For 12 years, I was a teacher at The Free School in Albany, NY. It’s an alternative school based on Democratic Education in which the students decide what they want to learn. Teachers offer classes that are optional to stimulate their thinking, but it’s mainly student directed. I would’ve loved to have gone to a school like that. I was completely bored in school, hated it and did very poorly. All I ever wanted to do was read, write, do art and music and be in nature. That’s pretty much what I want to do now, too. I was smart enough and always did well on tests, but I couldn’t see wasting my time on things that I had already learned or had no interest in learning, when at home I was learning lots from my parents and on my own. I read voraciously and was always very curious. I was the kid who drove adults crazy with my incessant questions, questions like “Why is the sky called a sky instead of a foot or a car or something?” I just wanted to understand everything.
In school, I had to learn what I was told to learn, when it was the right time to learn it. It didn’t matter what I was interested in. There was a routine, a timeline, but that system never worked for me. For instance, I was way ahead of everyone else’s reading level, and reading Dick and Jane made my brain shut down. At home, my mostly stay-at-home mom did science experiments, gardening, arts and crafts and indoor and outdoor games. My dad always sang, filling my life with music, and he was a newspaperman, encouraging and feeding my love of books and writing. He also loved going on educational trips, museums, historical sites, geological wonders, plays, the opera, movies and even botanical gardens for Mom. All our family vacations were full of learning. We went to Gettysburg, Plymouth, Boston, Mystic Seaport and other cool places in the east. Meanwhile, I slogged through school, hating every minute of it. I even let myself be convinced to go to college, but it felt like more of the same, and I failed miserably after one semester. I guess I was born a free spirit. I think that’s what scared my parents so much.
As a mother, I didn’t want my children to have the same experience with school that I did. Like me, my daughter was reading before she started to school. We were living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and she was lucky enough to be in a flexible school environment that allowed her to flourish, encouraging her creativity and letting her read at her own level. Then we moved from the progressive big city to a small town for about a year then to a little teeny rural town near the coast where part of the enrollment process was a form for parents to sign that gave permission to any teacher to spank your child. We didn’t get off to a good start when I refused to sign their form and forbid any of them, including the principal, to lay a hand on my child or threaten her in any way at all or they would be facing a lawsuit. Despite that, I was still willing to give it a try, but she was losing interest fast and, having had an unusual upbringing, was having a hard time fitting in.
Soon, we were moving east again. Who knew for how long? I took her out of school a month early, packed her, her brother and our cat, with all of our belongings, into our VW bus, and their dad and I took them on a long journey, learning our way across the country, talking about all of the states we went through, naming cities, mountain ranges, and rivers we crossed, taking side trips to interesting places and looking at the map all along the way. She probably didn’t learn much math on that trip, but we modeled ingenuity and survival in the face of extreme poverty - a very important economic lesson.
After a summer of settling into Albany, I started looking into school for her. I got discouraged very quickly when the principal of the neighborhood school she was assigned to assured me that there was no need to worry about violence in the school as they were frisking everyone as they came in. Luckily, I found The Free School. My daughter started school there, and I started interning, bringing my toddler along. After one school year, I became a full-time teacher. I loved working there. I taught local history by going on field trips, and I sparked interest in maps by holding scavenger hunts with maps guiding them. I got a student, who refused to learn to read or write, a job application to fill out, illustrating the need for certain skills. There was math baseball, science experiments, music and art and lots and lots of learning through fun and games. My daughter thrived and so did I.
Anatole France said, “Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.” I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had been able to follow my own path of learning. Not that I’m dissatisfied with my life. I love the road I’ve gone down and wouldn’t choose another, but if I had been given the opportunity to blossom early, what would that have looked like? My mother once confessed to me that she wished they had known about alternatives back then, maybe a performing arts school. I know I would have thrived. But is that the right path for everyone? I don’t think so.
Some of us seem to need the structure that school provides. I was so enthralled with the idea of freedom, I didn’t realize that the free school model wasn’t working for either of my sons. I stepped back, letting them try to find their way. But they were not self-motivated in the way my daughter was. My older son was a reader, with no interest in anything else. My youngest son seemed to have no interest in anything. But I stuck it out, hoping he would find his way. It may be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a parent. Looking back, I think he needed discipline, a rigid schedule and higher expectations. I feel as though I let him down, but I didn’t know it at the time, and now it’s too late. His teachers and I tried to create that spark, but nothing caught. Sometimes it would smolder, looking as though it was ready ignite into a great flame, but then it would just die out, leaving him feeling like a failure. That is continuing today. I watch him flounder, wonder if it could have been different, and I will never know.