Be careful what you don’t wish for. When my wife was pregnant with our first son, she began searching Seattle for a good midwife. Having thought little about this, I started from a default idea of how babies are brought into the world - namely, in a hospital surrounded by nurses, a doctor with a stethoscope around his or her neck, and as many beeping machines as possible. Given that the baby was growing in her body, I acquiesced. “But no home birth,” I said.
Three months later, after our midwife had run into some complications with the hospital where she had privileges, and having been thoroughly schooled in the natural process that is childbirth, I heard myself tell my wife, “‘Screw it. We should just do it at home.” Which we did. And all was well.
Once both our boys were old enough for school, it was to school they went. Meaning, as I told my wife early on, “I don’t care how rough it gets, no way on God’s green and spinning earth am I home schooling.” Several years later, when things got exceptionally rough for Sawyer in school, I heard myself ask him, “Do you want to just stay home from now on?” He said he did. And all was well.
Except sometimes all does not seem to be well. I was not home schooled. I went to a series of very traditional public schools where teachers asked questions and I did my best to give correct answers. The teachers always gave you the answers first, and all you had to do was remember them. Since I could usually remember them, school was all right.
Now I am the teacher. I know most of the stuff I believe Sawyer needs to learn, and so I believed I would explain it to him, he would remember it, and that would be that. Only this model did not work for Sawyer in public school, and it does not work for him at home. He does not want anyone telling him what to do, or what to think, or what to read, or what to write, or what to care about. In fact, he does not really want to do anything unless the idea for doing this thing came directly from him.
Which would be fine if my student wanted to write something, or read something, or make something, but often my student claims he does not. So what’s a teacher to do? The answer is perhaps the real reason I did not want to home school: The heart of learning and creativity and life itself is always trust. The worst thing I can do is believe Sawyer when he tells me he isn’t interested in anything. Humans are built to be interested, the same as a woman is built to bring life into the world. The greatest pain of life is always to doubt what we are, to doubt the contraction is meant to help prepare the body for delivery, to doubt that curiosity’s ceaseless creative impulse will be answered.
In this way, all my most useful teaching occurs when I am done doubting and have begun waiting and listening. It is hard for him to hear his own answers if I am jabbering in his ear about how important it is for him to be interested in life, and it is hard for me perceive his curiosity at work if I am busy trying to give it to him. So I get quiet and wait--wait through my fear that nothing will happen, wait through my fear that some people just aren’t smart enough or good enough or curious enough, wait and wait until I hear that first sound of life, a quiet question in search of answer, and I remember that all is well.
A couple years ago my son Sawyer decided that he hated all religions. Religions were an example of what was wrong with the world. Religious leaders were always telling people how to live their lives, and people who believed in different religions invariably thought that the best way to settle their differences was to kill one another. My wife and I tried pointing out all the good that religious thought and religious people had brought about in the world—the end of American slavery, for instance, was spearheaded by some of the North’s most fervently religious men and women—but Sawyer would have none of it.
So I decided to go to the source. As a part of our homeschooling we cracked open The Bible, page one, In the beginning. I hadn’t thought of it until rereading the creation story with Sawyer that everything God creates, from the light and the dark to the things the creepeth and crawleth, is good. The whole of creation, top to bottom, day and night, fish and fowl—good.
Then we came to Adam and Eve and The Tree. I seemed to recall that The Serpent convinced Eve to eat from The Tree of Knowledge. Growing up in a secular family, this made sense to me, as it mirrored what I perceived as the public debate between scientists, who valued knowledge, and religious people, who valued faith.
Yet in the version of The Bible from which Sawyer and I read it was not eating from The Tree of Knowledge that got Adam and Eve booted out of Eden, but The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. This made perfect sense to me. As soon as I divide the world into good and bad I have created a threat from which there is no rational escape. If I divide the world into good and bad, then anything could be bad, including me.
Which is exactly what happened when I started seeing Sawyer’s pretending and humming and flapping as a problem. Now this behavior was no longer simply something he was doing, but something bad he was doing. I was out of The Garden, and I hated it. Everything of value grew in The Garden, but nothing grew in the broken world outside of it. All I wanted was to be back where things could grow, including my son. In this way, Sawyer became a kind of portal into what I most wanted in my own life. To judge him was to be excluded; to love him was to return.
I am in and out of that garden every day. Meanwhile, I have noticed that Sawyer no longer sees religion as the source of all that is wrong in the world. He has moved on to other issues. For a time both Obama and The Tea Party were the problem. Now it’s ISIS. I don’t know what it will be tomorrow. No matter. He’s looking for his own gate into a world where he need never worry again that what he is doing is wrong.
In about a week, my wife and I will begin our third year homeschooling Sawyer. If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever homeschool my children, my answer would have been an emphatic, NO. Though I never loved school as a kid, I viewed homeschooling as a kind of retreat. Traditional school was reality. You can hide in your homeschooling cocoon, but eventually those lovely, vulnerable, innocent children will have to be released into the wild where other people hold opinions different than yours and where they will have to compete and be judged and graded. Reality.
Sawyer did not like that version of reality. He disliked it so much that by the time he was old enough and big enough and loud enough to thoroughly disrupt a classroom we really had no other choice but to bring him home. The day we decided to pull him out, I had two thoughts: I have no idea how to do this; and, I know in about a month it will be clear that this is the best thing we could have possibly done for him.
I was right on both accounts. Part of the reason for my turn around was Sir Ken Robinson. First, I saw his TED talk, and then I twice had the opportunity to interview him for Author. I liked him right away when we met, partly because I agreed with so much of what he had to say, and also because he was so funny. Humor always reminds me that everything is going to be okay. If you listen closely to what Ken has to say you realize he is asking for a complete paradigm shift in how we view education, which is about far more than just schools. Education—learning—is about how we become who we are. Or, to put it another way, he is questioning what we have called reality. When you are getting ready to trade one reality in for another, it is good to know that everything is going to be okay.
The reality of my homeschooling experience is that Sawyer is a most difficult student. He has absolutely no interest in doing something simply because I tell him to. Oh, how easy our lessons would be if he would only obey. Instead, he insists on obeying himself. Unfortunately, when he was done shooting down all my lesson suggestions and I’d ask him, “So what do you want to do?” he’d most often answer, “I don’t know.” Ah, I thought. He’s forgotten that he does know.
This is the paradigm shift Ken is talking about. If you take a person and from a very early age tell him that all the answers to all of life’s important questions are contained in books he wouldn’t choose to read and in the minds of authority figures, you disconnect him from his true intelligence, which is his curiosity. I learn, Sawyer learns, and Sir Ken Robinson learns when we are connected to our authentic curiosity, when we ask ourselves: “Why is this so?” and, “How could I do this better?” and, “What would I like to do right now?”
This paradigm shift asks us to move our attention from the outside to the inside, exactly where so many children on the spectrum already have their attention firmly planted. The outside can only tell us where we are, it cannot possibly tell us where we want to go. To teach, then, is to trust in Sawyer what I must continue to trust in myself—a quiet but steady voice that, whenever I think to ask it, always tells me that everything is going to be okay.
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I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.