I met Kate face to face two months ago. I happened to be in New York to give a talk and she invited me over for dinner. Of course I accepted. It was a great dinner, which was topped only by the two hours of terrific conversation that accompanied it. And now I want you to meet Kate, in the interview below. Many readers of this blog have expressed interest in knowing how people who did not go to school fare in their adult life. Can they go to college? Can they get jobs? Can they have a satisfying social life? Moreover, an interview with Kate seems like a great way to top off my series of posts about the experiences of unschooling families (here, here, and here).
I don’t want to present Kate (or anyone else) as a “typical” unschooler. Even worse would be to present her as a poster child for unschooling. What pressure! Kate herself has described the pressure of trying (sometimes) to live up to some sort of image of being “special” because of being unschooled. No, you can’t draw conclusions about all unschoolers from Kate. But you’ll enjoy meeting her! And you will learn something about what it’s like to be an unschooled child and then an adult ungraduate of unschooling.
Me: Kate, when you say that you were “unschooled” during what would otherwise have been your primary and secondary years, what does that mean? What roles did your parents or other adults play in your education?
Kate: It means I learned almost entirely outside of a classroom. It means my education was never pre-structured, but always oriented around my interests and the natural progress of my life. My parents played varying roles in my education, depending on my age and what was happening. I spent a lot of time with my mom as a young kid. We read together constantly, and originally, she worked on some traditional school subjects with me. As I got older, I took more responsibility for my education, and spent less time with her, and more time out in the community, or on my own. My dad worked from home for a lot of my childhood, and I remember him helping me with math when I was six or seven. He was always involved with my musical development, because he's a talented pianist, but for the most part, his role was supportive, rather than instructive. Or maybe I should say that he taught me a lot about life, like my mom did, without those lessons falling inside the standard definition of "education"! :-)
Growing up, I had a lot of adult role models and mentors in addition to my parents. Because I was free during the day, I joined groups, like a writing workshop, that were, with one exception, adults-only. Some of my good friends were retirees. We got along really well, and they liked to give me advice. "Don't wrinkle your brow like that! You'll get a crease! Look at me now—I used to look just like you..." I also worked regularly with adults at my job. These people weren't necessarily my teachers. At least, that doesn't feel like the right word for them. But they were a part of my education.
Me: What for you were the main advantages of unschooling? Please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences, if that distinction is meaningful.
Kate: Self-confidence. It's so incredibly important. As a kid, I felt like I could do anything. I still kinda feel like that. Even on the days when I'm curled up on the couch with a TV remote in one hand and a pint of ice cream in the other, pretty sure that I am an utter failure and that I will never amount to anything interesting, if you were to peel back several layers of insecurity and self-pity, you'd find a kernel of cockiness. I know my strengths. I believe that I am good at things. When I succeed, I feel like I deserve it. This feeling keeps me reaching for the next goal. It keeps me motivated.
As a kid, the world was open to me. Because I didn't grow up surrounded by a group of my same-age peers, I didn't feel pressure to change my personality, look a certain way, or suppress interests that might not have been "cool." So I got to be a lot of things at once that might seem contradictory, but aren't, really. I was nerdy and dorky and obsessed with fantasy novels (I both read and wrote them), but I was also outgoing and popular with other girls and boy crazy. I always had a boyfriend, but I was pretty innocent. I didn't feel pressure to be sexual, and I didn't feel pressure not to be sexual. I could be shy in some situations and daring in others. I felt beautiful, because no one told me I shouldn't.
A healthy approach to work. As an unschooler, I learned early on that work and play can be the same thing, on some level. When you love what you do, you work to get better at it, to learn more about it. Work fits naturally into the pursuit of something inspiring. Because learning wasn't separate from living for me, as a kid, it made sense that I'd have jobs and make money as a part of my education and my life. Everything an unschooled kid does is based in the "real world," so to speak. There's no training period, or special area where you wait to be released into the rest of your life. You're already living it. So, as a matter of course, I worked. My first serious job began when I was fifteen. I still have a version of that job, and it is one of the most fulfilling parts of my life. From the time I was pretty young, I loved having real responsibility. It made me feel important. I think kids like to contribute to the world in real, concrete ways. I had that opportunity, and I learned a lot from it. I also saved a lot of money!
Even now, after earning two degrees, I still feel a little unschooled in my approach to work. I am following my dreams, as corny as that sounds, and I structure my own days, the way I did as a child. I think unschooling helped me develop the self-discipline to integrate order into passion. My upbringing made that arrangement feel natural, rather than complicated. Not a single day goes by that I don't love what I do for a living. I feel incredibly lucky about that.
Close relationships with my siblings. My brothers and I are really good friends. Even though they grew up to be the kind of guys who are wildly popular, join frats in college, lift a lot of weights, and are too witty to keep up with, while my biggest passion is writing YA fantasy novels and I have never liked partying, we get along great. I think this is because it was never "uncool" for us to hang out. It was just a part of life. We weren't in different grades (we weren't in any grades), so playing together was always normal and fun. I'm really thankful for that. My brothers are both in college now, but we talk regularly, and they're an important part of my life.
