I am often filled with joy when I walk through the doors of East Kent Sudbury School since it opened in January. I feel such a delight watching the hustle and bustle of the students busy being themselves and I am excited to hear the daily news from my daughter Delilah at the end of the day. A neutral broadcast it most definitely isn’t, but I still feel I get a little snapshot into the world of EKSS. Something that stands out for me based on her impressions and my own, is the blossoming of friendships, even across the traditional enemy lines that separate parents, staff and children.
Delilah says she considers all the staff and children her friends. I certainly had no inclination to jump into the arms of any of my teachers like I’ve seen her do. I think I am becoming a better friend to my daughter too. I used to think being a parent and a friend was an impossible ideal but watching the inclusive, respectful way the staff interact with the children, my shouty maternal monologue is on shaky ground and there is a new mum in town who panics less about ’protecting’ and asks for daughterly advice about things like our eating habits: ‘Well, I just think you focus too much on health food Mum and really I think everything I like to eat is good for me,’ she says and I see the simple truth in that statement and start chilling out about carrots.
I find that the relaxed nature of the school and the spirit of equality creates an easy space for friendly encounters with other parents and there is nothing like signing up to a new and beautiful venture together to invite in solidarity and companionship for the journey. As for relationships with the staff, I personally find the prospect of discussing a concern with someone who has sunflowers all over his shirt almost an appealing situation and there is nothing like walking in on a beautiful rendition on the piano, or having a quick chat over a cross stitch, to break down any preconceived enemy lines.
I also feel lucky that two of my new young EKSS friends absolutely slated my face painting creation the other day. They told me in a variety of ways how the face in question looked nothing like the creature they had envisioned and that both of their mums and Kezia were way better than me. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t fire up my competitive spirit to step up my game, but really I just appreciated their crushing yet caring criticism delivered with such happy confidence. It’s like they really said: ‘You’re utterly rubbish at face painting, but this makes no difference to your intrinsic value as a human being so we still like you. (As long as you carry on making those nice pancakes?)’ And I wonder if there might be more adults who were able to communicate in this effortlessly nuanced way if they had been allowed to be masters of their own destiny at a Sudbury school and so gained the same confidence as my young friends. Wouldn’t the world be enriched if there were more adults who could be joyously awful at new endeavours together or argue rigorously over taboo subjects and then get on with eating lunch in contented discordant unison?
It warms the very cockles of my heart to see Delilah developing her friendships and hearing about her loves, joys, inspirations and battles and all the other experiences they have together which ultimately strengthen their bond. There is such a beautiful and wild intimacy that children share from being together with all their foibles and passions. The dejection from ‘you-can–not-be-in-my–game moments or gnawing envy of someone else’s crisp flavour, are raw emotions that ravage adults let alone children and I think learning to navigate through them may be much easier to do in a community like EKSS where friendships are at the forefront of everyday and being the ‘best’ is not the only way to be celebrated.
I’d like my daughter to come out with a good grade in the art of friendship because I think this ‘qualification’ will add to the quality of her life as an adult in a profound way. Currently, Delilah would probably disagree with my opinion that approaching people with friendly intentions makes for a more fulfilling life. She errs more on the side of Viking Dragon Warrior than My Little Pony Princess of Friendship. However, the passion with which she cares for her friends is admirable and most importantly for me, she is exploring what being a friend means to her.
EKSS provides the space and time to explore friendships for five and a half hours a day with freedom, respect and care at the heart of the school and where consequently the default setting is ‘happy place’. When competition isn’t the foundation, there is an atmosphere in which diversity and caring can thrive and competition is an option rather than a must. This has to positively affect the depth and quality of the relationships formed there and hopefully those that the students make in adulthood. In any case, I am utterly convinced that all these blossoming friendships account for at least some of the glorious atmosphere I experience walking into Cliftonville Community Centre and happening upon the rare and paradisiacal wilderness that is EKSS.