I wrote this essay in an attempt to capture the essence of unschooling, or child-led learning. I cry every time I read it. This is a loooong essay for a blog post.
This one is for all the mamas of wiggly, adventurous boys.
He thinks I am the one who taught him that life is an adventure.
He is a talker. Always has been. Made me batty. One long, errand-filled day our final stop was the grocery store. He was riding in my shopping cart and his chatter was driving me to distraction. I gently captured his plump toddler cheeks between my two palms and leaned in close until my forehead touched his. Little boy heat radiated into my skin. I counted silently; one, two, three.
“Hush,” I said.
His big blue eyes blinked at me.
“Okay,” he said.
I knew better than to fall for this trick. I did not release him just yet.
“Be quiet.” I firmly restated my request.
A finger crept up to cover his pursed lips before he made an exceptionally loud “SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“Please don’t make any more noise until we are out of the store.”
He nodded solemnly.
We did not travel the short distance to the end of that aisle before it began.
“I will be quiet.”
I ignored his self-talk, hoping.
“I will be sooooo quiet.”
I picked up a can of peas, scrutinizing the label.
“Quiet like a little mouse.”
I placed the can of peas into my buggy.
“A teeny, tiny, little mouse.”
A muffled snort drew my attention to a fellow shopper. I suspected she had been privy to my attempts to contain my verbal offspring’s self-expression. The woman was actually bent over, one arm clutching her stomach. Her face twitched as she attempted to press her lips together. She managed to duck out of sight and into the next aisle over before laughter escaped her, dancing over to reach my ears.
We found each other later, that shopper and I, bumping into each other the way people in the same store do as they go about gathering their purchases. By then he was singing to himself, or to an imaginary playmate, or perhaps to the bottle of ketchup.
She tried to reign in a grin and dampen the sparkle in her eyes, rearranging her expression to one of contriteness.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
But then the giggles overtook us both.
After she went her way I wiped my eyes, thankful I had given up mascara.
At the register, I lifted him out and managed to sneak in a hug before he pushed away and wriggled down. After he had a quick look around, he grabbed my leg and hung on, my prattling limpet.
This is how it was.
On days at home he would demand an experiment.
“Do the colors,” he would say, then give me a flirty smile and bat his eyelashes. “Please.”
I would get down clear glass tumblers and food coloring. We filled the glasses with tap water and lined them up. Drop by drop, he watched the magic of clear turning red, then purple or orange, depending on the tipped out drops. His hands would reach, so eager and grabby, the fingers always itchy to touch.
“Can I drink it?” He asked every time.
Colors tasted better then, before we knew they were bad for you.
When he was five, I bought him new folders, pens and crayons. The flash cards came out, but phonics wasn’t his thing. I know how to teach someone to read. I’d done it before, with his brother, but this boy wasn’t just someone. He pushed me to learn from Raymond Moore and Cynthia Tobias and myself, trusting in my own good sense.
My boy was a hands-on, auditory, wiggly creature.
So we kept watching sing-alongs and he followed the bouncing ball with his gaze and his entire body, bouncing right along with the music and words.
Shaving cream filled Ziploc bags with a drop of color were his slate. I guided his finger to trace D’Nealian letters until the game got old and the color was over mixed. The next day we made a new tracing bag with a new color.
Rich in books, our inventory of printed treasure overflowed several bookcases and decorated every room. Still, we borrowed more, twenty a week. We read together. I did not insult him by tracking the words with my finger, or ruin the story with silly, demanding questions.
A story needs to breathe.
With his paper and pens he drew pictures, and with the crayons he colored this world. He brought the pages to me and put the pen in my hand.
“Write this,” he would say, and then tell me his stories.
The pages we produced made up many books, and some we even bound. Most were works of artistic imagination held together by staples.
On a dry erase board I wrote out passages from other books, leaving blanks along the way. Mad Libs booklets were not in stores around here then, and could only be found in my memories, so we made up our own. He loved those nouns and verbs and adverbs.
In between the music, experiments and days at the park, he dictated stories to me. He followed me around with a notebook.
“Put the first letters,” I told him, juggling the baby on my hip, “or draw a picture and we can put the words in later.”
He got tired of waiting and began writing himself. Pictures become letters, letters become words, and words become story. Once he got some of his own stories out, it was easier for him to sit still long enough to puzzle out someone else’s.
He made copies of his best books and donated them to his favorite library, where he had been allowed to laugh and the librarian understood the gift of a live cricket. And, after all, a long time ago, when he was only a little kid, she had let him take home her own books with nothing more than a youngster’s promise to take care of them. My raised eyebrows and his grubby hands did not dissuade her from trusting my boy. She simply told him to wash his hands and be careful.
He did and he was.
She also shared with him the strawberry candy kept in her desk every time he came to get fresh library books.
When he brought her his own stories, bound and illustrated, he left strict instructions they were to be checked out to anyone who had a card. The librarian wanted to put them on a shelf to display. In her pleasure at receiving an original, one-of-a-kind edition, she had forgotten what the heart of a story is for, to be shared. It was a momentary lapse.
