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Unschooling Cassidy
by Ned Vare and Luz Shosie
Our son, Cassidy, was born in April, 1979, at our ranch near the small town of Silt, Colorado. To me (Ned), brought up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the remote farm seemed a limiting life in which to raise a child, so in September, Luz and I took our new son to live in the nearby county seat, Glenwood Springs.


Very early, we realized that we had a verbal child – “strong language skills,” as they say. I often carried Cass around town on my shoulders to watch, and discuss, the action of the bustling town. In one store I was asked by the salesperson, "And who is this?" It was a question he had heard often, and finally decided to answer by himself, instead of hearing me do it. Without hesitation, he said, "My name is Cassidy and I'm eighteen months old." While we walked, we read the street signs out loud -- STOP, Bank, No Parking, etc. -- and he became an early reader.

He loved being read to, so bedtime always included several books and stories. He had favorites, of course, that he wanted to hear over and over. We also went regularly to the library and he chose a new bagful of books every few days. One night while sitting between us listening to familiar stories, he announced, "I know what it says." I thought that he had simply memorized the stories, but he was right, as usual. He could read. He was three.

At about this time, Luz and I were sitting on the front porch while Cass was inside playing in his refrigerator carton/play house. When we went in, we found Cass sitting on the floor finishing the last letter of the alphabet that he had written with a marker completely and perfectly around the outside of the box. It was our first clue that he knew the alphabet so well or how to write.

By the time he was about three-and-a-half, he could read all the children's books in the library. I printed words on paper and pinned them to furniture (chair, rug, table, etc.) and used plastic letters to make short words on the refrigerator. He knew the letters and their sounds, and enjoyed nonsense words (ZOT, PIM, JUB) and if he could pronounce them, I knew that he understood the key to the language: Phonics. It was the one skill I really wanted him to have, so that he could be a good reader. By four, he could read to me from the newspaper, but he didn’t like being “tested” that way. He chose real books and read to himself.


We didn't call this “education.” Cassidy simply took part in whatever we did. He went where we went. He rarely had a babysitter. Luz and I were inspired by John Holt’s writings and decided to make school optional. We used Holt's word, "unschooling” to describe our path for our son of self-directed learning. When he was 4, he wanted to go to a Montessori school that opened across the alley from our house. He went twice a week, but after two months, he said that he'd had enough. “OK,” I said, “you're now in charge of your own learning.” His immediate answer was, "Great! I’ll do it." He liked being trusted.

Cass never used schoolbooks, and yet he seemed to be learning the 3-Rs just fine. His reading was fluent and he could count sums of money and seemed to understand math. He spoke easily with all adults as well as the neighborhood kids. He showed no signs of needing “education” of the school variety.

When Cassidy was 5, we moved to New Haven, Connecticut, a large city. There were big libraries, colleges, museums, art galleries, an arts center, theaters, cultural fairs, a multi-ethnic population. It was an intellectual explosion compared to small towns out West. Cassidy found a boy his age and they became close. He knew others, but having one “best friend,” I believe, was very important. In those days, Cass called himself “Scott” or “Greg” – trying out names.


One evening when Cass was 6, we went out for dinner. I handed him our restaurant bill to check (it was the first time) and he quickly said, “It has a mistake.” To my amazement, he was right -- it was five cents off. When I asked him how he knew, he looked at me quizzically and said, "Dad . . . addition." (as if to say, “Duh”) I didn't know that he even knew the word “addition,” even though he often made purchases, computed distances on maps when we traveled, was aware of measurements, and so forth. He was learning whatever he needed or wanted to know, and showed an interest in many things. Luz and I looked at each other, as if to say, "So much for teaching math. He gets it."

The Dinosaurs of Yale

At ten, like many kids, he became an expert in dinosaurs. At Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History, Cass (now called “Scott”) and Luz became part-time volunteers. On weekdays, they worked in the museum's attics and basements classifying beetles with the entomologists and on weekends he had the job of Information Officer to the public in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs. He wore a white coat with his name tag. He liked being an authority at a prestigious museum and was well respected by the scientists. Homeschoolers are finding these ways to participate in real life instead of being locked away in schools, where "life" is artificial.

Another place he liked was Eli Whitney Museum, a learning center dedicated to New Haven's famous inventor. The curator, Mr. Brown, taught boys and girls in making devices and/or machines out of recycled wood, metal and other materials. Cass (now “Tim”) became an apprentice and soon, an instructor.

That year, he also discovered origami and loved taking the train to New York City for all-day gatherings of the International Origami Society, folding paper into exquisite bird and animal figures with a few hundred other people at a large school or the Museum of Natural History. It was pure recreation, a creative thrill. At home, he would take a new set of instructions into his room, and emerge hours later with a "model" (a bird or animal) of astonishing complexity done with skill and obvious dedication to the craft. He once taught an all-morning class in origami at the Eli Whitney Museum for public school teachers on their "enrichment" day. Mr. Brown didn't tell them that the boy was a homeschooler until after they said how much they enjoyed the class.


Writing was different. While Cassidy knew how to write and spell correctly, he didn’t see any need, and therefore did almost no writing other than to take an occasional phone message, and even those seemed to be painfully scratched out. I’ve come to realize that writing, for him, was irrelevant. Other children might be inclined, or forced, to take pencil to paper, but not Cass. He just didn’t like the process, and his handwriting showed it. He didn’t use script or lower case, only tiny capital letters. He stuck to reading, and lots of it, from classics to modern fiction, mysteries, and Old English tales of castles and kings.

The first time he actually wrote a long piece was after he and Luz had gone to Britain together when he was 12. They stayed at youth hostels, rented a car, and drove to a new town almost every day. He loved everything British, where Shakespeare came to life in the castles and dungeons, heaven for a young literature lover. Through the English organization, Education Otherwise, they had arranged several visits with homeschooling families, providing instant friends and of course, the best tourist guides to the local areas. Afterwards, he wrote a long detailed description of the trip, and it reassured us that there had been no need to pressure him to write. He had known how all along, but simply needed a subject and a desire. By that time, though, he had become a computer expert, and much preferred word processing to the old ways. He was a modern kid, after all.

“Nobody’s Dumbing Him Down”

Cass (now “Jonathan”) seemed to be academically prepared for college at about 15. We didn’t think he needed college for his formal learning, but if he chose it, it might be a good social experience. He didn’t want it yet. His general knowledge was extensive, even though he didn’t seem especially studious or scholarly. His reading was strictly for pleasure. Whenever people mentioned that Cass seemed to be incredibly well informed and intelligent, our response was, “Nobody’s dumbing him down.” (By that time, we had read John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down). Our role, as Holt advised, was to make as much of the world accessible to him as we could, and then keep out of his way intellectually -- to let him get his own impressions, and make his own choices and decisions.

After seven years in New Haven, we moved twenty miles to the suburban town of Guilford, CT. Cass was twelve. He spent time making and painting small models of soldiers and bizarre battle equipment for large-format board games such as “Death Zone” and “Dragon Master.” He also enjoyed an English card playing and trading game, “Magic, The Gathering,” for which there were tournaments in various towns and annual conventions in Baltimore. Those events provided opportunities to meet and test his knowledge and skills against many peers. It was access, outreach for him. The games might have seemed frivolous to some, but what mattered was his interest and commitment and our trust that it was meaningful to him. He listened to books on tape while making his models and even read Shakespeare’s plays -- something I would never do for pleasure, after being forced in school.


At 15, Cass found work in a nearby home business, stringing beaded necklaces alongside the owner, a young woman who also helped him find guidance about college. Soon he added another job -- clerk at the local video rental store. This was his introduction to the world of commerce and first close-up taste of the public. He was the quickest to rise to assistant manager in the store's history, got along well with the other employees, and once again enjoyed the responsibility. Having watched many movies on T.V., he was very knowledgeable of them, and this job spurred him to become an expert in film history. Among the store’s customers, he was a respected critic, having his own set of shelves with his recommended films. It has remained his passion, as he expects to be a cinematographer/director.

