always pretty much there for us, if we had an issue we wanted to raise or a concern or question that we wanted to ask. Certainly what little time I did want to devote to doing anything academic, they were very willing to spend with me.
I think that every staff member who was involved had something to offer, but I seem to remember some of them were maybe doing a lot of soul-searching of their own too, which there's nothing wrong with . . .
Jan was one of the more aggressive of the staff members in his manners. One day I accidentally broke one of the windows in the smoking room and I came forth and said that I did that. He got the building supplies and said, "OK, go and fix the damn thing." I was surprised, and I guess afterwards, when I fixed it, I was glad that I had the experience to learn how to do it. That was just the way he was. He was straightforward in his manners and his approach.
I don't remember there being any significant vandalism or anything like that. A lot of kids did stuff like that out of their resentment towards a structured environment. I can relate to that from the time before I went to Sudbury Valley. I seem to remember when I was an early teenager, and younger, a lot of kids were wrapped up in that sort of thing out of anger. I don't ever remember that occurring at the school because of the way it was set up.
There was a lot of apprehension when the school tried to become accredited. Some of us worried about, "What are we going to do if we get out of here and graduate and it doesn't end up being accredited?" It wasn't just the student population either. Some of the staff too were wondering if they were going to be able to convey the philosophy to those people or make them understand it. Then the accreditation committee came down and saw the place and how it was run and what people were doing and what they had accomplished after leaving that was the icing on the cake, the school becoming accredited.
I started to understand the school more when I saw people who were older than me go through the system and graduate. The whole concept of the school became clearer when people went through that process. I just sat back and observed it all. Actually, the full meaning of the school's philosophy didn't really come to me until I was out of it and entered adult life, when I found an area of focus that I was interested in and, for the first time in my life, from an academic point of view, I really sat down and was disciplined about it. My own drive, my own motivation was applied to the area that I wanted to get into. Basically the school says you're responsible for your own education and when and if you want to study a given subject, or whatever area you want to enter then you're going to meet obstacles along the way, but if you put your mind to it and apply yourself to it, it's going to work out and it'll have more meaning because it's come from within you.
When it came time for me to leave, I was self confident, for the most part. I had a good self image. I had an idea of a few different avenues that I might pursue; nothing concrete, but I was ready to leave the school to go out and find my way, so that's essentially what I did.
The thesis defense was, naturally, a little bit scary. But other people who were friends of mine had already been through it. Based on their experience and my experience at the school, it really wasn't too hard.
One of the things the school did for me was that I have no problem getting up in front of a group of people and talking. As long as I know what I'm talking about and why I want to say something, I don't mind. I learned it by being part of the School Meeting and having an opportunity to be heard before I graduated. And then from the thesis procedure, by being in front of the student body and staff and Trustees and so forth.
At Sudbury Valley we were handed the opportunity to be our own person and cultivate our own interests and academic pursuits as individuals, but we weren't handed the diploma. We, in turn, had to recognize as individuals when we were ready to go out and pursue whatever we were going to do, and we had to convey that to all the people involved. We were left to do and pursue what we wanted to, but when we were ready to leave we had to convey that we were at least partially "together," responsible enough to be able to go out into the world.
I don't know if I really understood everything about the school right away, but the thing that I did understand was that I loved it. It was somewhere that I wanted to be. And it stayed that way until it was time for me to move on!
Most of the time as a little kid I played. I loved exploring. We spent a lot of time going into the woods, building forts. We built amazing pine needle forts that were set up all over the land adjoining the school. They were very, very secret, although select people got to come out and learn about them. As a matter of fact, when I got involved with them, there were some older kids who were building them and they had brought me and a few other people out to see them, and then we found out how to do it, so we started our own secret ones. We thought that was so cool!
We were outdoors winter, summer, fall and spring. There was no difference at all. Winter, we'd take the toboggans up the trails. We would go down this big, long hill in Callahan State Park. There would always be skimobiles, during the day too, and we hated them. We were nature guys! We never used anything with power, and we were very much against that. One day we took a huge, twelve foot toboggan down the hill. As you came down the hill, the trail went into a field; you just continued down the path and you'd eventually just stop. We came to the bottom of the hill and saw a skimobile come down. We all bailed out at the same time and the toboggan went right into the skimobile, broke the toboggan and the guy's skimobile.
