The Hardest Part

The following was written by James Taylor, excerpted from the blog of Arts & Ideas Sudbury School (A&I). The excerpt deals with the pain felt by a staff member watching students leave the school because of their struggles. The full original article can be viewed here.

It is legendary that when students come into A&I, they often have a “detox” period. My rule of thumb is that it takes about a month per year of oppression. It takes longer if that oppression continues in some fashion elsewhere.

Most of the time, students do make it past their “detox” period using the painful memory of why they left their previous place of being to power through the emotional releasing of that pain. Healing can often be harder than the original injury, but the end state is worth it.

As the years go by, however, the pain of that memory fades. They have embraced their lives, enjoyed their time, but then something new and challenging arises from within. This often happens in the early teen years, but it could happen anytime. Basically, some internal process happens that puts them on a different path. All of a sudden, their usual amusements no longer amuse them. They need to find a new path.

This can be very disorienting and painful. Boredom is often reported. There are the breakings of long term friendships as old friends suddenly seem silly or have otherwise grown apart. It gets harder to come to school.

Parents see the distress of their child. If they have a good relationship with their child, then the parent may take on the brunt of the complaining and really start to worry if A&I is the right fit anymore. Regardless, the student often takes this seemingly aimless wandering as a signal to find a new place to be.

It is easy to think that leaving the place one is in will resolve the problem. But wherever we go, we bring our problems. The problems inside any of us are just that: inside of us. We cannot escape by running away. We have to listen to our emotions and feed off them to grow beyond where we are.

This rings true at The Open School, where many families are tempted to leave for more “structured” environments. The thought is that if a student is healthy, happy, bright, and clear-headed, he is ready for something more challenging, and that that challenge can be found in the academic rigor of a traditional school. But that challenge is an illusion. The life in which someone tells you exactly what to do is the easy life. It allows you to avoid the hard work of figuring out who you are, and allows you to avoid the blame when things go wrong. The true challenge is here in freedom.

So some of our students think about leaving and parents who have accepted their child’s self-direction in life, support them. They might be secretly happy about it, but I think most are genuinely trying to be supportive of a scary step into a new direction in life.

And it is hard for us to argue with it. Maybe for some it is the right decision. But we as staff believe that in most cases, students need to work through these hard issues. Not running away from freedom is the toughest choice for them to make, but it will be the most rewarding.

The Open School is a place of freedom, and that means students can shape their experiences however they like. Their individual rights are respected just like those of adults in the greater community, and they have the same rights and privileges in the school as any staff. Students are truly like gods here. They can do anything and create anything. They can find a solution to any problem, find a way to meet any need. They only have to accept that this is the case, and then chart a course for themselves.

Since The Open School is such a small community, often the greatest struggle is the struggle to make friends. But even that is not insurmountable. James elaborates:

There is something quintessential about being human that demands we accept our environment and craft it to our needs. Admittedly, some environments even escape our industrious natures to make useful, but that is a rarity. For the most part, students who feel that they have no connections at our school will form new connections if they stay. Connecting socially is a drive that transcends differences. Maybe there are fundamental differences between two people, but at their core is a need to connect and understand one another.

It is important to wait for that quiet desperation that breaks through our indifferences to one another. Bonds formed in this way can be quite strong, far stronger than bonds between people who come together out of a common interest. Bonding despite differences is, in my opinion, the key to our future as a species. In this day and age of self-selecting into like-minded circles spanning the globe, we need to remember and cherish loving the other.

It starts here at A&I. Inside each of our students lie the components needed for making lifelong bonds with anyone. They just need to accept the fact that this is what they must do.

Although The Open School is much smaller than A&I, I have seen, over and over, people who were initially at odds with each other developing strong friendships. They have very little in common. These friendships form in spite of everything. They form when people realize that they need each other, which always happens when they accept that this is where they are, this is home, this is family. That is a hard commitment to make when there’s a way out just around the corner. That will always be the case, no matter where you are, as long as you’re standing right by the exit.

When we lose students who are in the depths of such struggles, we ache a deeper ache than any other kind. It is extremely difficult because such struggles must be resolved from within. It is why “wise” people do not simply list off a prescription of actions. The struggle is personal and its resolution is personal. Each person finds their unique path and understanding of life in such struggles. No one can write their path for them. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of conventional education is that it sidelines such struggles and tries to replace it with a script. It fails and delays the ultimate reckoning of this struggle to a much later age with subpar results for the larger community and for the individual.

We can and do try to be a shoulder for students to cry on, but that mostly applies during the hot fires. The listlessness phase is often about suffering in the quiet darkness of the mind, a place that we staff can only obliquely offer comfort for. Directly shining a light on that struggle can rob the student of some of their own power and often causes the struggle to retreat for a time until it comes back in an even more powerful version.

All we can do is be present, supportive, and nonjudgmental. As staff, this is hard. For parents, it can be almost impossible to watch this.

Sometimes, the power to flee wins. That is the hardest time of being a staff. We can see the beauty that was set to emerge, the strength and unique wonders of a person just about to come into the world, only to see it flee and retreat, perhaps for years to come. Those are the days that I come home feeling gut punched, helpless to intervene, mute in my objections, locked into a box by the paradox of committing to individual freedoms and choices.

All I can do in the end is to hope that the spark out of the darkness happens before the final decision to leave is made. Or that parents can see the pain for what it is, love it, and, just this once, push their child to stay, saying “just one more year”.

And if all else fails, I hope that the students who leave will someday look back on their time with us and realize how it changed them, how much they healed, how much they learned about themselves, even in the short time we were together, and that they will be grateful. I hope they will know how grateful we are to have been blessed to have them, even for a short time, as members of our community.

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