The Education of a Sudbury Staff Member

Associated School: 

Recently, our fledgling Gardening Coop put on a milkshake sale to raise money for seeds.  Being the only staff member involved with the coop, I was the default pointman, because we needed someone who could drive to go out and buy the ice cream, use the school debit card, oversee the use of our new blender which the kitchen coop decided not to make available for general use due to unusually frightening bladeage, etc.  So, a milkshake sale:  no planning required, I thought, I am a competent adult, I could run a milkshake sale without taking my eyes off Facebook for a moment, and besides, I’m not even running it, I’m just in charge of a few details.  But the sale quickly turned into an exploration of my own idiocy as well as - more importantly - an illustration of one way HVSS educates.

My first mistake, albeit a minor one, was disconcerting.  At Stewarts, I quickly and efficiently located a freezer which contained ice cream.  Scanning through the selection, I didn’t see either of the flavors we had advertised on offer.  An icy finger drew across my gut: was the ship already - and so easily - sunk?  I phoned the school and asked to speak with the president of the Coop, who is 11 going on 19.  “Matthew,” he told me, “it’s ok - there’s another, much larger freezer in the store.  It has the chocolate and the mint cookie; I wouldn’t have offered those flavors if they weren’t available.”  Clever, I thought to myself, while I thanked him and promised success.  Then, standing in front of the correct freezer, I realized I had made another error by failing to calculate just how much ice cream and milk we needed.  I knew we had 32 people signed up to buy milkshakes, so I did some quick and shoddy calculations and decided to buy 3 gallons of ice cream and 1.5 gallons of milk.  I returned to the school, rounded up the milkshake crew, and we discussed our plan for production and distribution.  I had asked the School Store Clerk to use cups from there, and she had generously agreed but added that next time I ought to get my own cups.  The cups were small - maybe 6 oz, and they were paper - pretty wimpy - but I figured that was the appropriate size because we were only charging $2 for a milkshake, and I wanted to make a handsome profit.  The three students in the fundraising crew were dumbfounded: “Matthew, do you think we’re making milkshakes for little babies?” “Matthew, that’s a $1 milkshake, or maybe a 50 cent milkshake; I would drink that in one little sip.”  “Matthew, that’s not going to work, people won’t pay, are you serious?”  They were right, of course; I looked at the cup in my hand and, after their onslaught, it looked like a thimble.  “Haha,” I laughed nervously, “I guess I’ll run back to the store.”  “Yeah, go back, Matthew.  Hurry up.”

When I returned with respectable cups, we had about half an hour before School Meeting.  No sweat, I thought, plenty of time - milk shakes, right?  We hit our next problem immediately: I had bought “Death by Chocolate” instead of “Chocolate,” because I figured that anyone who wanted “Chocolate” would rather have “Death by Chocolate.”  The moment a student looked at the carton she said, “Matthew this has nuts in it. Everyone who gets one of these will need to abide by the nut policy.”  “Jeez,” I said, “man, that didn’t occur to me.  We’ll just have to tell everyone they need to abide by the policy, I guess.”  But that wasn’t the only issue with Death by Chocolate.  The first person to whom we offered a Death by Chocolate milkshake took a little taste, handed it back, and said, “I don’t want that.”  “Why not?”  “I want a chocolate milkshake,” she said.  Uh-oh.  Most customers who had signed up for Chocolate did accept the Death by Chocolate milkshakes, but a few turned them down, and in the process we learned - based on my mistake -  a lesson on the importance of delivering what you advertise and doing what you say you will.  People who are expecting a certain milkshake will daydream about that milkshake and look forward to it eagerly.  To disappoint them is no pleasant procedure.

We had more lessons coming too, thanks to me.  The three students I was working with had developed an efficient system for production and delivery, with one student and myself blending, one student running the milkshakes, and one student keeping records of who had been delivered a milkshake, who owed money, etc.  Yet, we were closing in on School Meeting, and - particularly because our operation involved both the chair and the secretary of the meeting - we needed to finish fast.  We were also running out of ice cream, due to the shoddy calculations and the last-minute cup change.  We had to act quickly and decisively.  We had a pow wow and decided to serve the final 8 or so customers half milkshakes and charge $1, with our apologies.  That would solve all our logistical problems; we’d have to cut our losses with disappointed customers.  We wrapped up and headed down to School Meeting, talking about how we’d have a meeting before our next fundraiser to organize and plan, and to make sure that “Matthew knows what he’s doing.”  

Sitting in School Meeting, I reflected on what had just happened.  I was embarrassed for my errors, but I was impressed with the way the rest of the crew had come together to bail me out, thinking on their feet.  And now we know the importance of setting aside time to plan and think through even simple events, and to ensure there will be enough time to successfully carry out the plan in the event we hit unexpected obstacles.  And, I was grateful for the easy forgiveness of the rest of the crew.  As a teacher in a traditional school, I guarded carefully against mistakes.  Within the traditional paradigm, the adults, invested with arbitrary authority, are tacitly declared to be infallible, or nearly so.  When I would make a mistake in the classroom, inevitably someone would take the opportunity to attack that chink in the armor of the system - brutal, but just, considering how dehumanizing it is to be a student within that paradigm.  But here at HVSS - where we work within a paradigm fearlessly based on trust, respect, and freedom - after making a series of mistakes, when I apologized to the three students I was working with, they told me, in so many words, “it’s ok, Matthew, don’t worry, we did fine, and anyway, this is how you learn."

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