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Walking a Tightrope
A mother and daughter find a balance between life learning, school, and a world of opportunity

by J. Ann Lloyd

tightrope balancingHaving been school-free until high school, my daughter, Erica was eager to take on the world. Academically, she had long ago past me and finding helpful resources was becoming more difficult. Thus, in the fall of 2004, Erica chose to enter high school as a 13-year-old freshman. Conquering even the toughest AP and honors classes, she was soon encouraged to attend the South West Virginia Governor’s School – a school for the gifted in math and science. Attending the Governor’s school was a great honor and our family rejoiced as she received a two-year scholarship. Unfortunately, along with earning college credit for advanced coursework, came a 90-minute twice-daily commute.

Each morning, Erica and I met in the garage at 6 AM. I drove the first leg of the trip, approximately 20 miles to a rival high school, where Erica would catch a bus and continue on. Academically, she was thriving. She was given the opportunity to dissect a sheep, collect data from a creek and attend a statewide science fair. She took advanced Calculus, participated in Math Olympiads and received the Outstanding Junior Mathematician award. But the price she was paying was high. Erica was exhausted. By January of her junior year, I hardly saw my child. Homework, papers, tests and exams had taken over her life.

"Walking the line between parental intervention and child self-direction is never easy."

In retrospect, perhaps I should have intervened. No doubt it’s our job as a parents to notice when our children are going astray. But as a life learning mother, I had always emphasized personal choice and self-directed learning. How could I now contradict myself? How could I preach about embracing opportunities while asking Erica to go after less than her academic best?

When our children are young, parenting struggles abound, but holding their hand on a tightrope goes without saying. With teenagers however, knowing when to hold on and when to let go is often the greatest challenge. I worried that pulling Erica out of the South West Virginia Governor’s School would decrease her chances for college. Yet family values, community service, and extra curricular activities had been as much a part of our makeshift curriculum as academics had ever been. Clearly, Erica had lost her way and the balanced life she’d once cherished had all but vanished, or so I’d thought.

On the morning of April 16, 2007 as the last of the snowflakes fell, Erica and I robotically completed our daily routines. Little did we know, that by 9AM our lives would be forever changed. The massacre on Virginia Techs campus occurred only a mile from our home. Thirty-three were dead. Our family and friends were devastated. Our community was shocked.

As Erica returned from the Governor’s School that morning, she found herself literally and metaphorically trapped. Physically unable to get home, she was placed in lockdown with the students of a rival high school. Metaphorically, however, she was also trapped: No longer a well-rounded self-directed learner, but a public school student caught in the academic rat race.

Erica knew she needed to do something, both for her grieving community and for herself. Thus, with the spirit of a true life learner, she relinquished her scholarship and withdrew from the Governor’s School just prior to the start of her senior year. Today, Erica is once again a balanced teen. Still headed for college but with a much better appreciation for the limited role of academic-only success.

Life learning at any age is far from easy and encouraging the self-directed learner requires endless faith. While young children struggle with math or reading, young adults face larger issues. Allowing Erica to choose school at the age of 13 was far from easy, but holding her back would clearly conflict with a firmly established self-directed learning approach. Perhaps if I had considered the future, I would have left a contingency clause, telling my children they are free to self-direct their education in any way they chose, but only within the box I select. But I left no such contingency. Walking the line between parental intervention and child self-direction is never easy. Though we hold safety nets for our children, I often wonder why there are no such nets for adults.

In the end, I have learned to trust my children. I have also learned that perhaps the greatest joy in parenting a self-directed learner comes not through academic success, but through watching your child become a successful adult. It is my hope that when others will read Erica’s inspirational essay (see below) they will take heart and know that their children are listening, learning, and modeling, even when it seems they are not.

