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Romey Pittman thinks playing is underrated. Many grown-ups frown on the whole notion. But for Pittman and her colleagues at the Fairhaven School, playing isn’t the same as wasting time. In fact, it’s a major part of the school’s curriculum.

It’s a Thursday morning in early May, and school staffer Pittman is explaining her philosophy on playing to a handful of parents on a tour of Fairhaven, a small private school in Upper Marlboro, Md. Pittman gestures at an alcove that branches off from the school’s main hallway, where a couple of kids are milling about in what Pittman calls “deep play.”

Deep play, according to Pittman, occurs when children are given enough time, space, and freedom to push their imaginations and creativity to the max. At most schools, she says, deep play gets smothered by overbearing adults and their misguided efforts to corral youthful energy in lifeless classrooms. Fairhaven’s 60 or so students, who range in age from 5 to 18, are free to play all day. “I wish I spent more time playing,” says Pittman.

The next stop on the tour is “rock ‘n’ roll land.” To the naked eye, it looks like a walk-in closet. Pittman explains that once the soundproofing is complete, the space will serve as a music room.

A teenager dressed in camouflage pops into the room and says hello to Pittman. His arm is bleeding from a scab. She asks what happened.

“Capture the flag,” he tells her. Pittman elaborates: Once a year, the school community divides the campus in two and plays a massive game of capture the flag. It’s intense. And a lot of fun. And everyone is invited to play.

Fairhaven will see deeper wounds in the coming weeks.

Pittman leads the parents across the hall to the computer room. Taped to the outside of the door, under the heading “10 Authorized Games for May” is a list of video games, including Starcraft, Enter the Matrix, and Mech Warrior 4.

Inside, a couple of boys are sitting in front of computers, deeply engrossed in some sort of cyber warfare. Pittman explains that it’s up to the “Computer Corporation” to monitor the video games, only 10 of which are allowed on the Fairhaven network at any one time.

At Fairhaven, students and staff members serve on “corporations,” which are essentially oversight committees that provide expertise on a particular activity. The corporations maintain and license the supplies for that activity. There is an Art Corporation, a Cooking Corporation, a Pet Corporation, and so on. According to its charter, the Lego Corporation, for example, “determines policies about Legos, maintains Legos, and ensures that they are properly stored.”

“Can the kids play on the computers all day?” asks a member of the tour group.

Indeed they can. The school’s handbook states that at Fairhaven, “all interests are worth pursuing.” That includes video games.

Students at Fairhaven are required to spend at least five hours a day at school from Monday through Friday. They must sign in when they arrive and sign out when they leave. In between, they can do whatever they want. Watch movies. Play video games. Shoot hoops. Or grapple with other students in the Fairhaven Fight Club.

What happens if a student becomes addicted to video games?

Not to worry, says Pittman. Most kids get bored with the games eventually. If not, another student will eventually intervene. “There are probably a few, too, who will end up designing video games for a living,” says Pittman. “So it’s appropriate that they spend a lot of time playing them.”

In theory, students at Fairhaven can take classes on anything, from computer science to spelling to astronomy to Japanese. Pittman says she is currently leading several classes, including an essay-writing course and a book-discussion group. A big class at Fairhaven might have three students.

Fairhaven lacks the resources and expertise to teach certain classes, especially science courses. If a student wants to take physics, for instance, Fairhaven will recommend that the student study the subject at a community college.

There are no grades at Fairhaven, unless a student asks for them. Nobody ever does.

Fairhaven first opened its doors in 1998. The school was founded, in part, by Mark McCaig, a native of Friendship Heights who graduated from Gonzaga High School and holds a master’s in education from Harvard University. The school is based on a model of education developed over the past three-and-a-half decades at the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass. There are dozens of Sudbury-model schools around the world, but Fairhaven is the first in the D.C. area.

McCaig says his teaching philosophy is based in part on his own educational history. He admits that he did well in traditional, or “coercive,” education, cruising through high school and excelling in college. But when he finally “came up for air” after college, he felt lost. “I spent a good decade struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” says McCaig. “If I had gone to a school like this, I wouldn’t have had that sense of floundering in my 20s.”

Fairhaven’s philosophy places a premium on self-discovery. The basic idea: If you strip away all of school’s requirements, students will eventually discover what it is that they love in life. Then they will pursue their passions tirelessly. That, Fairhaven’s founders argue, is education. That is learning. And no amount of force-fed arithmetic or rote memorization will ever teach it. Students must discover how to learn on their own.

