My experience at HVSS has enabled me to develop the problem-solving skills, the adaptability, and the abilities needed to function independently in the world that I am about to enter because I am prepared to reflect, to change, to take risks and to confront the questions; “What do I want to?” and “Why do I want to do it?”
At Sudbury we talk a lot about Hitting the Wall. Hitting the Wall is a time of transition. It’s when you have no idea what’s next - it’s a gap year, it’s when you’re looking for a new job, it’s when you’re right out of college, it’s when you are questioning anything and everything. You find yourself wondering, what am I doing? Why am I even going to this school? What is the point? You worry that you’ll never have a good idea again, that you won’t be successful, that your life has no purpose, that you are untalented and all of your accomplishments have been pure luck. Hitting the Wall is being forced to ask yourself, “what do I want to do?” and “why do I want to do it?” When you do confront those questions head on, it’s liberating, you feel limitlessness, and opportunities seem to appear out of thin air; it’s a chance to reinvent yourself.
This experience does not need to be induced by anyone else but rather it is provoked by a combination of curiosity and boredom. For example, when I first came to Sudbury, I loved it. I could play outside all day and do what I wanted to, at least until I was told by an older student that if I wanted to get certified for the microwave, I had to be able to read. Boom. Suddenly, the thought of reading consumed me. Eleven years later, I still remember having the exact same fears I am having today. I worried that my counterparts in public school were ahead of me and I wondered why I was even going to this “School.” I worried constantly that I would never learn how to read. But one day, something clicked. I was sick of feeling inhibited, I realized that I was the only person who could change the position that I was in, and I became determined to do so. I read books that had already been read to me so I wouldn’t have to focus on the story so much. I asked for help, and I spent all my time reading as much as I could; I was going to learn how to read. I tell this story all the time when I’m talking about Sudbury because it illustrates the point of the school. Facing a natural obstacle, realizing you alone have the power to overcome it, setting a goal, and working to achieve it.
But there is also a lot of failure that happens at every step of this process, and while it’s painful, it’s also one of the biggest gifts Sudbury gives you: the opportunity to fail. First, it’s abandoning the idea before even trying; giving up on countless projects has taught me two things - one, it’s okay to explore things without commitment, and two, if you want something done you have to make it happen yourself. If you need help that’s fine, but you still have to ask.
Next is failing at answering the question, “why do I want to do this.” I cannot tell you how many times I would go into School Meeting asking for money, or a room reservation, or some other privilege, and somebody would ask me, “why do you want to this?” and I couldn’t answer. I would say, “because I want to” or sometimes nothing at all, and my motion would fail. It was so frustrating because you think, why can’t they just let this pass? It’s not hurting anybody. It feels personal, like they want you to fail. While it is awful and humiliating to be put on the spot and not have an answer, it teaches you how to think logically and on your feet in an intimate and personal way that shows the relationship to the real world. It gives you the tough-love lesson that everyone learns eventually - if you don’t know why you are doing something, nobody will take you seriously.
Then there’s failing at the actual thing you are trying to do. For example, when I was eleven years old I decided I wanted to be School Meeting Chair and somehow managed to get elected.
The most difficult thing about being School Meeting Chair was deciding what to do when someone called a point of order. (For those that do not know what a point of order is, it is similar to when a lawyer says objection and the judge has to decide if the other lawyer will be allowed to continue.) I either didn’t know the answer and got embarrassed, or I knew the answer but was petrified at the thought of upsetting someone or making a mistake. I was a young School Meeting Chair and had absolutely no idea how to assert my authority. Because of this, I made a lot of bad calls. For instance, one time a younger student came in and kept asking somewhat relevant and definitely annoying questions at the beginning of motions. A staff member asked me to stop answering him because it was taking too much time and he could just ask after the meeting was over. At the time, I felt that the kid understanding what was happening was more important than moving quickly, but I stopped because I was so afraid of being criticized by the staff member or even of making a mistake. I then left feeling frustrated and upset with myself more than anyone else, because I had no control over the meeting I was supposed to be running. The problem was I cared more about people thinking I was doing a good job than actually doing a good job. I did not study the policies and procedures enough, nor did I have the confidence that was required to fill that position. But all in all that was okay. I persevered and made it through the year.
Even though I wasn’t the best School Meeting Chair ever, I grew, I learned about what makes a good argument, how to be an effective member, the difference between being convincing and being manipulative, and about all the ins and outs of our democratic process. I also learned that failure and mistakes are OK, and that you cannot expect someone to have faith in the decisions you make if you don’t even have faith in them yourself.
Failure is hard, painful, and frustrating. It’s also a part of life, and by refusing to demonize failure Sudbury allows you to learn from it. I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to fail and that I got learn not to be irrationally afraid of it.
When I was fourteen, the year I would have been entering high school, I really slammed into that Wall. All of a sudden, not unlike when I was five years old, I started worrying that I wasn’t learning and that I would never be able to “catch-up” to my counterparts in public school. I got frustrated with the school and the staff. Why didn’t they care that I wasn’t doing anything? Why did I have to jump through so many hoops just to make one class happen? Why did other students constantly drop out of planned activities? Was I missing out on the classic high school experience? I was angry, I was frustrated, and honestly, I was bored. Some of my frustrations were legitimate: certain mechanisms at school were not functioning smoothly. But I was also avoiding taking responsibility for my own self-doubt and uncertainness.