Me: What for you were the main disadvantages of unschooling? (Again, please answer both in terms of how you felt as a child growing up and how you feel now, looking back at your experiences.)
Kate: Hmm... I think the biggest problem with unschooling when I was a kid was that adults (never other kids) outside of my immediate family were really judgmental of my parents' decision to not put us in school. So sometimes they'd catch me alone and they'd start asking me rapid-fire math questions to see if I was "learning anything." Eek. I am still scared of math because of this (although I am really good at calculating a tip, so I figure I haven't been held back too much...).
People are suspicious of homeschoolers and have never heard of unschoolers, and even when you act totally normal, people expect you, as a kid, to be weird. They almost expect something to be wrong with you. I was conscious of that dynamic, growing up, and it made me feel like I had to prove myself. I had to prove that non-schooling worked. So I was pretty competitive and felt like I always had to be ten steps ahead of other kids my age. But then when I succeeded (won competitions or was in the local paper or in some way acted precocious) adults were impressed by my talent, and said things like "Well, I guess that's what homeschooling does!" So it seemed like whether I succeeded or failed, it would be because of my unusual education. I felt like I had two options—being lame or being a prodigy. That was frustrating. I sometimes felt like people didn't see me as a whole person, but instead saw me as a strange new experiment.
I think a lot of my successes can be attributed to my education—I had so much time to discover what I was interested in and pursue it. I had space to grow without judgment or constriction. I was able to be confident enough to chase my dreams. But I also think it's tiresome and uninformative to hold non-schooling responsible for everything that I am. Life is just more complicated than that.
Even now, people are surprised when they find out that I didn't go to school as a kid. They say things like, "But you're so social!" And then a little hint of that old competitive feeling comes back, and I want to say hilarious things and be fantastically intriguing and generally prove that even though I am different, I am a success.
I was at a dinner with my husband and another couple the other night, and the woman was saying that she hated homeschoolers. "I hate them! Who do they think they are? They think they're better than everyone else, like they don't need teachers."
"I was homeschooled," I said.
"You were?" she said, disbelievingly. "Wait, and you liked it?"
Me: Most homeschoolers and unschoolers hate it when I ask this question, because they hear it so often and it derives from a stereotype. But I’ll ask it anyway. What kinds of relationships did you have with other kids when you were of school age but not in school? How did you meet other kids, other than your brothers? Do you feel you grew up with a healthy play life, including social play?
Kate: It's OK, I know you have to ask! I have always had close friends my own age. I met them everywhere. In the neighborhood, through my parents (I was friends with a lot of my parents' friends' children), at Hebrew School, through local homeschooling groups, at summer camp, at other groups I participated in, like a local lecture series or art class. Honestly, I can't even remember all the places I met other kids. It wasn't hard. When I was a young kid, maybe 7-14, making friends felt natural—I picked them up wherever I went. As I got older, I felt more selective and developed a circle of very close friends. Many of those friends were also non-schoolers.
As for play—I probably should have included that in the part about what I liked best about unschooling. I played constantly as a kid. I spent days in the woods, alone and with friends, pretending to live in a fantasy world, where warrior princesses and runaway wizards built campfires together and shared whispered secrets about the evil king. Even when I was a teenager, my friends and I wrote short stories and entire sprawling epic novels together for fun, illustrating them with dramatic watercolor renditions of battle and love scenes, and talking for hours on end about plot twists. The combination of play and endless reading is what made me into a writer, I think. I had to use my imagination constantly. And many of my close friends were happy to come along for the ride.
Me: You mentioned that you had your first serious job at age 15. Did you get that job partly because you weren’t in school? Can you tell me more about the job and how it may have affected your subsequent life?
Kate: Yes. My employer never explicitly mentioned whether unschooling had anything to do with the job that I got, but not being in school definitely made it easier.
A year after hearing me sing at my bat mitzvah, members of the board at my synagogue approached me to ask if I would be interested in training to lead high holiday services with the rabbi. It was a paying position, and I was thrilled. I studied with the rabbi for a year, leading up to high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and then, terrified and excited, sang the liturgy in front of hundreds of congregants.
My official job title is "chazzan." In Jewish liturgical services, the chazzan (also known as a cantor) is the clergy member who leads the congregation in prayer, singing in Hebrew. Synagogues usually employ a rabbi and a chazzan. I am considered a lay clergy member. I didn't attend cantorial school, a five year program, because I started performing services at such an unconventional age. But despite being a teenager without an official ordination, I was given plenty of real responsibilities. After a year or so on the job, I prepared children for their bar and bat mitzvahs, led bar/bat mitzvah and high holiday services with the rabbi, and occasionally led services on my own, including services surrounding death observances, like the unveiling of the headstone at the grave. I taught adult bar and bat mitzvah students, I directed a youth choir, and once, I was commissioned to write a choral work in Hebrew for a Jewish choir. I felt like kind of a big deal.
