I grew up in a hick town. Well, not entirely. Until I was twelve or so, my family lived in a part of New Jersey that wasn’t at all the way I imagine people imagine New Jersey. There were cornfields at both ends of the street, with big farms to tend them. There were horses everywhere. People parked big, fat gleaming pick-up trucks in front of aluminum sided ranch houses with browning lawns. There were hunters in the woods. We didn’t worry too much about getting shot, though. We knew exactly where they were allowed to go and where they had to stop. We knew the borders of everyone’s property. We only followed the stream so far. We were covered in ticks.
Really. Everyone in my family has had Lyme Disease. I thought the pink medicine was delicious.
I was doing an interview with Helen from Home Education Magazine, and she was asking me about my childhood. I was trying to think how to make it sound nice and poster-childy and appealing. When I was twelve or so, my family moved to a town right next to Princeton, NJ, and suddenly everyone wore angora sweaters and lived in big, brick houses and sent their children to one of the many elegant private schools that make the area so very desirable and expensive. So I could start my story there, in a big, brick house that was backed and flanked by a graceful forest that had long ago banished all of its ticks.
But that’s not where my unschooled story starts. It starts on a dirt road across a giant field from the flea market, where the plastic bags blew in and stuck in the snarls of thorn bushes. Where I decided that I was immune to the poison ivy that clotted the underbrush and walked through it barefoot and suffered for days and days. Where I thought that we lived in paradise because we had an above ground pool and whole fields to explore and a secret dark muddy place under the front steps to have secret dark muddy meetings in.
I think it’s easy to panic when you think about unschooling your kids. You might think things like, “What about academic resources?” You might want to be close by to a good college, for auditing classes (like I later did at Princeton University), or a nice cultural center, for cultural activities that will shape cultured kids. You might want your kids to be properly socialized with the right sort of people who will encourage them to do well on the SAT and get into a good school one day, even though they’ve never been in school in their lives. When I think about unschooling my own kids one day, my mind goes automatically to these places.
And then I remember being a kid out in the thorns and the mud. Down the street, local teens cut a swastika into one of the corn fields. We knew who they were. They were our neighbors. The boy who came over to hang out with me a lot wanted to know why I went to Jewish church and talked in funny Jewish language there. I proudly explained that it was called Hebrew and I sang the Sh’ma for him, to show him how nice it sounded. I knew I was different.
I loved being different. Being different meant learning words in Hebrew that no one really understood and drawing all day while the boy from down the street was inside a building somewhere, doing math problems, or whatever kids did in school.
Being different meant being interesting to everyone, and hated by some people who weren’t smart enough to understand. It was an adventure.
Maybe it wasn’t the greatest environment. I think back on it and shudder a little sometimes. I remember the time I found a dead fox, strung up, in the woods. Killing the fox and cutting the swastika and bashing the mailbox of the black family next door were all the same in my mind. The world had scary people in it who hadn’t learned to be kind. But I had learned to be kind, and that was what was important. I had learned to care acutely for the fox, and the neighbors whose mailbox was smashed, and for my identity as a Jew, even though I was so young, and for anyone who was different enough to be made fun of or chased down or hurt.
Later on, I moved into a world where homeschooling seemed like a fascinating educational decision to many of the people I encountered. Maybe I wasn’t so different after all. Maybe I was. It isn’t always easy to tell.
But growing up in a hick town in NJ, I knew exactly where I stood. And I was pleased about it. I was one very cool Jewish unschooled kid with poison ivy and probably a couple ticks in my hair. It was a pretty great life.