Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why I Hated School. . .

Just a random photo from Sunday’s pretty 5-mile river walk.

(This super-long post was motivated (sort of) by the Mt. Pisgah photo-post below it. Also, regarding the blue post title--I can get to the place where I can redesign my post titles, but no option for changing the color shows up. I can only change font and font size size or make it bold or italic. I don't know if I can bear this blue color, so if anyone can save me from having to look at it, let me know!)

Last evening, as we hiked up Mt. Pisgah and had our birthday and solstice celebration on top, I found myself bursting with excess energy and wanting to run and bounce and jump up on things and hug everyone and sing “the hills are alive with the sound of music” as I danced through the long summit grass, but I mostly restrained myself and retained my dignity. I’m generally a happy—often exuberant—person but these energy and mood super-surges happen to me when I am stimulated by something I enjoy or particularly love. And several of these elements came together last evening—perfect, sunny weather; being outside in the fresh air; hiking (just about my favorite thing to do); beautiful scenery and stunning views; really great, enthusiastic family and friends; and the energy of children (who I love). It was a “perfect storm” of positive stimulation!

As we headed down the hill in the dusk, after the sun had settled below the western horizon, the kids were running back and forth and down side trails, and, tingling with energy, I wanted nothing more than to run off with them. But, again, I attempted to retain my dignity, and I walked, visiting, with the adults. This was by no means difficult because I quite enjoy the company of my adult friends, and I am also quite able to control the impulse to do something entirely embarrassing. But I ended up walking with my niece and nephew for awhile, and when another sidetrail showed up, I took off running and said, “Come on! Let’s go this-a-way! They followed. I was tearing along, screeching and laughing (and the kids were too) because we were going really fast, and I didn’t have on my glasses, so I was having the hardest time avoiding the bumps and holes and boulders that were coming at me so fast. But I made it safely to where the side-trail reconnected with the main trail, and about six people (and one dog) had followed me. They all continued down the mountain, while I waited for the adults to catch up.

As I stood there, I thought to myself, “You’re 53-years-old for goodness sake! Why do you have to do that kind of thing?!” And I wondered what it is in me that gets me so full-to-bursting with energy when I am stimulated. It sometimes makes me feel hopelessly immature. It also brings to mind something that happened several years ago.

(I may have told the following story on my old blog, but I think it bears repeating to make my point.)

My daughter, Aimee, worked at a doctor’s office in our hometown. Quite often, drug representatives would cater really great lunches for office employees in order to buy themselves that hour to pitch their drugs. One day, after one of these lunches, my daughter came home and told me something she thought was funny.

The drug representative of the day (a woman) began the lunch meeting by reading a list of personality traits or characteristics and asked the office staff to count how many traits they thought represented them. After reading not too far down the list, the drug rep heard my daughter snicker something to a co-worker, so she asked Aimee if she thought the list described her. “No,” Aimee said. “It’s my mom!”

Well, the list happened to be the traits of ADD (or ADHD—I don’t remember now), and after the lunch-time meeting, the drug rep took Aimee aside and said, “Here’s a more comprehensive and diagnostic list of ADD traits. Do you think these accurately describe your mother?”


“Well, she can really be helped by this medication. I think she might find that she is able to cope with the demands of life much better with it.” She handed Aimee some brochures and told her to give them to me so that I could investigate the drugs.

Aimee said, “There’s no way my mom is going to take medication. And, anyway, she’s coping perfectly fine by herself.”

The woman insisted I should know about it, though, so when Aimee walked in the door that evening, she handed me the materials and laughingly informed me that I needed help. We both thought it was really funny, but we both also knew that I really might be labeled ADD or ADHD if I were seriously tested. And so might some of you. Or your children.

I was always a highly energetic, curious child. I was happiest running and climbing and jumping and playing tackle football and baseball and tearing all over the neighborhood on my bike and climbing trees. But I could also be still and quiet. I loved to look at books and play house and spend time by myself. I could focus intensely for extremely long periods of time on something that was interesting to me. In fact, I loved quietness. I loved thinking. I loved learning new things.

