I grew up questioning a lot of what our society considers normal and necessary. However, when Bailey was a baby I never questioned the fact that we would one day be separated while she went to school. I researched most of my parenting decisions, and really had been preparing for the job of mothering since I was still a child myself. However, I had never consciously questioned School. It was the big “must do.”
Looking back, I can see the roots of my journey to unschooling. My parents and two teachers in particular were probably my biggest childhood influences. My parents are very special to me. We may have looked like a typical — though bicultural — Canadian family, but the inside story was slightly different from the norm. Probably without knowing it, my parents taught me to think outside the box, to value individuality, and to question authority.
My Dad was a tremendous influence on me. He is brilliant, creative, and gentle. And he is never bored! All my life he has bounced from hobby to hobby, immersing himself in whatever caught his interest until he had mastered it or until he found something else that interested him more. He has explored geology, canoeing, woodworking, art history, photography, Photoshop, gardening, bread making, writing, computer programming, and painting, among others. He is currently teaching himself Italian and Greek. He reads voraciously, and has passed his love of books onto me.
Dad has always played devil’s advocate, and tends to be a bit of a pessimist. Those traits drive me crazy, but taught me to think for myself, and to think things through. They also taught me the value of optimism!
He grew up in railway stations on the Prairies. No, he wasn’t a hobo! His dad was a station master, and they got to live in the train station. He seems to have had a lot of freedom, and tells us stories of riding in the engine from one town to the next and back. He also tells stories of playing with gunpowder and blowing things up for fun.
Every year of my childhood, we would go on a holiday for two weeks. I remember running through the woods, going on long hikes, learning about the forest. We also visited dams, museums, and big cities. I grew up with a great appreciation for British Columbia, because my Dad loves his adopted province so much. After each vacation he would compile all the photographs and his vacation journal into a family photo album. One summer we visited a lot of dams and locks. Weeks later as he worked on that year’s album, I remember him waking us up one night to tell us the title he had decided on: “Our Dam Holiday.” We still laugh about that one!
My Mom survived the Indian Residential School system, but was still hurting very badly as she parented us as best she could. Nevertheless, she forced herself into the mould of the stay-at-home mom, cleaning the house, leading Brownies, baking pies at Christmas, and always, always, putting family first.
Mom taught me that it was okay to be different, and also okay to play within the system when it suited us. She had another baby when I was 17, and watching her parent my sister has been profoundly healing for me. She has made some terrible mistakes in her parenting, but she has also struggled to heal herself at the same time. She readily admits to her mistakes, and constantly lets us all know that she loves us unconditionally. She uses those words, too, which is great. Written on birthday cards, spoken aloud to us, “I love you unconditionally.”
I had one terrible teacher in my life, several mediocre ones, and two great ones. The first was great, I suspect, because she was new. The class I was in was known throughout the district (I learned this later) as a “bad” class. I know that I was constantly picked on for being meek, different, “weird,” and I guess the bullying was not limited to peers. Halfway through the sixth grade our teacher had a nervous breakdown and quit! After Christmas, a gem of a teacher, Mlle. Boyd, graced us. When I think back now, I wonder how she felt. A brand-new teacher, her first full-time teaching position, and it is a class who recently caused a mental breakdown in an adult male.
I loved her. She saw me. She didn’t see the weird little girl who was too afraid to stand up for herself. She didn’t see me as a lazy underachiever. She saw me. She accepted me for the person I was, and she liked me!
I wanted desperately to please her. I tried my best on every assignment. It helped that our assignments were generally geared to our interests. I remember doing a report on our favourite animal. I remember doing a lot of art. I remember learning about people with different abilities, and meeting a blind woman who was in college. Mlle. Boyd had recently spent a year in France, and I fell in love with the country, resolving to travel there one day. Mlle. Boyd helped me to see a world outside of school.
The second great teacher I encountered was Mr. Kilby. I first heard of him in Grade 10, when someone pulled me out of English class to tell me about Advanced Directed Studies (A.D.S.). Mr. Kilby had designed the class especially for intelligent, underachieving students. There was no curriculum. The premise of the class was “time to do what you want to do.” And they wanted me!
