My English teacher said to me, ‘The most you’ll learn at University is from your peers.’
Well, that was true. That’s been true of all my education.
I look back at 20 years of education, of being one of the good pupils, of getting pretty excellent grades and Firsts and all that, and I think – school was such a terrible failing. That is, what it set out to do, it did not.
I learned very well, and from an early age, how to get an A. I learnt how to learn an incredible amount in a short period of time and subsequently forget it in just as short a time. But I did not really learn a great deal by way of teachers or lessons, no matter how good either were. At University I know I enjoyed a few lectures, but I remember only a few of them.
Whenever I start to write about this subject, I am overwhelmed by its hugeness. There is so much to say perhaps it is better just to acknowledge that to me, now, the very idea of school is so unappealing. It saddens me to see that people slog their way through it, often miserably, because it is the done thing and because if they don’t go to school, they won’t, of course, learn anything, or get into University, or be a Success or make a lot of money or, you know, Acheive in Life.
But that’s not what most people’s lives look like. Not the ones I know. A great deal of people who have followed this path find themselves questioning what it is they ever really wanted to do, wondering why they don’t have the Big Life Dream by now, or even just a job. A lot of the ones who do have the good job don’t like it much, either, but they tire themselves out day in and day out because it’s what you do when you’ve worked all your life towards it and there doesn’t seem to be another option.
The most I ever learnt, and this is true of mostly everyone I know, was by being interested in something and finding out about it. Usually, outside of school. That simple. The passion for it had to come first. And it had to come from me. Sometimes, if I was lucky, that was faciliated by a really great teacher who was also passionate about the same thing, and I felt that buzz walking out a classroom where you know something has irrevocably changed because of just one conversation.
Of course, there were a lot of these conversations, at University and at school. There were a lot of really smart, really good people I was lucky to know.
And there were all the Good Times, throughout it all, which is the only thing that makes school bearable. Friends, community. I liked school a lot because it was a place I went to hang out with friends, because it had that swollen fat glorious promise of youth and proximity to something bigger than yourself and because, occasionally, you found something of interest out.
But mostly, the things I have learnt and used, have been from books I have read because I wanted to read them. Or because I saw something someone had made and thought, ‘I’d like to make that too.’ Or because I googled it and found out about it myself. If I needed to know something that my (extensive) schooling had not covered, I learnt it. Pretty quickly. Without much hassle.
My time in America was an interesting exception to my general schooling experience. Not only did I get to choose only classes that interested me, but it didn’t matter at all what grade I got since I already had a secure place at Uni. No exams to worry about, either. But the best thing about it was the time I spent each day talking to a teacher who was, herself, a writer, and who had agreed to mentor me one on one during my time at the school.
Just being the two of us, it was a very relaxed kind of lesson, if indeed it could be called a lesson at all. Which is not to say she didn’t teach me anything. She taught me more in that hour a day than anyone else has ever taught me. But it felt more like a really good conversation. It felt very free. I felt trusted and respected. And for the first time, without the pressure of some false, external goal, or learning any kind of specific curriculum, I felt complete and utter joy at this new kind of learning. And I learnt deeply, in my stomach. I breathed in this kind of learning.
So here I am, armed with a strong sense of what I do and do not want for my children, with an ever-widening pool of resources and support, terrified and exhilarated by Unschooling and also very aware of how much work I have to do myself before I really trust myself to trust my children.
That’s what it comes down to, for me. Trust. Because I get what John Holt writes about when he writes about learning and about children, or when Nan Golding talks about the magic of children, the wisdom, the goodness.
I feel how naturally Ava learns so much, simply by being, and how my trust that she would learn to walk and talk by herself is no different, surely, than trusting she will learn whatever she needs to learn, at the time in her life she needs to learn it, without being forced to. I see how much this has worked for us so far, when she insists on reading a book or when she collects treasures on walks, or when she says thank you even though she has never been prompted to. Or when she suddenly sings an entire lullaby happily to herself because she has heard people around her sing it and clearly enjoyed the sound. I can see how the world is always open to her and that the best I can do is to keep it open.
I see it in Ava’s eyes. This wild Truth. And I can almost remember what that felt like, too. I felt it in that classroom in America, talking about writing and books and the power of a story and the punch in the gut of a well written line. I felt it on a green leather couch once, laughing at the TV and drinking tea. I feel it in the letters to my friend where we show as much of ourselves as we can bear, and the conversations I have with Mamas who just love their Littles so much that their faces can barely contain it.
Mostly, I have spent my life forgetting it. But I know it is the only way forward; that it might not be easy, that it might also feel, at every stage, huge and unknowable, but that it also promises adventures of the kind every life should be full of, if I can let go enough of the past to let it in.