Unschooling is as much about us as it is about our children. In choosing the unschooling path we have the opportunity to join in our children's journey of discovery; and in doing so, to let go of our preconceived notions of learning. Join Mary as she shares the experience of her family's trek from schooling to unschooling and discusses how they learned to embrace this journey of a lifetime.

The Journey of a Lifetime

Mary Gold

August 23, 2003
Live'n'Learn Conference in Columbia, South Carolina

Good morning. It’s wonderful to be here and to be able to feel the energy from so many unschoolers in one place at one time. It doesn’t happen very often…..yet…..

I was thrilled last October when Kelly asked me to speak at this year’s conference. Oddly enough, it seems I am fulfilling a dream that I didn’t even know I had.

If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be asked to share my thoughts in front of a group of people, I would have laughed. Or maybe cried. First of all, I would have told you that I am not a public person nor am I a public speaker. Add to that, the fact that I was sure I had nothing to say that anyone would want to hear, and you would be left with a person who attends conferences but does not speak at them.

And yet, here I am…happily looking out at all of your attentive faces and I’m left to think…What a long strange trip it’s been.

And that’s actually what I’d like to talk about today, this long strange trip that each of us is on—this journey of our lifetime and how unschooling fits into it all. You see, this particular experience has left me thinking about our children and what they need to pursue their dreams, to forge ahead on their journey.

After all, if I, as a 43-year-old woman am still surprised by the turns in my life path, how can I expect anything different from (or for) my children. I cannot hope to know NOW what their own dreams or passions will be 10 years from now. I cannot know with any degree of certainty what skills or bits of information they will absolutely “need to know” or do to fulfill their dreams or pursue their passion as a lifelong career.

And yet, NOW is all we have isn’t it?

For many of us, the earliest parts of our life’s journey was clearly defined and laid out for us. Go to school, get good grades, do as you’re told and you will be successful. We were led into a structured, systematic education. It’s what our parents understood to be best. It’s what we as a society now accept as a universal truth.: Education…advancement… success… equals school.

I was schooled conventionally for 17 years. Seventeen years!! Makes me tired, and ju-u-ust a little tense, pondering the enormity of that number. That’s my entire childhood and beyond. That’s a lot of desk time. A lot of busy work. A lot to learn. But in reality, for me, it was a lot more to happily forget. And it was a lot of stress for a little girl to go through just to get a taste of some book knowledge.

Looking back now, I would have to say that the biggest lesson I learned in those years was how to do school really well. Which is a useful piece of knowledge for someone forced to be in school. So in that regard I can say that my school years were successful and I learned what I needed to know. Unfortunately, I was so busy being a success at surviving my school experience, that I never really thought too carefully or deeply about what would happen once the school years were over.

I was bored during a lot of my classroom time, but I was a good girl. I got good grades, tried hard and bought into it all. I worked for those “A’s” and received praise and awards and recognition for achieving the highest of school honors.

I was proud to be an active participant in all of my classes. My favorite question was the famous and ultimately profound… “Is this going to be on the test?”… I cared much less, or next to nothing really, about the topics actually being covered. Only how to ace the test and prove my knowledge. Prove my worth.

Once that task was completed, I let go of whatever information I had just soaked up like a washerwoman wringing out a sponge. After all, I needed to make room for the next round of facts and figures that I would be asked to absorb.

So I memorized times tables and important dates in history. I recited poetry and diagrammed sentences. I wrote papers on topics chosen for me and endured the social pecking order of junior high school. Somehow… and I had been told this repeatedly… Somehow this was preparing me for life. That place of release that I would go to at the end of my school career. That nirvana of the real world.

Looking back, I can see that this was really an admission that school is NOT considered living in the real world. (But try to get ANY school official to admit THAT.) Sadly, it seems I was not living in my real life either, only preparing for it to begin at some future moment. But I’d be prepared when it really started because I knew how to solve for x. I could tell you the import/export status of Bulgaria. This was key. They promised.

From the outside, I’m sure I looked like a happy, successful student. But school wasn’t about learning for me. There was no joy or excitement. It was mostly a chore. Something to get through so I could stop thinking, stop trying so hard. I had no time to discover my own interests because I was too busy fulfilling someone else’s requirements.

When I think back to my childhood now, I wonder why I didn’t make more time to read a book for pleasure or to lose myself in a hobby or passionate interest, but I didn’t. And it wasn’t really a problem. I never really thought about it at all actually. School didn’t teach me how to think. It taught me how to accept and retell the information I’d been given. And that was fine by me. That was just the way it was.

