From Skipping School to Choosing
By Theresa Shea
I remember the days when cloth diapers hung like
flags of surrender from my backyard clothesline. In those days of sleep
deprivation, constant breastfeeding, and endless potty training, I remember
wondering what, if anything, I knew about being a mother.
When my eldest son was five years old, I went to
my first homeschooling meeting. By a stroke of good fortune, I had stumbled
upon a niche in the community that I didn’t know existed. Friends started
to homeschool. You’re doing what? A new neighbor homeschooled her girls.
You what? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know children could skip
school, but once that option presented itself, I could not ignore it, and
I’ll be forever grateful to the folks who showed me this hidden path that
I would not have found on my own.
A number of questions were on my mind as I showed
up at my first homeschooling meeting. What on earth was I doing? What would
my mother say? My friends? Was I simply lazy and didn’t want to get up early
five days a week to get my son to school? Could I hang out with my kids
on a daily basis and be kind to them? Why not send them off to school just
to have some solitary time? One of the first topics of conversation in those
early meetings was “Late Readers.” Some of the parents shared stories of
how their children hadn’t read until they were twelve. Twelve! I couldn’t
pinpoint the exact age when I had learned to read, but since I’d been a
bookworm as a child, I was fairly confident it had been well before grade
seven. And yet the parents said so many things I’d never given consideration
to. Children learn to crawl and walk at different ages, they said, and children
also learn how to read at different ages. The main message was to trust
that all would be well. There was no life-long damage done by walking late
or reading late. The parents said other things that piqued my curiosity
too, so I decided to give it a go.
As I’ve written in
earlier articles in this magazine, my husband and I soon realized that
by homeschooling our three children, we were getting away with something
big. I felt like we’d discovered a treasure that few people knew existed.
We didn’t set our alarm clock and have the mad rush to get out the door
for school. We didn’t join the hoards of humanity for the Back to School
shopping battles. We didn’t make school lunches. We didn’t follow set bedtimes
in order to get up early for school. We didn’t have homework after the kids
had been in school all day. And, best of all, we were free to take vacations
twelve months of the year. Heck, we didn’t even do curriculum! When people
questioned what we did all day, I replied, “Just think of it as the seven-day
Those early years passed too quickly, and the initial
freedom of having an unstructured life with young kids at home soon waned
and became more structured as they got older and joined activities that
dictated our schedule (mostly sports and music). Every fall, I asked my
kids what they wanted to do, and every year they said they wanted to keep
homeschooling. So we continued to do what we knew, and the house remained
The Teen Years
But the homeschooling community starts to thin out
when children enter their teens. My eldest son’s best friends both decided
to go to junior high school when they turned twelve. I was worried that
he’d be lonely, so I asked him if he wanted to go too; I think I even encouraged
him to go, but he chose to stay home, and three more years passed. By the
time high school rolled around, however, he changed his tune. “I think I
want to go to school,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “Give me one good reason.”
“Because I’m tired of being different.”
Like my other two children, my eldest had been unschooled.
Aside from his year of two of Mathletics, an online math “game” that he
“played” when he felt like it, he had done no structured learning. Although
he was a voracious reader, he never wanted to write, and he also didn’t
stray much from the genre books he enjoyed. He didn’t read history. He expressed
no interest in science. In short, he had little to no experience of what
it was like to “do” school and to meet deadlines. We went to our neighborhood
high school’s Open House and entered the older brick building that educates
fifteen hundred teenagers in any given year.
I looked at all the “schooled” teenagers who’d be
his peers, and I began to worry. Then my worry turned to fear. What had
I set my son up for? What failure awaited? Had it all been a mistake? And
to what extent had the homeschooling been to my benefit and not to his?
I tried to keep my fears to myself, but in my heart
of hearts I believed he was entirely unprepared. What had I done?
Because he had no official marks for academic courses,
his homeschooling facilitator [part of the system's formalities where I
live] vouched that he’d be okay in Social Studies, English, and Math. We
met with the Vice-Principal. Sitting outside his office, I quelled the urge
to apologize for my choice to homeschool my boy.
And I continued to worry. In fact, that whole summer
I worried. The rubber was about to meet the road, so to speak, and I would
soon see if homeschooling had prepared my son for the schooled life he was
about to start. I tried to get him to write an essay. He refused. I tried
to get him to look at some grade nine math. He refused. Every time I looked
at him, I wondered how I could better prepare him for school. I had eight
weeks to give him a crash course in learning. He began to avoid me.
One day in the grocery store, I met the two neighbor
girls, now in university, who’d been homeschooled until junior high. They
knew my son, and I shared my fear. “He just seems so immature!” I confessed.
