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An Unschooler in High School

An Unschooler In High School
By Ann Leadbetter

The last article I wrote for Life Learning Magazine was a year ago, when my daughter, Kate was on the brink of starting high school, her first taste of school since first grade. I wrote that she was curious about high school and that I wanted her to go so homeschooling could be something she chose (or didn’t choose) for her own reasons. She was able to navigate a middle path by taking only two classes (plus lunch) to start with to see if she liked it. Here is how it worked out.

She stuck with it the whole school year, took six classes total (two for each trimester), and opted out of lunch the last three months. Did she like it? No. Did she do well? Yes.

In Mythology, the very first academic class of her life, in which she was the only freshman, she created a stunning chess set of Greek gods and goddesses that the teacher said was the best creative project she’d ever seen in all her years of teaching. She got As in all her classes.

I was so proud of her, not because of her grades but because she had the courage and the faith in herself to enter the classroom and give it a try. My greatest fear leading up to this experiment was that she thought herself incapable of doing schoolwork and that she would be afraid of failing in front her peers. But somehow she wasn’t. Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, she grew an extra layer of self-confidence in the nick of time. I knew she could do schoolwork – just about anyone can – but I didn’t know how to convince her. Perhaps the best thing to have come out of her schooling is this: Now she knows it’s not a big deal, that she can do it if she wants to.

However, at this point, she doesn’t want to. I had originally thought that if she had a positive experience she might opt to take more classes for her 10th grade year. But she didn’t like school at all. Even though her teachers loved her, even though it wasn’t hard, even though she was one of only three freshmen to make the varsity soccer team, she still didn’t like it. To keep her options open, she registered for six classes for this school year, but she was dreading the prospect of returning. Then she had to start a week late because of a tennis camp she was attending in Vermont, and after two days she hated it so much she decided to “rise up” out of the first trimester. She tentatively plans to try again in a few months, but when the time comes, I doubt she’ll feel any more like going than she does now.

She found her Spanish classes tedious and boring. Her teacher was dull and lazy, relying entirely on worksheets and end of the chapter exercises. She liked her two art classes, but she didn’t like being on a schedule to finish a project. She felt she had to cut corners in order to make a due date. Mythology and a fitness class were her favorite classes, but she would have preferred them insmaller doses. She didn’t like the relentlessness of attending them everyday.

I’m glad she wasn’t taken in by all activity and propaganda of school. I had hoped she’d make friends, though. I know teenagers love to hang out with friends. That’s all I loved when I was in high school. I worried that her adolescence would be freakish and stunted if the only friend she continued to have was her younger sister. She’s not a misfit! She’s not shy! Ninth grade, I thought, is the time to break into the high school social scene when everyone is displaced from middle school. I was thankful she played soccer because she could bond with her team. They could become her social group. But it didn’t work out that way. The phone hardly ever rang. When someone did call to invite her to a movie or pre-game dinner, half the time she’d refuse. I don’t think she’s ever even chit-chatted on the phone with a single girl (and certainly not a boy). When I think of how much time I spent on the phone when I was 15! So I spent the whole of last school year suggesting she call so-and-so, encouraging her to go to team social events, arranging carpools so she’d have more opportunities to see her teammates. But nothing worked; she still opted for her sister’s company, or her own, or her family’s.

One day, out of the blue, she said, “I don’t like kids my age. I’m going to wait until I’m in college to have friends.” Okay. I decided to quit worrying about her social agenda She had her reasons and her plans, and I needed to let her deal with them in her own way. I ceased my cajoling and arranging, but I still feel sad and a little guilty, like she was giving up on the social scene before she really gave it a chance. But I know what’s important is that Kate is happy, probably happier than most 15 year olds. She loves soccer and tennis and painting and writing fantasy stories. If she had to be in school all day and was stuck doing homework all night, she’d never have enough time or energy for the things she likes. When she turns16 in five months, she can get a little job instead or take some courses at the local college.

Apart from the lack-of-friendship issue, things couldn’t have turned out better, really. I would have been secretly appalled if she’d taken to school like a fish to water. I would’ve hated hearing her say, “Mom, I can’t believe you kept me from this great place. How could you have done this to me?” If instead of just barely tolerating it, she wanted to become president of student council or editor of the yearbook or a rah, rah school spirit type. I would have had serious doubts about myself and the life I’d chosen for my children.

Luckily, the timing was right; she was mature enough and confident enough to see the real picture, to see that school is tedious, loud, crowded, boring, full of stressful social posturing, and in general not worth the energy it demands. The soccer wasn’t even that good. She’s accustomed to her rec-league team which is composed of the best girls from the whole city and not to a team composed of anyone who wants to play. And the upper-class girls weren’t very nice to the freshmen. She can still play high school soccer if she chooses to, however, even if she doesn’t take any classes. We’ll see what this year brings, and I’ll keep you posted.

Ann Leadbetter unschools her daughters with her husband Gig in Grand Junction CO. Her articles have also appeared in Home Education Magazine and in GWS. This article was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2003, as one of a series of articles describing a teen's adventures with home-based and school-based learning.  

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