In this essay Sudbury Valley School graduate Jeff Hyman discusses his experience at SVS, how it prepared him for life and tells parents not to worry.
My View of Sudbury Valley
by Jeff Hyman
I enjoyed listening to the discussion at the Assembly evening last November in which a student panel provided information about School Corporations, the Judicial Committee, and how the School Meeting operates, among other subjects. What I enjoy the most about these types of forums, are the specific questions that parents ask and the confident answers that students provide.
When attending such gatherings, often Hanna or Joanie introduces me to parents of current students. That dialogue (somewhat embarrassing for me) goes something like this: Hi Julia, I want you to meet someone very special. This is Jeffrey Hyman, he went to the school for 11 years from 1970 until 1981 and left when he was 19 years old. What usually happens next is that the person I’m introduced to looks at me with an almost puzzled look, pauses and says, So, you attended SVS, you look like you turned out okay, as if to suggest otherwise, that perhaps the odds are surely against a SVS graduate, or that a productive happy life is more difficult to achieve with an SVS education as opposed to a public education. This is obviously not the case as evidenced by the many success stories and achievements of former students of the school. I applaud those parents that have made the bold step to provide their children with an SVS education; I say to them, have confidence and don’t worry so much, stop questioning your decision, your children will be fine.
Every former students story is different and unique. I had the distinct pleasure of attending the school from its early years, along with (among others) the children of the founders. These kids were my best friends and they really ended up being like my brothers and sisters. I thought I would take a moment to share my thoughts regarding my public school experience, how I found SVS, and what the experience has meant to me.
(For those who have never attended a public school, Ive provided some definitions/explanations regarding certain processes that you would only find in a public educational setting. I apologize if you already understood such processes.)
In order to provide the reader with some history, I will go back to the Spaulding Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts, where I attended Ms. MacGreggor’s first grade class. The building itself was typical institutional design with a flat roof, beige brick exterior and small windows, basically a prison without the barbed wire. I feared this building and all the people associated with it. My negative experiences started every morning with the nasty crossing guard. She never smiled, never said hello, and was only about the business of safely getting children from one side of the busy street to the other end of story. One day I woke up late, so when I arrived at the crosswalk the crossing guard was not there. She was done for the day and nowhere in sight. I thought nothing more of the situation other than to cross the street so I could get to that wretched building and not be late. As I approached the crosswalk I looked both ways as I was taught by my mom, made sure there were no oncoming cars, and I crossed the street, no problem.
When I arrived at my classroom I was immediately asked by Ms. MacGreggor how I crossed the street. I told her I looked both ways and crossed the street, simple as that. For this achievement I was sent to the principals office. (For those students that have only attended SVS, the principals office is a place where people are in the business of running the school and dealing with problem students, etc.) Oddly enough, the principals name was Ms. Punch and she packed one too. As I awaited my fate, I was reading a magazine and she came out of her office to the waiting area, and in a harsh tone, told me that I had no right to take the liberty to read a magazine, as I was very bad for crossing the street without the assistance of the crossing guard. I had no opportunity to defend myself in the matter; there was no trial, no jury. I was guilty and suspended for two days for this offense.
What is She Talking About?
Inside the classroom, I met confusion, conformity and an environment where my input and interests were ignored. All students had assigned seating; I think they put the smarter kids next to the challenged kids as if to perform some type of human behavioral experiment. I wanted to sit where I liked and next to whom I wanted, but that was not allowed. Confusion came during what was being taught: there was an exercise called Read and Do which was so mundane and stupid in nature that it was incomprehensible to me. Ms. MacGreggor would put several things on the chalk board, including the following example: draw an umbrella so simple, except the concept is so dumb that I would ask the kid next to me, What does she want me to do here? It says draw an umbrella that’s stupid; what does she want me to do? I thought to myself, What am I learning, am I wasting my time? I was marked as a bad student because I couldn’t understand the value in this method of teaching.
In art class I expected (as SVS kids do) to be able to create and make things that interested me, whatever that may be. My mother smoked, so I wanted to make her an ashtray, but according to the art teacher, that was not an acceptable article to make. But I was never told why. Perhaps the negative connotation with smoking and its related health effects? Again, I was not conforming to the system and was told I was difficult.
(Recess: in public school, this is a predetermined and limited amount of time that a person can play outside during the school day.)
One of the more difficult things, one that I just couldn’t deal with, was the extremely limited amount of time (40 minutes) that we could spend outside of the building. Also, there was this rule about how much water one could drink after returning from outside activities. The other students and I would be outside running around enjoying the very short moments of freedom that we had when suddenly the bell of doom would ring (bells are used routinely in public school to signal when classes or activities start and end) signaling that we must all go back inside the building. The first instinct of survival is to find water: without hydration you die. A person can go days and weeks (if not more) without food but cannot live without water. The first thing I needed upon entering the building was water, sweet, luscious, refreshing water. I would go straight for the water fountain, but waiting close by unfortunately was the teacher, who would clap her hands ten times during the time students drank water. After the tenth clap you’re done, no more water, move on end of story. I did not agree with this concept so I complained. Again I was met with disagreeing people, back to the principals office: Guilty!!
