By Heather Svanidze
I should be a public school success story. I had straight A’s from kindergarten through high school (if you don’t count 9th grade PE, and the fact that I remember that single B should tell you more than the rest of this article will); I was a valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar, and got a full-ride scholarship to my top-choice private college. I list all of this not to boast, but to show that I was fully committed to the system. I didn’t resent school or question homework; I wasn’t even a creative genius who found school stifling. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about school. I liked most of my teachers and they all loved me. I was never even bullied. I fit into the system perfectly.
And that is why, as a 32-year-old mother of three, I am coming to question the school system and consider alternatives for my kids. Because I aced that system, without a doubt, and yet, as a young professional, I couldn’t manage to transfer that success to the real world of work. After college, I first had trouble deciding what kind of work I might enjoy and excel at, and in the jobs and internships I did pursue, I didn’t feel like I performed very well at any of them. You might say that the only job I was good at was being a student.
Without the incentive of grades and tests, I found my own motivation and discipline lacking. Without someone telling me how to organize my time, I found myself wasting it. Rather than excelling in my work and begging for extra credit, as I did in school, I found myself barely pulling off my work by deadline or doing a mediocre job. And as someone used to being commended for being diligent and accomplished, I hated that feeling. Now a work-at-home mom, I have finally had to learn to motivate myself, and I am still in the process of learning to organize my own time and work.
What exactly does my being a success in school have to do with my seeming inability to succeed in real work? What is the connection? These are my theories.
I never learned to motivate myself for the sake of a job well done or the love of learning.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now see that most of my hard work and discipline were driven by grades and accolades, not true learning.
I recall very vividly the first professor who ever gave me a C on a paper in college. I went to her office to find out what I’d done wrong, struggling to keep my voice from cracking or my eyes from tearing up with my sense of failure. Her question surprised me.
“Why does this matter so much to you? It’s only one paper.”
I’m sure I made up some excuse about being worried about losing my scholarships or concerned about understanding the course material. But that was rubbish. My other billion A’s were more than enough to bolster my GPA, and I really couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to construct an historical argument. No, any less than an A meant that I was less. It meant that there were others better than I, that the teacher didn’t like me, that I hadn’t worked hard enough, and probably that I wasn’t as good a person as I thought I was.
You see, in my mind, C students were somehow less. I still remember my shock when I learned that the man who would become my husband, a man with more depth of knowledge in his fields of interest than anyone I’ve ever met, sometimes hadn’t read all the course material in college.
“If I felt it was useful or something I didn’t already know,” he explained, “then I would read it.”
“But, but,” I fairly sputtered in a perfect imitation of Hermione Granger, “The professor assigned it! I’m sure they wouldn’t assign it if it wasn’t important! They obviously know better than you, the student.” I couldn’t understand that he would spend his spare time pursuing his other interests, the things that weren’t covered in class.
Only recently, with the motivation of working from home and caring for my children, have I discovered my own sense of order and discipline, and most importantly, rediscovered my own passions and love of learning.
Even the subjects I loved were often ruined for me.
My best example is math. When I was in elementary school, I loved math, adored math, did math workbooks for fun. I wanted to be a mathematician when I grew up. Of course, I had no idea what mathematicians did (nor do I now, come to think of it), but I just knew I loved math, the way the numbers fit together so neatly. Even algebra was like a puzzle or a game to me.
But my love of math died a slow death in school, culminating in my 8th grade geometry class. It was the geometric proofs, writing prescribed language based on abstruse formulas to “solve” problems I hadn’t chosen and didn’t care about, that was the nail in the coffin of my lifelong love of math. After that, I did the bare minimum, taking only as much math as required to graduate and get into college. I still got A’s, of course, because I could memorize and apply the procedures; I just didn’t know what I was doing or why.
