Freedom Does Not Mean Doing Whatever You Want

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“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Thanks primarily to Spider-Man, this is an expression we have all heard countless times. And yet, nowhere is it more true than at Alpine Valley School. The power that students wield in our environment - the ability to vote on critical issues ranging from setting the school’s budget to approving new laws in the Lawbook - is enormous. In many ways, students at our school have more power and influence over their environment than most adults do (ask anyone who has ever tried to push a new policy through their local government). However, along with that autonomy comes an equal amount of responsibility. At our school, everyone is expected to do what they say they will do, and to follow the laws that School Meeting has set forth.

When I show new people around our campus, their first impression is often one of total unrestricted freedom. “So, I can do whatever I want?” Potential students ask me with wide-eyed wonder. My answer: “Not exactly.” Because, while there is no set curriculum and there are no grades handed out by authority figures at our school, we are all still expected to live within the law and to obey any consequences handed out by the Judicial Committee or School Meeting. Balancing the freedom to decide what you will do every day with adherence to the Lawbook and School Meeting Policies is much more difficult than most people imagine.

For example, let’s say that I want to spend my afternoon building a sprawling Lego metropolis. In order to use the Legos, which are property of Toys & Games Corporation, I must become certified to use the toys. This means that I need to read the rules for the toys and agree to them, in the presence of some authorized individual, with the understanding that if I violate any of the rules my certification can be revoked. Only after I have been certified can I begin to play with the Legos. And then, if I am distracted - say, by a game of four-square happening outside - I cannot simply abandon my Lego city. There is a law in the Lawbook that says we must all clean up after ourselves when making a mess. So, in order to live within the law, I have to delay my other activity long enough to scoop all the Legos back into their bucket and put them back on the shelf, where they belong. Having fulfilled all my obligations, I am now free to move on to another activity, with the awareness that there may be additional regulations involved there as well.

On the surface, this all may sound like a lot of needless bureaucracy. Why does everyone (including the Staff) need to be certified to play with the toys? The reality is that School Meeting sets these regulations in order to keep our Democratic society functioning, as well as to protect the property we have at school. School Meeting is the authority, not an adult acting as Principal or Teacher, and Judicial Committee is the system by which law-breaking is investigated, by a group of peers. The essential message of all of this is: We are all in this together, and we have a responsibility to each other and to our school.

So, while students at our school experience a great deal of freedom and autonomy, they are also challenged to take responsibility for themselves, and the community, to a radical extent.

If you want to hear more stories about life at our school, and how students take responsibility for themselves, consider subscribing to our podcast: Alpine Valley School podcast.

If you’d like to come see for yourself, you can set up a tour.

Marc Gallivan