So much of this Lifestream stems from our evolution into unschooling. Along with nomadic travel and working for ourselves, unschooling epitomizes a life untethered, thus embodying our values and all else that we hold dear. I had no idea what it was or that it even existed when Luna was born, nor had I any idea that it would be part of our path. I do know that it marches along to the divinely inspired beat that has become our life of peace and joy and love, and of closeness, and that it frees me and us in ways that I had never envisioned, making the possibilities endless. Our journey into unschooling goes like this.
When Luna was just over two years old, a few seeds of thought and some new feelings were beginning to sprout within me. I found myself thinking about the how strange it would seem to send my daughter away from me — to daycare or to school or both — for someone or something (system) else to raise, to care for or to help navigate the world. In fact, it seemed downright contrary to my nurturing and intuitive senses to give birth to this little person and then do what generally would be expected of me — to send her to away to school. I began considering what it was that was so important that I had to do in the coming years that might trump my staying with my daughter to be her advocate, ally, Servant. Furthermore, I found myself wanting to be with her, to spend time with her and to help her carve her own path, on her terms, as much as possible, and to be her friend in the world as Life Passenger, something that my husband and I feel we are with and to each other.
This was contrary to what my ego wanted, which was a life dedicated to the results and feelings born and fed from my other creative work in art, writing and food, or of what I thought was expected of me per cultural indoctrination. It was/seemed contrary to the driven, careerist, multitasking, n’er idle environment in which I was raised (Love you, Mom and Dad!), as well as many of the feminist underpinnings and politicking that went on during my undergraduate and graduate years in Women’s Studies in the early nineties (Love you, Women’s Studies!). It seemed the antithesis of freedom, to me at least then, and the anti-Christ to our success-seeking, über-busy, identity-craving, ladder-climbing societal norms. I perceived it as a less-than-adequate “job” culturally, even lowly or lazy, to “just be” a “stay-at-home-mom” (don’t we loathe June Cleaver culturally, deeming what she did as easy, lazy or not work?), giving off the same negative connotation that some of you might have felt when you read the word “Servant.” And it most certainly was jamming up my then-plans for a life in food, a little thing I was calling Supper Club, an occasional tiny bistro for food creation and sharing in our small town.
In fact, it wasn’t an easy transition for me to shed and wriggle out of the many layers of my old exoskeletons. That experience — beginning with becoming a mother through containing my ego’s lusty need for personal gratification, satisfaction and expectation — was processed in an old Lifestream I wrote online, as well as through a few very large and emo-heavy paintings I created. So heavy, so personally and culturally challenging to navigate such psychological waters, most of which we all experience in some shape or form, and so much of which came from/comes from — good or bad, willingly perpetuated or unconsciously — the culture of school, which ultimately shapes each and every one of us in the most minute to the greatest of ways.
I didn’t know that I would be saying any of that, at least, not in this way, not from this perspective as unschooling parent. I had been a student, of course, and involved in school for twenty-four years, beginning in preschool, on through K-12, into undergraduate and graduate school, and as a teacher of language for many years. I had my complaints about school as a student, like having to attend boring classes or classes I didn’t want to take, such as dastardly prerequisites. I didn’t care too much for middle school, and tenth grade for me was a disaster, as was the first semester of my sophomore year in college. However, I mostly followed a humanities and creative arts track, and found a few mentors along the way, so I enjoyed classes that were highly intellectually or creatively stimulating, and was ever-so-thankful for them. I probably would have done better traveling for a year or so before college, working, exploring, then attending a smaller university, but I didn’t know that I could (had “permission” to do so culturally or personally). But college gave me Spain and Feminism and Philosophy, so that was good. I also grew up in a household that was rooted in the school system. Many family members continue in their lives as school teachers and administrators. Many good friends work as teachers and administrators, and, despite all of the crap they must endure, thoroughly enjoy being involved in school.
All of us, throughout our lives, whether we attend school or not, are touched by school.
