Seven or nine years ago I would have never believed this, but now I’m sure and I’m not afraid to say it out loud: School sucks. The only good thing about it that I can think of is that it's an environment where one is constantly tempted to bend (if not break) the rules.
Over the last few years it has come as a surprise to me to discover that the school system in the western world is worse than it used to be when I went to school. And it was already bad back then. When my children reached school age, I honestly thought they would be okay if they went to school. I was aware that parents were expected to get more involved in their children's education these days, and I thought that would suit me perfectly. I would be one of those parents who would be at the school every other day to encourage the kids who were lagging behind and challenge the ones who were bored.
That was before I found out that homeschooling was not only legal but advisable. Some of my home educator friends won’t agree with me, but in my experience the Australian government is happy about the growing number of homeschoolers. Just as long as we pretend to follow the curriculum. Which we do. Pretend. Or follow. It depends on whether you’re a homeschooler, unschooler or worldschooler.
Fortunately for me and my boys, we have never had to deal with schools. They have never been to one. But most homeschoolers we know have been pulled out of school due to a bad experience. I hear the stories all the time and the courage of these parents never ceases to amaze me. I really admire these people. They are parents who believed in the system and the goodwill of the school educators, but saw their children suffer and were brave enough to change their whole lifestyle for their sake.
I also meet parents whose children are not happy in school, but they don’t know what to do about it. A friend once told me that her son begged her to homeschool him, but she said she simply could not do it: the thought of spending all day with her son was too daunting. Another mother (of six) told me that her children were generally happy in school except for one, an eight-year-old boy who also pleaded with her to be allowed to stay home. She had spoken to his teachers and they all said he did fine at school. He was not behind and did not show any sign of learning disabilities, but he threw up his breakfast every morning just before going to school (not on weekends or school holidays). The mother was worried about him, but also could not contemplate the idea of having him home all day.
And the other day I met a mother who knows how bad school is and has decided to work there to do everything she can to help. It was a school day and I was at the skate park with my boys and some other home-ed friends. A boy we didn’t know was doing some pretty amazing things with his scooter and we were all admiring his moves. He was alone, but a while later a lady arrived and sat down on a bench. By the way she was looking at him I guessed she was the mother. As I never miss the opportunity to meet more people who might be into home education, I approached her and asked whether her son was homeschooled. ‘No, he just decided not to go to school today,’ she said. And then of course she asked about my kids and our friends. At first I thought she didn’t know anything about home education because she asked the usual questions: how do they socialise, are they tested, how do you know they’re learning, how many hours a day do you ‘teach’ them, etc. I answered all the questions honestly, as I always do, making the distinction between unschoolers and homeschoolers. I had the feeling she was sussing me out before she said, ‘I work in a school,’ and after a dramatic pause added, ‘and I hate it.’ She went on to explain what she did there every day, trying to imbue some self-confidence in kids that believed themselves to be stupid because they couldn’t take in the knowledge that was shoved down their throats. Her own son’s self-esteem was starting to drop because he couldn’t memorise the history he was supposed to learn as dictated by the curriculum. Nearly every day she said to him, ‘You’re not stupid, you’re just not interested. Just go along with it and don’t worry about it. It’s not you, it’s them.’
My jaw dropped as I listened. When she finished I couldn’t help saying, ‘What a waste of time.’ She agreed emphatically: ‘That’s what school is, a great waste of time.’ I told her that this was the feeling I had when I went to school, that I was wasting my time when I could be home reading the books I really liked and had time to read only in summer. She said she hated school as a child as well and her mother used to say that these were the best years of one’s life, the primary school years. ‘That was so depressing,’ she went on saying. ‘I thought: so life gets worse than this?’ We both agreed that we would never say that to our children. I think it is a lie. Life gets better when you get more freedom, and children who are subjugated into forced education are not free. I remembered then what another mother said to her boy when he complained about school: ‘Don’t say you hate it. It’s not true. You’re just saying that because you heard it from other kids. You’d better love school now that you’re in first grade because it’s going to get worse.’
We’ve just had two weeks of school holidays. People often ask me if that makes any difference to us, who are always on holidays. Well, yes it does because my boys, who are eight and nearly ten, have been going to drama classes for two years now and join in other activities organised by and for home-ed families who follow the school calendar. So, during school holidays we also take a holiday from these activities and mix with schooled kids who now have more time to play and go to the library. I must say, I’m happy the holidays are over and we’re again interacting mostly with homeschooled children while the rest go back to their daily prison, because there is no doubt that schooled and homeschooled children are different; I’m even willing to accept that we are weirdos, and proud of it. Dealing with children who are accustomed to discipline and order and are suddenly set free can be stressful (like animals freed from a zoo). All the same, over the last two weeks Dave and Alex met new kids, as they always do, and apparently one of the questions they get asked the most is, ‘Which school do you go to?’ to which they say, ‘I’m homeschooled.’ Alex said to me the other day that every time he says that, he gets the same reaction: ‘Wow, you’re so lucky!’ Not even once has it happened that a schooled child has said to them, ‘Oh, poor you, you don’t know what you’re missing, school is great.’ Because it is not, and we all know it.