going to school with Bear

Bear took me to see his middle school and high school. This is out in California, in the Bay Area, where we spent Christmas with his family. The schools were composed of lots of long, low buildings– a series of ranch houses, bumping into each other at interesting angles. We started at the high school. Through a window, I saw a skeleton.

“That’s the supply closet,” explained Bear.

“Just like I imagined,” I said. Which wasn’t exactly true, because the skeleton was wearing a hat. I couldn’t have predicted that.

He pointed at various doors and windows. “That’s where I had calc.” “That’s where I had bio…no….that’s the art room. Stools mean either science or art.”

He showed me where he used to hang out, on this low, concrete wall, in a little courtyard. And here, on the steps. And here was the library, and the enormous sports’ fields and the enormous pool. It was like a compound, where people might live for decades without leaving. They might play football and baseball and volleyball and water polo (wait…unless that means horses), and stay forever.

“It has everything!” I said, impressed.

It was the most time I’d ever spent at a high school.

We checked out the middle school next. There were anti-bullying signs everywhere. Pasted to the windows. “We don’t tolerate bullying here!” “Are you being bullied? Here are some things that bullies do:…”

“Kids get mean in middle school,” said Bear simply. “Everyone knows that.”

Everyone does know that.

I was struck by the menu over the lunch window, which was outside, because it’s California where apparently you can eat lunch outside every day, like in a fairytale or something. There were so many dessert options on the menu.

“Wow,” I said. “You could have ice cream every day, for lunch.”


“Wow. If Jake had known about this, he would’ve gone to school.” Jake is one of my brothers. He used to go to synagogue on Shabbat for the dessert at the oneg (social time) after the service.

It was hard for me to imagine kids eating ice cream for lunch every day. That would be really unhealthy. It was hard to imagine it, because it seemed like they didn’t get to make that many other decisions. They had to take the same classes (Bear told me there weren’t that many electives in middle school), and they had to be in the same place every day. But they got to decide whether they wanted a hot dog, a hamburger, fries, and/or ice cream, every day. Interesting.

“That’s where the kids who did drugs sat,” said Bear, gesturing to a shaded spot (I refuse to say “shady”) around the corner of a ranch building from where he’d sat outside, eating his ice cream for lunch.

“Drugs?” I said, confused. “This is middle school.”

He smiled. “Drugs,” he said.

And I said, just like a lame adult, “Didn’t anyone tell their parents?!”

He shrugged.

“Kids aren’t doing drugs in middle school,” I said. “What are they, like, twelve?” I was a little proud of myself for knowing, like I always am when I can guess which age corresponds with which grade level.

Bear wasn’t interested in arguing with me. “They did drugs,” he said.

“What kind of drugs?”

He was walking past the druggie section of the middle school, towards a sign that read “No tobacco No alcohol No drugs No skateboarding.”

“Probably mostly just pot.”

“OK, good.” Good? Whatever. I let it go. Kids will be kids. I guess.

I looked around. It was not a bad place. But it was hard to imagine getting up in the morning and going to the same place, every day, as a kid. It was hard to imagine spending years here, and then years at the high school complex, the way I’d spent years at college. At college, almost every day, I thought, “I’m gonna get out of here. I’m gonna go somewhere nicer.” I didn’t go to college at a very pretty place. It wasn’t actually even as pretty as where Bear went to middle school. But I also didn’t like the feeling of being stuck in what seemed like a sort of artificial world of college-tagged buildings full of identical flimsy chairs with flip-out desks. I wasn’t crazy about the food options. Actually, by my second year, I wasn’t into the ice cream in the dining hall anymore. It tasted funny.

I tried to imagine little Bear, walking between these buildings, going to class. I could almost see him. I wondered what he was feeling.

“Not my best years,” said grownup Bear. “I was pretty much a loser.”

How can you be a loser when you’re twelve?

By being chubby and having lame friends and playing nerdy games, he explained. Oh. Right. Of course.

“You know,” said Bear, as we walked off into the sunset through one of the middle school’s athletic fields, “I get it how people are offended by you.”

I laughed. “Thanks.”

“I mean, by your life– by not going to school.”


“You invalidate them. I spent so much time here. What if I didn’t need to?”

“You didn’t.”

“I know. Exactly. But when you admit that, you feel like you wasted a lot of time. So you don’t want to admit it. You want to believe that it was worth it.”

I nodded. I am never surprised anymore when people are angry at me for not having gone to school. Maybe in their place, I’d be angry, too.

Or maybe I’d just be sort of nostalgic, for all that ice cream.

21 comments to going to school with Bear

  • Thank you for posting this.
    I always love reading you perspective.
    You know, when I first decided to homeschool my children (and later to unschool) I did have anger at the realization of all the time I had spent in school and so much of my childhood wasted. But I was determined that that wouldn’t happen to my children.
    Here’s to revealing that the emperor truly wears no clothes.

