Have you ever met any of those unschoolers who, as soon as they get an opportunity, will launch into a diatribe about their kids' misfortunes at school, or the wrong-headed and morally repugnant beginnings of our current system? They don't just look for opportunities – they even create them. They have stories about pain and terror; a hurt and twisted look in their eyes as if they know you'll bite at any moment. And they have so. many. facts! They have read all the research and they know they are right! And they have solutions that sometimes sound more like black bloc tactics or tear-gas shooting than anything really useful or accessible at all. They're really just angry. Angry unschoolers.
Some of us avoid them because they give unschoolers a bad name. But many of us are them. I am.
We began unschooling because I could see that my eldest child would be as unserved by the school system as I was: He's creative, shy, extremely sensitive and his moral convictions are strong. Also like me, he abhors taking direction. He didn't learn to read until I stopped trying to encourage him, and then he just quickly taught himself. Moreover, he actually rejected books for many months in an effort to thwart my reading encouragement. I saw in him the same drive to be self-sufficient that I have, and didn't want to send him into the system that had failed me so badly.
And it did fail me. For all the wonderful things that happened for me in school, for the various teachers who worked tirelessly with me and on my behalf, and for those who even genuinely loved me, nobody was able to allow me to teach myself. Nobody was able to make me safe on the school ground, or even in the classroom while under supervision. Nobody was able to teach me that I had an intrinsic value unrelated to grades and competition. I never felt like I mattered, until grade eleven, when out of sheer angry rebellion I decided to write and paint and science however I wanted. I did it with abandon… and was rewarded for it in grades and scholarships. I graduated indignant and angry and without respect for the institution that had raised me. And when I became a parent I still carried that anger.
No way in hell was I going to enroll my beloved son in a school – the exact same school, no less – that had left me so broken. Nor would I let his passions be crushed by well-meaning people who thought they knew better than he did what he needed from life. I tried out an alternative homeschooling support program for a year, and then cut straight to free-range unschooling. Ironically, I was so angry about my own childhood that some of that anger haunted my parenting. I didn't want my son telling me what to do anymore than I wanted my teachers telling me what to do, and I attempted many times to coral or redirect his activities. I also fell victim to the common crime of competitive parenting, and pushed him to do things he didn't want to do out of fear that he may not measure up to his peers. Like reading. He pushed back harder, and every single time I pushed, I failed, and he was bombarded by my anger. I made him feel like he failed. And every time I backed off, he excelled – at his own passions.
It took me many years to feel like I was parenting from a place of inspiration instead of fear and anger, and I'm still not where I'd like to be. I know that the struggle to overcome my childhood anger will take the rest of my life, and I am not writing this now from a place of righteous conclusion. I'm writing from a place of desperate searching. Because I see how harmful the anger is, and I want to overcome it.
The trouble is, it's hard to overcome something when it's still serving a purpose. Revolutions are often kickstarted by anger. An angry population finally gets pushed so far that it pushes back. And that's what's been happening with unschooling. Enough of us have been failed badly enough by the school system that we've rejected it in anger – and while out here in the wilderness blindly feeling our way around, thrashing out at our fears and constantly seeking new pathways around the ever-appearing obstacles – we are finding something beautiful.
It happens in those little moments when we're tromping through the woods and see the many years of our children's faces all in one brief smile and we're grateful to have those shared memories. It happens when we accidentally lose a day playing Minecraft with our kids and then discover we gained more than we lost. It happens when we see our kids confront the things we are deathly afraid of with bravery, wisdom, and integrity. It happens when we discover they are actually not even afraid. It happens when we realize that our anger led us to this place of great freedom and discovery, and now we can leave the anger behind.
Unschooling is such a fighting word. I tried to use 'life-learning' for a while but it didn't work out. People know what unschooling means, and I think that's because it's still too new of a movement to move beyond its angry roots. The majority of children are still stuck in the school system, not knowing there are other opportunities. So, as more and more people use fear or anger to hurtle themselves out onto this new way of raising kids, the anger is still serving us. But things are changing. Our own province is implementing a new curriculum that values broad ideas and personal development over specific fact-based learning. Other countries and districts are opening up in other ways, with mixed-age groupings, mixed-subjects and even no subjects, with online and cross-enrolled courses, outdoor learning, and with various forms of self-direction. I have seen various projects conceived by myself or other unschoolers and non-coercive educators be implemented in mainstream school programs. So unschooling philosophy and experience is already influencing mainstream education. It may not be that the recent growth in unschooling leads to a majority of kids being unschooled, but rather that it feeds everything we learn back into a better system.
I don't mind the loneliness that comes with being a maverick. I love being out here on the edge, watching my kids benefit from all the wonder and excitement of trailblazing. This feeling of joy is what allows me to leave the anger behind, so I'm just going to keep on feeling it. Anger certainly serves a purpose as an instigator of ingenuity, but it's time for those of us who have already made the leap to be fueled by joy and inspiration, instead.
Solidarity to those of you just stepping into this world. And to the rest of us: Party on!