Walking down the street, I'm so excited, I can hardly stand it. There is a chicken coop in the yard of the multi-story brick building, with a sign outside that says, "Slow! Free-range chickens and children!" I'm going to my first day at a Sudbury school as I apply for an internship at Arts & Ideas. I've read so many books, but it feels unreal to be walking into a school where kids are free to choose what to do with their time.
I walk up to the door and hear a piping voice.
"Could you hold the door open for me?" asks a tiny, completely self assured person. "My sister usually waits for me but she's in a hurry today."
And so I meet my first real live Sudbury student, and hear the only request for help I get from my entire visiting week of staff interning.
Arts & Ideas has been around for 9 years, and they just moved into this 3 story, 12,000 square foot building last year. I'm given a tour by a staff member: from the echoey room with lockers in the basement (they appear to be used mostly for exchanging private notes) to the airy light-filled gym on the top floor, I see kids hanging out and just being themselves. In a room called the "Infoterium," there are notes on the wall, a hundred thousand Pokemon (real and imagined) on whiteboards. You could call the space with computers in it a classroom, but only kids sitting on desks have their feet dangling off and are conversing, joking, and goofing off intently. There is a video studio with stop-motion capabilities, an art room in a dormer (with papers and markers strewn everywhere) and couches in the meeting room where Judicial Committee and School Meeting takes place.
I'm told I need to be here 5 hours a day for my visiting week, and that's it. I'm on my own to explore the school and figure out what to do with my time.
Kids throw me curious looks. I look back. As a field trip leader and camp counselor, I'm used to being seen as something of a celebrity with children, and this anonymity, the complete lack of them *needing* anything from me is at once refreshing and a little disorienting. What is my position in this place? I'm not here to entertain or inform, so what do I do?
As I walk around, I see kids in clumps- a clump of tween girls talking manga and playing ukeleles. A clump of little kids playing with Legos. Some teenish boys making jokes and playing computer games. Everywhere there is noise and motion, and there is also the thoughtless mess of a rowdy, fun, house party. Chips get crunched on the floor in the dining room, jackets fall off their hooks- what else would you expect with 67 students running wild?
To counter the inevitable increase in entropy, there is daily chore time. Every day at 2:30 pm, 6 to 8 kids assemble in a room or zone of the school to tidy up. Brooms sweep the floor, trash goes in the trash, lost and found items go in the "messy box," which is emptied weekly to a long term 'messy box' in the basement and eventually donated to charity if items are not collected. I attend a meeting for the monthly assignment of "chore checkers." Chore Checkers have the added responsibility of making sure everyone is there on time and completes a task.
To my surprise, multiple kids in each group want to be Chore Checkers. They explain their qualifications, and there is a vote. In case of a tie, there is Paper Rock Scissors. The groups go to tiebreaker *multiple* times! I'm shocked that kids actually *want* more responsibility in the school. They are eager to have a role and help make the school work.
Later on, in the office, one of the staff asks me how it's going. "I'm a little overwhelmed," I admit. A teenager says to me, "I remember my first day, when I didn't know anybody. It was hard."
I'm touched by his empathy. And I realize- that's exactly why I'm here. I'm here to learn what it's like to be a newcomer, to walk in the shoes of future students who will be coming to *my* school at Pathfinder, trying to figure out how this community works, and trying to find a place in the community.
By the end of the day, I'm exhausted by all the stimulation; the sights, the sounds, the ideas. The feeling of not knowing where to go or what to do- because nobody is directing my time. I go home feeling full, and my mind is spinning.
Order Within Chaos
Tuesday mid-morning, I finally found order within the chaos at the 11:30 JC meeting. The Judicial Committee is the beating heart of the school. If anyone breaks one of the democratically agreed upon rules, and gets written up by staff or student, they go to the mixed age Judicial Committee to sort things out.
Waiting for the first defendant to show up, I am reading through the Lawbook on my laptop. I'm slightly anxious- I want to know what the rules are so I don't break any! As I'm running my eyes over the rules, I pull a snack bar from my pocket and start munching absent-mindedly.
I sense I'm getting looks from the teens on the couch.
"Isn't eating on couches against the rules?" one whispers to another.
"Yeah, but there's an exception for JC."
I stuff the bar back into my pocket, hunger be damned, and immediately look up the rules on my laptop and find out that yes, you're not supposed to eat on the couch. And yes, there is an exception for eating in the meeting room during JC. But are you supposed to eat only at the table during JC? Is the exception for people participating in JC, or observers too?
I'm running into the law. Better not to risk it.
This incident illustrates an important point to me- that students know the Lawbook very well, and secondly- they don't want to break the rules, and they're very sensitive to when rules are being broken.
