A long time ago, when books lived in libraries and computers were as
big as houses, there lived a girl who disliked high school. Although she
was usually a very good girl, one day her boredom and despair led her to
break the rules and play hooky. She begged her disapproving boyfriend to
take her with him to the nearby state college, where she sat in the student
center, reading and playing pinball while he attended his classes. After
a few days of this blissful existence, she was discovered and forced to
return to the prison-like high school, where homework was easy and fitting
in was hard, where everything was predictable and nothing was challenging.
Only one teacher was kind to her after her indiscretion. He said, “Don’t
worry. You’ll be out of here soon, and you’ll really like college.”
Back in those days, there were no study guides or tutors
for the SATs. The only piece of advice teachers gave to high school kids
on how to prepare for their college exams was “Get a good night’s sleep
before the test.” The girl who disliked high school did just that, and before
long she was attending the state college where she had once found relief
from her torturous high school life. Being at college—in fact, just being
able to explore the university bookstore—was like taking a walk through
a World’s Fair, where she could sample pieces of different kinds of knowledge
and cultures. Being a liberal arts college student was like being an ivy
plant that grows up a wall, curling around different windowsills and gutter
pipes, turning this way and that way, always seeking the sun and always
growing. At last, the girl who disliked high school felt happy and free.
When she was all grown up, she discovered the world of life
learning and read all the stories about the life learner children whose
parents helped them escape from school, or who never went to school at all.
There was the tale of the little boy whose ADHD slowly vanished when his
parents brought him home from elementary school to learn in his own way.
There was the story about the little girl who played the violin from morning
until night and became a famous musician, and the one about the little boy
who loved doing advanced mathematics before he even had two numbers in his
age. In most of these stories, the life learner children went to college,
and they loved being there. The moral of these stories: School was a bad
thing unless it was college. College was happily ever after.
There is another story about a life learner. It takes place
in the here and now, when books live in cavernous Barnes and Noble stores
and on Amazon.com and inside computers that are as small as your hand. The
girl in this story never went to high school. She never took any tests.
She had lived her whole life as an ivy plant growing up a wall, and nobody
had ever told her which way to grow. She got all the water she needed, and
she liked to be always adding new shoots and always seeking the sun.
All of the young people around this ivy girl were preparing
to go to college, but they weren’t thinking about being ivy plants growing
up a wall. They seemed more interested in being potted plants. They conditioned
their soil by building impressive resumes during their high school years.
Then they took SAT prep courses, and on the night before the test they purposely
didn’t get a good night’s sleep, because sleep was generally frowned upon
as a waste of precious time.
Finally, with their transcripts in hand, the potted plant
students spent weekend after weekend in cars with their parents, traveling
the countryside visiting colleges. Each one had to carefully select the
perfect clay or ceramic pot in which he would spend at least the next four
years. “A pot for everybody, and everybody in a pot,” the voices in the
here and now all seemed to say. In the meantime, the ivy girl just kept
on growing and seeking the sun.
Once the potted plant students were at college, they watered
themselves with just the right courses and pruned themselves with just the
right extracurricular activities. Some of them hoped that they would one
day sit on a high-tech, high-paying windowsill in a socially desirable city,
while others simply wanted to find a stable shelf with a modicum of sunlight
and water. The ivy girl just wanted to keep growing in her own natural way.
She loved writing stories, so that is what she did with most of her time,
putting out new shoots very rapidly sometimes, and then slowing down, but
never stopping and always seeking the sun.
One day she decided to take a college class, just to see
what it would be like. The nearby state college only let in students who
had taken lots of tests and who wanted to come to college every day, so
once each week, the ivy girl took a train to a liberal arts college in the
big city, where anybody could take a class. And there, she received her
first syllabus and met her first professor.
The syllabus confounded her. It was full of dates and deadlines,
which had nothing to do with the way she was accustomed to learning things,
but she adjusted. She molded her mind to fit into the pot that was the class,
and she found that she could meet the deadlines and do the work required.
Of course, there was less room in her head for her stories, so she put them
aside. She liked the professor and the passionate way in which he tried
to communicate the subject matter to his students. Often, he said something
that she was glad to be able to hear and know, but more often she felt trapped
in her chair, forced to look in the same direction for two hours, whether
she was interested or not.
Writing papers for the class was the hardest thing; it was
not like writing her stories. Still, she wrote the papers, and the professor
thought they were just fine. But to the ivy girl they felt dead, not alive
like her stories. When the class ended, she returned to her own writing,
and one day when she had finished a story, she thought, “I wish I could
take the train to the big city right now and put this on the professor’s
desk. This is a real part of me. None of the things I wrote for him were
from my heart and soul, but this is.”
The moral of this last story: college is not inherently
good or bad. It is just one place where plants can grow. How a plant grows
depends on many things, but in the end all that matters is to be always
seeking the sun.
Susan Gaissert lives in New Jersey with her
husband and daughter. From 2008 through 2011, she wrote the unschooling
blog The Expanding Life. She is currently working on the book she feels
born to write: a memoir of her mother’s family and growing up in the 1960s.
Susan is passionate about life learning, books, crocheting, walking, and
New York City, which is her favorite place to take a walk.