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The Edgy-catin' Mama

Issue #2, Winter 2002

My Growing Up: An Unschooler’s Reflections

By Laurie Chancey

I am a happy young woman who is deeply grateful to my parents for my unschooled childhood. My transition to adulthood began when I was 16 years old with the creation of my own computer bulletin board system – an online service for local people to dial into. My online community sitting on the desk in my bedroom opened a door to the world for me. I was one of the only female system operators that our area had seen, and also one of the youngest of either sex. I met several wonderful friends there, one of whom I started dating when I was 17. My new friends instilled a great sense of confidence in me, and my new boyfriend made me realize that I was desirable as well.

I had a faint idea that I would try to go to college, so my parents arranged for me to take the California Achievement Test (CAT), a preliminary to the General Educational Development Test (GED), so I could have a high school equivalent to help admit me to the local university. My English and reading scores, said the CAT administrator, were the highest that she had ever seen. However, my math scores were below acceptable levels and I could take adult education at the high school to bring me up to speed before I retook the CAT.

So I tried it, and hated it. I sat in the school cafeteria for a few hours every Wednesday night, frowning at a math book that Mom had bought for me, slowly working through it but not wanting to go to the instructor for help. Adult education was not a class, but many people scattered throughout the cafeteria working on their own, with the option of individual help. I felt stupid, a new feeling to me. I should know this stuff already. Why hadn’t Mom stuck to it and made me learn math? Of course, I remembered resisting any of her efforts at instruction. What was the solution? I was 17 and the most advanced math concept I had under my belt was multiplication.

I cried to my parents that I hated adult education but felt like it was my only shot at succeeding in life. Dad told me that if I hated it so much, I shouldn’t go. Mom assured me that I would find a passion and a way to achieve it. I didn’t really believe her, but I had been raised following my own pleasure so I stopped going to adult education, feeling like a quitter.

I was restless and anxious, about to turn 18 with no direction in life. With encouragement from my parents, I began applying at a few businesses and shortly thereafter became employed at a local video store. I loved my new job, and my self-confidence rose as I was praised for doing well. But an uneasiness that had been lurking finally surfaced when I was being trained to make the nightly deposit at the store. My supervisor, a 30-something woman with a husband and two children, counted money and stacked checks and wrote notes with the expert lightning speed that comes with much practice. I saw my future in her, and knew I wanted more. But what could I do?

I despaired of my failed attempt at learning enough math to get a GED, and asked Mom to help me find a solution that would get me into college. A friend of mine left a university catalog at my house and I read through it, thinking that the psychology classes sounded cool. Then, a happy revelation occurred: Someone told Mom that a GED was not required to attend our local university. All I would have to do was take the American College Test (ACT) and they would put me in appropriate classes according to my scores.

So I did, and I was accepted to the university. By virtue of my own guesswork, my math score placed me in a higher math than I could handle, so I switched classes after the first day. My college had two developmental mathematics courses that corresponded roughly with high school algebra one and two, so I ended up in the first one. I believe we started on long division, right where I needed to be. I grasped every new concept easily, finishing the course with a 94 average. As of now, the highest mathematical science course I have taken was a senior-level statistics course, a discipline that I immediately loved.

By the way, did I mention my 4.0 grade point average? [Laurie's Note: ouch, this must have been written right before I graduated!]

So, I have a success story, with my bachelor of arts in Sociology and my flawless grades. My first boyfriend and I broke up when our relationship had run its course after nearly three years of dating. We are still friends and I consider our romance a pleasant chapter in my life that I have now closed. I have had two great jobs since the video store. I have many acquaintances and friends, and a small group of very close friends that I see several times a week. I don’t have another boyfriend yet, but my standards are high and I’m not really looking. My parents are now divorced, but I see both of them often and maintain close relationships with them. I am looking forward to graduate school next year.

Life has been beautiful, even with all of its flaws, since I entered college. I absolutely cannot imagine myself without college. The vast amount of knowledge imparted to me, the constant approval, and the assurance that I was going somewhere fed me, watered me, and put me into the light to grow.

But, I have a question.

It’s not that infamous “What if I had gone through K-12?” question. I have all but decided that I would have been like several of my friends who got bored with school because they were too smart for it, bucked the system, got in trouble, developed a passionate hate for authority, and turned to anything illegal for defiance and escape.

