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China Walks on the Moon
A Life Learner Tries School

by Bonnie Silva

China Walks on the Moon: An Unschooler Tries School

My daughter China never quite got along with the label “independent learner,” which is how she was registered in her local school district. In her opinion, the term gave people the “totally wrong idea” about our family’s approach to learning.

China had been an independent learner for several years and had also spent periods of time, mostly out of curiosity, in public, Montessori, and other private school settings. Her dad and I supported her educational hopscotch, believing that the knowledge soup she had created for herself had to be better than the many soul-depleting experiences we remembered from our own childhood encounters with school.

As an adolescent determined to make some choices for herself, China decided in late spring of her eighth grade year that she would investigate life at her local middle school.

She shared with me two reasons for wanting to do so. She wondered if she was keeping up with everyone else her age academically, and felt that getting homework and doing it for grades would provide some kind of ability indicator for her, and she heard that fashion reigned at the school, therefore there’d be the opportunity to model herself and her clothes.

"She wondered if she was keeping up with everyone else her age academically, and she heard that fashion reigned at the school."

Much to my astonishment, the middle school administrators allowed China, upon her request, to attend part time before officially relinquishing her independent status. The events that followed, and the results of China’s introduction to a system so far from her understanding of what real learning means were surprising, heartbreaking, and in the end, gratifying.

When a student registers for eighth grade at our regional middle school, there is a requirement for a visit to the guidance counselor. This individual was meeting with China and I the morning after China decided to sign on to being a full time student.

“China, we’re so glad you’ve decided to come and be with us all the time, instead of just part time," Ms. Olebryck said with a satisfied grin. My thoughts drifted to our early morning ride as an array of papers requiring my signature were foisted upon me.

China had asked only one question as my leftover coffee splashed all over my steering wheel and dress. “Mom, do you think there’ll be any shooting at my school?”

Her words stung me, probably because she inquired about people being shot in a very ho-hum tone, as if she were asking about the lunch menu or the location of her locker. “I wish I could say that could never happen,” I answered, and we drove on without saying another word.

“There are three choices of types of classes here,” Ms. Olebryck said briskly, as if trying to regain my attention. “We have special ed., standard, and high achievers. Which group would you…” and before she could finish, a terrifying alarm blared, signaling the beginning of confusion and fear.

As students and teachers spilled nervously into the hallways, my daughter and I headed for the visitor lot directly in front of the building before the fire trucks could block us in. We left quickly, without hearing gunshots or smelling smoke, or having any clue as to what emergency had interrupted our meeting.

Later that day China informed me that a petite brown-haired girl, younger than herself, had set the bathroom on fire. When she left the bathroom, she set a hallway ablaze.

I asked China why she thought the girl would do this. “I don’t know, I never heard her say anything at all,” my daughter replied softly before retreating to her bedroom.

The following day China finished signing up for “standard” classes three weeks before eighth grade would officially end for the summer. While I was there, we were asked to stop in to see the high school guidance counselor, who would help my daughter register for next year’s high school classes as well.

These visits with public school administrators always made me feel like I was walking on the moon. The whole place, from the penitentiary style building to the adversarial body language and crass, condescending verbal retorts contradicted everything I knew and believed about how real learning takes place.

"These visits with public school administrators always made me feel like I was walking on the moon."

Anyway, how are we going to determine, Mr. Springer wanted to know, where China should be placed? “There are no transcripts or grades in her file.” My witty, resourceful daughter offered her own suggestion. “I could make a list for you of my areas that I picked to learn about this year.”

“Okay,” he said, rubbing his aching head. “You do that while your mother fills out my paperwork.” I laughed to myself while scribbling my signature over and over for Mr. Springer. What in the world is she going to share about our experiential learning, I wondered, and what will he make of it?

China handed her list to Mr. Springer and he pulled his bifocals way, way down on his nose. “Tell me young lady,” he quipped, “what exactly is paddock math?”

“Well, China replied innocently, ”we have to set the posts just right with all the angles measured perfectly and the rails the same distance in between. Then we …”

He cut her off. “That’s great, especially if you like horses, but at this school we need to concern ourselves with the math problems that will appear on the MCAS test."

Mr. Springer decided to move on down the list. “Okay, under science you’ve got pasture growth processes and research, followed by a presentation of laminitis in horse’s hooves at the University of New Hampshire. Under computer education you say you’ve learned html and have created web pages.” He nodded and added a long “Hmmmm.”

“Under Volunteer Work, you say you give younger children riding lessons. Are you a certified riding instructor?" “Well no, China answered politely. I can’t try for my certification ‘til I’m eighteen.”

At this point I hoped we didn’t have to go through the entire list, especially when I noticed my daughter had included real estate buying and selling. After all, China was capable of unknowingly blurting our entire financial portfolio to the world at large.

"On day two of her middle school adventure, China came home and burst into exasperated, hurt tears."

“Well,” Mr. Springer said when his phone rang, “how about if we just see if we can make an informed decision about her placement needs for next year by documenting her overall performance during these last three weeks of school?”

And with a handshake and smiles, the meeting regarding what in the world China had been doing with her time as an independent learner outside of the confines of a compulsory school system was over.

The next three weeks brought marvelous revelations for China. She discovered she was indeed academically okay. Even the homework assignments were easy, consisting mostly of busy work that lingered as appendages to what was covered in class.

The teachers, just like in other situations in life, ranged from people who actually liked and cared about kids, to people who didn’t belong anywhere near them.

China also learned that keeping pace with middle school fashion was a lot of work. It meant getting out of bed at 5:00 am to do hair and makeup, and washing clothes often enough to never be seen in the same outfit.

On day two of her middle school adventure, China came home and burst into exasperated, hurt tears. “I have a detention from the principal,” she cried with an embarrassment too deep for words.

Back on the moon with the principal, I tried to keep a calm, friendly resonance to my voice over the telephone. “Could you explain to me please why China has a detention for wearing her windbreaker? It’s really chilly today!” The reply was swift, curt, and decisive. “Coats and jackets have pockets, pockets could have guns and knives in them. All coats and jackets need to be removed and put in the lockers when students arrive in the morning.

"It had been hard too for me and her dad to allow China to make these choices for herself."

Here’s my saving grace, I thought, China wasn’t given a locker yet. The principal and I came to an agreement. He would remove the detention if I would explain the policy to China and make sure she followed the rule.

China’s other comments during the days that followed reflected her unavoidable collision with a different kind of learning experience than she had known. “I think it’s really bad for people to sit still for so long,” she said. “It hurts my back and makes me fall asleep.” “Most of the kids seem like they don’t want to be there.” And finally, “I’d like to see if there are other things I can do next year besides going there. It would be hard to live like that for a whole year!”

Yes, it had been hard too for me and her dad to allow China to make these choices for herself. But it was also wonderfully satisfying to be in her company as we walked out the middle school door and closed it quietly together.

"What was it really like for you China while you were walking on the moon?" I thought to my innermost self as we descended the stairs. "I’m so pleased to know that you preferred life back on Earth."

Bonnie Silva is the mother of two daughters. She is also an Emmy award winning writer/producer committed to developing high quality, non-violent viewing choices for children and families. Her life long passion is to create places where captured wild horses can live free.

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