i was {gasp!} unschooled (and lived to tell about it)

Lately, it seems like the blogosphere is all abuzz about home/unschooling. I had a brief IM chat with my dearest Kelly Rae about it a few months back, and more recently, Leonie posted an article called Unschooling & Other Miracles. Leonie told me she’d like to hear more about my having been unschooled, so I thought I would write up a quick lengthy detailing of my experience.

My primary education years started out fairly normally. I went to pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade at a traditional (public) school. Trouble began when I taught myself to read halfway through kindergarten. Trouble. Man, you are not supposed to learn how to read until second grade! I was a rebel without a cause. A forced to be reckoned with. Etc.

First grade was terrible. It’s hard to imagine that now, isn’t it? Don’t we all passively long to be six again? Well, being six should be fun, but first grade wasn’t. I was quiet and well-behaved, which was my first mistake as a student at an inner city school. Please know that I’m not speaking poorly of all teachers in all public schools (because I know some great ones), but this teacher and this school were a disgrace. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Rose, situated me between two rambunctious, disruptive boys (who I’m pretty sure were both named Anthony). They were her problem students, and she decided that seating me between them would make my good behavior “rub off” on them. Now, in case you’re not getting a clear enough picture, keep in mind that a six-year-old is not very big. Certainly not as big as, say, the wall that would have been necessary to keep those two boys from teaming up and wreaking havoc on the world around them — particularly the little girl that sat between them.

That was bad enough. To add insult to injury, I had this pesky habit of finishing my worksheets long before anyone else did. My reward? I was told to put my head down and rest until the rest of the class was finished. First of all, worksheets? REALLY?! Secondly, WHAT?! I wasn’t given permission to read a book, or draw, or even offered an additional worksheet. I was told to put my head down on the cold, hard desk. Really powerful way to motivate a six-year-old. Except not at all, actually.

Oh, also, I was once scolded for coloring a drawing of my face with a brown crayon. My Crayola 8-pack didn’t come with peach and white crayon doesn’t show up on white paper, so sod off, you unimaginative old bat. AHEM.

I was, as you might imagine, an anxious mess. Everything pretty much came to a head toward the end of that school year. I was sent to the doctor for stomach issues for probably the third time, and she told my mom that it seemed like I was developing an ulcer. Around the same time, the school released the results of the California Achievement Test. (Don’t get me started on standardized testing.) The assessment report stopped at a third grade level, but my scores didn’t. My parents asked for more information – namely, at what grade level I was testing. The school claimed they weren’t able to provide that information. My parents then asked that I be given third grade coursework but, of course, there’s no room for individualized education in public schools (or, at least, there wasn’t then).

Faced with the facts — that their 6-year-old was spending her days and weeks bored, tormented and stifled sick (literally) — my parents took myself and my younger sister out of traditional school. Because they couldn’t afford private school and other alternative schools weren’t available in our area, keeping us at home was the only feasible option.

We always used the term “homeschooling”, but we were actually unschooled. We were not the “sit at the kitchen table from 9-noon” family. For most of my childhood, my siblings and I spent our days climbing trees, gardening, reading, making art, having scavenger hunts. We were almost never inside. There were so many books in my house, and we went to libraries at least once or twice a week. I loved to read. I was also obsessed with bugs and other creatures, so I spent a lot of my time collecting them (as pets) and observing them. (I was allowed to keep caterpillars until they became butterflies, but everything else had to be released after 3 days in captivity.)

Growing up in the 90s, home/unschooling wasn’t quite what it is now — or, at least, without the internet, it didn’t seem like it was. Where I grew up, the majority of the other home-schooled kids were kept at home for religious reasons. For this reason, my unschooling experience was fairly lonely. Most of my socialization came from programs at the local library (and a brief run at being a girl scout). These groups weren’t oriented toward home-schoolers, and I found that I didn’t really relate well to these kids who were supposedly my peers. I certainly had other kids to play with — we lived in a decent neighborhood and there were other families — but I had only a couple of close friends who were also unschooled.

Home/unschooling does not have to mean depriving a child of socialization, though. I do feel that I was undersocialized but that’s because of circumstance, rather than just being a side effect of home education. Today, there is no shortage of homeschooling groups, and kids can even take classes and participate in sports at the local public school, not to mention things like 4-H, dance, etc.

To wrap this up — I graduated from high school a year early, after taking a more regimented approach to my own education in my secondary years. (I was self-taught and enrolled Clonlara’s Homeschool program — which gave me a high school diploma.)

I am, overall, hugely grateful for my home/unschooling experience. There are some things that could have been better, of course, but the primary one is just that I would have liked to have been more social in my teens.

The other failing of my particular unschooling experience was the lack of math education, and I think it’s important for this to be a consideration to other unschooling families. Though I was reading at a college level by age 9, my math skills were never cultivated, which is a shame as I’m actually quite good at math. It took a lot of struggling once I re-entered traditional school (which I did for a short while in 8th and 9th grades and then again in college) to get caught up on what I’d missed having been unschooled. I still don’t know how to divide without a calculator. (Oddly enough, though, I’ve managed to become a successful adult without those skills.)

