8 Years Unschooling to the First Day of Public High School

This is a really overdue blog post. The whole transition of unschooler-to-public-schooler actually started almost 2 years ago. So excuse me while I quite possibly make this the longest blog post I’ve ever written (or in case it takes you two years to read it). Because I’m sure many of you can understand, there’s a lot that goes into a story like this.

8 years unschooled, first day of high school
Let me start by saying that although the principles and philosophies of unschooling are very much at the heart of our entire lifestyle, we dropped the unschooling label a long time ago. And for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I really started to disconnect with parts of the unschooling community and the lack of respect it ironically showed. It just stopped resonating as a term we needed to use, and even more so as a community we felt we belonged to. I think this is kind of natural, and maybe even as it should be. As some point your life should stop being about the method of life, and just become about your life itself. This is the purpose of the unschooling lifestyle after all…to question the way in which things “should” be, in order to find the way in which they naturally are.

I lost that for awhile. I got caught up in the title, like a badge of honor. I was an Unschooler, and I held that up as an ideal, instead of holding up our own selves.

At this point, “unschooling” is so many different things for me – both good and bad. I’ve kept what I learned from it – mutual respect, treating all people as human beings, working with one another instead of using the top-down approach, laughter and fun, honoring ourselves and our needs. I left the rest – the dogma, the judgment of other parents (although I think I can safely say I was much more aware of not being THAT kind of unschooler, although I’m sure I still came off that way at times), the false idea that it should look a certain way, or if it didn’t, we were doing something wrong.

Actually, let’s go back to the beginning…

How We Stopped Thinking of Ourselves as “Unschoolers”

It was almost two years ago and Justin and I were still catching our breathe after The Big 12. Twelve years old was a shitty year, folks. I know, unschoolers aren’t supposed to have shitty years. Their children are suppose to fart sunshine and rainbows because of the overwhelming joy of living such a Free and Radical Life.

Like this…

What unschooling is like?

Twelve was my year of panic. Of holy-shit-what-am-I-doing-wrong. Or self-doubt and self-hatred. My son was most definitely spewing something colorful from his mouth, but it wasn’t rainbows and glitter. It was anger and frustration and a deep unhappiness and hopelessness for the state of the world, and of course, as an infallible unschooler, that meant it was my fault.

Twelve was also the year I found out the truth about raising teenagers. It! Is! Freaking! Awesome! AFTER they go through the puberty transition.

While I have met many, many teens that transitioned through puberty with their glittery eyes still in tact, I also began to meet unschooling parents of older teens, parents who are amazing and who inspire thousands of other parents, but who also raised a teenager through some unhappy years. These parents don’t often speak of The Hard Years publicly, because well, let’s face it…there’s quite enough teen bashing these days. And while that’s not at all what I wanted, I did want to find someone who could help me breathe and laugh through it. And you don’t find that kind of support in public unschooling forums. You find that shit with girlfriends and a good partner over a few glasses of wine and a late night.

Justin and I did a lot of desperate laughing that year. “Twelve” has become our code word for “you better start laughing before you cry”. We were wise enough to do this laughing privately to ourselves. But I’ll be blunt, making fun of teen drama in the privacy of our own date nights quite literally saved our family from complete annihilation. I wouldn’t want to be the parents who ridicules or taunts in front of others, but I suddenly got where they were coming from. It’s fucking hard to remain grounded, collected, present when your child is just flat out angry all the time. And especially when that anger, despite everyone’s best efforts, gets directed at you.

Zeb still can’t say where all his anger comes from. (And yes, he still deals with it. More on that later.) He expressed to us many times that he hated that he took it out on us. And that helped, too. Knowing he thought he was being a buttonhole, too. We also grew to have a lot of compassion for the eternal struggle that is Twelve. Because we could see how hard it was on him. And we could remember enough of it ourselves.

We read this book called “Yes, Your Teen is Crazy“, which despite the not-so-hot title, was actually a really good book. Well, the first few chapters were anyway. We never finished it. Because all we really needed were those first few chapters where he explained exactly what’s happening in the brain of a teenager. We couldn’t read that and NOT have compassion. But I think more than that, it gave me permission to not hold the expectation of my Perfect Unschooler to be a Perfect Unschooler.