One day I was talking to a staff member who was leaving the school; she was trying to convince me to stay and I asked her how she could tell me to stay when she was leaving. She said that because this was her job and it came with limitations, but as a student I had the opportunity to do what I wanted and was not limited by the physical location of the school, an opportunity that was unique to Sudbury. Even though I knew that theoretically, I needed the reminder. I started thinking about my fears and frustrations, and ways to address them. One, I was scared I didn’t know enough math. I went straight to the intern who I knew had a degree in mathematics and asked him if we could set up a class with the goal being to get to same level as 9th graders. Two, I wanted to experience something different. I had been at Sudbury my whole life and while I loved it I was curious about what else was out there. Thinking about the advice of the other staff member, I asked an old intern, one that was currently working at a Sudbury school in Berlin, if I could be an exchange student. At this point I had momentum. I followed through with the intern, I went to class, and I studied. I fundraised to go to Germany, took a German class outside of school, worked with the former intern to work out all of the details. It all worked. I passed the algebra regents and I lived in Germany for six weeks. In hindsight I realize that I would get so caught up in the, “but how will we raise the money, who will teach us, it’ll never pass in school meeting anyway,” I would forget to even try.
Around that time a parent at the school led a storytelling workshop that I signed up for. I wrote about my experience at Sudbury, specifically being School Meeting Chair. I started thinking about everything I’d done at Sudbury, what I learned and how I learned it. I worked hard to make sure I represented the school truthfully and eloquently.
After we gave our talks to the school community, I was invited to speak at the education conference TAISI in India. After TAISI I became interested talking about Sudbury and sharing my experience. I spoke at ISME (a college in Mumbai), I co-wrote and produced a promotional video for the school which was viewed half a million times, I was on the Tom Woods Podcast, and I organized a field trip to visit four Sudbury Schools on the east coast to meet other students and share experiences. I wrote about speaking in India hoping to inspire other people to share their Sudbury stories. I went from being so frustrated at the Staff and the school that I almost left, to studying math and science, (which have always been these mystifying, looming, clouds of dread), building connections with a Sudbury Schools in and outside of the U.S, representing my school to our larger community, in India at TAISI, and the rest of the world through the “What if Video.” I was able to pull myself out of that hole of self pity and frustration because I asked myself, what do I want to do and why do I want to do it?
Fast forward to last May, I left Sudbury and New York for an internship in Bangalore, India for six months. I was equally excited and terrified, I was excited to live in new country, to have real job, to learn and to meet people. I was proud, I thought about what that would look like a college transcript or on my resume, I thought about what people would say, “She went to India to work at sixteen years old!”, I thought about how it would reflect on the school, like it would be proof that it worked. I was also terrified, what if I can’t handle it? What if I hate it and want to come home? How embarrassing would that be. What if I was bad at the job? I didn’t even really know what the job was. But I went, of course I did.
We worked on a project by project basis which meant I really got to peer into many different worlds. I got to work on projects like curating an art show where all the works were created by AI in collaboration with human artists; I helped to build a fundraising deck for Kalaari Capital, a top-tier venture capital firm. I had real responsibility, it was scary and intoxicating at the same time. And, for better or for worse, I got the experience of being treated like an adult. I lived alone for a few weeks, I was able to go out, I went to dinners and parties with people twice my age. Mistakes were not excused by my age and I learned the hard way that what you do, and the corners you cut, effects the entire project and the people you are working with. While it was hard, being away from my family and friends, working at an intense and overwhelming new job that required a huge learning curve. I loved it, I met so many amazing people, and learned so much about work and art and fundraising and telling stories. I got to live and work in India at sixteen years old - and that was amazing.
When I got back to America, other than graduating from Sudbury I had no idea what I wanted to do. And that was scary. I had just come back from this amazing experience working with really ambitious and driven people and I had no idea what I was doing. I felt extremely lost, how was I ever going to live up to the standards I had created for myself? I had been so excited about how this experience was going to propel me into widely successful adulthood and now I didn’t even know where to apply or what I wanted to do. On top of that I was no longer an adult, I couldn’t drive, I didn’t have a job, and I had parents again. I was lost, I was scared of not meeting anyone else's or my own expectations and, once again, I was bored. I was Hitting the Wall. But there was something different this time, I was more confident and I was okay with not knowing what was next, I gave myself time to figure it out. That ah-ha moment came, like it always does. I hit my breaking point and asked how am I going to get myself out of this? What do I want to do? And why do I want to do it? So I went back to work at a pizza place, got an internship at a local photography center and got my GED.
I am still young and my exposure is limited, but that being said, what I have found so far is that learning to jump at opportunities without being afraid of failure or mistakes has and continues to lead me to life changing experiences and opportunities. Realizing the value of self-reflection, perseverance, and hard work has made me a better employee, co-worker, and person. Learning how to, and the necessity of, being able articulate myself and my ideas (what do I want to do and why do I want to do?) has helped me in everything I have done so far, from working in India to giving talks across the world to collaborating with others. Being able to push myself to my next goal, whatever that may be, that is the ability I need to function independently in the world I am about to enter. And I have it.