Before I get too into the public school series, I figured it’d be useful to share my school background, so you know where I’m coming from.
I started preschool at age three. Everyone thought I was smart because I talked a lot and was outgoing. Plus, I could read well by age three and almost perfectly by four. My reading ability wasn’t due to school, but likely due to a mixture of natural ability and the fact that my mom surrounded me with books and read to me compulsively.
By age four my preschool decided I had behavioral issues. I hated sitting still. I’d get up at nap-time and run around like a crazy person, once actually slamming into a wall (ended up in the hospital with a concussion). I’d sing songs by Billy Joel and The Dead instead of little kid songs. This resulted in my mom being called in for a conference about me and my inappropriate singing.
During first grade I was placed in an advanced reading class, which actually translated into the teachers having me help tutor other kids my own age. My mom found out that I was tutoring, not actually being taught new things, and pulled me out of that school.
During second grade at my new school, the teacher put me in an average math class. Average? Up to then I’d been in all-advanced classes. When my mom asked me about school that year I told the first calculated school lie I can remember. I told her, “I’m in advanced math!” I was 7.
Of course at teacher conferences my mom found out I had lied. The fact that a 7 year old would lie, due to wanting to be seen as “smarter” really bothers me, and is a main reason I’ve never sent my son to public school. I remember how it felt to feel stupid in a class and how I felt like I had to hide it. Considering that I was only 7 years old and placed in an average, not even below average class, that’s insane.
4th-6th grade consisted of me not doing my work and all sorts of trouble. My mom was always mad at me about how bad my grades were. During standardized testing I’d test above grade average, but was pulling Cs and Ds, so the teachers were like, “You’re so smart, what’s your deal?” Most of the time during those 3 years I’d read a real book behind my school book or draw. I was bribed by the teachers with extra art classes – i.e. if I’d do my math homework I could take the special advanced art classes.
I turned in almost zero work, got really bad grades and finally they placed me in a class for kids with behavioral and learning issues. I had lots of friends, which I thought was a perk, but otherwise was bored all the time and just waiting for school to end at some point.
High school was weird for me, because again standardized testing came up. I placed not just above average but into the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program. However, I was still bored, still not doing any homework and still getting bad grades. I also started acting up specifically so I could get kicked out of class. I’d talk back, make noise and do anything I could to get out of a class. I refused to go to TAG meetings. I held onto a low grade-point average on purpose, doing just enough work so that I could act in drama productions and participate in speech and debate team.
Then I started skipping school all the time. By junior year I was skipping more than going. I dropped out at 17, before graduation.
My experience with school was, in my opinion, typical. I know tons of kids who either left school or did just enough to get by and graduate. School, for me, was a total letdown. I was seriously disenchanted with how school ran things. I hated having to ask to do everything and didn’t like that I wasn’t learning about stuff that I considered useful.
Plus, I was skeptical of their scales. For example, I did great on multiple choice exams since I test well, BUT I got mainly D’s and F’s with some good grades sprinkled in.
My sister either did not do quite as well on multiple choice exams or was simply never tested for tag thus she was not labeled “Talented and gifted” but got almost all A’s. She knew how to rock the system. She didn’t act up in class and did her homework. My best friends in high school couldn’t read well at all, but was awesome at math and art.
Of the three of us, I’d guess that the school system liked my sister the most. However, in the grand scheme of things, who is smarter? My sister? My friend? Me? Should it matter? How the school came up with these weird ways of placing kids into categories based on tests vs. the system vs. ability blew me over.
Life after school
After dropping out, I forgot about school for about ten years and got on with life. Growing up, teachers and my mom told me, “Without school and college you won’t be anything… you’ll be a nobody… you won’t get a job… you won’t make any money.” They totally lied to me. Without school I was doing way better.
I held social work jobs that paid very well. One job I got even wanted a college degree, but my life experience, not a degree, got me the job. Plus these jobs kept moving me up the ladder, thus telling me there was zero correlation between school and high responsibility positions or money making.
I had time to learn all the stuff I didn’t get to learn in school. I could read whatever I liked. I could write or draw when I wanted. I volunteered with numerous mentoring programs and other organizations. Life was way better than school.
After my son was born, I decided to go to college to become a midwife. I was a little worried because growing up, teachers and my mom said, “You’re not smart enough for college” or “Without a good grade average and high school diploma, you’ll never get into college.” More lies.
I attended a community college in California. I got a 4.o and was invited to join the honors club. I got a rare invitation to be a tutor in the school’s English lab. I had universities offering me money and scholarships to attend their RN program. Finally, I made it into a highly competitive RN program. This was the best I’d ever done in school, which I chalk up to two things.
- Learning stuff that was actually useful and related to what I wanted to do with my life.
- Me making the choice to go to school and learn vs. being forced into it.
Schools lied to me
Public schools and MANY people will tell you that you’ll be nothing without a “good” primary education. I was told this, and believed it my entire life, until I dropped out of high school and learned otherwise.
Life, experience and self-education is what got me jobs and what got me into a good university. Not early schooling. For 15 years I sat at a desk, all day long during elementary and high school and it was a complete waste of my time. It actually makes me a little sick to my stomach. What could you do with an extra 15 years of life? Seriously?
My son’s education
Of course the last thing I wanted was for my son to go through what I had experienced, and what I had seen so many other people go through. His dad agreed, having also had a miserable time in school. So we decided, even before Cedar was born that we’d homeschool. After much research we realized that homeschool was a little too much like public school for our taste and we flipped our priorities to unschooling.
For Cedar’s early life he was totally unschooled. Then when he was five we went through a, “Maybe he should go to school phase” and found a school we thought was better, a charter school based on ethics and eco-issues. For school, I considered it okay, but it was still school. There were still tests, grades, age segregation and labeling kids into groups. He was there under a year. We pulled him out and went back to FT unschooling.
When Cedar was about 7 I needed more time to work. It’s extremely hard to unschool well as a single parent who writes at home for a living. His dad and I looked and looked and luckily found a Free School that, in my opinion was like unschooling, only in a school, with other kids. Cedar’s been attending this Free School for almost 2.5 years now and couldn’t be happier. A common Cedar statement is, “Summer and weekends are the worst because there’s no school.” Ask him the best part of his day, and he’ll tell you, “School!” He’s worlds away from what I was experiencing at age nine.
That’s where I’m coming from when I talk about my issues with public school. School equals too much disappointment for too many kids. I’ve seen both sides – school vs. no school. I’ve talked to kids on both sides recently and the kids in public school express fear, worry and worse about learning while kids not in public school tend to be happier overall and aren’t discouraged about learning. I know that forced learning is nowhere near equal to learning on your own terms.
- Learn more about Democratic education.
- There’s not much great info online about Free Schools. I’d suggest reading Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood – it’s not perfect, but there’s just not much on Free Schools out there. Another good read is Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. I’ll post more resources later.
What was your school experience like? Good, bad, so-so?
Lead image ©KokomoCole / Image 2 ©Wokandapix