“We don’t have a curriculum,” says McCaig. “But if I had to say what our curriculum is, it’s communication. And it’s about deciding what you want and figuring out how to get it.”

Figuring out what you want from Fairhaven is difficult at first, says Michael Fizdale, 15, who has been a student at the school for five years. In response to the staggering amount of free time, Michael says, he used to plan out elaborate schedules for every day of school—say, an hour for math, an hour for grammar, an hour for socializing.

But before long, Michael scrapped his system. It never worked. Once he got to school each day, all of the previous evening’s good intentions would wash away in the currents of adolescent energy that swirl through the halls of Fairhaven. “It took me a while before I could just say to myself, Hey, this isn’t public school. I can relax,” says Michael.

If Michael were still enrolled in the Prince George’s County public school system, he would be a freshman taking the usual slate of subjects: English, history, science, math. At Fairhaven, he’s taking piano lessons and a class on essay-writing that meets once a week. Someday, Michael hopes to be a Broadway performer, and all the free time at Fairhaven allows him to take acting classes and voice lessons outside of school.

“Acting is my passion,” says Michael. “If I still went to public school, I would have been like, ‘No way, There’s no money in acting. I should be a lawyer or a doctor.’ But here I have so much more time to explore acting and be myself.”

These days, Michael does have a routine—of sorts. He likes to spend the first hour of his day reading. Midmorning, he likes to plant himself in the administrative offices and converse with staff members and other students. Toss in a few hours for school bureaucracy and some time for skateboarding, and, voilà, the day is done.

Anchoring the middle section of Michael’s day is something called the Judicial Committee. The J.C., as everyone calls it, is Fairhaven’s equivalent of a municipal courthouse—only the proceedings are a lot more fun. And day after day, the J.C. is a major draw.

Shortly before noon on Monday morning in May, McCaig picks up the Law Book and heads for a unadorned room off the central hallway in Fairhaven’s new building. Michael follows.

Fairhaven may be devoid of structure, but it isn’t a school without rules. It’s a democracy, not an anarchy, and one that rivals American society at large in litigiousness. At the start of the 2002-#2003 school year, the Fairhaven Law Book included 452 rules. Reading through them, you get the sense that there is a story behind every one: Herein is the misbehavior of the past, captured, codified, and preserved as law. Who can read Law 4-51-00, “People have to be certified to use bows and arrows at school,” or Law 3-45-07, “School pillows are not to be used for pillow fighting,” without picturing past shenanigans?

At the J.C., a team of jurors, whose membership rotates every two weeks, enforces the school rules, cracking down on the antics of their peers. Two J.C. clerks, who are elected at school meetings, preside over the hearings. Today, Michael is serving as a juror; McCaig is acting as a J.C. clerk.

Students at Fairhaven can accuse anyone of anything, anytime. To register a formal accusation, no specific rule has to be cited. That’s for the jury to decide. Instead, the plaintiff must write a detailed description of the offense and deposit the complaint form in a plastic bin, which hangs on a bulletin board next to the attendance sheets in the main hallway of the new building.

The J.C. convenes every day at noon unless there are no new complaints since the previous day’s meeting. Nobody at the school seems to remember the last time that happened. There are always fresh grievances; there is always the J.C.

Today, McCaig sorts through a thick stack of allegations. The day’s first case involves a group of teenagers written up by a staff member for chasing one of their friends through the hallway and causing a ruckus. The plaintiff, who witnessed the chase, is unavailable, leaving McCaig to present the case on the basis of the complaint report, which he reads out loud.

Law 3-20-04 states: “Chase games, games involving projectiles and ball play, except juggling in a reasonable manner, must take place outside.” Law 3-20-03 states: “No roughhousing is allowed in the building or on the porches. Roughhousing is defined as rough physical contact or activity including but not limited to pushing, shoving, wrestling, rolling around and jumping on or over the furniture.”

“We have to decide whether or not this is chase games inside the building or roughhousing,” says McCaig.

“I’d like to say that it was roughhousing and not chase games, because we were really trying to hurt him,” says one of the defendants. “It wasn’t a game.”

“OK, thank you for that clarification,” says McCaig. He asks if any of the other teenagers have something to add.

