(This article is written about and refers to experiences at Sudbury Valley School, which Mountain Laurel Sudbury School is modeled after.)
Often I wish that were true.
When school first opened, thirteen year old Richard enrolled and quickly found himself absorbed in classical music -- and in the trumpet. Richard soon was sure he had found his life interest. With Jan, a trombonist, available on the staff to help him, Richard threw himself into his studies.
Richard practiced the trumpet four hours every day. We could hardly believe it. We suggested other activities, to no avail. Whatever Richard did -- and he did a lot at school -- he always found four hours to play.
He came from Boston, 1-1/4 hours each way every day, often 1/2 hour or more on foot from the Framingham bus station. Like the proverbial postman, "in rain or shine, hail or sleet" Richard made it to school, and to our eardrums.
It was not long before we discovered the virtues of the old mill house by the pond. Built of granite, roofed with slate, nestled in a distant corner of the campus, the old neglected building took on sudden beauty in our eyes. And in Richard's. In no time at all it was turned into a music studio, where Richard could practice to his heart's content.
Four or more hours a day, for four years.
Not long after graduating from school, after completing further studies at a conservatory, Richard became first horn of a major symphony orchestra.
Richard was followed soon by Fred, whose love was drums. Drums in the morning, drums in the afternoon, drums at night. Emergency action was in order. We fixed up a drum room for him in the basement, and gave him the key to the school so he could play early, late, and on weekends.
We discovered that the basement wasn't all that isolated acoustically from the rest of the building. It was often like living near a jungle village, with the constant beat of drums in the background.
Fred moved on at the age of eighteen after two years. We loved him, but many of us wished him godspeed.
It isn't only music that brings out the stubborn persistence we all have inside us. Every child soon finds an area, or two, or more, to pursue relentlessly.
Sometimes, it isn't even material they enjoy. Year after year, older students with their hearts set on college drive themselves steadily through the SAT's, the infamous "aptitude" tests which measure children's ability to take SAT tests -- and which colleges everywhere seize upon to help them make their hard admissions decisions. Usually, the kids find a staff member to help them over rough spots. But the work is their own. Thick review books are dragged from room to room, pored over, worked through page by page. The process is always intense. Rarely does it take more than four or five months from beginning to end, though for many this is their first look at the material.
There are writers who sit and write hours every day. There are painters who paint, potters who throw pots, chefs who cook, athletes who play.
There are people with common everyday interests. And there are others with exotic interests.
Luke wanted to be a mortician. Not your most common ambition in a fifteen year old. He had his reasons. In his mind's eye, he could clearly see his funeral home ministering to the needs of the community, and himself comforting the grieving relatives.
Luke threw himself into his studies with a passion: science, chemistry, biology, zoology. By sixteen, he was ready for serious work. We took him out into the real world. The chief pathologist at one of the regional hospitals welcomed the eager, hard-working student into his lab. Day by day, Luke learned more procedures, and mastered them, to the delight of his boss. Within a year, he was performing autopsies at the hospital, unassisted, under his mentor's supervision. It was a first for the hospital.
Within five years, Luke was a mortician. Now, years later, his funeral home has become a reality.
Then there was Bob.
One day, Bob came to me and said, "Will you teach me physics?" There was no reason for me to be skeptical. Bob had already done so many things so well that we all knew how he could see things through to the end. He had run the school press. He had written a thoroughly researched (published) book on the school's judicial system. He had devoted untold hours to studying the piano.
So I readily agreed. Our deal was simple. I gave him a college textbook, thick and heavy, on introductory physics. I had taught from it often in the past, even used an earlier version when I was a beginner. I knew the pitfalls. "Go through the book page by page, exercise by exercise," I told Bob, "and come to me as soon as you have the slightest problem. Better to catch them early than to let them grow into major blocks." I thought I knew exactly where Bob would stumble first.
Weeks passed. Months.
It wasn't like him to drop something before -- or after -- he had gotten into it. I wondered whether he had lost interest. I kept my mouth shut and waited.
Five months after he had started, Bob asked to see me. "I have a problem on page 252," he said. I tried not to look surprised. It took five minutes to clear up what turned out to be a minor difficulty.
I never saw Bob again about physics. He finished the whole book by himself. He did algebra and calculus without even asking if I would help him. I guess he knew I would.
This article appears courtesy of the Sudbury Valley School, Framingham, MA. It comes from the book Free At Last, an anecdotal book about The Sudbury Valley School, written by Daniel Greenberg, who has been a staff at the school for its entire existence (over 30 years).
Books by the SVS press are available at http://www.sudval.org/books.html, by calling (508)877-3030, or by fax to (508)788-0674. You can write to the Sudbury Valley School press at The Sudbury Valley School Press, 2 Winch Street, Framingham, MA 01701. You can email the school at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Permission to freely copy and distribute this document is given, provided that the text is not modified or abridged and this notice is included. For more information about SVS available electronically, check http://www.sudval.org.
Sudbury Valley is a democratic school run by a School Meeting. Students and staff each get one vote on all matters of substance; including the school rules and hiring/firing of staff. The school has no grades, tests, or scores.
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