R.L. SAUNDERS

writer, listener

My eyes could be better, but my mom couldn’t

I first got glasses in fifth or sixth grade, but immediately stopped wearing them after somebody called me cyclops because they made my eyes appear to blend together. Fast forward several decades and my vision is extra crappy, with some newer weird and annoying issues that make seeing stuff difficult. Even with my glasses on, for example, I can only read paper-paged books for about 45 minutes, and only if I’m in bright, natural light. This makes me sad because reading paper-paged books makes me happy.

I’ve wanted eye surgery for a long time, but just found out I waited too long and now it’s too late. Now I’ll have to forget about that visually barrier-free cliff diving adventure in Greece. And base jumping off The Eiffel Tower is also now out of the realm of possibility because I just don’t trust those safe-for-base-jumping-while-visually-impaired goggle thingies. Really though, I’d have settled for reading a paper-paged book in bed by lamplight (I dreamed of that. Literally, I did.) Or maybe seeing what goes on during a shower.

The moral of the story is two-fold. First–and this is really important–you should feel very sorry for me, like I do. Second, don’t put off shit that’s important to you, even if it isn’t life-threatening. Parents who say they’ll pay better attention to themselves once the kids are older, I’m looking at you.

On the bright side, my mom just gave me the big corner bookcase from my childhood bedroom. It’s old and a little grody (aren’t we all?) and I love it a lot. I’m going to put it right next to a window and fill it up with paper-paged books, which I will continue to enjoy reading in 45-minute stints, sunlight permitting. And someday, some way, I’ll put my own books on it.

46880b89-6737-4026-a7e1-c4778c1d0683

My mom has impeccable timing, right? I think she did this on purpose. She’s one of those types.

14 Comments »

If we must outsource childhood, let’s do it better.

Homeschooling (under which unschooling falls) is a luxury. I used to talk a lot about the sacrifices we make to be able to homeschool. And while that’s true, the bottom line is that we’re privileged to be able to do this. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know with perfect certainty that homeschooling is best. But at least I have the enormous luxury of choice, which is due in large part to factors that have nothing to do with anything I’m personally responsible for. Period.

Most kids go to school–even the ones whose parents would love to homeschool them. Got it. Really do.

Then why can’t we figure out how to give public school kids–all of them, in every neighborhood in the country–at least the same student-teacher ratios that exist in many expensive private schools? We’re always hearing how kids at expensive private schools do so well because of their excellent levels of parental involvement and yada, yada, barf. But, hi, they’re not with their parents for most of their waking hours. We sub out our kids’ days starting at age 4 or 5, or more realistically at age 6 weeks in the U.S. where not-as-well-resourced working parents are economically discouraged from spending a healthy amount of time with their infants. Your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s private Caribbean island isn’t going to buy itself, people. I said get back to work and make his money. Then work some overtime and maybe get yourself a less painful breast pump and a car payment on a nice used Kia Sedona for safe, comfortable transportation to your infant’s fifty-hour weeks at daycare.

Sorry, god. I told myself I’d stay focused.

Anyway, what’s so crazy about believing no publicly funded daycare, preschool, kindergarten, first, or second grade teacher should have more than eight kids to get to know and love? Third grade on up? No more than ten. And I don’t mean add administrators and specialized support staff to deal with after-the-fact issues. In expensive private schools with healthy, intimate class sizes, kids don’t have to be singled out with a label before they receive the individual attention they deserve.

It’s not nuts. It’s doable. We can afford it if we put our money where it matters. Consider this: It varies by state, but in the U.S. we spend between three and four times as much per year to incarcerate an adult than we do to educate a child. The incarceration rate is up something like 250 percent from 1980. We lead the world, by a long shot, in incarceration for non-violent offenses.

K now take a stab at where the majority of the adults incarcerated in The Land of the Free were educated? Not in Mexico, Donald Trump. You dick.

God, sorry again.

And sure, we could say, “Well yeah, but lots of those gross criminal types were school dropouts, though.” To which we could respond to ourselves, “Why so many dropouts if the system is working well?”