* * * *

Re-choosing Life Learning
by Erica K. Gotow

We lifted the last of the gleaming black bags onto the pile, nine trash bags threatening to burst with old candy wrappers, slimy coke cans and receipts that read “Thank you for shopping at the Virginia Tech Bookstore.” What had started out as picking up a few empty cans at the duck pond on Virginia Tech’s campus, ended in a full day of community service.

paper crane

Because I had been school-free until high school, extracurricular activities and community service were in no way extracurricular. They were as much a part of our curriculum as was English, math and science. My brothers and I were taught that knowledge is an enabler, a catalyst not valued unless used. Knowledge of a cure alone will not save lives, just as thinking about pollution will not clean a pond. I’ve harbored this notion for as long as I can remember. However, under the pressure to learn, to take the most rigorous classes and achieve top grades, these lessons were pushed into dormancy as I entered Blacksburg High School in fall of 2004. Eager to explore all that high school had to offer, I ran headlong into every class, gifted program and academic opportunity that came my way. Though I excelled in the track that I had put myself in, something was missing.

On the morning of April 16, 2007, I was attending the South West Virginia Governor’s School, as I had been every morning for months. At 10:30AM, I boarded the bus for my high school and awaited the long journey back. Yet as I sat working out Calculus problems, struggling to avoid the slipping of my pencil as the bus bounced, I realized that we were on the wrong road. We were headed towards Christiansburg High School, a rival school in the adjacent town. Clueless as to the tragedy occurring only miles from my home, I was ushered out of the bus and placed in lockdown with the students of Christiansburg High. The hours passed slowly as I waited for information and to finally be reunited with my family.

Once safely home, I turned on the TV and sat spellbound. I found myself watching a community pull itself together, offering out every form of support and condolence possible. Individuals stood with their arms wide open, their businesses ready to contribute. Our entire community was grieving. I wanted to help, to do something, anything. But what could a 16-year-old have to contribute?

My grandfather, a Virginia Tech physics professor, mentioned that the physics department intended to fold a thousand paper cranes as a gift for each of the wounded students. The cranes would be hung in their hospital rooms as a symbol of hope. I was eager to be involved. For hours, my grandfather and I sat hunched over on the living room floor, folding small squares of optimistic paper, more than 300 in all. I finished the last of the folds and tossed the little black bird aside. Three hundred paper cranes, a huge assortment of colors and patterns, all lying motionless in a large cardboard box on our floor.

After the Virginia Tech Massacre, I was left feeling helpless. But by becoming involved, I found myself empowered. Our cranes were delivered to the area hospitals, along with thousands more made by other individuals. Hung in long chains, they filled each patient’s room. Extra cranes were sent to the Virginia Tech student’s center where they can still be found today under a sign which reads: “Take as many as you need. We are Virginia Tech: We will prevail.”

Through this experience, I realized what I had been missing; being a part of my community. I had been absorbing masses of information yet hadn’t been using it. Homework, AP exams, and research; there had to be more. I needed to get involved. I needed time. I needed a change. While many doors had opened through my attendance at the South West Virginia Governor’s School, an equal number had closed. Three hours a day spent in commute and a schedule full of classes suddenly felt constricting. After numerous discussions with my parents and school counselors, I made the difficult decision to restructure my life, just before the start of my senior year.

As fall comes to a close, I am happy to say that I have once again found myself dragging wet trash bags around Virginia Tech’s campus. Community trail maintenance, Habitat for Humanity, food drives, recycling and clean-up projects, and walking dogs at the local shelter, I’ve found what I was missing. Extracurricular activities and community service are no longer extracurricular, but once again, a part of my total learning experience.

Ann Lloyd is a life learning veteran and the author of two books: Just ‘Til I Finish This Chapter… and Tips and Tricks for Homeschooling Survival (available through or She is currently a doctoral student in Housing/ Family Studies at VA Tech. Her work has been published in a number of homeschooling magazines. This was her third contribution to Life Learning, and was published in 2008.

Erica K. Gotow is Ann Lloyd's daughter. She was school-free through eighth grade, then attended Blacksburg High School for three years prior to restructuring her life to create more time for community service and extracurricular activities. This was her first article published in Life Learning.

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