May 2012

This morning it’s gray and the skylight is damp. The breeze comes in the window and the ceiling fan turns. I’m back from the country, contemplating the week, shifting gears again, spent yesterday afternoon standing in the pond, while a frog floated nearby staring me down, then pulling all the goldenrod I could yank out of the back garden, which has been buried under weeds, or died off. A good part of the weekend I was outdoors. I pulled more weeds than I have in ages, maybe ever. I swam three times, twice in the pond, once in the lake. We walked in the woods for hours, ate ice cream, had coffee out all three mornings, twice with eggs, once with a muffin, salad for dinner, or cereal with fruit, greens from the farmers market, including pea shoots, which placed me squarely in the field around the corner from where I grew up, collecting peas after the harvester had gone through, hard boiled egg from Gray’s farm, whose ancestors seemed to be buried in the graveyard we explored, where nearly all the Ashfield residents of the seventeen and eighteen hundreds seemed to live a long time, reminding me last night and this morning, that if I’m lucky, too, I’ll have fifty more years to live, and wondering what those fifty years will bring, who they’ll bring, who’ll stick around. When we arrived in the country our entrance door was blocked by jugs of maple syrup, made from sap from our trees, and others around, by our neighbor, who thanks us in syrup which we used to make dressing for our greens and egg, maple syrup, walnut oil, rice wine vinegar, ground mustard, salt, delicious.

And today I’m back, power out at bedtime, after I fully loaded two fridges for the week with food mostly from Whole Foods, though with some from the country, too, and now my computer battery is running low and I wonder if the charger was damaged in a power surge, as the power flickered twice before returning, giving us time to talk again at bedtime, then return to the world of computers and internet and netflix, to watch Mad Men. Shortly, I’ll return to day care, tidy the place, talk with Liana, welcome families, meet more visitors, consider the summer and the fall, feed the kids, walk to the park, see friends there, tidy the house in anticipation of after school arrivals, wiping away evidence of the weekend, shifting the laundry bag downstairs, sorting the mail, filling out the camp application forms and the fall re-enrollment forms, June 1st only days away, fixing the summer and fall schedules to reflect recent changes, always more to do in the world of reality than even the world of fantasy can imagine.

This morning I wake up needing to shift gears back to day care from Sudbury Valley. It’s been a full week of shifting back and forth, with the long weekend ahead, another shift, if plans prove true, this time to mostly play and relaxation, though the distinction between work and play and plan and what happens becomes less clear as I get older, as I realize how much of time spent sleeping is actually time spent figuring things out, how much time driving from place to place is time spent with a wandering mind, how much the cracks in life hold the gold, the conversations I couldn’t plan or execute if I had intended them, the moments in nature when a small boy allows me to hold a toad he’s caught or the late night conversations at my kitchen table when a teenager tells me something I wouldn’t have heard had I gone to bed early, tired from a long day.

This was one of those weeks, big highs, big lows, big in-betweens. I can’t write more, because the business of life calls, waking kids, showering, beginning the day, off to work and school, where of course more work and play will combine, more cracks await, more routines hold us while we each and all push at the edges to see where life is going to take us.

Here is a link to a blog posting from Mark McCraig of Fairhaven School. After meeting him at SVS yesterday, where he was serving on a committee of staffers from other Sudbury Schools meeting with students seeking a diploma, including my son, who will receive one, and other students who will and won’t, I was curious about Fairhaven, and did some online reading of their web site. Mark’s posting on the Fairhaven blog on uncertainty struck me on many levels. Perhaps it will you, too. It’s that time of year.

This weekend my kids and I were outdoors much of the time. My two youngest and I biked a lot, all around the city, which might not seem like much, but for me, it was a big deal, to ride a bike again myself, to ride with my kids on city streets, to be out and about in Somerville, interacting with the world. We ran errands, listened to and played music, took in the Tufts Campus and the skyline Saturday night before Tufts graduation.