So hey, educrats and other smarter-than-us politicians in charge of the future of the country and whatnot, help a simple lady understand why we can’t spend less money later and more money up front. Can we do that soonish? This is not a new concept and seems increasingly popular with folk of all stripes, at least theoretically. The problem is that, for those in charge, the system as it stands works in their kids’ favor. Their kids don’t have to compete with as many smart poor kids later in life.

And I don’t mean we should spend more money on getting kids into a broken school system faster—that’s an ill-conceived Band-Aid. All the emphasis on Head Start and getting kids academically rigorous training earlier and earlier is maddening to me, especially given what we know now about the importance of vast amounts of free play in the brain development of children. But I’m trying to stay focused here. Trying hard. Trying so hard.

A school administrator once told me that there’s just not much evidence that class size affects academic performance. In the same position, with the same dinky budget, I’d probably be inclined to convince myself that was true, too. But I’m not. So even if there’s some truth to what that administrator said, I believe we’re using the wrong measurement tools and measuring the wrong things.

We love measuring. So let’s measure something that ought to matter more. Like, I don’t know, measure how happy and loved and safe kids feel while they’re away from their families all day, every day, starting as infants in many cases. Measure how satisfied they feel, later in life, with U.S. public education. But don’t forget to ask the one in 31 Americans who are under U.S. corrections custody through parole, probation, or incarceration, because they matter. They matter now and they mattered when they were children being raised in a system that failed them too often.

If you’re not a teacher, do this: Imagine spending all day with 25 (or more) kids who are all completely different–different needs, personalities, learning styles. Forget their wants and preferences–there’s no time for that with 25 (or 20, or 10, let’s be real), so those expectations in children get killed early on. Now imagine all your bosses are promising the parents (and children, which is saddest but least spoken of) that you will gleefully, lovingly meet all those needs in plenty of time to get your own baby from daycare before Jimmy Fallon starts. In your spare time, you will meticulously record the evidence of each individual’s growth in individual files, to be accessed by many layers of administrators. And don’t forget to make the 25 individual plans for the next day. We’re not even going to talk about testing here because that, at least, is finally getting some attention. So even if you want desperately to know and love each of them the way Every Single Child deserves to be known and loved, you can’t. Does. Not. Happen.

Theoretically admitting that children are individuals that deserve to be treated as such is a big step in public education. But pretending that we can even remotely begin to accomplish that by simply shifting the burden to teachers without drastically decreasing the number of students in their classes is abusive to teachers and to the children they’re set up to fail.

We know love is the answer. Let’s set up every child in the country to learn that for real.

2 Comments »

Publishing is hard.

Could you use a little inspiration to keep at it today? Check out my guest post on the blog of Linda Epstein, literary agent to the stars and me: NORMAL THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO WRITERS

Leave a comment »

33040: The Poem

My poem made the top 20 in the O, Miami WLRN-Miami Herald Ode to Your Zip Code Poetry Contest. I’m so excited–especially considering there were more than 3,500 entries! Holy shit.

The culminating event will be at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens next Wednesday. All twenty finalists–except me because I can’t go, but maybe I’ll send my husband–will read. There’ll be a lovely reception on the water and then five winners, selected by presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco, will be announced.

I’m sad I can’t go and I hope a Florida Keys poem is among the winners, although I can’t imagine they’d include a non-attendee. But this whole thing has been fun. I already feel good about the experience. I already won. Which was the point, I think—to make regular people think and feel like poets this month.

Not only did I get to read my poem on WLRN, but it was also the lede in a Washington Post piece on the Miami Poetry Festival.

For the article, I was asked a bunch of questions about what’s behind my poem and what the appeal of the contest was, so I’ll share that here since, for some silly reason, the entire article was not all about me.

Key West, the poem

Owning little applies to everybody in Key West. From our minimalists and environmentalists to our loaded friends who spend millions on 600-square foot cigar cottages in Old Town, everybody lives little here. But more than that, it’s an attitude. You just don’t need lots of stuff to feel content in Key West. That’s simply the way it is.

Regretting less—that has to do with what my dad gave me. He was a Vietnam vet who brought demons home with him. When I was three, he ran away to Key West. And when I came to visit him over the years, he seemed unreasonably happy, especially considering he had no money and no plan. Ever. Then when I turned 30, I pulled my own version of the same thing, I guess. I spent a lot of time resenting him over the years, but now I’m grateful because, ultimately, he gave me Key West. I get it now. He’s dead but I wish I could tell him I get it now. I wish I could hug him and thank him–two things I never really did, at least not sincerely.

As for the appeal of the contest, I submitted something this year because last year I chickened out, then read a bunch of awesome stuff from seemingly regular people like me. I’m no poet–I write fiction, mostly. But this O, Miami thing kind of makes us all feel like we’re good enough. At least good enough to toy around and have a little fun with poetry during National Poetry Month. And like who hasn’t fancied herself a poet, however secretly? Plus I love WLRN and all the ways people like Nancy Klingener keep Key West–Real Key West–part of the South Florida conversation.

Before this, I hadn’t thought quite so specifically about my zip code, but I love the idea. I’ll never write my zip code again without getting the warm fuzzies about that time I entered a poetry contest, and also about my dad. How weird and lovely.

UPDATE: MY HUSBAND AND SOME FRIENDS WENT IN MY PLACE (TEAM KEY WEST, I CALLED THEM) AND MY POEM WON! WHEEE!

8 Comments »

Turning 40: Obligatory Heartening Internet Edition

Thirty was weird. Fine but weird. That was the year I quit my then-dream job, dropped out of my PhD program, sold my house, and moved to an island. But 40? Everybody seems to think 40 feels really, really good. And I’ll let you know tomorrow, but I’m confident I’ll concur.

I’m pretty sure I’ll tell you tomorrow that 40 is motherfucking wonderful, actually, because approaching 40 has been this fantastic process that leaves me feeling smarter and more confident in ways my 20-something self would say are completely baseless. Yeah, I’m definitely feeling all those unreasonably positive things I believed people were lying about feeling as they reached the point of halfwayish.

I bought bigger jeans on my approach to 40, which I do every decade or so. But for the first time, in the most genuinely honest and self-aware corner of my brain, I just don’t feel any kind of self-loathing whatsoever. I’m not compelled to rationalize moving up a size–not even to myself. After getting four decades under my belt–winning some, losing plenty, saying hello and good-bye to the most important people in my life–something like the size of my jeans feels so trivial that it’s fallen clear off the spectrum of things to give any shits at all about. Which sounds like a rationalization, I realize, because I’m so aware of myself now, see?

In addition to spending far less time trying to look maximally appealing to others, I spend less time silently and harshly judging people who spend lots of time and energy trying hard to look maximally appealing to others. I was her in my twenties. In my thirties, I transitioned away from her and felt anybody like her was sad and vain. But now, in general, I feel myself making fewer swift judgments, especially about people I don’t know.

I have fewer and better friends.

I say what I mean and I do it far less apologetically than ever.

I’m doing what I love with and for people I love.

The drive that moves me toward my professional goals is healthy, but I’ve done enough in my lifetime to leave me satisfied in that area. Anything else is gravy–gravy I’m hoping and planning to pour on thick, of course. What matters most to me, though, is seeing each of my kids find their way in this world. I’d give up everything for them, which I hope goes without saying.

This has probably read like a series of cliches about aging. But that’s another thing that’s happened–I realize and find comfort in the notion that, while I’m lucky to be around, I’m just not that special. We’re all so similar in what motivates us and matters to us–love, I guess, in various incarnations–than I ever cared to realize before. And it’s good. I’m good. Forty’s good.

16 Comments »

Game on

Moral panic. “That is, people who are the leaders of a society often blame things which they do not value for societal ills.”

I’m revisiting things like this: Your Moral Panic Is Not My Gamer’s Responsibility  because one of my sons is extra super interested in gaming at this point in his life. And if I’m being honest, I sometimes feel he (and we) are unfairly scrutinized based on the unfounded fears of others. While we’re not comfortable giving our six-year-old access to something like Grand Theft Auto, we are open to the conversation as he matures. It’s really hard not to let our own fears and biases (and fear of baseless judgement) equal evidence of harm.

I mean, I’m never going to play GTA, myself. It’s too gross for me. Too much gore–I wouldn’t enjoy it. I don’t like horror movies, either. And I also have zero interest in hunting. But where I’m from, it’s nothing short of a milestone worth grand commemoration and celebration when a child (the younger, the more impressive) goes into the woods with a parent, stalks and blows the brain or heart out of an actual, unsuspecting living creature with an actual deadly weapon, tears its guts out with a knife, posts and frames happy, bloody family pictures with the disemboweled carcass, then cuts its head off for display on a shiny plaque in the family room next to the baptism photos.

Hell, even peewee football involves far more real-world, very intentional violence than virtual gaming, now that I think about it. “Here, killer, let momma put a fresh pull-up on under your gear. Now get out there and grind ’em into the dirt, big boy.”

This isn’t to say I’m uniformly anti hunting or anti toddler tackle football (although I personally care for both less as I age). This is to say that I’m pro keeping perspective and pro not letting things I don’t personally value or understand turn into baseless fears that illogically dictate my parenting decisions and my judgement of other families and their kids’ fitness as playdate material.

10 Comments »

Dye shaming. Like slut shaming but warranted

I’ve got some silver growing out my scalp, concentrated in two areas. It’s just a little, but there’s no more mistaking it for the “white blond” that the remnants of my vanity tried convincing me it was. Because you know, suddenly at 39 I’m going white blond. No.

My mom has like two gray hairs and my dad died at age 57 with about three gray hairs. So it’s not something I’d previously put much thought into. Not because I’ve always been oh-so-enlightened and comfortable with going gray, but because I thought I had twenty more years before I’d be making decisions about it.

I think I’m going to keep it, though. It’s part fuck you to tired, pathetic women’s beauty norms. And the other part is simply that so many of the women working the silver and gray are the kinds of people I admire. I’m seeing more smart, beautiful women in their thirties and forties giving the finger to the Clairol box or the monthly appointments and biweekly root touch-ups, and I kind of love it. I want to have some small part in the evolution of how we define beauty. I want my daughter to see me making these kinds of choices.

Already, I’ve spent too much of my lifetime working hard at pretty. I did a good job of it, too, and was recognized for it by people to whom that’s really important. But I don’t know, I guess those just aren’t my people anymore. I see the struggle some women undertake (in ways our male counterparts generally don’t) and, to me, it increasingly seems like such a waste of energy, fighting nature instead of loving that we’ve been through some serious bullshit and we’re still here, only stronger and smarter and more confident. I feel like being beautiful. I feel like being healthier. But I don’t feel like I owe pretty to the world anymore.

I’m just not interested in defying my age, whatever that means. And do people really accomplish that anyway? If it didn’t sound so judgy, I’d say many end up looking ridiculous. You know who I’m talking about–those people who can’t think of a bigger thrill in life than being called a MILtF by their teenaged kids’ friends. (See what I did there? I said it anyway.)

So that’s that, then, at least for me. I’m getting myself back, not letting myself go. Look, I already won at pretty and I’m here to tell you that it didn’t take any special talent whatsoever. Just a special level of commitment to the superficial. Meh. Game over. Next.

6 Comments »

My Writing Process, the tour

Joe McGee, brilliant and hilarious author of Peanut Butter and Brains (Abrams Children’s, fall 2015), invited me to participate in this blog tour. I would’ve said no, except we became friends in monosodium glutamate rehab and I was afraid the rejection would push him off the wagon. Srsly though, I’m doing this despite feeling leery of seeming advice-y. I mean yeah, the ‘My” in “My Writing Process” should sufficiently qualify what we’re doing here. It’s just, I think writing is a very personal process. So thanks, Joe, for the opportunity to stretch myself, Doritos-free.

I want you to know that I read things like this with great voracity when I first began researching writing for publication. And I wasted a lot of time believing all writers with agents know what they’re talking about. We don’t. Except Joe. Joe knows. And Micheal G-G, who’s doing this next week. He knows, too. But otherwise, don’t waste too much time worrying about what works for other people. You’re not other people. You’re special. Your mother said you were special and you’re special. Read these things, but read them with a grain of salt. Maybe many grains, licked off your wrist right before a shot of tequila.

GOT IT, LADY. SHUT YOUR FACE AND START THE THING ALREADY.

K, here we go.

What are you working on?

Well, my agent is like this close to selling an upper middle grade manuscript of mine. Do you hear me, Universe? So I’m waiting to be able to work with the best editor in the world on that, which will be fun for all involved because I’M SO EASY TO WORK WITH OH MY GOD SHAPE ME MOLD ME PICK ME LOVE ME LET’S BE FABULOUS TOGETHER. Reveal yourself, best editor in the world. Together, we will win.

Until then, I’m writing (revising, actually) the next one–YA contemporary fiction. That works for me–writing while waiting. I’m not here to tell you what to do, but I’ve never heard any accomplished writer suggest not starting the next big thing until the first big thing sells. And for most writers, that’s just not possible anyway. We’re writers, not waiters. Well, not that kind.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This is kind of hard for some writers (this one, for example) to answer because if we’ve been at it a while, we’ve learned to accept that we’re actually not all that special. I lied about that earlier. So did your mother. There are lots of talented people with the same goal, working just as hard. In case you haven’t noticed, everybody’s writing a fucking book. And some of them are really good.

Still, my confidence in my voice has grown significantly in the last few years. It’s a tricky endeavor, defining a writer’s voice (which is not the same thing as voices of characters within a writer’s work). It’s basically that thing about the writing that makes you want to read more by the same author. Of course, we’re all hoping we have a unique-enough voice.

Sometimes when we’re just starting out, we inadvertently mimic the voices of our favorite writers, which can read like bad fan fiction. Or even good fan fiction. Although mimicking voice alone isn’t really fan fiction, so this analogy is falling apart. But whatever. What I mean is, it’s not ours at first, sometimes. Not really.

So I think I’ve grown to a place where I’m owning my own voice, trusting that it works, and continuing to develop it. My voice helps define my work. That’s my story.

Why do you write what you do?

For me, too much dissection can ruin a thing and I don’t like forcing articulation of The Why (god that sounds pretentious). I’ll say, though, that middle grade and young adult fiction feels exactly right for me, right now. I haven’t been able to say that very often in my life. That’s reason enough, isn’t it?

That said, I always bear in mind something my friend Judy Blume told me (and reaffirmed for this post). She writes the story as it needs to be told and worries about all the rest–like where in the market it falls–later. She’s not a fan of categories. Remember, there was no such thing as MG or YA when she wrote some of the best MG and YA ever published. Nope. There were just good books that found the right audiences.

And yes, I know very well that things are so, so different now for lots of reasons, but I still like to keep story first, market second. It feels more like art that way. Because it is. I write because it’s my art. If writers lose sight of that, what’s the point? What’s left?

How does your writing process work?

Here’s a little confession: I don’t work on my current Big Thing on any kind of schedule, or even every single day. Quit gasping. It works fine for me.

I go in spurts. Frequent, productive spurts. That’s not to say I can’t work on deadline. I’ve done that plenty, too. It’s just that BIC (Butt In Chair) at all costs doesn’t work for me the way it seems to work so well for others. I do feel like I’m always working, though. I’m always watching, listening, remembering, experiencing life in ways that inform my writing.