She had been the one to tell me, “You must always read to a child, every time they ask.”
I told her that would be a hard row to hoe. To illustrate my point, I gave him permission to ask her to read extra books to him when story time was over.
It wasn’t long before she said, “I see what you mean.”
There was always music. He learned to play the piano and performed for anyone who cared to listen. At a church meeting he sat on the bench, the piano arranged so that none of us in the rows of the audience could see more than the crown of his blonde head. Halfway through the piece he stumbled, then stopped. Silence reigned for the space of two heartbeats before his head popped up over the top of the piano. He grinned at us.
“I messed up,” he said. “I hafta start over.”
Seated once again, he pounded out My Country Tis of Thee from beginning to end. When he finished, he got up, and walked to center stage. Attired in jeans and striped T-shirt, he could not have been more solemn as he swept into an extravagant bow than if he had been decked out in a tux with tails. Everyone smiled and clapped. He dimpled and bounded over to me, shoestrings flying.
Bugs caught his interest and became a fascination for him. At one time, it was his goal to be an entomologist when he grew up, even though he could not actually pronounce the technical name of this chosen profession.
He would say, “I want to be a real bug guy.”
At a friend’s house we gathered with some other homeschoolers to have a class with an entomologist from the university. He demonstrated the proper way to mount insects and talked of many other interesting things. After listening politely, my boy brought the man a bug net and asked him to fix it. I hung back, impressed into reticence by the doctor’s books and letters while the two of them ran in the grass along the edge of the woods, chasing after things that flew and hopped.
The boy was a builder and knew what a hammer was for from the time he was a little guy tagging along behind the church custodian. However, instruction on the safety of tools does not guarantee application. Even repeated instruction. Well into his teens he was still not convinced of the need for an overabundance of precaution.
Late one evening the kitchen door opened. He didn’t enter, but only stuck his head in.
“Mom,” he yelled, “When’s the last time I had a tetanus shot?”
Since he was upright and neither covered in blood nor displaying any signs of visible injury, I quelled the urge to jump up and rush to his aid. Instead, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
”What did you do.”
It was said as a statement, not a question. My voice was calm, if a bit gravelly.
He shifted his weight from foot to foot and closed the door a bit.
“But could you bring me a towel?”
If you ask him, he will show you the scar on his palm and advise you that it is not smart to hold things in your hand while you drill into them with an electric power tool. His favorite part of the telling is describing, complete with sound effects and contorting facial grimaces, how he had to “back the bit up” to get it out of his hand where the drill had snagged the skin.
No stitches were required.
By the way, he has never been overdue for a tetanus shot. I did not take away his tools, at least not permanently. I did assign many research papers related to the proper use and safety of tools, recreational related equipment, and vehicles of all sorts.
The stage was a prime venue for his particular talents and energy. My boy’s ardent portrayal of his first Shakespearean role caused the young female co-actors to giggle and turn red. Years later he realized why and was embarrassed. At the time he was simply Lysander the Lover. It was his first Shakespearean play, but not his last. His finale was in High School. He entered stage left with his cohort, whom we shall name only as Grumio, who had, unbeknownst to me or the director, provided my son with a prop cigar.
This particular prop had not been present at any of the rehearsals, dress or otherwise. I am pretty sure the guys knew it would not have been approved. But now, on opening night, there he stood, feet solidly planted and a haughty gaze surveying his domain. One hand was firmly fisted on his hip while the other hand brought the cigar to his lips for an exaggerated puff-puff-puff.
I cut my eyes left and right, wondering what all these fine visiting mamas and daddies with their tender young families in tow thought of the young man taking center stage while pretending to smoke.
His voice boomed out the lines as he swaggered, and lights caught the glint of his eyes. He was Petruchio. After he spoke, he stuck the cigar into his mouth and dared us to tell him otherwise.
I decided to laugh.
After a few more adventures, he went on to college and got a degree. Shortly after he started putting that degree to use working at the news station, a new job position opened there. His co-workers told him he should apply. They were teasing. They didn’t know him yet.
“Should I go for it?” he asked me.
I answered, “Why not?”
So he went from teleprompter to producer in a leap. He never has learned to stay within reasonable limits.
A few weeks ago he asked me what I would think if he went back to school to pursue engineering. He has always been interested in the field. I told him he would be a wonderful engineer. Because I am still the mom, even if he is grown, he also received unsolicited advice on saving his money and avoiding student debt.
Today he came to visit me. He settled himself into the big brown recliner before he spoke.
“You know Mom,” he said, “I think the best thing you ever taught me was that life is an adventure.”
The statement made me smile. He thinks I taught him that.
Since I wrote this, my son acquired a few more occupations and is currently working as a software developer. He is the proud owner of an affordable mortgage on a house too large for him situated on five acres. He claims it’s perfect for him. The property has a creek.
If this story encouraged you, please comment and/or share.
All my best,