Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Angry Unschoolers

Have you ever met any of those unschoolers who, as soon as they get an opportunity, will launch into a diatribe about their kids' misfortunes at school, or the wrong-headed and morally repugnant beginnings of our current system? They don't just look for opportunities – they even create them. They have stories about pain and terror; a hurt and twisted look in their eyes as if they know you'll bite at any moment. And they have so. many. facts! They have read all the research and they know they are right! And they have solutions that sometimes sound more like black bloc tactics or tear-gas shooting than anything really useful or accessible at all. They're really just angry. Angry unschoolers.

Some of us avoid them because they give unschoolers a bad name. But many of us are them. I am.

We began unschooling because I could see that my eldest child would be as unserved by the school system as I was: He's creative, shy, extremely sensitive and his moral convictions are strong. Also like me, he abhors taking direction. He didn't learn to read until I stopped trying to encourage him, and then he just quickly taught himself. Moreover, he actually rejected books for many months in an effort to thwart my reading encouragement. I saw in him the same drive to be self-sufficient that I have, and didn't want to send him into the system that had failed me so badly.

And it did fail me. For all the wonderful things that happened for me in school, for the various teachers who worked tirelessly with me and on my behalf, and for those who even genuinely loved me, nobody was able to allow me to teach myself. Nobody was able to make me safe on the school ground, or even in the classroom while under supervision. Nobody was able to teach me that I had an intrinsic value unrelated to grades and competition. I never felt like I mattered, until grade eleven, when out of sheer angry rebellion I decided to write and paint and science however I wanted. I did it with abandon… and was rewarded for it in grades and scholarships. I graduated indignant and angry and without respect for the institution that had raised me. And when I became a parent I still carried that anger.

No way in hell was I going to enroll my beloved son in a school – the exact same school, no less – that had left me so broken. Nor would I let his passions be crushed by well-meaning people who thought they knew better than he did what he needed from life. I tried out an alternative homeschooling support program for a year, and then cut straight to free-range unschooling. Ironically, I was so angry about my own childhood that some of that anger haunted my parenting. I didn't want my son telling me what to do anymore than I wanted my teachers telling me what to do, and I attempted many times to coral or redirect his activities. I also fell victim to the common crime of competitive parenting, and pushed him to do things he didn't want to do out of fear that he may not measure up to his peers. Like reading. He pushed back harder, and every single time I pushed, I failed, and he was bombarded by my anger. I made him feel like he failed. And every time I backed off, he excelled – at his own passions.

It took me many years to feel like I was parenting from a place of inspiration instead of fear and anger, and I'm still not where I'd like to be. I know that the struggle to overcome my childhood anger will take the rest of my life, and I am not writing this now from a place of righteous conclusion. I'm writing from a place of desperate searching. Because I see how harmful the anger is, and I want to overcome it.

The trouble is, it's hard to overcome something when it's still serving a purpose. Revolutions are often kickstarted by anger. An angry population finally gets pushed so far that it pushes back. And that's what's been happening with unschooling. Enough of us have been failed badly enough by the school system that we've rejected it in anger – and while out here in the wilderness blindly feeling our way around, thrashing out at our fears and constantly seeking new pathways around the ever-appearing obstacles – we are finding something beautiful.

It happens in those little moments when we're tromping through the woods and see the many years of our children's faces all in one brief smile and we're grateful to have those shared memories. It happens when we accidentally lose a day playing Minecraft with our kids and then discover we gained more than we lost. It happens when we see our kids confront the things we are deathly afraid of with bravery, wisdom, and integrity. It happens when we discover they are actually not even afraid. It happens when we realize that our anger led us to this place of great freedom and discovery, and now we can leave the anger behind.

Unschooling is such a fighting word. I tried to use 'life-learning' for a while but it didn't work out. People know what unschooling means, and I think that's because it's still too new of a movement to move beyond its angry roots. The majority of children are still stuck in the school system, not knowing there are other opportunities. So, as more and more people use fear or anger to hurtle themselves out onto this new way of raising kids, the anger is still serving us. But things are changing. Our own province is implementing a new curriculum that values broad ideas and personal development over specific fact-based learning. Other countries and districts are opening up in other ways, with mixed-age groupings, mixed-subjects and even no subjects, with online and cross-enrolled courses, outdoor learning, and with various forms of self-direction. I have seen various projects conceived by myself or other unschoolers and non-coercive educators be implemented in mainstream school programs. So unschooling philosophy and experience is already influencing mainstream education. It may not be that the recent growth in unschooling leads to a majority of kids being unschooled, but rather that it feeds everything we learn back into a better system.

