Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Against the Current: Talk from the Toronto Unschooling Conference

I just arrived home yesterday from the Toronto Unschooling Conference, which was a truly lovely weekend.  Talking to lots of cool people, hanging out and just relaxing...  And, of course, presenting a talk.  Being the perfectionist that I am, I still have some feelings of oh, I should have written the talk sooner.  I should have practiced it more.  I should have spoken slower.  But honestly?  Overall I'm pretty happy with how it went!

It really is too long for a blog post, yet unlike last year's talk, I really don't feel like this one can be broken up into multiple posts.  So, I shall simply post it all despite it's length, with a "read more" option so people who aren't interested don't have to scroll forever to get to older posts...  So, here it is!

Against the Current

When I was six, I went to a street fair with my mother.  My little sister was probably there, too.  There were booths, from different companies and organizations, as there are at every street fair I’ve ever been to.  One of them was about the meat industry—it was probably PETA—and I think that’s the first time my young self made the connection between those furry and feathery creatures I so enjoyed spending time with, and the food on my plate.  Right then and there, I decided I was no longer going to eat meat.
I don’t even truly remember this incident.  When I try and pull it up in my mind, all I get is the shadowy almost-memory of a story told so many times, you can almost see yourself there.  My mother is the one who always told me this story, until I got older and started repeating it myself to those who queried me in-depth about my dietary choices.
I didn’t stop eating meat right away.  As determined as I was at six, Chicken McNuggets and hot dogs proved too much of a temptation right up until I was eight and gave those up for good, too.
But the decision was made at six, the summer after my parents pulled me out of kindergarten, and looking back now, I feel like that was probably the first major decision I made in my life that went against the current.  It seemed like everyone else ate meat, but this was not something I wanted to participate in.  This is yet another time when I’m so grateful to have parents that supported such a decision, despite my young age.
Now, this isn’t meant as a morality tale.  Though I still don’t eat meat, I’m not interested in convincing people to change their diets, and that’s definitely not the point of this speech.
It’s just an interesting example of how making decisions counter to those of the dominant culture started early on in my life.
Just by virtue of unschooling, all of us here have made a radically different choice in how we live and learn than that of the mainstream.  Whether you chose to never send your kids to school, pulled them out later on, or decided yourself to leave school, it was a huge decision, likely accompanied by much soul-searching and thought.  Possibly also a large amount of reading and researching and discussion.  Maybe you just followed what felt right.  But whatever path lead you away from schooling, I’m sure the impact of that choice was felt in a profound way.
Yet as big a thing as unschooling is in our lives, sometimes I think it isn’t apparent to others just how very many choices we’re making differently in our day-to-day lives.  Not only does the unschooled child answer with a shrug and a “why on earth should I know that??” look when asked what grade they’re in, the unschooled parent winces when they hear a parent, as so often happens, threaten to leave their child (who is very much enjoying themselves sitting on the plastic pony in the mall) behind if they don’t come right now!  The unschooled parent likely doesn’t understand how parents can scold their children for getting dirty, or rejoice at the beginning of each school year, or if they do understand, they shake their head sadly at their memories of a less enlightened time.
As an unschooling teen, one may make sympathetic noises when their friends complain about being grounded yet again, while secretly just not getting it.  Not allowed to go anywhere?  Why would parents do that?  And why are they listening, anyway?  Can’t they just… walk out?
Then there are the news stories on TV about back-to-school, the article in the paper about the importance of preschool in a child’s later “academic success”, the advertisement on the bus shelter about the failure a person will be if they don’t go to university…
In a hundred different ways or more, day by day, the society around us is telling unschoolers what they’re doing is wrong.
And that’s just unschooling.  If you’ve also made other different and radical choices in how you live, if your views on many other things are very different from the dominant culture, it gets even worse.
So how do you navigate in a world where you live so differently from those around you?  How do you find and maintain community?  How do you deal with the constant pressure to conform to the edicts of the dominant culture?  These are questions I think a lot about in my own life, and am continually attempting to answer.

