Sunday, June 30, 2019

How to Unschool Graduation

For a number of years in our household, there's been discussion about whether or not to graduate - to get the diploma - to take a bunch of required courses and jump a hoop of our culture's pre-determined life-trajectory. The debate has mostly been among the parents, because neither of our children has been very willing to consider non-graduation. We know that it's possible to apply to university as a "homeschooler", and enter without a high school diploma, but I think our kids want to prove to themselves that they can achieve what the mainstream offers. Still maybe not in a wholly mainstream way. So I'm delighted to announce that our son just unschooled graduation!

Taliesin in the crowd of graduates.
Maybe it's a bit of an oxymoron to say one can graduate from unschooling, because it is, after all, a philosophy of self-directed life-long learning. But you sure can self-direct your grad celebration and the way you choose to create and cross a threshold, and these fabulous humans did so!

Taliesin receiving a joyful hug from his principal.

Our kids have attended Windsor House School these past three years. Windsor House is a democratic public school that was founded, run, and then held in integrity for nearly fifty years by Helen Hughes. The school's slogan is "room to grow and be yourself", and the school's staff and community lives up to this in every action they take or choose not to take. They accept all students as they are without condition. They don't give grades. They encourage creativity. They don't discriminate. They respect students' identities and choices, whatever they may be. They don't coerce. Ever. So Windsor House is a school full of unschoolers.

Helen Hughes, founder of Windsor House, receiving a standing ovation.
At Windsor House students are empowered to make their own choices, and to be accepted no matter what those choices are. At Windsor House you can spend all day every day drawing pictures, gaming, or playing basketball, and instead of trying to diversify your activities, teachers will celebrate you and encourage you, including when you finally move on to a new pursuit. If you come to school only twice a week or don't come to school for months at a time that's OK too. When you don't do any provincially-mandated academics for years at a time and then decide you want to earn a graduation diploma, teachers will help you make up all those academics you need for credit. At Windsor House there is no dress-code, and no gender grouping. All toilets are always for all genders. There's nobody going to tell you what to do, and there's a culture of non-violent communication that lives organically between staff and students, held up by respect and a practice of good, deep, thoughtful conversation. It's not unusual for people to stay or return to Windsor House as adults. The principal is the daughter of the founder, who attended Windsor House herself, and now runs it with an abundance of passion, love, integrity and creativity, being connected with, loving and supportive of every single human from Kindergarten to adulthood. At Windsor House you can choose or create your own pathway, and you will be celebrated for doing so. Including for graduation.

Our son Taliesin wasn't originally going to graduate this year, since it was technically his grade eleven year, but he had nearly all the required credits already, so when he heard in late March that Windsor House is closing, he decided to add a couple of courses to his roster and finish early. He wanted to get his high school diploma, but didn't want to attend a large mainstream high school for just one year. So since making this decision in early April, he worked tirelessly - many hours nearly every single day - to finish the courses he needed for credit. It was definitely hard work, exhausting, and at times felt like meaningless drudgery, but I think it was nice for him to discover that he can, in fact, pull off the kind of school-work that his mainstream friends do.

Taliesin enjoying grad his way - outside, hanging with a good friend.
There were just over twenty Windsor House graduates this year, and they each had unique stories. Some students have completed our province's graduation requirements and some haven't. Some were graduating as "adult grads" and at least one graduated "early". Some took the grad stage for the first time; some had been there before, but chosen to come back, do more school, grow a little more, and graduate again. And again! This is what graduation looks like when you self-direct it. It's a celebration of the achievements you determined for yourself were important, and a threshold on to the next stage of your self-determined journey.

