Agency

JCOne day last week I made my way up the stairs to record my arrival on the attendance sign-in sheet. At the landing, one of our youngest boys looked me in the eye, holding up two quarters. “Hey, Mark, I’ve got to go downstairs and pay my attendance fine!” (At Fairhaven, people who forget to record their attendance owe fifty cents.) Both his delight and his seriousness were obvious. He turned and headed downstairs to the office, all business.

This minor episode stuck with me all week, an exclamation mark on a week filled with dramatic and mundane events- a School Meeting discussion to remove a student for non-attendance; helping a teary, hungry girl find her missing lunch; playing frisbee on the field; checking in with parents and students in conferences; rushing out to visit the young man who had a minor traffic accident just up the road; hanging out in the sunlit Mears Room, now that the Aesthetics clerk (by way of School Meeting) has moved the gamers to the underused room next door.

One lens that helps me watch the rise and fall of students’ days here is the lens of agencythe state of being in action or of exerting power; operation.

Each day, each moment, are the students actively directing their lives? Metaphor always helps: Are they the captains of their ships? Yes, it’s more comfortable when they avoid the shoals, but sometimes danger accelerates growth and learning, at sea and in life. Most important is the hand on the tiller and movement. Are they active? Are they making their own choices and living with the consequences? If so, they are exemplifying agency and taking advantage of what Fairhaven offers.

The democratic processes at Fairhaven embody this concept of agency to an extent that is unique to Sudbury schools. Only here do the young people serve and adjudicate on JC. Visitors from the Clearview Sudbury startup group sat in on a typical JC mess case this week. Although the details may have seemed trifling- who left the wood from the shop outside? Was she authorized? How about the plastic?- the JC process was orderly, earnest, and egalitarian, as real a civics lesson as a school could possibly hope to have. Of course, here students access this power every day.

Only in Sudbury schools can a student or staff member have a notion to change something or to make something happen at school and immediately act on it. As I rounded the corner, I could still hear the boy’s two-risers-at-a-time footfalls as he leaped the stairs to go pay his fine. Another student was writing her idea on the agenda for School Meeting: “Move: End the Cleaning Committee.” As she’s told me in previous conversations, she finds compulsory chores unfair and antithetical to Sudbury philosophy. She put the pen down and got on with her day. We both looked forward to the debate.

Still, she was already headed for her next activity. Agency– the state of being in action or of exerting power; operation. On the inland sea that is Fairhaven, while the democratic processes chart the course, it is her freedom that provides the steadfast agency, that puts the wind in her sails.

Mark McCaig

Fairhaven School, March 2009

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