choosing school

Bee's picture
Mon, 06/13/2011 - 09:30 -- Bee

Ever since his fourteenth birthday my son has been exasperated with me, and frequently asks why I do, oh, anything and everything.

I quickly learned to answer "Because I am old, and stupid."

He accepted this, and proceeded with the activities most dear to an adolescent.

Except one day he asked why I was doing something so obviously routine and necessary I answered "Because I am old, and stupid, and boring!"

He paused, thought about it, and replied "You're not boring."

Hilarious, accurate, and probably not intended as a compliment. My faults as a parent and human are numerous, but my offspring do acknowledge that I am interesting - exasperating, yes, but they say I provide high entertainment value.

The least offensive word to describe my antics is 'quirky,' but beyond my tendency to pontificate and obsess I have always kept them well supplied with novelty: moving to a new country, traveling the world, hanging out with scientists and historians and musicians and circus performers. We've had grand adventures.

And throughout our twenty years together they have rarely, and only very reluctantly, attended school. Because I do not approve of the formal institution, but also because they are. . . eccentric. My daughter was performing in front of thousands of strangers by age nine, my son has worn a suit and bow-ties ever since he could walk. They have strong opinions. About everything.

From the earliest age the children have made their own choices at every critical juncture. My daughter attended perhaps two years of school, total, before deciding to go to university. My son has clocked more time in regular classrooms, but he dropped out a few years ago.

What has he been doing with his time? Animation. Film. Theatre. Physics. And a few months ago he asked for tutoring in the core curriculum subjects - to catch up on dread topics like 'how to write a formal essay' and 'how to conjugate French verbs.'

Doom! Because this was the first step back to institutional learning. And there was no arguing with his desire, because as he pointed out, it is hard to make friends in a new place when you never meet anyone your own age.

I harboured a sincere hope that he would not be able to find a school, and the city cooperated - it is difficult to enter UK schools at age 14 because of the way the curriculum is structured, and central London is wildly oversubscribed.

I put him on the wait list for the nearest and least horrid school, and felt relief every few weeks when another letter arrived notifying us that there were no places available. In fact, he was taken off the list three times, as the default is that people in our position put the kid in private school. I wanted to tell him his wish was impossible to fulfil, but that would have been wrong. I just kept putting him back on the list.

Last week, the school called - a place had opened - did he still want to attend?

Every last shred of me wanted to say no, turn down the spot, lie to my kid if necessary. But to do so would be unethical and contrary to the very reasons I have kept the children out of school. I wanted them to learn from life, to make their own choices, pursue their own interests, make mistakes, fail, try again, on their own terms, for their own reasons.

Fundamentally it is up to my son to decide. And he chose. . . school.

This is England, so school means uniforms. Structure. Schedules. Tests.

Over the weekend we filled out his schedule. He had never been directly confronted with the fact that the school system is divided explicitly into college prep and vocational, even at this age. My kid is of course, before he even shows up on the first day, college prep. Because his parents and sister have attended university. No point debating, or even meeting the child, this is just the disastrously unfair way the system works.

The schedules are a morass of flow charts, acronyms, and conflict: if you take triple science, you cannot take media studies. If you take art you cannot take drama. If you take the college prep route you are excluded from the option of vocational skills classes, no matter how interesting. Does any of this make sense? Not if you care about education as opposed to test results.

My kid started arguing and I pointed out that school is about training clerks, soldiers, and clergy. I said "Don't think, just obey!" Then I started laughing wildly.

And this morning I waved as he walked away.


bitch-face's picture
Submitted by bitch-face on

"No point debating, or even meeting the child, this is just the disastrously unfair way the system works"

Woah! That just blows my mind.

Best of luck to hi on his new adventure. School can be *quite* the adventure!

lilashakti's picture
Submitted by lilashakti on

wow. i am impressed with your abilities to have kept your children with you on your grand adventures. if i had not found a wonderful school for my 5 year old daughter, i may just have considered the same thing.
i hope he has some positives from it- he sounds intelligent, and if he is eccentric, then he will retain his personality. good things.

i really enjoy reading your writing.



motormouth's picture
Submitted by motormouth on

dya think he'll just hang aroumd long enough to make some friends and then drop out?

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

It is really shocking on a visceral level. I thought it was a fluke the first time it happened to us because we had just immigrated, but we've lived here long enough to see it as a societal value. The school system is explicitly structured to perpetuate class divide. The working class kid at an elite university is the rarest of endangered species around here, especially now that government mandated tuition has tripled.

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

Thanks! Yeah, they travel with me about half the time... often enough that they have a very distorted view of society. They expect the world to be a creative and confident place because my friends are both. They are often disappointed when they choose to go back to school. But oh well! It is all an adventure, of one kind or another...

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

Update at the end of the first week:

He likes it.

Oh, the horror! Though I suppose this was to be expected. . . it is normal and healthy for children to rebel against the culture of the family unit. My offspring are frustrated in this by the fact that they like the music I listen to, and the friends I drag home, and even me most of the time despite the fact that I am about as loopy as a person can be and still function. What is left? Mainstream, middle class nonsense!

To be fair, this kid has always been precise, orderly, and (even before we moved here) kind of, well, British. He wore bow ties and listened to P. G. Wodehouse books on tape as a toddler!

It is all just another adventure, but this one was quite unexpected.... should be interesting at least.

turtle's picture
Submitted by turtle on

I kinda love you. I kinda wish you were my mom. I kinda wish you were my kid's mom. I kinda love your kid. (gotta love anyone who loves PG Wodehouse. It's just a rule)

Good luck to the both of you on this new journey!

And it's actually good (well not GOOD GOOD) to hear that other places have fucked up school systems, it's not just the US...

Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough. -- Emily Dickinson

You want to do what you think is right and what matters to you, and if other people don't like it, as my father would have said, they can go fuck themselves. -- Amy Bloom

Lynn's picture
Submitted by Lynn on

Ha! I remember him wearing suits and bow ties as a little kid. Serious kid was serious. He's fourteen, that just blows me away. And it's AWESOME that he loves PG Wodehouse. All right-thinking people should. What ho, kiddo!

Hipmama Techmama, NewHomemaker, fantasy writer

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

Yesterday I asked how school is going. Normally secretive, he opened up to tell me this much:

The school assigned him to another student to "shadow" but my kid decided after a few hours that he preferred a different companion. So he switched. Without consulting teachers or administration, he just swapped himself into an entirely different class and curriculum set.... I gasped in shock, asked if that was ok. He shrugged and said "nobody noticed."

When roll is called in the morning he just puts up a hand and adds himself to the classes he wants to attend.

The quiet ones. They have such interesting skills!

Since he has been wearing a suit and tie since earliest infancy the uniform isn't a big transition, though he would prefer a higher quality material in the blazer.

Here he is (in his normal every day clothes) last summer at our citizenship ceremony: