Insights From A Grown Unschooler

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Alternatives To School contributor, Gina Riley, follows up with many of the grown unschoolers who participated in the research study on grown unschoolers that she and Dr. Peter Gray conducted last year. Here is the first in a series of interviews of these grown unschoolers.

Ben is a 19-year-old musician and college sophomore who was home educated throughout his life. He considers himself a “relaxed homeschooler,” and is a highly self-directed learner. Ben talks about his experience with self-directed learning here:

Tell me a bit about yourself!

I am a 19 year old musician. My main instrument is guitar (acoustic, electric, and classical), but I also play bass and mandolin and am a singer-songwriter. I have completed a master certificate in guitar at Berklee College of Music and currently am a sophomore at a small college in New York, where I am working towards a Bachelor’s of Music in classical guitar performance. I play lots of local gigs in the New York area.

Were you homeschooled or unschooled or both?
I would say that I was “relaxed homeschooled,” meaning that we (my mom and me) did use a curriculum, but it was never forced on me and we didn’t do “school at home”.

Did you attend public or private school during any time in your school career? No. I was homeschooled from K-12.

What were the main advantages of homeschooling for you?

Looking back, the biggest advantage for me was that I was able to explore my own interests freely and was never stopped because of time constraints. For instance, if I wanted to study Ancient Greek culture for three hours that was actually encouraged, whereas if I went to school I would have to follow a set schedule. As a result, I had many different interests in various subjects. From age 5-8, I was obsessed with rocks and studiously collected and labeled hundreds of rocks and read lots of books on the subject. From age 8-10, I became very interested in coins, especially old coins. I collected, read about, and looked at them all the time. From 10 to about 15, I got into playing golf, and eventually got very good at it. I won 21 local tournaments and for a couple of years thought of golf as my future career. However, when I was 14, my mom started taking guitar lessons at a local music shop and asked me if I wanted to learn how to play too. At first I was resistant, but after a couple of weeks I would start to ask my mom to show me how to play. Since my mom probably only knew a couple basic chords, she instead signed me up for a month of lessons with her guitar teacher. After about a year, I truly fell in love with playing guitar. I do think that playing, studying, and writing music is my calling, but I would have never found that calling if I didn’t have the time to fully explore my different interests.

What were the main disadvantages of homeschooling for you?

I had a great experience with homeschooling, and the only disadvantage for me (especially as a child) was dealing with other people’s reactions to the fact that I was educated differently than my peers. As soon as my mom decided to homeschool me, and the neighbors never saw the school bus come, there was nearly a riot! Almost all of our neighbors fiercely questioned my mom and me, and sometimes they would actually test me. I was a very smart kid, so those neighbors that tested me were probably pretty disappointed that I did so well on their “tests.” This went on all the way until about age 16. After that people would gradually bother me less about it, and by now some of our harshest critics now actually encourage and support homeschooling as an educational choice! Random people in public would ask “why aren’t you in school today?”, and when I told them that I was homeschooled, they would ceaselessly question me, and not always nicely. As a kid, it sometimes felt that the world was constantly trying to get my mom and me in trouble for choosing a totally responsible and legal educational choice. One of my favorite things about being an adult is that no one asks me why I’m not in school. Sad but true.

Ugh! The social question…(Sorry! But so many want to know…). How did you make friends as a homeschooler?

I’ve been asked this question way too many times, but I do understand that as a researcher you have to ask. I never had any trouble making friends. However, I tried to pick my friends wisely (and still do). In fact, being homeschooled gave me many opportunities to make friends of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities since I wasn’t stuck with my same age peers all day or peer pressured to make friends with people that I didn’t like. I made friends through activities, and normal day to day interaction with other people. I did tend to have more adult friends than same age friends because I was around people of all ages, which some people had problems with. Once, a doctor told my mom that I had Asperger’s Syndrome because I had obsessive interests and seemed to be friends with a lot of people older than I. She was obviously misinformed…and now Asperger’s doesn’t even exist! I’ve never had trouble making friends and I feel that being homeschooled has actually helped me to meet many more interesting people than I would have if I were in school.

Would you consider your social life healthy (as a child and now)?

As mentioned in the previous question, I definitely had a healthy social life as a child. Now as a college student I have made more friends than I can keep up with despite being somewhat introverted. I never have had issues with having a social life.

Tell me about your first job (paid or unpaid). How did you obtain it? Did being a self-directed learner assist you in any way?

Though I have volunteered for almost as far as I can remember, I would say that my first job would be as a dog walker for one of my neighbors. I have done many different jobs both paid and volunteer in nature. I have been a camp counselor, eel monitor (DEC volunteer project), Meals on Wheels volunteer, and have played numerous paid and unpaid music gigs both with a band and as a solo artist. Being homeschooled definitely helped me in terms of being more flexible with hours than my school educated peers could be. I also was used to working with adults and am good at coming up with creative ideas and solutions to problems, which definitely was and is an asset.

What about college? How did you get admitted?

Since my mom is a college professor, I am used to the academic environment, so even if I chose not to go to college I would know what a life steeped in academics looks like! When I was 16 I successfully applied to Berklee College Of Music’s online school and completed a 24 credit master guitar certificate at age 18. From there, I chose to apply to a small college in New York because I liked the school and they have an excellent music department. I successfully auditioned and the application process went relatively smoothly, except for getting federal financial aid. Specifically, when I applied for TAP, I was denied because I didn’t have a high school diploma, which resulted in a hold being placed on my financial aid account. However, I had no problems obtaining other financial aid and I also earned two scholarships. I am going to college so that I can study my field of choice (music) in depth before I start working in the music industry. So far I am having a great experience at college and already have a clear reputation as a very talented and hard working student.

What about your current career?
Is your current career somehow associated with interests you had when you were younger?

As I mentioned earlier, I am a musician. As I am currently in college, I gig mostly in the summer and during breaks from school, but once I graduate I plan on pursuing music as a full time career. Since it will probably be hard to make a living at first, I might also teach music or work another job until I am able to make a living as a full time musician. Being a relaxed homeschooler gave me the time to explore my interests and get very good at my various interests. I started playing guitar at age 14, and I would definitely not have been able to practice nearly as much as I did if I was in school…it gave me more flexibility to play gigs, which was a big advantage.

What does the future hold for you? What are you excited about?

Playing and studying music is my main passion, and I am very excited to try to make a living at what I love to do. It will probably be difficult, especially at first, but life is not a rehearsal and it’s too short for me to settle for a more respectable office job that I won’t enjoy.

What advice would you give parents who are thinking about OR making the choice to homeschool or unschool?

My main advice would be to make an educated decision and to read a lot about the different types of homeschooling/unschooling that are out there so that you can determine what is right for your child/teen. Homeschooling is not for everyone, but for me it has been one of the best choices that my mom made for me. Being homeschooled allowed me to stay curious, open minded, and creative and not be stifled by time constraints or an over-scheduled childhood. Most importantly, it gave me the time and freedom to follow my passion. Read books that are both pro-home education and more traditional education-based, stay open-minded, and don’t forget about using your intuition!

Comments

  1. I have had the privilege of knowing Ben and watching him grow up, and I can attest to the absolute joy he has brought to everyone he meets. His mother, Dr. Gina Riley, did a wonderful job in raising and schooling him. He shows many leadership qualities and is loved by all who meet him.

  2. Peter Bergson says:

    One of the more notable features of Ben’s story is his relationship with his mom and how their partnership contributed to his living his school years in a way that was so satisfying. Such parental support is not mandatory, of course, but it sure does help a young person find his/her way. It’s so good when parents send the message that they trust their sons and daughters, that they honor their right to lead rather than be forced to follow. Another stand-out aspect of Ben’s story, as he himself notes, is how he was allowed to let each area of interest follow its natural course, rather than be arbitrarily ended in order to make room for something that some authority considered more important. Who knows what will come of any of these areas of knowledge that now seem to be on the back burner? Perhaps one or more of them will emerge in the context of a new turn in his career, just as Steve Jobs’s fascination with typeface during his college years later led to his choice of Sans Serif as THE font for the Mac!
    Congrats to Ben and his mom for living life their way. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ben sounds like such a mature young man. Really very impressive.

  4. seona shaw says:

    Thanks for that, very encouraging.