My recent revelation: I was unschooled
It’s strange to think of myself as being unschooled, but it seems to be true. It was part of an interesting dual existence – part-time schooling and part-time unschooling. I didn’t even think of it as unschooling until an astute parent pointed it out at our local unschooler’s support group. I think it accounts (on some level) for my general disregard for authority and groupthink.
My parents emigrated from India and until I was 10, I spent 6 months of each year in India. Summertime was too hot there so we went from fall to spring. My parents were rather blase about schooling to begin with and I started kindergarten in spring after a neighbor mentioned that I was probably old enough to go. Here’s how a typical ‘academic year’ went after that:
- September: Yay! School starts!
- 2 months later: Yay! We’re going to India!
- 6 months later: Boohoo – back to the US. Just in time for allergy season.
- 2 months later: Yay! Summer!
It was a good life, one that I recall very fondly. My sole exposure to formal schooling there involved trying not to distract my cousins when they did their homework. I do have a faint memory of getting a tutor briefly, but that lasted a couple of weeks at most. I have no clue as to what the tutelage was in, which indicates that it was probably utterly useless and unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
I always had this idea in my head that it was a nice, long vacation. Coming back to the US, to a routine that lacked any choice or individuality was a bit of a struggle, and I was definitely not trained to behave as well as my classmates, resulting in repeated admonishments to not talk in class, in line or pretty much any time when talking was frowned upon. Later in Catholic school, I was the only ‘good’ kid to get as many detentions as the ‘bad’ kids.
Once in India, I’d make a half-hearted effort to do some homework. This didn’t go on for more than 1-2 days, after which I ignored it until 1 week before going back to school. It almost always took me about 1 week to do all the busywork. This fact evolved into a reason why I was willing to consider and support homeschooling – if 6 months of schoolwork can be squeezed into 1 week, it’s bullshit. And knowing that standardized testing and busywork has increased since the 70s, sending my kids to school would probably be a worse option now than then.
Here is what unschooling in India looked like for me:
In India, as was customary, we lived in a 3 story house with our extended families, from myself and my cousins all the way up to my great-grandma and great-great-grandma. Each family unit had a room to themselves. That’s it – one room. That meant co-sleeping and a communal kitchen. I usually shared a bed with my uncle while my grandma slept on a couch. My grandma’s room was the only one with chairs and a sofa – everyone else just had beds which doubled as seating.
Since I always had horrible jetlag, I would often wake at 2am with nothing to do but read. However, this early rising allowed me to experience the rhythm of the morning. We lived in a city (Kolkata) and at the time, refrigeration was quite limited so everything came to markets from outside the city. At 2am the streets were dark & quiet. By first light the streets would be coming to life, with a trickle of people going to work, goatherds bringing their herd to market and men pushing huge two wheeled bamboo carts with giant blocks of ice. Next came a wave of schoolchildren, employees going to work and deliveries (including fresh unpasteurized milk daily and laundry once a week). Things finally slowed down after people had left for school & work and I had to find ways to entertain myself. I spent a lot of time wondering about the people that I saw and imagining what their lives may be. Our suburban equivalent in the US, seeing increasing numbers of cars, is so sterile and impersonal in comparison.
In the house, I either read, drew or spent time with a relative. I’ve always loved mythology and folk tales and I would get plenty from my grandma, great-grandma and great-great-grandma. We had a small temple to Shiva in the house and I would sometimes watch the priest and my great-grandma perform rites and rituals. At other times I would play games with relatives – usually Snakes & Ladders or Ludo. (‘Ludo’ is Parcheesi, and I have never heard any Indian EVER call it Parcheesi. It’s also kinda neat that the word ‘ludo’ is Latin for ‘game.’)
I would occasionally go to work with relatives, which revealed to me why things get done so slowly in India: people didn’t seem to really work. Any relative I was with would ‘work’ for about 20 minutes, usually while someone else from the office was not working and chatting with me. Then my relative would finish ‘working’ and we’d go someplace for lunch or go visit more friends & relatives. This attitude seems to have embedded itself in me too
The one relative who is quite interesting in retrospect was the family artist. He cultivated an air of craziness (supposedly having never recovered from heartbreak) and was (and still is, afaik) a truly excellent artist. I would often go draw with him. He was friends with intellectual-types who would often come over to debate politics (they were all Marxist – Kolkata is a hotbed of intellectualism with a lot of very left-wing support). He once gave me a book by Maxim Gorky when others were buying me comic books.
All in all, I spent as much or more time with adults than I did with kids my own age. There are so many specific things I remember from those times, a lot of it from just observing life. Going out with an uncle for a cigarette run meant seeing people making cowpats, avoiding cow poo and avoiding getting trampled by a cow. Going to the market meant watching people haggle or picking out the goat we’d be eating later (a live goat, that is – you’d pick the goat and pick up the meat later).
There were no supermarkets or large stores, and buying anything meant meeting & dealing with people. The ones we met frequently we tended to be quite friendly with. The laundry man was perpetually invited to stay for a cup of tea and a chat, which he always did unless he was running late. My grandma was very friendly with a municipal worker with the strangest job ever: cleaning telephones. The phones were property of the state-owned phone company and once a month she would come around to clean our telephone (while chatting with a cup of tea, of course).
I definitely think that some of the goals of attachment parenting and homeschooling/unschooling were accomplished. I simply experienced and learned from life. I had a very strong attachment to my family and especially my parents. I never had any teenage rebellion in high school because I got along with my parents. I was able to converse as well with adults as I did with children. I met different people from different walks of life.
The memories are so vivid that I wonder what the hell I’m doing sitting in a cubicle in front of a computer. I suppose that having had the experience is much better than not having had it at all, and the seeds for my future life as an attachment parent & unschooler were obviously planted. But I feel a sense of loss about it, even if it’s an inspiration to think and do things to eventually turn this cubicle into a memory.