The Teacher and the Unschoolers

When I talk about my family’s story of alternative education, one of the things that people often find surprising is that my dad worked as a public high school biology teacher for 35 years. I think a lot of people have interpreted that as a sign that my parents were “qualified” to teach their own kids. Of course, most of the things I’ve gotten from my dad are less specific than an understanding of cell structure… Most of what I’ve learned from him is simply what I’ve learned from him as a person and a parent.

But, what is in fact surprising about my mom being an early unschooler, and my dad having a career in the very system she had walked away from, is that the contrast of their work in education was not necessarily vibrantly discussed in our home. In a sense, they both pursued their work, and raised their family together, and the paradox of the teacher-dad and the unschooler-mom just worked out. As an adult, I am more aware of the contrasts in their views on schools and learning.

mom&dad

I spent this past weekend with my folks and had the opportunity to interview my dad. We had a great conversation, and I have been contemplating his story, and his vantage point on being a student and being a teacher. In comparison to my mother, my father’s voice is the more mainstream perspective. And it comes along with some of the contradictions we all see in the mainstream conversations on education and school. He recognizes the issues in the current status quo, but remains mostly committed to its structure. As the global economy rapidly evolves around us, there remains a cultural and paradigm attachment to the tradition of our schools, and the role of students and teachers within them.

My father’s childhood was very different from my mother’s upbringing in Southern California. My dad was born in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1950. He was the middle son of three boys, born to first-generation American parents, with grandparents from “the old country.” His mother, father and uncles were all in WWII, and there was a sense of pride and nationalism that came from those oral histories of struggle and triumph. His childhood was a working-class picturesque Americana — going fishing, playing in the woods, Little League, building snow forts, all that stuff.

Then, when he was 14 years old, his parents left their big families and upstate New York and moved to California.

Lindsey: So you started high school in California, and it was a big lifestyle and cultural change.

Jim: Yeah, and for a while… I don’t want to say I was bullied, but I was different, and they drew my attention to being different in school. I wore my hair different, you know, we used to put oil in our hair and kind of slick it back like the Fonz or something, and we dressed up nicer to go to school, because back east we were required to. In California everyone was wearing tennis shoes and jeans and T-shirts to school, and that was really weird. Everyone started to have that Beach Boys look, and I wasn’t there yet. I evolved into looking like everybody else; it was the fashion.

     But there was a transition, and for a while I was sort of ostracized.  What got me going and helped me make friends was being a good athlete. That’s all we did growing up, play sports, so I was really prepared.

Lindsey: So when you were a kid, before high school… Let’s say K-8, what was your feeling about school? Did you get good grades? Did you feel like a good student?

Jim: I did, yeah. Up to about 8th grade, I was a top student. I probably messed around a little; I was kind of a wise-guy, but grades were really easy. But when I got to high school, I really lost focus on that. I was so overwhelmed with sports; I didn’t have my priorities straight. I started thinking sports were more important than grades, which is obviously all turned around.

Lindsey: Was it turned around? Sports was how you got a scholarship for college. And for your family, at that time, I think getting a scholarship for college was a really big deal.

Jim: Yeah, but you can do both. You know, I had the brains to do both. You can be involved in sports and not get lazy with grades. But there were lots of other distractions, too. There were intense racial tensions at the high school back in the 60s. There were always fights, drama; there were race riots. There was a lot going on in those high school years, with the hippies, and the drugs, and playing sports – all the combination of stuff; it was a wild and mixed-up time. It was easy to get distracted. A lot of guys I knew turned to drugs; that was it for them. I don’t know where they ended up. And there was the Vietnam War… It was quite easy to get off base from the most important thing, which was school.

Talking to my dad, I considered the sentiment behind that statement. For him, school meant a way up the ladder, a way out of the working class and into the middle class. But being an athlete was a key element to that climb for him.

La Verne Football, number 32

He received a scholarship for La Verne College to play footfall. He was eighteen years old, playing half-back. Through early practices, before the season started, he was good enough that he was wondering if he should transfer to a more competitive football school. Then he got hurt.

Jim: It was the first game of the first year. It was actually the first time they gave me the ball!  I was in really good shape then; I was fearless, because I’d never been hurt before. When you’ve never been hurt, you play with reckless abandon, you know?  First game, I went in; I had a really good gain; I got like 15 yards. And I just got smeared – some guy hit me, and I felt something in my knee. And that was it for me and the season. I had surgery, crutches. I was devastated. Totally devastated.

