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Unschooling - For the Sake of Our Children

For the Sake of Our Children
By Léandre Bergeron

How three sisters learned by living…and tried, then recovered from, school

It is so wonderful to see children learning on their own, discovering and exploring the world at their own pace, with no pressure, following their instinct! And this happens so simply! We don’t have to do anything. We just have to let it happen. Let it happen and it will happen. It’s like a permanent vacation.

I still remember all the worry I put myself through. I would bite my nails about whether or not my three daughters would ever learn. Then I would get a hold of myself, take a look at what I was doing, take a step back and see how silly I was being, brooding about all of this.

I was totally obsessed by the trap of formal education that was lurking behind corners, waiting to snatch me up. I forced myself to get a grip. Was I no longer able to trust these wonderful creatures who were growing up so magnificently? So I kicked the unwelcome visitors out of my head: the teacher, the parent who submits to the State, the fearful man who must create fear in his turn. I was not going back there. I would trust them. Was I about to destroy this delicate symbiosis that existed between us, take away the glimmer in their eyes that told me they were at peace with themselves, at harmony with their environment? Would I destroy all this just so they could recite some stupid facts that were painted on like make-up? No. I stepped away from the vicious circle of fear and watched them start playing again.

And lo and behold, I discovered how these games led to genuine learning. In fact, all I had to do was let them play as they pleased, as much as they wanted, in order for them to learn what they needed to know at their age. Why did they have to learn to read and write before they needed to read and write? Why should we make the joy of learning into a form of torture by imposing it on them prematurely? Why force things? It’s ridiculous. Why did my daughters need to know how to read at seven, eight, or even ten years of age? They didn’t. Why did they have to count, add, or subtract? They didn’t. If the need arose in one of their games, they would look for a way to fill it. Or still, when, as part of their daily lives, they realized the importance of the grocery list that sat on the lectern near my baking counter. “Papa, we need apples.” And I would write: apples. “Let me write apples.” “Okay, A-P-P-L-E-S.” “Why are there two Ps?” “To complicate things. Because if it was simple and easy, everyone would learn it quickly and the teachers in school wouldn’t have anything to do.”

For a long time, the grocery list was my daughters’ only writing practice because writing was just a tool for remembering things at that stage in their lives. But soon they began to take interest in the mail, this fascinating way to talk to someone with a piece of paper even if they live far away. “Why don’t I get any letters?” “You will.” They would write me little messages. “I love you Papa.” “Will you be my Valentine?” And on Easter morning, they would each find a note under their plates, a treasure hunt that led them on a circuitous route to the prize. Or one of them would say: “I want to write to Béatrice.” “Okay.” “How do I write ‘send me a letter’?” I spelled it and helped her write the letters. She signed it. We sent it.

First letters are, as it were, monosyllabic. With time, syllables will multiply. The desire to communicate in writing becomes a pleasure, but a rare pleasure because all of their correspondents go to school and don’t have time to write or don’t want to write anymore. My courageous daughters had to wait for weeks or months for a letter. But as soon as they got a letter themselves, they enthusiastically composed a response the very next day. How ironic!

* * *

When Déirdre was five, she asked to go to school, most likely because her friend Jocelyne was going and also because she really wanted to take the school bus. “You want to go to school? No problem.”

She enjoyed herself in kindergarten but, once she got to first grade, it wasn’t the same. She no longer had the maternal Denise for her teacher, but some “real” teacher, fresh off the assembly line from teachers’ college. She had a strict schedule and exercised discipline with an iron hand, disguised in a rough cotton glove. Her manner was so serious. Her actions spoke volumes about her personal ambitions. Déirdre quickly became disenchanted. She would get off the school bus in the afternoons with a long face, looking so unhappy. She walked with a heavy step and her backpack dragged her down even more. She never smiled.

“It’s not going well at school?”

“I don’t want to go any more.”

“So, don’t go.”

Déirdre stayed home for a few days and then decided to go back to school “at least so I can see Jocelyne.” But she quickly fell behind because of the days she missed and things went from bad to worse, of course.

“Why does the teacher want me to write A fifty times? I don’t want to write fifty. I just want to write one, but I want to make it beautiful.”

She would erase her “imperfect” A so she didn’t have to look at it and rewrite it. But this type of self-correction wasn’t included in the teacher’s training manual. Déirdre was sent to stand in the corner because she didn’t obey the instructions. She was coming home every day from school with a snotty nose and an angry heart.

I went to the open house for parents, hoping to have a word with Déirdre’s teacher, but the tightly knit group of teachers performed their circus act, took us all for idiots, and made it clear that they knew exactly how to handle things. Untouchable. The next day I told Déirdre, “You don’t have to go to school, you know.”

“Yes, I know, but I want to see Jocelyne.”

At that time Phèdre, her younger sister, was only three and wasn’t really a satisfactory playmate. Neither was Cassandre, who was only eleven months old.

