Monday, February 10, 2014
From Bullying Victim to Unschooling Freedom
Here is Josh's story of his educational experiences from Kindergarten as he reflects on the ups and downs of each grade. We don't often get to hear the student's perspective on how traditional school and the people who run it affect the student.
Longmont, CO USA
The first few years of public school were enjoyable for me. Being a young child, I was very interested with the idea of going to new places, meeting new people and learning new things. I made friends quickly, had a lot of fun trying new things, and my teacher absolutely adored me. I had a strong desire to learn and really enjoyed going to school. Since I am a fairly optimistic person, I had assumed that the rest of my years spent in school would be similar. It turned out that I was wrong.
Middle school proved to be quite a challenging experience. Bullying and other harassment incidents became a huge problem for me by the time I had entered 6th grade. Something about me made others feel the need to hurt me in ways I had previously not thought other kids to be capable of. Following the advice of school counselors, I tried to ignore it and just focus on my education. I felt like school was something I had to get through in order to be successful in life. As time dragged on the bullying became worse, more hurtful, and more dangerous. During this time I realized that not only are peers capable of bullying, teachers and staff are too.
I had started getting into a lot of fights by the time I hit 8th grade. As if the experience of being in a fight wasn't bad enough, the staff handled it horribly. I was the one being sent home for 'provoking' the other students. The ones who were hurting me and hindering my ability to learn were the ones who never got in trouble for some odd reason. In addition to this, there was a lot of gang activity going on within the school. Of course, the staff was completely oblivious to everything that was happening. When I tried to talk with school counselors about the difficulties I was having, their solution was to have a meeting with the students involved. The meeting would take place and kids would promise to stop harassing me. It sounded good, but their behavior didn’t change.
I didn't really like any of my teachers during this time. They always seemed out to get me and tried to place the blame on me. Myself, along with a lot of other students, were very concerned that these teachers weren't passionate about teaching at all. Some of them seemed to hate their students. This was further reinforced by the fact that one of our teachers told us that she was just in it for the money, and she didn't care if we learned anything or not. After she told us that, we filed a complaint, but again nothing changed. Trying to learn and grow in such a negative and hostile environment was definitely a challenge.
Various incidents occurred over the course of middle school that caused me to question if a traditional public school education was right for me. The thing I had once enjoyed had turned me into a rather pessimistic and miserable person. The three years I spent in middle school wasn’t entirely bad. I did have the support of a few close friends that helped me through everything. I suppose that's why I ended up making it through middle school and into high school.
Going into high school things started to get slightly better and my optimism had started to return. It became easier for me to learn as the bullies started to fade away. There were a few minor altercations, but it was nothing like what I had experienced back in 8th grade. I enjoyed the majority of my teachers and classes. I found it easier to make friends. High school brought along a new sense of freedom that I didn't know could exist in school. We were allowed a lot of choice in what classes we could take. I really liked selecting my own schedule too. Within the classes, we had some choices about what projects we could do. Things were starting to look up and I was hopeful about being able to complete high school.
My promising outlook didn't last very long. After my first semester of high school, I became very sick. My sleep schedule became very sporadic and I was sleeping nearly eighteen to nineteen hours every day. I was not able to return to school because of my sickness. The doctors had diagnosed me with post viral fatigue, possibly from mononucleosis. I was essentially bed-ridden for almost 6 months. This illness caused me to miss out on my promising high school experience. Unable to attend school, I lost friends. There were even rumors going around that I had died. What happened as a result of getting sick was one of the worst possible things that could happen to me.
The staff at the school caught word of my sickness and they called my mom and me in for a meeting. They were seriously concerned that I was faking it. They threatened to take my Mom to court for not making me go to school. They had thought I was ditching class for several months and treated me like a criminal. They did not believe that I was unable to attend school, even after seeing the state that I was in. After the meeting was over, they escorted my mom out of the building and forced me to attend class. I was unable to make it through even one class, so I spent the day in the nurse’s office.
I felt betrayed and confused. They didn't trust me nor did they trust the countless doctor's reports that we had sent them. It was at this moment that I realized I simply could not continue to pursue a public education. It was also the moment I realized that I had actually been hindering my own opportunity to learn by attending a public school. I wanted to change the course of my education, but had no idea what direction to head. The public school system had failed me. I was not a problem kid, but they assumed that I was. Instead of working with me to figure out a plan for my education that would help me, they just let me fall through the cracks.
It was during early summer that my sickness had begun to fade. I started to have a little more energy and was looking forward to feeling good enough to enjoy my summer. I was only sleeping 10 to 12 hours a night and felt a little better. My doctor said that I was coming out of the worst of it and I would slowly be able to rebuild my strength in the coming months. During this time my mom received a call from my high school. They informed her that it was mandatory that I attended summer school. If I didn’t, then I wasn’t going to pass my freshman year. I didn't really know what I was going to do at that point.
Unaware of any other options, my mom worked out a plan with the school to send a teacher over to our house every day. I wasn't particularly fond of the idea, but it was still better than having to get up and go to a classroom. It was extremely hard work. I had to essentially do a full semester's worth of work in less than three months. The good news was that if I managed to pull it off, I would be able to pass my freshman year and resume my sophomore education in the fall. Despite the fact that I worked extremely hard on all of my assignments, they still did not pass me. They had betrayed my trust yet again. All of my hard work had been for absolutely nothing. I spent three months doing everything they asked me to do and when I completed what was asked of me, they told me that it just wasn’t enough and I would have to repeat the semester.
It was at that point that my mom and I decided to pull me out of public school. I cannot express how grateful I am that we made that choice. My mom had heard about West River Academy through a friend of a friend. She did some research on the concept of unschooling and we decided it was a good choice. I was then enrolled in West River Academy from that point on. Knowing that I learned better in an unstructured environment, I took an instant liking to the concept of unschooling. I once again was taking an interest in my education, now that my input was being heard. I loved being able to choose what I wanted to learn and when.
It was as if nearly all of my problems faded away after leaving public school. Without the pressure of meaningless assignments in memorization, I was blessed with the time to find out who I was and who I wanted to become. I learned more in the first six months of unschooling than I had in three years of middle school. Information-based knowledge is great, but you simply cannot become intelligent without real life experience. Going out and enjoying life has proven far more valuable for me than memorizing outdated information from a few textbooks. Being out in the world experiencing life, rather than being locked in a classroom is very helpful and important for a person like me.
I am no longer pessimistic, miserable or weighed down by the atrocities of the public education system. I am truly myself and I am free. I am allowed to learn about things that interest me and learn them in my own way. I discovered that I still love to learn, but am unable to do so in a rigid, outdated and controlling environment. I now have goals, aspirations and dreams. I have developed goals that I wouldn't have thought myself to be capable of. I think that public school made me feel like I was never good enough. Constant judgment caused me to feel like I couldn't achieve my goals. I felt that since everything I worked so hard on would be graded, criticized and deemed not good enough that I developed the attitude of “why even bother doing it at all?”
It has been said that public school prepares you for life and helps you achieve your goals. My experience with the public education system has proven the opposite. While I do agree that it is important to be well educated, I believe that it is also very important to be able to go about it in my own way. I believe that people should be allowed to focus on their inherent natural talents and abilities, not forced to memorize facts about things that hold no interest for them. I am very much a hands-on learner, and public school didn't allow me the freedom to learn through exploration. Unschooling has given me everything that I've wanted out of an education. I look forward to creating my future. I am creative, optimistic and free, just like I was when I was a little kid.