No need to question the way the system works. …Right?…I went to kindergarten to get ready for 1st grade. I went to elementary school to ready myself for junior high which got me prepared for high school which was of course the stepping stone into a good college.

So…when I finally emerged from college and stepped tenderly into the real world I had prepared for, for so many years, I was sure that I had been given all the tools and knowledge that I would need to succeed in life. I would get a good job, make a lot of money and succeed. And best of all … I would NEVER, EVER have to learn another thing in my life! I had a college degree. Obviously I knew it all.

I was 21. Needless to say, I was in for a few surprises.

My first task upon graduating was getting a job, starting the career my degree had so painstakingly prepared me for. There was only one small problem. I had majored in Psychology because it was…well… easy… and so I could therefore continue getting those “A’s” that meant so much to everyone. I didn’t want to be a Psychologist or to do Social Work or to do any of the other career paths that this degree would seem to prepare me for. I wanted to do well in school. And I did. So now what?

Well I learned pretty quickly how to write. The real world required that I do some real writing. I needed a resume after all. Forget Creative Writing 101, this was creative writing at its best! Camp Counselor became “Summer Recreational Activities Coordinator.” Babysitting became “Child Development Technician, Specializing in Somnolence stratagem and modalities.” (That means putting the kids to bed—I may have overused the Thesaurus a bit.)

I checked out the job possibilities for someone with my vast school-going skills and began to hunt down the job of my dreams. Well more precisely I was hunting for any job that would take me and pay me a livable wage. But that was a dream in itself.

I was kind of surprised the first time I was in a job interview and I realized the interviewer was actually listening to my answers. They had meaning for him. He wasn’t arbitrarily testing me. He needed to know what I knew. What I was capable of. What my skills were and how I could use those skills to the company’s benefit. And nobody, not even once, ever asked me to recite the periodic table of elements or to recall the date of the Spanish-American War. Imagine that.

So what was my perfect career? Well of course I went into the career that every young girl dreams of. I became a Claims Examiner for a large and stuffy life insurance company. And there I stayed for 8 years. Dutifully performing my duties, following the rules, getting promotions and gold stars. It felt a lot like school actually. But I had succeeded. I guess.

(And I’m not kidding about the gold stars BTW. I actually received this little gem of an incentive called a PAT token. A Personal Attention Token. My office was actually trying to use a pre-school type of gold star program to get its employees to give good service to customers. Do your job right and get a gold token. Get enough of these tokens and you could trade it in for a water bottle or other nifty prize. This system didn’t last long, thankfully.)

There I was again, feeling bored, tired, manipulated and stressed by continuous demands and assignments that meant nothing to me. So…school had prepared me well. And I guess I would have stayed there indefinitely if I hadn’t begun to question the effect of all that stress on my health. To look at where I might truly like to be as opposed to where I thought I was supposed to be.

So, no, I didn’t stop learning when I graduated from college. That’s actually when I believe my real education began because that’s when I started thinking, listening and truly searching to regain my True Self.

Now I wish with all my heart that I could tell you all that I had all this wonderful insight about learning and school and self-awareness figured out 14 years ago when my first child, Conor, was born. Or even nine years ago when it was time for him to start Kindergarten. I wish that I could say I easily recognized the folly of a forced education and boldly and with great foresight refused such a bland, meaningless and potentially damaging childhood experience for my own child. I wish I could… but Conor is here and I just know he would step right up to set the story straight.

So, forced to tell the truth as I am, I will have to admit that even though I knew somewhere deep in my heart that I had suffered through all those years of boring and sometimes socially tormenting school experiences, I was not yet ready to bring it close enough to the surface to buck the status quo. Even though I knew how amazingly wonderful the first five years of Conor’s life had been, spent at home, living and learning and being Who He Is, I was still willing to accept that school was a necessary rite of passage. Unpleasant, yes, but necessary if one was going to succeed. Again, I was sure of it. So Conor endured through the 4th grade of public school.

It was never a good fit.

While I had spent all of the energies of my youth learning to play the school game, Conor spent all of his energies just protecting himself from the school experience. He had been confident and curious and joyful before starting school. After just a few short years, he became fearful and sad and –according to the experts—“learning disabled.” His natural learning rhythms were no good in a school setting. He now needed a label and extensive intervention to get him to fit in.

I thank the Universe everyday for making this child so unwilling to play the school game. Unwilling to accept what was being done to him in the name of it being done for him.

I am thankful for his refusal to be pushed before he was ready, for his refusal to participate when he was disinclined to do so, for his refusal to feign happiness when what he felt was stressed and overwhelmed…in all of that, was the truth I had been searching for in my own life. It was the path to the truth of living outside the box society had prepared for me and my family. It was the path to questioning the answers instead of only answering the questions.

