This essay is dedicated to young people everywhere. Young people who play. Who are curious. Who like to read and write. Or create. Or sing. Or dance. This essay is for young people who sense that there is a big wide world out there teaming with opportunity. For those with a feeling of anticipation that something tremendous is about to unfold. Those who want to build something of value. Solve problems. Help others. Challenge themselves. Do good while doing well. Pursue their passion with a single-minded focus because, well, they just do. In other words, this essay is for every single young person whether they realize it or not. Because we are all born that way.
But for too many the great promise never materializes. Shameful millions have their spirits quashed by circumstances beyond their control. Poverty. Malnutrition. Homelessness. Abuse. Neglect. These are symptoms of a society that does not have its priorities straight. These are signs that, whatever it is we are doing, it is not working. And bitter are the fruits we harvest when we allow the naturally curious, generous, playful, and loving natures of our young people be trampled.
Sudbury offers a way to help restore and build up the spirits of young people. It offers a way to help young people develop into confident, capable, and responsible adults. But it is not a panacea. It is not trendy or flashy. But this is exactly why Sudbury can be trusted. Sudbury takes time. It’s hard work. It requires commitment and trust. Because there are no easy answers. There is no such thing as a quick fix and anyone who says otherwise is not telling the whole story.
Frederick Douglass once noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” A simple yet profound truth. So how do we build strong children? It starts before birth with a mother who says yes with love in her heart and commits herself with intention to the well being of the life she nurtures. It continues at home where the child thrives on love and care – good nutrition, clean water, and safety from violence and mayhem. We cannot build strong children without the basics. And there is a direct connection between strong children and a strong society. Without one we cannot have the other.
Sudbury cannot provide that which must be provided by the family. No school can. But Sudbury is part of the community. And like all schools it is a reflection of the larger community in which all young people receive their education. Because we all know that young people receive their education everywhere and not just at school. They are educated at home, in the neighborhoods, through the media, from each other, and by the adults around them who serve as examples and role models.
Like students everywhere Sudbury students bring this incredible diversity with them into school. But rather than run away from it, Sudbury embraces it with open arms. Because the only way to cultivate diversity is to let it flourish. Imposing a uniform approach with uniform standards (and putting the students in uniforms) creates conflict. And probably a lot of anxiety, depression, and anger as well. Because we are not uniform. We are universally diverse. And Sudbury holds a key that unlocks its promised rewards.
Without the freedom to spend time getting to know one another, students form cliques and groups and hierarchies that mimic their communities and society at large. Without freedom they unintentionally perpetuate that which we need to eliminate. Nothing good comes from artificially segregating young people by age and then restricting the time and opportunity for them to really get to know each other. Nothing good comes from bringing together incredible diversity and then erecting artificial walls that prevent understanding.
In The Lives of Children George Dennison chronicles the seemingly miraculous strides some of the poorest and most challenging students in New York city made at a school where students enjoyed freedoms similar to those found at Sudbury. He writes poignantly about how seemingly unbridgeable divides were closed at a school where students had the time to build trust and get to know one another and their teachers. Time, trust, dignity, responsibility, support – these are things that all young people need, especially those who have been deprived of them elsewhere. This is how Sudbury can help those who need the most help.
Sudbury students get to know each other as individuals with completely unique backgrounds, experiences, interests, goals, and perspectives. This fosters understanding, empathy, and compassion. It cuts through divides by revealing the universal nature of our diversity. It discovers our common ground. These healthy developments are supported by a school structure that treats each student as a true equal. Having a vote in running your school is dignity. It is respect. It tells young people they actually matter and what they say actually matters. Sudbury is a place where young people are treated as people. Sudbury gives them a structure that they actually create themselves. It gives them a community within their community where they are safe, trusted, empowered, and supported. This builds up spirits. This heals wounds. This helps put young people on a path where the great promises of life are realized.