I also read on days when I’m not working on the Big Thing. Reading inside and outside my genre and comfort zone is increasingly important to me. Like, right now I’m finishing The End of the Book by Porter Shreve. I’m in love with these characters and with this seamless transition between centuries. And I’m especially awed by the perfect pacing that challenges and defies my former almost-baseless perception of literary fiction. You could call me a reformed reverse literary snob and I wouldn’t take issue.

In short, the more widely I read, the smaller the world feels. In a good way. And the better my own writing gets. I hope.

So that’s how I do: I write when I need to and read when I need to.

* * *

NEXT MONDAY, stoopid amazing middle grade writer, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, will be joining the writing process tour. A writer for as long as he can remember, Michael has taken to blogging with a vengeance. Currently he is Don Vito’s right hand man (some might say ‘dogsbody’) at Middle Grade Mafioso, as well as the blog manager at Project Mayhem. Originally from England, Michael now lives with his wife and three sons in Portland. He’s represented by Stephen Fraser at The Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. The Best Literary Agency, if I do say so, myself.

Take it away, Michael G-G!

12 Comments »

Life Tips from a failed poet

The piece below started out as a short poem I intended to submit to WLRN for this: http://wlrn.org/topic/wlrn-o-miami-poetry-contest.

Turns out I’m still not a poet, though. Not even during National Poetry Month. But you should submit one if it’s your thing and if you genuinely love something about Somewhere, Sometime, South Florida.

Read the link for all the details, but the basic deal is that you’re supposed to think of a place in South Florida that means something to you for whatever reason, then write a short poem about it that’s somehow served by the phrase, “This is where.”

My not-poem is set in 1980s Key West (a time and place I love). When a Vietnam vet runs away to find a safe place to finish dying, this is where he goes. And some summers, his kid visits.

 

Life Tips

“Meet me at the boat. Full day charter, so 4:30,” he says. “I’ll give you some money for tomorrow. Gobs. Unless the motherfuckers don’t tip.”

“Cool,” I say, because he’s the coolest person I know. Whichever guys aren’t dead from Lynyrd Skynyrd come to Key West a lot and my dad told me they’ll only fish with him. That’s how cool he is. I bet the living Lynyrd Skynyrds are good tippers.

He lets me do whatever I want, practically no questions asked, because I’m twelve this summer. I have the run of the island all day until the boat backs into the slip. Today I’m taking yesterday’s money and riding his bike to the Kino factory to get a new pair of sandals. Navy blue. I already have black and two different kinds of brown.

I go to Fausto’s to get some lunch–a bag of Munchos, three Hershey bars (just regular, not king size), and a Mountain Dew. Then I ride to the Yellow Strawberry for a spiral perm. I tip five dollars. I hope that’s good.

I’m right on time. At 4:30 he’s slamming fish–all kinds and all sizes–onto a row of spikes. That way tourists can see they’ll get their money’s worth by booking this boat. Let me tell you, my dad and the captain have killer skills. Last year they caught a sailfish on a flip-flop.

Dad’s slamming fish extra hard today. The Motherfuckers didn’t tip and he couldn’t sell them a mount, either. But he notices my spiral perm and tells me he’s grateful I’m pretty like my mother instead of ugly like him. He says that all the time. He reminds me again that my mom was the most beautiful woman in our home town and that’s why he had to marry her even though she already had four boys. Lucky. Being pretty is important. Essential, maybe. I need to start trying harder.

Just because I was coming down–just for me–my dad got a car. A conch cruiser, he’s calling it. It smells like Kool Filter Kings, fish rot, and old beer that’s pooled in almost-empties all over the floor.

How don’t cans fall through that rusted out hole? How don’t we die from the fumes? There was a similar hole in my mom’s old brown Pinto. But then she married my stepdad and he bought her a barely-used Mercury Monarch. Baby blue. So pretty. My stepdad is an average tipper. He’s the kind of guy who believes in saving money for the future. But that’s easier to do when you’re a well-to-do high school teacher.

