Classless Society

By David Ruenzel — January 01, 1994 28 min read
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Among American schools, Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., is perhaps unique in that the conclusion of that old standard The Pledge of Allegiance can here be said to have literal import. “With liberty and justice for all,” intoned as a daily formality by millions of schoolchildren, permeates all aspects of Sudbury school life. For at Sudbury Valley, an old country mansion with a wraparound porch and comfortable book-lined rooms crisscrossed with hard New England light, there are no bells, no homerooms, no assigned seats, no study halls. There are no grades, no required homework assignments, no class rankings. There isn’t even a curriculum. Instead of teachers, there are “staff members,” who work (and play) on a more or less equal footing with the students. And while there are occasional classes, they form only if there is student demand—and disband with the fading of student interest.

Essentially, what the 130 students—ages 4 to 19, distributed fairly evenly across the spectrum—do at Sudbury Valley is whatever they choose. For the younger children, this may mean creating towns with LEGO, playing capture the flag, or leaping from rock to rock in a “field” of mammoth stones that looks like a hastily assembled Stonehenge.

The older students, on the other hand, often prefer simply to hang out, kibitzing and ragging over a chess board or card game, dragging on Camels in the Smoking Room, or stretching out on the couch with a novel, such as Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. I found the atmosphere, contrasted with that of a conventional school, amusingly eccentric. I watched as a kid, wanting to find out the meaning of “zoot,” opened a dictionary and came upon “suicide” instead. “Suicide,” he read, or pretended to read: “killing yourself in any number of ways, such as leaping from a tall building.” Another boy, eyes bulging behind thick lenses, paced about the house with a Rubik’s Cube, twisting and jerking the rows into ever new patterns. Another kid, shoeless, toyed with a mousetrap, gently testing the spring. At the kitchen table, a girl studied a tattered Berlitz French book with a 1946 copyright; upstairs, another girl photocopied pages from a spelling book she had taken upon herself to master. She grabbed me as I drifted by. “Quiz me,” she said. Sometimes students lounged in a tentative silence punctuated with exchanges such as this:

Student one: “McCoy Tyner brought African rhythms out in American jazz.”

Student two: “That’s been done for fuckin’ centuries, man.”

Or like this:

Student one: “I want to be a famous artist.”

Student two: “I paint because I want to see what no one else can paint.”

Ask a student what he or she is studying, and you’re likely to be ignored. Ask what classes he or she is taking, and you’re likely to be gently mocked or told, as one girl told me, “that classes haven’t really gotten started yet”—this in late September. Another girl told me she planned to take sign language. This I thought was a put-on, but later, sure enough, I discovered that a sign language class was indeed forming. The students had asked for it.

Many of the students at Sudbury Valley, even the 10-year-olds, curse like sailors. A soft-spoken, demure-looking 17-year-old was telling me about the difficulties she had at her former school (“Everything went in one ear and out the other”) when I interrupted to ask if her old school permitted such profanity as was firing off about us. “Shit, no,” she said deadpan.

Still, there is no graffiti or vandalism at the school, not anywhere, even though the students roam from room to room and around the grounds at will.

I was surprised by the fact that the school had an official Smoking Room. After all, I told some students, smoking is prohibited in most public schools. The students were incredulous. “Do you know what the girls’ bathroom is like in the public schools?” a girl asked.

Things turned serious at a late morning school meeting called by Daniel Greenberg, a staff member and one of the school’s founders. Neighbors had complained about kids taking shortcuts across their lawns. Worse, someone had put a loudspeaker on top of a car in the parking lot and blasted it. “Every once in a while,” Greenberg told his reticent audience, “we get calls about that crazy school where the kids run around all day and don’t do anything. Now, that’s fine, but you have to understand that when you’re out there you represent the school. So in order for us to maintain our campus, we have to make sure that the general public and our neighbors are not offended by the way we deal with the open campus.”

