Alumni Reflect on the Sussex School Experience
By Brittany Wilson-Thompson ‘01
Twenty-two years ago, I graduated from Sussex School. Is that right? I had to double check my calculation. This is what that damn Circle Game song is about, isn’t it? “Yesterday a child went out to wander. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar....” It was sweet at graduations, but it has a whole different punch to the gut as a parent. We really are captive on a carousel of time, and it just speeds up.
Cuddling my four-year-old, Wilma, I focus on soaking up this moment in time. As I think about the Circle Game, I hold her a little closer. There’s still just a hint of baby thigh roll and wrist wrinkles. After surviving our early parenting years in a global pandemic, the kindergarten planning process snuck up on my husband and I. We toured Sussex today and left with a renewed optimism about our child’s future in this world. The campus has illuminated dusty slides in the back of my brain. With the click and hum of a projector, films of the past flicker on the back of my head. Viewing the memories I realize Sussex is not a school, or even a place, in my mind. I identify Sussex as...childhood. A childhood free.
Paige [Wilson] Raven '01 and Brittany Wilson-Thompson '01 during the Sussex Field Trip to Yellowstone in 1997.
For nine years at Sussex, my class was my pack. My “virtual twin”, Paige, also in my class,
magnified the family feeling. As we learned later in life while participating in research with the Twins Study Center, “virtual twin” refers to children of the same age, who are not biologically related, that are reared together since Infancy. My older and younger siblings were the bookends of our sisterhood’s five grade-level span. I knew all of the teachers and parents, by first name of course. Our class made community rules every year, and learned conflict resolution. There were no bells, or grades, or feelings of confinement. Every day was different. I had agency over my day. I could work at the table, the window seat, or often outside. I don’t remember borrowing much worry from the future. I played and learned in the present moment as my authentic self. My mom mothered others.
Other parents watched out for me. It was a village. Every family and staff member had
something unique to contribute. No one had birthday parties as fun and feral as Schandor’s family. Katie and Inkey were the best field trip chaperones, with spacious suburbans, gas station candy, and cool music. Although, the most effective chaperone was Barb. If she’s in your cabin at Camp Paxson you will stay in your bunk after lights out, I can assure you.
When arriving at Sussex with my husband, I pointed to a big tree on the edge of the property. "Faith, Morgan, and I ate lunch up there". Others would spend lunch in the soccer field, digging up treasures in the orchard, shading in the lilac bushes, catching water skippers in the ditch, or playing Magic Cards in the Zap building. There were a few who preferred to be solo, and walk the grounds lost in their brilliant minds, including the black cat, Shadow. I can still hear my kindergarten teacher, Debbie, announcing, "Start up time! Start up time for the Magic Panda Bears!"
My classmates undoubtedly remember Debbie’s gathering call along with all the traditions and celebrations. So much to look forward to at "school". I remember running into the arms of my 8th grade “Big” on the first day of kindergarten, and my little doing the same eight years later. I remember the crackle of the fireplace, the talent show, and mugs of hot cocoa in the Camp Paxson lodge. I remember lighting candles at our Wish for The World ceremonies. Holidays were sacred. Chapters of my heart hold the Bigs/Littles pumpkin carving and donuts-on-a-string for Halloween, in fantastically creative homemade costumes. The joy continued into the next day when we wore pajamas and watched spooky movies. Soon after was the cold and snow. It brought with it the ice skating rink, stringing cranberries and popcorn, baking stained-glass cookies, and Bente’s almond cake before winter break. After the winter holidays, class time was given for building our Valentine’s day boxes and Wild Walk Parade costumes. Excitement heightened on crisp spring mornings, as we loaded food and sleeping bags into the backs of vans. Electricity was in the air as we set off on spring field trips. We always knew inevitable mischief was going to be had, and that we would witness what each parent and teacher looked like at their breaking points. These hallmark Sussex traditions and beloved teaching staff molded childhoods.
In kindergarten, Deb's whimsical spirit and cookie jar entranced us. Steve's incubator of chicken eggs, or Andy's world class read-aloud talents are unforgettable gems. Clear in my mind is the image of Robin’s hands shifting yarn as she taught me to braid. I can still feel the warmth and patience of Kathy explaining fractions to me at lunch, for the 10th time. I marvel now at how lucky I was to have Sheila Miles as an art teacher. Having rediscovered painting and drawing as an adult, my mind replays her advice, "if you look, there are no lines, just shadows". Jennie, whether teaching French, Social Studies, or genuine life lessons could build more confidence in me than any accolade. John's sunny disposition and unwavering optimism overshot reality on occasion. He once assigned me goalie while Frazier, soccer prodigy, was on the field. To John’s credit, my breathless body did block that ball, once, and I lived to tell about it. Jen, not to be confused with Jennie, built our skills and maturity during our sunset 7th and 8th grade years at Sussex. She brought chai, intellect, and pregnant giggle fits to our classroom. It is hard to believe the red-headed baby she was carrying is now a Sussex grad herself. Bente, the reason we were all there after all, opened our eyes to global issues, and was key in instilling my own feminism.