“In my defense,” volunteers the chasee, “I think it’s basic human survival skills to run when you’re getting beat up.”

In the end, three teenagers plead guilty. Another pleads no contest. McCaig makes a motion to ban all of them from the school lounge—a prime spot for rainy-day socializing—until the end of the day. The jurors vote unanimously in favor of the punishment. The sentence will eventually be posted for public viewing on the school bulletin board.

Next up is the gum-stealing incident. A student has been accused of going into a student’s car and removing a pack of gum. Again, the plaintiff cannot be found. Without the eyewitness testimony, the case seems pointless. “There’s no evidence that anyone ate the gum,” notes Michael.

The case is dropped.

Throughout the process, students come in and out of the room—some to testify, some to defend themselves, some to enjoy the spectacle. Throughout the first couple of cases, Zach Lyons, an 18-year-old whose mother, Lisa Lyons, is a staff member at the school, has been watching and occasionally commenting on cases. Now it’s Zach’s turn to take the stand. Staff member John Green has accused Zach of having left skateboarding ramps in the parking lot the previous Friday. “I can’t believe John wrote me up,” says Zach, on his way to a chair at the front of the room. “I’m going to write John up for writing me up.”

Michael has kept a low profile through most of the cases so far, but now he perks up. Like the defendant, Michael is a member of the Skateboarding Corporation. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Michael has not recused himself from the jury.

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McCaig pushes to hold the Skateboarding Corporation accountable for its mess. Zach and Michael, defendant and juror, resist.

“I make a motion to drop,” says Zach, after several minutes of back-and-forth between McCaig and the skateboarders. “We’ll clean it up, now that we know it’s a problem.”

Michael and two of the other jurors back Zach’s motion. The case is dropped. McCaig looks from juror to juror in mock disbelief: “Groupies.”

McCaig and others named Fairhaven after the town where he lives, on the western shore of the Chesapeake. Years ago, during one of its earliest incarnations, the school was located in Fairhaven. When it relocated to Upper Marlboro, it kept the name. According to McCaig, Fairhaven used to be a harbor town where boats escaped the hellbroth of the Atlantic. The name remains apropos: These days, students looking to elude the turbulence of other schools often find safe harbor at Fairhaven.

But the howling anxiety of parents always lurks just offshore. To preserve the autonomy of the students, staff members must help keep parents at bay.

Parents are welcome to participate in the School Assembly, at which students, staff members, board members, and parents congregate periodically to make decisions concerning such things as tuition, budgets, and staff salaries. For some parents, that’s not enough.

Too bad. “We must confess that there is such a thing as too much parent involvement,” reads a pamphlet called “Parents and Fairhaven School.” “When parents seek to push or even gently manipulate kids into ‘keeping up’ or excelling academically, they often prevent their children from being able to discover such learning in their own time and under their own optimal conditions.”

In other words, too much parental meddling can eclipse the process of self-discovery. For instance, lots of parents want their kids to be taking classes. But the initiative has to start with the student—not with a staff member and definitely not with a parent.

Michael’s mom, Kimberly Fizdale, says she learned firsthand that trying to set up a class directly with staff members is a major faux pas at Fairhaven. A few years ago, when Michael’s older sister, Katie, was at the school, Fizdale asked staff members if they would help her daughter prepare for the SAT. “They looked at me like I had antennae growing out of my head,” she recalls.

She says it wasn’t the last time she felt rebuffed by the staff. “I don’t really feel like I am welcome at the school,” says Fizdale. “[When Katie was in public school], I used to volunteer a lot. Fairhaven has an entirely different set of rules.”

So why do parents keep sending their kids to Fairhaven? Why do they keep paying the annual tuition, which next year will be $6,050?

“For me, it’s 50 percent faith and 50 percent anxiety,” says Fizdale. “You vacillate between thinking this is the most wonderful thing you could do for your child and thinking you’re paving the way to their destruction.

“With the Sudbury model, even though it lacks the opportunities to challenge a kid in algebra and geometry and history, there’s also something, which I can’t deny, that happens there,” Fizdale continues. “I can’t explain it, and I can’t put it on the map, or put it into words. But those kids get so in touch with themselves and with each other. And that skill, when you think about it, is the rock-bottom most important thing you can do. It lays the foundation for everything else.”