As for writing, I recall one particular seventh grade assignment to write a short story. I poured my heart and soul into a tale about an orphaned girl who befriends two dolphins and raises money to be reunited with her twin brother by charging her friends for dolphin rides. Despite my lack of understanding of both marine biology and custodial law, I threw myself so wholeheartedly into the endeavor that I ran over the page limit, turning in 12 (handwritten!) pages instead of the required 2. My English teacher informed me that my story was too long and unrealistic, offering no further encouragement for my clear enthusiasm. I don’t remember any creative writing I did after that, probably because I never put as much work or energy into it ever again.
I didn’t have the time to discover my own passions and vocation.
Beginning in middle school, I kept a very busy schedule – school, music lessons, dance, sports, church, and student leadership – which meant that I was often running around from 7 AM to 9:30 PM, after which I would do my homework, often past midnight. Although I freely and happily chose each of these activities, I remember the immense relief I would feel whenever I had to cancel one of my lessons or classes due to a cold or a family obligation. Oh, the sweetness of an unscheduled hour or two, to read or think or just be. Or the impossible luxury of a day off from school (often used to catch up on homework, of course).
Looking back, I realize how much of my real education – the lessons I’ve taken with me into adulthood, the deep-down living kinds of lessons – occurred during my ”extracurricular” activities. I don’t regret being overscheduled with activities so much as I wonder how necessary were all those hours of school and homework, most of which I have not retained.
But of course, it’s not useful or relevant now to fret over things I would have done, or could have learned, had my education been different or had I been less obsessed with playing the school game.
It does, however, make me think about the kind of education and childhood I want my three young children to have. Until recently, I would have been stressed about their starting school because that would mean I would take up the role of enforcer for the school, making sure my kids did their homework and kept their grades up, like I did.
But in the past year or two, after reading Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn, this Alternatives to School website, and many other sources, I have been questioning the whole system. Is that the education I want them to have, worrying more about getting the work done than actually learning? I wonder if that kind of education is the best way to grow into adulthood, and more importantly, I wonder whether it’s even necessary in any sense.
I look at my 5-year-old, who bombards us daily with questions about machines, flight, gravity, the universe, dinosaurs, air, chemicals, letters, and numbers; who pores over books about human anatomy and how machines work and how to draw animals; who is learning the basics of arithmetic from simply asking questions, and who, one evening before his 5th birthday, spontaneously decided he was going to start reading.
I look at my 3-year-old, who unashamedly uses incorrect (and adorable) grammar, proudly proclaiming “us ride us bikes!” and “that not fit me any morning” until one day she just suddenly starts saying it correctly; who finds out all she is capable of by climbing and sliding and lifting and breaking; who makes sense of the world through imitation and observation, who counts and recognizes letters and can’t wait to read like her brother does.
And I even look at my 15-month-old, who strings sounds together, playing with phonemes until she finds one she enjoys or that gets her what she wants; who is nearly impossible to dress because she cannot waste a moment lying still when she could be practicing her new walking skills; whose normally placid disposition turns to rage in an instant if someone takes away her new “toy,” because she doesn’t understand that it’s a choking hazard; she just knows that it is something new and she must get to the bottom of it.
This is how the vast majority of human children respond to a normal human environment: they learn. It is clear to me from observing these three small examples of human childhood that all children are born ready, able, excited, perfectly designed to learn. Not only that, but they can learn everything they need to know in our culture with more joy and exuberance and pleasure than the greatest teacher or the most well-designed curriculum could ever instill.
Of course, the A student in me wakes up and says, “But! What about… grades and accomplishments and scholarships and relatives and transcripts and proms and student council elections…?” If the school system is education, then how could an education outside of the system ever work? Unschooling would mean opting my kids out of the system where I had so much so-called success.
But then again, I’m not sure I want them to have the sort of success I had. I would prefer them to have the unfading success of knowing their own minds, of motivating their own learning and savoring that learning, regardless of what a grade or test score tells them.
Heather Svanidze is a French-English translator with degrees from George Washington University and Whitworth University. She lives in the Northwest with her husband and three young children.