Giving Letter 2023

Tuesday, November 28, 2023 

Greetings Friend of Fairhaven School,

I hope this letter finds you well.

My name is Ben Umstead. I’m an alum of the school, and I’m here to tell you a story about play.

On a recent episode of the Fairhaven Stream podcast, staff member Mark McCaig asked me how I would describe my time as a student at Fairhaven.

My initial response was: “It was normal.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Normal is a startling word to describe the democratic culture of Fairhaven. It’s far more common that the school is called “special” or “miraculous,” or the largely meaningless “different.” Such ways to describe Fairhaven often arise from adults who are coming from outside the school’s culture, or in my case, with the hindsight of twenty-two years living outside of that culture.

So when I say “it was normal,” I mean it was natural. As a child who was educated in or adjacent to the Sudbury model, I simply didn’t know any other way of being. Ask any long-time student at Fairhaven, and I’m sure they’d agree with me.

Now, while each student’s normal is unique to their passions and endeavors (as well as their circles of friends and personal level of interest in the way a democracy is run,) living and learning in a place that honors and nurtures the natural rhythms of childhood is precisely why we call Fairhaven School a “special place.”

Just over 25 years ago, in September of 1998, that special place officially opened its doors. For me, that natural rhythm actually preceded the school’s first day. It had been with me at least since the fall of 1995, when my family joined the McCaigs and several other families in realizing a joint vision of a Sudbury school in Maryland. As one of a handful of students that had participated in the experimental co-op years prior to Fairhaven proper, that rhythm was thriving in me by the time the now affectionately called “Old Building” came to be.

So with many more children to join, the twelve majestic acres to explore, and increased resources to utilize, what did I do with my time at Fairhaven? I continued to play. I made stop-motion animated films with the abundance of LEGO bricks the school owned. I also ran the LEGO Corp. I then created dozens of live-action films with my friends. These endeavors led us to put on a weekly improv show that packed the Meeting Room (now the Art Room) to bursting.

What I learned through such direct and intense play is how leadership, cooperation and collaboration go hand-in-hand with acts of creation and expression.  Through practice, this union is what felt normal to me. What felt natural. Learning to speak and act from my truth while also learning to respect other people’s truth was the ultimate gift of Fairhaven. It’s a gift that has grown within me every day of my adult life, and has served me well as an award-winning filmmaker, critic and film festival programmer.

As we celebrate a quarter century of the school, I ask you to consider a future world where the equitable, creative and empathic culture of Fairhaven thrives well beyond its campus. Today’s students are the seeds of this most vital change we so greatly need in the world.

This change can also extend to you! Your tax-deductible donation to the Tuition Assistance fund, no matter how small, allows families to access this marvelous education that may not otherwise be available to them.

Please click here to donate today and help insure the future of this special place.

Warm regards,

Ben Umstead

Class of 2001

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