From early on, Cass has wanted to be financially independent. He used his allowance wisely, and with his salaries he bought his own clothes and a computer which he taught us to use. He has upgraded twice, both times giving us his old models. Yes, we inherit our computers from our son. That’s what makes us modern parents.


At seventeen, back to the name “Cassidy”, he picked Hunter College in Manhattan for its well-respected Film Department and because he wanted to live in the big city. He borrowed a book on the SAT from the library, learned what he needed, and scored 1390. The Hartford Courant (CT's biggest newspaper) reported the scores of the 140 high school valedictorians in the state. Cass’s score was higher than half of them. Not bad for a kid who never looked at a schoolbook. John Holt was right all along. Cass had all of the learning, but never wasted a moment on it. It was all included in the context of his interests.

Hunter requires a high-school diploma (or equivalent) for admission, so he also took the GED. The test took seven-and-a-half hours, over three evenings. On the way, I asked him if he had studied for it. "Study what, Dad?" Right. He scored perfect on all three multiple-choice parts and high on both essays. Score: 97. His diploma came from the state: "With Honors." He was not surprised.

Leaving Home

I saw him filling out forms and asked, "Are you applying to college?" "No, I'm registering, I'm exactly what they want." What confidence. He considered the paperwork a mere formality. He was right. Hunter accepted him immediately. "Dad, I'm not just going to college, I'm leaving home." It was then I knew that we had done our job well, but I also knew how much we would have missed him if he had gone to school where so often the experience alienates children from their parents. He admired us and was grateful, and was leaving because he was ready to be on his own. It was time.

Perhaps by accident, perhaps not, he missed the cutoff to get a dormitory room, so he needed a place to live in the city. It turned out to be a major learning experience. A message on the college bulletin board located a girl from California with the same need. They became friends, like brother and sister, and allies in the quest for a home.

Classes started before they found an apartment, so they lived out of their suitcases in a small room at Times Square, rented by the week. After two weeks, they were forced to move. They moved from one hotel to another lugging their belongings, catching meals where they could -- a harrowing two months, always a subway ride or two from the campus -- three tall buildings in mid-Manhattan. Eventually, they found a perfect apartment in a new building on the Lower East Side a mere half-hour subway ride from college. They settled into a college/commuter lifestyle. Those had been perhaps the most intense months in both their lives. It was stressful, but it prepared them for almost anything. They were learning from life, faster than they could from any books.

Just before classes began, Cass found out there was a "Dean's List" for the top students. “I’ll be on it.” He didn’t miss; he was in the top 2 percent of his class of 2,000 students. We’ve seen the compliments from professors on his papers. All that writing . . . who knew? Our experiment worked. John Gatto was right, too.

Cass had part time jobs in the city, worked for pay in the equipment center for the Film Department, was head of the Student Film Society and studied political science along with film. He found time to help in a political campaign for the U.S. Congress, was in demand as a cameraman on student films, and also worked on other private film projects in NY. He graduated Magna Cum Laude, about 20th in the class. I noted that he was one of several homeschoolers among the top students. One of his friends confided in me, ”Cass knows everything.” It made me cry.

Cassidy has grown up. He's 23; a man. He has retained his passion, his common sense, his humor, humility and, maybe the most satisfying for Luz and me, his kind regard and love for us. We are the people he wants to tell his secrets to. What more could we ask? He realizes that his upbringing was unique, that he was not a cookie cut with a mold, but a creative, contributing individual -- what the world needs.

When Cassidy was seven, I built a tree house in our yard in New Haven -- really, a rough platform with a rickety railing and an unsteady ladder. I turned to him with a proud smile, "OK, Cass, it's all yours, go ahead up." He looked up at it, and then at me, "No thanks, Dad. It's my life." Right again, Cassidy.


Ned Vare and his spouse, Luz Shosie, are coordinators of Unschoolers Unlimited, a support group, and publish a newsletter to encourage self-directed learning. They are closely involved in homeschooling in Connecticut, and are frequent speakers at homeschooling conferences. They encourage you to visit their website,
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