As a teacher, however, I knew I that I wouldn’t last in the school “system;” we have a mutual disrespect for each other, choking on each other’s ideals. I am a free thinker and student of life. Tests suck. I don’t like to be told what to do, or to work within a framework that believes that x, y and z are the most important things to learn, to be happy, to “achieve” or be successful. We all have cycles that exist beyond menstrual or the four seasons, that transcend gender or class or race or religion. The idea that there is a certain way in which we must be readied for the world is for me to poop on. If I could shout from the rooftops as Graham Chapman did in The Life of Brian, I, too, would yell, “Think for yourselves!” (I believe I did do just that in a commencement speech on the day I graduated from high school. When I asked my Dad if he liked my speech, he said, “Well, it was okay.” Love you, Dad!)
But even though I believe a lot of things about the culture of school — about the nature of cultural expectations, what qualifies as “success” or not, or “achievement” or not, who’s gifted or talented, who’s not, how it yanks on our personal feelings of self worth and creates judgment, the socio-economic inequality and bullying — I don’t want to talk about them (or maybe I just did), not yet anyway. It’s the wrong conversation for me to have here and now as it shifts my energies. School can be a happy, fun and even better/safer-than-home experience. School can be a place that offers the only meal a child is going to eat each day, Monday through Friday. School may be the only option in a single-parent household. It also may be what calls to the non-white or poor among us whose access has been stifled. Many teachers have great intentions; many students find themselves through school. Teachers have funny stories about each other and students; students have funny stories about each other and teachers. We gain friends and experiences. I am, in fact, friend to school, if only wishing The System that it does great things for students, teachers and administrators. So much pressure to achieve. Such big endeavors to help the masses learn.
But to school is not a place that I wanted to send my child, and it wasn’t born as much from the aforementioned as it was from the growing relationship between me and Luna, as well as the existing relationship between me and my husband, which was fed by the light that these relationships offered, cultivating peace and love, faith and respect. Quite naturally, our journey into unschooling evolved just as Joyce Fetteroll, an inspiring and hopeful voz alta in the unschooling community, so accurately suggests: “Put the relationship first and then figure out how to fit everything else around that.” It happened exactly like that for us.
So with this idea in mind — that I didn’t want to send Luna away to whatever place was socially acceptable — I began thinking, So what AM I saying? Am I saying homeschooling? Really? To which I would challenge myself with, What? You want to insert CURRICULUM into this equation??? Like, rise at 9 AM for…spelling? Math? Letters? Why not see what interests her and go from there?
So homeschooling as most know it — “schooling” inside the home — did not feel good in my mouth or in my brain. It just seemed like such a drag, and so opposite the value I hold dearest: freedom. So what was I saying by not-schooling conventionally? I did not know. What I did know was that if Luna’s only job in the world was that she carve her own path on her terms, then there had to be a different way.
Enter — let’s just call him — Ken. It was more than just coincidence — more like divine magic, or pixie dust perhaps (for those who might be uncomfortable with the idea of divine intervention) — that my friend, Ken, came for a visit a few summers ago. Ken comes from some of my favorite stock: two parents, who are dear, interesting, intelligent, liberal friends of mine; and his super-smart, open-minded, mind-bogglingly full-of-energy ambitious sister — we’ll call her Barbie — who just always seemed so happy and eager. They all love food, culture and books. Ken and I share many commonalities, too, especially a love of jazz, a love for the drums, and a liberal sensibility…so I thought.
So it came as quite a shock to me, whilst seated on comfy cushions in the living room as I unveiled my dabbling thoughts about homeschooling, that he began to squirm, writhing a bit in what was clearly physical discomfort, and said with utter contempt, “UGH! My sister unschools Skipper [niece]. She’s nine and she doesn’t even know how to READ!”
Insert screeching break noise here.
Unschooling? What was “unschooling?” I thought. And, Really? She can’t even READ? What the hell’s the big DEAL? And why is he so ANGRY about it? It was a fascinating display, as well as shockingly clear that he didn’t support his sister or what she and her husband and daughter were doing with this unschooling business.
It was at that point that I knew Ken and I were not quite the kindred spirits we once were. I love him anyway. He is still one of my favorite people. His bees make good honey. But…Nice to see ya, Ken. Gotta go. I have some Googling to do, and I need to contact your sister.