Today, home/unschooling parents (and parents considering home/unschooling) are so delighted when I tell them that I was unschooled. I defy a lot of the stereotypes by being a bubbly, outgoing, intelligent and well-adjusted adult, and I think that gives them hope. Based on my early public school experiences, I can tell you that I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t been given the privilege of unschooling.

I want to close by reiterating that I didn’t write this to attack our public school systems or the amazing people who dedicate their lives to teaching in them. I wrote this so that the many parents of young children out there who are considering educating their children at home would ideally gain some perspective/insight from someone who grew up unschooled and turned out okay.

If you’re one of those parents, please, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I would love to talk to you more about alternative schooling.

Lastly: If you’re NOT a parent who has considered educating your child at home (or for whom it isn’t feasible), PLEASE don’t take this as an attack on your choices. I am in no way of the opinion that sending your children to traditional school means that you love them any less or that you’re not a good parent. No, no, no, no. Schooling our children, like every other aspect of parenting, is a very personal choice. It is up to each individual to determine what their child needs and fulfill those needs to the best of their abilities. For a great many of us, that means sending our children to traditional school while we work our day jobs. Ideally, though, you’re sitting down with them at the end of the day and educating them anyway. It takes a village and all that, but it starts at home.

Namaste,

Leah

13 thoughts on “i was {gasp!} unschooled (and lived to tell about it)”

  1. Interesting story!

    I’m curious to know if you think that if the public school had more options available—such as accelerated classes or gifted/talented education—there would be less unschooling. I guess in general, is the presence of unschooling mostly a failure of school systems, or just part of the blend of what different kids and families need?

    • I think that people choose to educate their children at home for a myriad of different reasons, and not all of them are due to shortcomings of the public schools. Interestingly enough, while I should have been in an accelerated program for gifted children, my sister (a year younger/a grade behind me in school) should have been receiving more focused services for students with learning disabilities. Not quite what we think of when we say “special education”, but she learns in a totally different way than I do. That’s the primary failing of traditional school — there’s no one-size-fits-all way to educate, and when one person is trying to manage twenty other people, it’s impossible to give each child individualized care and attention they require.

  2. Woo!!!!!!
    Thank you sooooooooo much hon!!!!
    That’s effing awesome!!!!!
    Loooooove hearing your story!!!
    PS
    If it helps, I graduated top of my class in math & don’t do division without a calculator either. Ha!

  3. Just stumbled across this…another early self taught reader, unschooler-for-non-religious reasons, math struggler right here! I’ve been trying to write about my home/unschooling experience and you really hit the nail on the head: it’s not saying public school is bad or that anyone’s choices are wrong, but for a certain kind of kid and a certain kind of family it can be really great. Thanks so much for this.

  4. What a wonderful, frank and honest article! Here I am searching for someone to help with my website, and I stumble on this!

    Your story is almost like my daughter’s, so I was all the more intrigued — she is in 2nd grade, a quiet good girl who wants to learn, who struggled with school until this year when two boys with serious ‘discipline issues’ were placed on either side of the room, with her in the middle. They began to bully her (this is all I can surmise from input by others, as the school tried to downplay events). She fell apart. We had also discovered that she has a learning challenge, and the stress at school was causing her to hate learning (!) and so… we pulled her.

    I have suddenly been thrown into the world of home/unschooling… I would love more information! I realize it is very different than people attempt to portray — I have found it requires a huge level of ENGAGEMENT with your child, all day. Every moment is a chance to learn. Right now I’m focused on helping her find joy in learning once more.

    Again, thank you for this inspiring article!

    Regards,
    Kimberely @unshakablesoul

    • Thanks for this great comment, Kimberly! Somehow I missed it when it was posted – sorry about that! Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions about home/unschooling. I was really involved in the process, and in fact did my secondary/high school portion without the aid of my parents!

  5. I unschool my kids. It’s nice to read accounts of adults who have been though it. But I’d like to add that I myself went through 12 years of public school followed by a science degree in university…and I have completely forgotten how to divide without a calculator. I don’t think you have to be unschooled to not know how to do that;). And, if need be, it is a skill that is easily learned with a hour or two of practice.

  6. Just because you go to public school doesn’t mean you know math, either! I struggled with math in regular school, and even though my parents met with teachers to try to get me caught up, nobody was able to successfully teach me what I needed to know.

    Still can’t divide without a calculator, either 🙁 But no worries because the world is full of other people who DO know math, and the world is full of calculators 🙂

  7. This was so encouraging to read 🙂 I’m currently homeschooling my two oldest. They’re only 4 and 6, but ahead of the game on reading too. We are doing phonics workbooks and a math curriculum (and I love math so I enjoy teaching it!) but other than that, we’re doing my own version of unschooling–I pick some units, the kids pick some units, and we just explore whatever topic we pick in every way we can imagine. My 4yo is really into engineering, so I’ve already found myself doing units about bridge construction and building systems, not exactly your typical preschool material! We would all be bored to tears if we were following a set curriculum all year, and sitting at a table doing desk work all the time.

    It’s so hard not to worry that I’m “doing it wrong” when public school education approaches things so differently. Your blog makes me think maybe I am on the right track after all 🙂 So thank you!

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