Chapter 17 The Things That Didn’t Work

Chapter 17            The things that didn’t work

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

          ___Leonard Cohen

When interviewed on CBC Radio on September 12, 1993, Leonard Cohen said:

          There is this inherent flaw in all human enterprise, an apparent flaw.  But that apparent flaw is precisely where the light manifests.  And if it weren’t there, we would have some notion that what we’re doing is finished; whereas we know in our hearts that it isn’t finished, that it isn’t complete and it is just in that sense of incompletion that we glimpse the notion of the complete, of the absolute.

Jane Thom, whose son Aaron went to Sundance from October 1987 to June 1990, writes:

We found it to be a place with flaws, but with caring people listening and responding as best they could; they have our family’s deep gratitude.  The teachers tried to support every child’s individual needs, really a gigantic task.

Leni Hoover who, with her husband Neap and their two children, Phil and Sally, was part of Sundance, from 1974 to 1984, writes:

I thought the expectations put on the staff upsetting – that children should be “free” and then also cover the regular curriculum.  I think teachers should teach what they have a passion for and children exposed to that can transfer the approach to other interests.  If a teacher loves and knows music, the teacher should focus on that rather than teach some art, too (which they may find messy.) 

Leni goes on to say:

We had been involved in forming a small alternative school at Simon Fraser UniversitySundance at the beginning did “harmonize” with our own philosophy.  Over the years the school moved to more and more structure – it did move back in a less structured direction when Paul became principal but never back to what it was in the first years.  That movement to more structure and control was very upsetting to me personally – like loss of a vision.

I know that we tried to address all the problems we saw.  Teachers tried to keep track of what kids knew or wanted to learn, especially those in their own school family, putting on offerings that covered broad areas of the curriculum and that were attended by most of the children, as well as offerings that were a result of a need or interest of any child, with the hope that it would attract at least a few students.

But as happens in all schools, some children did not have their needs met.  Some children from Sundance went on to high school without knowing parts of speech, fractions or the geography of Canada.  This was, we felt, more than made up for by the social skills they had achieved or the creativity that had been fostered.  For some children, who perhaps had serious “issues” to deal with, or perhaps not, big chunks of their time were spent playing field hockey or digging in the dirt.  We based our acceptance of this on the conviction that kids were whole people and that somewhere inside they knew what they needed to do, that when they were ready to deal with grammar, math or geography, they’d return to the classroom and participate in offerings or sit down with us to make a learning plan.

Some kids left Sundance before they had come in from “Out.”  This was a truth we had to face.  We wanted a Junior High School for these kids.  We wanted one for the kids who knew what they wanted to learn.  We wanted one for kids with different learning styles.  That’s why Peggy Palmer and others led the way for the School Board to set up the Flexible Studies Program (Flex) at Reynolds Secondary.

Lucky Sundancers who had the Flex alternative!  Many didn’t, and some of those weren’t ready for the inflexibility of a “regular” classroom, and the schools weren’t ready for them.  A certain junior high teacher called one of our former students a “bigmouth.”  The student wasn’t afraid to speak up, and perhaps the student just had a different point of view.  However, Sundancers were often different from other kids their age, seeing themselves as entitled to respect as a person.  I know from speaking with them, that some of the high school teachers braced themselves for our students, anticipating the experience of their authority being challenged by children who had never called a teacher by anything but their first name.

Not all children liked the relaxed, informal style at Sundance.  One little girl left to attend a private school.  She said she loved the way it felt to be in an all-girl class, wearing a uniform.  She enjoyed her time at Sundance, but after visiting the other school, really thought that the private school atmosphere suited her better.  Her mother felt sad to leave, since she’d had such a warm welcome and felt like a part of the family, but supported her daughter’s choice.  Had the parents not let their child decide, this child might have been unsatisfied with her Sundance experience, but she was able to say a cheerful good-bye and move on.

Because Sundance was such a small school, there were fewer programs than were available at larger schools.  When other Victoria elementary schools had full-time teacher-librarians, Sundance had volunteers.  However, for a child who wanted to stay in the library and read for much of the day, Sundance offered an experience that was superior.  Our school could not provide the sports experience that the athletic children wanted, since the numbers in any one skill range were so few.  However, for a child who wanted to practice soccer for hours a day, Sundance was the right choice.

The same pluses and minuses can be delineated for many aspects of Sundance.  What we lacked in one area could be compensated for in others.

Leslie writes:

Not everything was perfect. It was not the best place for every child if they could not be self-directed. The materials were often scattered, and hard to manage as people changed rooms.

Dave Nordstrom has his own perspective of the problems that arose.  He says:

As the Sundance community jelled, there were multiple replays of the relationship issues I had observed in other cooperatives.  It had never occurred to me before that the “professional distance” long-established in school systems was more than status driven.  It is a way of limiting the potential intimacy that results from sharing in the care of children.  Sundance‘s principle of maintaining family groupings over 7 years made this issue even more pressing, as the usual one-year extent of parent-teacher-student contact was self-limiting.

Perhaps some parents thought that teachers should be more available during off-hours, while others thought they ought to limit their involvement to narrower, strictly “school-based” issues. If there were problems, the staff knew that good communication skills could help solve them.  At Sundance we tried to learn how to express feelings; their appropriate expression was taught and valued.  As the years passed, everyone associated with the school worked hard to learn “I statements,” and good communication skills, so that concerns could be discussed in a positive, productive  way.

We were a small school and as such were expensive to operate.  The various School Boards considered closure frequently, nearly every year, as I no doubt imperfectly recall.  Parents would form committees to approach the Board.  They would have heated discussions in the school grounds and parking lot. Each time the existence of Sundance was threatened, emotions were raw and in evidence.  Parents would write letters, bring petitions to school for other parents to sign, and go to School Board meetings to speak for our need to continue.  Naturally, people were passionate, and this fearful, angry passion would cause the children to worry. That was the reality.  The kids could not be a part of the school without hearing that we existed by the grace of the Board, and that we needed to show them we were necessary.  Perhaps it was upsetting to the kids, but they also saw democracy in action.  They saw that when people care enough, they can achieve their goals.  Sundance did not close.  Every year we carried on, thanks to the fantastic support we had from the parents.

I suppose it would have been pleasanter to have not been threatened with closure so often, but then would we have lost some of our idealism?   “What doesn’t kill us makes us strong,” as Nietzsche said.

The flaws in our school reminded us that what we had started wasn’t finished.  There were still cracks in the wall.  The symphony was unfinished.  The marble still concealed some of the sculpture.  We knew we were always striving for something, and that sense of not being finished kept us moving toward the ideal.

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