Everyone is talking about education. Waiting for Superman, budget cuts, teen suicides, charter schools, healthier school lunches, colleges flooded with applications, student debt, student loans that go forever, elite preschools, KIPP, abstinence only sex ed, gay kids at prom, no child left behind, teachers’ unions, rubber rooms, standardized testing, teacher suicides, cutting music and art classes, where it all is going, what we might be able to do, whether we should do it, and if it really works at all. And then there are the people who drop out. The people who don’t start in the first place. People like me. We’re still a tiny minority–about 3% of the population, according to some studies (the exact numbers are never really clear). But we have a lot to say about education.
This is my second blog. The first is called Eat the Damn Cake, and it focuses on body image and being a young woman in a world of delicious food and enormous pressure to be thin. I talk about homeschooling there, too, but I want to go further with the topic. So here I am.
I was homeschooled. I write it as one word. Maybe I was unschooled, because we didn’t use many textbooks. But there were a few. I use “homeschooled” because people recognize it as a thing. I use “unschooled” to differentiate from 80% of the people who educate at home for religious reasons. I’m not passionate about either. The point is, I did not go to school.
People always ask me, “Which one of your parents taught you?”
That’s still the way everyone thinks about learning. There’s a teacher and a bunch of students. There’s an adult who knows more, and some kids who know less. And the adult stands there and tells the kids things. And the kids learn.
Neither one of my parents taught me, and, of course, they both did. Just as everyone’s parents teach them things about being alive. And skills for navigating the world. And to cover their mouths when they yawn. I learned how fun it is to sit and gossip for hours from my dad. From my mom, I learned the value of occasional ritualistic formality (requesting that everyone share something they’d like to improve about the world at a holiday gathering. Or having the gathering in the first place). I learned how to make wildly creative sandwiches. I learned how to write thank you notes. But most of the “Can you tell me what six times seven is” type of instruction stopped when I was ten or so. After that, my mother’s role in my education was more like that of a guidance counselor. I checked in with her. We worked on various curricula that I mostly didn’t follow, because I had so many other books I wanted to read, and so many of my own, critically time-sensitive projects to complete.
(Love of Jewish deli was instilled in me at a very early age. Some critics of homeschooling might call this brainwashing. I can’t seem to stop eating it, even now…)
People stopped me constantly, along the way, to ask me what my family did for lab. How did we get the equipment? It would’ve been a lot easier if I could’ve just said, “We don’t. We don’t do lab.” I mean, we looked at strands of our hair through a microscope and read biology books, so I probably could’ve, but I felt like the world might not be ready. So I said things about auditing college classes and local community-based opportunities. You know, the community science lab, where little unschoolers can clock in all the hours they need with a genuine cow’s eyeball and a scalpel. There was a homeschooling resources catalogue that sold cows’ eyes. I said absolutely not. Absolutely, absolutely not. Mom thought it might be fun. She thought everything might be fun.
People stopped me to ask about socialization. That’s the big one. Can you talk to other people? Do you have friends? How weird are you? (Educated guess, their expressions said: probably pretty weird.)
Here’s the good and bad news: I’m sort of normal. I spent a lot of time when I was younger pretending to be exceptional. It felt like the only way to justify my abnormal upbringing. I put on a show for every adult in sight, trying to prove that homeschoolers weren’t just socially capable, we were all geniuses.
College was not something it occurred to me to care terribly about. I already had this complete life. I was working, teaching regularly, writing terrible fantasy novels, and writing music. I didn’t have any interest in picking a single career path, and I didn’t see the point in sitting in a classroom, after all those years of avoiding just that.
But I went. It was almost as though my parents weren’t sure what happened at eighteen, other than college. They’d enabled me to come this far, on my own, but there was no question about me joining the schooled world eventually.
In college, I learned how to be bored for the first time. I know I’m supposed to talk about how enlightening the experience was. College always opens the world up for everyone. That’s practically its tagline: College: Opening Up The World. I guess my world was too open already. I learned how stressful being good at something was. You have to stay ahead constantly. I learned how to doodle. Before then, I’d painted and sketched. But now I was doodling endless circles and swirls and stacks of bricks in the margins of notebook after notebook. And I forgot how to think that I could do more than one thing. I forgot how to be a homeschooler. And after a while, when I realized that, I missed it.
When they find out that I was homeschooled, people ask me, “Did you like it?”
It’s such a simple question. Like, so, you had a forty-year career as a statistician. Did you like it? You walked on the moon, did you like it?
I always say yes. Of course I liked it! I got to sleep until ten! What’s not to like? I didn’t get graded! I didn’t take any standardized tests before the SAT. I didn’t ever have to raise my hand. I wore ridiculous outfits and no one told me they were ridiculous. Everyone should try it!
(The terrible outfits were to continue well into my teenage years)
It’s not a simple world. Not everyone who wants to has the economic ability to homeschool, especially not with very young children. And sometimes, when I’m being very mature and serious, or moping, or feeling insecure, or feeling like a total realist, I think that it’s not completely clear to me what I gained from school (college) and what I gained from unschooling. It’s all mixed together now. I do know though, with completely certainty, that I liked myself a lot more as an unschooler. I thought I had more potential. I thought I could do anything. Maybe learning that you can’t do anything is just a part of growing up. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a part of being schooled.
(Walking on the moon was pretty great, too. Image source)
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So at the bottom of every post I’m going to add one thing on to a list called “The wild fun list.” As a homeschooler, I made my own fun. It was childish and dorky and sometimes involved elfyn costumes. Now that I’m a grownup (sort of) in the big city, it’s easy to forget what fun is made of and how fantasy works. Which is why I want to remind myself. And come up with some suggestions for a time in my life when I have a billion dollars and am prepared to build a village of full service tree houses. Or maybe ten dollars and some cookies.
Wild fun list: start driving, and every time you have to pick a direction, pick the way that looks more beautiful. Go for ten miles and see where you end up. This is probably better if you have a GPS. (Or is it?)