February 25, 2012

When School Goes Against Your Very Nature.

I was born severely allergic to school.

Not to learning, but to school.

There is just no other way to put it. Sitting in those little chairs when my whole being wanted to move, sharing the teacher with so many other children, being told to color inside the lines when I was wired to think outside the box: all of this and much more, just seemed to stifle my indomitably wild and creative nature.

School seemed to be a place that had obviously omitted my kind from its design considerations.

“Why aren’t more of the children resisting this?”, I thought. “Am I the only one who doesn’t feel entirely welcomed here?”

Some of my earliest memories are of my three-year-old-self screaming and kicking, and reaching out to my mother with tears in my eyes, as she handed me over to my kindergarten teacher every morning.

Stuck in a room filled with other children my age and only one adult to tend to us felt so unnatural to me. I wanted my mother’s undivided attention back. I missed her. School seemed to be telling me that heartbreak was acceptable, even necessary.

Then there was the trust issue. School taught me that people don’t always trust you. The older boys had stolen my homework, but even after I had explained that to my teacher she still made me stand in a corner.

There were rules, she said: “No homework, no playtime.” This happened to me repeatedly in kindergarten. I have memories of standing in that corner, peeking over my shoulder as I watched my classmates frolic in their tailored, little catholic school uniforms, wondering why my teacher didn’t believe me. Mother always believed me, even when I saw fairies in the flowers outside my bedroom window. My voice had lost its power.

At school I had somehow become less believable, less trustworthy, and definitely less important. I even felt somewhat disposable alongside the rigid rules that were to be upheld at any cost, even if it meant losing me. What were these rules anyway? Allegedly made for the benefit of the group, they seemed to sacrifice the individual. Some of them felt downright dehumanizing to me. Who invented these rules, I wondered. I wanted no part of it.

So, in elementary school, I was the girl who danced on the tables when the teacher went out of the room and enticed the other children into wild, imaginative games.

When I turned six my parents sympathized with my plight and enrolled me in a very liberal, private school. But school was school, and even there my “allergic condition” acted up, which translated into my spending most of my math classes hiding under playground equipment the teachers could not fit into.

“Come on out or you won’t get to have recess!” they threatened. But I was already having a great time in the playground! I’d have to be a fool to come out, I thought. Was school trying to turn me into a fool?

“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.”

~Leo Buscaglia

At the age of eight I equated obedience with those of impressionable, simple, easily manipulated minds. And I certainly didn’t want to think of myself as having one of those! Naturally, I became one of the school’s main mischief-makers and was often kept afterschool, cleaning classrooms as punishment. The school’s principal and I were on a first name basis. She liked me because I was smart, she said. But apparently not in any of the ways the school rules needed me to be.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

~ Albert Einstein

As a child I noticed that there seemed to be “right” and “wrong” ways to learn. Most of institutionalized education’s “right” ways of learning seemed to clash with my free spirit; with my natural learning pace and inextinguishable curiosity. It clashed with my need for movement, and the outdoors, and stimulation that affected me on all levels.

In public high school I hated the impersonal bureaucracy. The red tape that said I could not continue my foreign language classes and take psychology at the same time, because I had already used up my two electives.

“You can give up art”, the guidance counselor announced with apathetic nonchalance. Give up art? The only class I actually enjoy? Never.

So I reluctantly dropped French in my fourth year, because of the required computer technology course. No one seemed to care that I had already mastered use of my father’s Mac.

“It’s not what you know”, the guidance counselor told me, “It’s your participation in the required courses that counts.”

So they chucked my life experience, and I ditched their computer class, and they told me I would not be able to graduate without it. Negotiations? Well, this is an American public school we are talking about, so… no.

There is no negotiation. Ever. You follow their rules, or you fail. Period.

Technically, I was missing a few credits here and there of their “required” subjects. Never mind that I had an excess of credits in other areas. Never mind that I aced all my college credit dual-enrollment classes. I refused to waste my time sitting in a classroom, under the aura-disrupting buzz of florescent lights, learning a bunch of fluff I already knew, just to appease their senseless system. Yes, I knew the “consequences”, and felt I could live with them, so I dropped out of high school, and my little sister followed.

But it wasn’t really defiance and frustration that made us drop out of school. It was depression.

We would come home from school feeling as if the wind had been blown out of our sails. And yet, as Leonardo da Vinci once observed:

“Real learning never exhausts the mind.”

Yes, we were as miserable in school as birds in cages. We resisted it from the start. Our mother had to bribe us with toys and books to go. Lulu and I felt trapped there. We longed to be free, and school seemed to try to squish us into little boxes we didn’t fit into, and then make us feel defective when we didn’t. So, when we dropped out of high school, it felt more like a means of self-preservation.

Yes! Freedom!

Being on the outside felt liberating; like we could breathe again; like we could be ourselves; ike learning and pleasure could finally become friends again!

Because, you see, my sister and I actually loved learning. Ironically, we considered ourselves good students. And now we were free to really learn!

The least of the work of learning is done in the classroom.

~Thomas Merton

To the school board however, Lulu and I became part of the faceless, poor-learning 1.3 million students who drop out of school every year in the United States.

We were a statistic that represented failure. But the failure, as we experienced it, was not our failure to conform to the system, but the system’s failure to recognize, honor and accommodate our style of learning. Which —judging by statistics— doesn’t seem to be that uncommon after all.

