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I walked into a sparsely attended hall at the local college and perused a table of books and pamphlets by authors I'd never heard of. This lecture, I thought, would probably turn out to be the ravings of some wacky fringe-movement, and when I saw a woman approach the podium, I sat close to the doors in order to sneak out early. A tiny ad in the paper with the words "non-sectarian homeschooling" had caught my attention. I was intrigued enough to come and find out more, even though it had never occurred to me to homeschool my daughters, then four and six.
That evening scales fell from my eyes. The words of Clonlara School's Pat Montgomery fell like rain on parched soil – soil I hadn’t even realized was parched. Everything she said, starting with her opening words “Curriculum schmiculum,” made immediate sense. Of course children are natural learners, learning a million things about the world every day without anyone teaching them. Of course school is a shabby substitute for their own process of discovery. Of course all they need is an enriched environment. Of course our role is to keep them safe and let their imaginations be their guide.
Eight years of unschooling have passed. Eight years in which I never looked back, never felt a moment's regret at never cracking a packaged curriculum. Eight years in which I have seen Kate and Molly grow into people I really like. They are funny and articulate, they stand up for what they believe in; they are unabashedly themselves.
Kate and Molly, on the other hand, have begun to worry they don’t know “enough” and wonder if my laissez-faire attitude toward structured academics might be ruining their lives. Because I decided to keep them out of school, and not to school them at home, they have nothing to compare their freedom to. They have no direct experience of what they’ve been spared because I took to heart what Pat Montgomery said was the only rule of homeschooling: Trust your children.
Trusting, as it turned out, was easy and natural for me. I trusted them to pick their own activities, I answered questions but never forced “teaching moments” down their throats, I trusted that their imaginations were their best teachers, and I trusted in the old adage that “play is the work of childhood”. They learned to read with no direct instruction and always spent a good portion of their day steeped in language, reading books, reading the many children’s magazines we subscribe to, listening to books on tape, and listening to me read to them. In these eight years I have read them hundreds of books, and still read to them, sometimes for hours a day. Otherwise they filled their time entertaining themselves playing dress-up, putting on puppet shows, stringing beads, coloring, and spending a million hours on make-believe of one sort or another.
I trusted that Barbies and baby dolls and building with popsicle sticks fulfilled some need. I accepted that they both hated hiking and sight-seeing and disliked most of the homeschool field trips where they were forced to listen to lectures on fire engines or bird banding. I trusted absolutely that they’d be drawn to whatever sparked their interest in the moment and that the next moment maybe it wouldn’t anymore. I signed them up for soccer and basketball and tennis, and for classes in dance and drama and art and sewing and karate and skiing. Some interests endured, others fell by the wayside. I never stopped trusting: No more karate? Ok. Only fantasy books? Fine. Busch Gardens instead of Colonial Williamsburg? Ok, ok. You want to stay home rather than see another Irish castle? Ok, your lunch is in the fridge. I accepted their choices of what to pay attention to and fill their heads with as much as I accepted the foods they loved or pushed aside. I always trusted that their minds and bodies were being adequately nourished.
It was probably inevitable, the day they no longer trusted me. The gradual realization I might have done them wrong. What’s so bad about school, they began to wonder. Their school friends didn’t seem to be suffering. They worried that maybe times-tables and state capitals were important. The quantifiable things their school friends knew started seeming more important than the indefinable body of life experience they possessed. The other day Molly said, “Don’t put me in Ashley’s group! She’ll find out how dumb I am!” after I’d gotten off the phone with Ashley’s mom asking how her schooled-at-home daughter liked an alternative middle school program. And a few days before, Kate had informed me that one time her dad had said if anything ever happened to me he’d be forced to send them to school. “How would we do it!?” she cried. “We don’t know anything!”
By “anything” she means the facts and figures learned from textbooks and memorized through drills and worksheets. The things you need to know in order to get good grades and not be humiliated and demoted to the ranks of the slackers and the losers.