Grade 11 came, and Mr. Kilby was even more amazing than I could have dreamed. He was mostly an English teacher, and I was lucky enough to have him for that class as well. Part of the décor in his room was a series of posters of poets. He had a small handwritten sign beside them: “These are pictures of some great poets. They’re all dead now.” Mr. Kilby was quirky, passionate, and treated us like the young adults we were. Almost all of us adored him. A popular film at the time was The Fisher King, and we all thought he looked like Robin Williams’ character. Another popular film was Dead Poet’s Society, and the parallels between Mr. Kilby and Mr. Keating (another Robin Williams character) were undeniable.
A.D.S. had two requirements. One was mandatory attendance at a camping retreat where we would all get to know one another. The other was some sort of project at the end of the year. Students in previous years had written poems, made films, and written research essays. The options were limitless, but we had to do something. We were allowed to leave the school grounds during class time if necessary, and Mr. Kilby would sign the required forms. We were allowed to go to the library during class. We were allowed to sit around and gossip during class.
Then the axe fell. Because there were so few people in A.D.S., the class was to be cancelled. After telling us the bad news, Mr. Kilby, visibly choked up, stepped into the hallway for a few minutes while we students sat in stunned silence. The year went on, and thankfully I was able to get into another one of his classes, World Religions, a fascinating class where we studied the beliefs and customs of religions from around the globe. At the end of the school year, the English 11 class decided to surprise Mr. Kilby by standing on our desks and saying “Captain, my Captain,” recreating a touching scene from Dead Poet’s Society. For the second time that year, I saw him get choked up.
In the 12th Grade, A.D.S. was brought back, only the admission requirements had to be loosened somewhat to include more students. It was still a magical class. In addition, I had two other classes with Mr. Kilby, Advanced English, and Advanced Literature. Mr. Kilby was working on his Master’s Degree at the time, and often told us that what we were doing in his class was very similar to the process he was going through.
I remember one day we had a substitute teacher who did not at all understand the spirit of the class. Looking back now it is hilarious. Back then, though, it was so frustrating to have to deal with this woman who entered into our zone and dared to tell us what to do! She made us (or tried to make us) sit quietly at our desks, refused to let us wander off to the library, and was terribly upset when we challenged her authority.
Mr. Kilby was honest with us. He told us about the trouble he had with administrators and fellow teachers. Many of his peers thought A.D.S. was simply a class for kids to goof off, and they refused to believe that we would do anything with our time, despite being proven wrong time and time again by previous classes of A.D.S. students.
These four people had the biggest influence on my decision to unschool, but the funny thing is that I am not sure any of them would have made that choice themselves. In fact, my teachers, who worked so hard within the public school system, might very well be horrified to learn that they influenced me in this way.
When I finally became a mother and watched my young daughter play, I began to despair about how school would change her, and change the magical relationship we shared. I remembered feeling so alone at school. I worried that she, too, would be bullied because she was different. My parents tell me I was a sunny, happy, outgoing baby. I don’t remember that, but I do remember being a sad, awkward, shy child. What happened in school wasn’t the sole cause of that change, but I believe it was a major contributing factor. I was unprepared for the cruelty of the other children. I was unprepared to deal with a system that viewed me not as an individual who (to the best of my knowledge) never participated in bullying besides being a target of it, but as part of a “bad” class. I was unprepared to deal with the mind-numbing boredom.
Slowly, I began to read online about homeschooling. I don’t remember when I first heard about unschooling, but it clicked with me immediately. Then Bailey’s dad and I broke up, we had a custody battle, and when things finally got resolved I was too scared to rock the boat. She ended up in school, and stayed there until the middle of Grade 4, when I finally felt I had the leverage to pull her out of school without fear of her Bio-dad’s wrath.
We are all deschooling now, Bailey, her stepfather, and me. It is hard to trust the process. It is hard to defend unschooling when I have no tangible proof that it is working. However, it is infinitely easier to live as though we are on vacation than it is to try to justify to my daughter why I would send her somewhere that I believe is harming her.
I am fortunate to have had such great teachers in my life, and I feel a great sense of peace with my decision.