This week I’ll spend three days again at SVS, with appointments and meetings three of four week nights. Our day care schedule for summer and fall have been tossed again into the air, and so I’m working on restoring some order there, filling spaces for kids and staff that have opened by surprise. The good news is we have lots of families waiting to join us, and for the first time in many years, two new caregivers who will be fully certified to work with us, and who are loved by the children and by us. So, while change feels big, the safety net feels bigger. We’re going to be all right.

Today my son is presenting his graduation thesis. Yesterday he posed with his friends for their graduation photos. Thursday my younger son is one of three student producers for the  Music Corp’s Spring Show. My daughter will bring her hula hooping skills to the SVS stage, her brother will play with several bands on an instrument or two, maybe including his voice. Next weekend my oldest son will help out at the School Picnic, which we’ll all attend. The following week all three kids will be camping at Nickerson with SVS, and the week after that my oldest will celebrate his graduation, will in some definition of the term become a man. He’ll be with us for the summer, then off to RPI, where he’ll enroll in the School of Sciences, study math, physics, chemistry, and whatever else he can, make friends, live in a dorm, eat in a dining hall, come home for holidays and vacations, begin the next stage of his life. It’s a proud moment for me to be a mother, a fine stage of his life to witness and to share.

For summer, we have the OpenAir Circus, where we’ve been in some form for over ten years, where each of the kids will help teach, where we’ll meet friends in the park and perform under the tent and be part of something larger than ourselves.

We’ll go to Ashfield when we can, walk in the woods, go to the Farmers’ Market, talk to farmers, buy fresh food, swim, boat and fish this year if things go well, bike on country roads, up and down big hills, cook, sit by fires, talk and listen, play and work, country style.

We’ll see family, friends, maybe travel to see my brother and to Montreal, kids will do summer in whatever form it comes, camp for some weeks for the younger two, work, if all goes well for oldest boy, work for me, and pleasure, too, but busy, no doubt, with enough juggling for us to wonder some days what vacation means.

But today isn’t vacation. Today is a work day and a school day, too. Time to rise and shine. I’ve missed writing on the blog the last few days, have wanted to write, have had trouble finding time, trouble figuring out how what’s in my head could take shape this post is more newsy than insightful, more list than narrative, still feels good on some level to get it down, to take what’s in my head and toss it out, to make a story out of a jumble, to do what humans do, make stories, make sense and meaning out of the chaos and repetition of our days, to join in that endeavor, to give my life a shape that I can hold and share with you. Happy Spring into Summer! Happy busy time of year! Happy Graduation to those moving on! Happy transition and change to those who choose to see things that way.

This afternoon the after school group is quiet. I am, too. First we do homework, read, brush the Barbie head’s hair, watch, eat cereal with milk, mostly in silence. Then my six asks to make cookies again. She has made so many batches of chocolate chip cookies this year she has nearly memorized the recipe, can do all the steps on her own, makes a darn good cookie we have all enjoyed Tuesday after Tuesday, with cold milk, just before going home.

After awhile of silence, my seven comes in to talk. She wonders if my daughter Isabel watches I Carly. She does not. Then my seven tells me a story she likes to tell me every so often, of her cousin and the ipad, and the illicit watching of I Carly. I tell my girl that I have decided to stop monitoring my daughter’s tv, will see how it goes.

Somehow we meander onto the League of Urban Canners. Yesterday while the day care was walking to the park, we saw a flier posted on a telephone pole with tear off e-mail addresses, inviting us to contact the Urban Canners if we wanted them to come and collect our spare fruit, make it into sauce, jam, jelly, or butter, and give ten percent of the product back to us. Yes, we would. I tell my baker and my talker about this, get the slip of paper, write the folks a note, hope they will reply. Later, I talk with the moms at pickup about this new find, and we talk about wine cellars in the Czech Republic, Dachas in Russia, small farmers in the US, urban gardening, and I am happy for the silence earlier in the day, the time to ruminate, the contrast with the social time before and after. My reader of Calvin and Hobbes reads while we all eat cookies at the kitchen table, and while her mother collects her brother downstairs. Life at school must be busy. Quiet must be hard to find. Reading books until a person is done, books of one’s own choosing, is important, something I am happy we can do here, though when it’s quiet, when the kids are in their own spaces, reading, watching, playing, silent, I wonder if I am doing my job, I wonder if the kids are happy, if the parents feel they are getting their money’s worth, if I should be suggesting an art project, or talking with the kids, getting them outside. I am learning to resist, to wait and watch and wonder, to see teaching as letting be, as modeling respect for the individual and the group, for quiet and solitude as well as conversation and togetherness. We need both, as we need small farmers and large scale production. Long ago, I imagine there was lots of silence, though perhaps I’m wrong. The more I experience quiet at this point in my life, the more I wonder about it.

