“You old curmudgeon!” Zoe said.
I had proposed unsuccessfully that the party should finish at midnight so that I could get some sleep. My room was in the house and that is where the boom-chacka of the party was loudest.
“Hey,” I said, “What kind of democracy would it be if I couldn’t say what I thought?”
“Yes. And the kids just look at you and say, there he goes, the grumpy old sod.”
“I am quite happy with that,” I grinned.
In spite of being a grumpy old sod who doesn’t like loud music, I find the festive year at Summerhill delightful, fascinating and convincing. I think it would make a good topic for an anthropologist to dedicate a couple of years to. And, if you are starting a democratic school, it would be a great idea to go to Summerhill, ignore all the stuff the teachers and houseparents tell you and focus exclusively on what a child’s perception of the school might be.
This is key. You see, the important point is not that there are parties and festivals. These existed at my primary school. They arranged festivities through the cycle of the year: there were competitions to design the best Easter bonnet, the children were paraded around and there was a Sports Day where everyone was supposed to celebrate the ones who could run fastest, jump highest and throw furthest. My perception of all this as a child was that I was being herded about and barked at, the victim of someone else’s scheduling. It was good to be out of the classroom but, if I had been given free rein, I would not have taken part in any of it.
At Summerhill, by contrast, you are invited to vote on the duration of the party, you vote on the people who are going to organise it and you look forward to the day that you too can step forward and help. The children who come to the party come freely and take part in the activities that they want to take part in. The difference between the high jump and the hula at Summerhill and the same at my school is like the difference between a vibrant tribe in the South Pacific and a po-faced Stalinist work camp.
Since the parties at Summerhill go on throughout the year there is never a time when there is not a committee on the go and there is always a feeling that there is something to look forward to.
How can you put this into practice in your school?
There is nothing like giving it a go. You could just say to the kids in your school, “We want to organise a celebration for the end of term and we haven’t the foggiest idea what to do. What we thought was that we would hand over the organisation of the event to you guys. What do you think?”
In most schools kids will just back away from a challenge like this. It is not that they are incapable of doing it. But they won’t believe you will keep your meddling hands out of it. It is understandable. Say you are in the kitchen preparing dinner and someone comes in and starts giving you loads of advice and telling you where things should go, how to clean up and how much salt to put in the food. You will prepare dinner with gritted teeth and avoid doing it ever again. That is what happens to children: at one level they would like to kill or banish their teachers; since they can’t, they act stupid or apathetic instead.
This means that you HAVE to keep your hands off.
The paradox here is that you are reading a blog about Summerhill and you might think it would be cool to get something like this going. How do you get to something like this without being either a smart-arse or a dictator? How do you tell people how to run a democracy if what you want is for them to do their own thing?
I suggest having a meeting. Before you even start the meeting be prepared to fight for your right not to be involved. Some of the kids will want you to come in and take over because it will give them a sense of security. At the meeting you should tell the kids that you have decided that you do not want to organise parties any more. Tell them that you have read about Summerhill and that you think they are able to take over the running of the party. Explain in detail how it works at Summerhill. Suggest that they need a Meeting and a way of electing committees to do the work that needs to be done. Then step back and see what happens. Your only role should be to bark at interfering adults who want to get involved.
It could be a flop, but so long as you do not have too much ego wrapped up in it, that really doesn’t matter.
Don’t you find the idea of it exciting? I do. And you will know when it is really working when you can sincerely vote against the party in that Meeting and it won’t make a jot of difference… because it is not your party.
If you want to talk over an idea with us, write an email. Who knows where it might lead?