And that was the start of it. Permission to see and support him, not the ideal I had of our life.

Yes, I totally had an expectation and an ideal, because that’s what came with the unschooling package. You see all these amazing teens, and you think “Unschooling creates that. I want that.” So, you go about creating Unschooling. But life and the human condition, neither work that way. And unschooling really shouldn’t either.

I had an expectation that he be happy, self-motivated, interested, and interesting. Instead he was depressed, angry, resistant of anything that looked like anything (even things he enjoyed), completely disinterested, and seriously boring for awhile there.

This is how I know parenting is an exercise in self-growth. Because our children give us exactly what we need to learn to love unconditionally. No freaking conditions, people. It gets hard when you look at it like that.

We were traveling full-time and he wanted to stay in his room (which became affectionately known as The Cave). He missed out on dozens of amazing places, including San Francisco, which really bums him out now. We didn’t push him out very often (generally only once per state), and he said he preferred that. He played video games and read books and while most unschoolers would say “Yay! He was enjoying himself!”, he really wasn’t. He was just stuck. He avoided new things out of fear and discomfort. He was only happy about the fact that he could avoid them, but that didn’t leave him very satisfied. He was overwhelmed and depressed and we tried to respond with more of what we thought he needed.

But more tragically, I wasn’t seeing him as a human being with real struggles and an ego that likes to do crazy shit. I was seeing him as a Super Child, as all children somehow are, completely capable of stopping speeding bullets of bullshit with their toothless grins and overcoming emotional hurdles in a single bound. And if I have to say there was anywhere that unschooling and I went wrong, it would be that. The idea that kids are not still crazy little human beings like the rest of us, that they don’t make bad choices for themselves, and can always listen to their intuition and discern their needs. Yes, we all come from stardust and Light, and when connected to that Source we are amazing beings capable of magical moves of clarity and wisdom. But our egos are still intact from before we are born and even in perfect childhoods, we still discern and create some crazy perspectives that we then get to overcome. Unschooling doesn’t mean you are blessed with the privilege of raising a Buddha or a Christ. It means that maybe you won’t get in their way quite so much, and perhaps their therapy bill will be a little less, because you were at least aware enough of your own crap, your own expectations, your own burden of “should’s” to not give them added baggage for their own journey.

But the idea that unschooling “creates” anything, except maybe a little more space to learn from your mistakes, is just false. You can give your child a calm home, help them work with their strengths and learning style, support them as they chase their dreams, and you know what can still happen? They can have the personality that sees their privileged life and the underprivileged lives of others, and still create for themselves the perspective that they are neither good enough, nor deserving enough to be so happy wen others aren’t. They can feel overwhelmed by the gift of choice. They can think you’re too wild and want to be more orderly. Or they can think you’re too soft and end up being hard. They can feel the overwhelming biological desire to break away from the nest, and just do the exact opposite of any amazing thing you pride yourself on the ability to do. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing you can do, except hope that you can keep your shit together, not take it personally, learn to roll with the mood of the day, and admit you actually know jackshit about who your cild is and what they need.

That last one? Not knowing jackshit about who your child actually is? That’s a humbling one to realize. I would know. I thought living with him 24/7, being able to talk frankly and openly (yes, even through Twelve, we still kept our ability to connect and talk mostly in tact), meant that I knew who my child is. Man, that sounds so arrogant. I barely know who I am and I hang out in my head all day long. To assume I know 1/10th of what’s actually happening in another person’s head, regardless of whether they are 3 or 12 or 15 or even after they tell me…yeah, humbling to realize that’s just not that possible, even when we’re pretty good at it.

And that realization, that I had it all wrong, is what started the mechanisms almost two years ago that had me watching as my 15 year old confidently walked into school this morning.

The Big, Fat, Aha Moment

Yes, it all boils down to this one moment. The moment that all those realizations and life-altering changes in understanding I droned on about up there clicked into place.