Which leads me to Summerhill, for some reason, to the book I’m reading with perspectives for and against the radical school started in England in the 1920’s by A.S. Neill and still operating today,  having defeated a government case which attempted to require the school to mandate classes. The school has fascinated and polarized people around the world since it’s inception, was no doubt a model considered by the founders of Sudbury Valley, by founders of the Free Schools, and it connects for me today to the listening inside that comes in silence. While a free school or a Sudbury School isn’t all about silence, silence in these settings is a choice.  A child can move away from the group into solitude and back, can choose to read alone in a quiet room or take a walk on the grounds away from people and the world. There is also a symbolic silence, I think, which comes of not being told what to do or what to think, of not being taught, of being trusted to figure out for oneself how to spend one’s days. I wouldn’t call it a void, but it reminds me of silence, this figuring out from inside oneself what one should do, and so I wonder how the two are related, wonder what it was like long ago before compulsory schooling, when the day of a child might have included time in the woods or beside the stream, in the barn or in the garden or at the fire, alone perhaps, or looking after a younger child, helping an adult. I wonder what sort of silence that was, what sorts of things a child would think and feel without a day of school, without a curriculum and classmates and desks and chairs and boards and chalk and pencils and papers and books. What did that silence do to the human mind and heart and soul, and what have we lost and what have we to gain by sitting quietly for awhile and listening inside, by reflecting on the past and carrying a bit into the future, or even by just responding to the moment to see what comes?

Two books and an article I’ve been checking out on Summerhill:

After Summerhill – a book of reflections of Summerhill alumni

The Independent’s review of After Summerhill:

Summerhill: For and Against – Outstanding Writers in Education, Sociology, and Psychology Evaluate the Concepts of A.S. Neill

The League of Urban Canners fruit collection program posting:

This morning I wake up earlier than I might. It’s Mother’s Day, and for the first time in many years, I’ll celebrate it with my mother, my sister, and my kids. The nephews, the brother-in-law, and the beau will be there, too, for a new definition of family we’ve been working on awhile. Last night we all went dancing, the kids at school, the beau and I at Polkafest, so we’re tired, and it’s hard to wake us up. We have an hour to drive to brunch in Plymouth, to make the connection work for the busy days of teens, to avoid Cape traffic at it’s peak.

After I shower and while the others do, I hear birds, which are clearer now than they’ve been, thanks to a podcast I listened to this week on Silence. It turns out, according to the podcast, that the human ear is not most well tuned to the sound of a human voice, but to the song of birds. Which explains why each morning now that spring is here, the bird song comes through first. When the human noise dies down, or perhaps only when the day has begun, I hear the birds over the rest, as nature has intended, and as must have been true much of the time before humans filled the world.

What I love about this understanding is the resonance of bird song keeping me company when I was most alone. When my ex-husband first left I would wake in the morning much too early to start the day. Until I heard the birds, I felt terribly alone. When I began to pay attention, this was less so. The birds were always there. They still are, now not so much a lifeline to the living, more a background, reminding me I’m still here, worst is over for now, time to go about life as it is, changed more than I had expected, new in lots of ways, old in many, too.

