My daughter is only four years old, and this has been going on for over a year: every conversation with a new person starts the same way, “Where is your daughter going to preschool? Is she excited about starting Kindergarten soon?”
When I reply, “We are homeschoolers,” I invariably get the not-so-subtle raised eyebrow, the quick intake of breath, the pursed line of the mouth. Yes. I can read your body language. Your judgmental thoughts are coming across loud and clear.
I want to scrunch up my nose at the stranger and walk away. Who do they think they are, judging me? But what good would that do? So I try to be kind and diplomatic, an Ambassador for Homeschoolers Everywhere. I smile as open-heartedly as I can muster, and I say something like, “We are really excited about providing her with opportunities that we don’t think she can get through the public schools,” or, if I’m tired, I just say, “It’s what’s best for our family,” and leave it at that.
I keep hoping that someone will be smitten with how noble I am and actually want to reexamine their views on the “public school versus homeschooling” debate; but nobody wants to discuss it further. The topic becomes taboo for the rest of the (short-lived) conversation.
Traditional School Attitudes Don’t Work
I want to tell them how I was a model student, how I did so well in high school that I earned a free ride to college and started my first semester with so many credits from AP courses that I was nearly a sophomore. I want to tell them how I worked hard and followed all the rules, and I thought that meant life would work out perfectly for me after I graduated.
But then I graduated and couldn’t find a job. I got laughed out of interviews for being under-qualified. Eventually, I accepted a position as a receptionist in a sports gym. Living alone in my run-down apartment, I had to face this hard truth: I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. I didn’t know myself.
I needed to be unschooled before I could learn how to live my life to the fullest.
I had relied on teachers and academia to define my identity for so long. Once I was freed from the constraints of traditional education, I realized that I was woefully under-prepared to make my way in the world. But I did not go running back to a university to stall self-discovery by distracting myself with a grad school program (like so many of my peers had done). I embraced the struggle, made a lot of mistakes, and eventually figured out how to do more than just make a living: I started to truly live my life.
Doing Things Differently
If I had been able to embrace The Unknown when I was younger, when I had the safety net of living with my parents and not worrying about paying for bills, I firmly believe that I could have saved myself a lot of grief and started building my life much sooner. This is why I am passionate about unschooling. I want to challenge the status quo of education in America. I want to give my daughter the opportunity I never had to find her true calling and figure out how to build a life that is meaningful, independent and sustainable.
It doesn’t really matter if we are pure unschoolers, or use a home curriculum, or send her to a Montessori school, or even use the public school system. The important thing is that our HEARTS have changed. We no longer believe in the promises of academia, and we will encourage her to build her own life, because nobody else can do it for her. Not even us. I think if we defend her right to live on her own terms, she will grow up learning the lessons that I never figured out until later in life.
Children are naturally curious and love to learn. We don’t need to tell our kid what to do. We just need to support her as she shares her needs and interests with us.
In my mind, unschooling is about deconstructing the traditional narratives of education embedded in our culture so that we can re-construct them around something that matters: be it a passion, a goal-oriented curriculum, a community that is striving to come together over a common purpose, or simply a desire to allow a child to have the freedom to choose her own path.
Reform should not be about replacing the “religion” of organized education with a cult of homeschooling reactionaries. Being narrow-minded and cut-off from the vibrant heartbeat of different homeschooling cultures does nothing to revolutionize the way our society approaches education. I want home educators to stop worrying about doing things the right way and start opening up their minds to accept that there are a myriad of good ways to educate a child.
I see this happening, and it excites me. I see communities of disparate home educators coming together and supporting each other, finding strength in their diversity. For our daughter, in our situation, we prefer unschooling; however, I am in community with people who use educational approaches from across the board. I celebrate our differences, and appreciate how my friends challenge me to be more open-minded, compassionate and kind.
Taking a step back to see the Big Picture, it’s impossible to ignore that LIFE is diverse. I believe that a multitude of education styles and preferences can strengthen and develop that diversity. But, no matter how differently we live our lives, the thing that will make us stronger as a society is the ability to come together and find common ground.