A kid raised his hand. “I don’t think it will happen again,” he said. Everyone agreed, and the meeting ended.

That afternoon, the kitchen was closed for a couple of hours while five little girls, with the assistance of a staff member, baked pies. The school carried the sweet scent of apples.

Later in the afternoon, a girl injured herself in a bicycle accident. She was taken to the hospital, her leg broken in two places.

The next morning, just before lunch, there was a meeting of the judicial committee, or JC, consisting of a staff member and representatives from each age group. The first case, involving a teenager who had allegedly marked up another student’s new physics book—a violation of rule 300.03 (“Abuse of property at the school without permission of owner is prohibited”)—was dismissed because the plaintiff failed to appear. Two other teenagers were brought up for “wrestling big-time by the piano”; they pleaded guilty and were sentenced to two days out of the piano room. A little kid, brought up for leaving a mess in the art room, was served a warning. Then a boy, Evan, was brought up for his role in the bicycle accident. Anyone, staff member or student, may bring up anyone else. This case was unusual in that Evan had brought up himself. He had been fooling around right before the accident and somehow felt responsible. “Let’s tell him,” Greenberg said, “that sometimes accidents just happen.”

One afternoon, I walked in on a heated discussion involving staff members and a group of 17- and 18-year-old students. Staff member Hanna Greenberg, Daniel Greenberg’s wife, was upset because she had run across a couple being “excessively affectionate.”

“I should be able to walk into any room in this school and not worry about disturbing someone making love,” she said. “You can’t use the school that way. This is a community, not a private place.”

People talked for a while about what it meant to be a community; Hanna Greenberg said it had to do with meeting certain agreed-upon community standards.

“I think this is a witch hunt,” a boy then said. “People kiss...”

“I’m not talking about kissing,” Greenberg interrupted. “I’m talking about foreplay.”

“Put it in the school’s law book, then.”

“We can’t legislate all behavior,” Greenberg snapped. “I don’t want to be a cop.”

A discussion about community standards ensued. Just what level of physical demonstrativeness was acceptable and unacceptable? The discussion went on for a long time and was beginning to falter when someone asked, “Should we have a petting room in this school?” He brought down the house.

To outside observers, Sudbury Valley School, with its emphasis on freedom and acceptance of eccentricity, is likely to seem an anomaly, a radical experiment in progress. But the people at Sudbury Valley see matters in an altogether different light. Their school, they claim, is the most American of institutions, rooted in the cherished traditions of individual rights and political democracy.

In his first of several books on American education, Daniel Greenberg, who is clearly the school’s intellectual force, notes that “our educational system is the most un-American institution in this country today.” The student, he writes, has “no right of free speech, no right of dissent, no right of peaceful assembly, no right to confront his accuser, no right of privacy.” It is these ills that Sudbury Valley School was created to rectify.

Despite Greenberg’s insistence that his school is in the American mainstream and that virtually all children respond positively to genuine freedom, many observers would undoubtedly assert that Sudbury Valley is too different, too extreme, to serve as a model for other schools. But a case can be made. For one thing, the school is successful by conventional standards. Nearly 90 percent of all graduates attend postsecondary schools, mostly the colleges of their choice. This is remarkable considering that Sudbury accepts all applicants—including many who have been labeled “troublemakers” at their former schools—and that the school cannot supply traditional transcripts and records. Of the graduates who received all their schooling at Sudbury Valley, more than 50 percent have earned college degrees.

Even more important is the enthusiasm past graduates have for Sudbury Valley. Typical is Marc Flora, a 1970 graduate who told me he was an incorrigible troublemaker before his arrival at Sudbury in 1968. Currently starting a new career in Idaho as a contractor, Flora said he has never hesitated to try something new: “At Sudbury Valley, you learned quickly that if you really wanted to do something, then it was up to you to make it happen. The school gave me a feeling that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Fifty years from now, I’m convinced that Daniel Greenberg will be recognized as an educational genius.”

