The seven years I spent as a student at a democratic non-coercive Sudbury school radically changed my life. I started attending Blue Mountain School the first year it opened in 1998 and I graduated in 2005. Before I came to BMS I was unschooled but my parents recognized that I needed more peers and sought out something, anything, that looked different than traditional models of education. My life changed the minute I stepped inside that building and realized that my life, my education, my future, my community, was my responsibility.
Sudbury education is a radical paradigm shift for all of us who have learned that schooling with desks and tests and lectures and homework and recess is the same as learning. Having never been traditionally educated, I can’t speak to how limiting and unchallenging that environment would have been for me. I can take an educated guess that the deep love of learning that I have now would have been stymied or at the very least corralled into a very limited idea of what a whole and relevant education looks like. The education I received as a Sudbury student was hard, it was challenging, it was exciting, it was quick and slow, and above all it was mine. I learned to learn and I learned to know who I was and what I valued and what I needed to be fulfilled. I may not be able recite the presidents in order (and why should I be able to?) but I do know that helping my community grow and strengthen is at the core of all that I do and I know why I value this. I’m sure I would have been fine if I had gone to a public school but would I have walked away with such clear internal motivation and personal self-advocacy and autonomy? I doubt it in my bones that I would have.
At my Sudbury school, I spent my days reading books taking me to worlds and topics I could never have imagined. I learned about art that interested me and I taught myself how to sew. I spent hours exploring the woods nearby and came back and baked elaborate pastries. I studied democratic procedures, I balanced budgets, and then I talked through all the questions a young person wonders about along with my peers. I learned photography. I taught myself critical thinking skills by struggling to figure something out and failing and trying again. I listened to my own inner learner, I found and refined my voice, I learned to advocate for myself, I learned to teach others. When I grew bored after mastering one skill or topic I moved onto another and another. I never felt that I had a deficit of education I was trying to fill but instead a hunger for knowing I was trying to feed.
The beauty of all of this is that I did it with others. I had to learn early on the art of effective communication, the art of friendship and relationships. To collaborate and build ideas into fruition required the hard work of interpersonal skills often learned through conflict and resolution. It’s no wonder that today I make my living building relationships and offering support since my formative years gave me the best education in interdependency and communication.
I graduated knowing that education and learning was my passion. I went on to a community college (in part because I refused to take the SAT) before going on to graduate from the University of Oregon with two bachelors: English Literature and Socio-Cultural Anthropology. With eleven scholarships under my belt, including the prestigious Ford Family Foundation Scholar Scholarship for graduate studies, I carried on my education and received my Master’s in Education with endorsements in Secondary Languages and English Speakers of Other Languages. Ironically, or better yet understandably, I wasn’t able to bring myself to work in the traditional school system even with the training and master’s degree I held. I made the decision to pursue work with students in Higher Education instead. I now coach first year college students achieve success through my work as a Success Coach for InsideTrack. I hope to continue my work in Higher Education as it’s an area I see my skill set suiting me best. I work with traditionally educated students everyday and I hear from my older students all the time that they had to learn how to learn after high school and that what has been the most valuable preparation for college has been their life experience outside of the classroom. I believe them because I know that my success in higher education was in great part to the fact that I entered as a skilled learner, critical thinker, and person who had the skills and asset we can’t test: intrinsic motivation, self-critique, self-advocacy, community mindedness, love of learning, and the interpersonal skills to adapt and communicate.
For any parent or student considering this education for their child or self, I can not speak more highly of the experience and education I received as a Sudbury school educated graduate. Take it from someone who not only graduate from this type of education but also taught within the traditional schooling environment that the Sudbury model of education is the closest thing we have to a perfect education environment–because at the end of the learning is what we make of it and Sudbury education places that responsibility in the hands of the student and when given the freedom and the right environment to learn ourselves and our passions, we will flourish and excel.