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From Skipping School to Choosing School

From Skipping School to Choosing School
By Theresa Shea

I remember the days when cloth diapers hung like flags of surrender from my backyard clothesline. In those days of sleep deprivation, constant breastfeeding, and endless potty training, I remember wondering what, if anything, I knew about being a mother.

When my eldest son was five years old, I went to my first homeschooling meeting. By a stroke of good fortune, I had stumbled upon a niche in the community that I didn’t know existed. Friends started to homeschool. You’re doing what? A new neighbor homeschooled her girls. You what? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know children could skip school, but once that option presented itself, I could not ignore it, and I’ll be forever grateful to the folks who showed me this hidden path that I would not have found on my own.

A number of questions were on my mind as I showed up at my first homeschooling meeting. What on earth was I doing? What would my mother say? My friends? Was I simply lazy and didn’t want to get up early five days a week to get my son to school? Could I hang out with my kids on a daily basis and be kind to them? Why not send them off to school just to have some solitary time? One of the first topics of conversation in those early meetings was “Late Readers.” Some of the parents shared stories of how their children hadn’t read until they were twelve. Twelve! I couldn’t pinpoint the exact age when I had learned to read, but since I’d been a bookworm as a child, I was fairly confident it had been well before grade seven. And yet the parents said so many things I’d never given consideration to. Children learn to crawl and walk at different ages, they said, and children also learn how to read at different ages. The main message was to trust that all would be well. There was no life-long damage done by walking late or reading late. The parents said other things that piqued my curiosity too, so I decided to give it a go.

As I’ve written in earlier articles in this magazine, my husband and I soon realized that by homeschooling our three children, we were getting away with something big. I felt like we’d discovered a treasure that few people knew existed. We didn’t set our alarm clock and have the mad rush to get out the door for school. We didn’t join the hoards of humanity for the Back to School shopping battles. We didn’t make school lunches. We didn’t follow set bedtimes in order to get up early for school. We didn’t have homework after the kids had been in school all day. And, best of all, we were free to take vacations twelve months of the year. Heck, we didn’t even do curriculum! When people questioned what we did all day, I replied, “Just think of it as the seven-day weekend.”

Those early years passed too quickly, and the initial freedom of having an unstructured life with young kids at home soon waned and became more structured as they got older and joined activities that dictated our schedule (mostly sports and music). Every fall, I asked my kids what they wanted to do, and every year they said they wanted to keep homeschooling. So we continued to do what we knew, and the house remained messy.

The Teen Years

But the homeschooling community starts to thin out when children enter their teens. My eldest son’s best friends both decided to go to junior high school when they turned twelve. I was worried that he’d be lonely, so I asked him if he wanted to go too; I think I even encouraged him to go, but he chose to stay home, and three more years passed. By the time high school rolled around, however, he changed his tune. “I think I want to go to school,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “Give me one good reason.”

“Because I’m tired of being different.”

Like my other two children, my eldest had been unschooled. Aside from his year of two of Mathletics, an online math “game” that he “played” when he felt like it, he had done no structured learning. Although he was a voracious reader, he never wanted to write, and he also didn’t stray much from the genre books he enjoyed. He didn’t read history. He expressed no interest in science. In short, he had little to no experience of what it was like to “do” school and to meet deadlines. We went to our neighborhood high school’s Open House and entered the older brick building that educates fifteen hundred teenagers in any given year.

I looked at all the “schooled” teenagers who’d be his peers, and I began to worry. Then my worry turned to fear. What had I set my son up for? What failure awaited? Had it all been a mistake? And to what extent had the homeschooling been to my benefit and not to his?

I tried to keep my fears to myself, but in my heart of hearts I believed he was entirely unprepared. What had I done?

We registered.

Because he had no official marks for academic courses, his homeschooling facilitator [part of the system's formalities where I live] vouched that he’d be okay in Social Studies, English, and Math. We met with the Vice-Principal. Sitting outside his office, I quelled the urge to apologize for my choice to homeschool my boy.

And I continued to worry. In fact, that whole summer I worried. The rubber was about to meet the road, so to speak, and I would soon see if homeschooling had prepared my son for the schooled life he was about to start. I tried to get him to write an essay. He refused. I tried to get him to look at some grade nine math. He refused. Every time I looked at him, I wondered how I could better prepare him for school. I had eight weeks to give him a crash course in learning. He began to avoid me.

One day in the grocery store, I met the two neighbor girls, now in university, who’d been homeschooled until junior high. They knew my son, and I shared my fear. “He just seems so immature!” I confessed.