  • Deb

    “you invalidate them”

    Exactly. And then the anger is understandable. And sad.

  • Chad

    I gained a lot of weight those first two years of high school due to ice cream and beagles for lunch everyday. Finally by my junior year I decided I should do something because I couldn’t fit in my clothes. I still have problems controlling what I eat, which is partly due to school lunches. We had pizza the vegetable every week!

    I could give a very similar tour of my schools. The only thing I would add would be were to buy stereos for the car and home at significant discount. Everyone in the school knew who to talk to no matter what you wanted, so I don’t see how the teachers didn’t know. We even had police officers in our school.

    I hated school with a passion. I agree with Bear not my best years and a huge waste of time.

  • Tracy

    It was my profoundly negative school experience (I got great grades and did everything “right” but was bullied horribly for years) that led to my decision to homeschool my children. I knew that childhood didn’t need to be like that and that I had an opportunity to give my children something incredible…the gift of wonder and of freedom to grow without the pressure to conform or grow up too fast. They have the gift of time to truly pursue their passions (music, writing, art, ballet and horseback riding) that I can only look back and wish I might have known. So many wasted years spent in school…it makes me sad thinking about it. Yet perhaps they weren’t a total waste if I see them as the catalyst for charting a different path with my own children.

  • Sarah

    great post!
    “How can you be a loser when you’re twelve?” Exactly. Only in an institutional setting is this possible. A friend of mine was complaining on facebook that her middle school son was doing a project with his friend (they are schooled) and how much time it took, how they spent too much time goofing off, and what a mess they made. I was so sad, I so badly wanted to tell her how she was missing the best part of enjoying her children learning. Learning should be fun, learning is fun, when you strip away all the rigid nonsense. She wouldn’t get it though, her kids are in Catholic school, that’s what she wants. I love reading your stories about your life as an unschooler.

  • Really fabulous bit of writing there. It reads like a memoir. I want more. :)

  • Routine

    I wish my parents would believe me when I say that school is mostly a waste of time… they’re the “everyone has to go through this, so suck it up” type. And since here the US is stereotypically viewed as a nation of idiots, giving them examples of homeschooling in America doesn’t do much to convince them.

  • Jyo

    I really love reading your posts. I was one of those school “success” stories (good grades, ivy leaguer, now veterinarian) but realized along the way that I wasn’t happy with my education. My husband and I have now decided to homeschool my two children and I have to say, it’s in part to reading your posts and those who comment here, that convinced me that it’s the best thing to do…and really the only right thing to do for my children. Thanks for writing!

    • kate

      Bear is also a school success story. It takes a lot of courage, or maybe just a really critical, questioning mind, to ask if there’s something more, even when you’re succeeding. Very cool.

      I’m excited for you and your kids and your husband! And I’m really, really flattered to be even a tiny part of your story.

  • […] alien eyes? To never understand what elementary school, middle school, or high school was like?  This person’s perspective encouraged me to write my own post on that idea, since up to this point I’ve been a bit […]

  • Beverly

    I’ve always tried not to make any decision based on fear, but I’m torn between my fear that my autistic child will get bullied in school and my fear that his developmental issues might be partly due to my own poor socialization skills. If I take him out of school, it’s all on me, because we can’t afford the speech and ABA services that his school is paying for and implementing now. My boy is bright, and he’s mean, but he’s also very trusting. If he were in a special ed. classroom, I wouldn’t worry so much, but he improved so much last year that they kicked him out into mainstream classes. Long story short, he’s okay, but I’m a wreck. For now, he’s getting what he needs and thriving where he is, which makes it easy to leave things as they are, but if that were to change, I’m glad that we would have the home school option.

    • Teresa

      You may want to talk to an advocate regarding your rights in regards to therapies while homeschooling. I know that in Indiana, and where I live now, Texas, even if you homeschool the public school system is still responsible for providing any therapies your son needs. If that’s all that holds you back from homeschooling, it might be something to look into.

      • Beverly

        Thanks Teresa, I’ll look into that. I’m in Texas also, but the local school district is notorious for weaseling out of their legal obligations, and also with using whatever leverage they can to force homeschoolers back into mainstream ed. They have no problem with sicking social services on a family that questions the value of their system, and I’ve known them to make up things and outright lie to social workers to get their way. It inevitably turns into a battle between the parents and the school system, with the kids caught in the middle, which is seldom beneficial to the kids. Granted, there have been cases where the attitude of the school system has helped kids that were being neglected or abused, but I can count those instances on one hand. Unless my child has medical or behavioral issues enough to not be able to mainstream, I’d be looking at a very one-sided battle to insist that they release him to homeschool, and even if they let me do it, they would likely get away with refusing his services.

