Molly Norris



Current country

United States

When did you unschool?


In what state did you "graduate?"


Describe your childhood education (through age 12).

I was in preschool for about three months before my mom was told I wasn’t mature enough for preschool. My memory of that time was that I struggled with authority and didn’t understand arbitrary rules (like “do a different activity at this time”). I was the youngest of four children and my parents were frustrated with public school, so my mom decided to home/unschool me. My parents encouraged me to study certain subjects, but I was largely left up to my own devices. I spent a lot of my time drawing and reading and deep-diving into subjects that interested me. Occasionally I would follow a workbook curriculum. We did lots of activities such as 4-H and dance/theatre classes and were involved in a local homeschool social group that met up frequently for field trips or play time. 

As I grew older I frequently clashed with my parents on the subject of math. It just didn’t interest me, but I felt a lot of external social pressure to be good at it. Eventually math was giving me significant anxiety and it didn’t hold my attention despite a lot of effort. We tried lots of tactics, including formal homeschooling, but they all ended in frustration and, when my parents were involved, conflict between me and them. 

Around age 13 I expressed interest in taking art classes (art had always been an interest of mine) and my parents supported me in registering for a drawing class at the local community college. I also expressed interest in taking a remedial basic math course at the college, as I was frustrated with my lack of progress and I thought structure might help. It did help, and I finished my math education through community college classes. 

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

We were part of a local homeschooling group and I was in dance and 4H. I met many other children in our community and neighborhood through classes, through our parents connecting, or just through the fact that we lived on the same street and would play outside together. I would say my social life was robust.

Who made the decision to unschool you?

My parents. I asked to go to school around age six and they refused. I asked again to go to community college at age 13 and they supported that decision.

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

At age 13 I took community college art and math classes on a part time basis. At that time, we relocated from a small town to the city of Portland, Oregon. We explored many options for my high school education, including private school, but eventually we settled on a charter school that offered me the option of attending community college classes for my high school credits. The charter school contributed financially, covering about 75% of the cost of my Associate’s degree. The credits I needed for my High School diploma were covered by essentially the same courses I needed for an Associate’s degree. At this community college, I became involved in behind the scenes theatre work which sparked what would ultimately become my career. 

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

Shortly before moving from our small town to Portland, I was NOT in a good space socially. I had recently realized I was queer identified and I had started to grow rapidly in a very different direction from my friends, both personally and politically (and for a queer person I will note those two items are tightly linked). I had endured a lot of damaging rhetoric around me as my state voted on (and ultimately against) gay marriage. I was struggling with untreated mental illness worsened by my isolation. 

Shortly after moving from our small town to Portland I attended Not Back to School Camp for the first time. Portland was a fresh start in a more progressive place and NBTSC firmly seated me in a brand new group of friends — a handful of them were local, but the rest were spread around the country. I started to travel on my own to visit them. I also hung out with local camp friends and I began to make friends with other queer teens through a queer youth resource center called SMYRC. I also ultimately did volunteer activism work through them. The internet was also a huge part of my social life as a teen. I stayed connected with other teens I knew IRL, but also connected with teens I did not know IRL… yet. I was active on a feminist internet forum and it was there that I met the person who ultimately, after we met in person, would become my long term partner. 

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

I went to community college surrounded by adults, and my upbringing as an unschooler resulted in me being precocious around adults. I viewed myself as being amongst them and not inferior to them. I always have and always will enjoy learning from those older than me, and that includes being critical of them and learning what not to do rather than simply taking them at their word.  I babysat younger children for extra income as a teen. As an adult have no interest in having kids of my own and I don’t seek out time with children.

Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?

I did, through my charter school. I was supposed to have a high school diploma on file before my Associate would be awarded, but in a baffling (because the rules seemed so strict) but not surprising (because it turns out there is a lot of flexibility inside an institution if you dig far enough) turn of events my Associate degree was awarded about a week before my high school diploma was, and I was never asked for it. My Associate allowed me to transfer to a four year university and the piece of paper itself is languishing inside a drawer somewhere.

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

Queer education and activism, small non-profit leadership, and technical theatre.

How did you make the decision to go to college?

I don’t remember ever questioning it. College was always part of the plan.

What did you study?

I have a BFA in theatre arts with a technical emphasis.

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

My transition to college was slow since I started taking classes at a young age. When I moved away from home to a four year college, the strangest part was that I was already significantly more comfortable with the college experience than everyone else on my dorm floor.

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

I feel like the college I chose to attend was inherently easy to get into. I don’t think my upbringing would have made it harder, unless perhaps if math SAT scores had been a requirement.

Did you feel pressure to attend college?

I always planned to go to college. I’m not sure if I would have received pushback if I’d opted to not go. I imagine I would have been pressured if I didn’t have a good alternative plan.

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

Stage technician, stage carpenter, non-union production assistant, union assistant stage manager and union production stage manager.

What is your current job?

AEA (union) stage manager at a large regional theatre company.

Why did you choose your current job?

Personal interest and passion combined with a good fit for my personality and skillset.

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

I had the time and opportunity to start working professionally at age 16, and I think that gave me the freedom to get a jump start on my career. I also graduated undergrad at age 20, so I was ahead of most people my age.

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

While my experience was largely positive I found that I sometimes got sucked into a culture of perfectionism in unschooling. I felt a lot of pressure from this community to be self-motivated, to begin and complete original projects, and to otherwise exceed expectations. As I moved ahead of other traditionally educated teens my age I was frequently praised by adults for being smart and talented in a way that ultimately gave me anxiety. Try to not let the pressure of no-structure turn back on itself and create a cage you must live in. Question the “productivity” rhetoric that capitalism reinforces. Don’t worry if you find you do need a structured school environment to learn — but know there are more options than just going back to traditional public school.

What advice would you give to their parents?

I would give them the same advice I’d give their kids. See above.

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

I don’t want kids, but in a hypothetical world where I did, it would depend entirely on my financial circumstances. Given my career and the economy, I frankly can’t imagine not sending them to school until they were old enough to be independent. Regardless of how their education happened I would want more social learning than I received. I wish I had learned more about justice, gender, race, my own whiteness, and a critical history of the world. I would hope to provide the least authoritarian environment possible.

Are there any other thoughts you want to share?

Homeschooling and unschooling is an incredibly privileged upbringing. I love that we celebrate it, but I also want us to be less defensive about its imperfections. My personal experience being unschooled in a small town in Oregon meant that I was raised in a progressive but very, very white bubble, and my progressive white parents did not nudge me in the direction of learning about race in America. Would school have done a better job? Probably not, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do better as unschoolers. I had a steep learning curve as an adult to tackle this.

Fun fact: after I reached adulthood my mom became a preschool teacher, which was a direct result of her experience educating me.

Published: January 2020