By the time I went to college, I'd been working as a chazzan for three years, and I didn't want to stop. So all through college, I commuted home on the weekends, to teach and perform services. It was important to me to keep my commitment to the community, continue to lead services (which I loved), and make money. Being an adult at work helped balance being a kid at college. And I really felt like a kid when I went to college, where students could arrange their schedules so that they could sleep all day and party all night. My job kept me focused—I felt like I had one foot in the real world. I felt like because of it, I had a better idea of what my future might look like, and my future looked pretty good!
Me: I know that you went on to college, after skipping K through 12, and then on to a master’s degree in religion. Can you tell me about those experiences? What was it like going to college after never having done formal schooling? Did you feel any disadvantage, or advantage, in college because of not having done formal schooling before?
Kate: Academically, college was fine. Sometimes really fun, sometimes really tedious. I bonded with professors (my undergrad thesis advisor later came to my wedding), enjoyed many of my classes, and promptly forgot everything I'd learned, like everyone else. Academically, I was at an advantage in college. I liked learning, I asked questions, I was engaged in class, and professors rewarded me for being interested. I was surprised at how uninterested so many of my peers seemed. For so many of the students I met, class was a chore, and sometimes they played games on their laptops for the entire lecture. At first, I was stunned. I thought everyone would be paying close attention. I thought everyone would want to be as intellectual as possible. I was really wrong.
So socially, college was frustrating. It was hard to find other "serious" kids to hang out with, and it was annoying to find myself categorized as a "serious kid." As an unschooler, like I said before, I didn't have to be any one thing. I could be studious and also goofy and also boy-crazy and also earnest. At college, I had to pick an identity, and since I wanted to get A's and go to grad school, I ended up being "the smart one." Which seemed to mean not getting to be a lot of other things. It was confusing.
I didn't want to get drunk at frat houses. I didn't understand why people did. I didn't own any skirts as short as the ones the girls in my dorm were wearing. I wondered for the first time if I wasn't as pretty as I'd always thought I was. I wondered if boys wouldn't like me. I was thrown off-kilter. I felt like I knew myself so well that I didn't have to experiment with drugs and casual sex and blacking out, but because I didn't want to participate, it seemed like there wasn't very much room for me. Which, for some reason, didn't make me want to participate. I didn't feel reliant on my peers, the way they seemed to feel. I didn't feel that I needed their approval. And so there wasn't much motivation for me to hang out in groups and go to parties. I felt a little defiant, and a little deficient. Deficient for not wanting to go, rather than for not going.
Of course, I wasn't completely alone, as people might have hoped or expected ("See! I knew unschooling would fail eventually!"). I made friends, and some of them were very close. I had a circle of maybe five or six friends who I saw regularly. I had a serious boyfriend and then I dated a little. I got straight A's and got into the grad school that my professors were all rooting for. But I'm not going to lie—I never felt at home in the social world of college. Actually, I wrote a piece about it for Salon.com.
Grad school was completely different. My peers were brilliant. They suddenly knew everything. I was in New York City, and I loved it. Here, I felt stupid for the first time in my life. I realized that I'd stood out during my undergrad years because I cared, and because I worked hard. Now I was surrounded by people who not only worked hard and cared; they were downright passionate about their research, and they had fantastically large vocabularies, and they seemed to have a natural affinity for theoretical thinking. In grad school, I realized that just because I'd done well in college didn't mean I should get my PhD and go on to be a professor. Instead, I had to reevaluate, and figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. It was frightening. I felt stereotypical. My very unusual path had led me to exactly the same spot where so many young people end up—the point at which we all have to figure out what to do with ourselves and our lives.
"Damn it," I thought. "So much for being special!"
But all of those years before school—when I'd gotten to know myself so well, and played and imagined and felt pretty and funny and smart all at the same time—had taught me where my interests really lay. I wanted to be a writer. And that is what I am now. Actually, that is what I already was, even before I decided to pursue it as a career. Sort of like at the end of the romantic comedy, where the heroine realizes that she loves the guy who's been there, being adorable in the background, all this time. How did I never notice his perfectly gelled hair and flashing white teeth before? Except that my writing almost never puts gel in its hair.
That's it. If you have questions or comments concerning Kate's experiences or unschooling in general, please post them below. This blog is a forum for discussion, and your views and knowledge are valued and taken seriously, by me and by other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions. And Kate tells me that she is willing to respond, here, to serious questions that are posed specifically to her. We have a tradition on this blog of polite, respectful discourse, even when we strongly disagree with one another.
It would be especially nice to hear from other adults who were unschooled as children, or from parents who have adult children who were unschooled.
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