In my 2009 young adult novel Inferno, Dante met her friend Parker while handing out flyers printed with the words: School. Prison. Can you tell the difference? I wrote that book when my own child was only four and kindergarten still seemed a long way off– but apparently my own not-so-great memories of school were vivid enough.
Plenty of people over the years have made the observation that school bears a distinct resemblance to prison, so the comparison is hardly new. But in the last ten days or so I have had a series of experiences that have brought me up against the realization that it is sometimes more than just an analogy. For some kids– the ones who are bullied or bored or just craving autonomy, who spend their days watching the minutes tick past or looking out the window at the blue sky and the trees, just waiting for three o’clock when they will be set free– school really is a prison.
A couple of weeks, my son told me that he was curious about school. Not curious as in wanting to attend, but curious about what happens in schools and what it all looks like. He attended kindergarten at a lovely and very small school when he was five, but that ended three years ago and he doesn’t remember much of it. So we arranged to visit our local public school. And then, because he was curious about the differences, we also booked a tour of an expensive private school.
Of course, there were some pretty obvious differences of the kind you would expect. The private school had a huge art studio, a music room, cosy carpeted classrooms, a big bright library with lots of books, and students who seemed happy and engaged with their work. The public school hallways looked older and a bit dingy, but the teachers were friendly and warm and clearly committed to their students, despite the challenges of working with large classes and a great diversity of issues and needs. Each was, in its own way, a good school.
And yet to attend either school would, for my son, mean surrendering his current freedom. (In fact, when he made pro and con lists for each school, the private school got an extra demerit point for requiring students to wear uniforms). At either school, he would be expected to attend every day for a set number of hours and expected to do exactly what he was told during that time, right down to how and where to sit and when to eat. He would be told what to learn and how to learn it and he’d be expected to do assigned work whether or not it was of interest or value to him. He’d have to raise his hand to ask permission to speak or to get a drink or to go to the bathroom. He’d be told when he was allowed to go outside and when he was allowed to leave. He’d be told what values he should embrace. Even after the school day ended, his free time would be infringed on by homework. From nine until three, five days a week, he would have none of the choices he has now.
To say it would be a huge adjustment would be an understatement. After three years of very free learning, I suspect being in a classroom would feel to him rather like it would to me if I woke up in the body of an eight year old and had to relive elementary school.
The day after our second school tour, we headed to Portland for the Life Is Good Unschooling Conference. Nine hundred unschooling kids and parents in one hotel. Yup, we took over the Hilton. Teens dancing and talking and laughing together, little ones running and playing, kids selling crafts and candies they’d made, kids in the swimming in the hotel pool, kids with Nerf guns in the park, a whole room full of kids with laptops gaming together. No bells ringing, no arbitrary rules, no required activities. No coercion. No one segregated by age, everyone choosing what they wanted to do and when (and the choices at this buffet of experiences were tough: like, hula-hooping or making stomp rockets or playing Minecraft or going to the International candy-tasting funshop.
Everyone learning all the time, in their own ways, according to their own interests. And so much joy. So much laughter.
I am actually a strong supporter of the public school system. Every child should be able to get the kind of education he or she needs, without having to pay for it. We didn’t plan to home school– that’s just how things turned out. It works for us, but it doesn’t change my belief in the importance of good public schools. As a former social worker, I have seen the huge difference a caring teacher can make in the life of a child. I think it is incredibly important that everyone have access to good schools– to learning, to resources, to generous and kind and passionate teachers and mentors.
I just think we need to figure out a way to add a hefty dose of freedom to the mix.