Like I said, it was shortly after his thirteenth birthday, still with major remnants of 12, but with full on must-figure-this-out gears moving in my head. We were at a small state park in FL. Zeb had wanted to visit family back home again, so we sent him for a month, something we were doing about twice a year. Except this time I knew his time away was going to change things.

I was walking the hiking paths in the park, thinking(worrying,stressing) about Who He Is and Where He Is and Why He Is, and putting prayers out into the Universe that clarity and understanding would smash all this heartache to bits. And just like that, it kinda did. Kinda.

I had two instant and consecutive visions in my mind that are hard to describe but said exactly this:

“What feels like open space and freedom and possibility to you has been feeling like a gaping, scary vacancy to your son. And what feels like confinement to you, what makes you itchy to squirm and run, what feels claustrophobic, like a straightjacket to you…feels like a warm embrace to him, like two arms wrapped around him, holding him when he tries to take on the task of holding the world together, like a swaddling blanket, warm and comfortable and secure.”

It sounds so silly, so obvious, that maybe what I love isn’t what my child loves or needs. That maybe, just possibly, most likely, my child is the exact opposite of me, because after all he’s not some facsimile that I reproduce on my Xerox baby-making machine. My DNA may be coursing through his body, but personality most certainly is its own dirty animal, capable and quite willing to play some dirty tricks on unsuspecting parents.

Around that time I had started hearing more things about personalities, especially personalities that just take the world more seriously. I started learning that these are the personalities that are often accused on being “perfectionists”, when in fact their strength is in noticing what could be improved, which, especially at age Twelve, happens to look like pointing out and focusing on the negative. I started to learn more about these personalities, about how they love routine and structure (OMG! The S word! Ack!), how they like fewer choices, how they feel personally responsible for the state of the world and that can often lead to a crushing depression when you want to save said world, but also feel as though said world may be beyond saving.

Personality. Ohmyfreakinggoodness. THAT was my Aha moment. I’ve known for a long time that his intensity was a personality trait, but I was still waiting for it to pass like it was instead a personality flaw that time and space would heal.

It was just this giant lightbulb moment that turned all my glittery, rainbowy, life-is-good Kumbaya stories on their heads.

My child has a personality. And it’s nothing like mine.

And therefore no amount of MY ideas of freedom and choice and love and hippie beads was going to make him happy. Because those aren’t HIS kinds of happy.

His kinds of happy? The happiest and most fulfilled I’ve seen him? Arguing politics, standing up for equal rights, canvassing for elections (I know some of you remember that…back in ’08? He was one passionate 8 year old at the State Convention!), feeding the homeless, giving away his things to a child, debating damn near anything with damn near anyone.

He wasn’t all smiles and sunshine through all of it. But he was lit up with a sense of purpose. He was making a difference in the world. Not because it was fun or exciting or even enjoyable. But because it was HIM, and necessary to his personhood.

This all hit me pretty hard. Not in a bad way, like I was devastated. But in a Holy Crap way, like how could I have been so blind? I took a step back and I just started observing. I started admitting that despite the fact that I may have helped countless other parents through their own struggles, this parenting thing through me a curve I hadn’t expected and had totally struck out on. I humbled myself. And I started all over. Except this time I didn’t come to it looking for a new label or lifestyle. I came to it looking only at my son, what he needed, and what that could look like.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t, and still haven’t, nailed this transition with some sense of altruistic grace. I wasn’t thinking solely of Zeb, and not at all of my own self-image or fears. I was humbled, but it hurt. I was afraid, mostly of unschooling backlash, and I had a lot of that fear to deal with. What would it look like if I stopped calling ourselves unschoolers? What would it look like if I admitted that my kid was a radically different person than the vision of unschooling we’ve all grown to accept? What would happen if I let it be known that words like “happy” or “excited” don’t fit Zeb? I was battling my own inner demons calling me a failure and a fraud as a mother and a blogger and a mentor. It took me some time to fully distance myself from the label, and from the people who lived and breathed and judged by the label. It took me longer to feel at peace with that decision and no longer worry about the backlash. (Yes, this is part of why it took me almost 2 years to write this.)

What helped me?

