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Future Plans of Unschoolers

What Are Your Plans For the Future?
By Suzanne Malakoff

My professional bio for an organization I used to work for read something like: “Before coming to [this organization], Suzanne worked on farms and fishing boats and odd-jobbed her way around the Northwest.” It didn’t say anything about how much I learned on the job (pretty much everything) or the very small role my college degree played in my working day (it did help me get hired). My credential list was pretty short. I’m not sure I even had one.

A four-year degree took me eight years of dropping in and out of school to complete. I spent my drop-out time working on a forest fire crew, at an inn in Colorado so I could ski in my off hours, and traveling across the U.S. to New England and back to the Pacific Northwest via a train across Canada. I worked in pizza parlors, coffee houses, and gas stations, and even ran my own cleaning and odd job business for a while. I spent three months in France studying culture and language, and three more months working with French students on an archeological dig. I earned my keep on an Alaskan factory fishing boat processing fish and at an insurance company processing claims. After I finally got around to completing my Bachelor of Arts, I moved to New Zealand where I worked on farms and started a family.

Doesn’t all of this sound cool? Like I’ve had lots of great experiences in my life? I think it does. People tell me it sounds kind of interesting and exciting, even if it all doesn’t add up to one primo, polished resumé that will guarantee me a top-notch job in an important career. But that’s not what they want for their kids. Imagine a fifteen-year-old outlining something like my life as an answer to the question, “What are your plans for the future?” Most likely not acceptable if the question comes from a teacher in a classroom – or from many parents.

Since they hit their mid-teens, my life learning kids have been in and out of various public school programs...never fully enrolled, just going after what interests them. My daughter and my youngest son participated in programs at the local vocational high school, and questions about their future were a major part of their homework, from listing potential colleges and what they were doing to prepare for entry, to doing the math on what it costs to live out on your own. My son refused to do that exercise, saying he had no idea of where he was going to live or what sort of job he was going to have two or three years from now. I could have told him to fabricate something, but I learned about the cost of living when I had to start paying for it, not from filling in a worksheet long before I was old enough to leave home.

Given that most of us didn’t plan out the next thirty years of our lives before we were eighteen-years-old, and knowing that fifty to seventy percent of college students change their majors on average three times before they graduate, why do the schools start pressuring kids as young as thirteen to start mapping out steps to a successful future? And why are the definitions for success so few and so rigid: earn your diploma, go to college, choose your major based on job trends, and then get a job that pays well soon after you graduate. Why is life experience so undervalued, seen as biding or wasting your time until you get serious about a career?

None of the school teachers were aware of much I undermined them at home. I told my kids about friends who dropped out of high school when they were fifteen or sixteen years old and who went on to university via community college, earning degrees that they needed for what they really wanted to do. These are the only people I know who are working in the field they originally chose when the decided on going the academic route. Granted, a couple of these folks are looking to change up their lives now, but they were in their late twenties or early thirties before they stopped wandering and settled on any sort of direct path to a destination. All they were sure of in their late teens was that high school wasn’t the place to be – they all say it was boring.

I also know people who are fulfilled by the work they are doing now, but who didn’t end up doing what they dreamed about when they set off to college. The road diverged – in some cases, many times – and they made choices that led to where they are now.

The cost of a degree in the U.S. keeps climbing as do the interest rates for borrowing tuition, so starting a university education right out of high school could be an expensive investment without the expected return. I encourage my kids to take it slow and gain some life experience. Now, more than any other time in their lives, they have the freedom to experiment and explore. That may mean living on next to nothing when they leave home, but that’s easier to do when you have fewer possessions, no mortgage, and/or no kids. They may never choose to settle down, have a family, or take on a mortgage, and that’s fine.

School will always be available. Other opportunities, plenty that are designed just for the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old crowd, might not be. Random chances for adventure offered up by friends or family may turn out to be once-in-a-lifetime deals. A stint in a coffee house can increase your sympathy for the worker behind the counter.

A degree, if you want one, can be earned over more years than the traditional four. There is no correct route to completing a Bachelor of Whatever. If you don’t necessarily want or aren’t sure you need a degree, learn through work experience or travel. Take classes that interest you when you have the time and the money. Never feel like you can’t walk away from something if it isn’t working out for you. My daughter dropped a full load of community college classes that she was a couple of weeks into because she was too busy for school.

What parent encourages their kid drop out of school to make more time for things like horses and dance and earning money to support both? Well me, of course, because learning doesn’t stop when you walk out of an institution. In my daughter’s case, it simply continued.

As of right now, my son is planning to attend community college through next winter, when he intends to go live and work at a ski area. What a bum. I’m envious. My daughter has been at the community college for almost two years, part-time. She’s looking around for a working student position at a dressage barn where she’ll work with horses in exchange for riding instruction and possibly a small stipend. She might travel. She’s not ready to go into debt while she figures out which direction she wants to take. (College up until now has been free through an early start program for high school students. From here on out, it costs.) I did exactly that. Many college students do. Student loans these days are a heavy financial burden to have hanging over your young head right out of college.

As for me, degreed and with years of experience in administration and communications in the nonprofit world – two fields I never even considered until they were right on top of me – I’ve left my job to figure out my next steps as my family grows increasingly independent, and to rediscover my creative self. There are plenty of opportunities out there for the likes of me, too. Try telling a high school guidance counselor that you’re going to take life as it comes and then thirty years or more down the road will take a step back and reevaluate where you are and where you want to go! I sincerely wanted one of my kids to do just that, but they were never brave enough to put my irreverence into action. Pity.

Family and friends, even life learning friends, worry about us not preparing our kids for college by stating what they feel is their obligation to their children: to ensure they are ready for the real world. I’m not sure I know what that means. Our family has always lived in the real world, whether we are sitting in a classroom or on the back of a horse. I wonder – out loud, to my friends – what the pretend world is like. Bet it’s fun.

I’m sure my friends think I’m some sort of rogue parent, living outside the herd and exhibiting destructive tendencies. Maybe they’re right. I’ve always been comfortable living beyond the fringe, and destruction begets creation, so whatever. We’re learning all the time.  

Suzanne Malakoff is a freelance writer who lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest corner of the U.S. She has published articles and essays on natural parenting, rural living, nature, and simplicity. In her spare time she enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, getting to know her horse, and playing around on her mandolin. This is one of many articles she has written for Life Learning Magazine.

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