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.

The Trouble With Teenagers

The mother is lying on the sofa, unsure whether to hold her aching left jaw with her hand or not to touch it at all. She had felt some tiny twinges yesterday morning…and knew it was best to “Wait and see…” as there was an 80% chance that it was an actual problem requiring dental intervention in the minefield she called a mouth. She liked to think about the 15% chance though that it was a potential problem just gently making its presence known but perhaps not about to cause her a brain infection that required immediate attention. The chance that it was the latter seemed slightly more probable than usual as she was still reeling from the emotional stress of the day before. She had noticed in the last few months that she seemed to be at an age where emotional stress seemed to take physical tolls on her in all sorts of new and unforeseen ways. All the years up to now, she had been a trooper, a stalwart survivor. She did not get headaches, or migraines, or swoon, or really sometimes even seem to notice the stress around her. Maybe it was the 12th year with four children. Or maybe the 21 years of one child. Or maybe 17 years of the other?

Yesterday had been special though. The 17 year old had left one of his scrawled notes on a sheet of paper outside the bedroom door. It said, “Wake me up between 1:30 and 2:00. I have to leave for Peter’s house at 3:45.” This was a cryptic message which the mother was tempted by past experience to read as “Wake me up before 3:45 as that is when I actually have to do something”. The son was not lazy by any means. He had morphed into a nocturnal creature who seemed to thrive on the quiet and alone time of the deep night. He worked on college assignments, studying for SAT subject tests, playing on-line chess games, and upgrading and building websites. All of this was unobjectionable, or rather commendable. The thing was, it was impossible to wake him up. He would not actually get up until he absolutely had to. A parent was hard pressed to understand when this was. A parent would read the note, and stupidly do what it said. Then, that same parent would get sleepily told that everything was under control and that the parents’ message had been duly noted. The parent was then left on tenderhooks as to whether repeated trips to the son’s room were in order. For the last few months, repeated trips were made, and the son usually didn’t get up until the tone of the wake-up had gone from pleasant and helpful to angry and frustrated. On both sides. The parent was not proud of having occaisionally resorted to:”GET YOUR SORRY ASS OUT OF BED”. And as could be imagined in these circumstances, the son was not happy either.

It turned out that yesterday’s cryptic message was actually an indication of some confusion on the son’s part as to when he actually had to leave to get to Peter’s house to catch a ride to soccer. He eventually got out of bed and answered his mother’s inquiry as to an imminent departure, in a somewhat patronizing tone. “3:45 would make me an hour early but we thought about playing soccer first.” The mother retreated to helping the youngest son with his reading. They sat together on the sofa slowly making their way through a text that was a little too difficult for the boy. He always put in a valiant effort of exactly two pages. The mother found herself reading ahead often and reading back too as the story was rich with interesting details and the pace was excrutiating. Suddenly, the 17 year old came careening into the living room where they were reading announcing that he had to leave right now as he was late. He was pretty certain that there was a mistake (note that the mistake has no attribution) and he was supposed to be leaving for soccer practice in 15 minutes from Peter’s house. This posed a huge problem as Peter lives 45 minutes away. The mother dug into her always available bag of tricks and suggested a phone call to tell PEter that they wouldn’t be riding together and that the son could make his way there separately. This was met with derision. He had to leave this minute and would call once he was underway. The mother understandably thought, “Over my dead body” as son does not have a fancy cell phone and mother pictured car careening along winding roads at top speed with illegal and dangerous phone activity happening. She also had just looked up the location of the soccer destination (which her son had not yet done, having caught a ride to every practice so far) and suspected that son could get there on time on his own if he didn’t try to join friend.

Long story short: Mother is sitting in driving seat of the car that the son wants to leave in. Son has asked for money for gas to give to the friend. Mother can’t find purse and is upset that son is still planning to try to drive to friend’s house first. Son is actually making swinging gestures at mother. He is very very angry. Mother feels the rare emergence of a radiant sort of protective calm. Mother is happy about this as she often shares in the feelings of rage and anger and always regrets it. But alas, unbeknownst to them both, the siblings have spotted the scene out the window and have alerted Dad. he comes out and mother can tell by his angry belligerent threatening swagger that things are about to go from bad to worse, She runs to father and begs him not to get involved. Son and father face off and grab at each other. They are both confused and ugly and angry.  Father ends up with car keys. Both parents retreat into house. Son is screaming that he hates living here and he must be given the keys so he can leave this hateful place, this hell hole, etc etc. When the son comes into the house, he is still swearing and angry, he is even kicking things on the porch. The Father threatens to call the police and when the son derides him for this, actually picks up the phone. THe son seems to regain consciousness as he sees Father dialing, and tells him he will calm down and to stop dialing.

Mother and Father have not been having the easiest time with each other. Both of them are not sure they have the necessary reserves of energy to deal with all four kids for the time it will take to launch them into their own lives. They are certain that they do not have the money. Stress has been an operative word for a long time. Stress without much light-hearted gaiety or abandon. They have been trying to give each other some space and just time. The Father will not try counseling again. The mother had just decided to follow some advice to try to solve relationship issues through talk and also through just simply being the best she can be. She was inspired to concentrate on her own equilibrium rather than trying to be unbalanced and leaning over to fix someone’s elses’s situation.

Father was angry and quiet and upset and retired to read in bed for the night. Mother served dinner to 17 year old, who obviously did not go anywhere that evening, separately in kitchen. He insisted on talking about the emotional event. He seemed fixed on paying for everything from now on. It seemed he did not want to be beholden to parents for anything.

That was the end of what I wrote. I wrote this “confessional” a while ago and thought it best to let some time go by. There is no real satisfying ending, just like life.

There are however, some addendums:
*The teenage boy’s phone could be switched onto “speaker”, a fact that the mother was unaware of.
*The soccer turned out to be further in the opposite direction so it would not have worked out to drive independently
From Peter.

Brilliant Egyptian Kid

This is a great example of the clarity and energy that young people can have….my kids and myself are daily appalled at the lack of respect and trust that many adults feel towards kids. I would choose this young man for president way before I’d choose any of the actual men who have filled the office during my lifetime. His impromptu speech is  a powerful wake-up to educators and schools that we are mostly not challenging young people to reach anywhere near their full potential intellectually. How many American kids (or adults for that matter) do you know who could talk with this kid and understand the conversation? I do not think he is necessarily brilliant, just passionate and focused on learning about his situation. In other words, we need to encourage all kids to aspire to this sort of passionate interest in the world.

Brilliant Egyptian Kid.

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.