Academia After Unschooling: A Homeschooled College Teacher

My friend Nina and I met when I was thirteen. We became friends at that young-teen moment when your friendships are the most important thing in the world. And, being BFFs at that age when you’re unschooled also means you have an incredible amount of time to spend together.

Nina would spend whole weeks at my house, sometimes. When we were a little older, we talked our parents into letting us take a train up to Northern California to stay with family friends; another time we traveled on a Greyhound bus up to Oregon and back. The summer before I transferred from community college to a four-year school, Nina and I met in Europe and backpacked together for six weeks through six countries.

As adults, Nina remains one of my most important friends. We grew up together. And we grew up relatively similarly, compared to so many of my friends, because of unschooling.

Nina and me in Oregon, we were probably about 17 years old here

Nina and me on a trip to Oregon, we were probably about 17 years old here

Nina is an anthropologist, and she currently teaches at a community college in Southern California. She also happens to be married to a math professor! They’re both amazing.

I wanted to interview Nina and share her perspective and experiences as a grown unschooler who has chosen an immersive life in academia as an adult.

It was a long interview, so I am sharing it in two parts! Here’s Part 1 of our conversation:

Lindsey: To get us started, remind me of how your family came to unschooling to begin with. Your parents were both in education, like mine, right?

Nina: Well, my dad got his teaching credential after my brother and I were born. My brother was already school-age and not going to school. My mom made herself an educator out of being a homescooler / unschooler parent, I think.

Homeschooling was largely my mom’s idea, formed out of her own experiences as a school kid and, maybe, my brother having a personality that was obviously not going to mesh with “the system.” My mom also read a lot of John Holt, I know.

LM: Ok, so that was in the early 1980s. Early on. Before homeschooling became mainstream at all. Remind me what kind of work your mom was doing before having kids?

N: She tried a lot of different things. She studied philosophy in college, tried law school for a while, went to Germany to study German literature… Before my brother and I were born, my parents lived in a cabin in the middle of the Ozarks for a year…

My mom, self-described, worked jobs mostly to build up enough money to go traveling or do something else for a while.

LM: Right. I like that…

So, this is kind of a weird question, but how did you enjoy unschooling in your childhood? I mean, to the extent you had that kind of self-reflection? I know you decided to try school at some point; what age were you, and what were you interested in when you decided to go to school?

N: Well, unschooling was absolutely the norm for a long time and didn’t even need questioning. I had a local homeschooling group I was in from about 4 – 8 years old… before we went to the group where me and you met. And my interest in trying public school can definitely be traced to the disbanding of the homeschool support group and me starting to hang out a lot with neighborhood kids that went to public school. I don’t know whether it was my age or what – I was nine or ten.

LM: Was your interest in school primarily socially driven, then? Or were you interested in learning in a classroom environment?

I was always interested in the social scene of school, as a kid, but during conversations with my older sister, I was surprised how interested in more traditional and structured learning she was, even as a kid.

N: It wasn’t socially driven in the sense that I felt peer pressure, but it was socially driven in the sense that I realized, almost for the first time, that I was growing up with an extraordinarily different childhood than most people and… all those families couldn’t all be wrong, could they?

LM: Ah – interesting…

N: But, I didn’t specifically dislike aspects of homeschooling, I was just curious about how different school might be. What it could offer.

LM: And how did you like it? It was 5th grade?

N: Yeah. It was bizarre. Truly alien and bizarre.

I remember the bell ringing at the end of recess and learning that the rule was everyone was supposed to freeze until another bell sounded and we all lined up to go into our classrooms. I was like… what is this strange ritual? If we’re supposed to go into our classrooms at a certain time, why don’t we just go into our classrooms?

There were things a really liked, though. I liked the accolades I got for being a good and attentive student. That was like crack. Gold stars, special groups, good grades… my parents followed a philosophy that we should be self-motivated. So we didn’t get a lot of either disapproval or approval “academically.”

LM: So, if you liked those things, why did you not continue with school?

N: Well yeah, I liked those things, and I liked some of the resources… science labs and science field trips mostly (I actually ended up going to a really highly rated public school… bussed in by lottery… instead of going to the probably not-so-good one in my neighborhood). But, ultimately, the novelty just wore off. I was very conflicted. I agonized for a month at least about whether to quit. I begged my mom to make the decision for me, but she wouldn’t do it. In the end I was in for…maybe 7 months?

LM: How was the transition back to unschooling after that? Did you feel a sense of… boredom or aimlessness, not being told what to do?

N: No. I recall it being bliss. Actually my mom, brother, and I all went to Guatemala for a month to visit a friend of my mom’s and study at a language school, so I was busy. But even after that, I recall being very satisfied with my decision to leave school, once I was out. At least for a year or so. Then I started to get frustrated, as a pre-teen / young teen, by not knowing enough people and not having enough activities.

LM: Well, I’m so glad you came back to homschooling – we wouldn’t have met, otherwise!

N: Yes, that’s when we met! At the homeschooling group.

LM: Yeah, I was totally burnt out on homeschooling as a young teen, too… meeting you and our other best friend at that age quenched the frustration for a while. But I started researching “alternative” schools from the age 13 until I began community college at age 16. I was ready for something new during that chapter, but I didn’t know what.

You began attending community college before I did. What age did you begin, and what did you study?

The second half of our conversation focuses on her experience as a student in college, and experience as a teacher of college today. To be continued…