Déirdre was stuck. Her friend Jocelyne was held captive in school all day long. October passed. Then November. Her absences from school were more frequent and were getting longer and longer. Her teacher would send me scathing notes, reminding me of my “duty as a parent.”

Christmas vacation provided Déirdre with a welcome break from her troubles with school. In January, when it was time to go back, she refused point blank. She had decided that she’d had enough. I said that I was going to go spend a week in her classroom at school with her, to see what was going on.

I did so the very next day. I sat in a corner of the classroom and I watched what was going on. What a depressing sight! All these children sitting there, silent and inattentive, closed off, each one called on in turn to recite something robotically, obedient and lackluster. How sad! The only person who seemed to be getting any pleasure from this exercise was the teacher, who obliviously wielded her power. When it was time for recreation, when the poor little prisoners got a chance to go shout out their frustrations in the schoolyard, the teacher, instead of coming to talk to me, the intruder into her closed little world, went to grab a quick cup of coffee and immersed herself in marking papers. A short while later it all began again, this tragi-comedy, now accompanied by the odor of stale sweat.

The gold-plating continued. In French, the word for gold-plating is plaquer. It can be used in three ways. First, se faire plaquer au plancher (to be pinned to the floor), like in combat. These children were pinned to their desks by the adult-adversary-teacher. Then, the other meaning of plaquer (gold-plating or veneer), the superimposition of a bright, shiny material on another, the veneer of education. And then, se faire plaquer (to ditch someone). Poor children, abandoned by their parents, condemned to this asylum of alienated beings that we call school! My daughter would not be abandoned. I would have liked to free all the others at the same time, but it wasn’t possible. The next generation, perhaps? If I could save Déirdre from the jaws of this monstrous machine, that would already be a good start.

Some of the prisoners seem sort of interested, but not in the material that is being taught. They seem to be more interested in showing off, attracting attention, having all eyes on them, and being favorably noticed by the teacher. The bodies of these children are there despite themselves. Their hearts are far away. And their minds? They are everywhere except here in this communal cell, with windows too high to even see out of, sickly green chalkboards, reinforced concrete ceilings, tables where forced labor takes place, the computer/toy – a Cyclops that eats your consciousness like canned spaghetti – and this clown who’s leading the whole parade in the name of knowledge, science, and democracy.

Now it’s time for music class with the “specialist” in notes and scales, which allows the main teacher to run and hide in the teachers’ lounge. Here comes the sound magician, who takes a triangle, a drum, and a harmonica out of a large bag, managing to capture the attention of the prisoners. But don’t touch! She puts each instrument on the teacher’s desk and launches into a lecture. She writes little lines on the chalkboard to illustrate musical rhythm and breaks a musical phrase into ta-tam, ta-tam, ta-tam. A class in musical theory, worthy of college, is being offered to these poor little kids, whose only interest lies in the meager instrumental offerings laid on the teacher’s desk.

After twenty minutes of words that have been lost to the surrounding concrete, each child is finally given a turn to hold the triangle and demonstrate rhythm: ting, ting, ting-ting; ting, ting, ting-ting. And then they return to their seats in this musical torture class. The art of making a child lose all interest in music. The things we put our children through! We don’t even let them bang all the bangs out of the sad, soundless drum or slide their mouths across the shiny, silent harmonica to free all the captive notes.

After four days of school, I can’t take it any more. That’s enough. When we get into the car, I say to Déirdre, “You are absolutely right. I couldn’t stand it either.”

The next few days aren’t easy. Even if she is no longer smothered by the oppressive weight of school, Déirdre must relearn how to live, move, feel, and breathe freely after this extended physical, mental, and emotional paralysis. At ten in the morning, she’s at my side, asking what she can do, a bit like a zombie who has lost her master. But slowly, despite everything, the wounds begin to heal and Déirdre re-emerges. She rediscovers her time and space, her moments, where she can remember the joy of little things that grow so well in an atmosphere of freedom: her dolls that she brings back to life with her newfound imagination; the wonderful feeling of lying on her back on the rug, telling stories to two spoons that she makes dance above her head with her arms stretched out; the songs that she sings out to an audience of chair rungs and logs; her smile and the look of joy shining in her eyes. Her little legs abandon the leaden walk of school children to rediscover dancing, lightness, and the spring in her step. She has become carefree again. Soon she opens up to her sisters, who were nothing but obstacles to her before, in her closed-off world, no more than inferior beings on whom she took out her frustrations. She can regress to the level of her little sisters without feeling self-conscious after four months of forced “progress.” She rediscovers her appetite, the taste of a ripe apple that leaves juice running down your chin, spontaneous laughter that is like a burst of fresh air on a hot July day.

As for me, I rediscover my little grasshopper who jumps into my arms to give me a hug so tight that it almost crushes the vertebrae in my neck and then runs off at top speed behind the nearest bush to play hide and seek with her shadow. Yes, she is back, this child who knew how to amaze me with her discoveries, her imagination, and her haphazard learning. So authentic. So effective.