Realizing that we had – for six flipping years – not seen that we were LIFE-learning with a child who feels overwhelmed by the bigness of LIFE; we were making “the world our classroom” for a child who was overwhelmed by the heaviness of the world.

We thought the problem was in how intense and overwhelmed he was feeling, and the solution was in unschooling. Instead the struggle was in not helping him understand his strengths (his ability to pick up on things that can be improved) AND his weaknesses (the way these “imperfections” can overtake him), and instead trying to help him by “giving him more time”, “giving him more space”, and trusting it all to work itself out.

When Zeb came home from that month trip, we all sat down and talked. Instead of me laying it all out on the table, I instead recognized how that overwhelms him and I held my cards a little closer. I don’t remember everything we talked about, or every decision that we made, but I do remember talking about how we’d all like things to look.

One of the main surprises dealt to us from that conversation was that Zeb was ready for school. This was something we both supported and struggled with. First of all, we were still “on the road” and had some more travel plans. Second, having spent 8 years in the homeschooling/unschooling community means hearing a lot of horror stories of public school and all the reasons why our friends had become refugees of it. Third, was he prepared for the stress, the social inequalities (remember, this is the kid that sees and feels responsible for righting the wrongs in the world) the expectations, the work load, the culture? And were we?

So, we eased ourselves into the idea. We finished up the rest of our travels, and came back to the panhandle of FL to make plans. That’s when Life took over and things fell into place. Justin found work that turned into a business opportunity that turned into a rental home last fall. We debated starting in 8th grade, but Zeb felt he wasn’t prepared.

So, we took some assessment tests and found out he was on level in most areas and only about 6 months behind in math. But that wasn’t good enough for the person who most easily perceives imperfection, so he set himself a goal to be fully prepared by 9th grade.

During this time, we started preparing ourselves too. We met local families that had made the homeschool-to-high-school transition. We talked with parents of high schoolers about the teachers and faculty. We went in to meet the counselor.

Slowly, piece-by-piece, the whole thing was just clicking into place. Even to the point of being fully impressed with the student-faculty relationships we happened to eavesdrop on.

I won’t say it wasn’t nerve-wracking all the way up until next month, because it has been, but it’s no longer about “not unschooling”. It’s about “Zeb’s Next Adventure”. School feels less like the monster it certainly can be, and more like the resource it should be. And a good resource. With 7 good teachers who actually give a crap, and each with a different personality that will bring a different growth experience for all of us.

So, all this being from my perspective, lemme try to share from his…

Zeb’s Choice and Feelings on the Matter

Totally took a pic of his first day of school breakfast of champions

Ultimately, the choice to go to school was his, with a heavy influence from us. His three main reasons for going were:

  1. He wants to meet like-minded people.
  2. He’s OUT of his caveman phase and despite the fact that he’s still kind of a homebody, he wants to be OUT of the house all the time now.
  3. He wants to learn, and prefers the more structured format.

I do think if there was a democratic school in this area, he’d be much more apt to enjoy it. He still doesn’t like the top-down approach to education. He WANTS to be there, he WANTS to learn, and he’s wanting the whole experience. But he’d like it a lot more if he had more say in what and how and when and why. Maybe this will mean he runs for school counsel and fights the system from within. Maybe it’ll mean he learns radical acceptance and compromise and to not throw babies out with bath waters. Maybe he’ll get frustrated and quit. I don’t know.

We talked at great lengths about it all. What he might experience from teachers, staff, and students. How he would choose to navigate it. My biggest concern was his awareness of ageism and condescension, but thankfully we just haven’t seen a lot of that at this school. The dress codes aren’t ridiculous (a little sexist, yes, but at least they can wear flip flops) and they are allowed cell phones and tablets in class (if they are being used as is appropriate for the class). And like I said before, the student-faculty relationship is surprisingly positive. And you know I was looking for issues. πŸ˜‰ But he’s aware of these potential concerns and this is one of those times I get to step off and let him navigate these things himself.

