It was August, 1983. Ronald Reagan was president. Total Eclipse of the Heart and Beat It topped the charts. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Flashdance and Risky Business graced the big screen. And I entered kindergarten. Big year.
During my first five years, I’d relished being the youngest of four children, enjoying my days at home with my mom while my much older siblings attended school. Dad worked the day shift at the local aluminum factory, and mom ran the household. Money was tight for our single-income family, but my parents believed in a faith-based education and somehow pulled together the funds to send four kids to private Catholic schools through high school. Neither had attended college, and believed that academic success would lead to positive, college-bound futures for their children.
My older siblings all excelled in school. My sister was named valedictorian of her high school class; my other sister and brother also excelled academically while holding part-time jobs to save for college. As the youngest, I wanted to emulate their success- the bar was clearly set high.
Kindergarten turned out to be a breeze. ABC’s, playtime, and only half a day. Not bad, I thought. I’ve got this school thing down. Then came first grade. A much longer day away from my familiar, secure home environment, and as an introvert I struggled with making friends. Throughout elementary school, it seemed that every time I made a close friend, she transferred to a new school the next year. I was quiet and well-behaved, so teachers liked me. School work came easy for me, although it wasn’t especially stimulating, creative or imaginative. Memorization and repetition seemed key to earning high grades, and I felt good after earning A’s and pleasing my teachers.
Each year I lived for the end of May, when summer break arrived and I voraciously devoured stacks of books from the public library, concocted elaborate games with neighborhood pals, played the piano endlessly, and wrote songs and poetry. I felt sad when summers ended, and begrudgingly I returned to school, where conformity seemed more valued than individuality.
By high school, I was racing full speed down the overachiever highway. I pressured myself to get perfect grades, took all honors classes, and joined every academic extracurricular activity offered at my small private school… speech team, spell bowl, academic super bowl, National Honor Society, writing competitions, lead roles in school plays, solos in choir, and activities I’ve long since forgotten due to memory loss from sleep deprivation as a mom. Although I genuinely enjoyed some of these efforts, my motivation was often purely extrinsic. Within my overachiever circle of friends, winning awards and acquiring accolades became like an addictive drug…we craved the rush that came after winning first place at a speech meet or acing an exam. However, an achievement rush was always short-lived, driving us to immediately push for the next win, the next A. My self-esteem was largely tied to extracurricular success and earning straight A’s.
I loved classes that fostered creativity and the performing arts…languages, literature, music…but loathed math and science. I studied hard to cinch A’s in subjects that challenged me, but also outsmarted the system to avoid them. Somehow I got out of taking math my senior year, as well as chemistry and physics. No way could I risk those classes pulling down my grade point average, which had soared well over 4.0 by the time I graduated. The scholarships to college stacked up.
During my first two years of college, I took classes to fulfill the requirements of my major, and avoided classes that sounded interesting but too arduous or time-consuming. And then, a game changer. I befriended a non-conformist student… a Renaissance man and adventurer named Ryan. Ryan was the first person to ever call me out as a blatant overachiever and expose the fact that I seemed to be on a quest for just a degree, not a quest for knowledge or self-actualization. He inspired me to take interesting classes that fell well outside my course of study, such as 400 level epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and physics for science majors. I jumped on the chance to take a semester abroad in Scotland, exploring art history, philosophy, and solo backpacking to remote and wild places in the UK and Europe. My last two years of college were expansive and exciting, like a return to childhood summers in which I freely followed my interests.
As four years of college came to a close, I was very eager to join the professional world. Having worked part-time from age fifteen on to fill the gap between my scholarships and tuition, I was ready for a full-time income. So, with my B.A. degree in hand (stamped Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, of course), I marched into a career in business… not because my passions or gifts led me there, but because it seemed respectable and lucrative. Somewhere along the beaten path of kindergarten through college, I had buried a great deal of the creativity, passion and inherent gifts I radiated as a child. It would take me years to realize that, and surviving a quarter-life crisis in which I abandoned a business career at age 30 to follow my heart.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and here I was, researching alternative schooling for my son, specifically unschooling. Through many long talks, Jason and I realized that we dreamt of a different kind of future for Baby Ethan. A future in which imagination was as important as the quest for knowledge. A future in which Baby Ethan’s natural, intrinsic motivation was not squelched by an empty quest to rack up A’s and awards…a future with the freedom to simply learn, discover, create, imagine. A future in which he could enjoy exploring even subjects that challenged him, rather than avoid them because of fear of failure or a bad grade. A future in which he could be free to follow his passions and gifts outside of classrooms, to delve deeply in pursuits, and cultivate a state of being well balanced with doing. A future in which his path could be self-led, with support from Jason and I…traveling, exploring the great outdoors, and experiencing life all year-long.
This vision for the future seemed positively Utopian, but could we really do this? I mean, could we really opt out of school? Was this unschooling thing even legal? What about the ubiquitous socialization issue, which came up virtually every time I discussed homeschooling with just about anyone? And what does unschooling really look like in real life? I still had a lot of questions to answer.
To Be Continued…