Normalcy is for Squares
My sister and I spend a lot of time together.  We enjoy having really great discussions, sharing observations, jokes, and just generally being best friends.  And a while back, I made some comment along the lines that I dress pretty normally, and my sister just looked at me and said “Idzie, you’ve forgotten what normal is.”
I regularly forget what normal is about more than just clothing.  I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not, but I think it does say something about where, and with whom, I spend most of my time!
I’ve been asked if I feel unschooling made, and makes, it harder for me to connect with “regular” people, and I find that a difficult question to begin with, just because there are so many ways in which my views and lifestyle are, well, far from mainstream.  It goes beyond just what could be covered under the label of unschooler.
Some people seem able to find common ground with every single person they come across, and I truly envy that skill.  Because so often, with new acquaintances, I find myself running out of anything to talk about very, very quickly.  Being the unschooling, vegetarian, animistic, green-anarchist, feminist, hippie freak that I am, what’s on my radar tends to look pretty different than the things that feature most prominently in many other peoples lives.
I don’t say this in any attempt to be special, or pretend that I’m unique in these experiences.  I’ve learned enough at this point in my life to know that everyone, no matter how mainstream (or not) they are, feels different and misunderstood at times.  But it seems to me that most people, those that are following a path deemed appropriate by the dominant culture, have, at the very least, a common base to draw upon.  Whether they’re comfortable in conversation with people they know little or not, at least they can talk about what courses they’re taking in college, crappy bosses at work, friction with parents…
With me, and the people I tend to spend most of my time with, that’s not usually the case.  Instead, I’m left floundering, trying to find some common experience or interest, some point of connection.
I don’t think it’s just unschooling, but I do think my views, and the way I live and plan to live, make it hard to connect with people at times.
So I suppose I’m grateful I regularly forget what normal is, because it means I’ve found people to spend time with whom I feel a real kinship: people who get me, and understand why I think and do what I do.
When I was a child, my family was involved in what home education community there was near us.  It wasn’t nearly as large as it is now, and unlike the younger, larger, current home learning community to be found in Montreal, which is very secular and quite relaxed, the community to be found when I was young was largely conservatively religious and very school-at-home.  While I found some common areas of interest—many families were quite crafty, for instance, and very into spending time in nature—for the most part, the worldview of my family was very different from the views of the other families involved in co-ops and science clubs and other home learning activities.
Fast-forward a few years, as I was entering my teens, and feeling more shy and introverted than ever.  The few friends I had through home learning activities were going into high school, and I felt more lonely than ever.
I managed okay for my first few years of teenage-hood.  I just didn’t interact very much with other people.  I joined the Air Cadets just to have more social interaction in my life, and the knowledge that I was un-cool, knowledge I’d already been pretty sure of before-hand, was quickly confirmed by the fact that, despite being surrounded several days a week by a large group of people, I continued to not make any real friends and to feel out of place.
Air Cadets taught me quite a bit, and helped to shape many fledgling ideas and views that had been lurking in the recesses of my brain for a while.
You won’t find anything about the learning I attribute to Cadets in any of their publicity material.
I feel like it’s almost a taboo thing with all school-free learners, including unschoolers, to talk about being lonely or not fitting in.  Such a common criticism from outsiders is school-free learners won’t be “socialized,” and will instead be forever “socially awkward” and “unable to interact with others.”  So we get used to touting the party line that unschoolers have tons of friends, do tons of activities, never have any trouble interacting with anyone, ever, etc.
When, that’s not really the case.
Some unschoolers do have tons of friends.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Some unschoolers are quite happy with only a few friends.  There’s nothing wrong with that, either.  Different people are happy with different amounts of social stimulation, and more or less downtime.  One of the many benefits of unschooling is a persons ability to choose how much time they want to spend out home or out-and-about; with family, or friends, or by themselves.  And an individual’s ease with others, how well they naturally deal with people, is not at all dependent on whether they go to school or not.  Neither is having more difficulty with people a horrible mark against you (or, should I say, it shouldn’t be).  Social skills are just yet another skill that takes more work for some than others, like cooking or algebra or mechanics.  I’m very fed up with hearing people talk about “social awkwardness” as if it’s the eighth deadly sin.  Unschooling gives people the space to be who they are, and gain the skills needed to function in the world at their own pace and in the ways that make them the most comfortable.
And sometimes, unschoolers just have trouble making friends and fitting in.
I did.  And I really tried to be normal!  I did all the things I thought you were supposed to do, and still I felt out-of-place and unhappy.  How do all the people around me manage this, I thought?  What am I doing wrong?
Of course, I came to a point of embracing who I am, following what I actually think and believe, not what those around me do, or what anyone tells me I should think and believe.  I realized that the majority of people—though good at fitting in, and molding themselves into the image society tells them to fit—are not happy people.
Conformity in some ways might be the easier option—for those in school I think it’s often a way to survive—but it’s not a fulfilling one.
A big part of what lead me to these realizations was actually meeting other people who were also going against the current.  I met unschoolers, and my life changed.
That’s how important finding community is.
Finding Community
I started getting enthusiastic about the idea of unschooling when I was 16 or 17, and I actually met other unschoolers in real life for the first time when I was 17 and went to Not Back to School Camp.  I think I expected everything to change instantly: that I’d magically become more outgoing and make a ton of new friends in one fell swoop, and I was a bit disappointed when that didn’t happen.  But I did really like the atmosphere of camp, and I did make some new, tentative friendships.  And as I continued to make my way into the unschooling community by going to a couple of conferences with my mother and sister, and going to Not Back to School Camp again the next year, I started realizing that, slowly but surely, I was making quite a few friends.  I found myself keeping in touch with those friends, even though they lived far away, and gaining a hell of a lot of confidence along the way.