Everyone keeps asking if he’s excited, but in case you haven’t gathered from what I’ve written so far, Zeb is an “excitable” kind of guy. He’s ready. He’s fully prepared, having gone over every possible scenario in his head (bad habit he likely picked up from me). At a few points in the last couple weeks he was even looking forward to it, and lamenting that school started too late in the month. And once last week, he seemed downright excited, but he snapped out of that craziness pretty fast. πŸ˜‰

Mostly, he’s been surprising us.

Case in point: I was a basket case over The Day at the Fort….an upperclassman facilitated day for new Freshman to get acquainted with the school and each other. No parents allowed.

I thought he’d be his normal, quiet, reserved self. I was nervous that he’d feel nervous and awkward. Once again, Mom was wrong and he came home with a totally different story. He told me how much fun he had learning the cheers, the people he made friends with, the fun side he exhibited. He expressed concern that he might’ve turned off the more mature people he was looking to meet, but I think he took it to heart when I reminded him that mature, intelligent people also appreciate a sense of humor.

The same thing happened at the school orientation, despite the fact that we were allowed at this one. He easily talked to other students he had met, shared schedules, and made plans to connect on the first day of school. He was excited to find so many Attack On Titan fans complimenting his attire. He wore his kickass hat (and wore it again today). He looks so good in that hat. And his vest. My goodness, that guy.

Zeb's first day of school

There were a few times when he almost talked himself out of it, but those actually became less and less as the first day came closer. Talking with other students at the comic book store helped. Being bored to tears probably helped a lot too.

I don’t know what to expect when we go to pick him up from track in a few minutes, or what to expect in terms of workload (except that I’m assuming I’m going to be doing a lot of it with him the first few months), or what to expect in terms of what he’ll love or not love or want to do.

We talked about whether or not to commit to the whole year awhile back, but now that seems like a moot point. I don’t think he wants to quit. And I don’t think Justin and I will back just any decision to quit. We (and when I say we, I mean him too) have all recognized his desire to quit when things get hard. His perfectionism kicks in and while most perfectionists try harder, his natural inability to be completely perfect at everything he attempts usually makes him quit out of overwhelm. This is something we’ve been okay with in the past, but we’re not just blanketing an okay this time. A desire to quit will take a lot of discussion and a lot of sleeping on it, and no more snap decisions. Because if there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s that every time he quits he’s reaffirmed to himself that he’s not good enough and that has left him in a downward spiral that we’re trying to break. That’s not to say it’s off the table; it just means it will have to be the right decision because a better option is available that fits his needs and not an impulse decision based on frustration.

The drive to the 1st day of school

His first day!!

Overall, his mood can be described as prepared, determined, ready, slightly nervous, but mostly just let’s-do-this-already.

I’m sure I’ll have more to report on this in a week or so though. πŸ˜‰

I’m gonna diverge into that logistics for a minute…

Zeb’s Classes and Teachers and Those Kind of Logistics

Zeb is taking ALL honors classes, plus cross country (with study hall), art, and debate.

The decision between Honors and basic classes was a hard one. On one hand, we didn’t want the workload and the added pressure that comes from Honors classes (definitely wanted to steer clear of AP classes). We understand the transition itself might be quite enough without adding in the extra performance stress. But one of the two main things Zeb wanted out of his school experience was to meet like-minded teens. Mature, intelligent, think-for-yourself types that have goals and make good decisions. He was more than a little worried over the maturity rate of most teens. So I talked ad nauseam with his school counselor – who was amaze balls, btw – to help discern if the Honors classes would be too much work for the payoff. We talked about his current academic level, his gaps, and his learning style, and we both came to the conclusion that Honors was a better fit. In part, because he’s used to a faster pace (not a lot of busywork in homeschool, yo), and in part, because unlike many kids who might be taking the easiest classes possible, he actually wanted to be there and that meant a caliber of student that also wanted to be there.

His first choice was a TWO PERIOD algebra class. TWO hours of algebra, because his wicked perfectionist streak was convincing him he was behind. Yeah, no. This is one of those times as a parent when you’re not sure when to allow them to make a choice or if you should step in and encourage something else. I stepped in, and as of last week we’re all glad. After talking with his algebra teacher, not only is he not going to be behind as he feared, he’s actually already ahead. Yes, of the Honors class. (Score for Kahn Academy!) That took a HUGE worry off his shoulders. He’s been busting ass with online classes, wanting really badly to be advanced. Apparently, some field he mentioned that I can’t remember is his “fallback plan” in case saving the world doesn’t pan out, and its heavy in mathematics. Particle physics? Something crazy like that. (This kid boggles my every loving mind.)