Ah, yes, I love it when the clouds part and the ray of light shines down on such a magic moment, like the “Arthurrrrrr, King of the Britonnnnns” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the stars begin to align. Yes, yes, yes. That was it. I did search “unschooling” and I did write to Barbie, Ken’s sister, who told me that unschooling kind of “arrived” on her doorstep, too, and that much of it started with Sandra Dodd, perhaps the most vocal or “famous” in the unschooling community, who was influenced by John Holt, a school reform and youth rights advocate, and laughed as I described her brother’s contortions and disdain for their unschooling experience, to which she replied, “But Skipper is so creative and imaginative…” (Read: Boy, he’s missing out on some good stuff.)
Oh goodness. Her experience is hers and their experience is theirs and his experience is his. That is all true. To each his own, sure. But what we say about what we want for each other starts from a very small place that is what we want for ourselves. What was it that made my friend, Ken, so riled about his sister and his niece unschooling? Anger? Fear? About what? That she wouldn’t succeed? Read now? Later? Ever? Did he really believe that? My sense — a realization, really — of his implied belief of what is acceptable “student” behavior or progress in society came as a complete surprise to me. He had drunk the Kool-Aid, and was still imbibing!
But maybe it wasn’t fear. Perhaps the idea that Skipper was very likely reading on her own terms, at her own pace, about things that were probably chosen by her based on her interests and from sources other than books, respectfully and lovingly encouraged in and by her surroundings, made him angry, because it touched on the child within him that perhaps struggled with the social, academic and/or societal acceptance and pressures, the when, the where and how, to do what we’re all “supposed” to do. In other words, he quite possibly might have felt jealously, maybe even resentment, about how it was for her and not for him.
It’s possible. I am not for certain. But it’s food for thought.
There is another way to think about it. Very often, when approached by many people we know and love, folks will ask Luna, “So what are you reading lately?” Luna is six. For those who don’t know us well, some folks simply assume that, yes, she looks to be around six or so, and, therefore, that she must be in school by now and, thus, can relate to the idea of a young person in school reading (because “reading is fundamental”), and subsequently ask, “What are you reading now?” Others, knowing that we are unschooling, still ask her, “What are you reading lately?” There is nothing wrong with that, basically, but I don’t feel that it is helpful, generally. Generally speaking, wouldn’t it be better if we asked young people, “What are you doing that is of interest to you lately?” or “What do you do that brings you great joy?” For that matter, why not ask anyone those questions?
What I am saying is that there is an assumed, logical path through childhood and adolescence to adulthood. March, march, march. Can we be more creative than that? Less fear, more freedom? Less no, more yes? Can we, Mom? Can we, pleeeeeeaaaaaase?
Currently, Luna is in heavy iPad use. She has used an iPad since they first were released into the Universe; she was not quite one-and-a-half at that time. I can only assume how much she has read (lots) on a daily basis since she has used it. I can only assume how much she has learned (lots) on a daily basis, just from this one source alone. I can only guess how much she has absorbed (tons) from her environment, including her iPad (astronomical).
If Luna plays Minecraft, Looney Tunes Dash, ABC Wildlife (or Food or Music), Montessori Crossword or Cursive, Tiny Bop, anything by Toca Boca, Toddler Jukebox, or browses all of the titles to any of the various programs offered on YouTube Kids or Netflix, then she is reading. How do I know? She asks. We talk about it. Or we don’t. I observe. She refers. Through repetitive viewings of her favorite Peppa Pig and Classic Looney Tunes cartoons, she, like we adults did in our youth, has memorized the titles of episodes. She is reading. The red-lettered sign that we see upon leaving the movies she knows reads “exit.” She is reading. It may not look like how reading happens in school or with Bob Books, but she is reading. She will read. I have faith and am not worried about it. And neither is she.
