Real Live Grown One

(Originally published, I _think_, in "Growing Without Schooling" magazine.)

by Sarabeth Matilsky

For as long as I can remember, I’ve often felt like everyone and her second cousin is waiting to see how I’d turn out. I was the oldest in the homeschooling group, the oldest of five children, and one of the oldest in the homeschooling movement in general. “How will you go to college without school?” strangers ask me over and over, sounding like a broken record. “How will you get A Job?” asks my grandmother despairingly. “What if they’re socially inept?” disapproving friends insinuate to my mother. Sometimes it’s seemed like literally 99% of the people I meet have doubted aloud that I will survive my upbringing.

“You won’t have friends.”
“You won’t know math.”
“You won’t be able to make money.”
“You’ll ‘miss out’ without school.”
“You’re overprotected by your parents.”
“You’re underprotected by your parents.”
“You can’t learn outside of school.”
“You’ll have to work at McDonalds.”
“You won’t learn responsibility.”
“You won’t learn how to take care of yourself–it’s a cruel world out there.”

“SHUT UP!” is something I’ve wanted to scream, time and again in response to these questions, but I never have. I’ve listened to the cool interrogations a million times, watched the faces of strangers who don’t know how much their insensitivity affects the child in front of them. I’ve felt self-doubt creep into myself, after explaining my educational philosophy a hundred times without getting through to anyone. “If it’s so hard to understand, then maybe homeschooling is all wrong,” I begin to think to myself.

At different times in the past eighteen years, I’ve experienced intense feelings of doubt about this path which my family and I have chosen to walk. Many times I’ve felt very isolated, and terrified that I will fulfill the prophecies of total strangers, acquaintances, and my relatives. But this spring, as I rapidly move closer towards being a Real Live Grown One, I’m filled with a sense of peace and gratitude. More than at any other time in my life, I am very satisfied with where I am, where I’m going, what I’ve done, and the kind of person I’m becoming. As I look back, I see how homeschooling (i.e. living) has allowed me to explore the world at my own pace, learn skills I need to take care of myself, and meet wonderful friends. Although I won’t receive a diploma this June, that’s okay. It’s not like I’m going to change my philosophy on life/education, and I’m not going to stop learning. My peers will be celebrating their release from school this spring, free for the first time since they entered the system twelve years ago. My life will not change, though, because it has always been a celebration of freedom.

Freedom. When someone asks me what the greatest advantage of homeschooling has been, that is most comprehensive short answer I can think of.

When I was younger, freedom meant that my parents allowed me to learn at my own pace. We never had scheduled lessons, textbooks, or curriculums. Learning to read wasn’t made into an issue, even though I learned at an age that was later than my grandmother or the school would have approved. But at age eight my reading skills went from non-existent to advanced enough to read any book within my intellectual comprehension. Looking back, I can see how my mother carefully chose good books for me on our weekly library trips–but never forced me to read them. Instead, I “just happened” to find interesting books lying around, and read them voraciously because I enjoyed them. I don’t think I realized how Mom spent so much time making sure that I could guide my own life.

Freedom comes with the price (or gift) of responsibility, and my parents have been extraordinarily good at balancing the two. My siblings and I have had more household chores than most of our same-age friends, and we’ve also had to earn money for some things (like going to camp) which many of our friends’ parents have paid for. I can see how that responsibility has increased our appreciation for our freedom, though, and as well it’s taught us how to use that freedom wisely.

Household chores taught us skills necessary to do things on our own. And my parents have given us opportunities to earn money (instead of just handing out an allowance), and actually working for my money made me a lot more aware of how I spent or saved it. Also, I developed marketable skills that have so far allowed me to find paying jobs outside the family as a staff member in our food co-op, a tutor, a piano teacher, a child-care provider, a cook, and a writer (among other things). Although I can’t say that washing dishes is my favorite occupation, I am very glad that I have life-skills and the ability to take care of myself and others.

Another part of having freedom has been the gift of being able to develop emotionally and socially at my own speed. As a child, and up until I was about thirteen or fourteen, I was very shy. For no particular reason, I was nervous around strangers (both adults and children) and had not much desire to go anywhere without my mom and dad unless it was a familiar place. I had close friends, but no one would say that I was an outgoing individual.

Around my 14th birthday in November 1993, I decided that I wanted to do something exciting the following summer. I didn’t know exactly why, but I felt an intense desire to do something new. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, either, but I had money saved and now seemed like the right time to use it. I began searching through my options. I wrote to summer camps of all kinds, dance and theatre programs, and companies which run outdoor adventure trips for teens. Information poured in by the mailbox-full.

