*And people said my parents were overprotective,* I thought, pedaling across a wind-swept plateau just north of Silverthorne. *They all said if I didn't go to school, I'd be sheltered from the real world.*
Those people, I decided as I rode below an enormously wide June sky, were wrong. If riding up the Rockies, balancing my finances, and interacting with strangers all day long wasn't the real world, I didn't know what was.
When all the other five-year-olds in my neighborhood boarded a school bus for the first time, I continued to have tea parties with my dolls, play hide and seek with my brother, and create elaborate works of art from construction paper. That year my parents decided to homeschool me, although I was unaware in early September 1984 that my life was taking a different path from the lives of almost every other five-year-old in America.
As the years passed, I realized that people my age usually sat inside a building called "school" for most of the day, but it was a reality far removed from my own life. I never had lessons or tests; my parents gave me the freedom to decide what, how and when I wanted to learn. Sometimes I said that we "homeschooled." Sometimes I called it "self-directed learning." But mainly I called it my Life, and in my mind I didn't separate academic subjects from any other interest or hobby I had.
Skeptics said it wouldn't work. Friends and strangers were convinced that I would have no math skills, no employment opportunities, no knowledge of literature, and that I would turn out to be a social misfit. I proved them wrong by making friends, learning to read and do multiplication, and finding jobs.
Concerned aunts said my parents really should make me write something—anything—and that I should overcome my shyness already. It wasn't until I was fourteen that I wrote my first essay; later in the year, I traveled to Alaska alone to visit a homeschooling family who I'd never met. Three years later, I'd had articles published in our local newspaper and my stories had won awards from Cricket magazine, and I was planning my cross-country bike ride.
People started telling my parents that I was too young to be so independent.
The basic tenet of my parents' educational philosophy was, She'll learn it if she needs or wants to know it. A baby learns to walk and talk because she wants to be a part of her society, they reasoned—why should a desire to learn stop there?
But all through my childhood, that simple idea seemed to elude even some of our closest friends and extended family. My grandparents, as well as total strangers, seemed to think that certain activities just couldn't happen outside of school. "How do you make friends?" the girls in my ballet class would ask. "How will you get a Good Job? What about going to college? Can you write an essay?"
The questions that no one ever asked were things like, "Do you have the skills to take care of yourself?" "Can you cook a balanced meal, or enjoy a great book, or find your way around a city you've never been to before?" "Do you get along well with your family?" "Are you comfortable spending time alone?" People didn't seem to be curious about the things I thought were most important.
Sometimes, though, a person really would want to know about my schooling—and I'd tell him or her about the Civil War books I was reading, how I was writing a book review for our food co-op's newsletter, and that I was currently filling in The Geography Coloring Book.
But, I would tell the Truly Curious Questioner, my education also included things like doing chores, playing with my brothers and sister, traveling with my family, building forts in the backyard, dancing in the living room, not having a television, meeting people of all ages and backgrounds, making dolls out of yarn, playing the piano, and controlling my own time.
I would explain that one of the most important things I learned was that I could learn just about anything I wanted to.
Especially as I got older, though, folks I met often weren't curious at all. They didn't seem to want answers to their questions, and they didn't try to disguise their real thoughts about homeschooling: “You’ll be stupid." "You won’t have friends." "You'll never get a job." "Your parents are practically committing child abuse.”
"Ultimately," people who barely knew me were saying, “you will be a failure.”
Those are powerful things to say to anyone, especially a child. And by 1997, I had stored away about eleven years' worth of the resentment that built up after each unpleasant interrogation.
My bike trip became, in some ways, proof of the validity of my upbringing—proof I could show to the world, possibly even the newspapers and all my relatives.
"Look at me!" I wanted to shout, very loudly. “Look at me now. Do you get it, already?? Can you see how important it was for me to learn and grow at my own pace, so that a painfully shy 4-year-old (and a fairly shy 13-year-old, for that matter), could grow up to be a 17-year-old riding her bike cross-country?
"Look at me now! I'm not the failure you predicted I'd be."
John Holt wrote about educational reform back in the seventies, and went on to become the father of the modern secular homeschooling movement. In his book, What Do I Do Monday? he writes:
"We can best understand learning as growth, an expanding of ourselves into the world around us. We can also see that there is no difference between living and learning, that living is learning, that it is impossible, and misleading and harmful to think of them as being separate."
My trip in 1997 was, mostly, an expansion into my world.