When my son entered a Sudbury school, he was not yet a reader and this worried many of the people that we knew. He spent his days building forts, talking and playing with friends, and boasting to his friends in “regular” school that he did not have to wear shoes or learn anything at all. He was seven.
God only knows why this was OK with me; I clearly remember the intense desire to ‘crack the code’ of letters and words, and it was obvious to me almost from the beginning of my son’s life that this was not something we shared. Letters and words are, in a way, too two-dimensional for him, too precise. Once things are out of his head and articulated, they are too final. Even now the written word is not a part of his creative process; he simply remembers everything. But I knew that he would learn to read, and that he did not need to be enticed, badgered or embarrassed in order to learn. So I watched him pass a few years without really caring about reading, and then one week I watched him read the last Harry Potter book on his own. He was ten.
This is not a reassuring scenario for many parents. It’s practically an advertisement for not sending your child to a Sudbury school. How could I just stand by and allow my child to remain illiterate for so long? I could have hired a tutor, or worked with him at home, or sent him to a traditional school where he would have been sure to learn to read at grade level. But the reality was more nuanced than it seemed. He was doing a lot of casual reading every day, reading signs and cereal boxes, following along with Captain Underpants, and going over the Pokémon books on his own, for example. He kept much of this to himself, knowing there was a great deal of power, most of it emotional, that other people conferred on his ability to read. He did not let on that he could read at an ‘everyday’ level. He was like a magician, pulling a reading rabbit out of a hat. It was a game, a trick.
Now he is engaged in another form of illusion, another hot-button issue that worries many adults who are involved in his life or who are looking for examples of how Sudbury kids waste their time and do not do anything serious, anything worthy. He is a gamer. I see him playing games every day, all of the time. He loves games, really loves them. He prepares for a day at school by going through his complicated collection of Magic cards, assembling decks that he hopes to ride to victory. He plays with anyone who is willing, and he is not exclusive in the games he will play. He’ll play almost anything. He goes through phases, where one particular game will rise to prominence over all others. One week it is Magic or poker, one month it is World of Warcraft. He’ll spend a few days beating a video game, and for variety he’ll play Apples to Apples or some other board game that is currently hot. He’ll exhaust a game and go back to it later and find more joy in it. He is twelve.
The trust I had in him when he was seven is still there. What he is doing is not a waste of his time; he is developing social and strategic skills, and many more strengths I don’t recognize. Part of me feels that it is unfair to try to parse his gaming to extract some reassuring list of accomplishments. He does not play to further a long-range plan, he does it purely for the joy of it. I mention skills because I know that parents worry about them and want to see the light at the end of the dark tunnel. But for him there is nothing dark about what he loves, no light beckoning to him. He knows how he wants to turn this love of his into a vocation, and he has been actively getting to know video game designers and getting advice on what to study, where to do it, and what he needs to know before he gets to college. He meets these developers at a big gaming store where they get together and play Magic. He plays with them (and has begun beating them).
I have had moments of anxiety about all of this, most of them caused by conversations with people I know who are critical of our decision to raise a Sudbury student. But the faith I have in him is always there to reassure me. I am very glad that I have not spent the last six years wondering when he is going to ‘get serious’.