I liked it

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)

*  *  *

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?)

39 comments to I liked it

  • Great post, and I’m thrilled to be the one to christen your new blog with its very first comment! Needless to say, I can identify very strongly with what you wrote. My homeschooling was a little more formal than yours (I had more textbooks) but not much. I was excited to go to County College and get my hands all over the microscopes, the Bunsen burners, and yes, the even the cows’ eyeballs! But college turned out to be basically the same experience for me as it was for you. I dropped out. Despite the likes of Bill Gates, being a college dropout still gets very little respect in this world! Maybe when people ask me, I should tell them I dropped out so I could change the world, like Bill Gates, but I’m still working on the “how”.

    I started going to college part-time when I was fifteen, and I think the mistake I made was taking all the courses I was interested in FIRST, and saving all the stuff I couldn’t care less about (like statistics) until the very end. By the time I got to the last couple of semesters, I was 21, it had become a total chore, and I was sick to death of it. So I took a leave of absence and never went back. I tell people my college career is like Vietnam: after several bloody years, a truce was called, but it never officially “ended”. (Hint to those of you who actually WANT to finish college: learn from my mistakes! Don’t let it drag on too long, and make sure you take some bitter along with the sweet every semester.)

    So maybe it’s just an urge to justify my existence now that I’m 27 and have no degree whatsoever (not even a GED) but I’ve decided that college isn’t worth it anyway. Well, let me clarify that. The college experience can be great. I enjoyed most of my classes, had some great professors, and it DID change the way I think about the world–especially history. But the degree? It’s just a piece of paper and it doesn’t guarantee anything anymore. How many people do you know who graduated college, and how many of them are doing anything related to the degree they got? That’s what I thought.

    I’m pretty sure the way it used to work (you know, in the before-time, the long-long ago) is that a college degree basically promised you a good career, a higher salary, and more respect. Now it’s the new high school diploma: everybody has one, jobs are scarce, and half of the people who graduate are back living with their parents anyway. The only difference? Hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans they still have to pay off. I’ve heard it described as a kind of “educational inflation” where the value of an advanced degree diminishes the more people have one. I might not have the piece of paper, but I dodged a financial bullet and I still got what I think was the best aspect of college: the experience itself. For that, dollar for dollar, your local community college can’t be beat!

    So I guess my advice to homeschoolers who are beginning to stress over that crucial decision (which college?! There are so many!) is to decide what you WANT from the college experience before you even set foot on the campus. If it’s the piece of paper you’re after, then by all means, aim high and try to get into the most prestigious (and expensive!) school you can. But if you want to broaden your mind and reap the benefits of higher education at an affordable price, and you don’t care as much about the degree but you know you don’t want to enter the working world already having to dig your way out from under a mountain of debt, it might just be in your best interest to take a more laid-back approach. Don’t drop out, though. Whatever you do, see it through for the sake of your own self-respect, or you might wind up feeling like a quitter for a long time.

  • Lurking from Indonesia. I thought I’d say hi. Hi, Kate. This piece is so good, I crave for more. I’m glad you liked being homeschooled and I thank you for sharing your story. And I envy you for being mentored by Penelope Trunk (just found your other blog, too). Please write more.

  • kate

    Thank you for my very first comment! So exciting! And good advice. As college becomes more and more expensive, and degrees mean less and less, it’s incredibly important for people to make intelligent, careful decisions about it.

    Don’t worry, much more to come! Thanks for the kind comment. And Penelope is great! I consider myself very lucky to be mentored by her, too.

