This is the same post that Dani Rius wrote for us last week in Catalan. He offers us his vision of Summerhill School, from the initial charm and delight, through a difficult period of adaptation to a settled consideration of what it might mean for children and adults. The learning we read about here takes place on all sides and it turns out that it does not always take place in the classroom… Read on.
I went to Summerhill almost by chance. Ten to fifteen years or so after reading the book I found out, looking around on the Internet, that the school still existed and asked if I could visit. I was told there were visitors’ days but was recommended to stay for at least a week. I remember this stay with great affection. It turned out that there was a party that very weekend. I could talk with families, go out for dinner with teachers, play football with the older kids and make friends with the children. It all went so well that I was told that the next term there was a vacancy and it was suggested I could stay on.
A month later I went back to Summerhill with a suitcase full of winter clothes, umbrellas and raincoats and the intention to be a good teacher. Over the previous months I had been thinking I could contribute, especially in an academic sense, and I had prepared some things perhaps lacking in method but which I thought would be quite effective. So I turned up with a pretty conventional look.
I went there to be a houseparent. Summerhill is a boarding school and houseparents have the difficult, intense and rewarding task of being present at the most intimate emotional moments. I settled in a few days before the children arrived. My room was spacious enough. It had high ceilings, wooden floors, a double bed, an old sofa with old upholstery, a large wardrobe, a desk and a single window overlooking the garden, which was always green but empty and silent. I thought I would feel good about it, but cleaned up withthe four things I had brought with me there was not much to give it a cosy feeling.
My room started to heat up with the first tapping of knuckles on the door, timidly personal questions, increasingly confident looks, candid conversations, laughter, bright eyes and red cheeks. And the children would fill in the missing spaces for their new companion who was not so well prepared.
A half hour before bedtime, the children from the two dormitories on either side of my room, aged between 9 and 12 years, would appear and disappear from my room and we would all keep company together. Most of them were in their pajamas. I opened the door and said hello to each child in his own manner: some more timid, more tender, some more outgoing. They sat on the couch or on a chair, and jumped about in the few square meters available to us. Often we would chatter about some topic of conversation that came up. Sometimes we played a board game or learnt how to juggle. I offered them fruit because dinner was so early for them. Someone would read a book or share a comic with a group. They laughed at what they were reading, and M., who used to stroll around or play, asked excitedly what it was they were reading. When I told him he laughed saitsfied. M. was 9 years old and could not read. And no one tried to hide it.
It would be harder work adapting to the new job than the experience of those seven days before the holidays. I guess the first visit was more spontaneous and now I started to become aware of what was expected of me, how I should act. I should also say there were many things that challenged my own experience and upbringing. I felt disoriented because there was no homework or time to go over lessons or even a defined schedule. M. could choose not to go to class and did not have a complex about it, and I wondered how I would fit into a place that was so different from everything I knew: what I could do to feel valued.
I was not the only one who started the school year. K., a Japanese girl of seven years, only knew enough English how to give
you a musical hello with a smile and one hand raised every time she went by. L., a German boy of seven years, turned out to be very easy to relate to with his four English words. CY, a Korean girl of 10 years, was reserved and preferred intimate relationships, one-on-one.
Getting used to a new place takes time. The ones who helped me in this were the children. I’ve always been impressed going to a playground with a boy or a girl and in less than two minutes they have made a bunch of friends. At first I just observed and did not dare to do many things in the larger community, like when someone invites you to their tidy little house and you do not dare touch the well-ordered things on the shelves. As for the more academic classes sometimes I went and watched what they were doing. I do not think there was a method; it was all rather organic and changed depending on the subject, the teacher or the students. But the adults had similar ways of being with the children. The small number of children per adult permitted a solid and respectful bond. The garden was an ample space for experimentation where children climbed or hid in the trees, rode their bikes or skateboards, built huts or destroyed them. Some boys and girls preferred open spaces and others warmer places. Almost every evening Ju and R smelled of campfire. One day I met S, an enthusiastic reader, alone in the large room of the big house without a book in his hands.
“Are you bored?” I asked.
“No. I’m playing a game in my head,” he replied. It is very difficult to know what goes through the head of each child. Teenagers liked to sit on a bench and spend hours talking.
Time passed quickly and we all ended up adapting. Nobody doubted that K., L. and CY would learn to speak English with ease, in a natural process, without external pressure or shoehorns. The relationship with my group of children was easy right from the start, and a little later I started to participate in the other things that happened in the broader community. I proposed several sports and worked up to making day trips and going camping. I must admit this was less familiar territory, but I was immediately given generous cooperation by the rest of the team of teachers and houseparents. I found it was only a matter of waiting and trusting. I really felt they waited for me, waiting for the bond to strengthen so that I would be able to show real spontaneity.The community waited for me to be open to those changes that important experiences cause in us, but also to show myself essentially as I am, and do so with confidence.
One day, returning from a school trip, I was told that there had been a terrorist attack on the London Underground. I went to the room to see what the news said. In the corridor I met M., who knew nothing but came into the room behind me. Then I turned on the TV. The newsreader covered the latest details whilst a banner ran across the bottom of the screen: “Terrorist Attack on London Underground!” The child was reading it with his eyes on stalks.
A few days later Leonard, the class teacher of the kids of my age group, asked me if I had been teaching P. to read. P. was Taiwanese and always reading comics in Chinese, but lately had also taken to reading English books. We do not know how she learned to read it.
I wonder if conventional school sends a message of distrust to the child: it says a child is not whole or complete, that if he does not learn certain things then he is lacking. I think M. was not ashamed of not knowing how to read because he knew he was respected as M. rather than for the things he had learned. At Summerhill there were no tests and exams and no one was valued more or less for the level they had achieved in their formal learning. I have friends who are almost fifty and still wonder if they are doing something they really like or just what was expected of them, if they like themselves as they are or are always waiting to see what others think of them. Like me when I arrived at Summerhill.
Sometimes we learn fixed structures and then we think we know the right way to reach common goals. But everyone has his own rhythm and everyone has something valuable that others do not have. J., a close friend of M., arrived in the summer and still could not read. Anyway he joined a theatre workshop. The children wrote the play with Leonard. It was about a girl who sang so badly that the thunder roared and a fairy tale prince who was looking for a girlfriend. A spell made the girl able to sing opera arias like an angel and the dreamer prince fell in love with her. In this case, my preconceived ideas made me assume that the best players would be those who could read the script. But J. was the prince and the future princess, P. who had learned to read English only shortly before the play. Their performance in that play was special. I think they acted so naturally because they were not over reading the script, because they got directly into the character.
I was leaving at the end of the year, and J., who was shyly affectionate and given to such things, gave me the script he had never read.
I think the range of things that are valued in children at Summerhill is very broad. In fact, I think value is not the right word. To determine a value you have to stop, analyze, mark and put it down in a notebook. I’m talking about sharing, communicating, receiving, living, loving … That said, I do not think children of free schools and democratic schools get better or worse academic results than children in other schools. I suppose they have more facility in managing their own time because no one has planned it out for them since childhood. I guess they know what they want to do because they have not had a heavily directed education. I guess they have more security in themselves because they have been respected for who they are.
I heard a conversation between two ex-Summerhill students. At school there are regular parties ex-students can come back for. These two girls were in their first year at university and they were complaining about the work they had to do. They were complaining as we all have complained about study. But they quickly knew how to find a balance.
“We have to study as much as everyone else,” one of them said, “and get the same results.” Then she continued, “But we were lucky enough to have enjoyed our childhood.”
I think this is the best learning: valuing childhood for what it is and giving children space to express themselves.
Love people for who they are.