Happy Mother’s Day to you, whether or not you are one or you’re with yours, whether or not the birds are there to get you through or to remind you of better or harder days. You’re here, which means you had a mother. We might as well celebrate existence as worry about getting through, so long as we’re here, we have, and can hope we will. This year it’s brunch in Plymouth, maybe frisbee in the park, or a walk along the beach, a peak at the Mayflower or Plymouth Rock, next year, who knows?

Here’s a link to help you find the podcast of The Last Quiet Places, from the Kristen Tippet series, On Being, formerly Speaking of Faith.


Today I spent another day at SVS. The Sports Corp made waffles so good the JC door was revolving with folks going to get waffles and coming back to ooh and aah over them. Finally, when the fundraiser was near done, and word was out that waffles were down to twenty five cents, I got my act together and walked out the JC door to get myself a treat. It was delicious. My son’s friend, one of the fundraiser’s organizers, made me a fresh waffle, as the kids in line ahead of me were going to eat the last of those already made. Toppings for fifty cents a piece included homemade frozen berry sauce, freshly whipped cream, nutella, ice cream, or Log Cabin. I went all out with nutella and berry sauce, and sprang for the full two dollars, no regrets.

Back in JC, the troops were wrestling with the same sorts of complaints we have been wrestling with all week in day care, little kids who leave messes and who refuse to clean up when their friends ask them to pitch in. When I got home at the day care, I talked to Liana on the front porch and she shared the afternoon’s events, including a clean-up protest and the resulting consequences. Little kids are little kids wherever you go. Every day is a new day for them, each time to clean up a time to forget or refuse. Consequences might help, likely they’ll take time, and progress will feel frustratingly slow at times. Today’s JC was one of those times, as was yesterday afternoon in day care.

Tomorrow morning in day care we’ll have homemade sourdough waffles with honey sauce and mango. The sourdough needs feeding and the kids will eat two batches if past performances hold. I like being in places where kids say things like  “best breakfast ever” (SVS this morning) and “Maria, you make the best waffles” (WFDC most days I make homemade sourdough waffles). Not only does it make me happy to enjoy good food with kids, it makes me happy that there are places where making and sharing and enjoying good food are high on the list of important things to do. Just like it makes me happy when justice for a school or child care program means four and five year olds are understood and helped to learn how to clean up their stuff and respect their friends and take care of the space they share, with full knowledge they’ll mess up and high hopes they’ll learn to do right.

Now that I’m writing, I can’t help but wonder if the waffles and the justice are linked. What child surrounded by happy people eating waffles and listening and talking to her respectfully while deciding how to handle her latest infraction wouldn’t feel loved, wouldn’t want to figure out how to belong?

As I go through my days working in the day care, I think about my days visiting Sudbury Valley. In the day care we serve children ages one through eleven, most mornings primarily ages one through five. Sudbury Valley picks up nearly where we leave off, with the youngest child a four, and the others at this time five and up, to one staff in her eighties. At Sudbury Valley, the Judicial Committee and School Meeting handle rules, discipline, safety, preservation of community norms, among other things. In the day care, we have evolved a culture of rules and expectations over the last seventeen years, which adults and children learn and understand and help enforce. At Sudbury Valley, the ultimate authority is School Meeting, with a Board of Trustees charged with a role I can’t describe well enough to share here. In the day care, the teachers are the ultimate authorities with the children each day. As the owner of the business, I am ultimately responsible for the safety of the children, the culture of the program, our reputation in the community, our accountability to the state, and our long term viability.

Having watched the judicial process at Sudbury Valley for six days so far, I have come to see how the smallest infraction can affect the well-being of the school, and I am more conscious during our day care days of the impact the behavior of individuals, children and adults, can have on the whole, and the risk we take when we allow things to slide or to become unsafe or unfair.