Furthermore, at a time when schools are decrying a lack of educational funding, Sudbury Valley survives solely on tuition, which is an implausibly low $3,600 a year. The tuition is held down to bring in as many students as possible; the school offers no financial aid. The fact that Sudbury families donate everything from furniture to books, and that there are but six full-time and five part-time staff members who also do administrative work, saves the school considerable expenditures. (Full-time staff salaries range from $21,000 to $38,000.)

While few of the staff members are state-certified—generally they’re hired for their expertise in a given area, such as art, foreign languages, or martial arts—several have either taught or had children in the public schools. What they share is a disdain for classrooms where teachers rather than students are in control. Joan Ruben, who taught in public schools for eight years before coming to Sudbury Valley, said she believes staff members should not “become the most influential people in kids’ lives.”

“You can be compassionate and empathetic without being parental,” she said, “without claiming forms of control.”

Indeed, a school such as Sudbury is likely to threaten many educators, as its faith in nonintervention—its belief that students often learn best when left alone—calls into question the whole idea of the traditional school and the role of teacher as indispensable purveyor of knowledge and truth.

Daniel Greenberg knows about traditional education, for he himself was once a purveyor of knowledge and truth. By most accounts, he had it made in the early 1960s, his life laid out before him as neatly as a road map. As a young professor of physics at Columbia University, Greenberg was erudite, personable, and unpretentious. Possessing a wry and often self-deprecating humor, he was well-liked by both students and colleagues.

Still, after several years of teaching at Columbia, he felt that something was seriously amiss. Because he loved physics, he assumed his students would, too, but this proved to be far from the case. His students—many of whom were premed, pre-dental, or aspiring engineers—remained largely indifferent to physics; for them, it was merely one more required course. He redoubled his efforts, thinking that he only needed to find the right approach, the right bag of pedagogical tricks. He began to conceive of his class as a show, a theatrical production, thinking that entertainment would expedite the conveyance of knowledge. But nothing worked; the students weren’t learning as he thought they should. While they enjoyed the show—sometimes they’d even clap at its conclusion—they couldn’t answer the questions he put to them.

“I’d go to my colleagues and ask them what was going on because the same thing was happening to everybody,” Greenberg said. “The standard response was, `Well, kids today are not what they used to be; the level of students has plummeted.’ But this didn’t make a lot of sense to me because, if you read the old books, you discover that Aristotle was saying the same thing—the students were crummy, out of touch. Eventually, it hit me that something really fundamental was out of kilter here. What I realized was that the things I loved I did well, and the things I didn’t love I didn’t do well. Now, that’s a very elementary observation, but I was an A student, always successful, so it took me awhile to realize that my path wasn’t valuable for people interested in something different. That’s when I resigned from the university. I just couldn’t go on with the charade of trying to get people to do something they really weren’t passionate about.”

Having left his academic position, Greenberg worked for several years in New York City as a science textbook author and editor. Then, in 1965, Hanna was accepted into a graduate biochemistry program at MIT, and the couple moved, with their two young children, to Framingham, a town of about 70,000, some 25 miles west of Boston. The Greenberg children were approaching school age, and both parents were determined that they would not attend a conventional school where children were, as they saw it, alternately flattered, coaxed, and coerced into learning.

If Greenberg had gleaned anything during his years at Columbia, it was that people learn only when driven from within to do so. While “carrot and stick” approaches—grades, gold stars, parental approval—may have short-term utility, Greenberg realized, such extrinsically driven learning could never be anything but shallow. Furthermore, even if a teacher could somehow induce learning, the very notion of inducement denotes an unhealthy dependency on the teacher. Isn’t the point of meaningful education, Greenberg asked himself, to foster independence?