So in 1999 I finally stopped listening to the experts telling me there was something wrong with my son, and I started listening to my son telling me very clearly with his words and actions that he needed a better way. I turned away from school and towards a better, more meaningful way to live. I discovered unschooling.

I remember clearly my moment of awakening, as I’m sure many people here in the audience do. It was my AHA! Moment.

It was during a discussion with the school principal and Special Ed teacher. After an awful encounter with the teacher’s aide, we were brainstorming ideas of what “to do” with Conor. After many different suggestions and much discussion, I asked the principal the question that would change our lives. I asked her what the school’s goals were for my son. Was the goal to help him on his way to becoming a productive adult, informed of a certain body of knowledge, and capable of participating and contributing to our society in the ways that best suit his talents and abilities? Or was their goal to have him learn to sit in his desk and do as he was told?

At that moment the principal took a breath… as if she needed to ponder the question. When she took that breath, I knew I would never return my child to that system again.

She eventually told me that their goal was for him to do both and she tried to explain. But it didn’t matter. I was already gone. My goals for my child were clear in my mind and they had nothing to do with sit down and shut up.

Our first steps into unschooling, while incredibly freeing and joyous, also felt a little like what it must have been for Dorothy as she was unceremoniously dropped into the Land of Oz.

Like Dorothy, we too had been living in a world of black and white. It was the dreary landscape of public school. I myself had battled with my share of Miss Gulch’s in Conor’s defense. We had all been let down by a system that we thought was there to protect and help us. And in the end we were thrown into the cyclone of tests, IEP’s, Social Workers, Occupational Therapists and Learning Specialists. And just when it seemed that all was lost, we stopped the schooling and the cyclone ended. Boom. Just like that. It was quite a jolt.

I could see that this new world of unschooling was going to be completely different than the dreary, but predictable, world of forced education that I had always known. As Dorothy so memorably put it “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Our lives changed almost as soon as we left the school building. We could feel it as soon as we stepped into our Oz. It was a sense of freedom. A sense of newness. A sense of ultimate possibilities. But it was also frightening because it was so free. It was not anything like what we were used to.

I mean…no tests? Really?! No grades? No classes, no subjects? How was this possibly going to work? I needed more information clearly. But I also needed more time. I needed to leave what I had always known, to move away from my comfort zone. To journey further into this Land of Oz to find the answers I was looking for. I had to follow that Yellow Brick Road, this one leading towards a lifetime of learning. I had to begin the journey.

Now of course with a movie, we’re lucky enough to see how it all works out for the main characters, and we’re able to see that resolution within a few hours. So it becomes clear by the end of the story, that as Dorothy follows her path, she is really in search of something she never lost—her True Self. All she really needs is the brains, the heart, and the courage to let go and trust her natural, spontaneous instincts. It all makes sense to us in the end. We slap our heads and think, of course!, it was there all along. Why couldn’t she see that?

If only life had a fast forward feature to allow us a sneak peek at the answers. (Oops there’s my school brain talking again. I need those right answers.) But if not the answers exactly, then at least a way to reassure ourselves that our hearts and minds are taking us in the right direction.

With real life though, we don’t have the luxury of getting a peek at the ending. We really do have to find the courage to let go and find our own natural, spontaneous instincts. And it’s hard in the beginning to regain that trust. After all, it was pretty much stifled through our own schooling experiences. And society doesn’t do much to support independent thinking. But it’s in there. I know. Because I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I’ve lived it.

So how did we follow this Unschooling path? What does the path look like? Will it look the same for every family? What IS it that makes for an unschooling life?

There is an article up on the web at a wonderful site called the Natural Child Project (the URL is www.Naturalchild.org) The article is by a dad named Earl Stevens and is entitled appropriately enough, “What is Unschooling.” It has a great description of what unschooling isn’t. It says:

Unschooling isn't a recipe, and therefore it can't be explained in recipe terms. It is impossible to give unschooling directions for people to follow so that it can be tried for a week or so to see if it works. Unschooling isn't a method, it is a way of looking at children and at life. It is based on trust that parents and children will find the paths that work best for them - without depending on educational institutions, publishing companies, or experts to tell them what to do.
I would add one more thing into that mix and that is balance. It’s understanding that all of life, and the learning that’s all wrapped up in our lives, has a natural rhythm, a natural balance to it. Unschooling isn’t something that looks the same every day. It’s not always Shakespeare and it’s not always Sponge Bob. Some days will feel like a learning bonanza, and others will just laze away providing the lulls that are needed for our brains to process and incorporate new information.

