When did you unschool?
In what state did you "graduate?"
Describe your childhood education (through age 12).
When I was still in preschool, my mother chose to homeschool me and my older brother (who was in first grade when we left). I remember experimenting with formal curricula, but it ended up being fairly loose, a mix of whatever we found useful and interesting within the usual school subjects. Structure was relaxed, hardly school-at-home, especially since Mom quickly learned that home learning has little in common with classroom learning. There’s simply no point to sticking to a strict schedule and lifestyle when there’s only two children instead of a whole classroom.
When I was about eight, Mom learned about unschooling and we tried it. From then on I controlled most of my time and I did whatever I felt like, which usually looked nothing like school. Some things I enjoyed include playing with stuffed animals and other toys, playing video games, watching cartoons, reading books and manga (and reading as a family, which we did for years), playing with rocks, and drawing. The structure that existed was just the natural structure of life.
Describe how you interacted with other kids around your age in your childhood.
While I am the first to roll my eyes at the idea that homeschoolers lack “socialization,” this was actually a challenge. Children in school lived life so differently than us that we didn’t make a huge effort to meet them, although we did interact with them sometimes through things like church, karate, and summer camp. We did our best to meet other homeschool families, but in Alabama, many people homeschool for religious reasons, which just didn’t work well with our family. Those were the days that people thought Harry Potter — one of our favorite things — was Satanic. If one’s favorite interests are banned at other people’s houses, it’s hard to make a friend.
When we found secular groups to hang out with, the kids were all different ages since homeschool groups don’t often bother splitting the kids up by arbitrary age divisions. Adults interested me more than other kids. My father in particular is a social person, and he made friends with people around our small town. Since I was around, I met them too. Some adults were fun to talk to and some acted fake and patronizing. It is what it is.
Who made the decision to unschool you?
I think my parents made the choice together. School was clearly not working out for me or my brother, and the few other options in our small community weren’t appealing.
Describe your education in your teen years (ages 13-18).
In my teen years I settled into a nocturnal lifestyle which meant that I was up by myself and a big part of my “day” occurred after my parents went to bed. Besides that, my life was pretty much the same as when I was younger. I chose what to do with my time pretty consistently.
Describe how you interacted with other people around your age in your teen years.
By the time I was a teenager we had found the other secular homeschoolers and unschoolers in Alabama and made friends with them. They often lived in far corners of the state, but we drove to visit them fairly regularly and kept in touch via the internet too. We went to unschooling conferences a few times, and I went to Not Back to School Camp from 2009-2012. I met lots of fun people that way and kept in contact with them online (and in several cases I still do!). Distance friendship has its difficulties, and it would have been great to have more friends that lived closer, but that was just the way it was.
Describe how you interacted with people much older or younger than you during your teen years.
I met older and younger people by existing in a community, going to unschool gatherings, etc. I talked to them just like I’d talk to anybody. It’s a boring answer but there is nothing more to say about that. Nothing about those interactions seemed strange at the time, but now that I’m in college, meeting people who went to school, I can tell that my experience was unusual. I’m not afraid of the teachers and other “authority figure adults,” but many of my college friends get nervous around them.
Did you receive a high school diploma or equivalent?
Yes, I earned my GED in 2012 or so. At the time, I wasn’t planning on going to college, so my parents stressed that it was important I earn my high school equivalency to make it easier to find work. The test was doable and it made getting into college simpler. I didn’t have to explain my whole life story or why I didn’t go to high school. My application said I earned the GED and bam, ever since then no one has cared about my high school education.
During your teen years, what did you end up focusing on, working on, or learning?
In my later teens I cared about the library. The library in the next town (significantly bigger than where we lived) was nice and I was there all the time. I began volunteering there when I was about 15 or 16. In 2011 a big tornado destroyed part of the town, which meant more work at the library; that summer I worked 15 hours a week for free, which was my peak. I loved it enough that I applied to work there for money, but unfortunately I wasn’t accepted. I considered becoming a librarian, but getting a Masters in Library Sciences was too daunting at the time.
I also was interested in (and immersed in) alternative education and I did a lot of reading and thinking on the subject. Actually, I had a lot of interests, and I read and researched lots of different things.
I learned to drive and do math in this time because they were necessary. I needed to drive because it was impossible to get anywhere otherwise, and I needed to study math to pass the GED. For the other components of the GED, I took a practice test, aced it, and decided not to bother studying.