Sometimes I feel like a lighthouse out here. The whole reason we're here is because there was something to fear - something to warn others about and to shine light on a safer option. There is still all kinds of danger crashing around us like angry waves, but we just stick it out. And as a bonus we get to be right out here in all the storms, right out here in all the sunrises and rainbows and just feeling and living and loving all of it.

I don't mind the loneliness that comes with being a maverick. I love being out here on the edge, watching my kids benefit from all the wonder and excitement of trailblazing. This feeling of joy is what allows me to leave the anger behind, so I'm just going to keep on feeling it. Anger certainly serves a purpose as an instigator of ingenuity, but it's time for those of us who have already made the leap to be fueled by joy and inspiration, instead.

Solidarity to those of you just stepping into this world. And to the rest of us: Party on!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mothering, Employment and Worth

Photo by Kim Weedmark.
My friend gave me this photo a few days ago. She came along as a parent helper with her older son's Wild Art outing, and she brought her younger sons along, too. This is me dumping some of the creek out of one of her sons' boots, as he said "you need to dump it out, but not on my leg. You need to dump it over there."

When I saw this photo I felt so happy. That's something I can almost never say about a photo of myself, so when it happens it feels amazing. And I had to think for a while about why this moment was so wonderful to me, or this photo of me in my muddy rain gear dumping out a child's boots.

Then I realized: It's not just muddy rain gear. That is the muddy rain gear that I wear when I take people adventuring in the wet wilderness. That mud is my badge of joy. It's not just any water. That is some of the creek that filled up so much it ran out and filled the trails in the meadow. That is the creek these kids know as part of their home, and I have had the enormous privilege of sharing their experiences of getting to know it. It's not just any child - it's a boy I've been adventuring with many times, and I adore him. There are moments of his wonder-filled face etched in the crevices of my brain, so that when I walk through certain areas I will think of him, just like when I paint a certain way I will think of other people I've painted with, or when I climb a certain tree I will think of the people who first climbed that tree with me. Now when I dump out boots I will remember his deliberate instructions to not dump it on his leg - always.

I have had difficulty finding work for a few months, and on top of the financial woes that situation brings, I've been feeling worthless. It's easy to slip into worthlessness when mothering. Even though you know your presence is needed, it doesn't always feel that way. And when your kids are as old as mine are, and they don't even really need you to cook for them, they want rides but you know it's better for them to transport themselves, they don't particularly want your loving advice, and you don't want to alienate them with criticism, but you find yourself doing it anyway... then you might become lost. I was so lost. And as my employment dried up over the last year it felt like the world had conspired to remind me that I was unneeded. I couldn't even bring home an income, let alone be of value to somebody.

Luckily I did have a job lined up, and it began last week. It's only once (sometimes twice) per week, but it's my work. It's a job I've created out of my own passion and I love my work. I love going out in the woods and beaches and meadows and creeks and just launching myself full-force into impassioned exploration and discovery. I love coming back to a warm cup of tea and my richly inspiring studio and either creating what my heart feels, or sharing a wonderful material exploration with others. I love sharing these experiences with other people. I love my work! And now I realize: I love that I have work. I love that there is something I can do that brings the joy I experience into reach for other people. I love that even if it's just because somebody needed his boots dumped out, I made a difference.

There's nothing like a few months without plumbing or potable water to make you realize how much you treasure the clean water. There's nothing like returning to work after a time of employment drought to remind you that you deserve to exist in the world.

Thank you, world, for making a space for me and the work I love to do. Thank you, parents, for trusting me to take your kids gallivanting in the wild and in the art. Thank you, adventurers young and adult, for tromping into wildernesses with me. And thank you Kim, for taking the photo that unlocked all this gratitude.

I guess I needed the opportunity to work again to renew my spirit. But I also needed some extra time to process what had happened. Until I saw this photo I didn't even realize what had been missing in my life. I guess more time is always a good thing. My young friend gave me some advice on that, too:

"You need to bring the clock with more minutes. How many minutes does your clock have?"

"Sixty," I replied, uncertainly.

"Next time you should bring the one with a hundred."