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Grown Without Schooling
By Peter Kowalke
An adult unschooler interviews his peers to find out what they are doing and thinking now.

Chatting With . . . Zoë Blowen-Ledoux, 26 - Montréal, Québec

Zoe Blowen-LedouxThe Language Business

I have a friend who is in his 60s, and we’re very similar. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for paid work, he said you have two choices. You can develop what you love and find a way to get paid to do it, but that might squelch your passion. Or you can find something you’re good at, that you like, and develop that as a moneymaker, then do your passion on the side. Maybe for me it isn’t that clear cut, but I did choose the second option.

I have a translation company. The four services that we offer are translation, revision of second-language writers (if your first language is French but you’re writing for an American audience, I’ll revise it), editing and writing. It is a small agency, so basically I work as a hub in conjunction with 10 to 15 freelancers to offer different services and language combinations. I translate from French into English, and I work on English copy, but the company accepts work in French, Albanian, whatever you want. I do a lot in marketing, a lot in publicity, and what I really like is what’s creative – writing websites, figuring out what people want to say.

Translation is a craft; it is a skill that is very lucrative and my goal is to make money with it so I can do other things. I think my passion is learning. But translation isn’t that clear cut, because translation allows me to learn the most amazing things. I have this incredible academic paper I’m translating right now about all the historical influences of nanotech- nologies, and it is like, “Wow, this is so interesting!”

Nothing Lost In Translation

I’m continuing homeschooling in a certain sense because I’m basically leading an adult version of the homeschooling/unschooling life I lived as a teenager. Translation is about the form, not about the content. I think homeschooling is that way, too; homeschooling is about your lifestyle and how you want to live your life, not about content. We see homeschoolers who are science freaks and those who are literature freaks, yet they all are homeschoolers. I think translation for me is something like that; it is a way to use my skill at languages but also continue exploring all sorts of subjects.

This business also was a natural evolution of my interests and my background. My father is a Francophone; he speaks French as his first language, so I grew up with French around. And growing up in Maine, we frequently came to Québec for vacations. So for me, moving to Québec was a natural step because of my family background and my interest in language. And after studying languages in college and getting a Master’s degree, the natural next step was to start my own business. A lot of people don’t think of that, but for me I had grown up in a family of entrepreneurs and artists, and there was homeschooling. It was totally normal for me to start my own business.

I really think it is essential to embrace your nature. If you’re forcing yourself always to do something that you’re not good at, that you don’t like, you’re not going to get recognition for it, you’re not going to succeed because you’re going to be unhappy. But, I would qualify what I just said by saying there is a place for everything. I think that homeschooling was a foundation in understanding who I am, what I like, what I’m good at. Now I can take off from that platform and fly into other fields that aren’t necessarily my natural domains.

Know Thyself

When I look at friends who are in their 20s who didn’t have the freedom that I had as a teenager just to discover, I find they still are doing some of that work now – they’re discovering what they’re like, what they’re good at, who they are. Only now, they’re paying the bills and they’re stuck in the job that maybe they don’t like, they have an education and debts. They’re at the same place I am except that I still have this extra freedom because I did the work earlier. It was an incredible gift from my parents that I was given the freedom that I had when I was younger to understand who I was and to take the time to know who I am. I can do other things now with my time.

A System that Works

Honestly, I’m not sure that I would be able to work in a big office or in a context where there is office politics and bosses. I’m not sure I even could have a boss. When I first finished school and was looking for a job, I thought, “I’ll go out and work for a company, and I’ll be revised, and my translations will be better, and I’ll have experience, and it will be like a mentorship program except I’ll be paid. Fantastic!”

Well, I did the test translations and I went to the interviews – and I was a fish out of water! The experience really made me feel like I don’t belong in the corporate world. I spent two months looking for a job and going to these interviews. I had a great resume, I had great experience, and I wasn’t being hired!

This was really discouraging! At the same time, though, friends of friends, colleagues, old professors were giving me work. “So wait a minute,” I thought. “This is obviously the easiest and most natural way to go, so why am I chasing a corporate job?” I can’t say that I regret the decision to start my own business, either.

I don’t have any problem working in The System. I think working in, or working with, The System is very different than working in an environment that isn’t conducive to who you are and what makes you happy. I think a lot of people make that mistake. It is very shortsighted to say The System is bad, because we live in systems.

Homeschooling is a system; systems are what make things work consistently. The real problem is finding a system that works for you – finding a system that makes you happy and allows you to be who you are.

Often, when I say that I work from home, people respond that it takes so much discipline, and they ask how I do it. But for me, it just is the most normal thing. For me, having my own business is the right system – it is a system that allows me to say “Oh, it is a beautiful afternoon. I’m going to go work in a café this afternoon,” or “I’m going to take the day off and hang out with friends.”

School Rules

Peter, there is a wonderful line in your documentary about how at some point as homeschoolers we have to live in a world that is run by the people who went to school. That really resonated for me because it is true! Not only do you come into contact with that world, but you participate in that world.

It is interesting that we’re having this interview now, because this week I had a fairly unsettling experience. I was referred from a friend of a friend for work on a website, a very large contract for about three months of work. I started the job and delivered a quarter of the work, but they said they weren’t really happy with the translation. Oh my God, let’s fix it then!

I went in for a meeting, and it turns out they hired this consulting firm that provides guidance in making the transition to becoming a bilingual company. It was very clear to me that it wasn’t my client that was unhappy. The problem was that the consulting firm had butchered my translation. They were just changing one synonym for another and, obviously, my translation looked terrible to someone who doesn’t speak English. It was not about content anymore, it was about who can get the client’s eye.

It was the first time in the two years I’ve had my company that I had to deal with such politics. I was flabbergasted! It blew my mind that there was that competition. I didn’t know how to deal with it and I still don’t. Do I become sharky? Do I play the one-up game? Do I try to vie for the client’s attention and discredit the other people like they’re trying to discredit me? I want to run my business according to how I live my life, but the translation is a big contract. I can let the contract go, but that would be a fifth of my year’s income.

How do you play in a game when you don’t like the rules?

Peter Kowalke grew without schooling. He is a journalist and the producer of “Grown Without Schooling,” a documentary about grown homeschoolers and the lasting influence of home education. This article was published in 2007.

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