Then, in late November, a declassified ad appeared in GWS: “Homeschooling family wishes to host teenager (14-18) for a summer of fine arts study in Fairbanks, Alaska...” I wrote a letter to the Chapman family. Soon it became clear that I would be going to Alaska in June. All of a sudden my shyness had to be overcome whether I liked it or not: I was going to stay with a family I’d never met, go to a camp I’d never been to before, and be interacting with strangers on a daily basis. Once I made up my mind to do it, it wasn’t that hard–because I was ready. I made close friendships that summer, and in retrospect I think that the trip was the boost I needed to overcome my shyness. The six weeks in Alaska allowed me to change my perception of myself and my limits-and I returned home as a much more outgoing person.

There are some who will argue that I should have been forced to develop those qualities at an earlier age. I disagree. In fact, I don’t think that it would have been possible for me to do it, because one cannot learn things fully (especially something so intangible as overcoming shyness) until one is ready to do so. I was not unhappy because of my shyness before I went to Alaska, either (although I would have been in school), and now at age 18 I think that I am as able to relate to people as any of my peers. I am grateful that I was able to challenge myself instead of being pushed by an external force.

My freedom has shaped my relationships with my family in many important ways, especially with my parents. Throughout my growing-up, my relationship with them has been based on their trust that I can make decisions for myself if I fulfilled my obligations to the family.

Because I had freedom, I had no need to rebel. Because my parents set no arbitrary rules (i.e. rules that only made sense to them and not to me), I had no reason to break them. And because I had the freedom to grow and explore at my own pace, I had no need to go too fast, to do something just because of the allure of its forbidden fruit. I never had a curfew, because that made no sense. I would tell my parents if I was going to be home late, and if it didn’t seem right to them (which rarely happened) we’d talk it over. I can’t remember a time when we came to a compromise that didn’t feel right to me, or when I didn’t agree regretfully with their hesitations about letting me do something.

It’s been a careful balancing act on their part, and as I’m getting older I am more and more impressed with how they have done it. When I was younger, my parents endured countless accusations of “You’re being overprotective! How do you think she’ll survive in the world with you standing over her at every step?” It was funny though, because the year I went to Alaska everybody changed their tune. Those same people who had said that I was overprotected now exclaimed, “How can you let her go alone?! She’s too young to be on her own for that long.”

I respect my parents for sticking to their own truth, because that took a lot of courage in the face of doubts on all sides. And especially these past two years, I appreciate my parents’ trust that I can direct my own life.

In August of ‘96, I went to Grace Llewellyn’s first annual Not Back To School Camp in Oregon. For one intense week, I found myself surrounded by teenagers who didn’t go to school, who were very intelligent and caring, and who were doing all sorts of cool things with their lives. A fire of inspiration was kindled inside of me that week, and I returned home full-to-bursting with new ideas and projects. Besides that, I felt a need to leave home for a while, to test myself, to push myself and to learn in ways that I just couldn’t when I was ensconced in the comfort of home. And so, I decided to ride my bicycle across America alone to attend NBTSC #2.

On March 24th, 1997, filled with trepidation and wonder and excitement, I began a 6-month adventure in freedom. On my gray Panasonic bicycle I pushed myself harder than I ever had before. I met dozens of people every week (remember, three short years ago I was shy about talking with strangers). I found my emotional limits of joy and fear and love and loneliness–and I pushed past them. I found that I could take freedom as far as I dared.

And so now, on a rainy gray-drippy day in June, I ponder the effects of all this freedom on my life to date. I’m about to venture into a world of mainly untrodden territory. My reality is very different from most of my peers. I am not planning to go to college in the near future, and I also do not intend to enter the general rat-race of American society. I worked all fall and winter, and with that money I am going to Europe in September, to ride around on my bike and learn how people live in other countries. When I come home, I’m interested in leading bike trips for young people (preferably homeschoolers), or maybe interning at a National Park–but who knows? I don’t know where my life will go next.

One thing is for sure, however: I am forever grateful for my freedom. My relatives are anxiously waiting to see how I’ve Turned Out–but really, it’s an ongoing process, this business of learning and growing and being free. It’s the process of self-discovery, awareness of other people and the earth, challenging my perceived limitations, finding my place in this sometimes-crazy world. And you know what, Grandma? It’s just beginning!