There were times, especially during that first year of unschooling that it seemed that at least once a month I was certain that unschooling was not the way for us. It was a failure. It was not working. Stuff was getting in the way. The kids were bored or I was cranky or the TV was bugging the heck out of me. That of course meant that they weren’t learning anything, they would never learn anything and this whole unschooling experiment was a BIG failure!!

But it would pass, as cycles naturally do. And just as naturally my children would emerge with a newfound passion, a particularly insightful question or a great new interest to pursue. Suddenly unschooling was working again. Imagine that. And as I began to get a feel for this rhythm of our natural days and nights and weeks and months, I could see that it was NOT the unschooling that was the problem. It was any number of normal, natural life occurrences.

So for awhile, I had a sign that I put up on my mirror that said “It’s NOT the unschooling, it’s ___________ and then I would fill in the blank. It’s not the unschooling, it’s P.M.S. (That was a big one, thus the once a month nature of my panic attacks.) or It’s not the unschooling, it’s flu season. Or it’s not the unschooling it’s time for the in-laws to visit. (Another biggie.) After I filled in enough different variations, I realized that I really needed only one sign to remind me what it’s all about. It’s not the unschooling, it’s LIFE.

If you find yourself getting stressed and doubtful you might want to create your own sign, with your own understanding of what will fill in your stress blanks. Perhaps it’s a pregnancy, a nursing toddler or a fearful 7-year-old. These are all occurrences in the natural path of our life cycles. We can let them get in the way and use them as an excuse, or we can flow with them, around them and through them. Part of life is about accepting those things that just ARE. Things happen. But it doesn’t mean that our kids are suddenly unable to learn. It just means that life is happening. And when life happens, learning happens too.

Once I was able to see this as True, I was able to more comfortably stay on this path even when it seemed to be turning in ways I didn’t expect, trusting that it was leading me to where my family needed to be. If one day or week or even month seemed to be caught in a lull of activity or groundswell of boredom, the next was just as likely to be bathed in activity and interest.

So that’s a bit of what unschooling isn’t. It isn’t a recipe or a textbook to follow. It isn’t set in stone and will not look the same everyday. So what is it? you might be asking. Good question. :o) Here’s a little more from Earl Stevens:

A large component of unschooling is grounded in doing real things, not because we hope they will be good for us, but because they are intrinsically fascinating. There is an energy that comes from this that you can't buy with a curriculum. Children do real things all day long, and in a trusting and supportive home environment, "doing real things" invariably brings about healthy mental development and valuable knowledge. It is natural for children to read, write, play with numbers, learn about society, find out about the past, think, wonder and do all those things that society so unsuccessfully attempts to force upon them in the context of schooling.

While few of us get out of bed in the morning in the mood for a "learning experience", I hope that all of us get up feeling in the mood for life.

In the mood for life. That’s a great way to look at it. And I think that escribes our family and how we try to approach our days. We don’t look for learning experiences, we look to live.

We don’t teach reading, we READ. We read books and comics and video game text and recipes and instant messages.

We don’t practice our handwriting we WRITE. We write letters to friends and grocery lists and poetry and comic strips and cheat codes for games.

We don’t worry about memorizing our math facts, we’re too busy counting out change at the store, saving up allowances, figuring the tip at a restaurant, measuring a bedroom to estimate how much we’ll need of that perfect shade of blue or breaking out the recipe books to whip up a batch of fudge brownies.

When information is needed, we know where to find it. When we want a new skill, we seek out those who can share it with us. All without a classroom. All without grades. All without tests along the way.

We live and we learn what it takes to live. We learn.

I’ve been doing some reading these past few months about starting and running a small business. As Kelly mentioned, my family recently moved from Utah to Oregon and began an adventure we’ve been dreaming for years. We bought a small business. A coffee shop. (Notice the combination of dark circles under my eyes along with the definite jittery shake to my hands? Now you know why.) It’s been the ultimate unschooling experience for all of us.

So I’m reading lots of different books and articles on the subject when I get to one that my husband Jon recommended. It’s by a man named Michael Gerber—a fascinating man with a fascinating life story. None of it involving school or extensive degrees by the way.

I shouldn’t have really been surprised, but I was nonetheless when I realized that Michael Gerber, in his book The E Myth Revisited,was speaking about running a small business as if every small business owner needed to be a perpetual unschooler.