I learned that maybe I was someone worth being friends with, after all, and I learned that there were a lot of unschoolers I very much wanted to get to know better.
Now, the unschooling community isn’t the only one I feel I need in my life: I was rather surprised when I first started going to unschooling events by how non-radical many unschoolers are.  I guess I’d assumed that because questioning the schooling system lead me to questioning so much else, that that would be the experience of others, as well.  And it is!  Just not as many others as maybe I’d first thought.  This isn’t meant in any way as a criticism, just an honest reflection of my thoughts.  Regardless, the people I choose to surround myself with now are unschoolers, anarchists, radicals, queers, hippies, pagans, and other odd folk.  And I’m using “odd” here in the most complementary sense possible!
Everyone will feel pulled to find different communities, but all of us do need community.
It’s the finding of it that can be difficult.
Now, I should make it clear what I’m actually talking about when I speak of community.  I suppose, though the word community can encompass a huge range of things, I think of three primary meanings.  First, your physical, immediate community: your neighbors, the local events you attend, the people you see around you daily.  Secondly, a community composed of like-minded people that you specifically seek out: an education community, whether that means unschooling, homeschooling, school, or something else; people who share your political beliefs: people who share a specific interest or passion; a religious or spiritual community…  And thirdly, community based on personal identity: sexual orientation, gender identity, racial identity, physical ability…
Everyone belongs to multiple different communities, though because the world isn’t divided neatly and sectioned off into separate areas, I’m sure most people’s communities overlap and bleed into each other to some extent.
The first type of community, that of the physical one, is probably the easiest to find, though I imagine it’s also often the hardest to connect with: it’s people in that first category I have the hardest time dealing with!
But what I want to discuss now is like-minded community, that oh-so-elusive, yet oh-so-important thing.
I wish there was a road-map of sorts, or a guidebook, or something else that gave neat instructions: How to Find and/or Build Meaningful Community in 10 Easy Steps!  But since there isn’t, we’re each left to figure things out for ourselves, to find the paths, through trial and error, that work best, based on our own unique geographic locations, personalities, and circumstances.
Since I found a more wide-spread unschooling community a few years ago—a community that I have so many terrific friends in, and that has had such a positive impact on my life—I find my focus shifting to the areas where community in my own life is still, I feel, lacking.  A community of those who hold similar radical political beliefs to me, and/or a local community of like-minded folk.
And I’m making serious progress.  I’ve been involved with the sometimes-active freedom-based education community in Montreal for a couple of years now.  I’m continually meeting cool new people in my home city, and when I go to interesting workshops and events, I find myself happily greeting multiple other attendees.
As with everything in life, I keep expecting results to be instant.  But as with most things in life, things aren’t instant.  Growth, be it personal or on a community level, happens slowly, through care and nurturing, reaching out and being open to new people and possibilities, overcoming obstacles and personal barriers.
All my personal communities are ever-growing, but as I learned this past spring when I finally planted some veggies after years of wanting to, as excited as I am about the shoots poking out of the ground, leaves unfurling, vines climbing and peas swelling, growth happens on it’s own schedule, and can’t be forced no matter how much I wish otherwise.
 Mother Culture
While having supportive community can help to alleviate it, the pressure to be doing things a certain way, the Right Way, is still an ever-present demand of the dominant culture.  In the form of laws and policies, media and advertising, novels and your grandparents concerns.  Ask anyone, and they’ll know the sequence of events we’re supposed to follow, from birth until death.  Author Daniel Quinn calls this the voice of Mother Culture, and said in one of his books:
"Once you learn to discern the voice of Mother Culture humming in the background, telling her story over and over again to the people of your culture, you’ll never stop being conscious of it. Wherever you go for the rest of your life, you’ll be tempted to say to the people around you, ‘how can you listen to this stuff and not recognize it for what it is?’”
I’ve found this to be true, and I’ve also found that recognizing and acknowledging the voice of Mother Culture is helpful.  That voice—the one that tells us the way the world works, and how we’re supposed to function in it—is a very pervasive one.  Yet I find identifying clearly for yourself which voices originate from your own experiences and beliefs about the world, and which are messages you’ve absorbed from external sources, but don't truly belong to you, can be very helpful.  It keeps me mostly on the right path, that of following what I truly feel called to be doing.
But even then, it’s hard.
 All the should do’s and have-to-do’s, the disapproving looks from strangers and family alike, skepticism from more mainstream friends, the constant barrage from all around you to conform, go to college, get a degree, get a good job…
Sometimes, I almost feel like giving up.  To just stop fighting the current, and going with it, instead.  Go to university, even though the thought of sitting in a classroom for years makes me feel like running away and joining the circus, or something similarly irresponsible and wonderfully spontaneous.  To pretend all my values, all the things I know to be true, don’t exist, and just get the best paying job I can find, regardless of it’s impact on others, the environment, or my own well-being.
I told my sister once that it was a real fear of mine that that would happen someday: that I’d just give up all my ideals, give up all my plans for living a life that feels truly fulfilling.  That fighting would just become too much effort.  She laughed at me, then gave me a hug.  She doesn’t think that will ever happen.  I hope she’s right.
Expectations of Greatness
The dominant culture exerts plenty of pressure all right.  But there’s another, different, subtler pressure from an entirely different quarter.
To be a grown unschooler is to be held up as an example.  “Look at them” unschooling parents say “they grew up just fine. They can speak coherently, interact with other people without too much difficulty.  They can even write!”  we get used to doing it to ourselves, as well “look at me!” we say “I can do public speaking, and budget my money, and interact with others without too much difficulty. I can even write!”
