The Spirit of Ma’at Vol 2, No 10     

 

Bells

A Sudbury Staff Member's Eloquent Paen to Freedom

by Martha Hurwitz

 

 

At 7:48 each weekday morning, I hear First Bell. I'm usually sipping my coffee. Early in the school year, when the days are warm and my kitchen door is open, I can listen to the low monotone of the female voice pushing through the P.A. system. Soon after, another bell sounds (it's certainly not a ''ring''), and I imagine roomfuls of like-sized and uniformed students moving through corridors like cars through a busy intersection. By this time, I'm making the final preparations for my commute to Sudbury Valley. Although the school with bells is only a stone's throw away from my back steps, I'd much rather commute 45 minutes twice a day to have the freedom that is the keystone of Sudbury Valley.

 

Freedom seems impossible at this school next door. The bells themselves betray the lack of freedom inside the school. They demand: Are you where you should be now? Are you doing what you're supposed to be doing? Have you done what's expected of you?

 

Especially coming out of summer vacation, I imagine that those students, moving to the insistent sound of the bells, must be suffering a great transition, from the relative freedom of their summers to the virtual loss of self during the school year.

 

Of course, there aren't bells at Sudbury Valley; the questions they pose would be entirely inappropriate. However, at the beginning of each year, or the beginning of any student's experience at the school, Sudbury Valley students also go through a transition. Typically, however, returning students, new students, parents, and even staff, in getting used to the school year at Sudbury Valley, experience the opposite of what happens elsewhere.

 

Here, the difficulty is in getting used to freedom - not in relinquishing it. As welcome as the possibility of freedom may be, it is not always easy to achieve. Rather, it is a formidable challenge. School members are effected on many levels. As individuals, each with a unique sense of self. As members of the Sudbury Valley community. And as responsible citizens in the wider society.

 

For new students, the transition into the Sudbury Valley school year must be particularly profound. Not only do they move out of summer and into school, but they must change their very understanding of what school is. For some, SVS may seem like a continuation of the summer, or as if they'd dropped out of school in order to do something frivolous, or even illegitimate.

 

Younger new enrollees tend to adapt without a second thought; they haven't yet become burdened with expectations.

 

Older new students may sputter and stall like a car that needs warming up. For years, they've been urged or forced to replace natural inclinations with the shoulds and supposed tos of a life structured by bells. Many are former ''good'' students who did everything they were told, and did it well - yet felt school as an intense dissociation with their lives. Others were the ''bad'' ones, those who wouldn't bow to the structures and directions imposed on them.

 

For all, summers were perhaps their only chance to exercise personal choices about what they wanted to do.

 

In a way, our new students are similar to the slaves just after emancipation. For generations, the slaves barely had names with which to establish their sense of personal identity. Choosing a name after emancipation was both powerful and symbolic. It meant a former slave was now a person with a sense of self.

 

Many new SVS students describe their previous school experience as if they had been imprisoned. Their liberties were impaired - not rendered obsolete, as with the slaves, but lacking the time and respect that are essential in allowing us to find out who we honestly want to be.

 

Sudbury Valley deliberately gives room for this. To many outsiders, the students' experience of self-exploration looks suspiciously like doing nothing. To new students, this introductory experience feels challenging - often confusing - but certainly not as though they're doing nothing.

 

Returning students start the new school year by reacquainting themselves with what it is that they want. This is relatively easy for the lucky few whose summer experiences are as much their own creation as are their days at SVS. The transition is more pronounced for those whose time and choices have been circumscribed during the summer; they have to relearn how to find and honor their wants. They must experience the traumas and rewards of undetermined time, adapting to the norms of the people and the structure within the SVS community.

 

Often, they feel that what they want doesn't amount to much, especially not in the discriminating eyes of parents, relatives, friends from other schools, or our culture in general. Indeed, they must learn about what the idea of ''amounting to much'' actually means in their lives.

 

For parents, the transition into Sudbury Valley entails giving way, although for them it may be less of an annual event than it is for the students. This means embracing and allowing, believing and trusting. Not trusting the school and its staff so much as the students themselves, in all their interests, lack of interests, indecisiveness, or singleness of purpose.

 

Parents may never know how their children spent their time at SVS, but they will know if their children were happy, energetic, thoughtful, and engaged. Parents may ask ''What did you do today?,'' but the student's answer will invariably be incomplete: ''doing'' at SVS can mean anything from eating lunch with some friends, to curling up on a pillow in the sun in the conservatory, to sitting on the playroom porch watching a game of hopscotch or four-square. Even doing nothing is considered ''doing.''

 

''What did you learn today?'' is a potentially more dangerous question. Too often, the questioner is looking for evidence. This question can sound like those school bells: ''Are you doing what you're supposed to?''

 

Even some of the staff experience a transition in returning to SVS for a new year. For those of us who work elsewhere for all or part of the summer, being at SVS is something of a relief. In many other institutions, the role of the educator is as a masked performer who participates in limited and predetermined relationships with his/her charges. At SVS, the staff are individuals who relate honestly and directly with the students. There is no ''teacher mystique.'' Even though I tend to work for what are considered ''progressive'' educational organizations during my own summers, I end up having to reconcile many conflicting assumptions: that my students need to be supervised at all moments, that they won't choose the right things if given choices, or that being honest with the group may undermine the authority I am supposed to maintain.

 

As with any other Sudbury Valley member, I am often challenged by others to articulate my position, and this can sometimes be rewarding. I'm sure others from SVS also know the thrill of having a particularly SVS-like position acknowledged or adopted once it is explained.

 

Although public perception might suggest otherwise, freedom is not easy. Often, people assume that a school with so much freedom would support chaos, invite atrophy, or generally be a free-for-all for the privileged few participants. But although freedom, by definition, is freeing, it isn't ''free.'' It takes a lot of work.

 

There are many things we're taught as members of our society, and being free is not necessarily one of them. Being free takes courage, tenacity, and commitment.

 

A few blocks away from my house, in the opposite direction of the school with bells, is a church with a carillon tower. Every fifteen minutes the bells ring out. The sound bounces off the school behind my house, making a quick echo: Bong-ong. Bong-ong

 

I find the sound of these bells soothing. They seem to pose those questions we at Sudbury Valley enjoy being asked: Where are you at this moment? What are you thinking right now? What has your day been full of up to this point? What are you choosing to do at this moment of your life?