* * *

Deschooling is no easy task, neither for the child, nor for those who surround her…letting out all of this repressed and suppressed energy; having her time all to herself with no constant authoritarian supervision; rediscovering her body, her skin, her sensitivity; recalling her first feelings, her zest for life, her generosity, her longing for warmth and tenderness; rediscovering spontaneous laughter and her desire to discover the world around her without naming or labeling everything, classifying it, like in library catalogues. It’s such a disease, all this schooling and categorizing, instead of simply knowing. “I name, therefore I am.” What stupidity! Deep down, we know that the label we put on something completely hides it from us.

Rediscovering the right to have one’s time to oneself. Doing what we want instead of being told what to do. Rediscovering one’s first enthusiasm, this first desire to live, that gets crushed under all the garbage of school, homework, conformity, rules of good conduct, grades, demerit points, and speaking “properly.”

Deschooling is a time of convalescence. The time required to recover from formal education varies with the amount of time one was exposed to the disease and the individual’s resiliency. A resilient child who is exposed to school for a few months can recover in a few weeks. But a child who was profoundly injured can take months or years to recover, if ever. Furthermore, a resilient child who has put up with seven or eight years of school and who quits in the mid-teens might need several years before even opening up a book again, but another child of the same age might remain allergic to reading for life.

It took Déirdre a few weeks to rediscover her gaiety, her good humor, her physical, emotional, and mental health. She saw Jocelyne on the weekends, which was better than nothing. She started drawing again. The bright colors and lines she drew shouted her resurrection. She said nothing about reading and writing for weeks.

In March, the principal called to ask about Déirdre’s prolonged absence. I told him there was no way that she was going back to school. He referred me to an employee of the school board. When I met with him, he told me that my daughter would have to meet periodically with an educational adviser who would check her progress in French, math, and natural sciences. I went along with this requirement for her second year and realized that it only took fifteen minutes a day, three or four times a week, for Déirdre to learn everything they wanted her to know. It went so quickly that at the end of that year, the educational adviser even suggested that she do her third year over the summer. No thank you.

At that time, a friend from Gatineau, mother of three children, two of whom were old enough for school, offered to have Déirdre live with them so she could attend the Waldorf school in Ottawa. I asked my daughter what she thought of that idea. She accepted immediately, quite happy to go on this new adventure. By registering her in another school, I was able to take her name off the list of students under the jurisdiction of the local school board.

She found herself in an alternative school with schedules, subjects, and different levels of classes but, nonetheless, slightly more focused on the child. It was an English-speaking school, so Déirdre was fully immersed in another language. The teacher, who was very kind, let her do whatever she wanted, as long as she didn’t disrupt the class. She listened to the strange sounds of a new language, drew pictures, and wrote letters to her parents. It took five months before she said her first English word in class. At the end of the year, she was fluent in English. She came back to us pleased with her experience but delighted to return home again.

We then tried to create a little family school at the end of our road with some other families whose children were having trouble adapting to school but I realized, as with any other alternative or progressive school, that we wound up reproducing a traditional school, despite our best efforts: dividing students into peer groups; focusing intensely on specific subjects like reading or writing; forced feeding. I noticed that our children were going along with all of these circus acts because they loved us and they saw that it pleased us, the adults.

School still had its invisible chains fastened to us. We weren’t deschooled yet. But the unease that I felt trying to gently teach the agreements of past participles to nine or ten year olds broke my heart. They were just not interested. I was trying to be patient, attempting to focus their attention for a few seconds on these words that did not interest them at all in this way. I felt like a clown, trying to catch flies and force them to drink vinegar. These kids wanted to be playing outside, frolicking about and learning naturally. We held them back with our velvet gloves and our somewhat forced smiles, hoping to stuff grammatical rules down their throats – rules that had nothing to do with their natural use of the language.

Deschooling is a long process, especially because school has penetrated and impregnated each one of our brains. It takes us so long to realize what a deschooled brain can be like. There are not many of them around. Everyone we know has been schooled. The only people who aren’t, are the “barbarians,” primitives, Bushmen, pygmies, Bedouins that we look down our noses at anyway because they haven’t been to school. Even the illiterate are schooled, and their brains have registered their lack of success in school as a failure or defect.

Léandre Bergeron is a well-known French Canadian author and activist who was born in Manitoba. He studied in France and taught literature at Concordia University in Montreal before moving to the Quebec countryside with his wife Francine to live a life of voluntary simplicity. His many works include the well-known Dictionnaire de la langue québecoise and the best-seller Petit Manuel d’histoire du Québec. He is a tireless champion for the underdog and has long advocated for educational, political, and social reform. This article is an excerpt from his book For the Sake of Our Children, published by Life Learning Magazine’s publisher Life Media. The book, and this article, were translated from French by Pamela Levac.

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