Last Thursday was a rather typical day at East Kent Sudbury School. Typical in that the things that usually occur during the course of our days occurred on that day too. Students started arriving from around 9.30am, signed themselves in and picked their cleaning job for the day. The Judicial Committee met as usual and dealt with the issues from the previous day including the results of an investigation into a mess left in the Hall on Tuesday. Responsibility was acknowledged by those involved and a means of making amends agreed. Lunches were eaten and probably shared, cups of tea were drunk, conversations had, games played, books read, pocket money spent, plans made, disagreements resolved and friendships strengthened.
Yet, it was also typical in that it was unlike any day we’ve had before or are likely to experience again. For me it began when I woke my daughter who announced that today she was going to be a cat. She fashioned a suitable outfit and asked if we could take the face paints in with us. Of course, she was not the only student to like the idea of getting their face painted and so I was able to exercise my artistic muscles and spent several hours painting cats, dragons, wolves and other requests. Painting is something I always enjoy, I find it relaxing and it fills my creative cup right up. But on this occasion the most enjoyable thing about painting faces was having the time to sit and chat with the students I was painting and their friends who were keenly observing.
As often happens when two or more people find themselves together with nothing else to distract them the conversation flowed freely. And the topics ran the gamut; we covered who likes dragons and why, friendships, what people were voting for in the Hall that day (which is a polling station for local elections), upcoming trips, ideas for workshops, plans for pocket money, the best things about coming to EKSS – one student told me it was the laws she liked best because that’s what made her feel safe enough to be free – and much much more. I felt incredibly privileged to be a staff member here and to have the time to get to know these extraordinary young people and that they would trust me with their thoughts and let me into their worlds.
Over on the next table some older students and staff were playing a game of Risk, brought in by someone else from home. Every now and then conversation from the Risk table wafted across to the painting table and I caught snippets of strategies being discussed, triumphant cries and words of support and encouragement.
Trips to the shops are rapidly becoming a daily feature and on this particular day there seemed to be more trips than ever. I took a group of five friends to spend their pocket money, only two of them actually had money to spend the others were just there for company and to advise in the all important spending decision. Very kindly the girl with the most money was planning to get something to share with everyone and so they set about weighing up a bag of Haribo versus four cartons of chocolate milk and which was better value for money. Conversation lively as always we talked about fashion and shopping and weekend plans. Between themselves the girls discussed what would their other friend who’d stayed behind think of their purchase, did it matter what she thought? Would she be jealous? A careful dissection of the complexities of social dynamics and the psychology of others. This trip was unusual, however, in that it had a double purpose, the girls also wanted to enquire with a local pottery studio about booking a workshop there. Information acquired we discussed which days and times would work best and made a plan on the way back.
Building a culture within a new community is not easy. It often feels like walking a tightrope, constantly trying to balance freedom of individuals with respect for the community, wobbling too far one way then the other. Last year I read a blog post from Sudbury Valley School about how a visitor had described spending time there as a spa for the soul. Our visit to SVS was certainly like that, yes the grounds are beautiful, but it is more than that. Being around young people living their lives according to their own rhythm, forging their own paths whilst trusting they will always be respected by others around them creates a very special atmosphere. Our grounds are not as beautiful or grand (yet), and no one expected a culture like that to form overnight. We are only 14 weeks in, our culture is very young. We have days when it feels raucous and loud, followed by big conversations about respect for others who need quiet. We have days where no one seems to be getting on followed by days of such kindness and cooperation it melts your heart. Zoe Readhead famously wrote that “Summerhill is a real place, not a utopia. Living in a community of around 100 people is not always easy.” East Kent Sudbury School is no utopia either, getting along with other people is real life and we see plenty of real life ups and downs. But a culture is forming. A culture that values individual liberty and community responsibility. Watching young people make real decisions, find their own paths through life, forge new friendships and over come their own hurdles is both a typical and an extraordinary experience as staff at EKSS, and some days it does indeed feel like a spa for the soul.