I spent most of my time on things that don’t look as good on a resume. I was interested in fandoms like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and BBC Sherlock. I browsed on tumblr for hours. I loved manga and read loads of it. I played tons of video games. I emphasize this point because many people see my adult achievements and assume that I was very scholarly as a teenage unschooler too. Some people think that I am somehow exceptionally brilliant or organized or something and that most kids would fool around all day given the chance to not go to school. If those same adults saw me as a teenager they would ask my parents what the hell they were thinking and how come they let me play on the computer so much.
How did you make the decision to go to college?
When I was 19 years old I was working at a bingo hall near my hometown (my dad worked with the owner and got me employed). After a few months I decided it was time for a change. I felt awkward just quitting and going back home to do “nothing.” I felt like if I had started working I shouldn’t be allowed to stop (which isn’t true, but it’s the way I felt), so I decided to give college a try. I enrolled at the community college near me, which my brother was already attending. During my first semester I took just one class to see how it was. I thought it was fun, so I decided to stay.
What did you study?
It took a long time to choose a major because there are so many, and so many of them sounded fun. Around halfway through my first year, a friend was learning American Sign Language and it seemed cool, so I started to learn too. I was picking it up okay and I found out that I could major in ASL interpreting at another school in the state. I transferred to that school, but I could only take one ASL class at a time, so I declared a minor in History to fill my schedule.
Once I finished the minor, I realized that I didn’t enjoy interpreting work and I missed studying History. It was a very hard choice, and I didn’t and still don’t have a new career plan, but I decided to ditch the interpreting program and switch to History. I graduate this May with my BA in History, with ASL as my minor.
What was the hardest part of the transition to college? What was the easiest part?
I came to college with a very different view of school than that of my peers. For example, I assumed that since going to college is a choice, that everyone would show up to every class, actually do their best on all the assignments, etc. I did this and I realized that I was suddenly a star student, outperforming the majority of my peers. Other students were the most baffling element of college for a while.
I also found that I kind of missed doing unschool-y stuff, like learning random things and doing projects for fun. It’s hard to find time for that stuff when I’m busy doing school. Now that I’m near graduation I fantasize a lot about the ways I’ll continue my learning on my own, even though I love school.
I guess the easiest part was that I hadn’t been traumatized by school. I found something to enjoy in almost all my required general education classes. I recognized teachers as just adults instead of scary authority figures, so I was more comfortable asking for and finding help.
Do you feel like your unconventional upbringing made getting into college more easy, more difficult, or both?
Getting into college was easy because I chose a community college. As far as I’m aware they do not reject any applicants and the admission process wasn’t complicated. My transfer school is a public state school, which is currently trying to grow, so it was hardly selective. Besides, since I was a transfer student, the process was even simpler. Applicants with a 2.0 GPA or higher were unconditionally accepted. I had a 4.0 at my community college. I never had to take the SAT or ACT at any point.
My admission to college had nothing to do with my unschooling history. I don’t really relate to the tales of unschoolers working hard to wow some selective admissions board.
Did you feel pressure to attend college?
Oh hell yeah. For a while I didn’t think I would ever go to college. While my immediate family was pretty chill about that choice, it often felt like everyone else and their grandma’s dog had something to say about it. Many people are just accustomed to talking to young people about school and college and they didn’t know what to do in the absence.
One time my grandfather asked me if I was thinking about college. I said “Nope.” He said “Well, okay!” and left it alone. Wish everyone had done that, lol.
Despite all that, going to school was my choice, not anybody else’s.
Describe the kinds of jobs you’ve had in life so far.
I worked in the library, as I mentioned earlier, which was rewarding in every way except the money kind of reward. If they’d given me a paycheck I probably never would have left. One time my dad somehow roped me into being his receptionist (he is self-employed) and I hated it the entire time. I was probably his worst employee ever.
I was 19 when I worked at the bingo hall. The bingo hall was open 24/7, had a bunch of gambling machines, and free drinks and snacks for the customers. I worked from 11 at night until 7AM serving snacks to all six people that gamble at those hours. It was boring and there was secondhand smoke.
What is your current job?
Nothing, I just go to school.
Did your unconventional upbringing make it easier or more difficult to find paid work?
I have no idea. I got my only real job (at the bingo hall) because of my dad.
What advice would you give to someone beginning their unschooling/alternative schooling journey?
When you unschool, don’t feel the need to cram every hour with stuff. In school, they have to have you there for a certain length of time, so they give you stuff to do no matter what. Plus, schools have to control big groups of kids and balance a huge variety of needs and abilities. When you’re in school, the school system’s time wasting habits waste YOUR time personally. As soon as you leave, you get all that time back.