“High school is full of immature boys,” they said.
The last two weeks of August passed at a snail’s
pace. My son and I went “Back to School” shopping. We bought binders and
paper and pencils and pens and locks and stuff. We bought food for lunches.
First Day of School
The first day of school arrived.
My son was awake before the alarm.
He ate breakfast.
He got on his bike and rode off.
I have to say that I’m incredibly impressed by the
courage it takes for a child to arrive in a setting in which every other
child already knows the system. It takes courage for a fifteen-year-old
who no longer wants to be different to try to fit in.
Since it was his choice to go to school, I told him
he was responsible for how he performed there. And then I played my best
card: “If I find out that you’re not respectful while you’re there, or if
I find out you’re skipping classes and not doing your work, then I’ll pull
you. It’s a privilege to go to school,” I said, “not a right.”
So what happened? My son passed grade ten with little
difficulty. He is not a genius; he doesn’t even work that hard. If he did,
I think he’d easily have gotten A’s. As it is, with minimum effort, he received
mostly B’s. I had been most afraid of math (because that’s not my strength),
but he passed with a C, having done no curriculum (I’m not even sure I could
run his calculator!). That he could walk into grade ten and pass all of
his courses both amazes and depresses me. Shouldn’t he have struggled more?
Been more behind? After all, if you include kindergarten, he’d skipped school
for ten years. Ten years!!! But he walked right in as if he’d been there
all along, and nobody could tell that he hadn’t been.
In short, my son impresses me.
He’s in grade eleven now, and the worry has long
gone. I often joke with my eldest and tell him he’s my “trainer child,”
but it’s true. He’s my frontrunner. He’s the one who takes me places I haven’t
gone before. He decided, for example, that he wants a high school diploma
and is taking full curriculum. School is not a lot of work for the amount
he seems to get from it. His days now have a structure, and he likes that.
He writes essays. He does homework. He even does presentations when necessary.
If my daughter goes to high school next year, I will
not worry. And if my youngest goes in two years, I will not worry.
It’s been an amazing learning curve for me. Time
and time again, I’ve told other parents that they need to trust their children.
To some extent, the experience of having an unschooled child transition
into being a schooled child has shown me that I let my own fear and worry
erode that trust. I “hoped” he’d be okay, but I didn’t “trust” that he would
be. Again, how could he possibly have missed ten years of education and
not be behind? Every “what if” scenario I played was negative. I never once,
for instance, asked my- self, “What if my son does really, really well?”
In this case, I can honestly say that my son has
exceeded my expectations. Isn’t that lovely?
I’m not worried about whether or not he’ll want to
go to university or college. I’m not convinced either is necessary. And
it’s wonderful not to feel the pressure of wanting something too much for
This article is less about my son, I realize, than
it is about me. My fears surrounding his attending high school revolved
around my belief that something substantial had been taught in grades one
through nine. So even when I dismissed what other children did in school,
knowing full well that much of what was learned inside a school building
was also easily learned at home or in the community, I nevertheless believed
that my son had missed something important. Somehow I lived with those two
Now that we’re into his second year of high school,
I miss him less than I did last year. It was a big adjustment having him
gone all day while still having two children at home. (It was almost like
having two different families.) But it was also a bit of a relief. I remember
another homeschooling mom saying she was relieved when her girls went to
school because someone else was responsible for their education. I understand
that now. Even as an unschooler, I still felt responsible for guiding and
facilitating my son’s interests.
This year, he also got a job. So now he’s in school
and he’s working. Where did the time go? Just yesterday the days were our
own. Looking back on our unschooled life together, I still think we got
away with something big. Having skipped ten years of school, my son arrived
at the imposing brick building with a fresh mind. He wasn’t burned out.
He was just getting started.
As for me, I re-learned, yet again, to trust my child’s
lead. It is my hope that I’ll take this stronger trust and apply it to the
future challenges that are sure to come. Tonight, for example, my son talked
about working in Fort McMurray, Alberta when he graduates, so he can save
money. What? He’s got a buddy, apparently, who can get him a job. Fort McMurray?
However, having had my trust so recently reinforced, I know that if my boy
can walk into grade ten, he can surely walk into a new job in Fort McMurray,
or anywhere else for that matter. I will not worry, for I now believe that
his early years of unschooling have set him up for anything.
Theresa Shea is the author of The Unfinished
Child, a novel that deals with female friendship, prenatal testing, and
Down syndrome. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, with her husband and three
children (when this was written in 2015, one was schooled, two unschooled).
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