I could go on and on, but in a nutshell, this was the tone of my existence in public school. The teachers were not human to me; I thought their only reason for existing was to hassle students and make me miserable.
Obviously my parents took notice of this decaying situation. My father was especially concerned and decided to take action. Rather than try to work things out at this school, he decided to seek an alternative education for my baby sister and me. He looked into private schools and even considered Summerhill in England. I remember him asking me if I wanted to go to England.
One Sunday afternoon just after a snowstorm, my dad and I were walking through the woods near our home, and stumbled upon three guys living in a make shift lean-to. They had constructed a structure by placing logs against a large rock formation and had covered the logs with canvas. They also designed an area for fire in the interior to heat the space. When my dad asked them what they were doing there they simply stated, We used to go to this really cool school in Framingham, called Sudbury Valley. Students there have a say. They have the freedom to think for themselves, but we were expelled because of illegal activities on school property. Don’t ask me why, but their comments obviously sparked my fathers interest (cool school, freedom) and he decided to call the school to find out more.
This day was remarkable, because when you’re seven years old and you see the magnificent granite building for the first time, you think to yourself, wow, this is cool: this is very different from my previous experience; its nothing like I expected. Walking down the hill, I saw kids playing, running around, calling to one another, and they were very happy. Furthermore, no militant teacher was watching them and controlling their environment. They were doing what they wanted to do.
Thinking back, the thing that is most interesting about new students first few days and weeks at SVS is how they assimilate into the SVS population. Each students experience is unique; in my case my first experience with other kids was sort of trial and error. I gravitated to the first person I saw during my first day and after a week or so, I realized that this person was not interesting to me and so I gravitated to others. One of my memorable first experiences was exploring the campus with a fellow student. We found several animals skulls and various bones in the basement of the Mill House and took them back to the building to identify what kind of animals we had found.
I remember walking into the Art Room for the first time and I remember how it smelled, which was a combination of clay, acrylic paints and plasticine. This smell still exists today and for me there was nothing more comforting than this place and all that went on there. (Actually, there are several rooms in the school where if I was standing in them today blindfolded, I would be able to tell you exactly what room I am standing in.) In the art room, there were kids everywhere, painting, drawing, sculpting, but what caught my attention almost immediately was a group of kids working with plasticine (an oil based modeling clay) at a table in the back of the room. This was no ordinary material and the things being created were unique, not a simple sculpture of a nude woman, or a couple of blobs of clay stuck together, but rather detailed, very intricate structures such as buildings with walls and floor boards and foundations, automobiles with wheels and detailed engines under the hood, and a gold mine with tracks leading in and out of the structure. The entire table was devoted to this sculpted city and each student working with plasticine had their own house, automobiles, people and a unique existence. I was fascinated by the work being conducted: I spent the majority of the day at the table, watching, listening and learning the techniques that were used. The plasticine table had currency, laws and extremely stringent guidelines regarding construction, scale and detail. For example, in order for a car to operate, it needed to have an engine; a box of dynamite had to be hollow and contain individual sticks and your creations had to be detailed. Otherwise, the things that you made were not accepted by the other kids. I knew that this was where I wanted to be and that this was the school that I wanted to attend. I worked in the Art Room for the better part of two years straight, except for the frequent four square, soccer or kick ball games, war games at the barn, and perhaps some math, some reading and spelling. As I think back, the most fortuitous thing was, the same people that worked at the table interested me the most in all other activities that took place at the school. These kids taught me more than I could have learned by staff alone or organized classes.
The years swiftly passed by and I made the most of my SVS experience, by organizing my own activities and attending some that were offered by staff. I learned simple mathematical addition up to algebra in one year, reading and spelling as well, and the social experience I gained by interacting with staff and students was monumental in my education. What you dont realize at the time, is that you are learning something every minute of the day, by interacting with others, bargaining, organizing activities, talking your way out of a difficult situation dealing with people, dealing with life.
One staff member that I enjoyed was Margaret Parra. She was in her late sixties and drove a 1966 Buick Skylark. It was yellow with a black top and white wall tires, and she used to drive my sister, Amy, and me home a couple of days a week. One day as we were getting ready to leave, I told her, I bet this old heap cant go very fast. She simply replied, Oh yeah, buckle up smart-ass. She dropped it into first gear, hit the gas and peeled out of the parking lot leaving a ten-foot patch of rubber behind. That was the last time I questioned the ability of the car. I always admired Margaret’s chutzpa and that of all the SVS staff. I am not alone when I say I will never forget Mimsy’s candor, Danny’s brilliance, Hanna’s gentle nature (and tough side when necessary), Joanie’s multi talents and Margaret’s blunt, and to the point, attitude. They pushed my envelope and gave me the confidence to step out on the edge, as if to say, You want it, go for it, you can do it@ B end of story. The SVS experience is profound, unique and clearly one of the most positive impacts in the lives of those that are fortunate enough to discover and attend such a place.
