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When it comes to school, I did things somewhat backward. In that, as a child, I didn’t go to school … and then, as a grown-up, I spent about twelve years (give or take) in institutions of higher education. As a student.

As regular readers of this blog know, my siblings and I were home educated from birth to college (in my case) and high school (in my siblings’ cases, part-time and full-time respectively). You can read more coherently about that experience, from my perspective in an interview I gave last December. I’ll try not to repeat myself here.

What I’m going to talk about in this post, specifically, is what “school” meant to me as a child, and then what it was like to be a student as a teenager and young adult — when I hadn’t grown up learning to conceive of myself in that way. And then what it was like to graduate from college, be a not-student briefly, and then return to student life as a graduate student (briefly: fucking hard).

So to begin: When I was a child, I thought not attending school was normal. Well, no. It’s not that simple. I understood — from the questions I got from grown-ups, from the stream of children walking to the neighborhood schools (Catholic and public), from the basic fact that children in books almost unerringly attended school — that school was something many children did. But when my mother asked me, once, when I was about five how many children I thought homeschooled I told her after a moment’s reflection that “about half” seemed a likely number.

This probably, in all fairness, reflected the statistics in our immediate circle of acquaintances. But obviously was not reliable data for the population more generally.

School, to me as a child, was something that other children did. And I honestly never thought about it much as an activity I could, should — or might want to  — engage in. It sounded boring, and required getting up early leaving all the projects I had going at home in order to do other projects. That seemed inconvenient at best, and threatening at worst. I remember being pissy about the crossing guards who were stationed at the street corners in my neighborhood before and after school, and for the children going home at lunch — I used to defy their instructions on principle because I wanted them to understand they couldn’t control me because I wasn’t one of “their” kids.

I was a pain like that, growing up.

I liked being the one in charge.

So school, until I was seventeen, was this thing I didn’t do. Couldn’t possibly fit into my busy schedule, which included stuff like volunteering at the local history museum and working part-time at a children’s bookstore, writing novels and traveling with family. At the time my schooled friends were taking the SATs and applying to colleges, I was seriously on the fence about even going to college at all. I was thinking about alternatives like full-time employment and apprenticeships. But thanks to my dad’s job I was able to enroll in a first-year writing course without matriculating, and since my career options at the time included “novelist” as well as “bookshop owner” and “museum curator,” I figured that was a good a place as any to try this school business and see if there was anything to it.

I fell instantly and utterly in love. With the class, with creative writing, with my professor, with the campus events we were required to attend as part of our coursework (film series, symposia, guest speakers), with being part of a larger conversation. I loved the routine of getting up on those autumn mornings, going for a run, getting ready for work, and then walking the six blocks to campus for my 8am class before turning up for my shift at the store. Yes, I struggled over assignments. Yes, I was terrified of failing at this school thing. Yes, I inevitably came across as weird and probably more than a little threatening to my fellow first-years who turned up in their pyjama pants, bleary-eyed from late night socializing or early-morning athletics training.

But that first year of college (I took first-year college writing in the fall of 1998; Christian feminism and creative nonfiction in the spring of 1999) was also utterly exhausting. The 1998-1999 school year was a politically charged year on campus, about which I’ve written before.  I found the semester schedule a roller coaster ride of intensity and deadlines and never-enough-time-for-a-job-well-done. I couldn’t imagine how students were able to complete the work for four or five courses at a time, when the hours it took for me to complete the reading and writing for one or two courses felt like a full-time job. I hated having work graded (and actually requested that faculty refrain from marking my work with a letter grade during those early years). I hated the apathy and/or competitiveness of my peers.

College did get me to places like this
(Coniston Water, Cumbria, England, 30 March 2004)

I went back. For seven years, I went back. But while there were things I loved about college I can’t say I ever found the point of equilibrium between these two poles of ecstasy and despair. I threatened to drop out of school literally every semester I attended. All through undergrad, and then again in graduate school. It was always a deliberate decision to walk back in the door the following term.

It’s hard to talk about why the experience was so difficult for me. Yes, it got better. And yes, there were always reasons to stay: amazingly dedicated, energetic, and insightful professors; articulate, thoughtful, and generous fellow students; resources to pursue the ideas that galvanized me; opportunities to travel, to present papers, and connect with fellow scholars and like-minded folks. When I talk about the poisoned feeling in my bloodstream whenever I’m in institutional spaces of education, I know it hurts a lot of people near and dear to me, who are doing good work in those spaces, and who have found a home there — for better or worse. I’ve learned over the years to make it as personal an observation as I can, though obviously my critique of institutional schooling is broader than a simple “I don’t thrive there.” I think many people don’t thrive there, and yes, I have a problem with that. But many people do … so I don’t know what to do with that.

When I returned to grad school in 2007, after two years of incredibly freeing non-school life, I was taken aback by how much I resented the return to academia — even as I was excited about launching my library science career. My emotional, mental and physical health had almost immediately improved when I graduated from college in 2005: I’d started sleeping better, eating better, feeling more energetic and experiencing a stronger libido; my mood felt more stable and positive, even in the face of uncertain job prospects.  And my first year in graduate school (combined, to be fair, with a cross-country move) brought on nausea, shortness of breath, weight loss, and other symptoms of fairly extreme anxiety.  As early as the road trip out to Boston, I was already writing in my journal about the misgivings I had about returning to school and the feelings of claustrophobia and regression they engendered. I felt like I was returning to being a teenager again, somehow erasing the experiences of the intervening decade.

It was not a good feeling.

This was hands-down the best part of graduate school,
apart from meeting Hanna there.

I got through it. I’m not sure, yet, whether to look upon graduate school as an improvement on undergrad or vice versa. Without the economic luxury of being a full-time student (as I had been in undergrad), I was forced (and intentionally chose) to maintain a life outside of school that was ultimately much more meaningful than what happened inside the walls of Simmons, both professionally and personally. I will be forever grateful to the Simmons dual-degree program for making the space I needed to begin my research on the Oregon Extension; at the same time, the project itself was borne out of the way in which my psyche responds to institutional education — as a coping mechanism to help me exist in a hostile environment. But I left graduate school no more enamored with the structures of school than I had been in college. And while the sea-change in well-being post-graduate school hasn’t been as marked as it was after I finished my BA, I have noticed a definite turn for the better when it comes to my own emotional and mental stability, my energy level, and the juggling act of work-life balance that follows us everywhere. As the students flood back into Boston this fall and classes begin again, I am unambivalently thankful not to be in their midst. Even as I make plans to pick up my research and writing once more.

For the first seventeen years of my life, school was simply something that didn’t apply to me. For the past thirteen years, it’s been an inescapable part of where I wanted to go and how I had to get there. Now, I have the chance to exist on the outside again. I think, though, the scars will linger. And I mean that in a positive as well as negative way: scars as markers of how experience changes us. It will color how I study and think about education and learning, about schooling and unschooling. It will inform how I think about the ways in which we, as a culture, choose to organize human life and make sense of our existence.

Many people in my life maintain, with great personal conviction, that I will make my way back to the classroom again — either as a student or as a faculty member. I myself am far from sure. For the first seventeen years of my life, I explored the world without the framework of school. I’m kinda looking forward to getting back into that rhythm, seeing how the old clothes fit.