As we embark upon our fifteenth year, in my mind, certain students flash before me: the skateboarder, the actor/director, the video gamer, and the dancer. All four of them have lived full lives at school, but their school-age years were consumed with their passions. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year the skateboarder practiced his tricks. The gamer played, learned computer programming, then designed video games. The actor acted in plays, then he wrote and directed his own. The dancer, still enrolled, spends most of her free time in the studio, training for the ballet.
While some students use Fairhaven School as a place to learn and experience a variety of activities and interests, some use the independence of a Sudbury education to become specialists. Unfettered by someone else’s idea of how they should prioritize their time (and liberated from homework), they discover and pursue something with a single-mindedness that is, to this observer, breathtaking. Their dedication and growth calls to mind the older construct of apprenticing with experts, of creating a relationship to an art form or a pursuit that is all-consuming.
It comes as no surprise, then, when we hear from the gamer that he is now pursuing his Master’s in Computer Science (having completed his Bachelor of Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation.) Or when we hear the periodic updates from the professional skateboarder about his accomplishments and sponsorships. We are even not surprised when the actor/director has now set his sights on environmental science. Their discipline, focus, and dedication translate into one thing: a life with purpose.
The other day in a radio interview I heard the director Steven Sodergergh talk about his high school years:
“High school, I never cracked a book. I mean, I got by just on the fact that I read a lot and sort of coasted on what I knew, but every waking moment during that period I was either making a movie, reading about a movie or seeing a movie if I was awake. And [my father] just let it happen, you know. He was very supportive because he loved movies, too.
“And, I think, at a certain age — I’ve had this happen with my daughter, who has a pretty remarkable singing voice, and when I saw her perform as a 9th grader in the lead of a school play, to see your child do something that you could never do is a great moment. And I think [my father] saw very quickly that I was doing things that he would have never been able to do.”
He sounds like one of our students. I don’t know what matters more, Soderbergh’s dedication to the movies, or his father’s letting it happen. Regardless, in his formative years, he gained that focus, that drive.
What prevents our specialists from becoming too specialized? What provides the grounding contours to their school-age lives? My sense is that the other elements of Fairhaven School- their friends, the democratic processes of the school, the countless other activities on campus- crucially offset the primary activity. No matter how good they become in their chosen pursuit, they still have to meet the sponsors, succeed at auditions, and work in design teams. They have to be successful people, not just skilled practitioners.
Who will be the next specialist at school? Will it be one of the musicians? Will it be the girl sewing stuffed animals in the Art Room? The current events and history fanatic? All of them might just be heading down the path toward one possible Fairhaven School outcome: specialization.