“All men by nature desire to know,” Aristotle wrote in the preface to his Metaphysics—an observation Greenberg is fond of paraphrasing. Indeed, this assumption—namely that all free human beings are naturally motivated to learn—was uppermost in the Greenbergs’ minds as they, falling in with like-minded people, began to contemplate starting their own school. And when they did so after receiving a $40,000 loan in 1968, it was with the conviction that Sudbury Valley School would provide children with the genuine freedom they needed to flourish.

“Free” schools were fairly common in the late ‘60s; dozens were sprouting up across the country in the midst of the burgeoning counterculture movement. Also, A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, an account of the now famous English school where children were free to play as long as they cared to, was enormously popular, selling more than 2 million copies in the United States. While the book influenced the founders of Sudbury Valley, Greenberg says there were fundamental differences between the Summerhill and Sudbury Valley schools—and, in fact, between Sudbury Valley and all so-called “free” or “open” schools.

For one thing, Neill was an avowedly psychologically oriented schoolmaster who used the school as a therapeutic environment. During therapy sessions, which Neill called “private lessons,” he would inquire into the students’ personal lives. As a kind of crypto-therapist, Neill was frequently antagonistic toward parents, whom he saw, in keeping with psychoanalytic tradition, as interfering with children’s psychological growth and health.

The people at Sudbury Valley, on the other hand, in keeping with their emphasis on individual rights, see therapy as invasive. While staff members may be friends with students, even friends in whom students may confide deeply private matters, doing therapy—that is, consciously probing to uncover some sort of “secret”—is overstepping the bounds. Staff members also feel that intervention may create more problems than it solves, calling attention to difficulties that quickly escalate into crises requiring “professional” treatment.

(A staff member illustrated the Sudbury approach by telling me the story of an anorexic student who had not responded to treatment. This young woman began to spend time in the school kitchen with the staff member, who never mentioned the anorexia. After several weeks of baking and cooking together, the girl began to discuss her problem with the staff member and eventually started to eat without anxiety. The point was not to suggest that the staff member was a miracle worker but that compassionate acquiescence can be more effective than intrusive intervention.)

Sudbury Valley, unlike Summerhill, also aims to be a democracy in the fullest sense of the word. There is no pecking order, no administrative elite passing down edicts to teachers and then to students. Students and staff members constitute powerful governing bodies, voting on a wide range of critical issues. Because staff members’ votes have no more weight than those of 8- or 18-year-olds, and because students greatly outnumber staff members, students wield tremendous power. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the weekly school meeting, run along the same lines of a New England town meeting. Here, voting members—all students and staff members—determine how to run the school on a day-to-day basis, how to disperse funds, and, most amazingly, which staff members shall be hired or fired. No one at the school, including Greenberg, has tenure, which supposedly keeps staff members accountable. “I’m very aware,” Greenberg said, “of the fact that each year I have to perform for the school and do work that will satisfy the students. This is central with all of us.”

Radical as it may seem to give students the power to renew contracts, even more radical is the total absence of a curriculum and all but voluntary classes. After all, is not the class, imperfect vehicle as it may be, at the heart of any school? Without it, how are students to master the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic? How, without the class—without the presentation, dissection, and analysis of subject matter—will students ever learn?

Greenberg undoubtedly had heard these questions dozens of times over 25 years, but he still managed to sound fresh while answering them. “From the beginning,” he said, “we’ve been fanatical in insisting that there’s no way a child or human being can really drop out, that any activity they’re doing is by nature constructive. Every human being wants to be an effective person. Our feeling has always been that there’s a wide variety of legitimate things to do, especially in today’s world. The best thing that we can do, then, is to let each child go and find his niche. To assume that any portion of the universe of knowledge is essential, absolutely essential, is presumptuous.

“We have kids who learn how to read at 6 and some at 12 and 13. There is really no such thing as learning to read in the abstract; what children do is learn to read material from which they want to get information. So we have kids who learn to read because they’re into music and want to read rock magazines or into fixing Corvairs so they read car magazines. Staying out of the way is just so important. They’ll get what’s basic to them if we stay out of the way and answer their questions when they’re asked.”