Once JC starts, I'm amazed by the delicacy with which cases are handled. Generally, the perpetrator admits guilt with the broken rule- things like leaving out lunch, or forgetting to show up at Chore Time. The JC sentences people to clean the room in which a mess was made. When a case comes up in which a student asked someone to "stop," and the person didn't stop what they were doing, this is taken very seriously.
"Did they say stop? " " I make a motion for stop rule. " "Motion seconded."
Did I mention these meetings are chaired by a student, and follow Robert's Rules of Order?
Emerging from JC, I head to the dining room to eat lunch. (Eating is allowed only in the dining room, or outside, or in JC room or office while engaged in doing school business. Hah!)
Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone taking silly pictures of their friend with a cell phone camera.
"Stop," says the friend quietly.
The picture taking immediately stops.
Another group of friends runs by. "Stop chasing me, I don't want to play."
The chasing immediately stops.
There is order in the chaos! There are no adults patrolling the halls, making sure everyone follows the rules. The entire school is invested in following the rules! And some rules are more rigorously enforced than others, according to how much someone is bothered. For instance, I might not mind if you leave your lunch out (kids have a huge tolerance for mess!) but if I see you not stopping when someone says stop, I will write you up. If you are bothering me and won't leave me alone, I will write you up. And the Judicial Committee has every student and staff member's back.
Later on, I hear a story about a staff member at another Sudbury school who wrote kids up for mess, and convinced a lot of kids to start writing up mess infractions. The school got a lot cleaner, and after a while, they got rid of "chore time." But then they missed out on the community experience of all doing the same thing at the same time every day.
"There's pluses and minuses, either way you manage it."
Hot Lunch Fridays
I sit in on a meeting of the Kitchen Corp. Kitchen Corp members cook a hot lunch every Friday. The kids set the menu, buy the ingredients, set the prices and sell the food, keep the books, and check to see if they made a profit. The profits have been used to buy extra kitchen equipment. At this meeting, someone suggests using funds to buy Kitchen Corp T-shirts they can wear like uniforms on Fridays. The motion is approved!
No wonder one of the A&I graduates is a pastry chef, I think. These kids are not just "playing restaurant," which in itself is great fun- they are actually running a restaurant out of a commercial kitchen!
I hang out in the kitchen on Friday, and all is going well. The pancakes are sizzling on the hot griddle. Handmade cinnamon buns are waiting for icing. Apples are being juiced with lemon, "It keeps them from going brown," a 12 year old informs me. The scrambled eggs team is having a little trouble with their side of the burner, and someone is working on a fix. It's exactly like I imagine a big Italian family getting ready for guest- a happy busy vibe.
What a contrast from a "normal school" cafeteria!
Finding My Place
A couple days into the week, I get into a groove. I've found my own internal structure, and I am luxuriating in the freedom. Walk around the school, play a few chords on the piano in the attic. Find all the bathrooms. Show up at Chore Time to help out in the dining room. Get out my laptop and bang out some Pathfinder emails in the office- I'm beginning to feel like doing some *work*. But is it really possible for me to get any *work* done in this raucous environment?
"Hey Hope," says a staff member. "Can I have a bandaid?"
"Hey Hope," chimes in another. "Did you see this Youtube video?"
"Hey Hope, can you work with constant interruptions?"
I laugh as I see what their day to day is like, getting administrative work done with hordes of kids flowing through and interrupting. At the same time, they're comfortable teasing me! I'm one of the team!
On Thursday, I'm told that I have to give a speech to the whole school during a special All School Meeting on Friday before Hot Lunch. The following week, the school will vote on whether or not to have me back as an intern.
I'm nervous- what do I say? How do I prepare? I start making notes about what I plan to do at A&I, what skills I have to offer.
Then I remember- wait! This is a job interview, but these are kids! I know kids! Kids care way more about what you do and who you are than what you say.
So I put on my hand-knitted scarf, get out my DIY style clothes, and give a 10 minute presentation, complete with a custom version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" changed to "Arts & Ideas Sudbury, I'd Like to Stay Awhile!" I whipped the lyrics together last minute- because songwriting? That's a thing I do.
I propose for my internship project to write a comic about Sudbury schools aimed at kids while I'm interning. The kids from A&I will provide critique as well as interviews- I want to use their words to explain the school to other kids.
The kids love it. I get applause and a rigorous round of questions, some nonsensical such as , "What is your favorite color of the alphabet?" and then more important questions, such as- my favorite movie, book, TV show. What house am I in Hogwarts? (Gryffindor.) Light side or dark side? (Chaotic neutral, but I guess I lean to the light side.) After my fandoms have been thoroughly vetted, the ice is broken.
Over delicious pancakes, kids show me new hand puppets (Shadow dog! Frog face!) and crazy human tricks. I learn all the Houses they belong to, and get quizzed on my opinion of the latest Star Wars movie.
I'm beginning to think I couldn't hide anonymously anymore, but I don't want to. I feel like I've found my place in this community.
It's a big rowdy family, and I'm in.