You can imagine my excitement when I was invited to speak at The Association of Internation Schools of India (TAISI), the education conference for private schools of India taking place in Goa.
I would get to go to a country halfway across the world on a continent I’d never been to.
I would get to share my views at a conference in a country that’s known to have rigorous views on education.
I was in Germany when I got the invitation email at 1 am. I texted my mom immediately and resisted the urge to wake my brother up and tell him. I was thrilled! I started thinking about what I was going to say. What the goal for my talk would be. I knew I wanted my audience to see my school like I see it. I also wanted them to see there is more than one effective form of education.
But first, they had to understand my school, and I mean completely get what it’s like to be a student at a Sudbury School. I didn’t want to pretend that Sudbury was like a traditional school or try and defend it. I wanted to be real about my experience here and I wanted them to get it.
So, in my talk I wanted to explain how Sudbury is not a school about just academics. Kids here learn how to evaluate themselves, how to set their own goals, and how to be independent. I wanted to talk about how “learning” looks different for every kid here, and how that’s ok. I wanted to show them how our democracy works, how we vote on everything, how the student majority rules, no principal, no veto power. I wanted to tell them how it felt being School Meeting Chair at the age of eleven, what was frustrating and hard, and how it really forced me to understand how democracy works. I wanted to convince them that trust is the most important part of any school. I really believed that I wasn’t just representing what a Sudbury School is; I was representing students everywhere. I had to show that kids have valuable input when talking about education.
I wanted to sound confident, knowledgeable, and natural. To get to this point, I practiced like crazy. I gave my talk to anybody that would listen and when nobody would listen, I gave it to the mirror. Seriously, my friends started being able to recite not only what I was saying but the tone of voice I said it in. I mouthed it silently when it was slow at my job (I actually got into some kind of awkward situations because of that). I whispered it on the plane to India when I couldn’t sleep. I even tried recording myself, but ended up only being able to listen to it for about 10 seconds. I thought about what word to emphasize in every sentence.
So finally, we get on the plane to India! At one point, I look behind me nervously thinking that I’ve lost my cell phone. My eye meets a chatty Indian woman with bright orange hair, who starts setting me up with her grandsons. She starts telling me how gorgeous they are and how their mother is Italian and they are both in law school etc, etc. I was definitely flattered, but - no thank you.
Fifteen very long hours later, we landed in Mumbai. As we drove away from the airport and towards south Bombay, I was mesmerised by just how different it was from Kingston -- there were auto rickshaws and two wheelers weaving (kind of like playing Grand Theft Auto) in between traffic. There were slums and multistory buildings right next to each other; dogs, cats, and of course, the occasional cow, the endless broken symphony of car horns, and then the bright colors that seem to shout out to you.
When we got to Goa I was tired, hungry, and just really gross. At this point, we had been traveling for forty eight hours and I was stressed. The cab ride from the train station to the hotel was about an hour and it was all winding roads with what felt like a speed bump every five hundred feet. The houses were so colorful and pretty, the environment was tropical and I swear to god we saw a group of palm trees that looked exactly like the cover of Where the Wild Things Are. My mom kept trying to chat but I was not in the mood (sorry mom!). I just wanted to get to this hotel.
When we finally got there, my panic was temporarily delayed by the ridiculous lavishness of the hotel. I mean, it felt like we were in a movie-- it was huge and right on the beach. When we first went in, they gave us a cold towel. Then someone came out and handed us a rose, then a necklace. We were laughing so hard because it felt like a culture shock within culture shock.
I was really excited to get to the conference so I got down there as soon as I could and immediately felt like a fish out of water. There I was in jeans and a t-shirt, the youngest person in a room filled with professionally dressed educators and principals. I didn’t know anyone and I was worried no one would take me seriously. I didn’t even know how to check in!
I found Jeff, the staff member from my school who was also speaking at the conference, and he helped me sign in. I got this cool name tag that said “speaker” on it and I started to feel a little more comfortable, so I talked to some people about Sudbury but the conference was pretty much over for the day. Then Raghava, the curator of our session, showed up and soon after, so did all the other panelists. We all proceeded to a rehearsal.