"...has successfully completed their self-directed education at Windsor House..."
Those receiving actual high school graduation diplomas will receive them by post once all the grades are received by the Ministry of Education, but this certificate may be the most meaningful one to many.
 And let's talk about grad traditions: the caps and gowns and diplomas and cap-throwing; the prom and the speeches and all. the. excitement. This class self-directed those, as well. The group of kids who organized this event sourced the venue, the attire, the decorations, food and even advice from their community. They rented a hall that isn't normally rented for such occasions but was perfect for the event, with a stage, gorgeous sound and party lights, disco ball and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And in their neighbourhood. My mother and a couple of friends provided the enormous number of fabulous flowers for the event, cut fresh from their gardens. The grads got mortarboard caps from a local university's recent 50th anniversary celebration, and we redecorated them with purple ribbon, because purple is, fittingly, Windsor House's school colour. They found gowns for everyone who wanted to wear them - some were borrowed, some where home-made, and some were the death-eater costumes from the school's recent Very Potter Musical performance. The food was potluck, and some generous soul ordered in pizza late in the night! The graduation speech was not given by an elected valedictorian, but by a student who felt she wanted to speak. The kids announced at the end of the ceremonies that they would now flip their tassels to the other side, and throw their caps - and they did! Most kids didn't arrive with corsages and boutonnieres, but at the end of the night they dismantled the flower arrangements and flowed out the doors holding gorgeous bouquets and bedecked in various creative ways with the flowers from their prom. Not every Windsor House class has chosen to carry on these cultural traditions, but this one did. And when you choose it, you own it. They did everything in their own, gorgeous, unique styles! And it was fabulous.

These wonderful humans will continue going on to the rest of their lives; some to work and travel and explore, some to continue being involved with Windsor House activities, and some to post-secondary education. Every single day is, of course, a threshold to the rest of our lives. Every day we wake up and choose how we're going to engage; how we're going to move in one direction or another. There truly is no right or wrong way; no right or wrong speed at which to reach any milestones. And there are no mandatory milestones. We are who we were born to be, and unschooling allows us to live in that truth.

*graduation ceremony photos by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude
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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Everything is More Tender

We become hardened, as parents. I tell you the good stories first, and if I share the struggles I finish with something hopeful or I say it's no big deal. When my kids excel I play it down so as not to seem too proud, and when they fail I heartlessly tell them it's a great learning opportunity while giving only small recognition to their grief. I don't do this for you; I do it to keep my own face brave. I keep telling myself every day that we're doing fabulously, until I believe it. I do it to keep the fear at bay.

Remember when our babies were tiny and we thought we might asphyxiate them if we rolled over in the night and smothered them with the blankets or with our own enormous breasts? We woke terrified that they'd stopped breathing or fallen out of the bed. Or we walked extra carefully to ensure we didn't drop them, or when they were toddlers to ensure their little feet didn't trip as they became accustomed to the rhythm of walking.   

When they got older we gave them more freedoms and slowly our fears abated until we learned to let them go. They rode bicycles. They gallivanted in the city and they trekked through the woods. They climbed too high and they crashed - sometimes hard - and they recovered and we saw that they were OK. We let go and we forgot they were still our babies. We forgot that they were fragile.

Taliesin sleeping off his concussion with his cat, Blackberry.
Today I heard a very simple piano melody on the radio and I broke down crying in my car, because now that sound is the sound of my son's fragility. Two weeks ago, and just two weeks before his graduation ceremony, my seventeen-year-old fell out of his bed. It's a loft bed, and his floor is wooden. He remembers falling into the alleyway of his dream, and then woke on his floor with a nosebleed. He is now recovering very slowly from his first serious concussion. I've never had to deal with this before, and didn't know what to expect, so when the doctor told him he'd have to stop attending classes, stop using computers, stay away from bright lights and generally rest his brain, I worried about his graduation, but figured he'd be fine. I hardened myself. 

I figured he'd wake up feeling better the next morning, and within a few days he'd return to school. But the next morning he went to play piano, and found that he couldn't remember how. I gave him a smoothie and in a blur he knocked it over with his elbow. I acted like nothing had happened, and I hardened myself more. His cat slept on him for two days, and didn't leave his side for at least one more.

He went back to the piano and tried again. His fingers couldn't find the notes. He was frustrated but remembered a few of the tunes he normally plays for leisure, and tried haltingly to pick them out, until he wandered away looking defeated. He lay back in the darkness of his room and closed his eyes. I watched him laying there, wondering who my son would become; how this would change him. I never realized how much it meant to me just to see him enjoying himself making music, and suddenly it was gone. 
The next day, out of sheer boredom, he sat down at the piano again and found that he could pick out a few notes of one of the songs he likes to play. By evening he could play a few melodies, and after about five days of dedicated practice, he not only regained the ability to play two parts at once, but composed a new piece, that apparently "just came to him"
This piece is now the sound of my son healing himself. He's not finished healing, yet. He can't yet use screens for more than a few minutes every day; he can't go out in the sunshine or read for very long, or practice parkour in the forest as he liked to do, before. But he can play piano. This song is the sound of dedication and hope and the promise that my son will come back from this concussion, and that even if his life is changed, his spirit is still thriving. Thank goodness for that, and for my grandmother's piano. He lets me hug him more, now. He cracked open my hardened heart and everything is more tender, now.