Sometimes I wished there were more kids. When I got a little older and I was interested in girls I was never interested in the girls who were close to me in age, only in the older girls there never seemed to be enough kids. But it didn't really make that much of a difference to me. I enjoyed everybody. I enjoy people.
I loved to cook with Margaret. The great thing about Margaret was when you cooked with her, she'd show you how to do something and you'd do it. And then while you were waiting for the things to bake or to cook or whatever, she'd sit down and tell you these unbelievable stories. She always had a great story, and always kept us very entertained.
The first time I realized that I was actively learning something was one night when I was about seven. I picked up a book I had never been able to read (but was read to me often) and read the whole thing, and I was so excited! From that day on, I could read, just like that. There'd be words that I'd have to ask the meaning of, but I could read the words after that night. By the time I was ten or twelve years old I was reading a lot. Later, I read a lot of Shakespeare, Greek and Roman tragedies, a little Thoreau and Steinbeck, and I was into plays for a very long time.
I felt that there was an expectation from outside people, there was a little bit of pressure put on you, when people asked you what you did in that school, and how you learned in that school. When I got a little older, I would say, "I'm as ignorant as the next guy." And I'm probably a lot less ignorant from having the experience of going to Sudbury Valley. I had friends who were so rebellious about everything that by the time they got out of public high school, they didn't know what they wanted to do, or who they wanted to be. And they would be the same people who would say to me, "You go to that school. How can you learn anything?"
I picked up the guitar when I was seven or eight years old. A student at school taught me my first lessons. At that time none of the younger kids I knew had any interest in playing music. So I started taking lessons at a few different local places. It was just your basic method books that they were teaching out of, and I got bored with it quickly and stopped. Then I took classical guitar for a while, which I really loved, but it was too hard for me.
I'd play at home. There were teenage kids at the school like Dominic, who I thought was great because he had all the gear and he could play fast; he could learn songs off of records, which I couldn't do, so I felt almost embarrassed. But I'd sit at home with my guitar and play. My dad got this old reel-to-reel tape machine from a friend of his, and I found out that if you plug your guitar directly into the input jack where the mike goes, halfway in, you could get distortion, and it would sound great. So that was my amp, a reel-to-reel tape recorder! Later on, when I was about fourteen, I bought a big old speaker cabinet with four twelve inch speakers, and I put my tape recorder amp on top of it. It was kind of funny.
There was a kid, Gene, who played drums at the school, and he and I jammed a lot. Somebody else was jamming with us too. Then Gene's father told me that he didn't want his son playing with me because Gene was a much better musician than I would ever be, and he couldn't have his son playing with me!
That crushed me, but I continued to play, and to this day, no matter what kind of comments I get, I just keep going on. That's something the school taught me. You can't just end things because someone tells you you're not good or you can't do this, or they're not interested in what you're doing. You have to do what's true to yourself. You just go on and you live your life; you survive and you move on, and you do what's important to you.
Let's say someone is playing and it's terrible. If they ask my opinion, I'd probably tell them the things they were doing wrong, and then give them advice as to how to go about making it better. I'd never tell anybody, "Give it up. Don't do it.", because I don't believe in that at all. I believe if somebody is involved in what they're doing and they love it, then if they're not talented, they'll find that out on their own. For myself, I had a lot of belief in what I did.
By the time I was ready to leave school, I had reached the decision that music was the most prominent part of my life. One of my first memories of the school had been music. That was at the end of the sixties, when you had a melting pot of great experimental music. I was hearing all this fantastic music as a six or seven year old kid: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Doors, and I never realized until recently how important those bands were to me. That was what got me involved in music. As I got older, those bands were no longer the hip thing. There was a big '70's surge of pop rock bands, and I got caught up in the mainstream; it was different from the earlier bands, but it really wasn't. It just appeared to be because it was all covered up in gauze. And I went on and I graduated and kept moving in that direction, and it wasn't until maybe five years ago that I realized that the real music for me was those bands that I heard as a child. They were my teachers.
Music was the common bond between all of us in my peer group at school. We talked about music and we explored music together. I remember when Alan made a harpsichord and everybody was in awe. We all did different things, but we seemed to do them together.
When I was seventeen years old, I felt I was an adult. I felt that I'd learned everything that I could inside the school and by that time I had befriended people who weren't at the school, and I wanted to meet more people. I felt it was time to move on. But my memories of the school are probably the fondest of my life.
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