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A Unique Education

A Unique Education
By Benjamin Riley

I have never attended school. In fact, I have never even been on a school bus. I have always had friends of many different ages, ethnicities, beliefs, and personalities, and have always had an insatiable desire to learn about whatever I happen to be interested in. How did this happen? It’s a long story.

I was born in 1996. My mom was a 20 year old single mother with limited financial resources but lots of confidence and determination to be the best mother she could possibly be. As I grew, my mom noticed that I was very curious, open minded, and a very intelligent and self-starting learner. I was also quite shy and introverted. By the time I was five years old, I began to become obsessed with rocks, had memorized most of the periodic table of elements, and had developed a keen interest in the world around me through reading and frequent trips to museums and libraries (my mom sure knew how to give me a quality education on a budget!). As a result, my mom did not see the need to send me to school, as I was already well above my grade level in most subjects (especially subjects of interest). She also knew that my being an attached, curious, and quiet kid would not fit well in a traditional public school, and thus school would not be the ideal educational environment for me.

As you may have guessed by now, the educational choice that my mom made was to homeschool. This may not seem like a very controversial educational decision to make today, but at the time (I officially began homeschooling in 2001) it was very controversial, especially given the fact that at that time we lived in my grandparent’s house in an upper-middle class neighborhood where every child was expected to go to school. Almost as soon as my mom decided to homeschool me, and our neighbors never saw the school bus come to our house, there was quite a fuss, to say the least. My mom and I were often questioned (sometimes quite harshly) by friends, family, neighbors, and random people regarding the validity of homeschooling, and some of them would actually test me to see if I was on par with my traditionally-educated peers. I was an intelligent kid, so the neighbors were probably quite disappointed that I did so well on their tests! Despite the fact that we fulfilled all of the homeschooling requirements of our state and that homeschooling was a legal educational choice, many people felt very strongly against our decision to homeschool.

For me, one of the greatest benefits of being educated in this way was having ample time to explore and follow my interests. If I wanted to spend three hours studying Greek myths or identifying rocks, that was no problem at all. In fact, it was actually encouraged. Having the time to follow whatever it was that I was interested in enabled me to approach pursuing my interests in an in-depth way, rather than just skimming the surface and then having to move on to a different topic. I have always been an obsessive learner: I want to know as much as possible about my areas of interest, so having the time to try things out, explore, and follow my interests was a crucial aspect of my education.

While we did use some curriculum materials, the focus was more on learning through doing and through simply living life. Errands to the grocery store, for instance, taught me a lot about budgeting, basic math, and how to select produce. Reading books allowed me to learn more about my interests and spurred me on to read other related books and kick started a very enjoyable and productive cycle of learning that has always been a constant for me. Going to museums, farms, nature walks, the local library, and other trips also gave me the opportunity to learn about what I was interested in, as well as opening my mind to ideas and topics that I may not have thought of otherwise. It was also just plain fun.

Another big benefit to having plenty of unstructured free time was that I was given the time and space to think and process what I was learning, as well as to process my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. In addition, I also had the privilege of enjoying a close relationship with my immediate family, definitely enhanced by being able to spend a lot of time with them; I am very grateful for that.

However, as I mentioned earlier, not all of my family was supportive of my being homeschooled, and that, along with the majority of my friends and neighbors coming from a traditionally educated background, led me to briefly question my own education during my early teen years. I would hear things like “you are missing out” from family and friends and I would seriously wonder if I was actually missing out on something important by not going to public school. However, because I grew up in a family that was predominantly Catholic, I did have a formal education experience from going to religion classes from ages seven to fourteen. Although at first I was actively involved in the classes, by my early teens I was just going through the motions and felt like I was not getting much out of it in terms of actually learning. In retrospect, I am glad that I had to go to religion classes because it gave me a peek into a traditional educational environment and also made me gradually realize that I was not missing out on anything important by being homeschooled. In fact, it seemed like I learned a whole lot more and in a much more productive way by being homeschooled!

The questioning and criticisms continued steadily until my mid-teen years, when it started to become obvious that I was an intelligent, talented, and good person and was doing at least as well as my traditionally-educated peers. While it didn’t go away overnight, the questioning gradually became less and less frequent. By this time I was an aspiring guitarist, and at age 16 I enrolled in Berklee College of Music’s online school. During my time studying there, I had the privilege of taking classes taught by incredible musicians who were and are very involved in the music industry and I learned so much about guitar playing and overall musicianship. By this point, the once constant questioning of my and my mom’s decision to homeschool became nearly nonexistent, and has thankfully been that way ever since.

By age 18, I had finished my Master certificate in Guitar with a 4.0 GPA, had played in a band, and was beginning to play local gigs as a solo acoustic guitarist/singer-songwriter. I was almost certain that I wanted to get a Bachelor’s degree in music to better prepare me for a career in the music industry. But I was not sure what college I wanted to attend. Originally, I wanted to go to Berklee. However, the cost of tuition and living on campus was way above what my family could afford and I did want to commute from home if that was a possibility. My mom mentioned that I might want to look into going to Nyack College, a local Christian college that she claimed had a good music department.

