Inventing High School and Beyond

School was a monolithic fixture of my childhood. The smell of a school cafeteria, which usually pervades the entire school building, brings back visceral memories for me of being uncomfortable, unengaged, and unsure. The various bus rides were also memorable; it was at the busstop when I was 6 that I first got exposed to the idea that 69 meant something. I didn’t know what for many years.
The concept of school was demystified for me when I was 11, when my Dad started one with several other families. I remember the first day mostly because I had a terrifying asthma attack and couldn’t keep up with the large group of kids that were following my Dad around on a tour of the facilities. I found myself gasping for air and unable to yell, “Wait for me” as they all trooped off across another field on our return from some out buildings. I was frightened and upset. I had never had an asthma attack before and never suffered one again. Was it the stress of watching my Dad take on about 40 extra kids that day?
As my “homeschooled” 17 year old recently posted on facebook, the US government does not allow 18 year olds to vote, but it does encourage and assist them in diving $40,000 in debt to pay for a college education. His older brother went that route. He knew he wanted to be an animator, and his first idea was to find an internship opportuntiy. but it seemed that one had to be enrolled in an animation college in order to even be considered for an internship at an animation studio. So, he was persuaded that attending art school was a mandatory step towards his career goal. 6 years later, he is weighed down with the burden of his debt. He is so weighed down by it, that he pretty much thinks of nothing but the need to pay back the debt. Sometimes this worries me. He seems obsessed by the debt. Driven by it. His is an obsessive personality to begin with. He laments not being able to work on a large creative project that he feels speaks to this cultural moment….he worries that by the time he can bring the project to some level of fruition, it’s relevance will have passed. Keep in mind that animation is a painstaking process and he is building every piece of it himself, though working with another creative artist on the concept drawings.
Meanwhile, he is watching his younger brother take serious steps in an artistic direction. The older brother pontificates to any of us who will listen that he really does not think that his younger brother should spend money on Art school, or go into debt for an art education at an art school. He feels so strongly about this that he called up several weeks ago to essentially offer his younger brother an internship in Animation. While this may not be the younger brother’s ultimate orientation, the older brother had tapped into a seemingly endless vein of well paying freelance animation work. Not only could he not do all the work alone, but he realized that his younger brother could earn money, rather that spending it, while gaining an art education of sorts. So while there is a huge learning curve, where it could be months before the younger one can really be counted on to understand the animation program enough to be competent, he was able within a week of training with his brother to make toothbrush bristles that could be used in the brush. This whole plan consists of the older brother staying late at work with his younger brother at his side where banks of computer stations are available. While the older one works on his free lance jobs, the younger one can do tutorials and receive  help when needed. It is not a perfect plan. They each could really do with having new expensive laptops with the prohibitively expensive program loaded onto them. It would be good if the older brother didnt also get swamped with extra work from his day Animation job. It would be good if their working together didnt lead to staying up till 2:00 and 3:00 AM so that then neither one of them can get to work the next morning on time.
Cause that is the other thing. The younger brother has the opportunity to work for his Dad doing electrical work during the days in the city. And he is enrolled at the Art Students League in a. drawing class on Thursday afternoons. So his 11th grade looks a lot different than mine. I was in AP English which I loved. I helped edit the and layout the High School Literary magazine. But my art class was diabolical. The most modern artists we studied were the Impressionists. The art teacher was a “toll painter”. For the uninitiated, “toll painting” is the art of painting berries and flowers on metal objects like vintage milk jugs and mailboxes. We made “stuffed canvases” that we then painted. I guess we sewed them together. Mine was a cat. When I got to art school in New York City, the kids I met had been going to galleries to see conceptual and political art while they were in highschool. I caught up quickly, but I couldn’t help feeling a little incredulous at my own art education in high school. or lack of it.

SAT—A Sporting Event

try to keep your muscles relaxed while filling circles….

Un-schooling—that crazy thing in which kids learn at their own pace.

Sometimes the pace is that of a turtle, and other times, that of a moon rocket. It varies kid to kid, and can have a lot to do with their age and what it is that they may be wanting or not wanting to do. While my oldest son bowed to his mother’s wishes and convention twice, by taking a “placement test” at the local community college to ascertain whether he was educated enough to fit into the community college classroom at age 16, the only test he would take after that was his driving test, and that was a fairly traumatic event also. He absolutely and categorically refused to submit to any form of college placement testing, even though it did become clear to him at age 17 that he was going to apply to college animation programs. It turned out that the two most competitive ones in the US did not require placement tests and he actually managed to get in off the waiting list to one of them where he is currently doing very well.

Son no. 2 has a very different approach. After spending his childhood playing and just like his older brother, not learning to read until he was 11 or 12, he is currently “training” for the SAT. He takes sample tests daily, timing himself and studying where his deficiencies in test taking lie. He knows a lot more about the SAT test strategy than I ever did when I took it as a matter of course many years ago. For example, he knows that once you get up into the high score area, getting one more answer correct gains the test taker a leap in points, whereas answering another question correctly further down the score ladder doesn’t make so much difference. This means that if you only got 4 answers wrong, your score may be well under 700, but if you get just one of those correct, you may break 700 with a margin to spare.

So what is my point? It is not to extoll the virtues of son no. 2. He is certainly not doing this because he is a good boy and knows that I want him to do this. No, not at all. He is a full fledged teen ager who does exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it.  He is doing it because he  intends to apply to competitive colleges that require such. He is not even sure he wants to attend such colleges; it will depend on how involved he is with his own entrepreneurial projects and what the colleges offer him in terms of education and cost.  He is building his test taking muscles because he thinks it is interesting and he sees the competitive aspect of it for sure.  It is a game, and he is studying the rules and strategies as he does when he plays Risk.

There are certainly some twists here…a friend of my son’s who probably has had a more sophisticated math education and is continuing to actually “learn” advanced math rather than “train” for the SATs. He may not score as high in math simply because he has actually moved on beyond SAT math! What is actually getting tested here I wonder?

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter: “unschooling,” wherein children are allowed to play games to their heart’s content, may actually be just the very best training ground for a game like the SAT.