Fearless Communicator

Hanging Out: A Critical Step in Becoming “A Fearless Communicator”

The most difficult element of the Sudbury Valley School (SV) experience to explain to parents is the value derived from their children just hanging out. This paper will attempt to demonstrate that hanging out is a critical period that enables each student to find his/her self-confidence through an experience that defines the elements of conversation and yields a level of self-confidence revealed in one student’s label for all graduates of Sudbury Valley: “fearless communicators”.

Hanging out is a cornerstone of the Sudbury experience. Finding one’s voice in this arena for developing skills of self-expression is a critical step in the self-confidence building sequence. The process of hanging out has raised questions in my mind, as it has in that of many parents. Jim Rietmulder, one of the founders of the Circle School, has said to me that it is the most difficult process to explain to parents. Many parents wonder, “what earthly value is derived from my kid just hanging out with others for long periods of time?” Observing the process in action yields little insight into the dynamics and importance of this process.

I have spent some time reading the 2001 student defenses presented to the entire student body as one of the final steps prior to graduating from Sudbury Valley School. (Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 30 No. 6, June 2001) In most of the defenses the author covers his/her process of coming out or establishing a self-identity in the hanging out arena. It occurred to me that these defenses represent a source of data that has been left untapped. I have now read and reread these 21 defenses in order to identify the critical elements of growth that most students seem to follow, especially those who have had a bad public school experience and transferred to Sudbury Valley for the last three to six years of their education. Others have written about the transition process so I will not go into those details here other than to provide a brief outline of the experience. (See “Challenges of the Transition Time” by Deborah Lundbech, Red Cedar School, Bristol, VT.) My focus is on what occurs as each child establishes a presence within the community, as well as discussing ways that the Sudbury experience reinforces and builds student communication skills, yielding a graduating class of “fearless communicators”.

Many incoming students arrive on campus with a very low level of self-esteem, having been truly defeated by the public school system. Some have been on anti-depressants, others with medications for ADHD. One student recalls, “My guidance counselor told my parents that I would either have dropped out of school or would be dead by sixteen.” All arrive impressed and unbelieving that a school such as Sudbury even exists. As a whole, most are shy and find some secure place to begin the transition process. Some escape to the barn and find solace in the computers and slowly establish friendships among other computer geeks. Others find a secluded corner and immerse themselves in reading. Then, as one student put it, ” … I watched, I soaked in everything that was going on around me. I gave the false pretense of reading and just sat there, quietly watching everyone, in the middle of the school’s old hub for social activity.” The time comes when an issue is raised that excites the listener to speak his/her mind. What is so impressive is that in this type of situation is that the opinion is heard and respected. The respect that is shown each individual by other more established students is a critical element in facilitating a newcomer’s progress in building self- esteem. Friendships emerge within small groups and a student’s social life at SV is launched. “I started sitting in on conversations, talking briefly to people I had just met, and found myself wanting to learn,” one student commented once he had established himself among the card playing, game playing, forever talking group. He had come of age and began to believe in his own potential. Another student states, “One thing that amazed me when I first came were the conversations people were having, I mean here were kids, not even as old as I was, discussing world politics under their own free will!” Later she goes on to say, “You can learn much more about the world by talking to your peers than you can in any classroom. To this day, I still spend nearly every minute of my time at school talking to people.” Another student wrote, ” I was inspired by the respect the community has for the individual and started to come out of my shell by initiating conversations. After noticing that I too was being treated with respect, I felt validated.”

In so many cases this process includes listening. For example: “These days I find myself on the couch in the quiet room just relaxing and hanging out with my friends. I talk some, but mainly listen to what other people say. I am trying to figure out life and it as an ongoing process.” Another relates, “My time was spent talking with friends, playing outside, reading books, walking in the woods and always listening. So much of what I learned came from listening to other people.” In these quotes we become aware of the easy pace of the self-directed students in the Sudbury Valley setting.  This stands in stark contrast with the stress students experience in traditional education settings.

Somewhere in this mix a student experiences the Judicial Committee either through having been written up or through direct participation. At SV a student is invited, really obligated, to become a member of the J C. Here our once shy student is immersed in the “becoming a responsible citizen” dimension of the school. Issues must be carefully heard, pro and con arguments sought and discussed, with judgments and consequences agreed to. Clear arguments are presented, and critical thinking evolves and is reinforced in this setting. One’s ability to look at the facts surrounding cases with the resulting consequences is an additional enabling element of future Fearless Communicator. Another student added, “holding an official position was a really rewarding experience. During the spring of that year I was elected JC Clerk. The JC clerks are right at the center of the whole judicial process, and I think it is the most important position in the school’s government.”  “… our JC was presented with a complaint to which I felt very strongly, and I vented my thoughts. It felt wonderful. I was listened to, and my views were respected. It was around that time that I realized how important the JC is to the school and how it really functions.”

The final honing of communication skills comes as one gains sufficient confidence to speak out at school meetings. Forming arguments and presenting them to the attending body of students, (often exceeding 75), is a mind-daunting/confidence-building experience. Once overcoming the initial fright our student’s confidence builds as he/she experiences being heard and responded to with respect. One student testifies to this by saying, “Through my adventures in J.C. I learned important lessons about expressing my point of view and articulating my thoughts. These proved very handy once I started attending meetings of the Computer Corporation and the School Meeting, where I could raise my hand and have everybody listen to what I had to say,” later adding, “serving on JC not only helped me realize that my opinions were more important than I gave them credence, but it aided me in other ways. I felt confident enough to speak freely on the School Meeting floor, despite the fact that speaking in front of a crowd has always mortified me.” “I started going to JC and School Meetings on a regular basis. At first I was inhibited to speak during School Meetings because for so long I was told that, as a student, my opinions were invalid, but this fear was quickly washed away by my strong opinions and the openness in which they were received. For the first time I felt I had a voice that mattered in my school community.”

Other experiences such as internships and part-time jobs further enriches student confidence in communication, as noted in the following statement: “Recently, I gave a security presentation in front of a few hundred people at the Microsoft TechNet Convention, which was held at the Hynes Convention Center. Preparing and delivering that presentation was one of the scariest things I have ever done. The good news is that it showed me that if I set my mind on something and give it strong enough effort, I will successfully complete it.”

Highlighting these elements doesn’t do service to the total SV experience. Once a student has overcome the initial shyness, he/she is immersed in a community whose survival is dependent on interpersonal communication. Repeating various aspects of this sequence over the course of three or more years yields an expert in the art of communication. “If someone were to ask me what the most important thing I have taken from my SVS education is, I would say, “The ability to communicate fearlessly”. This seems to be an almost universal characteristic of SVS alumni, and having gained that skill alone is reason enough for me to be grateful for the years I’ve spent here.”

This paper derives its power from the voices of the 21 Fearless Communicators in the Sudbury Valley School graduating class of ‘01. The multiple years spent at the Sudbury Valley School represents the emergence of one’s self-esteem where the graduate gains confidence in his/her strengths, limitations, and goals for the future. Participation in hanging out follows a pattern: A newcomer joining a cluster of students listens for an extended period, finally expresses a thought, and is surprised and gratified by its acceptance.  Self-confidence is gained as further contributions become a new accepted norm. This hanging out pattern can be observed occurring whenever young and old gather to explore ideas of mutual interest.

Ray Hartjen, East Hampton, NY
February 1, 2002

For more on “Hanging Out” and how it is effectively used in the adult world click here

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