Because Kate has a deep-seated, though unrecognized, confidence in herself, she is attracted to other confident girls who are typically the “good” girls, the ones who get straight A’s and whose parents have high academic expectations. One of her friends already says she plans to go to Harvard. Kate wants to look good in these girls’ eyes, and she’s always sidestepped and faked that she too is adhering to a high academic standard at home. She would now never dare set foot in a class where she had to demonstrate her ability in math or writing. Even though she has a wonderful facility with language, she’s a poor speller and very self-conscious about it. She has no idea that the stories she writes of her own volition are ten times better than anything kids write for school. I have no doubt she’d excel in any English, science, or history class if she wanted to. She has no such faith in herself, however, and always worries she will humiliate herself when these topics come up.
Suddenly I have no credibility. She scoffs when I tell her she’d have no problem with any schoolwork other than math if she started school tomorrow. That she’d find out not how dumb she is but how dumb schoolwork is, how little effort or intelligence it really requires. Kate and Molly both think I’m not in touch with the way school is now. Sure it may have been that way back in my day, but now it’s different. Now it’s hard and they’ll never catch up, never be smart enough to succeed at their grade level.
They don’t know school is boring and filled with hours of senseless busywork. They don’t know most children just go through the motions with as little real investment as possible and forget most of the information foisted upon them. They don’t realize that almost all that we learn in our lifetime is learned on our own, through reading, through relationships, through jobs, through observation and experience in the real world. They don’t know that real learning is life learning, and that school feels to most kids like a sentence they are forced to serve.
Instead, they hear their school friends talk about science projects for science fair, of field trips where they stay in hotels and play practical jokes on each other, of social intrigue in the hallways, and faux-horror over the homework load. They listen to their school friends and feel like they’re missing out on real teenage life. “B.S.!” I yell. You both are so wrong! School is not fun or interesting! But they think I’m only justifying my crackpot theories of education. My protests fall on deaf ears. They don’t trust me.
How can Kate and Molly know what they have, know how much they know from reading and living their own unique, enriched lives? How can they realize how much they’ve absorbed about the world and how to live in it unless they’ve also experienced the other side? The school experience is obviously something they can’t take my word on. I think they may have to see for themselves. I wish there was another way.
Kate has decided to attend ninth grade part-time this fall. She’ll take a few electives and play high school soccer. I wonder if she’ll get a sense of the deadness of school from Art and Spanish and sports. Maybe she’ll think school is fun and lively. But I trust she’ll see it for what it is. And she wants to take some correspondence classes in math and writing so she can try a “core” class without risking embarrassment. I don’t know if she’ll ever believe that a mail-in course actually corresponds with the mysterious work kids do in real school, but I’m hoping it will bolster her confidence where she feels such a lack.
Somehow I have to help her realize that her future isn’t limited or stymied because of my decision to unschool her. That she can be anything she wants to be – that we’ll find a way to make it happen. That the world is more than the school culture leads us to believe. There are so many paths: art school, world travel, service work, internships. The narrow path of straight A’s, AP classes, involvement in student government or French Club, or yearbook editorship is not the only way to a “good” college and a successful life.
Since Molly now faces being alone while her best friend Kate is away from home, she wants to try an alternative middle school program that meets six hours a week. She’s nervous but game. And I hope for her what I hope for Kate: that she'll widen her circle of friends and that some of the mystery surrounding school and her abilities will lessen.
Meanwhile, my daughters are suspicious of me, wondering to what extent I’ve ruined their lives. The worst part is that they don’t feel able to remedy their situations outside the institution of school. They worry if they don’t hurry and catch up, it might be too late for them, that they’ll be destined to be misfits and ignoramuses. I wonder how much blame and shame they’ll hurl at me before they realize I did them a huge favor.
For now, I have to send them into the very institutions I’ve been so proud of protecting them from. All I can hope is that someday they’ll see how lucky they’ve been so far, and more importantly how much they already know and how fine their minds are. How all these years of being allowed to follow their hearts and live inside their imaginations have given them an immeasurable advantage over most schooled children. Perhaps they must experience the tedium of school firsthand to know what Grace and the Johns (Gatto and Holt) and I have said about school is true. And then maybe they’ll trust me again.
Ann Leadbetter homeschooled her daughters with her husband Gig in Grand Junction Colorado. Her articles have appeared in Home Education Magazine and GWS. This article was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2002. She wrote two follow-ups to this article in 2003 and 2007.