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How Public School Failed My Daughter and Life Learning Saved Her

Saving Brianna
How Public School Failed My Daughter and Life Learning Saved Her
By Christy Severn-Martinez

I am still bewildered by people’s assumption that children will learn nothing if given the opportunity. I spoke with a friend recently and was telling him excitedly about our new way of life – the new life that allows my daughter Brianna the space she needs to figure things out on her own. I went as far as telling him that I allow her to make most of her own decisions on watching TV, playing video games, going outside: a free range lifestyle for a free range kid. His reply was merely that kids will do nothing but watch TV and eat potato chips if given the option. (There is a bit of truth in that; if a child has never been given the chance to figure it out on her own, she will more than likely choose what has been most restricted, at least for a while.)

We have not always been life learners. As a matter of fact, as I write this, it’s only been approximately eight months since we embraced this wonderful new way of life. And I have seen such a drastic change in my daughter I wouldn’t believe it possible if I had not seen it myself. I’m not an expert on children, unless you count the child development class I took in high school twenty-some years ago, but I don’t feel I have to be to share the experience I’ve had with my own daughter. So here is a little bit of what I do know about and how public school versus life learning has affected our lives and, most, importantly my daughter’s joy in learning.

I have seen many wonderful things come to this brilliant child of mine who had been beaten down by daycare (I worked up until two years ago when I was fortunate enough to be able to leave my job and stay home with her), by public school, and yes – sorry to say – by me. I was trying desperately to help her be what so many people told me she should be and clearly was not. She is not an outgoing child – never has been and probably never will be. That’s just who she is and I respect and actually love that about her. But that’s not where I was three years ago.

When I decided to take Brianna out of school, she was on her third year of special education classes. I had been duped into the labeling of my child: If they don’t learn a certain way then they must have some type of disability, whether it be a learning disability, ADD, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, etc. So many people are quick to place labels on children who don’t learn the way public school teaches them.

Up until I took Brianna out of public school when she was eight, she was more often than not prone to angry outbursts, low self-esteem, anger, frustration, irritation, and so many other traits a parent would deplore her child feeling. At the time, I had been sucked into the world of “let’s find out what’s wrong with your child so we can place a label on her that will make her behavior acceptable.”

Unfortunately, I listened and this is what I was told by a few “Child Specialists:” The owner of her day care said she was just basically slow. (I went home and cried for a few hours over that one.) The Speech Therapist said she had speech problems. The School District said she had a learning disability (memory retention issues). The Pediatrician said she was dyslexic. The Occupational Therapist said she had a sensory processing disorder and dyslexia. The Dyslexia Specialist said yep, she’s dyslexic. We had a consultation with a neuropsychologist who had no initial diagnosis, but said she was in need of additional testing and their help. I assumed all of these people to be Child Specialists; therefore I thought they knew what they were talking about. Well, you know what they say you make of yourself when you “assume” something!

The frustrating part of this is when I look back and realize not one of these “specialists” told me my child may just need a break. Perhaps she just needs time to adjust and to spend some time growing and learning at her own pace, when she is ready. I wish one of these “specialists” had told me the best thing I could do for her would be to quit my job and stay home with her and by doing this I would be removing her from an atmosphere that was making her feel inferior when she is perfectly normal. They could have gone as far as telling me that all children learn and grow at their own pace so I should stop comparing her to what the world has put out there as the standard. This standard has made people believe that if your child does not meet it they will be ostracized.

I will never forget what the Speech Therapist recommended we do to help her with her speech. We were told to repeat everything she has just said but reword it correctly. So let’s say Brianna says “I wan nana,” I was to repeat this back to her by saying “You would like a B-A-N-A-N-A?” Now that I look back at this, all I can say is “R-E-A-L-L-Y?” What was I thinking? Brianna was three-and-a-half years old at the time and if anyone talked to me like that at my age I’d be furious. I’d feel as though they thought I was stupid!!! Why would a child feel differently? What is it that makes a person think children are to be talked down to as though they understand nothing and need guidance and correction at every corner? Has our society become so blind to the fact that children are as capable and sometimes more capable than some adults? I would have to say yes, because I was one of them, but lucky for Brianna homeschooling was in her future and deschooling was in mine.

The idea of homeschooling Brianna actually came from my husband. It all started while I was volunteering in Brianna’s third grade class and I noticed how little work she actually did during the day. She had been placed in a Special Education class in first grade (yes, even at six years old you can be labeled as not good enough) and apparently, by school standards, was still in need of these classes in third grade. But while volunteering, I noticed she would receive these special services for one hour every day and then go back to her regular class and do practically nothing. I was truly disgusted with the way my daughter was being educated. When I mentioned this to my husband he said, “You could teach her better at home compared to how the school is doing.” AHA!!! I’ll homeschool her and then she’ll get the one-on-one attention she needs to succeed. One of my sisters had homeschooled her son for a few years, so at least I knew someone to whom I could go for advice.

Within a few months after that comment from my husband, I had my classroom prepared and my daughter and I were on our way to a beautiful homeschooling journey and she’d be up to par in no time flat. Oh, I had my dreams. I had this vision that one day I’d run into one of those teachers who had told me I could do nothing worse for my daughter than to homeschool her. She’d see what a miraculous transformation Brianna had made and how she was on her way to being accepted into an elite collage at the age of ten. Well we all know how those dreams turn out. Brianna hated homeschooling just about as much as school itself. We were not having all that much fun, unless we were going to a museum, or playing outside, taking walks around the neighborhood, or just talking about things that we found interesting or funny.

Then one day while looking through the homeschooling section at our nearby secondhand bookstore, I came across The Unschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith (Three Rivers Press, 1998). Really, I thought, I’d never unschool; that’s just too lenient. I picked it up anyway just to see what it had to say about watching TV and playing video games. I ended up walking out of the bookstore with The Unschooling Handbook and the rest is history.

This wasn’t the final kick-off point for life learning, though. That was the day Brianna wrote on our classroom window in crayon, “I AM BORED.” This came from a child who hates to write. For her to actually write this, it was apparent she was trying all angles to get me to realize how boring all this was to her. I pretty much stopped homeschooling her right after that message, which, by the way, is still written on the window. I have since read many, many, many more books on unschooling and have come to love the philosophy.

This brings me to how Brianna’s life is today and what a difference it has made in her life as well as mine. We no longer correct what she says. She gets no failing grades. There are no reward systems. We do not do any type of traditional schooling. She is truly learning what she wants when she wants and when she is ready. She makes many of her own decision on things like what to eat, when to watch TV, play video games, read or be read to, when to go to bed, when to wake up, and many more. I now believe whole heartedly that she is the only one who knows what her body and mind are ready for – not me, a teacher, a friend, or even a “child specialist.”

During our life-altering adventure, I have seen Brianna transform into a wonderfully independent, happy, self-confident person. The biggest change that I have seen in this miraculous child goes back to when I first started homeschooling her. She would often ask in a whiny, unpleasant voice, “Is this learning?” as though it were pure torture or the most disgusting thing she would ever encounter in this world. Learning, that’s something that’s forced on you, not something that’s enjoyable or that one would actively want to participate in. These days, those words are said in a much different tone. They now come from an elated child who asks excitedly, “Is this learning?” as though it were a gift that is to be savored and enjoyed.

Now who’s the “child specialist?”

Christy Severn-Martinez is first and foremost an unschooling stay-at-home-mom, wife, sister, and daughter. She runs a small business from her home and loves to read, cross stitch, and learn life all over again with her daughter. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter, husband, and a multitude of pets.

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