If you’re in high school now, drop out and get a GED as soon as you can. The GED takes one day to do and you can study for it for an hour or two every day. Meanwhile high school wastes time for four years. I tell my college friends about it now and they often say, “Geez, why didn’t I think of that?!” It ain’t too late for you!! The GED is exactly the same as a high school diploma but doesn’t require you to squander your time. The only real reason I could think of to stay in high school would be if you’re interested in college and need a good scholarship. Even then, I would recommend researching an alternative.
I’ve met other unschoolers who want to go to college, but worry that they’ll be “behind” all the other students because they didn’t go to school. I haven’t found this to be true. Many of the other, conventionally-schooled students seemed to find college difficult or have issues with the transition from high school (in a lot of ways, college is another world). Some of them don’t know how to study effectively and some don’t have certain academic knowledge. Most of them were in school for 12+ years, so you’d think after all that time they’d have something over me. They don’t. Everything that I’ve needed at college was either something that I had learned naturally by existing in the world, it was literally being taught to me (lots of college students complain that the freshman courses feel like a repeat of high school but that worked to my advantage), or it was easy to pick up on my own.
There’s this timeline that people hold on to. You’re supposed to go to high school until you’re 17, go to college right away, finish a degree in four years (hah, as if), start a Career™, get married, have children, work and raise the kids til you’re 65, then retire. Throw that entire timeline in the trash. It’s worthless. Do whatever you want whenever you feel like it. Some people won’t like that because they are invested in this timeline for some reason or they don’t understand how to relate to people without it. Their reactions don’t matter. The sooner you realize how worthless the timeline is, the sooner you can do stuff at YOUR pace and prioritize your own happiness over a list of arbitrary tasks.
What advice would you give to their parents?
Learning can look like anything, so chill out if the kids look unproductive. This is especially true for younger kids (their business is to play) or for any kid that has just been taken out of school (they are in the middle of a major transition and need time to relax and find out what their life will grow into without school). My mom and dad looked for the good in my and my brother’s interests, even if they were unconventional or not “school-y.” Even now I remember how uplifted and respected it made me feel. Because they treated all my interests as something worth spending time on instead of something silly or wasteful, I actually benefited from everything I was interested in.
The only thing that was actually a waste of time? When my parents would give into anxiety that maybe me and my brother wouldn’t turn out right after all because we hadn’t been made to do anything “educational,” so they would try to do formal lessons. They were boring and pointless. Everyone hated them. They came from a place of fear. Don’t do that.
By the way, I hear parents talking about “screens,” as in “do you limit your kids’ screen time?” Consider what it would be like if we all got concerned about “paper” and creating such concepts as “paper time” and you’ll see how stupid the discussion is. Screens are just pieces of plastic with lights in them. We use them to look at things. What are we looking at? Could be anything. Just because your mom and dad said TV rots your brain doesn’t mean you have to believe them.
There are times when parents should step in and intervene — for instance, if kids experience mental health challenges, or if they get involved with obviously harmful activities. But that requires paying attention and staying connected to the kids, not controlling their lives with a random schedule without their consent or deciding that their interests aren’t worthwhile.
I never want to give the impression that parents should leave their kids alone no matter what, even in actual dangerous situations. I also don’t want to give a parent license to be controlling for no reason. I guess my overall point is the classic remark that “unschooling is not unparenting.” You can and should be involved and connected with your kids without controlling them all the time or creating a sense of guilt, anxiety, and judgment.
If you choose to have children, what school/unschool experience would you want for them?
They can pick it. It’s not about me, it’s about them. From my friends’ stories, school sounds pretty horrifying, and I’d probably have hated it at one point or other (especially middle school… yikes) but if my kids see something of value there, that’s their choice. The best thing about unschooling is its flexibility; it’s child led and based on choices and interest. So if school becomes an interest and a choice, that would be fine.
Are there any other thoughts you want to share?
Back at the community college, I took a class on child development for a psychology credit. The professor was this old geezer who had been working with young children for years and years. One day he started class by asking us about the games we’d played as kids. “It’s a beautiful day, you and your friends are outside, and you’re doing what?” People named all kinds of games and toys and it turned into the class reminiscing and our teacher making funny comments about the stuff we brought up.
Eventually he said, “It was great, right? Y’all really enjoyed all that stuff, right?” Well, yeah. “You had…what? Fun!” He writes on the board: “The importance of play: 1) Fun.” He said that even if the only function of play was having fun, play would still be extremely important for development. Fun is critical.
It stuck with me, you know? Anyway, unschooling is pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me, right after being born.
Published: April 2020