Brigid Shaski

Age

23

Current country

United States

When did you unschool?

Lifelong (1996-present)

In what state did you "graduate?"

New Mexico

Describe your childhood education (through age 12).

I attended kindergarten until I was six, after which I began to homeschool. My homeschooling varied in structure over the years but it was almost always very loose and self directed. I started with a curriculum that my mom designed and then I moved on to pre-designed curriculums provided by a local private school. I was evaluated yearly by an education professional (usually a friend of the family). While ‘book learning’ was pretty much a daily part of my life, it always happened when I wanted it to and it was woven throughout my diverse life experiences. I didn’t truly ditch the curriculum and radically unschool until I was 16, but I still identify as a lifelong unschooler because of the amount of freedom, independence, and autonomy I was allowed as a kid. 

Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.

I had playgroups as a kid, and I participated in a few homeschool groups/classes/field trips. I loved them all. 

Since I was raised in a small town in Vermont, a sense of tight-knit community was unavoidable. I was fortunate to have a mixture of homeschooled/Montessori schooled/Waldorf schooled/public schooled/religious schooled/charter schooled friends all my life. I think that having access to all these different perspectives on education helped me form my views of the world growing up. 

Who made the decision to unschool you?

Unschooling seemed to happen organically as I was growing up; it wasn’t really a decision at all. It developed from me being stubborn and wanting to make my own decisions about how I spent my time, and my parents were too busy, tired, and hippy-dippy to argue with me about it. 

The official decision happened when I was 16, and it was entirely my choice. My parents weren’t too thrilled but they supported me anyway. They’ve since come around, and my brother, who is ten years younger than me, is unschooled now as well. 

Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).

I started my teen years with some pretty awful mental health problems and having an extremely structured homeschool curriculum at the time helped me get through my days. I spent a few years really hitting the books with occasional breaks in between. I traveled a bit, started taking a serious interest in dance, fell in love, and discovered Not Back To School Camp and the word “unschooling.” When I was 15 I was really struggling with math, a subject that I had previously loved and found comfort in. All of a sudden the subject had become about the grades, and it wasn’t fun anymore. After attending NBTSC I decided to drop formal school entirely and just devote myself to my passions. I was in pre-professional dance training and I studied mushrooms for a while. I rented books from the local library, watched documentaries, made sketches, and kept meticulous notes on a personal blog. 

Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.

I’ve always been a bit of a loner, but that really came out in my teen years. My biggest form of social interaction with fellow teens was through dance.

Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.

I have often found myself in groups of elderly people. In my teens and 20s, it just seemed that I shared a lot of the same interests as retirees. I love knitting, gardening, hiking. I worked odd jobs with and for adults, joined a knitting group where I was the youngest by a good 50 years, and I’ve always hung out with my neighbors and parents. I also started volunteering for my local Biopark (an aquarium, zoo, botanical garden, and fishing/boating pond) when I was 16. 

Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?

Not officially. Around the age of 17 when I started applying for ‘real’ jobs I just started telling people that I was homeschooled and that I had graduated early. I was never asked to prove it or to show a copy of my diploma. 

During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?

Fiber arts, gardening, animal husbandry, dance, writing, fashion, nutrition, herbal medicine, environmentalism, composting. 

How did you make the decision to go to college?

Going to college was a very long, drawn out decision that I fought for a while. When I was in my teens I really wanted to go to college, and I was doing a lot of research into various institutions. In my later teens and early 20s I started to become very anti-college and really wanted nothing to do with it. I saw it as this ridiculous waste of money that really didn’t mean anything and certainly wouldn’t secure my happiness in life. 

When I was 21 I made the decision to start attending my local community college, and I haven’t missed a semester since. I started with one class per semester to see how I liked it and then I slowly added to my course load. I have yet to take more than three classes in a semester and I like it that way. I still have plenty of time to work and volunteer which I love to do and it allows me to remain more financially independent. 