There’s no fishing trip booked tomorrow. It’s not Season so that happens. And we’re broke, just temporarily, so we hang out with Dad’s cats and he microwaves me some dolphin that The Motherfuckers didn’t take with them. It’s perfect.

I’m glad the conch cruiser’s out of gas because later we walk together to the docks so he can shout “Let’s go fishing tomorrow!” at tourists who pass by. Other mates and captains are doing the same thing. Eventually they stop yelling and just drink beer and whiskey. It’s fun because they tell jokes and swear a lot. Fucking everything. My mom’s head would explode into pieces and then the exploded pieces would explode. That’s how much they swear.

It’s dark. We walk to Burger King on the boulevard to use the pay phone. I’m wearing my new Kinos and I can’t stop looking at them while we walk. Nobody else in my class back home has them because they’re exotic island sandals you can only get on this exotic island. Nobody else’s dad lives here. Only mine.

I promise my mom that I’m safe and happy, because I am, then I hand my dad the Burger King payphone receiver. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Yeah I take her to church. St. Che Che’s!” he slurs to my mom. “Uh-huh, yeah, it’s a Spanish saint. Heh!” He’s cracks himself up because he thinks my mom can’t figure out that Che Che’s is his favorite creepy-old-man bar.

They love him at Che Che’s because he’s not one of the creepy old men and because he’s hilarious and because he’s a good tipper. It’s important.

I’m thinking about moving here except my dad says I’m not allowed to for a lot of reasons–mostly because he’s no good. He said I can ask my mom all about that. But I don’t think my mom knows he’s no good, because she’s never said a bad word about him in my whole life.

10 Comments »

Beating the rush

I grew up with a lot of structure. We didn’t miss a day of Catholic school unless we were hospitalized, and I mean that literally. Puking? Bring a bucket. My mom and stepdad were dedicated teachers who couldn’t bail on their classes at the last minute to stay home every time a kid sneezed. My perfect attendance for first through twelfth grades was soiled solely by that week I spent in the hospital in junior high. But I went on to have perfect attendance for all four years of high school. I was the poster child for compulsory education. (Nonetheless, to this day, I count on my fingers. So much for quantity.)

My school days were followed by afternoons and evenings rushing from activity to activity. There were both group and private lessons for dance, music, and voice. There was Girl Scouting, karate, theater, 4-H, and some other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. Point is, I learned all about keeping a schedule. And I’m grateful, by the way, for all the sacrifices my parents made to give us every advantage they could afford, and many they couldn’t, but did it anyway. My biggest takeaway was how important it is to do your very best for your family–whatever that means to you.

But guess what. I’m no better structured as an adult than anybody else in the world. In fact, by the time I turned 30, I resented structure so much that I quit life as I knew it, packed up my family and ran away to a subtropical island. Most of you know that story. Real life followed me, of course, but during the process, I went off-script and slowed down enough to think about what I really wanted my life to look like, from the inside out, instead of the other way around.

So when people wonder about the potential detriment I’m causing my youngest son by unschooling him, I feel bad about the energy they’re wasting worrying about his unstructured, unrushed life. To answer the questions I see in your eyes (along with the ones you ask me outright), our slow, mostly unplanned days look something like this:

We send Dad off to work and sister off to a school she loves and at which she thrives. He knows that’s an option for him, too, if he wants to go back someday. He also knows there are all kinds of families, including those with two parents who go away to work every day. He comprehends (at his own level) that we have less than some families because only one parent gets paid a living wage for working right now. It’s a choice we make.

In the morning, I try to write (my Job job) while my son plays Minecraft and Terraria, and sometimes a little Scribblenauts. He loves to stop and YouTube new techniques, then go back and implement what he’s learned. He asks me to type or read the words he struggles with. I see him making progress with typing and reading at his own pace, when it means something to him.

He’d also like to play Dumb Ways to Die, which is a no for now because it’s too far outside my own comfort zone. But those kinds of requests spark good conversation. He forms arguments that start like, “Mom, seriously, it’s not real. It’s actually a bit hilarious and that’s it.” He’s right. I need to spend some time thinking about the root of my fears.

