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To Learn In My Own Way
Rising Up From School to Unschool
by Laura E. Coldwell

To Learn in My Own Way: Rising Out of School at Age 15
Just over a year ago the rain was making its way lazily down the window, just as it is doing today and as it had done many other days in my life. However, this was a Monday and it was nearly lunchtime. I was lying on my stomach staring at the world as if I had never seen it before – and I hadn’t, at least not this one.

I was not sick, it was not an in-service day, no exams, and I wasn’t even skipping class. I laid there with my mind wriggling in disbelief. “I’m FREE!” I wrote in my journal and then continued staring at the window screen in a new appreciation for the gem-like raindrops that slid down it.

In my schooling before I reached high school, I felt stretched, stimulated, and nurtured in every way possible. I had extraordinary teachers who became my friends and I was in all the same classes with one group of knowledge-thirsty students. In my last year at that school, I had a fantastic teacher who allowed me to flourish creatively and academically. I was able to learn and explore more than I ever had before and so getting high marks was not a strain and I got them because I enjoyed what I was doing.

High school was a much different place. Here I felt as if I had been thrust into a laboratory . . . It was like the difference between Athens, Greece, and Sparta; one school so arts centered and human, the other so rigid, cold, and militant. Although it was a new school with good resources, such as technology (which broke down daily) and air quality, the ambience made me feel alienated, ill at ease and robotic. It was a place designed to accommodate the masses but I only felt controlled.

I soon got used to missing lunches, bustling from one place to another and rushing off to choir and band. I got used to handing in assignments that were much too easy for me and that looked like everyone else’s. I accepted constantly feeling tired after staying up late every night to finish the never-ending load of homework. I grew accustomed to my mind always racing and my active imagination beginning to work against me; to being at the top of many of my classes and the pressure to stay there. But one thing remained that I could not get used to – the feeling in my gut that something was wrong. I had a feeling that I ignored as long as I was busy, but when I lay in bed at night it came back. It was then I knew I wasn’t happy. I knew I had to get out of school. I pushed the voice down over and over again. Even if I did need to get out, how could I? I knew no other way.

I could feel myself heading for a mental breakdown but I’d tell myself, “You just need to get through this week. Just get through this week of tests and concerts and term papers and then you can relax.” This week turned into two months, then three, and then four and I couldn’t relax.

I could feel myself heading for a mental breakdown but I’d tell myself, “You just need to get through this week. Just get through this week of tests and concerts and term papers and then you can relax.” This week turned into two months, then three, and then four and I couldn’t relax. My marks were wonderful. Most of my teachers loved me. If ever I dared to complain I was told I was being a worrywart. Look at all I had going for me! The feeling got stronger and stronger. I wondered why my marks should be costing me my life.

Before Christmas break, I stumbled upon a site for self-directed learning. I was searching for an alternative and I had found one, however radical it seemed. At first, I told no one and stayed up extra late after finishing homework and researched this tiny ray of hope. The more I read about it the more I liked it.

Meanwhile life continued on in true rat-race style. My writing, which I had always felt was my true purpose in life, was neglected and I wrote only dead essays and stories for other people to pick apart. With no time for writing and no one who would acknowledge my struggle I began to descend into the darkest depths of my life. I knew my life had to change without knowing how to change it. Go against my parents? Leave school? Ruin my life? A friend of mine once told me “I had my mid-life crisis at fifteen.” I have never related better to anything in my life.

As I began to grow and question what was going on around me I found that there was no room for me in the school. Again and again, it was implied or said directly that I must shrink myself down and not think for myself in order to stay “safe” and have a good life in the future. I tried in vain to follow these directions but the quieter I became about my conflict the less I liked life or even knew why I bothered to be in it. There came a point when I realized my life was not my own and that it was no longer worth it to me. As a happy ninth grader the year before I had never even questioned why I was alive – I never thought I would experience what I did that year in high school. After this I began to regain my senses and to say “enough!” to it all. The decision to leave was no longer just an educational one, it had become about expanding, exploring and living versus shrinking, complying and merely existing. When I thought of it that way there was no question in my mind. Over the course of my school years I had begun to separate learning from real life and now it was time to reunite the two as inseparable.

As I began to grow and question what was going on around me I found that there was no room for me in the school. Again and again, it was implied or said directly that I must shrink myself down and not think for myself in order to stay “safe” and have a good life in the future.
My life for the next few months was a jumble of “red tape” and counselors, secret conversations with a student teacher, and the endless striving to keep up my appearance of “success.” I could not concentrate in class and became like many of the other students – “turned-off.” I found myself using all my energy to prevent myself from running out or screaming.

My parents were finally notified of the extent of my upset and we spent many days in and out of administrator’s and counselor’s offices. Negotiations were tried on both sides. Could I be allowed more independence and freedom? Could I go to the library and work on one big project rather than twelve miniature push-you-along ones? The school stalled and stalled, confused about what I wanted and confused about how to help me although they were given clear directions.

One counselor proclaimed that I must be “gifted” and that everything indicated it and then went on to tell me I was ill (I “had” depression) and anti-depressant drugs were a possibility for treatment. I just wanted to get out of school, to learn my own way, to live and breathe without feeling as if I must carry one hundred bricks on my head. In order to help me they would have to make my problem into something it was not and I would have to play along as a helpless and sick child. I was not sick, only fed-up.

One day I went into my Vice Principal’s office by myself with the intention of getting everything straightened out. For nearly an hour he talked at me and never bothered to listen. He told me one particularly memorable thing “You are not yet sixteen, therefore you’re not an independent member of society.” Dissatisfied, I came back fifteen minutes later and told him I really needed him to listen to me. I did not believe I could endure another class unless I was listened to. This was interpreted as “sick” and I was ushered off to sickbay for two full hours.

It was while staring at the speckled walls of sickbay that I realized just how ironic my situation was. The same people who were creating the most difficulty for me had the most caring, helpful intentions. They were not trying to create this frustration for me, they were truly trying to help, but how could they when they weren’t able to hear what I was asking for?

I cleaned out my locker that day when I was released from sickbay. The following Monday, after long talks with my parents and a lot of uneasiness, I rose out of high school.

Rising out was not the easy way out. It took all the strength I had to go against the advice of nearly all my teachers, my parents, and my friends. I also had to go against a part of myself that enjoyed the praise and recognition high marks and over-achievement brought me. April 15th, 2002 was not the end of all my problems because I still had to deal with trying to be perfect, with society’s standards of “success” and acceptability. Leaving school has been much more than an educational route for me, it has been about a whole new way of living and being in the world. For each day I continue to wake up without the pressures of school I feel the world yawn larger before me and I see that I truly can be and do anything.

Leaving school has been much more than an educational route for me, it has been about a whole new way of living and being in the world.

I could go on and tell you about all the amazing things I’ve done and all that I plan to do. I could list hundreds of books and activities for you that have helped me on my way but I won’t. You will probably do more than ever before when you are allowed to follow your own learning desires, but self-directed learning is less about how much you accomplish and more about a way of being. It’s a way of living completely in the process.

No matter what direction your life may lead, whether on a more traditional path to university or into the workforce, or in a completely new and untried direction, it is important to try to keep yourself open to other possibilities you may not even have heard of. For me the basis of my education has become listening to my inner promptings, realizing there are infinite ways to live and trusting myself to choose what’s best for me right now. No matter how much value academia has in my life I always feel that the basis for all my learning comes from this inner trust in myself. This trust will be able to help me discover creative solutions to any situations I find myself in, whether I have read many books about it or not – although that certainly helps.

While I believe it is very possible to learn, grow and be healthy in a school environment, I was not able to separate myself from many of the assumptions of the school system. I needed a different route and I took it. I have found that being out of school and being able to direct my own learning has enabled a succession of never-ending growth spurts in myself that I often think of as blooming and exploding – depending on the intensity. It has caused me to trust myself and my own inner-direction, which got me here in the first place. That is what I hope my story will inspire – a conviction to follow your deepest yearnings in the face of conflict, sometimes even from the ones you love most.

Sixteen years old when she wrote this article, Laura had left school (rising out, she called it) a year earlier to pursue her own interests and ways of learning.

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