Of course, in my own case, I suppose I brought a lot of it on myself, albeit inadvertently.  Writing a blog that has become so well-known has really put a spotlight on me, and I find myself standing here going “wait, what happened?  Why are all these people listening to what I have to say?  I’m just an Idzie who’s busy stumbling through life trying to figure shit out!”
I’d think most of the pressure I feel is because of the fact I’ve made my life more public, were it not for the fact that my grown unschooled friends express feeling a similar pressure.  When people in the general public regularly air “concerns” at how these uneducated unschoolers will “turn out,” the unschooling community is quick to point out all of it’s members who have “turned out.”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s important for families just learning about unschooling to meet grown unschoolers I think.  It’s important that we’re out there doing cool things while being open about the fact we’re unschoolers.  And most of the time, it’s something I’m quite fine with in my own life!
But at the same time, when you know that there are many eyes trained on you, it’s easy to become self-conscious, and start to be uncomfortable sharing anything bad that happens in your life, any struggles, or, heaven forbid, failures, or anything that could be perceived as failure.  Unschoolers, like everyone else, deal with difficulty getting a job, struggles with mental illness, getting a university application turned down, not knowing what they want to do with their life, or one of the many other difficulties that are often a part of life, no matter whether you went to school or not.  It’s hard to be open about struggle when you know people are looking up to you as one of these mythical Grown Unschoolers.
I know I’ve felt that acutely these last couple of years, as I’ve passed the age of compulsory schooling, and am now expected to be an adult, and Do Something With My Life!  I’m 20, I live at home, I don’t have a job and am not currently earning money, except for very occasional pay for speaking, hosting a workshop, editing, or similar.
In a culture where money is the ultimate judge of “success,” often I feel like a failure.  I find myself thinking that I’m a bad example of unschooling, and regretting having put myself in such a public light.  Yet, when I stop and think, I know this is Mother Culture speaking once again.
What is success?  Who gets to decide it’s definition?  And when I actually look at those questions, I see things in a very different light.  Success is best decided by the individual, and by the communities that that individual decides to identify and associate with.
I’m not a huge fan of the word “successful,” just because of it’s usual connotations and associations, but when I think of what would make me happy, where I want to be headed in life right now, I think of being involved in activist and freedom-based education and environmental work in a real and meaningful way.  I think of publishing a book about unschooling and freedom-based education.  I think of helping to start an intentional community in the wilderness…  I don’t think of accumulating money: that might make me look “successful” to other people, but if that were my main goal, I know I wouldn’t be very happy.
Dealing With the Here and Now
While my goals, such as they are, are clear in at least a fairly big picture way, I don’t know the details in how I’ll achieve them, and right now I just have to work with what I’ve got.  Which means that I’ll probably be getting a part-time job this fall.  Working in the kitchens at a restaurant, perhaps.  Something temporary and not very well-paying, but something I hopefully won’t hate too much.  I know that I’m privileged in that my family is middle class: lower middle class, yes, but still with the financial ability to support their daughter past what’s usually considered high school age.  But with insurance for me running out at my next birthday, and with my wanting to continue visiting friends who live far away, travel to new places, and do other interesting things, money is a must.  And I really feel like I need to be the one supplying my own money in large part at this point.
When you’re taking a well established route—college, followed by university, followed by a good career, etc.—the way may not be easy, but at least it’s clear.  When your goals, the way you plan to live, is so very different from those accepted paths, you’re bushwhacking.  There is no trail to follow, so like it or not, you’re making your own!
While there may have been too few people who’ve come before to leave an actual trail behind, just knowing they exist, and hearing their stories, does give me hope and confidence that what I want for my own life is attainable.
Because the tough bit lies in that: attaining it.  How do you live by your ideals in a culture that’s not just indifferent, but in many cases built in direct opposition to the ways in which you want to be living?  How do you turn dreams and vague plans into reality?
I’m still busy figuring that out, as are many of my friends in their 20’s.  I’m just grateful that I know people who are sharing in a similar dilemma, so that we can cheer each other on, share our triumphs and setbacks, and work together to build the lives we really want to be living.
Lest it seem from this that I'm dissatisfied with my education and the way I grew up, I want to make it clear that that's definitely not the case.  Unschooling gave me the space to grow into a person more confident than I ever imagined I could be in my younger years.  I can't imagine having lived any differently, and I don't have regrets.  Regrets to me are useless, and if I'm happy with the person I am now, and if everything that has happened in my life, all of my experiences, went into shaping my self and outlook, then I can't really wish that anything had gone differently.
Yet I suppose unschooling has left me in a rather difficult position in this society: that of not being willing to settle for less than happiness in my life.  In some ways, school is almost a 12 year long lesson in settling for less, just taking things as they are.  And when I think about it, I wonder if that's one of the things most commonly shared by grown unschoolers: a desire to continue unschooling throughout life, in spirit at the very least, whether or not they decide that school will be a part of their lives.  I'm not sure all of us succeed in this: the pull to conform, as we've already established, is strong.  But, the desire to live the dream is there: the knowledge that, however difficult they are, other ways of living are possible..
So where does that leave me?  A young idealist who grew up with so much more freedom than most other children are lucky enough to experience, with a strong desire to continue living in a similar way, and to help create a world where that freedom is commonplace for everyone.
I have community to lean on when I need to, and I'm just hoping I'm able to live in the ways I know will be best for me, and hopefully for the community and world surrounding me as well.  Only time will tell if I can actually manage it.