As a kindergarten dropout, he has lots of time and freedom to form and articulate whatever case he wants to make on any subject. And he’s getting better at integrating feedback into his arguments. That’s a real-life skill. One that’s nearly impossible to develop in a classroom of 20+ kids his own age who are largely shushed all day so that “real” learning can occur. What he’d learn there (at too high a cost for this child, from my perspective) is how to survive in a classroom setting.

There’s lots of affection and affirmation during our day. I’m not afraid of spoiling him that way. Natural consequences of his actions throughout his life will teach him enough about losing and about when being tough matters more than being kind.

My son sees me reading during the day and knows it’s something I value. Sometimes we read together. I encourage him to read but I back off immediately when he’s not into it.

Some days we go to the grocery store. He helps with price comparison and with the cash or credit card machine. He takes the receipt and thanks the cashier. He says things like, “Welp, it was sure nice to see ya today.” It’s slow but people are generally patient. And I like that he’s comfortable interacting with people of all ages.

He also helps tend the lime tree out back. We need to figure out why it won’t grow even though it produces limes like mad. We think it might be a sunlight issue so we moved it. Now we wait and see.

Some days we paint or draw or write to a pen pal or walk down to the ocean or go to the park. Some days we don’t. Sometimes he plays with Legos for what seems like hours on end. Some days he Skypes grandparents who listen with superhuman patience as he describes his creations in painstaking detail. When they can get a word in, they ask good thinking questions.

Speaking of questions, my son asks them all day long. So we stop what we’re doing to talk about (and often Google or YouTube answers to) things like: Is the whole Earth really just about staying alive? When will the Earth die? Is Mother Nature a ghost? How do you make plastic? How are marrying hugs different from regular love hugs? If you throw lava into outer space, will it just turn into shards of obsidian right away? We’re learning that some sources of information on the Internet are better than others.

Yesterday we finished painting a Hotwheels ramp then we tried again to glue together the pathetic Hotwheels garage we’re trying to make. He says we’re going to need nails. I think he’s right. Before we started, we brainstormed then took a trip to Home Depot for supplies. When we got there, we compared sizes and prices of items. He watched me struggle to cut wood with a hand saw, begging all the while to help. That was a no, too, for which he had many good arguments, all of which I considered. None of which outweighed safety concerns.

On the way home, he helped me pump gas. We talked about the gallons and the price. He knows about how much money it costs to fill the tank. As it happens, we encounter a lot of math word problems, only they’re in real life, presented at a time it’s relevant to him, because that’s the only time we really retain new information. (That’s why it takes about five minutes to sum up everything you actually retained from 13 years in a classroom. Go ahead, try it.)

I have no idea if he’s “behind” or “ahead of” the average kindergartner. And I don’t care about measuring him at this point. Americans love to measure, don’t we? We love to see where we rank. But our measurement tools are so broken that the results don’t mean very much to me anymore.

There are no set meal times at our house. Same goes for bed time. My kids have learned through trial and error to listen to their bodies. This makes a lot of people twitchy, I know. Right now, the unschooler is falling asleep around 9:30 and waking up around 7:30. Ten hours of unprovoked rest seems adequate. But on days when something exciting keeps him up late, he pays the next day by feeling icky and crabby, and we talk about why that happened.

If this child grows up to be an unhappy, unsuccessful adult, will we blame his early unschooling experience? I don’t know. What do we blame for the overflowing prison system full of people who went to traditional schools?

Our days don’t have much structure, but they’re calm, good days. I can’t imagine we’ll ever regret this peaceful living experiment, even if he chooses a traditional classroom environment in the future. And if there’s only one thing my son takes with him to adulthood from these early unschooled years, I hope it’s that THERE IS NO RUSH. Humans invented The Rush, and no matter how poorly it serves us during our single shot at life, it’s hard to leave it behind. I mean, what will people think?

21 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: