Monday I drove my son Nels to his first day on campus. He’s taking Music Theory, English, and ASL to kick off his college career.
I walked alongside him past the birch trees framing our bright pathway – he stopped to inspect a centipede cheerfully trundling our way – and I felt the sun on my face, mirrored in the honeyed swing of my child’s long blonde hair. I knew I only had a few moments with him and his low, level conversation before he’d politely step back into his private world.
And I ate those moments up.
It felt so strange to be back in school again. “Again” – and yet my role of supportive parent to a schooled minor, has been of an incredibly short duration.
Nels only took one year of school in his life – fifth grade. That was an amazing time for me because it was the only year our two children chose to go. And because this was a hundred percent their decision, everything went smoothly. They got up early, dressed themselves, bundled into the car for the eight mile trip to the bus stop, then boarded the creaky bus for another eight. That year they both did their homework, found friends and found squabbles, and brought home glowing reports and A’s in their subjects. My entire solitary parental experience with the principal’s office was a sunny day I was asked in to retrieve the two knives my husband had packed in the kids’ backpacks – to cut up their lunch apples. (Unschooling is a little Huck Finn in a way schooling families could never quite understand!)
At year’s end both kids bopped right back out of the system (as we thought they might). But I’ll always have these brief memories of being a schooling family – even though we were different than 99% of the other families.
Now – I can’t go back and make us “normal” but I can say I enjoyed bits and bobs of that particular type of institutional life, mostly because for twenty years I’ve enjoyed supporting all my children’s amazing choices. Anything I get to see through their vision gives me a great deal of pleasure.
It’s so strange to raise unschooled children especially in this particular moment in our history, while those with vested interest in compulsory school attendance are quickly once again testing to prove “learning loss” and thereby justify mandatory enrollment during a deadly pandemic. “Learning loss” isn’t real – but the profound discouragement the institutional process can foment, really is.
In contrast, Nels’ education was entirely self-directed. And he took his college placement test a few weeks ago, a short while after he’d announced his intention to attend. I was surprised he wanted to go – but maybe I shouldn’t have been. His older brother went to college at a rather tender age – thirteen, the youngest-ever student to enroll then graduate (with a 3.4). And while I’m sure Nels’ decision to enroll isn’t entirely based on his brother’s path, I suspect that’s a factor. They are little spirit-twins; they call one another “Bestie” and share a bond truly beautiful to behold. Unbreakable!
So everything’s coming up roses for the two of them, but both matriculations arrived too early for me. I know (most) all parents feel a pang as our children step across a threshold of independence, and I’m not unique in that regard. But I suppose only other unschoolers can really understand it: the pace of living life together alongside one another and living in so much freedom and joy that for years I could feel their heartbeats even when we were simply and quietly sharing a space. But Monday as I zipped up my child’s laptop in my cheerful yellow knapsack – loaning it to him to borrow, while we wait for his bag on order – and even as I keep an effortless lightness to my voice, I am devastated. As per usual.
But of course; it’s only a grieving from my side of the window. For my son: it’s an adventure.
A few weeks ago on the phone I told my brother I have absolute confidence in my children. He countered with something like, “You never know what kind of bad things might happen!” (Yeah – that’s my family for you!)
And it’s true. We do never know, and truly terrible things can and do happen. And life isn’t fair, and as an atheist I don’t believe God’s going to show up and bail my ass out on the day things go horribly wrong. (And that’s probably not really what most God-believers think either, to be honest!)
Life is scary as fuck! I know this.
So I know this, and today should perhaps be a simple celebration, but maybe I’d just hoped for a little more time. And I have a little more time but in a very real way, an era is ending. The tick-tock clock throws me a smirk as she once again lets me know:
My time is up, my time is passing, and I’ll never be needed the way I was before.
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