  1. Wonderful, wonderful speech! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  2. Thank you Idzie ! I appreciate your honesty and integrity.

  3. This was really great, and really important of you to say. Don't get down on yourself. You're 20. If you were doing the dominant culture thing, you'd be in university, getting drunk and dating and maybe taking a few interesting classes while you really wasted time. I did "everything right" at your age, and it still took me until my 30s to really know myself. There is a lot of pressure in our culture to know what you're gonna be when you grow up, but thoughtful people are often "late bloomers" and that's not a crime. You'll be fine!!!!

  4. That's so lovely, Idzie. It touches on so many things that are at the core of unschooling, but which are ignored. I'm relatively mainstream in some respects, although I've also moved in the direction of skeptical enquiry, but I've found that giving my children the opportunity to unschool has opened my vistas in so many ways. As my eldest approaches 18, it's also made me realise that when you take the road less trodden, you have a lot of bushes to make your way through.

  5. Best part of this speech: I was so inspired that I had to stop halfway through to write.

    It's very reassuring to see that even lifelong unschoolers like you still struggle with being successful in the traditional sense. Sometimes I feel like as a high school rise-out I'll never be as good at unschooling as those who grew up with it. I'll never be as good at finding my own path or creating the job that I want.

    That's entirely false! As a grown unschooler poster child, you're far more helpful and inspiring to me than someone who is perfect. I really appreciate that. As unschoolers, we're all in the same boat - some people just got here sooner. I struggle, you struggle. You're an incredible person and great at communicating, despite any social awkwardness you had when you were younger. There's hope for me! ;)

    As always, thank you so much.

  6. Thank you for posting this! We are the first in our family to start unschooling with our daughter and i feel the pressure that it needs to be perfect. Your article gave me some air, space around the issue. Thank you for expressing yourself so honestly.