I am a new staff member here at Hudson Valley Sudbury School. I moved from Massachusetts with my wife Ana and our baby Susannah to be a part of this place, and this post is meant to offer some insight into why we would do that.
Last Friday evening my friend Douglas called me up to ask how it was going. We’ve both taught in public schools, and one way we liked to describe the atmosphere in those schools was “tense boredom.” In was tense because we were charged with ensuring that at all times our students were behaving according to enthusiastically precise guidelines; it was our job to contain and restrain the tremendous youthful energy before us, to make sure that it was pipelined into “productive work,” and that there were no leaks in the piping. It was boring because a room full of otherwise creative and fun kids stripped of their rights to move, interact, create, and do much of anything is...boring, and sad too. I took a minute to think before declaring to Douglas that at HVSS the atmosphere is the opposite: it is “relaxed engagement.” I am relaxed, I explained, because at HVSS I am permitted to respect children and teenagers; I don’t have to exercise arbitrary authoritative power over them, and no one is exercising it over me, either. I am engaged because when people are not under the yoke of arbitrary authoritative power they do a lot interesting things. I am engaged because I am eager to learn - I have a new job, and I want to do it well. I am engaged because in a small democratic community each person has the responsibility of making sure the school is operating in a just, respectful way. The system here is alive and dynamic - all policies and laws can be changed by School Meeting, and that’s engaging.
Last week a student made a motion to put a new law into the books which stated that a School Meeting Member shall not be compelled to testify in the Judicial Council, a committee of students and staff who investigate complaints about law violations. He was upset that he had been “forced to tattletale” on a friend because, at JC, as in our country’s Judicial System, a witness must testify; if you have evidence, you have to provide it (with some exceptions, of course). He submitted his motion to be put on the School Meeting Agenda and started whipping up support. He debated in the hallways. He convinced and cajoled and wrangled: “so, have you heard about the “Right to Remain Silent Law?” Then, at School Meeting he stood and spoke ardently and articulately, urging us to support his motion. His case, essentially, was that witnesses should be allowed to decide for themselves the right course of action to take in testifying or not, that allowing them the choice was a manifestation of respect, that if this school is truly based on responsibility and trust then individual liberties - even liberties which may extend beyond what our wider society allows - should be steadfastly defended. The counter-argument was made by students and staff, my self among the detractors: being forced to decide whether or not to testify puts witnesses in the difficult position of weighing the pros and cons of saying what they know vs. remaining silent to protect friends, which is unfair both to them and to any victims of rule violations. There was a crowd on hand to witness and participate in the debate, and when it came to a vote it failed by a wide margin. The student who sponsored the motion called the decision a “travesty” and a “violation of human rights” and left the meeting.
I thought School Meeting made the right decision, but I’m not as sure now as I was when I voted. Later that evening, washing dishes, I wondered if he was right after all - if, in a community built on trust and respect and which is bold enough to actually explore and live the implications of those values, it is indeed wrong to compel witnesses to testify. For now, I still think we got it right, but I also think there’s more thinking to do.
In the traditional schools that my friend Douglas and I taught in, “respect” meant being obsequious and “responsibility” meant doing what you’re told. At HVSS, “respect” and “responsibility” are living, dynamic aspects of human relationships, and our work at school is an ongoing investigation into them. There are no authorities on the subject, just an open community of learners refining their thinking day by day. We have the luxury of having sloughed off the burden of high-stakes testing and a model based on authority and instruction, and goodness let me tell you that’s relaxing. We are free to work on more important things, to explore together what it means to respect and trust each other, and that kind of human-based work is - by definition - engaging. It’s good to be here.