In a Nutshell
I think I lived it all at SVS. I experienced the lives of so many different people. I had loves, each an experience. I learned a great deal about life in my interactions with fellow students and staff. I sometimes hung out in the smoking room, even though I didn’t smoke. I had Big Kids as friends, others that I simply admired from a distance, and the occasional one that put me in a folding chair and hung me out over the School Meeting room porch to scare the crap out of me. I read books, played drums, fixed cars, tapped trees, made maple syrup, climbed to the top of the beech tree, swam in the pond, sledded at Callahan State Park on trails named Bear Mountain and Bottle Neck. I scaled around the outside of the building without touching the ground (not easy), played war games at the barn, crashed bicycles into the trash cans in the garage, cooked a multitude of dishes with Margaret Parra in the kitchen, and sold a loaf of bread to a visitor for seven dollars. I attended camping trips to Nickerson State Park and the White Mountains. I worked with wood and leather to create useful and not so useful things and was certified to test the ice on the pond for skating. I caused mischief at potluck dinners and picnics and was nearly suspended for throwing snowballs in the turnaround and poking holes in Dixie Cups. I made mistakes but learned from them. I lived the experience to the fullest and have no regrets whatsoever. I enjoyed my years at SVS and use my experiences in my present life.
One of the fears that I sense from some SVS parents when I’m talking with them is the worry that their children will not learn enough educational basics, which perhaps leads them to believe their children will be unsuccessful and unproductive members of society. This will not happen. Remember, each student understands that it is up to them to discover what they want and how to get it and in doing so, their curiosity is sparked and the process of learning takes place. The fact is, they will find out for themselves through their SVS and life experiences how to become (if they are not already) productive and successful. People often miss the most important thing in life, which is happiness. When people are happy with themselves and their life, they have initiative and enthusiasm, which leads to being productive and successful members of society. It has nothing to do with money or material things. You can be successful and happy if you’re a monk, a chef or a marketing executive.
So what have I accomplished since I left SVS in 1981? Where am I now and where am I going? First, I have lived on this planet equal to the earth revolving on its axis 14,600 times. (I have difficulty saying forty.) I worked for a food service provider just after graduating, and played in a Glam Rock Band.
I left that job to explore a new career in biotech. I had been servicing vending machines at a biotech company and became good friends with the Manager of Human Resources, Charlotte. I would stop by to fix machines and I would ask Charlotte, When are you going to hire me? Ill start at the bottom and work my way up. After three months she offered me a part time job and six months later I was working full time. I started at the bottom, changing animal cages, washing pipettes, doing tissue culture and running the sterilizers, but I used my experience from SVS to observe, learn and master what I needed to do to be successful. Based on my initiative and enthusiasm, I was afforded many opportunities to train with a group of renowned scientists who themselves were on the cutting edge of Molecular Genetics. I grew in my support role along with the growth of the company and formed the Laboratory Support Department. I attended two universities part time to learn biology and business. My grade average was 3.33, whatever that means. I decided not to continue with college so that I could deal with a family members terminal illness and earn some money. Within four years, I started a successful calibration company on the side and incorporated that business in 1989. I sold my interest in the corporation after growing the business to annual sales of half a million dollars.
I am the Director of Operations and Safety in the U.S. with the third largest Biotech Company in the world. My department is comprised of seven people who manage internal and external services, serving 700 customers (employees) in areas as diverse as space planning, construction, fitness center, biological safety, copy center, fleet management, environmental health, security, laboratory support, risk management and preventive maintenance. Ive traveled for business and pleasure to Japan, Korea, Mexico, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, England and extensively throughout the United States. This year I snowboarded on two continents in three countries. I hold a United States Patent (#5,857,682) for a locking mechanism/storage compartment that attaches to a snowboard deck.
Let me summarize by saying to those parents that remain skeptical about a Sudbury Valley School education, don’t be, stop it, cut it out, drop it!! My mother worried about my sister and me and expressed this to some staff members during our attendance. It was several years after our graduation that my mother stopped by the school and met with one of the staff: she simply wanted to tell her how proud she was of my sister Amy and me and all our accomplishments, but more importantly, I think she wanted to tell her that she should have never doubted the outcome of our SVS education and that she should have embraced the situation positively.
In closing, stop being worried, or at least reduce your overall concern. Be involved but recognize when you’re getting too involved and pull back a bit. Positive feedback is great; don’t wait until years later to recognize that this was the best thing in the world for your kids education.
Finally, if you ask your kid what s/he did at school today and they say nothing, or not much, don’t fear. They have done a whole lot, they just don’t feel like talking about it right now. When they’re ready they will let you know.