Everyone is talking about education. Waiting for Superman,
budget cuts, teen suicides, charter schools, healthier school lunches, colleges
flooded with applications, student debt, student loans that go forever,
elite preschools, KIPP, abstinence only sex ed, gay kids at prom, no child
left behind, teachers’ unions, rubber rooms, standardized testing, teacher
suicides, cutting music and art classes, where it all is going, what we
might be able to do, whether we should do it, and if it really works at
all. And then there are the people who drop out. The people who don’t start
in the first place. People like me. We’re still a tiny minority – about
three percent of the population, according to some studies (the exact numbers
are never really clear). But we have a lot to say about education."
I was homeschooled. I write it as one word. Maybe I
was unschooled, because we didn’t use many textbooks. But there were a few.
I use “homeschooled” because people recognize it as a thing. I use “unschooled”
to differentiate from eighty percent of the people who educate at home for
religious reasons. I’m not passionate about either title. The point is,
I did not go to school.
People always ask me, “Which one of your parents taught
That’s still the way everyone thinks about learning.
There’s a teacher and a bunch of students. There’s an adult who knows more,
and some kids who know less. And the adult stands there and tells the kids
things. And the kids learn.
Neither one of my parents taught me, and, of course,
they both did. Just as everyone’s parents teach them things about being
alive. And skills for navigating the world. And to cover their mouths when
they yawn. I learned how fun it is to sit and gossip for hours from my dad.
From my mom, I learned the value of occasional ritualistic formality. (Requesting
that everyone share something they’d like to improve about the world at
a holiday gathering. Or having the gathering in the first place.) I learned
how to make wildly creative sandwiches. I learned how to write thank you
notes. But most of the “Can you tell me what six times seven is” type of
instruction stopped when I was ten or so. After that, my mother’s role in
my education was more like that of a guidance counselor. I checked in with
her. We worked on various curricula that I mostly didn’t follow, because
I had so many other books I wanted to read, and so many of my own, critically
time-sensitive projects to complete.
People stopped me constantly, along the way, to ask
me what my family did for lab. How did we get the equipment? It would’ve
been a lot easier if I could’ve just said, “We don’t. We don’t do lab.”
I mean, we looked at strands of our hair through a microscope and read biology
books, so I probably could’ve, but I felt like the world might not be ready.
So I said things about auditing college classes and local community-based
opportunities. You know, the community science lab, where little unschoolers
can clock in all the hours they need with a genuine cow’s eyeball and a
scalpel. There was a homeschooling resources catalogue that sold cows’ eyes.
I said absolutely not. Absolutely, absolutely not. Mom thought it might
be fun. She thought everything might be fun.
People stopped me to ask about socialization. That’s
the big one. Can you talk to other people? Do you have friends? How weird
are you? (Educated guess, their expressions said: probably pretty weird.)
Here’s the good and bad news: I’m sort of normal. I
spent a lot of time when I was younger pretending to be exceptional. It
felt like the only way to justify my abnormal upbringing. I put on a show
for every adult in sight, trying to prove that home- schoolers weren’t just
socially capable, we were all geniuses.
College was not something it occurred to me to care
terribly about. I already had this complete life. I was working, teaching
regularly, writing terrible fantasy novels, and writing music. I didn’t
have any interest in picking a single career path, and I didn’t see the
point in sitting in a classroom, after all those years of avoiding just
But I went. It was almost as though my parents weren’t
sure what happened at eighteen, other than college. They’d enabled me to
come this far, on my own, but there was no question about me joining the
schooled world eventually.
In college, I learned how to be bored for the first
time. I know I’m supposed to talk about how enlightening the experience
was. College always opens the world up for everyone. That’s practically
its tagline: College: Opening Up The World. I guess my world was too open
already. I learned how stressful being good at something was. You have to
stay ahead constantly. I learned how to doodle. Before then, I’d painted
and sketched. But now I was doodling endless circles and swirls and stacks
of bricks in the margins of notebook after notebook. And I forgot how to
think that I could do more than one thing. I forgot how to be a homeschooler.
And after a while, when I realized that, I missed it.
When they find out that I was homeschooled, people
ask me, “Did you like it?”
It’s such a simple question. Like, so, you had a forty-year
career as a statistician. Did you like it? You walked on the moon; did you
I always say yes. Of course I liked it! I got to sleep
until ten! What’s not to like? I didn’t get graded! I didn’t take any standardized
tests before the SAT. I didn’t ever have to raise my hand. I wore ridiculous
outfits and no one told me they were ridiculous. Everyone should try it!
It’s not a simple world. Not everyone who wants to
has the economic ability to homeschool, especially not with very young children.
And sometimes, when I’m being very mature and serious, or moping, or feeling
insecure, or feeling like a total realist, I think that it’s not completely
clear to me what I gained from school (college) and what I gained from unschooling.
It’s all mixed together now. I do know though, with complete certainty,
that I liked myself a lot more as an unschooler. I thought I had more potential.
I thought I could do anything. Maybe learning that you can’t do anything
is just a part of growing up. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a part of being
Kate Fridkis used to learn without school.
Then she received a Master’s from Columbia University but decided to become
a writer. She has written for a variety of magazines and websites, and blogs
at Eat the Damn Cake. She is
a new mother and lives in Manhattan with her family.