And then I went to school, and, let me tell you, sitting in my desk alllll day long was not easy. I was a good girl, though, who never wanted to displease the adults in my life, so I developed strategies for keeping my seat planted in my chair as painlessly as possible. I had a number of little games I’d play with my fingers under the desk. I made up stories in my head and let my imagination run wild. I learned not to look at the clock because it stopped moving when I did. And when recess came, I was a blur, tearing all over the playground until my hyper-energy subsided. And then I played like the normal children.

No one knew about the battle that went on inside me. And no one knew that, because of it, I began to hate school. My struggle wasn’t because the work was difficult for me. In fact, in first grade my teacher put my desk right next to hers partway through the school year and made me her assistant because she worried I would get too far ahead of first grade work and would be bored in second grade. I did attend to what was going on in the classroom, but it wasn’t easy. My mind desperately wanted to wander, and sometimes it did. I would look out the window and long to be outside running and jumping and climbing.

Summers flew by while school days dragged, and by fifth grade, there was a specific day—I remember it well—when I admitted to myself, “I hate school.” I never spoke those words aloud or let on to anyone that this was the case, but I began to fake my way through, doing what I needed to do to get good grades and appear to be a semi-serious student. I often tried to figure out why I so intensely disliked school and schoolish learning, and I made many attempts to engage myself in assignments like the good students, but I could never manage to do it. This kind of learning was torturous for me, and it remained so into college. I just couldn’t stomach “education.” So I didn’t apply myself, and even though I attended college for four years, I didn’t earn a degree.

I was 29-years-old before I began to fully engage in my interests and read continuously (instead of in spurts) again. It didn’t happen all at once but was a slow, steady process of throwing off “school” and finding the joy of learning again. The curiosity of my childhood began to re-emerge, and it felt so good. But because I knew I had never been able to engage in school as the system of education that is so valued by society, I felt stupid. Intellectually inferior. (I still do sometimes.)

And then I saw that school was not a good fit for my very intelligent oldest daughter, either. When I began to see her spirit wither and her bright curiosity fade, I pulled her from school and thought I would homeschool her for a year. I’d never heard of homeschooling until a friend suggested it, but as I began to read and research, my excitement began to mount, and not just for the sake of my daughter but for the sake of me. My frustrating experience with school had prepared me to immediately grasp the philosophy of unschooling, so reading about it was particularly exciting and stimulating. And since stimulation seems to super-charge me with physical energy, I continually jumped up from the chair where I was reading in order to pace and think. I was sure I would have thrived in an unschooling learning environment. Maybe I could thrive in it now!

So, our family began what ended up being not a one-year sabbatical from school so that Aimee could rejuvenate her curiosity and enthusiasm for learning but the way my children would learn all the way through high school. We began by unschooling and then added a bit of a Charlotte Mason philosophy to the mix. There were a few years when we attempted to add a few hours of structured schooling to our days, and while these were well-planned and well-intended, the attempts by me to incorporate it were only half-hearted. This just never worked out well for us (the learning we did in our free time was way more fun and truly-educational), and usually the structure would fizzle and then disappear entirely somewhere mid-year. Since I had long ago intuited that school-like structure was not for us, what was I doing trying to tweak it to make it work? We finally settled for good into our own free-style, mostly-unschoolish learning environment, and I was, and am, quite pleased with the results.

I am now back in college to finish my degree (I’ll tell more about this later), and every time I wrote a paper for my writing classes this past year, guess what topic I seemed to always end up writing about (even if I started the paper thinking I would write about something else)? The importance of learning in your own way and how modern education—no matter how good the teacher or how charming, active, and “fun” the lessons—is oppressive to the curiosity, creativity, and intellectual development of some children. Even my paper on the assigned topic of the environment somehow got steered in that direction (I’ll have to post that paper here sometime since it’s already on the computer). My professors didn’t seem to mind my rogue educational thinking because I got an A+ on every one of these papers.

