The majority of people in the United States attend some sort of school from about age six to about age eighteen. But some people don’t. Ever wonder what it might have been like to NOT go through that experience? To walk around a school campus with alien eyes? To never understand what elementary school, middle school, or high school was like? This person’s perspective encouraged me to write my own post on that idea, since up to this point I’ve been a bit hesitant to share the details of my own personal involvement with public schools.
There was only one semester of my whole life where I attended a formal school. When I was eight, my mother enrolled me in the local public school (at my request). But it wasn’t a very good experience; the math was too difficult, everything else was too easy, some of the children began to bully me, and the teacher kept sending me to the library because I was bored. I begged my mom to take me out by the time Christmas came. After that there was absolutely no desire to go to school again, so my sister and I were home-schooled until about age sixteen, when we began to attend college classes. College was great, but I was still glad to graduate after four years in an institutionalized setting so I could get on with my plans in life.
I only set foot in a high school building maybe three or four times. The most memorable was when, at sixteen, I traveled to Texas to be a part of a large musical event held over a weekend. I was staying with a family whose daughter, Catie, was also part of the music performance. It was arranged that I would perform on classical guitar for Catie’s public high school music class on Friday. So I went off with Catie to her classes early in the morning. After only a few hours I was terribly bored with subjects that, when I looked at the other students, nobody else seemed to care about either. The sheer number of teenagers packed in every classroom was overwhelming; it wasn’t surprising that Catie interacted with only a small group of close friends out of the hundreds who attended the school. I ate an early lunch with her, but then decided to not stay for the next class, preferring to explore the neighborhood rather than doze off during biology like the other students.
Walking through the streets was much more enjoyable than sitting cooped up on a lovely Texas morning in springtime! I found a fascinating local bookstore, met a lady with her two little children, and examined the architecture and gardens of the houses in the neighborhood. When it was almost time for me to perform for the music class, I began to walk back towards the campus.
Suddenly two policemen appeared out of nowhere. They immediately came over and started asking me questions. It was clear that they thought I was a truant student. I explained that I was a visiting musician, about to play for a class, but they didn’t believe me… one even rolled his eyes! I was shocked at their disrespect. Finally I pulled my guitar out and played for them to prove that I was actually a musician. They believed me more after that, but still insisted on searching my guitar case, purse, and bag to make sure I didn’t have anything suspicious. Then they escorted me back into the school just to “make sure” I went to the right place.
The music class performance was fine. After that, I stayed with Catie for her final class, art, which garnered much more student interest since everyone was working on clay sculptures. The rest of that weekend was lovely with the music events. All in all, it was a great trip.
I never forgot that experience, though. At sixteen, I had been volunteering in a community library, attending guitar classes at a university (including auditing a masters level class on early music and period instruments), and beginning to teach music lessons to children. I was used to being treated politely and being trusted, even though I was a teenager, so the policemen’s rudeness was disturbing. There was so little freedom given to those high-school students, freedom that I had taken for granted because I was home-schooled: the privilege of choosing my own activities, the liberty to decide when I wanted to do schoolwork, the freedom to eat, rest, and go to the bathroom when I pleased. The dullness of the classes at the public high school made me understand why some teenagers hated learning. Add to that the the pages of tiresome homework, the heavy textbooks that weighed down backpacks, the bullying, the cliques, the terrible food in the cafeteria, the lifeless buildings, the occasional teacher who seemed to dislike everybody… everything made me so very grateful that I did not have to be part of that environment.
These are strong words to say, I know. I’m certainly not the only home-schooler who has thought that public high schools are strange. If you are one of those people who had a wonderful time in high school, then please don’t think that I’m trying to negate your good experience. Many people have fond memories of a kind teacher or a great class. But I have also heard many stories from friends of all ages who recount times that made them loathe high school (at least part of it). Why does this have to be? The years between thirteen and eighteen are so full of potential and energy. Nobody at that age wants to be cooped up at a desk for hours every day! Yes, it’s important to have training, to gain knowledge, so that future jobs or careers will be possible. But there are so many other, better ways to utilize those important years of teenage eagerness that would result in a happier, more productive, more informed stage of young adults.
Many teenagers don’t even know that there is ANY kind of alternative to four years of public high school education. There are radical steps that high schoolers can take themselves, like leaving formal school to pursue education on their own standards, or joining a private school or independent study with the help of their family, but not everyone would be able to take that kind of action. In the end, I believe that every person, including teenagers, should have the ability to strive for the kind of learning experience they desire, with the final goal of following their dreams for a future vocation and discovering their purpose in life.
My hope is that anyone who has the opportunity to affect students in a way that can make their education a positive era of development will do so. Are you a teacher or a parent? Please consider your child, student, or teenager’s needs and wishes before simply assuming that the path of education they are currently undergoing is the right one for them.
If you’re a high school student who wants to know more about a different, very revolutionary path of education, I recommend this: The Teenage Liberation Handbook, by Grace Llewellyn Warning: this book is quite radical, not for anyone who would be offended by an author who has a strong conviction in favor of teenage freedom in learning!
If you’re a parent or a teacher who is considering what the best form of education might be for your child/students, and would like a deeper look at some topics such as education, learning environment, and the way children grow in their understanding, I highly recommend these two books by John Holt: How Children Learn and How Children Fail. They have been an integral part of my growth as a teacher, and I plan on reading them at least once a year as my own child begins his or her journey of learning.