Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Being Different

Math with rats at the Phantom Rickshaw.
This post is inspired by the recent experience of a girl I don't know - a six-year-old homeschooler who was called out for not being in school during school hours, and told, right in front of her father, that that was not right, and she should have someone other than her parents teaching her. The girl was distraught.

Shall I list off the ignorant, often prejudiced comments my kids have been subjected to during our 6 years of unschooling? Why yes, I think I shall, because it's a relief to share, and maybe some of you can relate. Here are the major ones, off the top of my head:
  • Don't you get sick of always being with your Mum?
  • You don't have any friends.
  • You must be stupid since you don't learn anything.
  • You must be really a genius, because you're learning about that, and I'm not. (Followed by "I don't know anything you know, so don't tell me about it", and stomping off.)
  • Do you homeschool because you have a learning disability?
  • You homeschool? I didn't know you were a Christian! (We're not religious at all, for the record.)
  • How will you ever get a job?
  • You know people will bully you if you tell them you're unschooled.
  • Isn't homeschooling illegal?
  • Can you read?
  • Etc.
Of course, this doesn't include the multitude more comments I've received, personally, or which my children probably didn't tell me about, or which I can't remember. They also have been criticized for the clothing they wear, for not believing in God, for our family's painted car, my son for his long hair, for wearing gumboots in the city, for wanting to understand too much about science demonstrations, and even for having allergies (by people who actually told them that allergies don't exist, and fed them food they're allergic to, so that I could deal with the subsequent days of reactions). And on one memorable occasion, as the kids and I were seated in the local bank filling out their forms, together, on the day they got their first savings accounts, we were pulled from our activity by our local police officer. He glared at the three of us, cleared his throat loudly so that we all looked up from our forms, and snapped so that everyone in the bank could hear: "Shouldn't you be in school?"

"No." I said, glancing at the clock behind him. "Because my children are unschooled, and because, even if they did go to school, school was out at least 20 minutes ago." My kids grinned at me, the cop apologized, and left with pink cheeks. I later told my kids that if I'd really had my wits about me, I would have reminded him that we do not yet live in a police state, and that even if they did attend school and even if school had been in session, it is my right to pull my kids out without his permission.

We went home with a little righteous pleasure, and also a little flustered and grumpy. I shared the story with many people, because I think I needed to feel validated. Am I doing the right thing?

This is why criticism hurts - because it digs at our convictions and makes us question them.We all want to feel the arms of our social support system around us, but I think that, although we know these experiences hurt, they also help us grow stronger. We need to question our convictions! We need to re-ask the questions we think we've already answered. Maybe one day it will be right for our kids to go to school, or to try the foods they've avoided for years, or to cut their hair and get a regular job. But meanwhile, one of the greatest lessons my kids are getting from being unschooled is that of diversity. They tread the waters between their schooled, homeschooled, half-schooled, and unschooled friends, of many different ages, interests, and backgrounds, and my kids have the benefit of learning earlier than many others that there is nothing unusual or threatening about this natural diversity. I love that!

I also love that in every ignorant question is an opportunity to teach somebody. In journeying down this little-traveled path, we have the privilege of being able to report back from the front; of forging the way for others, and of pulling down some of the hurdles before they get to them. We make mistakes and tell about them, so that others can feel reassured, and maybe both we and they can avoid some of the same pitfalls, later on. That feels really good.

When I was a little girl my teacher told my mother that I was "different". That was a death-knell for my self-esteem at the time, but I credit it for my courage, now. It also provided a bit of a cushion between my ego and the incessant threats and teasing I endured. I was put in the Special Needs Enrichment Program (later called the Challenge Program), which as far as I knew meant I just had a big learning problem. People told me I was smart, but all my report cards said I was not working up to my potential. When I was a teenager I actually asked my mother if I was, as we called it then, "mentally retarded". She couldn't understand why on earth I thought that. I have come out of my childhood with a slow-growing understanding that first of all, I am not stupid (this still amazes me), and that I am not even particularly "different". I found my many tribes, and a few close and treasured friends, and that too feels really good. I'm glad to pass this gift of experience on to my children, who are, themselves, different, both from every body else, from each other and from me.

So bring on the odd questions, assumptions and prejudices, World! We don't mind answering, and we'll try to do it with compassion, because sharing is wonderful.

And of course it sometimes hurts. But luckily it turns out that my kids are not sick of me, and my arms are waiting when the pain of ignorant criticism gets them down.


  1. Dear Rickshaw and kids, I am so happy to read your post today, it was like reading about my own experience of unschooling my kids. We only started a year ago (my kids are 7, 9 and 11 now), and we are finally getting into a good routine. However, the ignorance of the people around us has taken it to a new level, and my husband and I have been reported to the Child Protective Services for our choices.

    One of the comments in the report was that we were encouraging our children to "play their way through life" - where my response was: "H*** YEAH" :-D

    Keep up the posting, love reading about your experiences!

    Best regards,
    Mona in Denmark (Europe).

  2. You should leave Walmart's name out of this post. The mom who reported the incident to HS-Van was not even a first hand witness to the conversation. We do not know what the cashier actually said, and as such, you are tarnishing the business for no reason.

  3. You are right, Anonymous. I took the reference "at Wal---" out of the post. However I do think that the store in question can take it. The fact that it happened there is no more remarkable than if it had happened at any other location. There are people everywhere who feel they are helping by telling others how to live their lives, and most of those people are employed at some location or another. In fact, I do plenty of advice-giving on this blog, myself, and I expect and assume that people will take it or leave it. When the advice amounts to a character assassination, that's different, of course, and often it's hurtful. It would be nice if those of us giving advice could learn to offer it with compassion and a distinct lack of judgement, but what I hope to do with this blog post is to bolster the self-esteem of those of us who encounter a lot of well-meaning advice-givers, and to remind us all (myself included) that others' opinions are only that - opinions. And we can grow and learn from them with confidence, if we choose to.

  4. Amen, sista! Tell it like it is! From a fellow unschooling mama on HS-Van. I can be identified by my huge butt and my love of sundaes!

  5. It's sad that judgement so often fills the spot where curiosity is supposed to go.
    Great post. love the pics of sowing the oats.


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