Why do I keep harping on this? Why can’t I move on now that my children are grown and I am not struggling with the same kinds of educational issues I struggled with as a child? Because it is a very personal topic that matters greatly to me.  I care deeply about kids who are possibly being forced through a system of learning that is supremely challenging for them. For one reason or another, they hate school, and I have to say they’re in good company because many notable intellectuals and creative individuals have sharply criticized school, and some of them even dropped out to learn in their own way. Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, Winston Churchill, Ansel Adams, Thomas Edison, and many, many others.

Some kids get through education-as-a-system just fine, or they seem to. But others don’t, and some kind of label is often attached to them (if they don’t fit into the program, there must be something wrong with them!) and maybe they're even given drugs. I’m not worried about the kids who seem to survive school just fine (though maybe I should be). I’m concerned about those who really don’t or can’t.

And why am I saying this here? Because if anyone is reading this who has children who are homeschooled or attend public or private school and they struggle with it or resist it, yes, frankly, they might be undisciplined or lazy, and they might even have learning problems (all of these possibilities should be considered, but, really, they might be mostly parenting problems). Allergies and food sensitivities can also cause serious behavior and learning struggles, so it’s worth looking into that, too. But perhaps it's the case that these children simply need to learn in a different way—their own way. They might need plenty of freedom to expend excess energy, play outdoors, and explore whatever engages their curiosity and interests them. I think I was one of those children, but back then, who knew about this?

Not everyone has the nerve or the desire to embrace an unschoolish environment. I do not think it is for everyone, and there are certainly other good options: A loose Charlotte Mason or Montessori education, for two. If I had young children now who were forced to attend school, I would seriously consider a Montessori style of education because it is so strongly interest-based and self-directed. But we each need to find what fits comfortably for our families and our children.

For some children, educational alternatives are worth investigating! It might just lead to years of joyful learning for your children and for you.

I typed out this very long post in just over an hour this morning, so there are likely some things about it that are unclear and possibly confusing. Feel free to ask questions if you have them, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


  1. Susan...I just started reading your post, and before I continue, I thought I'd let you know that your post titles are a dark gray on my screen...just like the rest of your font.

    Maybe it's the browser you're using? Let me hop over to safari and see if it changes. Yep! It's blue there!

    I use Google Chrome...must be the difference!

    Hope that helps:)

  2. Just finished this it, love it, love it!

    Your learning posts on your old blog were instrumental to me throwing my very polished lesson plans out the window a few years ago. We are thriving in our "natural learning" and loving it!

    I'm so glad you're still harping on this. Your passion for joyful learning inspires and hopefully will free others to do what they've been longing to at least explore!

  3. Yes, Susan, your writing SHINES when you talk of domesticity and natural learning...I soak in all of that warmth and joy every time I read you!

    And *thank you* for giving the gift of your "voice" again to us younger moms who are under so much pressure with all of the "voices" in our culture...books, media, always offer lightness, joy, and trust!

  4. This is my Caleb to a T. I'm so thankful for discovering homeschooling. And so thankful for your specific encouragement to let him fly and not constrain him too much. If he knew how much sitting down, book learning he'd been spared because of you, he'd leap out of his chair and come talk your ear off about comic book heroes and physics. Love you.

  5. Oh, Susan, how happy I am to find you again. I echo both Aimee and Tonia. I've got about five friends I've got to forward this to, because you *so* nail it. The culture is going straight to medicated, and I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle when I council parents away from medication and towards an environment of joyful learning that fits the child. You just articulated it so well, and I can't wait to share. I watch ADD/ADHD drugs literally fry my brother's brain, and I have a Sensory Processing Disorder labeled boy (on the autism spectrum)- and I fight every day for this environment you describe *because* of what I saw my brother go through.

    Thank you, so much. I'm glad, glad, glad to "see" you again. :)

  6. I am one of those five people Joy shared with :o)
    I have a little man on the autism spectrum who hates school, even though he has been homeschooled his whole life (almost 8 years old. He just resists learning so much of the time. This has given me some more food for thought. I so long for him to enjoy and resist. I'm going to go explore your old blog too. Thanks for your words.