I knew from reading Greenberg’s books that he and the Sudbury Valley staff don’t really believe that there are basics in the sense that there is a certain set of skills and knowledge that all people must acquire. How often, Greenberg asked rhetorically, do people read a “classic” novel or poem, use long division, or refer to Newton’s laws of motion? What’s basic to one person is superfluous to another. Besides, Greenberg said, when people truly need or want to learn something—when they determine that it’s “basic” to them—they are unstoppable in their quest to master it. Once, for example, a dozen 9- to 12-year-olds came to Greenberg insisting that he teach them arithmetic. He was skeptical. After all, it takes six years to teach it in the public schools. But the students, meeting with Greenberg twice a week and doing exercises from an 1898 math primer, mastered arithmetic after 20 contact hours.

It all comes back to Aristotle’s belief about people being naturally curious; this is the premise upon which Sudbury Valley was built. On one hand, the premise seems obviously true; on the other, it seems that one could substitute any number of words for “curious” and still come up with a reasonable sounding assertion. For example, aren’t people also naturally lazy? And, if people are naturally curious, then why do so many students in so many schools seem incurious, even apathetic? Here I circled back to Greenberg’s assertion that you can’t expect someone to be enthusiastic about something in which he or she has no interest. To paraphrase an old expression, you can lead a student to school, but you can’t make him or her learn.

Still, as I wandered around Sudbury, I was troubled by the absence of a curriculum, the insistence that one teach something only upon a student’s request. Was there not a strong likelihood that many students would never be exposed to things—Shakespeare, French, biology—that very well might have caught their interest? “What people really mean when they press us on exposure,” Greenberg told me, “is that they fear that kids aren’t being exposed to the `right’ things.”

But just what, if not the basics, are students learning at Sudbury Valley? In the absence of curriculum guides, transcripts, standardized courses, and any forms of assessment, the question is problematic. To those who think of learning as the systematic study of a specified curriculum, the answer may be “nothing” or “very little”; to those who collapse the distinction between learning and life, who accept the fact that important learning occurs through “unofficial” channels, at the margins of what is typically considered school experience, the answer may be “a lot.”

This is not to suggest that systematic study of subjects does not occur at Sudbury Valley. During my visit, Greenberg was teaching a history course, and other classes—biology, sign language, Spanish—were being organized. But classes were clearly at the periphery of Sudbury Valley life; no student I talked to mentioned classes as a particularly important aspect of his or her school experience, and some had only a vague sense of what classes were available. Because classes are typically student-initiated and generally come into existence only upon student request, they rightfully fade into oblivion with the demise of student interest. A staff member may advertise for a given class, but he or she is out of luck if no one cares to attend. At Sudbury Valley, after all, no student is ever expected to pursue that in which he or she has no interest. To suggest otherwise, to insist that students should “put their noses to the grindstone,” is to suggest that the work teachers want students to do must be of a value they themselves cannot perceive. And this, Greenberg would certainly say, is presumptuous. For teachers to claim that they know what is valuable because they are teachers, possessors of a transferable kind of knowledge, is to engage in a kind of circular reasoning because whatever knowledge teachers may possess is only valuable to the student if he or she has an interest in acquiring it.

The Sudbury class then, by definition, has a tentative, often ephemeral, existence. It is essentially an interest group, as are the school’s various “corporations.” A “corporation,” a pair of students explained to me, is Sudburyese for “extracurricular activity.” Corporations are put together by a group of people interested in pursuing a particular activity in some structured way, be it fishing, photography, drama, camping, or working with computers. To become a corporation, the group must be chartered at a school meeting for a defined purpose, after which the new corporation has official power to raise money and formulate policy. The Computer Corporation, for instance, may certify students who want to use the Macintosh. The Woodworking Corporation may develop safety procedures and raise money for new equipment.