After we emancipated ourselves from the stifling high school environment, Lulu and I turned our everyday living into learning. And we surrounded ourselves with everything school had deprived us of. Ah! The relief of not submitting to the system’s assessment of what we “required” to be educated. Instead…

We decided on our own —totally independently of any superimposed authority— what we wanted to learn, how we wanted to learn it, the pace and depth at which we would do it, and the means through which we would learn it.

It was empowering!

Why give all that over to someone else?

Nothing could have been sweeter. We had gone from starving in the militaristic, monotonous desert of school, to the exciting and nourishing lifestyle of two thriving autodidacts. (From the Greek words auto, or self and didaktikos, or teaching/taught.)

Lulu spent endless hours on the piano, practicing her violin and learning Russian, while I devoured Karl Marx and Eric Fromm, and covered my parent’s large living room floor with materials for my art collages. I painted, she collected vintage fashions, and together we harmonized melodies on our father’s Spanish guitar.

We hung out in university libraries, took ghost tours of local historical districts and met other radicals every Sunday morning for peace marches at the bay. We protested outside laboratories that tested on animals, and in front of fancy restaurants that served veal, with our shocking homemade signs that slowed traffic.

Driven by our own interests and curiosity, my little sister and I turned anything we wanted to into an educational experience. I designed my own line of clothing; my sister modeled.

We had our hearts set on Paris so we practiced our French at fancy pastry shops, to the meter in Baudelaire’s love poems.

We packed up our mother’s Volvo station wagon and drove it up California’s mountains; dipped in desert hot springs and visited organic date farms where residents lived in teepees. We danced under the full moon at reggae festivals, hit the art museums in Manhattan and even watched Mikhail Baryshnikov dance like there was no tomorrow.

We’d have to be crazy to turn all that in for school!

What was school anyway?

As Paulo Freire so aptly put it, education as we knew it,

“transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power”.

Lulu and I wanted to improve the world, not to “adjust” to it! We desired to transform it, not yield to it.

So we turned Freire’s Pedagogy of The Oppressed into our own, proud, little anthem. And were ever grateful that we had extremely liberal parents that let us do so. Yes, my sister and I were thankful we hadn’t been given the type of parents that were persuaded by the political conspiracy between the pharmaceutical monopolies and the government to push Ritalin on nonconforming students. Yikes! Now that’s scary!

Surely it’s less dangerous to drug our future generations than allow their creativity to naturally run amuck. Stagnant order is preferable in the public school system to dynamic progress, if this is outside their control. Students only have three options in this paradigm: surrender, rock the boat or jump ship. So my little sister and I jumped. And we’ve not once regretted our decision.

Lulu and I were dreamy, idealistic, artistic youth determined to disregard the status quo and create an alternative way of being.

But what if no one hires you because you lack a college education?

Heck! Does a diploma guarantee you’ll get a job? Plus, we didn’t want to be a part of “the system” of jobs and bosses anyway.

My sister and I favored bartering and generating income in creative ways that inspired real connections between real people. Ways that invented and explored alternatives to the nine-to-fivers and had nothing to do with exploiting others or our planet.

Lulu and I refused to participate in a system that reduced us to numbers, to robots, to factory-working machines without feelings or independent thoughts.

Being a deviant felt so damn good! Yes, we were high school dropouts and proud of it, despite the negative stigma surrounding that label; because we redefined it.

Contrary to the ugly pictures society paints of us, there is no generic portrait of a high school dropout. We are all as unique as the lines on our palms.

At seventeen my sister made it to Paris, backpacked through Europe, went paragliding in the French Riviera, and won all night salsa contests to live music. I, on the other hand, did India and yoga, learned to weave with tribal women in Chaing Mai and philosophized with western Tibbetan Buddhist nuns in Kathmandu.

Instead of school, we opted for attending only lectures of our choice, and book signings where we could chat with the authors. Fun!

(Photo: “Paris Bench” by Yanidel)

But, the sweetest times of all, in our varied adventures in learning, were the meetings of the mind and heart, that occurred most spontaneously on park benches with strangers.

There you discover that the homeless man you just bought an organic fruit smoothie for, had just taught us more about life in a single conversation than any public school teacher would ever be allowed to teach us  in a whole year of schooling.

He taught us about death, and politics, and power by narrating his runs through the jungles of Vietnam with tears in his eyes.

And we had many such encounters, my little sister and I.

We met all kinds of unexpected teachers that appeared on our path of alternative learning, outside of any kind of structure, or implemented rules and regulations or time restraints or schedules or dictates of what was worth learning and what wasn’t.

In our “school” there was no one telling us which lessons were “required” and which weren’t.

Life itself seemed to plan our syllabus, and everything around us pulled us in with the same alluring wonder and excitement that we recognized from our early childhood, when our imaginations grew like wildflowers.

My sister and I didn’t bother to label what we did as homeschooling, or unschooling, or free-schooling, because it just was. It was who we were, and we loved learning. And I have a strong suspicion that all humans love learning.

Sometimes, the best way to discover that, is to separate oneself from all the places where learning is “supposed” to take place, and explore the rest of the world, where learning and living merge into one singular, organic experience.

That’s what Lulu and I did. And we’re still at it. Care to enroll?

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

 ~Albert Einstein


[Photo: “Paris Bench” by Yanidel]


Editor: Andrea B.

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