Fizdale has that right. The students at Fairhaven could show any legislative body a thing or two about the nuances of community deliberation.

On a rainy Wednesday in mid-May, about 20 students gather in the old building, in a cozy room lined with bookshelves and stacked with puzzles and board games. Students sprawl around the room, slouching on couches, reclining in chairs, lying on top of a rug and on top of each other on the floor. A little after 1:00 p.m., Pittman calls the School Meeting to order. The School Meeting helps determine all new legislation at Fairhaven. (The decisions of the J.C. do not set a legal precedent.) It takes place once a week. Everyone who shows up has an equal vote in all school decisions. Attendance is not mandatory.

For the past 24 hours, Fairhaven has been abuzz with gossip and concern about a traumatic event that has already left its scar on the community. Pittman recounts the gory details: On Tuesday, one of Fairhaven’s students went into a school bathroom and used a razor blade to slit his wrists. Students witnessed the bloody paper towels wrapped around his arms, confronted him about what happened, and alerted staff members.

In the chaos that followed, the depressed student momentarily disappeared, fueling everybody’s anxiety. The student later turned up in the woods, and the staff members immediately called his parents to pick him up. Afterward, the community held an emergency School Meeting, where it was decided that the issue would be addressed at the Wednesday meeting.

The boy in question sits in the corner of the room. He has mussed blond hair and looks to be in his early teens. He is fair-skinned, with deep, dark circles under his eyes. The sleeves of his green hooded sweat shirt are pulled over his hands, hiding his wrists. He has headphones on and is pretending not to listen to Pittman’s monologue.

After rehashing yesterday’s drama, Pittman notes that the incident is part of a broader pattern of bad behavior. The boy has been vandalizing the new building, stabbing the walls or kicking his shoes at the ceiling. Recently, after several such incidents, the J.C. banned him from entering the new facility—a ruling he ignored, landing him in contempt of the J.C.

Recently, a student observed him punching a wall. She asked him to stop and wrote up a grievance report. Later, in the J.C., he blamed the act of vandalism on a sugar high: He was chewing gum at the time of the incident.

Eventually, Pittman makes a motion to informally discuss the situation. Hands shoot up all around the room, and Pittman writes down the name of everyone who wishes to speak.

A teenage girl introduces a motion to have a meeting with the kid’s parents, which she and two of her friends would attend. Afterward, several other girls make motions and amendments to include themselves or their friends in said meeting.

Finally, Max Neely-Cohen jumps in and moves to table the motion about the meeting until after the group settles the primary issue at hand: what to do about the student’s future at Fairhaven.

Max is the school’s resident law expert. (Full disclosure: Max’s father, a law professor at Georgetown University, is a friend of mine.) As Fairhaven’s sitting law clerk, Max spends a lot of time poring over the minutiae of the Law Book and updating its contents. Max describes the School Meetings as “bureaucratic hell,” but despite his caustic summary, he revels in the meetings. As one staff member says, “Max loves to try and catch us breaking the rules.”

“This is a great idea, but I think we jumped into it prematurely,” says Max. The original motion is tabled.

Pittman then pontificates about what’s best for the troubled teen. “I’m scared about having [him] here,” she says. “The risk to the school and to [the student] are more than is tolerable to me. First, there’s his ongoing need or feeling to mess up the new building in some way. It makes me feel like he needs to be watched. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t think it fits in with the mission of this school.”

Pittman moves to have the student “disenrolled.” McCaig seconds the motion.

Shortly thereafter, Erica Manganiello, a student who is about to graduate from Fairhaven, develops what will become the strongest counterargument.

“I understand what you’re saying,” says Erica. “But I think that’s bad.”

She turns to her unhappy classmate. “Do you want to be here?”

“Yes,” he answers.

“Do you like it here?” she asks. “Do you like the people?”

“Yes.”

“There’s got to be some other way of dealing with this, or solving this, other than disenrolling,” she says. “He’s been so nice to me the last couple of weeks. And he’s made me laugh. Is there some other way we can solve this?”

Another girl, sitting next to Erica on the couch, speaks. “I don’t know [him] that well, but I know he’s a cool person,” she says. “And I know people will look out for him….He’s a human being. He’s not a problem we can just get rid of.”