The lifespan of a corporation, like that of a class, is solely dependent upon student interest and need. If a corporation falls into disuse, if it fails to have scheduled meetings, it is simply dissolved at a school meeting. Some corporations, such as the Cooking and Art corporations, have endured for years, while others, such as the Leatherworking Corporation, have proved to be short-lived fads.

The point is that students at most schools must have a good reason for missing class, but at Sudbury Valley students must have a good reason for attending one. Otherwise, they’re better off simply teaching themselves whatever it is they want to learn, whether it be within a corporation or not. For central to the Sudbury Valley philosophy is the belief that most worthwhile learning is autodidactic: Left alone, students will learn what they wish to learn, making use of resources such as teachers and texts as they see fit. Greenberg told me the story of a boy who announced that he wanted to learn physics. Greenberg gave the boy a college textbook, telling him to work through it page by page, exercise by exercise, and to contact him when he needed assistance. Five months later, the boy came to Greenberg, saying he had a problem on page 252.

The answer, then, to the question of what students learn at Sudbury Valley is whatever they want and nothing they don’t want. And they usually find what they want outside of classrooms.

One morning, I played chess with a 12-year-old who told me, between moves, that he was currently studying trigonometry and Darwin’s Origin of Species. “I came to Sudbury Valley because I wasn’t learning anything at my old school,” he said. A slightly older boy watched us play, his eyes darting from the chessboard to a sketch pad he was working on. It seemed that he was merely doodling, but by the end of the day he had transformed his “doodle” into a fastidiously rendered cartoon of a superhero with a cape. I told him I was impressed. He pulled out a ream of cartoons he’d drawn, telling me that this is how he spends most of his days and that he hopes to become a professional cartoonist. Down the long table sat another student, perhaps 18 years old, who worked at an abstraction consisting of various geometrical shapes. His hair pulled back into a ponytail and his ear lobes studded with earrings, he informed me that he had been “held back” in public school four times; before finally enrolling at Sudbury Valley, he’d been “stoned” for several years.

I heard many stories of kids “finding themselves” at Sudbury Valley. Recalcitrant, rebellious, or merely unhappy at their former schools, students at Sudbury are free to pursue interests with a single-mindedness that conventional schools cannot accommodate. Here a student may spend a couple of years fishing at the school pond, reading everything about baseball, or writing a novel. Some students spend days parked at a Macintosh or sequestered in the school’s darkroom. In one of his books, Greenberg writes about a student who was determined to become a mortician. At 15, he was immersing himself in the necessary chemistry, biology, and zoology; at 16, he was studying with a pathologist at a local hospital; at 17, he was performing autopsies. Five years later, he was a mortician who would eventually operate his own funeral parlor. This is the kind of singlemindedness Sudbury Valley encourages.

Still, there was something about the concept behind Sudbury Valley—the granting to students of virtually unlimited freedom—that made me uneasy. It certainly wasn’t anything about the students themselves, for even the older ones exuded a contagious exuberance. By and large, Sudbury Valley was a happy place, so happy that I wondered if the so-called “adolescent crisis” isn’t essentially the social scientist’s myth. “We send them to prison and then to the shrink,” one Sudbury staff member told me of students at conventional schools. And while this is certainly an exaggeration, it did make me wonder: Do we, with schools that are coldly institutional, help induce a crisis that we must then cure?

What I found vaguely unsettling about Sudbury Valley was the whole question of what students learn, or, more accurately, what they fail to learn. Greenberg assured me that if left alone students would learn what was basic to them, but this seemed too much an article of faith. For all the success stories, weren’t there also stories of students who coasted through Sudbury Valley, accomplishing little or nothing? And weren’t there students who would have developed latent interests and talents had they the right kind of exposure?