Each time something happens in the day care I wonder how it might be handled in the school. At school, if someone breaks a rule, student or staff, any member of the school community can write a complaint addressing the incident, including the rule breaker herself. These complaints are handled each day at eleven by a Judicial Committee composed of two elected Judicial Clerks, a representative group of students, and a staff member. Each of these positions rotates through the population: clerks are elected for a term of several months, JC members are assigned month long terms, staff rotate daily. Those against whom the complaints are written are charged and allowed to speak before the JC. Witnesses are called and testimony is heard. Charges are agreed upon and defendants either plead guilty or are subject to trial.  Less significant complaints are resolved in JC, where sentences are meted out, then posted on a bulletin board nearby, and published in the School Meeting Record. Serious complaints are forwarded to the School Meeting which meets every Thursday afternoon. Students must abide by their sentences without reminders, and if they fail to do so, they can be brought to JC again for breaking sentence, where they will likely have their sentence adjusted accordingly (for example for someone who forgot to do trash duty as a sentence for trash talking, they might be assigned an additional day of trash duty). When a student is sentenced to suspension for a more serious infraction, as my son was one year for walking in front of an emergency vehicle on campus, then the student must attend a suspension committee hearing with his or her parents before returning to school. Some situations merit indefinite suspensions with a return conditional upon standing for questioning before School Meeting. Other situations, though rare, merit expulsion. None of this is done behind closed doors, with the exceptions of closed JC proceedings for sensitive cases, and suspension hearings, which are not open to other members of School Meeting. Nor do the adult in the school have special authority. Students are involved on every level. All age students serve on the Judicial Committee, as well as staff. It’s pretty amazing to watch the process in action and pretty interesting to think about our handling of challenges within the day care with this framework in my mind.

While it’s clear to me that the  Sudbury Valley model isn’t right for our family day care, for lots of reasons, probably primarily the ages of our children, it’s interesting to think about what we might learn from the model.  Some of the consequences we apply may be similar to those applied by SVS in similar situations. For example, children at SVS who leave belongings in a particular room or space may be charged with littering and restricted from that room for a period of time, perhaps a day. This is similar to a consequence we have been giving to older kids who don’t do their share of the clean up in the afternoon, especially in the back room. When this happens we may not allow the child to use that room for the subsequent afternoon they are in day care.

At SVS the JC sentences are not only posted on a bulletin board, they are also published in the School Meeting Record. We don’t use either of those forums at the day care, but we do have post-it notes, which we can put on the kitchen wall or the door of the room from which a child is restricted, to help us all remember the long term consequences that have been agreed upon earlier in the day or week.

One thing we don’t do, and I wonder if it would be helpful, is to name the charges. SVS has a very long, forty year old lawbook in which various rules are listed and numbered. When a person is charged, it is with something like Personal Safety (throwing rocks near another person, for example) or Community Norms (such as a kid wearing really offensive clothing). Discussing each complaint, the JC comes to an agreement about which rule/law has been broken and charges the person appropriately. Sometimes there is more than one rule broken, in which case each significantly different charge is listed. However, each charge listed need not have a corresponding sentence. In the day care we don’t tend to label kids’ behavior that way. We all know that it’s not ok to hurt others, or to hurt people’s work, but we don’t call it personal safety or infringement, as I think it would be called at SVS. I wonder how and if a system like that would work for us.

There are lots of other differences. As a situation escalated at the beginning of lunch today, I thought to postpone addressing it until we were eating lunch, so all parties could calm down, and so that we could serve lunch on time. Later I realized that one of the features of the SVS system is having a set time each day when issues are addressed. When a situation occurs, anyone can write, and in some instances is obligated to write, a complaint. Most, if not all situations, are not handled formally until JC, which meets at 11 am. So what happens in between? While I was at SVS those seven days I didn’t see much that needed handling right away. That alone is interesting to me. Our kids are much younger on the whole from the people at SVS, as Alice pointed out when I talked about this element of waiting and having some distance before resolving issues. Waiting to address an issue is very different for a two year old than it is for a four year old..or a teenager..and we don’t have a JC and we don’t necessarily want to set aside a certain time of day and group of people to resolve issues, but, it still makes me think..which is a good thing.