At first, I was skeptical. I had never heard of the music department of that college and I wanted to major in guitar performance, a major that I had thought would not exist in a predominantly classical music department. However, I went to an open house and was immediately struck my how nice everyone seemed to be. Total strangers welcomed me like I had known them for years! Then I met with the dean of the music department. Many of the faculty had degrees from Julliard, Eastman, and other prominent conservatories and universities and were also incredible musicians with a great passion for and knowledge of music. Before this meeting I had the subconscious assumption that a classical music department would either be lackluster but consisting of mostly nice people or exceptional but generally arrogant in temperament. Not so here! Once I found out that the music department offered a degree in guitar performance, I knew that I wanted to apply to Nyack.

However, there was one catch: I had to play classical guitar in order to audition, and I would have to major in classical guitar performance if I wanted to major in guitar. I had by then learned to play many genres of music: rock, blues, folk, and some jazz, and didn’t really feel the need to learn classical guitar. But I knew that I wanted to go to this college and that I wanted to major in guitar. So after some deliberation, I decided to take the plunge and teach myself classical guitar over the summer so that I could audition. Although the classical guitar is tuned the same as a normal acoustic or electric guitar, many of the techniques required (especially right hand technique) are quite different from traditional pick or fingerstyle playing. Thankfully, I was able to learn a few relatively simple pieces for the audition and successfully auditioned towards the end of the summer of 2014. The audition process involved me playing three pieces for the dean (who recorded it for the other faculty to hear), as well as an ear training component and a relatively brief interview. The dean was impressed with my guitar playing and overall intellectual ability, and I passed with flying colors and was awarded multiple scholarships. I was now officially a Guitar Performance major!

Because I still had some reservations about studying at a classical music school, I went part-time during my first semester. I had a great experience during my first semester; I learned so much, and got to know many of the other music majors and the music faculty. I also made my first trip away from home without my parents by participating in the annual Carol and Candlelight tour as part of the Handbell ensemble. After my first semester at college, I knew that I made the right decision and have been going to this college full-time for the past three years.

As of the time of this writing, I am headed into my first semester senior year at college. I am so grateful to have found a college that is such a great fit for me: terrific music department, so many kind people, and a short commute that allows me to be able to live off-campus with my parents and drive to class. I have been a high achiever academically throughout my time in college and currently have a 3.96 cumulative GPA.

While the transition from relaxed homeschooling to formal higher education has in many ways been quite smooth (my mom is a college professor, so I have been steeped in academia my entire life!), I did experience some challenges along the way. As a homeschooler, I was never an avid note taker and had to learn how to take notes on the main points of classes and due dates for assignments, rather than on anything that I happened to find interesting. I also had to work on improving the neatness of my handwriting, as well as significantly improve my time management skills. Also, I was not used to studying “for the test;” for me, learning has always either been either for its own purpose or as part of achieving a specific goal, usually of my own choosing. I still despise studying “for the test,” but I understand that this type of studying is necessary to do well in college, which is a goal of my own choosing. The fact that I chose to pursue higher education and work towards completing a Bachelor’s degree makes it more manageable for me to get through this and other requirements that I may not enjoy but are necessary in order to complete my degree.

I feel that perhaps the best thing I learned as a result of being homeschooled and being allowed to follow my interests is that I am capable of doing anything I set my mind to do. I know how to practice, find relevant information, and find teachers/helpful people if necessary, and I have the perseverance to follow through on doing what is necessary to achieve my goals. Also, being allowed and encouraged to follow my interests fostered in me a deep love of learning and a passion and curiosity about the world that has never been extinguished. Rather than seeing learning as a chore or nuisance, for me, learning is simply part of life. To live is to learn, and I don’t see any reason why the two should be separated.

Having the time and space to think and process also taught me a very valuable lesson that I only realized the importance of later on: how to deal with boredom. If I was feeling bored as a kid, my mom, rather than rushing to find an activity for me, would suggest a few things to do, and if I didn’t want to do any of those things she would simply reassure me that it was okay to be bored. Although I did not realize it at the time, by being allowed to be bored I was able to learn how to entertain myself rather than relying on a constant daze of fun and exciting activities. As a result, I was able to appreciate the simple pleasures of life rather than needing to be constantly entertained, a profound lesson that still holds true for me today. The simple act of reading a book, taking a walk, or practicing my guitar can transport me to a completely different world without going anywhere. It also saves a lot of money!

As I have reflected on my homeschooling experience during the course of writing this piece, at first glance it didn’t seem to me that my experience was exceptional or even unique. Haven’t people always learned this way until relatively recently? However, when I talk to my friends, peers, and neighbors, I realize that the vast majority of them have had totally different educational experiences, and I realize that I have been very blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn at my own pace primarily through simply living life and pursuing my interests.

Benjamin Riley is an accomplished classical and acoustic guitarist, singer/songwriter, and writer. Ben is a graduate of Berklee College of Music’s Online Master Guitar Certificate Program and is a first semester senior Classical Guitar Performance Major at Nyack College. He has performed as a solo classical and acoustic guitarist and singer/songwriter at many venues throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond, as well as frequently performing at Nyack College School of Music concerts both as a solo performer and as an ensemble musician. In addition, he is a published writer, having written three subject-specific articles for encyclopedias published by Grey House Publishing.

Photograph by Cayla Tangney 

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