“High school is full of immature boys,” they said.

We laughed.

The last two weeks of August passed at a snail’s pace. My son and I went “Back to School” shopping. We bought binders and paper and pencils and pens and locks and stuff. We bought food for lunches.

First Day of School

The first day of school arrived.

My son was awake before the alarm.

He ate breakfast.

He got on his bike and rode off.

I have to say that I’m incredibly impressed by the courage it takes for a child to arrive in a setting in which every other child already knows the system. It takes courage for a fifteen-year-old who no longer wants to be different to try to fit in.

Since it was his choice to go to school, I told him he was responsible for how he performed there. And then I played my best card: “If I find out that you’re not respectful while you’re there, or if I find out you’re skipping classes and not doing your work, then I’ll pull you. It’s a privilege to go to school,” I said, “not a right.”

What Happened

So what happened? My son passed grade ten with little difficulty. He is not a genius; he doesn’t even work that hard. If he did, I think he’d easily have gotten A’s. As it is, with minimum effort, he received mostly B’s. I had been most afraid of math (because that’s not my strength), but he passed with a C, having done no curriculum (I’m not even sure I could run his calculator!). That he could walk into grade ten and pass all of his courses both amazes and depresses me. Shouldn’t he have struggled more? Been more behind? After all, if you include kindergarten, he’d skipped school for ten years. Ten years!!! But he walked right in as if he’d been there all along, and nobody could tell that he hadn’t been.

In short, my son impresses me.

He’s in grade eleven now, and the worry has long gone. I often joke with my eldest and tell him he’s my “trainer child,” but it’s true. He’s my frontrunner. He’s the one who takes me places I haven’t gone before. He decided, for example, that he wants a high school diploma and is taking full curriculum. School is not a lot of work for the amount he seems to get from it. His days now have a structure, and he likes that. He writes essays. He does homework. He even does presentations when necessary.

If my daughter goes to high school next year, I will not worry. And if my youngest goes in two years, I will not worry.

It’s been an amazing learning curve for me. Time and time again, I’ve told other parents that they need to trust their children. To some extent, the experience of having an unschooled child transition into being a schooled child has shown me that I let my own fear and worry erode that trust. I “hoped” he’d be okay, but I didn’t “trust” that he would be. Again, how could he possibly have missed ten years of education and not be behind? Every “what if” scenario I played was negative. I never once, for instance, asked my- self, “What if my son does really, really well?”

In this case, I can honestly say that my son has exceeded my expectations. Isn’t that lovely?

I’m not worried about whether or not he’ll want to go to university or college. I’m not convinced either is necessary. And it’s wonderful not to feel the pressure of wanting something too much for him.

This article is less about my son, I realize, than it is about me. My fears surrounding his attending high school revolved around my belief that something substantial had been taught in grades one through nine. So even when I dismissed what other children did in school, knowing full well that much of what was learned inside a school building was also easily learned at home or in the community, I nevertheless believed that my son had missed something important. Somehow I lived with those two contradictory ideas.

Now that we’re into his second year of high school, I miss him less than I did last year. It was a big adjustment having him gone all day while still having two children at home. (It was almost like having two different families.) But it was also a bit of a relief. I remember another homeschooling mom saying she was relieved when her girls went to school because someone else was responsible for their education. I understand that now. Even as an unschooler, I still felt responsible for guiding and facilitating my son’s interests.

This year, he also got a job. So now he’s in school and he’s working. Where did the time go? Just yesterday the days were our own. Looking back on our unschooled life together, I still think we got away with something big. Having skipped ten years of school, my son arrived at the imposing brick building with a fresh mind. He wasn’t burned out. He was just getting started.

As for me, I re-learned, yet again, to trust my child’s lead. It is my hope that I’ll take this stronger trust and apply it to the future challenges that are sure to come. Tonight, for example, my son talked about working in Fort McMurray, Alberta when he graduates, so he can save money. What? He’s got a buddy, apparently, who can get him a job. Fort McMurray? However, having had my trust so recently reinforced, I know that if my boy can walk into grade ten, he can surely walk into a new job in Fort McMurray, or anywhere else for that matter. I will not worry, for I now believe that his early years of unschooling have set him up for anything.

Theresa Shea is the author of The Unfinished Child, a novel that deals with female friendship, prenatal testing, and Down syndrome. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with her husband and three children (when this was written in 2015, one was schooled, two unschooled).

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