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Reading the Peach - A Grown Unschooler's Story

Reading the Peach
A Grown Life Learner's Story

By Jasmine Lamb

“Over the years many people have said to me, 'How did you learn if you didn’t have to go to school?' To me it is such a funny question, almost backwards. How could I help it? I live in the world and I’m curious.”

I grew up in a messy house with books. I remember the Christmas I lay on the couch reading James and the Giant Peach. This was the first chapter book I read myself. I was eight and more than ready for the reading life. I was enmeshed in the juicy life of peach, of centipede, of nasty aunts. The fact that alligators had eaten James’ parents was the best part. He needed me. I needed him.

My parents raised my siblings and me in the woods, feeding us rice and vegetables, and reading aloud to us. My parents trusted that their children could make the best decisions about what their lives needed to thrive. They did not pressure us to go to school or to stay home, we didn’t work from a set curriculum, and we and they took it one year at a time.

As parents go, mine were incredibly trusting; I know few other people who feel they had such freedom to make decisions for themselves as my siblings and I did. As a child I knew my parents were unusual in the way they related to us, but it wasn’t until I got older that I realized how daring they were to give our lives over to us, not to control or lead us, to love us for who we were and are.

In the last five years I’ve worked extensively with teenagers in different settings. I’ve come to see both how badly their parents want their lives to be successful and happy, and also how scary it is for parents to trust that their children can find that success and happiness inside themselves. Of course, all these discussions come down to deep philosophical questions about what people want out of life, what security and happiness feel like.

For my parents, success did not mean a professional career or even a college degree. If it had they may not have been able to give us the freedom they gave us. For my parents, success had more to do with self-realization and creativity, which are not necessarily mainstream values. My parents also believed that curiosity and learning are innate, and that as long one isn’t forced to learn what they aren’t ready or interested in learning, this curiosity will continue to grow.

I don’t think there was a room in our house that didn’t have a bookcase. Even the bathroom had a small one. My parents were avid readers. They read fiction, nonfiction, classics, contemporary authors, and whatever they were caught by (both of them were lucky enough not to have lost their own eagerness for learning). My parents read for the pleasure of it. Yes, they learned all kinds of things from reading, but this was not the point. The point was the joy of words, of story, of thought. So how could we not catch this wonderful bug? When I was four my father was reading my older sisters The Hobbit. I don’t remember the story now, but at the time I could tell that all kinds of adventures were happening even if I didn’t understand every word. My parents were never interested in age-appropriate reading. They read aloud to us what they wanted to hear and what they thought we would enjoy.

“As a child I knew my parents were unusual in the way they related to us, but it wasn’t until I got older that I realized how daring they were to give our lives over to us, not to control or lead us, to love us for who we were and are.”

I know so many adults who are not interested in reading. Yes, they read in school and college because they were told to, and yes they learned from that reading, but it was never fun. My heart goes out to these people. Somewhere along the line they were taught that reading is serious, that it is work, that it is good for you, that you need to do it to learn, and thus they lost the opportunity to see that reading means entering the juicy life of the peach!

Over the years, many people have said to me, “How did you learn if you didn’t have to go to school?” To me it is such a funny question, almost backwards. How could I help it? I live in the world and I’m curious. I read and read and read because each book has more to tell me, more adventures to take me on, more ideas to share. I ask questions. I try to fix things myself. I lie on my roof at night and look at the stars.

I understand that many parents might think this is all fine, but what if their child doesn’t pick up a book, isn’t interested in reading, or only wants to read comic books? It is hard to trust children. It is hard to trust adults. We want the best for those we love. I spent at least one winter around the age of ten reading comic books almost exclusively. Somehow we had an entire trunk full of Archie comics and it was enough to sustain me through the winter months. Archie comics are not very funny, they exhibit sexist values, they are vacuous, and let’s face it, quite boring, but they kept me amused for a long time.

It can often feel uncomfortable watching someone spend a lot of time on something that seems unimportant to us. This would have been a perfect opportunity for my parents to suggest that I find a more useful way to spend my time, or give me ideas for books to read that might teach me something. But they didn’t. They trusted me. They trusted that eventually I’d grow out of these comics and go back to reading other books. They continued to read aloud. They recognized that what was most important was that I enjoy reading.

I also know home educating families that did not place such a value on reading, but opened up other opportunities for their children to explore and discover. These kids were out in the woods in every season, building forts, watching birds, taking hikes, learning about the natural environment. Again, not because their parents were telling them this was going to be a good learning experience, but because the kids were on adventures; they were inventing worlds and stories in the woods.

This past January, I went home. An old friend was getting married. Many of the young people that I grew up with and homeschooled with were there. What an amazing group of people: articulate, self-possessed, eager to talk and listen and be with each other, comfortable with people of every age, and smart, extraordinarily smart. It is true, none of us might be able to tell you the dates of the Civil War, and we all have very different strengths. But we all were given the trust and freedom from our families to discover those strengths, and not just to discover our intellectual strengths, but our personal strengths.

This world is full of successful people, if by successful people you mean making money and getting by in the world, but what it could definitely use more of, is people with rich imaginations and deep compassion. From James I learned what it might be like to be a child without parents, how he had to go searching for new family, and how new family doesn’t always look as you expect it to look; sometimes you find it deep inside a peach. And that was only the beginning of my reading.…

Jasmine Lamb homeschooled and attended numerous alternative schools while growing up. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Vermont College. When she wrote this article in 2002, she was working there as an admissions counselor and was a full-time Master’s student studying poetry and literature. Besides reading and talking, her favorite way to spend her time is at the movies.

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