  • San D

    OK, I am going to add my two cents. I loved school. I couldn’t wait to get there every day. In fact my sophomore year in high school I was home for 6 weeks with pneumonia and was devasted that I missed school. Perhaps this explains why I became a teacher and taught for 35 years. Now let me try to explain what it is about school (from K-college) that I loved so much. First of all, I loved the security of the regiment. Sounds weird I bet. But consider I moved around all my life I loved knowing that wherever I landed there would be a building called “school” with adults that would help me (oh there were some strange ones to be sure, but most nurtured me), where I would find friends so unlike my family, where I could actually learn stuff that went beyond the World Book Encyclopedia that I gobbled up at home during my free time. I loved knowing that there was a beginning, middle and an end to my experiences, and then it would start up again. I could count on that. I liked how everything was sequential (because my nature is not to be) and how I could take what I learned and internalize it and make it mine. To this day, when I “cast out nines” when double checking numbers, I am so proud of myself that something I learned over 50 years ago made so much sense to my sensibilities that I use it. I learned more about myself in school than I would have ever learned if I stayed at home. I pushed myself to do all kinds of things that if second guessed by anyone in my family I probably would’t have tried. I was the worst fencing student in college (my parents would have been hysterical) but I bet I was one of the most competitive. I can hear them say “what’s the point?” when I enrolled in a “Jazz” class, but everytime someone scats, my husband waits for it, as I say “hey she’s scat singing”. I saw school, especially college, as the big smorgasboard in the sky, took everything and anything, even the dreaded “gen eds” with relish. I was certainly not an A student because it wasn’t about the grades, but about the experiences, including living in the dorms. Fast forward to my teaching career. I hope I made my students feel ownership to their learning as I facilitated their learning in my classroom. I taught many classes in art and English, but my classes in puppetry opened up a lot of academic kids’ eyes to the world outside of academics. Not only did these kids (who normally wouldn’t do anything risky) design and make their puppets, but they put on shows for the community and for competition, and this was high school. There are many exciting things happening in schools all over the US. To wash public schools with the same brush negates all the great things schools all over the US are doing. And since I moved every 22 months the first 17 years of my life, I was enrolled in quite a few.

  • OH my GOSH Kate!
    LOVE your new blog. I didn’t know I’d missed “the beginning” so I just came her and started.

    I love this becasue I am very VERY conflicted about JJ and what to do with his edu.

    I am scared we won’t give him enough. Scared the schools won’t respect his needs (he’s kinda special needs according to his doctor, in a zany way) scared he’ll just get lost in the shuffle and with our state’s budget issues scared some more.

    I “co-parented” my teenager with the father who knew every loophole school districts had (read son and brother of teachers) so I got cut out of a lot of being involved and it’s jaded me too.

    I am very sure between my husband and myself we can give him a great start but I just don’t know.

    than there is private school and every last one of them is religeon based and I am not ready for that either.

    so here I am …very conflicted

    and YAY for Rob starting your blog off right with a very wonderful comment (because I dropped out of college too…at the urging of the ex who needed his girlfriend “aka me” at the time to support him as he finished his schooling and than I was supposed to go back and he pressured me to stay at my “great job” aka the one I still have and i’ve never been able to put all that in a good place.

    so thanks for that!

    I am trying to keep a very open mind despite my fears and conflicts and JJ is ready for pre-school (and I am not at a financial place to quit my job just yet) so HERE WE GO.

    I’m off to read your next post!

  • Thanks for the great comments. I don’t comment a lot, but I wanted to say hello and that I like the site.

  • […] of a student who never attended a traditional K-12 setting. As she shares in her blog on the topic, she liked it.  Sent from my […]

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  • I’m digging the new blog, Kate. When you described your homeschool years, it reminded me so much of the Montessori school I attended from K-2 grade. I eventually had to stop going for a whole boatload of reasons, but until I did, I remember how much fun school was. Every day was like a choose-your-own adventure book; my own curiosity and the mysteries of the world seemed endless.

    When I was 8 and my Mom took me to see my new public school classroom, I was terrified. I do not remember being terrified to go to my Montessori school, but when I saw the desks in my new classroom all lined up in a row, my body instantly recognized the institutional-ness of this new environment and recoiled from it.

    School was never as fun after that.

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