Lindsey: That’s so sad. Did that throw your identity off for a while?

Jim: It did, but in the back of my mind, I was still going to try to play basketball, I just had to get my knee fixed first.

But I really fell into this academic slump. Nothing was interesting. I was going…these people are so boring, all the stuff they made us take that first semester. I was drowning. And I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. I thought I was doomed, you know? I was failing religion. I was failing the Old Testament. They wanted me to read the Bible; I wasn’t going to do that.

     Then we went on winter break, and second semester I took a life science class with Dr. Neher – I remember sitting in the big lecture hall, thinking, oh god, here we go…another one of these classes. And all of a sudden, Dr. Neher started talking, and I thought, well, maybe this is a cool class. And then the next life science class was even better, and the next class. I started to think, this guy is different. Just hearing him talk was like magic, and everything he was saying, I could really feel it. He talked a lot about the environment. He was talking about the north woods and stuff, because he was from back east, also. I felt like he was speaking to me, completely, you know? I got to the point where I was running to hear this guy talk. It wasn’t like a class; it was like a show. That’s how fun his class was for me.  I decided I was going to be a biology major. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but after that, it was all about caring. The one guy just turned a switch on; it was the strangest thing.

Lindsey: Were you still physically in recovery the second semester that first year? 

Jim: No, I did play freshman basketball.

Lindsey: So you were back into athletics, but…

Jim: Yeah, and I never completely got out of it. But after that one injury, it didn’t matter as much anymore. Before the injury, I was thinking about transferring and going to a bigger football college. After the injury, I realized, hey this is cool here…This isn’t a football school, this is a school, school. This is a place where I can get an education. I started to feel comfortable with a lot of different subjects, and it all started with Dr. Neher.

My dad discussed Dr. Neher’s class as the formative experience of having a teacher turn him onto the subject of life science. He talked about the hikes and field studies they would do, and how it connected to my father’s childhood experience of living near wilderness, and nature. We talked about how that appreciation and interest in the environment has informed our family’s passion for travel, which was an important part of our homeschooling experience.  But really, what I feel that my dad is describing when he talks about Dr. Neher is the moment that he was turned on to his interest in teaching, his interest in mentorship through education. And throughout my father’s career, being a mentor was a huge part of what he valued in his role as a teacher, beyond the subject that he taught.

My dad is a funny, charismatic guy. He likes people; he likes having an audience; he likes his students… But public high school is a punishing place. We discussed the issues of teaching to a test, and administrative pressure on teachers. We talked about the difference between teaching for real comprehension, and basic exposure to ideas, and the difference between teaching a required subject, and coaching sports with kids who are participating by choice.

In the end, I think my father feels that public education will never change radically, or change in a way that will reach everyone. I think he feels that change is slow and gradual, and that in the meantime it’s up to teachers to fight the good fight, to connect and inspire. And that it’s up to kids to play the game, and work hard, and figure out how to use what’s available to them.

Does that sound harsh? It certainly has a different tone from my mother’s vision, with her intellectual passion for re-imagining education in this country. But, when I talk to my dad, and talk to my friends, I realize there are a lot of people who are not in the business of re-imagining, but are still doing good work with what we have today.

me with dad

And what about homeschooling? How did my father square that, as a parent? What was it like to spend his career in a classroom environment his own kids would never experience?

Lindsey: Do you remember your early impression of homeschooling?

Jim: I didn’t want to do it; I was skeptical. I thought you guys would turn out to be misfits. But I always respected your mom’s ideas.

Lindsey: Mom remembers warning you that she was going to homeschool when you two were discussing starting a family.

Jim: I don’t remember the warning, and I probably didn’t care that much. (we laugh)

Lindsey: Yeah, it probably sounded pretty abstract, pre-parenting?

Jim: Well, yeah, but she was the smartest person I knew, so I figured anything she did… it would work out. As the years went by, I liked homeschooling more and more. It was going well, so I didn’t see the point of sending you to school.

Lindsey: So, do you think we should homeschool our kids?

Jim: Yeah, I mean, I’m sure you will.

That’s the funny thing about re-imagining — it’s not something everyone will do, but then again, everyone doesn’t have to do it. My mom re-imagined, so unschooling is my experience, and I have that to draw on. And that’s what this conversation is all about for me, asking these questions: Where are we now? Where have we been? Where are we going?