I went to public school. I did great there. By “great,” I mean that I got terrific grades. Always. My 4th grade teacher (wonderful, wonderful woman) made the comment in front of the class that she expected I would get a scholarship to college because of my grades. Something clicked. I had a game to win. More than that: an expectation was set.
The thing is, I didn’t do great in public school. I hated it. Every day. I had stomach cramps and constant stress. I didn’t understand it. All that mattered in my little brain was that “A” on the paper. The stature it brought was something that once I had, I couldn’t let go of, even as a 10-year-old. If I lost it, I wouldn’t be me, right?
I saw the world through some magic filter that luckily I was blessed with. I was good at seeing and reading teachers and spitting right back out on paper exactly what they wanted to hear. It didn’t matter what I thought or what questions I had. I just had to get the “A.” I somehow felt that all of my teachers expected it of me, and I just couldn’t let it go, even when my sweet mom would ask me to.
Then the confusion set in: the older I got, the more I realized that something was wrong. People who I knew for a fact were smarter and more genuinely intelligent than I (read that: they had actual opinions that they could state and the ability to think and reason) were getting worse grades than me. I couldn’t figure it out. But I decided that, whatever the reason, my system of strict regurgitation was working and I would stick with it.
It worked great for me. I got great grades, some of which cost me some deals with teachers as I entered the high school sciences (which I had a real disdain for). I remember the list being published my senior year of every student and where they ranked. Phew. #1. I felt so sorry for everyone who was on that list. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to get ranked and published like that. I had to stay #1. That was the only way to avoid feeling the way they must have felt. I was so grateful I had figured out the game.
Eventually, my crown: Valedictorian. Applause, applause.
Ah, yes, the illusion of brilliance. But secretly, I knew the truth. I may have been “book-smart,” and though I was a bright girl, I secretly struggled to actually learn. But my free-spirited, open-minded sister was much more genuinely intelligent, and I knew it. She could play any song she thought of or heard. She read deep books like most people drink water. Yet, her grades were only good. Not top-ten or valedictorian great. Poor girl.
But then, I went to college, a competitive one, which of course I had a scholarship for. And to keep said scholarship, the rules were so strict that I couldn’t even get a “B” if I wanted to hold on to it. It was stress on a whole new level. I found myself envying people who got average grades and had no scholarships. I found myself wishing I could care about something, anything, besides grades. People had fun. They had lives. I had my constant tormentor: grades.
I began to realize, for the first time in my life, that I had no idea how to actually learn. I had no clue. High school regurgitation didn’t work in my higher-level courses. It was absolutely terrifying.
One day, I sought refuge in the art museum. There, in front of me, was the most breathtaking thing I had ever seen: Grain Fields. A little-known work by a little-known artist. It sang to me. It was alive. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
I visited it every day. It soothed me. I knew nothing about art, but it made me want to learn. It tied me to the sweet memories of home and nature that I loved from my youth. I didn’t even have an art class, but I learned about the artist and his technique. I couldn’t help myself. I was so drawn to it. I learned about impasto painting and I stared at each and every piece of straw that leapt out of the painting until I felt I had it memorized. I saw it in my dreams. I took my boyfriend (future husband) to see it, because I felt like it was like sharing myself. There was no test. There was no grade. But I remember that painting more than almost anything else from my college years. A copy hangs in my home now.
That painting inspired me later. Years later, I wondered about yoga. So I learned. I drank it in. For truly the first time in my life, I loved a subject so much that no cramming was required. I just learned.
If I could go back, I would never worry about my grades. I would worry about what I loved. I would worry about finding the answers to everything I wondered.
I am only finally starting to learn. My children ask me questions every day that I do not know the answer to, because it was never on a test. We learn together. It’s one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had.
When I first wanted to homeschool, it was for all the reasons that I spoke of above. I didn’t want my children’s education to even remotely touch upon grades. Grades define us in very inaccurate ways, often for the rest of our lives.
So we started homeschooling, but largely followed a curriculum similar to public school, just without the grades. Guess what. There’s so little time for free thinking and there’s still so much pressure to be right. I saw my kids crumpling under the discouragement of feeling stupid when they got spelling words wrong. I saw them having anxiety over math…sheet after sheet of it. I saw them being told constantly that they couldn’t go outside or play until their schoolwork was done. I found myself saying “no” all of the time. And then there was my oldest, who, if she were in public school, would be diagnosed with ADHD. I’m sure of it. I couldn’t accept the idea of putting her on all of those medications just so that she could focus on sitting still in a desk all day. She asked me questions all of the time. Questions that had nothing to do with whatever worksheet she had in front of her at the time. I would always say, “Later, later.” Something felt so wrong about that.
The only times they were truly happy were when they were more free to explore on their own. Amazingly, those were also the times when they retained the most information.
Something had to stop. Something had to change. This was too similar to what I had gone through. It was so opposite of what I had dreamed of our homeschooling experience becoming.
We were blessed with several remarkable experiences, all of which led us to unschooling. I prefer to call it “natural learning.” I realized that it was the only thing that makes sense for us. I’m thrilled you’ve read this far, and I hope you’ll come along for the journey with us. It’s been one of the most beautiful journeys of my life.