The five year-olds in my neighborhood are headed off to school for the first time today.  They stand awkwardly in oversized backpacks while their parents snap photos of their first first day.  I’m reminded of a story I once heard of a child who on what would be her second day of kindergarten is surprised when her mom says it’s time to get ready to go.

“Where are we going?” she asks without looking up from her drawing.

Her mom is surprised too. The answer is obvious, to her.  “To school, of course.”

Her daughter looks up and says patiently “Mom, don’t you remember?  I already went to school, yesterday.”

This child still lived in a world in which it was inconceivable that you’d keep doing a thing like a school day over and over and over the way her mom had already been assuming for years that she would.

We hold the assumption of school as we know it deeply, deeply, deeply.  It makes for a funny story here, but it also often keeps us from making choices that could make all the difference in the health and thriving of a young person. I’m always wondering what will it take for us to free ourselves enough from the grip of our schooling paradigm that we might take from it what if anything we can actually need and let fall away what we don’t.

A few weeks ago I sat with the parents of a child who is brilliant but isn’t taking well to seated school instruction in reading, writing, and the like.  I asked if they had considered not sending him to school, such that they could devise a plan for him that would support the development of his existing capacities and make room for the reading and the rest to emerge in a way that suited him better.

This is a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it must be like, for parents who have never considered it, to hear me ask it.  For anyone who has considered it, who knows children who have not gone to school for various reasons and come out the other side OK, or better than OK, it can seem like no big deal.  But for most people, it’s one of the biggest possible deals. It’s not like other questions parents hear, like “Have you had him tested?” or “Have you thought about switching schools?”  These questions may be upsetting, but they don’t require rearrangement of paradigm.  They don’t challenge our ideologies of participation in culture the way the notion of opting out of school does.  “Have you considered not sending him to school?” prompts a whole cascade of other questions like How could he possibly make it in the world if he doesn’t go when everyone else is going? and How could I ever explain it to my mother-in-law? and How could we do that when we chose our house for the school district?

So I’ve been trying to imagine, so that I can be of more use and support to parents when a child is not thriving in school and not likely to thrive there, what kind of a question someone might ask me that I’d experience in a similar way.  What could I be asked that would not just require me to think about a new possibility but to entirely rearrange my understanding of what’s reasonable and viable?  The best I’ve come up with so far is this: “What if instead of living inside your house, you tried living outside of it?”

In some ways it’s too obvious an analogy with its inside/outside component.  And of course it lacks the weight of any question that bears on the responsibility for another human being.  But it gets part of the job done because it’s close to inconceivable to me that I’d pay for and maintain and furnish a building designing for habitation and then set up camp in the driveway. Could there actually be circumstances that would merit such a choiceWhy on earth would I do thatWhat would everyone thinkHow would I survive the winter? These questions are sufficiently confounding that I have to set aside not just the choices I know I’m making but the ones that are so obvious I barely even perceive them as choices, which is what parents have to do in considering the possibility of opting their children out of school.

The parents I mentioned above said later “I never understood why anyone would take a child out of school until we got to know this child.  Now I am starting to understand.”

In the end, of course, it will be that that makes the difference, not anything any other adult says or asks.  It will be a child who makes it clear that she is not being served by our traditions and assumptions, that she cannot or will not tolerate an environment that fails to support her in realizing what she can offer and contribute.

The most (and least) we can do is be willing to do the tricky paradigm-questioning work of making ourselves available to receive the communication.


2 Responses

  1. This is a wise and important posting, Meredith, and I want to thank you. My son was one who didn’t fit and he didn’t do the usual thing for school after sixth grade… I designed a program with his imput and agreement. He was an apprentice to five people at work (one on Monday, one on Tuesday, etc.) for two years and did some math workbooks with a tutor he saw once a month, and read a book a week from a list of authors I gave him and wrote a book report on it. For the rest of the time he was singing in a boys chorus and performing in Amahl and the Night Visitors and generally being part of the cultural life of the city. He also worked for a candidate in our municipal election, and later was a helper in her office a few hours/week. Then he went on to Community College and 4-year-college, earned a degree and eventually started his own business. So. . . It worked for him. . . . And it worked for me. Otherwise, I feared, he’d have been the boy who got in trouble because of his opinions and penchant for speaking up.

  2. This is a wonderful wonderful post, Meredith. (Hi Sydney!)

    I love how you’ve tried to find a parallel that asks you to imagine changing your whole way of living in as large a way as taking a child out of school. It’s a wonderful analogy.

    I was a parent already pretty comfortable at not being in the mainstream in all sorts of ways (and who had read for years about homeschooling) and still for me the decision to homeschool our son felt like a huge leap off a cliff. Or like moving into a tent in the backyard in the middle of winter while everyone sat by their fireplaces inside their safe homes.

    Having made the move into the tent in the backyard I can say now there are some things we learned that we couldn’t know before doing it:

    1. It immediately reduced the level of stress in our home five-fold at least and has kept it reduced. Our son was in preschool and kindergarten for two years, so we know a little of the stress we left behind and the huge gain in joy and harmony we got in return — I had assumed we’d be trading one package of stress for another, but in our case anyway, the package of stress we left behind was far far greater and the joys we got we had no way to anticipate.

    2. It turned out that there were already people in the tent in our backyard who had been keeping it warm all this time. We were welcomed, supported, and guided by so many new friends also on this road. We had no way to know ahead of time how far that support would carry us (all the way to Maine, as it turns out, universe-willing and the creek don’t rise, as my husband says).

    3. Taking our son out of school wasn’t just removing something that wasn’t working. It was more like stepping off the highway onto this beautiful side trail where there are unexpected views and delights around every corner. There is simply no way to know ahead of time (and they will be different for every child and parent) what those unexpected delights will be or how they will feel.

    Our son is 8 and a half now, so we’re only 2 and a half years onto this road. We sure are glad we did it though.

    And we are so grateful you are there as one of the fire-tenders in the big tent in the backyard!

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