Next week is “The Last Week.”
The Last Week before summer comes to an end in our household. The Last Week before I have to say goodbye to my oldest 3 kids as they begin a new school year. The Last Week of lazy mornings and unplanned days. The Last Week of staying up late talking, laughing, and making one more hot chocolate and one more batch of popcorn. The Last Week before the transporting and chauffeuring. The Last Week before bedtime (and morning-time) anxieties. The Last Week before packed lunches, packed bags, and packed schedules. The Last Week of freedom to choose between quiet stay-at-home days or wild and crazy outdoor days. The Last Week before routines: morning routines, afternoon routines, evening routines, meal routines, homework routines, after-school routines, and even weekend routines. The Last Week before the kids and I have to remember what day of the week it is. The Last Week before the beginning of another long 10-month journey.
For the last 3 years, since #4 was born, I have fought a deep and unsettling pull. I would always feel this unease around this time of year prior to #4’s birth and could never verbalize or pinpoint the source. I always assumed that it was because I couldn’t let go of summer or because I dreaded the stress of all the scheduling the begins in September or because I was going to just miss the kids. Then one day, the summer #4 was born, I was in a bookstore and happened (or sometimes it feels like I was drawn rather than just stumbled upon it purely by happenstance) to come across the book “The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach” by Howard Gardner (I also highly recommend his other books especially this one and this one.) And coincidentally (if one believes in coincidences which I don’t), I found it during The Last Week before school just as I was starting to feel that unnamed general malaise. The pieces all started coming together as I started to examine more closely my thoughts on the institution of “school” and my definition of an education.
I never before questioned the authority or framework of “school” as the institution and I certainly never thought about how my children actually learn and if in fact these two things are compatible. It has always been a given. All children go to school. I went to school. A large percentage of children go to school. I took it for granted. Most of us take it for granted. The questions of “Why do they go to school?” and “What are they really learning?” never crossed my mind until I began observing them more and digging deeper into my own schooling past and reading more books by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto that gave a different perspective on education, the school system, and the intellectual and physical development of the mind of a child.
There isn’t a parent out there that doesn’t want the best education for their child. I just never considered to challenge the basic assumption that this education is found in school. I was so concerned with finding the best school – Montessori, private, alternative, French Immersion, Waldorf, a public school with well-rounded teaching and extra-curriculars – that I never stopped to think if school itself could best prepare my children for adulthood.
I then took another step back and asked myself an even more basic question that I never thought to ask: What kind of life do I want for my children? For myself, school was a means to an end. You attend elementary school and then high school where you strive to get grades that will allow you to continue your schooling into college or university and the natural progression of education should lead you to a “successful” career (then of course, this “conventional” and “normal” life leads to marriage, a house, children, more work, and so on and of course, in that particular order.) Stability and financial security are paramount. In this particular flowchart, “success” is defined by monetary wealth. If you can be honest with yourself, as I was when I was thinking about my motivations in school, having more is the underlying, almost subcutaneous in nature, driving force behind school. Do I want that life for my children? Or do I want them to define “success” differently?
I am a product of “the system.” I defined success in the most conventional terms like most people. My aim was to make money and help give my daughter (only #1 at the time) the best life possible. Cue the more is more philosophy. After years of chasing the carrot and believing if I just make a little more money, we’d be happier, I stopped. I’d be lying if I told you that the thought of working full-time again and making more money has never crossed my mind since then. It does when I fall into the trap of living in the future tense – if I just had…if we just could pay off this…if I had money for…then I realize that even though we’ve had a few stressful financial situations, I still am more happy now living with less than I have ever been. Success for me is feeling satisfied with a sense of abundance and being passionate about what I do – which right now is all about raising my family.
In my situation, I excelled in school but looking closely, I actually cheated myself out of a true education. Where I may have began curious and a risk-taker, I ended my schooling career mastering the system by doing the minimum requirement to get an ‘A’, cramming for tests the night before taking full advantage of my photographic memory but never really learning anything, and following a path that would in the end make me money so I can achieve the “North American Dream.”
This is what I learned in school:
- I hated math.
- If you don’t make eye contact with the teacher and slouch behind the person in front of you, you won’t be called on.
- Being popular made school a lot more enjoyable.
