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Daring to Drop Out
What this teen is learning by unschooling her senior year of high school

by Monica Chen

walking away from school and unschooling herself“Sorry but that doesn’t make any sense,” responded my high school friend when I shared with her my intention to homeschool my senior year. It was a response I heard over and over again as I talked to my guidance counselors, teachers and fellow students. “You’ve been in this system for 11 years!” they exclaimed. “Just jump through this last hoop!”

Undoubtedly, they had a point. I had been cramming and stressing for a long time. To just leave my senior year seemed to be throwing all that hard work away. I had near perfect grades and an above 4.0 grade point average. I was the online editor for the school newspaper, goalie for the varsity field hockey team, actively involved with several community service clubs, and singing onstage in the spring musicals. Both of my college counselors were satisfied when they saw my potential college resume.

But I wasn’t. In fact, I wasn’t even convinced I should pursue my education after high school. Every day, I received college brochures highlighting incredible travel abroad opportunities and numerous potential majors, but nothing sparked my interest. Nothing sounded even remotely appealing.

Somehow, my regular regimen of grade grubbing with teachers, memorizing facts, and struggling to ace tests had festered a loathing for most subjects. I wrote off the entire field of chemistry after a year of chemistry honors. I despised the prospect of learning any foreign language because Spanish class had not been my forte.

In truth, however, my “disastrous” B represented the one time I’d had a competent Spanish teacher who mandated mastery of our conversational skills. It represented the one class where I had worked harder and learned more than ever.

If I’m honest with myself, all those A marks my counselors and peers respected me for do not mean much. They do not imply that I ever retained any course material 40 minutes post-exam. They don’t show any initiative on my part to create a project or pursue a subject with greater intensity. They don’t even mean that I enjoyed learning. Many times, I just got good grades because I followed every mundane specification my teachers came up with.

I did what my counselors, who had gotten students into Harvard and Stanford, told me to do. I fulfilled the course requirements and studied American literature honors instead of contemporary lit because it was more prestigious. I got involved with community service clubs at school and found myself passing out Chinese SAT Prep flyers at park festivals. Though such community service opportunities were not actually helping anyone, I worked towards finding myself various officer positions within those clubs, so I could pass myself off as a leader on college applications.

The problem with requirements and the expected involvement with extra-curricular activities is that there’s little time left for understanding to sink in, opportunities to truly help others, new ideas and inspiration. Following a lecture in history class, I had been genuinely interested in the social conformity of the Germans during WWII and its connection to psychology, yet I had no time to initiate further research. We had to move on to the next chapter...and there was an exam next week.

I have come to realize that going through the motions of school so I may be guaranteed a good paying job in the future is no way to live life. I should be responsible for my own education.

This year I am. And life is definitely being lived. Highlights from the past year include competing in my first half marathon, protesting the Iraq war in the streets of San Francisco, getting involved with Students for Justice, raising awareness of the harms of marketing to children, working on organic food initiatives and volunteering as a docent for a local preserve. The value of such community service is incomparable to what I used to do. At the preserve, for instance, I lead weekly wilderness hikes and farm tours for children from all socio-economic backgrounds. At the beginning of the day, kids are usually hesitant to enter the goat pen, get dirty in the organic garden or sing about how everything on the farm is “connected.” But in the end, they are enthusiastically dissecting scat, gathering snails to feed chickens and howling like coyotes at the top of a steep hill. When it’s raining, I even encourage them to jump in puddles and give each other “muddy” handshakes. I feel good knowing that the day’s activities let these kids learn outside of a classroom, embrace nature, increase their environmental awareness and just be kids.

Through volunteering, I’ve learned a great deal about experiential methods, survival skills, the anatomy of farm animals and sustainability. This is where my real education takes place, but I’m still studying in the more traditional world of academia as well. Peers and adults often comment that they wouldn’t have the “discipline” to study as I do, but they fail to realize that when you have a genuine interest in something, you’ll run with it.

My curriculum is crafted around subjects of interest and involves attending teach-ins, screenings and other diverse events throughout the Bay Area. Most of my academic work is on my own terms, but whenever I feel I might benefit from a professor’s insight, I take college courses. This multifaceted approach has worked out well. I have, for example, been able to explore my interest in the conformity of the Germans during WWII. My research involves analyzing books about the human mind, and one such book illustrated how a psychologist utilized hypnosis to cure her patient. The process inspired me to learn as much as I could about hypnotherapy in addition to my psychological studies at community college. This freedom to explore has enabled me to gain a fresh perspective and deeper understanding of the connection between wars, conformity, hypnosis and psychology.

Most importantly, my love for learning has been reinvigorated as a direct result of “dropping out.” I have even started asking questions again just as a young child would when wondering why the sky is blue. Having met hundreds of unschoolers, including teenagers at Grace Llewellyn’s Not Back to School Camp, I have wondered if self-directed learning would be beneficial for everyone.

It’s clear to even the most ardent supporters of institutionalized schooling that the current system has its deficiencies. Its initial founding in America, however, was admirable and idealistic. The founding fathers believed that it was through school that the democratic process, which called for a citizenry capable of weighing propositions and making informed choices, could be sustained. Such idealistic men would be disheartened by the lack of participation of today’s youth in the electoral process and their general apathy towards current issues. The system certainly didn’t do wonders for me, as I gradually lost my inquisitive nature and interest in subjects. Unfortunately, very few students and parents at my public high school see anything wrong with this system to warrant change.

Our grandparents, while observing teenagers go through the motions of their usual routines, lament that youth is wasted on the young. They realize that given the opportunity to be a teenager again, they would not spend their time outlining chapters or studying for the SAT. They would be seeking adventure and would aspire to be in charge of their own lives and their own education.

Particularly troubling is that, paradoxically, these same adults support the rigid confines placed upon children. How can youth not be wasted on the young if their lives are regulated? Kids are busy doing school, practices, and prep classes because adults reinforce that this is the right path. It makes one “smarter” and leads to “success.”

With such ideology, it is understandable that school has a bad connotative meaning in the minds of most life learners. However, the institutions themselves cannot be judged only in terms of black and white. I am a product of institutionalized schooling and, although I do not maintain a romanticized view of senior year, I don’t condemn the entire system. I value my experiences over the past 11 years and continue to go out with friends, attend rallies, proms, etc.

But for those students whose creativity is being stifled, school is closely associated with torture. You have to feel sympathy for them because most are not fortunate enough to be in a position to quit school. There are unique financial and family situations to consider. Some parents in my community could make life unbearable for the child who dared to drop out.

Those same people who lament that youth is wasted on the young should not send their kids on guilt trips for pursuing their own education. They should be helping our youth take full advantage of life. “Dropping out” of traditional schooling may, in fact, be the best way to rise above what holds them back. However, until homeschooling becomes more socially acceptable, I think that it is critical to work within the system to give the greatest number of children a better learning experience. There is no well-traveled path, no step-by-step formula to accomplishing this, but it is a goal of mine to make it happen.

Monica Chen has experienced life as a student of public, Waldorf, Montessori, Challenger, and single-sex education schools. When she began life learning as a twelfth grader, she began to love learning again!

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