Now he didn’t use that term exactly. I don’t even know if he’s familiar with the concept. But I did see him recommending ideas that go against the mindset that the schools are continuing to instill in young people. That idea of sit down, shut up and do your work. Quite the contrary in fact. He believes small business owners get much too caught up in the day-to-day, do your work tasks and forget the bigger picture and larger overview of managing and growing, a business. He wants us to think for ourselves. To learn while we do. To make mistakes by taking risks. To think outside the box. To innovate, create, and listen to our hearts.

I’d like to read you a brief excerpt from his book. A paragraph that spoke clearly to my heart and confirmed that there are parts of the real world that do indeed support the ideas we embrace in this little unschooling community of ours.

He says:

Contrary to popular belief, my experience has shown me that the people who are exceptionally good in business aren’t so because of what they know but because of their insatiable need to know more.

The problem with most failing businesses I’ve encountered is not that their owners don’t know enough about finance, marketing, management, and operations-they don’t, but those things are easy enough to learn—but that they spend their time and energy defending what they think they know. The greatest business people I’ve met are determined to get it right no matter what the cost.

Wow. That’s unschooling—the insatiable need to know more. And I do want to get it right. So what does that mean for me?

Well, really the only way to really “get it right” in unschooling is to live an unschooling life. And to live an unschooling life you need to focus your attention on the here and now. To be mindful of the multitude of seemingly insignificant questions, interests and activities that spark an interest for your children. For these are the very things that make up every life. That fill in the pieces of the vast puzzle each of us creates to understand our world.

Unschooling, at its best, is not a destination but a journey. It is a never-ending inquiry, an ongoing investigation, an active participation in a life worth living.

And while it may not seem obvious, this fascination with an extraordinary unschooling life is not the same as a fascination with success. Certainly not the success we normally think of. Some end point which, having reached it, enables us to say, “I did it!” Because my experience has taught me only too well that end points are instantly replaced by beginning points. Today’s answer is replaced by tomorrow’s question.

So what is success then?

When I was a child, success meant surviving my days in school, producing good grades, being a good girl and making my parents happy. When I did these things the way I was “supposed to” people…society… could look at me, and my parents, and say yes she is successful. They are successful.

When I was a young woman in my 20’s, success meant a job and a place (anyplace) to live. For many years that meant an odd, dark little basement studio apartment on the wrong side of the tracks. I felt like I had won the lottery with that one. The sweet smell of dark and dusty success.

Further on in my stellar career, success meant a healthy paycheck , steady promotions, and the ultimate success…buying stuff.

Then came my first baby, and success was clearly taking a shower, finding a t-shirt that was not covered in spit-up and managing to eat something before 4 p.m. Okay, so priorities change.

As a mother, success was all happily tied up in happy kids and a peaceful home. Money, gold stars, stuff and society’s expectations mattered less than a well-fed tummy, a curious toddler mind or an active and engaged 8-year-old.

Lately, my definition of success has included packing or unpacking. If I have either packed or unpacked, the choice of which I will do of course being dependent on my location …if this is Utah, I must be packing, if this is Oregon, I must be unpacking… but some form of packing makes for a successful day. The end of the packing/unpacking cycle will make for a successful move. Unfortunately, now that I’m here in South Carolina I’m all confused…so it looks like I may never get there. It might be time for another redefinition of success.

I have this wonderful little fridge magnet that a dear friend sent me for my birthday and I think it has a wonderful definition of success. It’s called appropriately “Success” and its origins have been debated through the years. The magnet I have attributes its authorship to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have since learned (another unschooling moment, I researched it because I wanted to know more) …I have since learned that it was penned by a woman, a mom, for a magazine contest in the early part of the last century. Well, whoever wrote, wrote from the heart. It says:

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
     and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
      and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
     whether by a healthy child,
     a garden patch
      or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
My success, my family’s success is about remaining true to ourselves. It’s about being WhoWe Are.

I really believe in what I said to that principal all those years ago. My goal is to help my children find their own path to becoming productive adults, informed of a certain body of knowledge, and capable of participating and contributing to our society in the ways that best suit their talents and abilities.

Our success is supporting each other as best we can in this new adventure we’re on, and cutting each other some slack when we find ourselves overwhelmed in the details of a day.

It’s learning a new business and exploring a new part of the country. It’s reconnecting with old interests and finding new ones along the way.

It’s continuing to recreate our lives as we continue on this wonderful journey we call life. It’s being sure enough about what we’re doing, and how we’re ALL learning, to come here to share it all with you.

Throw in lots of joy. Sprinkle in a little bubbly enthusiasm and I guess you could call that a recipe for unschooling after all.

More to the point, you’ve got a recipe for life.

A life worth living. A life with meaning. A life that is lived and not just prepared for. A life that begins NOW.

Life is good.

Thank you.

Other articles by Mary Gold.

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