- Kids can be very mean.
- I could get an A by giving the teacher exactly what they wanted and discovering each teacher’s nuances and preferences each year became a skill unto itself.
- I just wanted to fit in and belong. Being different was not an option.
- Being smart and not being smart made you a target for teasing – it was best to be neither and stay below the radar.
- I could be smart only if I was popular otherwise being smart was not an option.
- Good grades will help me make money as an adult.
- Everything in school is taught out of context so I remember nothing of what any teacher has taught me with respect to curriculum.
- I learned to follow instructions very well, to the point where I had to learn free and critical thinking skills from my “Intro to Political and Social Thought” and “Modes of Reasoning” professors in University (yes, I took a course on reasoning since it wasn’t a skill I picked up in grade school). This was a difficult task still since grades were still an important motivator.
- There is only one way to learn.
- I learned that not getting in trouble, not being teased, being liked, and finding approval were more important than questioning something or being creative.
- I learned that my friends’ opinions outweighed my parents’ opinions.
- A university degree solves everything and is the golden ticket to instant happiness.
- I learned to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.
You get the gist.
I challenge you to delve into your childhood experiences with school. Speaking with a friend recently, she remembered the day her creativity was killed. I remember not wanting to show my perfect test score to anyone and lying and saying I didn’t do well just to fit in.
This year #3 came home with her first report card which described her as an extremely quiet child who needs to come out of her shell more and participate in the circle time group discussions. #3! The one who sparks up random conversations with strangers needs to come out of her shell. We were having fun being crazy together and I told her, “You are being so silly!” and her smile disappeared and she became worried. I asked her what was wrong and she replied, “I don’t want to be silly. I promise I’ll never be silly again.” I was baffled. After some probing and one-on-one time, she expressed that in school, kids got in trouble for being ‘silly.’ She began to associate that word with a negative consequence. I tried to explain to her that sometimes we can’t be silly if other people are trying to speak or it’s time to be quiet. Then I thought to myself, “She’s only 4. Can she really distinguish levels of ‘silliness’ and situational ‘silliness’? Of course not. She recognizes the disapproval of an authority figure and simply will not take a risk at all in causing such disapproval.
Bear with me as I try to re-direct myself from this tangent.
Back to “The Last Week” unease. I have seen my oldest change because of school. I have watched it unconsciously and only more recently, have I become more conscious of it. Last week we had a heated conversation. A little background: #1 is not musically inclined. I’ve often suggested various music lessons which she has not been remotely interested in. She does not enjoy music class because she sings songs that don’t speak to her and she learns music theory in a way that is not conducive to her particular way of learning – again, I recommend this book for more on that. She still ends up with a B+ or A- but I really don’t care anyhow because she’s not into it. Last week, out of the blue, she came downstairs and asked me to test her on her knowledge of musical theory. She had been in her room for an hour studying what she had learned last year. It is two weeks before the beginning of school and the girl is studying a topic that she loathes. What?? I ask her the reason by this sudden cramming session and she tells me that she wants to be ready for Gr. 7 music since she’ll be playing an instrument and she wants to make sure that she gets a good mark. Completely surprised, I tell her that I didn’t know she was now interested in music. She tells me that she still isn’t but she doesn’t want to be the only one who doesn’t know what she’s doing and wants to get a good mark. I ask, “So you’re not excited about learning music for the sake of learning music? You just want a good grade and not look stupid?” She says yes and I ask, “Let’s put aside the fact that your daddy and I try to teach you to not care what other people think and most of the time they themselves are busy thinking about how not to look stupid themselves than care if you are stupid. Why do you need a good grade in music?” She couldn’t answer me. She didn’t answer me. Ever-Patient and I tell the kids over and over again how their grades do not matter. In fact, there are no grades given at #2 and #3’s school. What we care about is learning skills – analytical, critical, creative, and even learning to love learning for the sake of learning can be a skill. I want them to learn respect for hard work and to have a compassionate soul. I want them to learn that time is finite and to use it well. If I were grading #1’s use of time as she studied a subject which she absolutely had no interest in for the sake of a future and let’s face it, arbitrary, grade, I would have flunked her.
I have put a face to that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach in The Last Week. It is school.
But now what?