I've been looking through old pictures, reminiscing about my kid, and I've been writing about those days with him, when he was little.
I was inspired to do this by my mom's steadily fading memories. Things she did yesterday are gone. Things she did as a younger woman are growing fuzzy and confused and are no longer reliable markers of a lifetime of work and kids and hopes and dreams. I wanted Dylan to have something solid to hold onto about his childhood if the day comes when my own memories of those times fail. I wanted him to have something to show his kids if they ever wonder about his life when he was young.
In looking back I've not only had the pleasure of revisiting a lot of wonderful moments, but I've also had the surprise gift of perspective, which reveals overwhelming evidence of natural learning. What I always believed to be true is no longer a matter of trust or faith; it is fact.
That little boy who said "poon" instead of "spoon" today has a more impressive vocabulary than many adults.
That little boy who used books to build towers and bridges for his toy monsters to stomp is now reading five books at once.
Learning seems so simple when you look back through time at your own kid, when you stop trying to guess what he will need in a future as fuzzy as an old lady's memories and see how much he knows today.
My son is fourteen now. We've been unschooling since he was old enough to start school but didn't. Where we live most kids go to kindergarten, but the law says compulsory age is seven years old. I had a buffer between myself and family members or friends who questioned us about school. When Dylan was five and six, I could say, "Compulsory age is seven in Montana; we've X amount of time to decide." Thus I employed the "cope by stalling" technique that kept folks mildly comfortable with our choice, at least early on.
After Dylan was compulsory school age and still not going to school, their questions got more pointed, their criticisms sharper. I was running out of time to get on with his education, and what the devil was I thinking anyway, keeping a kid out of school?
We were no longer on the easy side of the time frame set by law. The law clearly said kids who were seven years old had to be in school. Either we were schooling, or we were not schooling, and if the answer was "not schooling," then we had a lot of explaining to do.
One thing in my favor was a smart and happy kid. Spending time with Dylan made it hard for people to make an argument that he was missing something by not going to school. He was bright and articulate and lively. "But when he gets older," they started saying, "he'll need to go to school for the important subjects."
About this time some homeschooling kids were winning spelling bees and geography bees. Some public school kids were shooting up their classrooms. Suddenly, keeping a kid out of school didn't seem as nutty as it had a few years before.
So when people confronted me about Dylan not being in school, I used the "cope by comparing our life to school" technique. Not fair, I admit it, but people nodded knowingly and left us alone for awhile.
Then for a couple of years Dylan was taking swimming lessons and piano lessons and karate lessons and Tae Kwon Do lessons, and people said "Ah, he's really learning now, but what about math?" And I adopted the "cope by using humor" technique. I would say, "Colleges offer remedial math, so if he decides to go, he can learn along with all the people who had twelve years of math in school."
So here he is, fourteen, and I can't remember the last time a family member had a question about his lack of schooling. This is kind of irritating because now I have all this good stuff, all this evidence that a kid who doesn't go to school will learn anyway. But the big things have passed—the big milestones of childhood learning. He can tie his own shoes; he can read; he can count change; he can tell time. That's what all the fuss was about? That's it?
All those questions about how a kid would learn if he didn't go to school and my answers were things like "I think people learn best when they learn on their own terms," "I trust," or "I believe."
Bah! If I'd only thought about it a little harder! There's evidence galore! There's evidence throughout human existence. There's evidence in the fossil record. Stone age evidence and Bronze Age evidence and evidence in every archaeological site in the world. Humans learn.
They learn what the other humans around them are doing. They learn by living.
And now there's the evidence of my own son's life. He is surrounded by the things that interest humans in the twenty-first century. He is surrounded by the whole of human history. He is a citizen of the world in a time when access to information has never been easier. He is learning all the time.
I'm just waiting now for the next question, whatever it is, and my answer will begin like this: "Ninety thousand years ago when our ancestors were leaving Africa. . . ." I expect I won't hear back from the questioner for at least one nuclear winter and an ice age.
This was first published in Connections e-zine, Issue 3, December 2006. (That site is gone now.)