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Looking Back After A Year of College, Part 2

by Shannon Lee Clair, Princeton University Class of ‘09

Shannon homeschooled from second grade through high school in Los Angeles, CA. This is the second of a series of articles reflecting on her experiences homeschooling and making the transition to college. See part 1 of the article here.

Shannon in Santa Monica Mountains
Shannon Lee Clair, right, and her roomates celebrating her birthday during her freshman year at college.

The noise in the room was overwhelming. In the centre, under the dim, pink light, a circle of partiers was drunkenly singing Bohemian Rhapsody and snatches of other classic rock-n-roll. Ridiculous laughter and shouted conversations, enlivened by various specially named drinks full of vodka and Bacardi, filled the rest of the room. As the hour progressed, other “Street” goers began to crowd into the room, bringing with them a cloud of headache inducing smoke.
“Well,” I thought to myself, after wrapping up an interesting, but gradually descending conversation, “it’s time to go.” And so I left the cast party (in celebration of a theatre production wrap-up), to return to my peaceful, quiet room and my studious, quiet roommate, who was just closing her computer and getting ready for bed.

“You lasted a full hour,” she remarked.

“Yes,” I replied, “barely.”

This was my first real college party experience. I was not impressed. It was February, and I had spent the weekends of fall semester hearing the early morning return of numerous undergrads coming from the “Street” (the eating-clubs where most of the partying goes on at Princeton). Naturally, I had been a touch curious, but not enough to go out there without the excuse of something like a cast party to attend. Well, now I had had my cast party, watching others get drunk, suffocating in clamor and smoke, and I was glad to return to my happy little world of study and friends, who, like my wonderful roommate, enjoy having lower volume discussions over a prolonged dinner in the dining hall.

Suddenly free of the observant eye of a protective, homeschooling parent and with as little experience as I possessed in terms of wild parties and drinking, why wasn’t I following the stereotypical trend of the sheltered child and running out to the Street to try everything I could possibly get my hands on? Why did my curiosity only take me as far as observing, enjoying a glass of wine and some discussion and then returning to my tame, work-oriented world? All I can say is that homeschooling fortunately left me with a very strong idea of what I want out of college - a chance to learn about and explore theatre, the arts and the world as well as make strong, lasting friendships - and good sense of myself. What in homeschooling, I ask, gave me this strength and focus?

My last article focused on the wonderful freedom of play and exploration that I experienced through homeschooling. What in that free, play-filled atmosphere prepared and prompted me to move beyond imagination games and grow into a young woman with real-life ambitions and a healthy level of restraint? How did I make the adolescent transition? It was a surprisingly smooth transition, so it may be fairly difficult to untangle where all the little changes occurred, but let me start with the basics: When I once asked my mother what prompted her to homeschool my brother and me, she replied that her strongest reason was the development of our imaginations and creativity. I had been a happy little school girl through kindergarten and first grade, I made lots of friends and possessed a talent for busy-work and pleasing the teacher, but my mom had noticed my interest in drawing and painting slipping away. So, beginning at second grade, she decided to try homeschooling me.

Never can I remember a moment when I desired to go back to school, not even for those sometimes enticing high school years. I was thrilled with the freedom that our homeschooling style provided, though I did try occasionally to impose a more school-like structure.

For a few weeks, when we were about nine and eleven, my brother and I played school. We’d get up bright and early, pack ourselves lunch and head off with our books to the cramped fort in our tiny, city backyard. But it didn’t take long for us to tire of the schedule and to realize that we weren’t missing anything by not being behind on a set daily schedule. Our everyday experiences were so much more stimulating than anything we heard our school friends relate. In fact, childhood was so beautiful, I was quite troubled by the thought of growing up.

Unlike the stereotypical teen and pre-teen of the media and pop-culture, the one who pushes from an early age to do “adult” things like wear make-up and waits impatiently for her driver’s license, my brother, John, and I held back. I put off getting my driver’s license as long as possible. John and I still enjoy listening to my parents read books aloud. We adopted their ‘60s and ‘70s music as our own life soundtrack and continued playing whacky games with our friends. It grated on my nerves to hear myself referred to as a teen or a mature young lady, or to be associated with that vile phrase “approaching womanhood.”
Yet, even as I was trying so hard to hold on to my childhood, my abilities and desires were changing and maturing. To a large degree, I lost that wonderful childhood ability to be amused by almost nothing at all, to fully invest belief in fantasy games that don’t even always make complete sense. However, the change in my interests and abilities occurred not through any external force, such as peer or media pressure; I simply found myself getting bored with old childhood games, my imagination and creativity cried out for bigger challenges than hours of play could provide. However, having such a free and play-filled childhood, left me with the desire to keep creating and imagining, in other ways than sword-fighting with invisible enemies - in writing, painting and acting.

Homeschooled life also became more structured and traditionally academic as my brother and I entered our teen years, which, I believe, helped to focus my interests as well as instill self-discipline and motivation. When, at twelve, I expressed an interest in learning French my mom found me a tutor. She also started a Latin club. Though the Latin petered out, the French stuck, and I went on to study it at the local community college.

My visual arts education became more formal when I was fifteen. I took my first art classes at USC through the Ryman Arts Program - a college-level program for high school students. Up until that point, I hadn’t been interested in art classes, but Ryman provided the perfect opportunity. It taught the classic fundamentals - drawing from still-lifes, live models and old master paintings. Most importantly, the classes taught me how to really see. One can easily make so many false assumptions, especially about familiar objects. Ryman provided excellent practice in truly observing and relating those observations to paper.

Shannon in Homeschool Play
Spring Blooms at Princeton
Henry Purcell

Beyond my own and my brother’s experiences, our homeschooling served as my mom’s education in finding resources and opportunities. She knew the library backwards and forwards and filled our house with fliers for contests, clubs and classes. At her encouragement, I entered an art contest to design a duck stamp, through which I later went to Manitoba Canada on a week-long art fellowship. Homeschooling gave me the chance to invest hours in my exploration of visual art, whether by doing it myself or wandering around one of my beloved museums, a love I inherited from my mom.
At fourteen, I started taking classes at the local community college, usually studying subjects that were difficult to learn well at home, such as science with lab, or ones that benefited from classmate discussions, such as history and French. Also, my mom finally decided it was time for my writing to move from fictional stories and poems to essays. English 1 was a real challenge. My first essay - three pages about a one-paragraph poem - had eleven drafts. However, I was quite proud of my improvement in critical thinking by the end of the class.

Many of my homeschooled friends practice the same strategy - taking some courses at community colleges to give them instruction that they can’t get at home, as well as some grades that colleges might be interested in seeing. Through the high school years, my mom nosed fervently through getting-into-college books from the library, studying the requirements for different schools. Most want one or two sciences with lab and at least two years of foreign language as well as four years of English and Math. Though I was unsure that college was the future for me, my mom always wanted to make sure the option was open.

It was often hard to picture myself at college. In so many ways I identified myself as a homeschooler, and college would simply strip that away. Homeschooling also gave me the assurance that I could pretty much learn anything I wanted on my own, without being cooped up on some campus or paying huge tuition expenses. Additionally, my experiences at the community college certainly didn’t inspire me to try college full-time. Many fellow students at Santa Monica Community College were often more interested in getting a degree than in learning the material for the class. I have found it to be a very different case at Princeton. Here, I am surrounded by equally curious, motivated individuals, who pack their days full of everything they can jam in from graph theory to Indian dance to poetry read-alouds. In fact, the opportunities to learn and share knowledge are simply overwhelming.

Many of my extra-curricular activities at school are theatre-related. Theatre was an important part of my own and my brother’s childhood. We had originally moved to Los Angeles so my dad could pursue acting, and, though he’s a school teacher now, theatre remained solidly present in our lives. My parents organized numerous outings to plays, often as ushers, so we could see the shows for free. My Uncle treated us to Broadway musicals. We went to Shakespeare readings at the Venice library; and our good friends nearby organized play readings at their house, along with music and Renaissance nights. At large get-togethers with friends in Malibu, my friends and I would spend hours making up, preparing and performing plays for the adults. Eventually, we got adult directors and put on higher-quality productions, our most extravagant ones being The Magician’s Nephew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

When I was seventeen, I interned at Will Geer Theatricum, an experience that convinced me theatre was my future. It was a huge growth experience. I was the youngest intern, most of the others were out of college already. Not only did the internship cement my desire to go into theatre, it also finally gave me a sense of true independence. There I was, splashed into an unfamiliar but friendly pond of working, professional actors; my parents were not present to ease my path or help me with my work; they could no longer supervise my social life; and, joyfully, I found I could manage myself and my work quite well.
Homeschooling had left me with a good work ethic and self-discipline as well as the skills to relate and work well with adults. Adults had been some of my best friends growing up. Homeschoolers’ friendships usually aren’t just between individuals, kids with other kids in the school world and adults with other adults in the real world, instead families form friendships with whole families. Get-togethers include everyone. Kids sit in on adult discussions, putting in their two-cents just like everyone else.

Some of my best friends have been the parents of fellow homeschoolers. I think their influence in my life has been one of the greatest factors in my development of confidence and maturity. Because they and my parents always treated me as a capable, intelligent individual, someone with whom they could discuss life, literature and world politics, because they asked me questions about my opinion on things while sharing their own, because they treated me as a knowledgeable, mature equal, I worked to became one.
While I was afraid of growing up and being unable to play imagination games, I was more afraid of being coddled and treated like a child. I hated children’s classes, like some I took at recreation parks, where the instructors acted like we kids couldn’t understand things on the same level as they could, where they talked down to us and tried to simplify instructions. Maybe that’s why I hated being associated with that “rebellious” period of teenage-hood - because it was a label that suggested that I was not yet possessed of maturity and the ability to think for myself.

I wanted the best of both worlds - the respect from others that being a mature individual commanded (respect which I received from adults in the homeschooling community) and the freedom of imagination that childhood possessed, which may well have been greatly extinguished by school. So far, I am fortunate enough to have most of both. I still have a crazy imagination to run wild with while acting or writing and I am now reaching an age and am at a University where I am perceived by most as an equal in maturity and intelligence.

So, to return to the social life at Princeton: homeschooling left me with a good notion of what I want to get done and the self-discipline to focus on getting there. It also assured me, through the treatment from adults in my life, that I am already a mature, capable human being, who certainly doesn’t have to go out and do rebellious things like get drunk and party all night to prove that she’s not under her parents’ thumbs anymore. Instead, I can hold focus on theatre, work and lasting friendships, or go to a party, have a glass of wine and a good conversation, maybe do a little salsa dancing and then depart at a civilized hour to get a good rest before another early, busy day.

Altogether, homeschooling simply let me find my own strengths and nurture them - the child-like and the mature. It left me feeling quite complete.

Next time: the grueling college application process. ■