Sussex demonstrated that everyday life can be full of curiosity, creativity, and connection. Learning is supposed to be fun. The community-centered environment was fertile ground for lifelong friendships. Last Fall, I attended the wedding of a Sussex classmate in Ireland. I’m helping plan a baby shower for another alum this summer. I was texting with my 6th grade teacher this Spring. These roots run deep. I feel a sense of pride when it comes up in conversation that I'm a "Sussex Kid ''. We are rare brightly-colored birds that are hard not to notice. We do everything a little differently.
Wilma and author Brittany Wilson-Thompson '01, September 2022.
Sussex, like everything, has not been immune to the inevitability of change. There are more buildings, more kids, and upgraded playgrounds. I sure loved that old tire swing. Underneath the fresh paint, the traditions and culture remain. When we toured through the Zap building, a little freckled face stared down. It is me. My 8th grade portrait. Next to mine were those of little Paige, Emily, Faith, Morgan, Spencer, Chance, and Schandor. The class of 2001. I’m overwhelmed by nostalgia. What I wouldn’t give to hang out with that group for one more morning in Bente’s math class.
Paige clutching a coffee. Morgan, late, quickly shuffling to her seat, while Chance moseys in with his Sobe. Faith sitting patiently in her well-loved Patagonia fleece and sharpened number 2 pencil; Emily’s contagious giggle. Spencer, cozied up in his hoodie, whispering something funny to Chance. The class’s laughter uncontained after a smart one-liner from Schandor, with his charming dimpled smile. Little me, exerting great effort to not use “like'' as a filler word while responding to Bente’s inquiries. She WILL stop you. Everytime. (Thanks Bente! I do appreciate it now).
While reading questions from the alumni coordinator, I can’t help but laugh at "Do you still play outside?". At this moment I am wearing a t-shirt that says "Indoorsy". I was small, allergic and asthmatic. I had little athletic ability and a complexion that has been called "cadaveric". Not even Sussex could make me an outdoor kid. I am the only "Indoorsy" Sussex kid I know. If you are an indoorsy Sussex kid, call me! I have been searching for you for decades!
Much to my discomfort, Sussex spirits have obviously tampered with nature, and bestowed upon me an athletically gifted child with an unwavering preference for the outdoors. Her energy is identical to Aunty Paige’s as a child. In a serendipitous premier, Wilma arrived on Paige’s Birthday. Tempting fate, we named our daughter Wilma Paige. So now I cope with the wild that I mistakenly conjured, but adore nonetheless . While forcing a reassuring smile on my face for Wilma Paige, internally sobbing, I have had no choice but to lather on that SPF 50 and double my antihistamine. This pale indoor kid is outdoors adventuring daily. Well played Sussex, well played. My city-boy husband and I THANK THE UNIVERSE schools like Sussex exist. Someone has to take that girl camping.
All joking aside, I'm so grateful that Sussex is still here. It has shaped me in so many ways. So
many of my teachers and classmates demonstrated authenticity, compassion, and the innate
drive to connect, communicate, and create. My experience taught me that even the smallest,
palest, most rule-following children had a seat at the table. We can be leaders, and should make our voices big, and break the rules that need to be broken. Now, as the world needs more young and brave rule-breakers than ever before, I have a daughter. While raising this precocious and extroverted lover of life, I can't help but be blinded by her spark. Her spark of optimism and uninhibited joy of learning, exploring, moving and imagination. It is precious. She is just this beautiful wild animal that blazes past, with curls and laughter in her wake. I want to protect that spark as much as I can. I have to. I want her to be appreciated and nourished as the unique little human she is, and never lose her love of learning. This thought is what has led me back to Sussex.
After visiting so many memories, I return to the present, and the decisions that have to be made. Careful planning around Wilma’s education is a priority, and the financial impact of these decisions are not simple. But like all parents, we are driven to give our child the best we possibly can, based on the person our child is, and the tools that we have. As the world and future appear more uncertain than ever, a childhood free is just about the most precious gift we can hope to give.
The level of privilege and honor I have to be a Sussex Kid is hard to absorb. The gratitude I feel to have the means to consider the same for my child is overwhelming. As our family maps out our path, I feel a sense of peace and relief. Those young voices and soft guitar return to my head, ”You can’t return, you can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the Circle Game”.
Brittany Wilson-Thompson (she/her), class of 2001, graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in
Sociology from Willamette University and a Master of Arts in Counselor Education-School Counseling, from the University of Montana. She worked as a school counselor at Big Sky High School in Missoula for six years. After she and her husband, Zander Wilson-Thompson,
welcomed their daughter in 2019, she has stepped back from school counseling to be at home full time with her family. When not parenting, serving on the UCCC Preschool Board, or spending time with her family, you’ll likely find her absorbed in her writing, her newfound love for watercolor, or creating something crafty. She is currently working on a writing project about her experience with postpartum depression and anxiety, and hopes to pursue efforts to raise awareness and help other moms in similar challenges. She is planning on sending her daughter to kindergarten at Sussex in the fall of 2024.
Ali Kendall '00, Paige [Wilson] Raven '01, & Brittany Wilson-Thompson '01.