Instead, what I have in mind today is the remarkable gift of Sudbury schooling to nudge everyone it touches to grow, to push against their limitations, to find their biggest challenges and dive in, if sometimes kicking and screaming.
First and foremost, this is the curious consequence of handing children’s lives over to them, offering them the gifts of bountiful time and space. Although you might not expect it, sooner or later everyone invariably finds their way to precisely what they most need to learn—and yeah, sometimes it’s the last thing they want to be learning at a given time.
This lesson might involve speaking up for themselves, confronting someone with whom they’re not getting along, or confronting themselves. It could involve math anxiety, stage fright, or some other fear that they’re not smart or talented or beautiful enough. It might be boredom or aimlessness, the daunting prospect of not knowing who they are or what they want to do with their life. Point is, it could be almost anything.
If you think about it, though, schools are supposed to push children to grow—right? So the bigger surprise is that Sudbury adults are also stretched—every one of us—in ways I bet most didn’t expect when we signed on for this ride.
For Sudbury founders and staff, this stretching begins with the realization that in order to keep our schools afloat, we must become adept at any number of things we never learned in school, things that may lie far beyond our comfort zones: public speaking, public relations, marketing, maintenance, accounting, writing, project management, dealing with lawyers and government officials, etc. Those of us coming to Sudbury by way of a conventional teaching career can also be pushed to let go of exalted images of a teacher’s role, or entrenched notions of productivity and wasted time.
Sudbury parents face a similar letting go, compounded by concerns that they’re letting their children down by giving them so much freedom, risking their future range of possibilities even as family and friends question them for venturing far outside the mainstream. Fears and doubts tug against parents’ awareness that, finally, their children are happy and healthy, busily exploring who they are, what they want in life, and how to make their dreams reality.
All this talk of growing and stretching is calling old, trite phrases to mind: growing pains, character building. As for the latter, I sometimes want to say to invisible fate, “Look, I have plenty of character already, thank you very much. Could you please go visit someone who might be currently in need of a growth experience?”
But that’s another crazy thing about Sudbury schooling: after a time, you acquire a taste for this bold, uncomfortable leaping. I know that, for me, the Sudbury life conjures visions of Thoreau and a life in which I, too, might
live deliberately…front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
Not bad, that when I could be experiencing a midlife crisis, I am instead celebrating a passion to live an evermore authentic life, to grow into my fullest self even as I make a real and lasting difference in many people’s lives. Indeed, I happened to read the following just yesterday in Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood: “Nothing exhilarated me more than the idea of a life dedicated to a monumental worthwhile task.”
This is what Sudbury schooling has given me.
Worth a bit of painful stretching, wouldn’t you say?