In the end, I decided to go to school because I realized that it is a big part of the communities to which I belong, and I want to be able to share this experience with people I deeply care about. I also realize that being able to attend school at all is a privilege, and the fact that I have access to it is something I should be grateful for because there are so many who don’t. I also recognize that I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and maybe I never will, so limiting myself in the paths I can take just seems silly. Having a college degree does open doors, and as an insatiably curious person, I like all the doors. 

I’ve found that it’s really nice to have a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other type goal to work towards, especially when life gets hard and I don’t know what I’m doing. Going to community college has provided this kind of goal for me. 

What did you study?

I am unsure what degree I’d like to achieve at the end of this journey. I’m really just focusing on my general education credits right now, and trying to figure out what is most important to me. 

What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?

The transition to college was pretty easy for me, and maybe that’s because I had already had experience with more structured learning. Additionally, while I can’t say this for sure, I think that my school does not have the highest academic standards, which allows me some wiggle room to make mistakes. 

The hardest part is having to complete assignments that seem pointless and make you feel like you’re not learning anything. I’ve found ways to put my own spin on those however, and overall the experience has been pretty fun. 

Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?

I am currently making straight As in college and I definitely think my unconventional upbringing had something to do with that. Without unschooling, I wouldn’t see learning as fun and intuitive, something that is ultimately up to me. I think unschooling really teaches us that you get out of learning what you put into it, and that has been invaluable to my college education. 

Did you feel pressure to attend college?

Oh yes. The pressure to attend college came from all sides in my life. I think that’s why I rebelled against it for so long. Both my parents are college grads and the concept is especially important to my mom, who thinks you can’t have a successful life without a degree. But the pressure also came from random people on the street and at work who wanted to know what I was doing with my life. I also felt sad that all of my friends were going and I wasn’t. 

Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.

Too many. Office assistant at a media company, various food service jobs at coffee shops and chocolate shops and malls, receptionist at a dance school, arthropod handler and bugarium floor attendant (yup that was as weird as it sounds), bookkeeper/accounting assistant, personal assistant, nanny… 

What is your current job?

Office manager at an acupuncture office. 

Why did you choose your current job?

It’s a comfortable job that is still challenging, the hours fit with school and my health, the pay is livable, the experience is nice to get, and I’m learning and growing. I won’t stay here forever but it’s working out for now. 

Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?

Honestly, very few people care or even ask about my high school experience. If they do, they’re usually impressed by the fact that I was homeschooled (and therefore more self disciplined, intelligent, and self aware than most members of the public school system), and my homeschooling experience actually helps me get the job. 

What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?

You do you, but don’t ignore opportunities to try new things. Often, I think people who unschool can get into a mindset that they just never have to be uncomfortable and that’s potentially harmful. Seek out people and communities outside of unschooling so you find perspectives that are different than your own. Try things that kind of suck and if you hate it, stick it out for a little longer. Having control over your education is an amazing gift, and it allows you to get a jump start on learning about who you are and that balance between pushing yourself and setting boundaries. 

You’re free! That comes with some enormous responsibilities to yourself but it’s also so beautifully fun. 

What advice would you give to their parents?

Your kids are going to be okay. I promise. High school is not a prerequisite for life. At all. So many people were incredibly concerned about me while I was growing up, and I’m thriving. I mean, being in your 20s sucks, but I’m thriving as much as I can be. I never feel lost in conversations, or that I have huge knowledge gaps compared to my peers. I have a good job, stable relationships, good credit, straight As, and most importantly, a good relationship with myself and my growth and learning. 

Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids, don’t shield them from life. Above all else, make sure they understand that everything is a process, and that you will always love them unconditionally. 

If you choose to have children, what school/unschool experience would you want for them?

I’m still not sure that I want kids but if I do have them, they will definitely be unschooled. If they want more or less structure, I’m game for either. The only thing that’s really important to me is that they push themselves and try new things. I think it makes kids better people, and better citizens of the world. 

Are there any other thoughts you want to share?

If people aren’t given the freedom to develop, they never will. The world loses out on an individual whenever they’re forced into a mold. We need everyone to be true to themselves, especially now.  

Published: January 2020