One morning, over a cup of coffee, Greenberg himself raised the issue. He had been thinking about it in the middle of the night and now wanted to add to what he had told me the day before. “The question I want to raise is about all the stuff kids are not exposed to,” he said. “This is what bothers me: How can you assume that the little bit of reality that is being picked out as significant is any more significant than the reality that’s being excluded? When people say to us, `Are you sure the kids will be exposed to everything?’ what they really mean is, `Are you sure they’ll be exposed to what I think is important—Shakespeare, Dickens, whatever.’ Sure, if Johnny wasn’t exposed to the piano when he was young, he’d never be a pianist. But Johnny wasn’t exposed to dozens of other things he might have become proficient in. Why do we give priority to such a limited piece of human experience?”

Greenberg used Shakespeare as an example, saying that most kids, if left to their own devices, would never read Shakespeare. I told him that this was precisely my point: We should expose kids to Shakespeare, even compel them to read it, otherwise they’ll know nothing of it.

I had told Greenberg the previous day that I never really read books until I turned 16, and now he harked back to that earlier conversation. “My point,” he said, “is that you went to school, you were exposed to books that people thought useful. Now, had you been in this school, the odds are enormous that you would have read books at a much earlier age. Number one, you wouldn’t have had the negative association with reading you must have had. Number two, you would have heard people talking about this great book, that great book. There are a lot of kids here who have their noses in books all the time.

“Your view is that if children aren’t pushed, they’ll be lazy, take the easiest way out. But that doesn’t make sense. Biologically, the drive of the child is to become an effective adult. Leave them alone, and they’ll always go for high quality. So there’ll be plenty of people reading Shakespeare, but not everyone.”

During the last hours of my visit to Sudbury Valley, I gave myself over to the place. I played chess, chatted with students and staff members, and paged through magazines. The fact that I was lounging about with people of all different ages didn’t seem the least bit unusual. In fact, what seemed radical was the notion of desks arranged into tidy rows.

But I still had my reservations. Were students getting anything done? I couldn’t rid myself of the sense that, because it was a working day, people should be using their time in ostensibly productive ways. I asked Brian, a 15-year-old student I was sitting with, if a lot of students just idled their time away. “Sure, there are people who screw off,” he said. “However, everyone”—his hand swept across the room where a dozen people sat and reclined in various postures—“is kind of immersed in this group. There’s a lot of information being exchanged, just like in the salons of France. You can’t help but absorb a certain amount of information.”

“Kids come here from other schools and re-evaluate themselves. They ask themselves what they want to do, not what the system wants them to do. They may initially screw off, but during that screwing off they’re thinking. When I first came here, I hung out, talked to people, climbed the birch tree. But most of all I thought—and am still thinking about what I want to do.”

I had heard that Jeannine Boufard, the school secretary, was a Sudbury alumna, and before I left I stopped by the office to talk with her. She said that when she first arrived at the school, she didn’t know what to do; she asked the other kids who told her that she should do what she wanted to do. She felt lost.

Then she hooked up with another student who was also enduring her first day. They took a walk right out of the gate. They looked at horses in a field. Over and over, they looked at each other and said, “We’re in school! We’re in school!” She knew right then that she’d be back. It wasn’t a prison, so she wanted to come back.

“Soon after, I started reading for the first time in my life,” Boufard said. “I picked up a book and lost myself in it. Before I knew it, the girl who owned it was asking for it back. It was Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice. I think I liked reading it because I didn’t feel that I had to finish it.”

My visit over, I was standing at my car when the boy I’d seen with the Rubik’s Cube three days earlier approached. He still had the cube in his hand. He stopped to say hello and then continued to walk with amazingly long strides up a short hill to where the little kids were jumping around on the huge stones. He disappeared from sight. The school is set a distance from the parking lot, and, when I looked back at it, I could see a flock of little kids drifting across the shimmering lawn, yelling all the while. I thought of my own early school years, how I had been largely confined to desks bolted to wooden floors, and it was hard, as I got into my car, not to be just a little bit sad.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher Magazine as Classless Society


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