The School in my Head

"Nobody's perfect," they say, and I have been challenged to reveal my own doubts and failings. I don't mind.

I still have a school in my head. Witness my total unwillingness to go to Disney World. That is a definite "nope" for me, and the only thing that would help would be more deschooling. That might happen, but I would rather settle for the more comfortable Disneyland.

Here is the true and embarrassing reason that I can love Disneyland and fear Disney World: I can score a higher percentage at Disneyland. I can do better than 80%, maybe 90% if I stay three days. I have heard from many people that one would have to stay at Disney World a week to see it all. So I don't want to go, because if I see any less than 70% that would not be a passing grade.

I see the world in terms of percentage grades. I have a "grading" overlay behind my eyes somehow that still hasn't totally faded out. It's sad but true.

For some people it's even worse, though. Some people can't leave school because they're carrying it around like a snail and his shell. They live there, still. School became an ingrown, hard part of them. They still define themselves by their school failures and successes.

How does a person who has gone to school for twelve years or thirteen or sixteen or twenty years get over all that programming and all those messages? Slowly, and with effort, and sometimes school can still flood back in or ooze around the edges. Can they find their school-less selves?

Last year I forgot school was out, and offered to help a friend of mine in one of her history classes. It was July, though, and she said, "Cool! When school starts." She needed to borrow some chain mail, but not in summer. That seemed like progress, for me to have been unaware of "school year" for a while.

Every September, "back to school" kicks in. I crave the smell of crayons and new pencils. I like to go down the school supply aisle at the store and admire packages of paper, and new binders. My kids still have the binders they've had for years and they don't need new ones. I don't either, yet I'm drawn there like a migratory bird that has to pass over familiar ground at the same time every year.

I like the appearance of the letter "A" much better than I like to see a "D" or an "F." My maiden name started with "A", and my married name starts with "D." "D" is not as good. Those letters are branded into my brain with their "values" from school.

But little scars like that are only irritations or curiosities. I regret scars and imperfections and little sorrows, but though they slow me down, they don't cripple me. I can see through and over them.

School is part of me, and I am part of the school memories of many people, whether as a schoolmate or as their teacher. But school is not a part of my children, nor they of school.

Sometimes people say to me, "You're patient with your own children but pushy with unschooling parents." I don't go door to door asking people if they know about unschooling, and whether they'd like to know more. If they come where I already am, though, I might press. And when I do, it's because of the possibility that they will run out of time.

My kids have their whole lives to memorize 7x8 if they want to.

The mother of a twelve year old has VERY little time if she wants to help her child recover from school and spend a few unschooling years with him before he's grown and gone. She doesn't have time to ease into it gradually. If she stalls, he'll be fifteen or sixteen and it just won't happen.

If the mother of a five year old is trying to decide how much reading instruction and math drill to continue with before she switches to unschooling, I would rather press her to decide toward "none," because "some" is damaging to the child's potential to learn it joyfully and discover it on his own. And "lots" will only hurt that much more. "None" can still be turned to "some" if the parent can't get unschooling. But if she doesn't even try unschooling, she misses forever the opportunity to see that child learn to read gradually and naturally. It will be gone forever.

That's why I don't say, "Gosh, I'm sure whatever you're doing is fine, and if you want to unschool you can come to it gradually at your own pace. No hurry."

People say jokingly (though it's true) of their late-reading children, "I'm sure he'll be reading by the time he goes on a date." The same cannot be said of unschooling, though, if the parent is attached to thinking she needs to teach things.

Until a person stops doing the things that keep unschooling from working, unschooling cannot begin to work.

It seems simple to me. If you're trying to listen for a sound, you have to stop talking and be still.

Some people want to see unschooling while they're still teaching and putzing and assigning and requiring.

They have to stop that first. And then they have to be still. And then they have to look at their children with new eyes.

If they don't, it won't happen.

I still see "subject areas" everywhere, but I haven't taught those categories and prejudices to my children. Science has much more to do with history than geology has to do with microbiology, but in school geology, biology, astronomy and physics are all "the same thing," and history is different altogether. Yet the best parts of history involve the knowledge cultures had and how they put it to use, whether in shipbuilding or iron tool use, medicine or communications.

Holly asked yesterday about when people discovered the world wasn't flat. I told her there was no one date or century because people discovered different things at different times, and some were shushed up when they said the world was round, or that the sun didn't orbit around the earth. I also told her, "Ask your dad, because he's really interested in the history of science."

I noticed when I said it that I had "named subject areas," but I didn't feel too bad. She's twelve, and reading, and after all "the history of science" was never part of my schooling. A science teacher wasn't certified to teach me history, and vice versa. Only outside of school did I figure out that scientific discoveries were history, and that music was science, and that art was history.

School served to prevent connections for me, but I overcame that, with difficulty. It is a problem my children never had. If Animaniacs completed a circuit for them between Magellan and WWII, well it's a circuit school would never have completed for me under any circumstances. If learning for fun creates more connections than "serious learning" did, I can no longer look at "serious learning" seriously.

The best function of the school in my head, as it turns out, is to remind me where not to dwell. I did my time in and around school, and learned things painstakingly and grudgingly that my children later learned while laughing and playing and singing. I have guarded my children's freedom and given them happy choices that I didn't have.

I know from school that the best way to end an essay is to tie it back to the beginning, but these birds cannot nest where I started. They are a generation removed and have flown freely out and about without a school to return to in September. But wait: if I take 10% off the essay for a weak ending, I do indeed tie it back, and so might yet get an "A."

Quite pathetic, but it makes me feel better.

Sandra Dodd lives in Albuquerque and has three tall young people in her family who have never been to school. A former teacher, former good student, Junior Honor Society member and one-time officer of the safety patrol, Sandra will probably never recover from school in this lifetime.
This was the Unschoooling column in the March/April 2004 issue of Home Education Magazine.

More articles by Sandra Dodd Photos are links

Deschooling Unschooling Life