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An Unschooled Boy Grows Up

by Darlene Lester

I had intended to teach our son Ben the same way I taught his older brother – with a curriculum, but Ben had other ideas. He always seemed to know what he wanted to do with his time, and he definitely did not want to be taught anything. He was very good at finding things out on his own. So, taking his lead, we forged unfamiliar territory in his education, eventually learning to call it “unschooling.” 

It was traditional for me to read novels to my children at bedtime. All four of our sons would pile around me on the bed and listen attentively while I read. And then, along came our new baby, Ben, who contentedly nursed during these sessions, gradually weaned and ended up on the floor building with Legos while I read to the others. This is how he always chose to listen to stories, and when I asked him if he was listening, because he certainly did not appear to be, he would accurately recite the last couple of sentences I had read. But, he seemed clearly more interested in whatever he was building than what was happening in the story. 

As it turned out, Ben was not a book lover as his brothers were. He would much rather be actively creating something with his hands than passively reading. My many attempts to teach him his letters and their sounds at ages five and six fell on deaf ears. Oh, he learned them but had no interest in turning them into the skill of reading and resisted any attempt I made to help him do so. I didn’t push. I figured he would let me know when he was ready.

One day, when Ben was nine, he had been playing with his friend Sean, and Ben came in and told me, “Mom, Sean can read!” He seemed surprised. I told him that most eight-year-olds could read. Ben thought about that for a while and then informed me that he was ready to learn. So, we made an agreement to read to each other every day. Reading was a chore for him at first, so I suggested that I read two sentences and he read one. That way we could keep the flow of the story going. I used a dramatic voice to keep his interest, and, of course, he used a dramatic voice too. Since he had made up his own mind to read, Ben’s progress was very fast. By the time he was ten, he could easily read anything I put in front of him.
But, Ben remained a “doer” not a reader. He spent most of his early years building things, fixing things and coming up with big plans, which he would work diligently on. He worked in an extraordinarily focused way and would entertain himself for hours every day. Interestingly, he usually chose to work accompanied by music or books on tape and seemed to actually be able to concentrate better with something else going on in the background. At a young age, he taught himself how to use a hammer and nails, a sewing machine (he made puppets for a while), and he enjoyed kits of all kinds. Once he and I painstakingly cut out and put together a realistic life-sized skeleton that we wouldn’t bear to part with, so it sat around on various chairs for about a year. 

Though writing was tedious for him, he would often write notes, make signs, take phone messages, create library cards for his personal library, and write lists of rules for the various games he made up. Sometimes he would ask me how to spell things, but usually he invented spellings. I was both patient and amused by this because his invented spellings often made more sense than the correct spelling did. I was amazed to see that, without ever taking a spelling test, Ben’s spelling and handwriting naturally improved on its own as he matured, though it took a long time for this to happen.
Ben was very mechanically inclined, something that is often not rewarded in traditional school. As early as age four, Ben would be watching his brother, Ely, work on his car and, to Ely’s amazement, would see what needed to be done before Ely did. “How did he know that?” Ely would ask me later. We’d both shake our heads. Ben just had a natural understanding of how things were put together and how they worked. Consequently, even at this tender age, I asked him for help when it came to mechanical things. And, strange as it sounds, I felt safer when I had him with me when driving in our old car. 
Up until age seven or so, Ben and I were usually doing things together. He also made full use of his father, brothers and grandfather (who lived with us), soliciting their help in his endeavors or getting involved in their projects. But, as he got older he sought more and more independence, and he usually worked alone in deep concentration and obvious pleasure. My job then was to be more on the sidelines, cheering him on and offering help when needed.
Ben was an exceptionally emotional and dramatic child. I remember saying in exasperation, “Ben, quit the dramatics!” but he didn’t quit. He couldn’t. That was just who he was. So, at age five we took him to our community theater to audition for a play, and that was the beginning of an intense eleven-year theater experience for him. He was either in or helping to produce a total of twenty-one plays – an excellent outlet for our dramatic child! He learned every aspect of play production as well as how to act, sing and dance. These activities consumed his world for many years and provided a rich social life with people of all ages. Then, at age 16, he decided “no more,” and he went on to pursue other interests. 

In addition to Ben’s many dance classes, he spent a lot of time pursuing sports. He tried a variety of different sports, and he settled on karate, eventually earning his brown belt. In his early teens he was dedicated to swim team, becoming a strong swimmer and an asset to his team. It was really fun to watch him try different activities and decide which ones suited him best. I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing his improvement and acquiring new skills. 

Ben developed a strong self-confidence from an early age. There was an incident on the swim team that was a testament to the attitude that unschooling promotes. Several of the teenagers were complaining that the coach was not giving them enough praise and attention during practices and that he was “treating them badly”. So, I asked Ben if the coach ever praised him. He said, “I’m there to swim, not to be praised. I know if I’m doing a good job or not, and I just praise myself.” Sounded good. I pressed on and asked if he was ever treated badly. He said in a matter of fact way, “Mom, I am completely responsible for how people treat me.” I was impressed. 

When Ben was 10 we got a computer. He quickly mastered simple computer skills, including typing. It was obvious to us that this was going to be a strong interest of his. So, his dad signed him up to audit classes at our local college to learn more advanced skills. Ben took every computer class they offered, and by the time he was done he could fix, program and trouble-shoot computers. It wasn’t long before he began assisting the teacher. Sometimes he would come home feeling exasperated with the adults in his class, saying, “Mom, I try to help people, but they just don’t know how to think!” That was very interesting coming from a child who didn’t learn to read until he was ten and would surely have been labeled “LD” in a public school. But, his view of himself was that he could learn anything he set his mind to, no problem. One day, after a college class, he declared, “I like being smart!” This is one of the beauties of unschooling. A child can evaluate and define his own success. 

Formal math was a subject of non-interest to Ben, though he frequently did math in his head for his own purposes. Occasionally, he would decide he needed to know more about math, and he would go dig up his Saxon math books. He would put himself on a schedule of practicing math for an hour a day before anyone got up in the morning. He corrected all his own work, so I was not a part of this process. Then, he’d lose interest after a few months and would not pick up a math book for a year or so. He eventually worked his way through algebra and geometry in this manner. 

Science was his favorite subject, and he spent countless hours delving into it. He learned about it both from books and the Internet, watching science programs on PBS and doing makeshift experiments. He was particularly enamored with space travel and flying of any kind. He spent most of his elementary years exploring whatever his pet interest was at the time. I supported him in doing this because I felt like anything he was willing to focus on and persevere at was his real education. I found that if I ever convinced him to learn something he wasn’t interested in, he wouldn’t retain it. What a waste of our time!

Ben announced at age four that he wanted to be a fireman when he grew up. He took his job of putting out our campfires very seriously and waited patiently all evening, hose in hand, toy helmet in place, for his chance to do his duty. We used to get a big kick out of this! Little did we know that this interest would persevere. In his early teens he joined Fire Explorers, a branch of the Boy Scouts. He spent several years learning the ins and outs of firefighting. Because he was homeschooled, he was able to hang around the fire station as much as he wanted. This gave him a realistic, close-up view of what firefighters do, which only served to strengthen his resolve to pursue his goal. He worked steadily at getting the various certifications that firefighters must have. This he did completely on his own, giving us updates as to what he was doing as he went along. He learned that to make a decent living as a firefighter he would need to become a paramedic, so he set this long-range goal for himself. 

Now, a skeptic might ask, “But, how did he fair academically, considering that he was never made to do school work of any kind?” I have come to believe that my child’s behavior is my business, but his learning is his business. It’s very personal. And, if I just trust him to learn what he needs to know, when he needs to know it, he will. Ben studied to take the GED and took it as soon as he turned 18. He said it was easy. He took his college assessment tests, and they pronounced him capable of doing college-level work. He entered college a month later. One of his classes was an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) class, which was quite challenging, and about half of the students dropped out. He finished with the highest grade in the class. Six months later, he is driving an ambulance. This is all part of his plan to become a paramedic and a firefighter. He is only 19, but I have full confidence that he has the inner tools and motivation to work toward and achieve any goal he sets for himself. My unschooled boy grew up, and I am well-satisfied with his unschooled education.