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My Visit to Sudbury Valley School

28 May

I have visited Sudbury Valley School four times over the past seven years. Each time, I have tried to describe what it felt like to be there, but my words have always fallen short, like there was some secret that eluded me. During my first three visits, I was more focused on learning the how’s and why’s of running a Sudbury school. Although I enjoyed connecting with students and staff, I still had an agenda. Well, I’m going to give it another shot, because this most recent visit was different. This time, for one day, I let myself just be.

As I walked down the long driveway to the main building on the fourth day of my visit, I passed a Sudbury Valley Schoolstudent I had met a few days earlier. He was carrying his guitar and I asked if he was going to play. He said yes and told me that I was welcome to come up to the barn and listen to his band practice. “I’d like that,” I replied. “See you soon.”

As I continued on, I saw three students out in the middle of the lawn doing yoga. There was a student in the playground working really hard to swing high and a group of students playing knock-out on the basketball court. There was another group sitting at the picnic table talking and laughing. Everyone was fully engaged, at ease with themselves and each other, and happy.

I started up the steps to the building along with a few young students. There was no hesitation in their step; they knew exactly where they were going. When one little girl reached the top of the steps, she looked back at me and said, “Hi.” And then she quickly skipped away before I could say, “Good morning.” Once inside, I headed towards the coat room through the kitchen and ran into a few staff members who greeted me with warm smiles but no expectation on their faces. After chatting with them a bit, I headed back up the drive towards the barn. I smiled at the sight of the three students on the lawn who had now moved on to doing silly dance moves. They were cracking up at each other and I thought to myself, “Ah, freedom.”

At the barn, I was greeted by a few students playing a video game. I watched for a bit and asked some stupid questions. I was probably annoying and certainly distracting, but the gamers were patient with me. Then I heard music coming from one of the nearby rooms. I ducked into the room next door where I could watch the band through a window. One player waved. Two others looked my way and nodded. The drummer turned around and smiled. The band continued playing and I was soon lost in the music. My mind and my body were completely at ease and I felt very happy. Not only was I free, but I felt totally accepted. I felt like I belonged.

And then it suddenly hit me – everyone here belongs. That is the secret! And this is where words fail me. Words are too shallow to describe this feeling. Imagine a place where everyone is free to do their own thing and find their own way without judgment, without pressure. Imagine a place where everyone feels safe enough to take on the enormous task of figuring out who they are and what they really want to do. That feeling is so deep at Sudbury Valley that no one talks about it, like fish who can’t describe the water around them.

I always return home inspired to create that feeling at my small school. I have no illusions, however – it’s hard, it takes time, and it requires constant vigilance. I am in awe of the founders and staff members at Sudbury Valley for holding such a space for so long. I hope that one day I can be as wise and as strong as they are.