Community as a Way of Life

When I was 26, bewildered and a bit in shock with the reality of new motherhood, I took my baby to our local Family Place, and sat around the edges of the activity, watching. Whining lines of Suzanne Vega ran through my head: "in the outskirts, and in the fringes, on the edge and off the avenue"... as my baby nursed his way through the stress of a new situation. Out of the fray of mothers and toddlers and snack foods and plastic dishes came the most welcoming smile. This woman actually held out her arm to me, beckoning me to join the group. And Mara became my friend.

Years later, as we sat around her trailer home together, watching our kids play and leap from the furniture, I complained about my back issues, and Mara deftly used the opportunity to attempt to convince me to take the adults' ballet class that she taught in the evenings. I told her 'no way'. I explained that ballet left me behind when I was nine and had a pot belly and knees that didn't straighten all the way. She convinced me anyway, and next term I cautiously and inelegantly stepped into her class. 

Mara Brenner with students of Gabriola Dance, 2019. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara doesn't just teach ballet. She's an accredited Pilates instructor, and a passionate life-long-learner of human anatomy and movement. She looked at me while I attempted the ballet moves and explained exactly what my muscles and bones were doing and how I could optimize for my personal development. When she didn't have an answer, she went away and researched or thought about it until she figured it out (yes - that's the definition of being a life-long-learner, and an expert!) She sees people not only as moving, learning bodies, but as humans with struggles and opportunities. I soon became one of Mara's 'Tequilarinas' - the group of adults who danced until 9pm and then went for a tequila at the pub, together. After a year, my back was healed. I started wearing superhero costumes to ballet.

Through her friendship, clear strong vision, and unflinching determination, Mara gave me more confidence and opportunity than any other teacher I've had.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara Brenner taught our island's children and adults ballet, and also used her company MaraGold Productions to bring world class artists to perform not only on our small island, but at various Canadian venues. She worked her dancing feet off one hundred percent of the time, not just giving to her community, but building it. She exemplified a kind of character strength and courage that's hard to maintain, but essential in a thriving community. Eventually her community turned its back on Mara and her family.

Our land use bylaw only allows trailer-living for a brief period of time while landowners are building a permanent dwelling. As you can imagine, building a home on the wages of a ballet teacher and a glazier, while also raising two young children, takes longer than it otherwise might. Mara and her partner, Stu, lived in a trailer on land they owned, while slowly building their permanent home. At the point they were forced to leave, they had only built the foundation. Theirs was almost an idealist story of dreamy island living, until our snooty bylaws pushed them out.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
So they left! Mara and her family found their new home on Gabriola Island, and quickly turned the small outbuilding into a dance studio. Around the same time she was gifted her own ballet teacher's extensive collection of ballet school costumes, and she threw all her extensive skill and passion into Gabriola Dance. Last weekend I went to see her year-end showcase, and I was moved to write this article.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Finally with a permanent roof over her head on Gabriola, Mara pulled everything out of her heart and poured it into ten years of parenting and teaching in her new community. This 10th showcase felt to me like watching my friend stitch up all her passions and skills into one beautiful, powerful package. It was in many ways her gift to the world. 

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
I think we all hope we can make a difference in the world - at least leave it a slightly better place than we found it. These days many of us are just hoping we save enough of the world that our children will grow old before it's gone. So Mara developed a dance performance of Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'. The piece brings together students of many diverse ages and training levels. It's profound and moving, but Mara didn't leave it at that. Working on this project brought up a great deal of conversation among students about climate change, and it became clear that she needed to deal with the prevalent angst and anxiety that today's children harbour around this topic. So she had all the conversations with them, and at the end of the dance showcase, she hosted a talk back with biologist Melanie Mamoser and registered clinical counsellor Caitlin Kopperson, to discuss the affects of climate change on childhood anxiety. One of the most urgent questions, of course, is 'what can we do?', and although there's no clear answer to that, there were some good ideas, and the conversation at least left me feeling hopeful that people were talking about it, and that children's voices are being heard in this discussion.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
With The Giving Tree, Mara does something I hope we all manage to do in our lives: She orchestrates her many gifts into one grand oeuvre, showcasing not only the work of her students and other community members, but pulling them all together in a kind of hopeful community invocation. May we all have the courage to live our hearts' dreams and create a better world in doing so, each in our own ways, and all within community.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.