The first speaker to rehearse was Deepak Ramola who is the founder of Project Fuel. He goes around learning life lessons from all sorts of people and then turns them into curriculum. He was super nice and and a great speaker. He sounded so natural and conversational and was actually interesting. He had obviously put a ton of effort into his talk and I was like, “Damn! I wanna sound like that.”
Then went Babar Ali, who was one of the only kids in his village to go to school. When he was nine, he would go after school and teach the other kids what he had learned that day. At the age of sixteen, he was named the youngest school headmaster in the world by the BBC. He now has over five hundred students between two schools, both of which are completely free. All of the teachers are former students. Recently, Babar was offered a full scholarship at a prestigious university in the United States and turned it down because he knew his students would suffer without him. He was really shy, but he talked to me a little and showed me the text book where one of the chapters was about him. It was like the sweetest humble brag I’d ever heard. Throughout the whole rehearsal he seemed really tired and looked like he was about to fall asleep and I was like, “Me too, Babar”.
Kalyan Akkipeddi, who is the founder of Protovillage, talked about his village which is the prototype for a sustainable village in rural india. He bought 5 acres of land and he, his family and 12 other families built (and are building) the village. They harvested 200,000 gallons of rainwater and started a seed bank for the other villages. His point was to show surrounding villages how to be interdependent within the village. During his talk I was just like, “Oh, my god!” Everything they did was so inspiring.
Then followed Saba Ghole, who after graduating from MIT, started a maker school in Cambridge, MA where instead of classes, they have studios where the kids have projects they work on like designing things for wheelchairs or bio clothing. She was really nice and even laughed at a silly joke I made, so I liked her even more.
On the morning of my talk, I arrived at the venue early enough. There was someone speaking before our session. His slides were full of boring statistics, graphs, and more graphs. He talked about how much more money there was to make in the International School business in India. I was just thinking the whole time, “Wow! This is the exact opposite of our panel.” His talk was followed by some great talks by my fellow panelists. After Jeff’s talk someone asked a question about Sudbury. Something about how they had had trouble with how little structure they had in college and how much worse off they would’ve been in a school like Sudbury. That question completely freaked me out and I figured that they already hated us, so I went to the bathroom and frantically practiced one more time. I was determined to change their minds!
Finally, I gave my talk, just as I had practiced it: clear, slow and articulate.
After my talk, to my surprise, everyone wanted to talk to me. One woman even told me I was inspirational. Someone else said I was a great speaker. One person even wanted me to speak at his conference! And there was this one very earnest woman who looked me in the eye and asked, “Amelia, how can I make my kids self driven?” (I bet she didn't even see the irony in that)! Someone else said they were questioning everything, not only as a teacher but as a parent. And then, the guy who had asked Jeff that question, came up to me and I was like “ok, here we go”, but to my surprise, he only wanted to know more. “What do younger kids care about in school meeting? What motions do they make? How do they vote on things like staff salary?”
It seemed as though everyone really understood Sudbury. I was honestly so proud of myself. Earlier, I said my goals were to show that there was more than one effective form of education, and that kids do have valuable input to add. I felt like I had done that and that felt really rewarding.
All of this attention went straight to my head and I was like, “I can’t talk about Sudbury any longer, I must go for a swim!” So I did.
There was a wine and cheese social that night and everyone there was trying to talk to us! This stern looking headmaster came over and was like, “I wanna be part of the cool people conversation” or something like that while I thought to myself, “Ah, so this is what being famous is like.” Again, straight to my head.
Afterwards when everything started to calm down, I started to realize how important it is for schools like ours to go out and be a part of the larger education world. We can’t just stay in our bubble. I saw the need for student perspective. I realized that nothing is going to change without it. I had just done one of the scariest, yet most rewarding, things in my life and it was over and that sucked but all I could think about was how lucky I was to have wormed my way into this group of people. I can’t wait to do it again!