  • Chris Ester

    I love your blog. I am a ‘radical’ unschooler–my kids and I learn in a very free form way what interests us. My kids are full members of the household and have all of the privileges and responsibilities that go with that, according to their ability. This makes us radical. I don’t feel radical, I feel like a mom that loves being the householder and family facilitator for all of the stuff that fills up our life.

    I wanted to primarily say that I got the idea to homeschool/unschool precisely because I felt very angry at the waste of time that school was in my life. I spent a lot of time in college and university (went all the way to grad school and got a master’s degree), but that was different because I chose to do that and knew that I could decide NOT to do that as well.

    No, school always seemed like prison and people usually want to be out of prison. Even my parents got it; on the night that I graduated from high school, they apologized for insisting that I finish high school instead of just leaving and going to college when I was sixteen, and for insisting that I go through the whole interminable graduation ceremony. I was actually very angry for a number of years because I hated school for so long and couldn’t make any other choices.

    My children don’t seem angry, they get choices, even if the choices aren’t always great ones (you can clean the litter or clean the dishes, which do you choose?) at least they have choices, including if they want to eat ice cream every day. Funny thing, they don’t choose to have ice cream every day because it isn’t breaking any rules to eat ice cream instead of or with healthy food.

    I love your writing, I think that you are on your way to being a famous writer. I always thought that being famous for writing is the best kind of fame.

  • Kelly

    “You want to believe it was worth it.”

    I think this is a really big part of the reason so many people have a problem with homeschooling and especially unschooling. I had the opportunity to listen to John Taylor Gatto speak once. A man in the audience, probably in his 50s or 60s, raised his hand and asked how he could reconcile the feelings of sadness and anger he had for having spent so many years in school and in life doing things because he thought he had to do them. It really struck me, so much so that I cannot remember the answer Mr. Gatto gave in response. It was the first time I had thought of it that way. The first time it occurred to me that sadness or anger over things that might have been different was such a big part of why people have a hard time accepting freedom in education and learning for others. For many it seems the ultimate in unfairness. Thinking about the years spent doing things that really didn’t need to be done and wanting to believe it was all worth it in the end. Thinking of it as a necessary evil is easier than accepting that there might have been another way or actually many other ways to do things. I think that is why so often people say things like, “Well when I was in school I had to do x, y, z … and look at me now. Today I am all the better for it.”

  • Mere

    I have to say that i generally loved my public school years. I don’t feel homeschooling invalidates them at all. They were just my educational experience.
    That said, I am now homeschooling my own children and loving that also.
    I don’t think either groups need to invalidate the other. They are just different experiences that with them bring their own pros and cons. Children have no choice as to how they are educated so there is no point them regretting something they couldn’t control.
    It is for us as parents to make sure that our choices for educating our children are based on our love and best interests for them. That way any regrets can be appeased with the knowledge that we were doing the best we could with what we had.

  • I love reading this blog, and get this: I’m a public high school teacher! I teach in the Bay Area, and I feel sad that Bear felt unvalidated (invalidated?) because we have to remember that so many of our choices are made for us. As kids, we can only be so lucky to have parents who are amazingly trusting and capable, and sadly, not everyone has those. Especially in the Bay Area, where I started teaching, the high school became the “HOMESCHOOL” that many of those kids couldn’t get at home! How often does that come up? The bridges out of poverty for so many are the public schools, and no test will ever relay that. Anyway, I hate that your unschooled life would make anyone feel sad… we should celebrate that you had that opportunity and that you are using your gifts to share it, and the rest of us should be happy we made it out alive;) (Some of us even chose to return!)

    • kate

      Thanks so much, Betsy! I really appreciate this comment, and I’m glad that there are teachers like you who are giving kids opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’m very much in favor of that!

  • I cannot EXPRESS how much I love this post!
    I’m so, so, soooo happy to have come across your writing!

  • When I was 10 or so, I was having issues in school because I’d always been sent up a grade for reading, but at this new school, the teacher said she couldn’t do that. And I was very frustrated with having to repeat a book I’d already gone through. It wasn’t the last time I had to repeat a book because we moved around a lot. But that particular time, I remember having this though. “I wish my mom could just stay home with me and teach me and then I wouldn’t have to do stupid stuff that I already know.”

    I was actually a little upset when I discovered in high school that I *could* have stayed home. But my mom never would have gone for it. She was a single mom, working sometimes 2 jobs. But, remembering that I had that thought has been instrumental in making the decision to homeschool my children. I never want them to be fighting some stupid rule at a school and wish that they could be home actually learning stuff. I’d much rather them be home actually learning stuff.

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