Gabriola Pilates and Dance:
Inspired Spirits Photography:

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Fathers Looking at People They Love

Jim looking at his niece.
Relationships with fathers are rarely idealistic. I choose the word idealistic purposefully, because there is no such thing as perfection, and relationships that don't live up to our idealist expectations make us grow. There have been many fathers in my life - those who fathered me and those whom I have observed fathering others. I appreciate them all.

Hans looking at his granddaughter.
Dear fathers - my own fathers and grandfathers and uncles and my partner and brother and extra brothers and in-laws and cousins and dear cherished friends...
I Love You.

Everhard looking at his daughter.
To the fathers who go to work every day, missing out on many of their children's milestones, feeling sometimes detached or unneeded, but making an effort to fit in when they're home, you are not unneeded. I used to sleep with my Pappa's smelly shirt when he was away. You teach your children that sometimes love takes sacrifice; you teach them about surviving loneliness. And when you do come home you are the superhero - sometimes the unsung superhero. It was a party every time my Pappa came home from the bush. You teach your children about elation and overwhelming joy. You teach them that love persists through absence and struggle.

Wout looking at his niece.

To the fathers who have given every shred of their being to raise children on their own, or, as my partner does, to provide, and literally build a roof over our heads, out of sheer sacrifice and determination, you are teaching your children that they can. You empower them to persevere and to have faith in their emergent skills.

Markus looking at his son.

To the fathers who become their boyish adventurous selves in the presence of their children; who take them on crazy funny bike adventures, who take them climbing around in shipwrecks and wandering aimfully over high mountains and through deep valleys: Sometimes you are expressing your love through adventure and your children know it. You teach them to explore. You teach us that it is important to be happy.

John looking at his niece.
To fathers who have lost children and grandchildren, sometimes to unspeakable tragedy, but pulled themselves out of despair to continue parenting their other children, to be strong so that others could be strong, too. You have held the world up when others couldn't do it alone. You have held the world together.

Adrian looking at his nephew.
To the men who don't have their own children, but whom children flock to, for the wonder and generosity in their personalities. These men like my brother, who takes the job of uncle-ing very seriously, as much to his own niece and nephew as to a gaggle of other adoring children. You teach us all that parenting is everybody's place in society. And you give children a safe place to be.

Gerhard looking at his niece.
To the men who are terrified of holding their friends' children or even their own newborn babies, confronted with the fragility of life and love, you have discovered and expressed the tenderness of your hearts. You have given children a promise of gentleness, and empowered them to be gentle, too.

Pat looking at his daughter.
To the fathers who have been vulnerable, telling me about their fears and struggles either with raising me or raising children I have loved, you have been brave, in your efforts to grow and evolve and to do the best you could for your children. To the father, even, whose children I have housed while he was struggling, you are raising children who know that they can change; you have empowered them to become their best selves.

Ernest looking at his granddaughter.
To the fathers who, in addition to fathering their own children, reach out to father others, as well, sending care packages of Kraft Dinner for newly-independent grandchildren (yes that was my Grandpa!), taking children who are not their own on marvellous adventures, giving advice that wasn't wanted, but sometimes greatly valued, and just plain being there for the kids who need them. It was my uncle who rented and furnished my first apartment for me. You empower all of us to be generous with our time, our resources, and our love.

To the fathers who have loved through pain, heartbreak, struggle, drudgery, and apathy, thank you. To the fathers who have brought hope and trust and joy and adventure to each generation, thank you! We look at you and we see that we are loved. We see that your face shines when you look at us and we know that's what love is.
Thank you for finding your way. 
Thank you for showing us the way. 
Thank you for your gift to humanity.