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.