Now I’m off to check on a four who I believe has broken sentence, to use SVS terms, who seems to have forgotten or neglected to adhere to the limit we set saying she could not use the back room at nap time today for failing to clean up blocks Friday afternoon..what will the consequence be, and how differently will we handle it here in our authoritarian family day care than it would be handled in the democratic school community of SVS? Off I go to find out…

So, I brought her back to her mat, where she did not cry or protest much..and after a few minutes I asked her if she was ready to make a choice in another part of the day care. She’s now working with paints and materials Alice brought for painting. One of the things I noticed about SVS discipline is that is assumes we all make mistakes and in the cases I’ve observed thus far, is aimed at supporting both the student and the school community to function better short and long term, not to ostracize or label or dehumanize those who have broken the rules, those who have filed complaints, or those against whom offenses may have been committed. I think we have similar aims in our day care, and I hope we always will.

Liana is getting excited about children and books in a teacher researcher sort of way. She is reading a lot of books with kids, as usual, but is thinking about it differently, which seems to be energizing her and her thinking about the day care and our work. I have been visiting SVS, and those visits are in my mind all day as I think about how things work there and here..I find myself frustrated when I am not clear with children and expectations and consequences, or when kids do things they have always done, like leave plates on the table or messes on the kitchen drawing table. At SVS, I’ve been studying the Judicial Committee and the School Meeting, and been fascinated by how the students and staff handle all kinds of rules and behaviors within these structures. I’ve also become hyper aware of how we take care of our space, from food and kitchen to art supplies to maintenance, to yard work, to insurance, as I have been studying the SVS Management Manuals, which describe all sorts of the details about how the school runs. I have also been thinking about eating, meals, self-regulation, and how these things are different and the same, how age affects what we do, and location and group size..and questioning assumptions about things I’ve taken for granted. I’ve also been wondering about the democratic structure of SVS and the contrast between that model and the sole proprietorship of the day care, thinking about how this affects all kinds of things from budget to risk management to culture to discipline to meals..

As you can imagine, with all this thinking, I don’t feel as solid in my observations of the children’s play and conversations and I haven’t taken any pictures at all this week. I do feel extra curious about the children’s experiences of visiting their kindergarten or homeschool groups, and the shift between cultures that demands. It’s a lot to incorporate a new place and new people and new rules and routines and cultures into our understanding of the world, and then to bring it all back to a place we’ve called home and see that place new again. Very interesting, very challenging, and very much about life.

Yesterday I listened to more Townes Van Zandt Pandora Radio. Every time there was a piece by Jackson C. Frank, my heart leapt. I bought his album, Blues Run the Game, for my itunes, have been listening to it all afternoon while my after school kids play, make cardboard homes for their animals, draw, read, make cookies, eat them with peppermint tea, talk. The music was playing during our tea party and I heard one of the songs I had loved from Pandora, so I told the kids the story of this singer songwriter who sings so beautifully and plays the guitar just as I’ve always wished I could.

It’s not an easy story to share with kids. Mr. Frank began his career as a guitarist after a tragedy in his youth. His school burned, along with most of his classmates and teachers in it, and he was burned over much of his body. While recuperating, he entered the world of music. When he got his insurance settlement at age 21, he moved to London, where he shared a flat with Paul Simon and a group of singer songwriters. Paul Simon produced his one and only successful album. which I have been listening to today, now including pieces produced later, when Mr. Frank’s life was in disarray. After his money ran out he went back to the States where he struggled with mental illness, was homeless for many years, and was guided by another musician to another round of songwriting and record producing later in his life, before dying at in middle age from pneumonia.

The kids listened intently. On one hand I worried about scaring them. On the other hand, it is a story among many of individuals who made great art out of tragedy, and so I shared this perspective with the kids. Not sure it made sense. Some day it will.

Enjoy a little Jackson C. Frank this rainy afternoon. Melancholy, beautiful music it took me forty five years to find, nice to know of another treasure in the world awaiting my discovery. As my friend said last night, listening to Pandora could get expensive for me. We’ll see. I’m tired as can be of my itunes, need an infusion of new words and sounds to bring me home.