My question is, why was I so unhappy and unsure as a teenager? Why did math cause me so much grief? Why didn’t I have any friends until I met them on my bulletin board system?

I laughed at myself as I reread that last paragraph, thinking I may as well be asking, “Why wasn’t everything perfect?” I’m considering laying these questions to rest without trying to answer them. But I won’t, because the unschooling skeptics will come after me like an angry lynch mob, justifying their position that my parents failed me, because I had trouble with math before college and was restless and without direction during my 15th and 16th years.

Also, I really must answer these questions for myself. I still remember me, a tearful girl in her mid-teens, telling Mom that “Well, you know, if I have kids, I guess I’ll probably send them to school.” I have to answer these questions for that uncertain girl. I have to do penance for myself for losing faith in unschooling.

So, I must write down what I believe my parents did wrong.

The first thing that they did wrong was staying in Louisiana when I was born. My uncertainty stemmed from the lack of a sympathetic community.

The second thing they did wrong was not explaining to me what unschooling was. I’ll have to hand this one to Mom, because the whole alternative education thing was her idea. As I reached my teens and became embarrassed of the fact that I didn’t know the multiplication tables, I took her to task for being lazy and not making me do schoolwork. Mom said that she believed that I would learn what I needed to know when I needed to know it. She threw me a couple of concepts from John Holt and A.S. Neill that temporarily pacified me, but I only understood a few years later when I read Summerhill for myself.

Back to the first item on the list: lack of community. I loved and trusted my mother, but when I started growing out of childhood I had to seriously reconsider her position, because nobody else in my world agreed with her. Even Dad had pleaded with me to try school a few times a year since I was 8 or so. I believe I considered his suggestion once for about ten minutes. I certainly didn’t want to go to school, but everyone (except Mom) was telling me that I was missing out, that my future was uncertain. I was torn; I didn’t know what to believe. I thought we were just homeschoolers that were doing it wrong.

I now believe that Mom probably explained her philosophies on unschooling a little better than I remember, but I think I would have gone through much less stress if we had known just one or two unschooling families to help set my (and Dad’s, for that matter) doubts to rest. The lack of friends is part of the lack of community. I had several friends until, frankly, they got stupid and annoying. My number of friends was already limited because, obviously, I didn’t meet as many kids just hanging around in my neighborhood as I would have in school, and most of the time I preferred solitary activities such as reading books or inventing stories with the aid of Barbies and G.I. Joes as actors. In fact, I don’t ever recall truly wanting peer companionship before my mid-teens. When my age got close to the double-digits, my girl friends started acting silly over boys and messing with makeup and obsessing over designer jeans. My girl friends hated reading, except for Tiger Beat and other pin-up magazines. Their Barbies only changed clothes and teased hair and kissed Ken. I could still relate to a few boys I knew, but after a while they changed too.

I had friends among my cousins and the few kids that Mom babysat, and Mom herself was my best friend and confidant. I didn’t have friends as a teen because there weren’t really any left over from childhood, but I fixed that when I joined the online community. As far as I know, I never suffered ill effects because of any of this friend stuff, so that question is resolved.

As far as math is concerned, I know I would have learned it easily from a tutor had I not been able to enroll in college without a high school equivalent. The adult education was a mistake: I found it hard to learn from a textbook lying under my nose without any outside instruction. I could have had help from my parents and from the adult education instructor, but I didn’t want to ask. I have always preferred to figure things out by myself. I also had math anxiety from many sources. I knew how to do things like balancing a checkbook and measuring ingredients, but beyond that I saw no practical application of math in my life. Yet I had a panicky feeling that I should be learning it. One of the most popular questions asked of homeschoolers (my family included) is, “But what about math?”

I remember saying when I was 16 or 17, “There’s a restriction on my driver’s license that says I must wear corrective lenses to drive, so why can’t I get a diploma with a restriction that says I must have a calculator to do math? Both are devices designed to assist me in doing what I need to do to survive.” That logic still makes sense to me today, but I have learned something new. Math is a wonderful science that is evident in some form or another in everything we do. It’s a tool for survival. That’s why, in college, my favorite problems were the word problems. It made math seem real and not like jargon-filled number manipulation. So, what about math? I had some anxiety about it, but that was quickly cured when I started taking math classes.

Wow, it looks like I’ve answered all of my questions. Maybe everything about my upbringing wasn’t perfect, but I will never, ever complain about the results.

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All content © 1999-2005 Laurie Chancey