With that extra hour freed up, he could choose three electives. The first he chose was art. He loves to draw and has been doing quite a bit of progressing on his own. A structured art class will be interesting from our unstructured, interest-led stuff. Back in the day, some of the negative experience of school was in his art class. Lots of “you can’t do art that way” that created a lot of self-criticism that he has started moving past in the last couple years. So far it doesn’t look like the teacher is that “rulesy”, but of course, there is a lot of emphasis on techniques. Not a bad thing, but hopefully not a thin line between that and losing the actual joy of drawing that he’s been gaining.

The second elective he chose was Cross Country and Track & Field, which comes with its own study hall for 7th period. This might be the only class he changes. We had no idea that they practiced for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, with meets on Saturdays (is that much running in the heat even healthy?). That means he’s up at 6am, out the door at 6:40am, and doesn’t get home until 5:15. He WANTS to run, but he’s not into competition and fundraising and all that extra jazz. He does like that the coach runs the study hall, and that extra hour to get homework done with a teacher’s help was a huge plus, but unless this team really ends up being a great fit for him (friendship wise) I don’t see him putting up with the rest. Have I mentioned Zeb is NOT competitive? Seriously, he just wants to run for the fun of running. So we talked and he’s gonna give it a week or two before we invest in the super fancy (read: expensive) running shoes. If it doesn’t work out he’ll transfer into the regular study hall instead and look into the art club and a few other things.

The third elective is Debate, and I really encouraged this one once he dropped the whole Double Math Hell (my perspective, not his) thing. He has an interest in politics and activism, and one way or another public speaking, debate, and strong opinions are likely to be a part of his future. Again, he’s not sure how he feels about the whole “competition” thing, but he definitely is interested in the class.

Biology Honors is a totally new thing for us. Other than hands-on, real life learning, we’ve never done anything from a book (not counting Google). But we LOVED his teacher! Among all the teachers in orientation, she was one of our faves. She’s upbeat, positive, and excited to have a former homeschooler. She gave us lots of information and tips. She just had an enthusiastic and excited energy, but also with a little bit of SuperWoman strength to her. I want to take her to coffee sometime.

Geography Honors is one of the classes I’m most excited to see how Zeb enjoys. We chose this one because the Honors class focuses more on current events and culture and less on maps. This was another teacher I LOVED and want to take to coffee. The fact that she agrees with Zeb that Jon Stewart is the best way to stay current on events made our day. This class really feels tailor-made for him, especially as he now has a desire to travel more (you know, AFTER we settled down) and cares so much about culture and politics. Plus, the teacher was awesome; did I mention that?

He’s most worried about English Honors. His handwriting is as atrocious as most people in 2014 who only type. And he’s still got gaps in grammar rules. He’s never written an essay, and although English is my favorite subject, I have no idea of the “proper” ways to format a sentence or a paragraph. As you can probably tell. But he likes to read, and real books too (he was kinda disappointed in the Teen Lit choices for the summer reading list). And after talking with the teacher, who is pro-technology and wears a Marvel character around her neck, she’s totally comfortable with working with him on his gaps. In fact, she really didn’t care much as long as he enjoys reading and has a desire to be there. Kinda seemed like she could work with anything after that. πŸ˜‰

So Yeah, There’s All That

Holy all that is good in the world. If you stuck with me through all this you’re either morbidly curious or utterly fascinated. Or maybe just incredibly bored. Or like most people asking me to write this, you’ve got a kid that doesn’t seem to fit any mold or you’re wondering what all this looks like down the road should they choose another route.

I can tell you that this long novella is 1/10th of the emotions and thoughts and big ass shifts we’re going through. But his track meet is over in 3 minutes and I live exactly 2.5 minutes away, so I’ll have to come back with more another day. πŸ™‚