Unschooling

In the early ’70s, 1973 to be exact, when my mother was 13 years old, she enrolled at the Carcross Community School, an alternative boarding school up north in the Yukon Territory. Despite its location and near-total isolation, the community was part of a radical education movement sweeping North America. Like hundreds of other free schools across the continent, Carcross emphasized unmediated experience above instruction and authority. Governed by a democracy that put students and teachers on equal footing (some even dated), the school’s goal was to inspire students to participate in the running of their own lives. Academic subjects were taught rather informally. The math teacher was said to have settled the distasteful issue of grades by throwing darts at a board marked with appropriate letters.

My mother’s tales of her time at Carcross became distilled for me over the years into two vivid images. The decision-making process required endless meetings, as the quest for unanimity always does; one afternoon my mother and a small gang of pranksters, the Wooden Plank Committee, refused to say a word, pulling their cheeks wide, spoofing the convocation for a laugh. Hunting wasn’t a regular activity, in contrast to the assemblies, but this didn’t stop Mom from recalling the affair of skinning a giant, freshly killed caribou in gory detail, leaving me with the indelible image of a fallen beast surrounded by wild, long-haired children.

The school had its limitations and hypocrisies, yet these and other tales were always recounted with great fondness. And Carcross’s educational ethos left a tremendous mark on my mother, in her glimpse of the theories and practice of radical pedagogy—a current seemingly forgotten in North America by the time my siblings and I reached school age in the 1980s.

Because the Yukon offered little entertainment or opportunity beyond this odd school, it wasn’t long before my mother hitchhiked to Winnipeg, where she eventually met my father, who as a small child had been subjected to strict elementary schooling in Bermuda. Grandpa worked as an immigration officer for the United States, and by the time he was transferred with his family to Canada Dad was years ahead academically, enough to win the title of Manitoba’s official math “whiz” in a competition. He enrolled in university at the tender age of 14, lingering as an undergraduate for over a decade, avoiding the draft and indulging his two passions: music and chemistry.

After I was born we moved to the States, first to Tucson, Arizona—about as far from the Yukon as a person can get—so my dad could work on a PhD in pharmacology. I remember some happy kindergarten afternoons spent playing in a sandbox. The next year, when I was enrolled in a class split between first and second graders, the teacher suggested I move up a year in math. Though my parents were game, the principal informed them that this would be unacceptable; every teacher for the rest of my academic career would have to accommodate me, and that was too much to ask. After that meeting, I never had to go to school again. I still recall my surprise and sense of good fortune. It wasn’t that I hated school, but it was a bother, each day duller than the one before. Beyond that, I don’t remember what my mother assures me of—that over the next few weeks she tried diligently to continue a school curriculum at home, instructing me according to lesson plans while I, obstinate, refused to follow along. I must have assumed I won the battle. In reality my mother simply let it go. She had met a group of homeschooling families hanging out at a local park who showed her the magazine Growing Without Schooling and introduced her to books by John Holt. The parents were intelligent and easygoing, their kids curious and creative.

Those families in the park passed on a framework and vocabulary for an educational philosophy my parents held intuitively. Neither Mom nor Dad had been subjected to the conventional climb from kindergarten through twelfth grade and on to college. My mother’s countercultural upbringing and my father’s nerdy precocity colluded to keep us at home. So, unlike the vast majority of our peers, my siblings and I slept late and never knew what day of the week it was. We were never tested, graded, or told to memorize dates, facts, or figures. We were “unschoolers.”

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