Also, Luna has a natural “interest” in math — sorting, shapes, order, patterns, addition, subtraction, logic, numbers, counting. She always has, ever since she was very little. She likes to write, too, but she thinks writing by hand is a huge chore, like taking her plate to the kitchen or climbing Mt. Everest. Instead, she prefers to copy what she sees by typing it on her iPad, or into signs on Minecraft. She’s currently into apostrophe-s. She likes to tell jokes, so the books she likes are joke books or funny books. Her grandparents gave her books on homonyms, puns and metaphors — like “you’re toast,” “in a pickle,” or How Much Can a Bare Bear Bear? — because the subjects are funny and they asked and knew that those books would be of interest to her.
Many, some or all of the things that interest many, some or all of us could certainly interest her. I’m sure the same is true of our friend Skipper, as well as most other unschoolers. And I am witness to it, participant in it and advocate of it, this natural learning, unschooling stuff, as is my friend, Barbie, and most of the other unschooling parents out there.
For if learning is something we all do all of the time and happens quite naturally and is always ever-present, why would we have to make it “fun”? We only feel that we need to make it “fun” when we feel the need to control it.
That doesn’t sound like much fun to me.
So, again, I ask of my friend, Ken, and others, what is the big deal? Why the anger or fear? How is any of this bad in a loving, respectful, family-focused environment? How can it fail? How would it be possible for a child not to learn when he or she is free to explore and feed the mind at will? May I just suggest that we all continue to think outside of the box, outside of comfort zones and preconceived notions? After all, there is more than one path to God, or, as my Dad so eloquently noted, “There’s more than one way to get to San Francisco. You can drive there. You can take a train, or a bus, or a plane. Or you can walk.” (“Or you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay…” Love you, Dad!) So, too, is there more than one path to learning.
Because learning happens all of the time. Kind of like, well, God again. In spiritual circles, we discuss forgetting to remember that God is always there, is always present. Meditation sometimes is used as a way to remember that God is there the whole time (just hangin’ out, doing whatever God does day-in and day-out, knitting, folding laundry, tellin’ mortal jokes, waiting patiently for us to remember basic principles), and if we listen — plug into what always already exists — then we remember the ever-presence, reducing fear and worry and pressure, creating calm and faith. Hope, too.
So if God is omnipresent, then isn’t learning? (If you don’t do God, that’s fine. Just think ever-expanding Cosmos/Universe. Or cable.) Doesn’t it happen all of the time? Isn’t it always all around us and available, ever-expanding, ever-hopeful (well, maybe not cable), and if we just stop and insert ourselves into it, be present with it — remember — then we will be part of it? Yes, learning is like that, always on, never needing to be forced, if we have faith and trust, and just listen and go with it.
Sandra Dodd wrote on her website and in her Big Book of Unschooling (the pages of which were taken from her website) that unschooling is “creating and maintaining an environment in which natural learning can thrive.” We are thriving as unschoolers as we have embraced this idea, this way of being, that was so inadvertently delivered to us by my uncomfortable friend, Ken, but most definitely was sent by Divine Mother. As a result, we are cultivators and managers of peace, love, joy, faith, and respect, which are in abundance in our household. As she has said, unschooling is simple, but it’s not easy; it is not for everyone: one parent has to be available, and the commitment is huge, and creating and maintaining an environment where natural learning can take place takes time, willingness, imagination, creativity, patience and more. But it does not create stress or pressure, anxiety or insecurity, not in the way that school can. It doesn’t test or coerce. It advocates and embraces. It is hopeful and creative and inspiring, and it is very, very, freeing. It is everything I had sought for my daughter, our family, and much, much more.
I never knew that it would look like this.
This is awesome.
I used to do work, as employee and volunteer, that catered to the masses or more specific groups. That was advocacy for me. But not anymore, not for now. Now, we are family-focused, and my daughter’s path and my family’s peace is of utmost important. Jimmy Durante made famous that “It’s so important to make someone happy/Make just one someone happy/Make just one heart to heart you, you sing to…” My hope for the world starts here, starts small, with this one little girl and our threesome family, at this level.
We are all individuals shaped by nature and made of the same stuff, internal clocks and all, and we all have our time. Doesn’t natural curiosity exist, ebb and flow? Can learning happen on one’s own terms, in cycles, in seasons? Yes, yes, and yes.
One person at a time, and then, perhaps, for the whole world.
Peace and love, y’all. More to come.