  7. I meant "not" resist. Typing a little to fast.

  8. I'm enjoying your new Summer Notebook, Susan.


  9. Susan,
    I haven't read the rest of the post yet but here's something to try for the post title color. Go to the dashboard for your blog, then template designer (you'll see the tabs up top). Once in designer, click on Advanced. You'll have a list of options and one of them is Post Title. There are color choices there and you should be able to change it to what you want. If you've already done that and it's still showing up blue in Google chrome, then I don't know what to do other than send a message to their Help board.

    Heading out the door to walk and looking forward to reading the rest of the post when I get back!

  10. Just got back from my walk and read your whole post. I'm going to send this pronto to a friend who is pulling her sons out of a great school to homeschool them precisely for this reason. One of the boys is super active and thankfully, though she's scared out of her pants to homeschool, she knows he needs to be able to move around, go outside, go to the Y and swim and play basketball, and be more in charge of his learning atmosphere. How sad that so many children are just medicated to deal with what must feel like the chains of the school environment when what they really need is the freedom to move, explore, learn at their own pace. Great post, Susan.

  11. Oh, I'm glad this was encouraging. I was just afraid that it might *not* be. Thank you for commenting. It always encourages me and gives me a clearer perspective on how my words come across. It's so good to her thoughtful moms like you caring about this, too!


  12. LOVE your posts about education! I printed all of your homeschooling posts from your old blog to read for inspiration when I'm feeling stressed about "school work."

    Mr. H

  13. Mrs. H, I'm glad the learning posts are an inspiration to you. There really is so much unnecessary and misdirected push, drive, and pressure in education, I think. I do believe God means for us to do everything with all of our might as unto Him, but His burden is also light. His ways are not man's ways, are they? And that's such a relief?! :-)

  14. I can relate so much to how you felt about school.
    My second youngest girl would definatly be labelled ADHD too.
    Unschooling suits our family too, I'm so glad we found it.
    So glad to see you back :)

  15. Susan, I just discovered your new blog here last week, and am in the process of catching up on it. I, too, have read and copied many of your HDH posts, very intrigued with how you approached school. I have a 13 and 14 year old, (8th and 9th grades,) and have homeschooled them from the beginning. The early years were a somewhat eclectic version of the Well-Trained Mind philosophy. We did the Son-Light history/literature portion one year in the middle. Then I found Ambleside On-line, a Charlotte Mason approach, and we've been following that more or less, though we never quite seem to reach the glorious inactivity for the afternoons. Lack of self-discipline with time-management, in their mother as well as my children is an issue, as well as being night owls, so not getting much done in the mornings. Your approach seems so appealing to me, but I wonder if it works best with highly motivated, highly intelligent children. My children are bright, but the computer has become a huge time-waster in ou home with all but my husband. My son is a typical boy, his interests are very focused on sports and it's all he chooses to read on his own. When I make him read other books, he enjoys them, but would not choose them on his own. For me, there is a huge fear with your relaxed style, while at the same time a great appeal to it. How did high school work out in your home? What did you assign, or was there nothing that you assigned? I so desire to know, know, know more about how it all worked out. And I hope that you will post the papers that you wrote for your college courses. I would be so interested in reading them. I'm trying to figure out exactly what we're going to do this next year, and I'm praying, but very confused about it all.

    Also, do you think it's better to take Advanced Algebra immediately after Alg. 1, or to sandwich Geometry in between them? What did your children do?

    Thanks so much for whatever you help you can offer. (It seems to me that you and your children are all highly intelligent and highly verbal and highly imaginative. We are all perhaps more on the average to slightly above average side. I think I'm squarely in the average ranks, but then how do we know anyway. We're all capable of learning without huge learning difficulties, and have done lots of reading through the years.

    Sorry for taking so much of your time. You are a blessing already with all that you've put out into the blogosphere! And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.