Each day at Rising Tide School, there are moments of struggle, learning, friendship, and creativity that take my breath away. Arriving at school in the morning, students are relaxed, expectant, eager. At the close of the day they are satisfied, stretched, and ready for more. When I worked as a top-down educator (“I tell you what to learn”), transcendent moments were rare or non-existent. Cooperation and harmony were absent. People resisted what I had to teach them, and most people, including many of the educators, would rather have been somewhere else. At best it was tolerable; at worst it was dreadful. This was true despite the best intentions of everyone in the system. So what is the missing piece? What gives Sudbury its magic? And why, despite its effectiveness and the happy results, does our culture resist the Sudbury way of learning?
In a recent meeting with a graduating student, I heard an insightful explanation. The young woman was talking about the fears she had been facing around her thesis defense and her upcoming shift to independent adult life. She had been full of self-doubt and fear in the early part of the year, comparing herself to others and judging herself negatively. Even when people in the school saw her positively and reflected that back, she hadn’t been able to see the positive things in herself. However, through some recent adventures, things had shifted dramatically for her. She had realized that she had to love herself, know who she really was, and be herself in the world. She said that she should be pointing out her positive aspects and achievements to others and not the other way around, and that now she could do that. She was full of confidence, power, and was able to clearly express the many, many achievements and successes she had created during her time at the school. No longer comparing herself and coming up short, she was celebrating who she is and the contributions she would make in the future.
She had reached what I’ve come to think of as the Sudbury turning point—the point at which someone really understands, at the experiential level, their own power, goodness, and innate gifts. Once people get that, there’s no turning back. As they gather evidence of their own effectiveness in the world, they become fully prepared to launch into the larger community and to fulfill their greatest dreams over time.
What we need to understand is that self-love, self-confidence, and self-knowledge are a prerequisite for a fully-lived life. They are not add-ons to be explored “someday” or “when I’ve finished all my work.” This longing to be who we are really can be stuffed, or ignored, or ridiculed. But it doesn’t go away. If we really want it all—happiness, positive relationships, and the ability to do our great work in the world—we’ve got to look in the right places. Top-down education can do nothing for us if we don’t know and honor who we are.
Here is the missing piece: Who you are is more important than what you know. Skills can be learned. What doesn’t work is training for a narrow, arbitrary set of skills (i.e. Common Core Standards), and ignoring the people we are inside. For success, for happiness, for health, for everything that makes life worth living–we need to look in, not out. Standards won’t help us get there. Time, space, struggle, and friendship will. A Sudbury school is an optimal environment to begin the lifelong inquiry—who am I, and how can I serve? It’s an optimal place to become empowered, and to create the lives that we were meant to live.
If Sudbury works, and consistently produces stunning results, why do we resist? Why do we dismiss? Why do we say it’s too “out there” and stop listening?
We’ve simply trained ourselves to value the things that won’t make us happy—being like everyone else and playing it safe. We haven’t yet learned to fully value ourselves and to fully trust in our own, or our children’s, power. Time and time again I see children lining up the perfect learning experiences from life’s array of possibilities. The right teachers teach and the right lessons are learned. The turning point comes for everyone who is allowed the time to get to it. It is possible, and it is happening, right here in our community. I hope that, for the sake of our children and our world, we can culturally reach a collective turning point—realizing our own power and goodness and trusting our ability to thrive in a changing world. Then we can honor our children by seeing the same in them, and giving them the gift of freedom to launch in their very own way.