Growing Up Unschooled: A Reflection Piece
by Rachel Nishikawa
As a young child, I was exposed to the daily routine of adults working from home, so I would imitate what they did as if it were a game. What I remember most from these days was the adrenaline rush that came with the successful completion of a bright idea.
Playing “pretend” for me was drawing up a new business logo for my imaginary company or turning my bedroom into a studio apartment. On the weekends, my neighbor friends and I would use our play cash register to sell lemonade on the corner of the block, then we would come back to my house and divide up the profits. This was also the ’90’s, so I could pretend my bicycle was a motorcycle and be on my way, as long as I was home before the porch light came on.
My days were filled with dance classes, language lessons, rock climbing competitions, nature walks and adventure camps. I learned lessons, such as self-confidence, empowerment, commitment and responsibility — tools to maneuver through my life independently. I
knew that the world was just a yellow-page phone call away. I was taught that if I wanted dance lessons, I could call around town and compare rates. We would go to different studios to see which teacher was the best fit and I could make the final decision. I gained a sense of empowerment, knowing that I was capable of doing all the research. There was also the weight of accountability on my shoulders because I knew that once I committed to a studio, we were paying for ten lessons, which I had to attend, regardless of my mood that day.
On the flip side, some of my friends in the neighborhood went to public school and I was curious about what I might be missing out on. I would meet them at the bus stop and walk with them back to each of our houses to hear all of their stories. Sometimes I wondered why my parents hadn’t chosen to send me to that school as well, but then the thought of waking up at 5:00 a.m. during Colorado winters quickly made me feel better about their decision. As we approached middle school, many of our parents were getting divorced or moving away, and our childhood clan slowly ripped apart.
It was at this point, at ten years old, when I realized that I was ready for something new. I was approaching an age where the unschooling options were limited in my community and it was inevitable that I was going to have to make new friends. So I chose to move to a boarding school — for fun — just because it was the polar opposite of anything I had ever known. There was a girls’ dorm and a boys’ dorm and we would all walk to the main building for school. Over time, the campus became my home and I had all of my friends with me. It surprisingly felt similar to homeschooling, except that I shared the experience with seventy other kids. I learned to go to class and do the homework, but my real education was learning to negotiate the jungle called “school”.
During this time, I observed that I still had a curiosity for learning and my peers did not. They were trained to do exercises 10 – 20 in their textbooks as fast as possible, rather than absorb the content that was being presented. On the other hand, they learned skills, such as time management, because they managed to get the assignment done in five minutes in order to have another ten minutes of fun time. They learned how to check all the boxes on the teachers' list as fast as possible so that they could maximize their time that actually stimulated their hearts and minds.
I continued to attend school until I was fifteen and I started catching myself in class staring out the window, thinking about the variety of things I could be doing if I went back to unschooling. I had been to my share of school dances, sports events, and other typical school activities that always looked so appealing in the movies. Yet I didn’t feel that the time I spent inside the classroom outweighed the social experiences that people will tell you is only possible by “going to school”.
In a nutshell, I started feeling like the grass is always greener on the other side.
In the blink of an eye I evolved from a curious, adventurous child to a confident yet confused teenager. I could feel the essence of who I was slowly be molded by the encroaching expectations of society. My mom pulled me aside after making some questionable
decisions (as most teenagers do) and she asked me, “If you had a million dollars, to be anywhere or following any dream, what would you be doing?” — this is the unschooling mindset that she raised me with. Growing up in a multi-cultural household with multilingual parents, I had always envisioned myself traveling and experiencing other cultures as I got older. Her question prompted me to bring out my old foreign language workbooks, read about art history and study the world maps.
As I researched the various countries and cultures that I was most drawn to, it was fulfilling to channel my creative energy in a positive direction. After discussing many options with my family, we decided on an international school in Costa Rica that my sisters had also attended as teenagers. Preparing and planning for the trip was an empowering learning experience and I reaped the rewards when I arrived in Costa Rica. I loved the challenge and satisfaction that came with breaking language barriers as my knowledge increased. I engaged in the cultural customs by learning about cuisine, fashion, and the various perspectives regarding the countries’ history. Being fully immersed in another culture was exhilarating and traveling became my passion.
Through these experiences, I understood the value of unschooling on a profound level; it gave me the freedom to create myself and supported my innate abilities. It also gave me many opportunities to learn resourcefulness, gain confidence, and the ability to know that my options are limitless. I was able to experience the feeling of excitement and confidence that came with figuring things out for myself, as well as the trepidations that come with not knowing if your decision will end up being the best one. It’s the price unschoolers pay for the freedom to direct their education. I want my kids — and all kids — to know they have the freedom of choice, that they are never locked into just one method of growing up.