Authors: Hanna Greenberg
School: Sudbury Valley School
Somewhere I read this quote by Lotte Bailin:
“Instant availability without continuous presence is the best role a mother could play.”
A lovely quote, I thought, and I let it languish on a little piece of paper in my desk drawer. Last week two unrelated events took place which clarified to me why I saved this quote and what it evoked in me.
As sometimes happens at school, we had a little accident. A young girl did a cartwheel and slammed hard into her friend’s Lily’s arm. It hurt a lot and Mikel, who used to be an EMT, attended to her. He put a splint on very carefully in case a bone had been broken and called Lily‘s parents to come and take her to the doctor. Mikel’s judgment was that Lily’s injury didn’t need urgent care and that it would be better for the child to be with her parent rather than be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, which is more traumatic.
This happened during School Meeting when an important issue was being discussed, but from time to time a concerned staff person would slink out of the meeting to find out how Lily was doing. We all knew that Mikel was taking excellent care of her, but we just could not settle down to the meeting’s issue without seeing for ourselves that Lily was all right. In the evening I called Lily to find out how she was and her mother talked to me about the incident.
What she said stunned me!
She said that only now after this happened did she really understand how the staff works at the school. Lily told her how concerned and how caring we were and how good she felt about it. The mother realized for the first time in almost two years that what looks like benign neglect on the part of the staff is purposeful, and is not neglect at all. It is giving the children space to develop and grow unhindered by adult interference.
The other incident had to do with a young boy and his trip to the White Mountains. His mother published parts of her diary in an SVS Newsletter in which she too says, in the following quote, how it helped her understand SVS’s philosophy better, after being involved with the school for over a year.
“The fact that so much attention has been focused on my son over the past five days, by us and by the staff at school, is a good message of caring and support for him. Most of the time I see SVS operating by benign neglect, but in this case a different approach was called for and it happened in spades. I appreciated that, and it helped me see SVS in a new way. Basically, what I saw happening was them responding to his intense and unwavering desire to go by deciding to support it, provided a way could be shown that he was up to the trip, even though by doing so they took on more work and more responsibility.”
What astounded me in both of their parents’ words was how long it actually takes even for parents who send their little children to SVS to see how it really works. They trust their kids enough to bring them to the school and allow them to be responsible for themselves, but they don’t really know how the staff operates. In truth I am unable to explain it too well myself and I think that this is one cause for the difficulty that many parents have with enrolling their children in our school. The problem is that benign neglect appears as neglect. Only in extraordinary circumstances can parents see how the staff is interacting with their kids. On a day to day basis the caring and empowering take place all the time, but in such subtle and undramatic ways that no one takes notice- not the staff, not the kids, and not the parents. It just happens naturally. But from time to time the circumstances call for people on staff to galvanize all their resources and direct all their attention and energy to one student’s issue. When that happens the exaggerated activity sheds light on what goes on at SVS every day in more quiet and subtle way.
So it seems that “availability without continuous presence” is in fact what we do at SVS. We don’t always respond instantly to every request because we are usually busy with a student or whatever we are doing to keep the school going. We have to use our judgment and decide in each case whether to continue what we are doing or to stop and attend to a request. Usually we set up an appointment for a later time and it works out very well. Often the wait forces the kids to solve problems on their own and that of course is another way for them to gain confidence in themselves. But occasionally something happens which can’t wait and we have to drop everything and tend to it. Then it is easy for us to respond with alacrity because all the kids feel it’s necessary and they want us to help their friend in pain or trouble. The support that children give each other is of the same quality and style as that of the staff. They help when asked to help and they give each other space when that is wanted.
As the years roll by we become better at being staff at SVS. We have learned the art of letting the children be our guides in answering their needs and we do more for them by doing less – not interfering, while listening carefully to what they want.
This article was originally published in Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg, Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept (Framingham: Sudbury Valley School Press, 1999), pp. 110-113.
Reprinted with permission from Hanna Greenberg