Yet another girl from the same couch joins the growing coalition. “Before I came to Fairhaven, my old school threatened to expel me because I was talking about suicide,” she says. “This is not a solution. I don’t think Fairhaven should be the kind of place that gets rid of problem students.”

Eventually, it’s Max’s turn to speak. “I find that in times of school election, the political correctness of the staff is amusing,” he says. “There’s no such thing as ‘unenrollment,’ or ‘disenrollment.’ What we’re talking about is expelling him.

“There has to be a standard here, or the school will self-destruct,” he continues. “Not expelling him might be just as bad for him as expelling him. We can’t know that. Either way, the message has to be that you can’t be here if you continue to ignore the rules of the J.C.”

A few minutes later, staff member Lyons addresses Max’s comments. “We don’t use the word ‘expel’ here for a reason,” she says.

The claim throws Max into a tizzy, and he runs out of the room to grab the Law Book. He returns a few minutes later, holding the binder open to a page that uses the word “expel.” He is out of breath and triumphant. As Max makes his way back to his seat, Erica looks up at him and, using her thumb and forefinger, makes an L on her forehead.

In the meantime, the discussion continues, with most comments falling into one of two camps: expel the troubled student for his own good, or keep him at Fairhaven for his own good. The staff members support the former view. But there are only five staff members present. To win the vote, they need to convince others.

Lyons explains that she used to teach at another Sudbury-model school, where a few suicidal students kept showing up on campus after huffing gas or swallowing pills. “It was terrifying for everyone else,” says Lyons. “For years, I fought bitterly against anyone having to leave the school. But that eventually changed. We cannot provide serious help. All we can provide is our friendship. And boy, does [our student] need more than our friendship.”

McCaig attempts to sway the majority toward expulsion. “It’s the main question that we ask here in the admissions process: ‘Can you take care of yourself?’” says McCaig. “I don’t think he can do that.

“I can’t communicate with him on a level that feels real,” McCaig continues. “And that is frightening. We have systems here, and we’re going through them, and they’re not working. He’s openly defiant of the J.C. verdicts. I don’t see how this could work. We could hire a counselor. We could hire a therapist. But then this would cease to be the school that it is and would have to become something completely different.”

Eventually, the kid on trial speaks in his own behalf. “Everybody in my family thinks this is a good place for me,” he says. “Can you imagine what it would be like for me if I had to go back to public school now? Nobody talks to you in public school. And I already decided a long time ago that I’m not going to kill myself.”

More discussion follows, and Pittman amends her motion so that the student would be suspended indefinitely until the end of the year, not expelled. The tactic is made in an apparent attempt to broaden the coalition of the willing.

Once again, the young man speaks on his own behalf: “I can’t guarantee that I’ll never punch a wall again,” he says. “But I can say that I’ll follow the J.C. rules.”

“Why can’t you make a guarantee?” asks Erica.

“Well, it’s the future,” he answers. “You can predict what will happen in the future. But you can’t guarantee anything in the future.”

“I can guarantee right now that I will never punch a wall while I’m here at school,” says Erica. “I guarantee it.”

“You can’t guarantee anything in the future,” he reiterates. “You can’t guarantee that tomorrow somebody won’t assassinate George Bush.”

“I can’t guarantee that George Bush won’t get assassinated,” says Zach a few minutes later. “But I can guarantee that I won’t assassinate him.”

At last, a motion is made to call for a vote.

“All in favor?” says Pittman. She counts 11 hands in support of the indefinite suspension.

“All against?” she asks. There are nine opposed.

The motion, which needs a two-thirds majority, does not carry. The floor is again open. The student in the green sweat shirt introduces a motion to give himself two hours of community service.

Zach speaks out against the motion. After all, the student cut his wrists at school, not at home. “What people do after school is their business,” says Zach. “They can be bin Laden if they want. But I think this should be a much stiffer sentence.”

About 15 minutes later, after yet another round of speechmaking, Max makes a motion to reconsider the initial motion for suspension.

Eventually, the opposition sags. There is another call for a vote.

“All in favor?” Thirteen hands. “All against?” Three-and-a-half hands. (Erica raises hers halfway.) The motion passes.

After nearly two hours of debate, the community has reached a verdict—not a consensus but a majority decision. The student in the green sweat shirt accepts the sentence without complaint and walks quietly out of the room for one last stroll through Fairhaven en route to his parents’ car, which is waiting outside to whisk him away. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.