R.L. SAUNDERS

writer, listener

Hot Tub Germs

In all our years of living and growing without coercive compulsory education, reactions from others have included complete support, concern, pushback, good questions, loaded questions, skeptical fascination, hasty judgments, and polite rejection. But we had never been directly accosted by a stranger about it until last night.

Our building is a mix of full-time residents and part-timers who rent their places out while they’re not here. My son loves the interaction with visitors from all over the world and has our trust and the freedom to strike up conversations without a parent by his side. He loves playing with other kids but he also loves talking to adults. Part of that is his personality and part of that comes from escaping unnatural age/grade hierarchy and teacher/adult worship culture. He’s learning that while adults generally have more experience, they really aren’t experts at life. And last night, he took an accelerated graduate seminar on the topic of adults with low self-worth who buoy themselves by bullying kids.

The vast majority of people in the world are good. I know that. The kid knows that. Things normally go very well and the risk to gain analysis usually makes it worthwhile for him. So for him to be hanging out with (or near) a group of adults in the hot tub is no biggie.

I was swimming in the pool, nearby enough to hear that the conversation had become between just one dude and my kid, and it was getting louder. But I couldn’t make out the words, so I made my way closer. The look on another woman’s face said, “If he’s yours, swim faster. This guy is a prick.” Later, I wondered why none of the other adults in the hot tub intervened. They just stayed quiet and let it play out. It’s nobody else’s responsibility, but I feel confident I wouldn’t let a person of any age be verbally assaulted in front of me without saying something.

When I got there, I thought deescalation was the best approach, so I smiled, sat down, and said, “Hi there–what’s up?”

“You his mother?”

“Yeah. Are you having trouble getting a word in? He can hold his own,” I said, still smiling, still hoping to deescalate with a safe-enough joke.

“No he can’t. He’s the one having trouble getting a word in,” he said, pointing to my kid.

“I was stuttering,” my son said, eyes locked on mine, like stuttering meant he deserved this. He sometimes pauses mid-word and experiences echolalia, especially under stress. It’s not uncommon with Tourette Syndrome (which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with why we unschool–we began well before symptoms were present).

“Wow,” I said to the manbaby across the hottub, then turned to my son and said,”Let’s go.”

My son ran back to the pool. I took my time getting out because I felt dizzy.

“So is he home-educated or not?” the guy demanded of me as I was leaving.

“We’re not home much,” I said.

“Does he even know MATH?” he demanded. Math is always the sticking point for people, it seems.

“He’s self-directed. He knows  what he wants to know, like everybody else. For example, he knows when to quit, unlike many adults,” I said, glaring at him. By now it was only this guy and his partner left in the hot tub. She was stone silent but looked mortified. Later I think I heard them fighting–him on their balcony, her inside yelling out the door.

He said some other things to me that I can’t entirely remember because I was kind-of shocked and still dizzy, so I said, “We didn’t come here to be quizzed,” and went back to the pool. My son wanted to dissect the situation right then because that’s his nature. So we talked about how he doesn’t owe other people an explanation about how he learns and it’s not his job to convince them. I said I was sorry for my part in leaving him in a position to feel he had to defend himself that way. We also talked about the bystander effect, which he’s coincidentally been interested in lately. The people who said nothing served as a perfect example.

Forensically, I learned more about the way Captain Obnoxious had been grilling and belittling my son in ways that make me want to find him again and do something I’d regret (but not more than he’d regret his actions).

I want to be able to say it was no big deal and that I crushed the guy, but that would just be posturing since I’m obviously still shaken about it after a fitful night. And I didn’t crush him. He crushed me. Hurting a child is an easy and cowardly way to crush a parent.

As I was writing this, my son sat down next to me and said, “If that mean guy last night was born in the 1800s, I bet he would have fought for the Confederacy.”

I had to agree and we had a good laugh. And then we thought about all the things we discussed and learned over the past 48 hours or so (while traveling from Michigan to Key West), purely because he was curious about them. I think we both needed to take inventory and feel some comfort about it, and that’s okay. Doubt creeps in because we’re only human and live in a largely schooled society with near-constant pressure to conform. Sometimes being different is harder and takes courage. That’s life.

And because I turn everything into an unschooling commercial, here’s a sample of what he’s been curious enough to learn more about over the past couple of days, off the cuff:

What can happen when a leader likes power but not responsibility?

Why are Confederate flags sold alongside Trump memorabilia?

Stereotypes related to the southern states and why it can be harmful to perpetuate them.

White privilege.

White nose syndrome in bats is killing them.

What lungs would do in space without protection.

Silicon Valley makes silicon sound synthetic but it’s an element!

How disease-resistant plants are developed and if/how that applies to animals.

The anatomy of dark humor.

The world is mostly hydrogen.

Sharing music/sound demos and beat-making.

Pixel art and animation.

Are loot boxes in gaming like gambling? (thanks, Planet Money)

How many milliseconds in one second? What about nanoseconds?

Impeachment.

Checks and balances.

The bystander effect!

Two days ago we were inside a cave system and on the trails at Mammoth Cave National Park. Our Facebook memories showed us that at this time in past years we have been in Philadelphia visiting the Franklin Institute and seeing the Liberty Bell, building a tree house in the woods in Northwest Michigan, playing with democratic free school friends in Maryland, and tending to baby lime trees in Key West.

We feel happy, safe, curious, and challenged. Life is good and we are so very lucky. Thanks for the reminder, hot tub asshole.

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