Vickie Bergman blogs about education and parenting at Demand Euphoria.
It's like someone hands you a train schedule when you are five years old, and it shows the plan for every day of the next thirteen to seventeen years of your life. The stops are laid out, the timetable is set.
There is only one set of tracks for your school train. The same for everyone. They tell you this is the only way to get between stops, where you are tested to make sure the train is on schedule. Sometimes you might see a shortcut to the next stop, or a nice sidewalk or winding wooded path running along the tracks. You say "Look, that path goes to the same place we are going anyway. Can I use it instead for a bit?" They say that's not the right way. You have to get there the same way as everyone else, at the same time.
You have to ride the train with all other kids who are the same age as you, whether you like them or not. Sometimes, if your train is small enough, you end up spending years and years with this same group of kids. Even if you hate them, because they treat you like garbage, and make you feel like you don't matter. You might really want to go sit with your sister, who loves you, whose train is a year ahead of you on the tracks, but that is not allowed.
It will be decided for you very early on if you get to sit in the front of the school train or the middle or the back. Once the decision has been made, it will be very difficult to switch cars. You end up feeling like you must be where you belong. All the cars take the same time to move between stops, but the kids in the front always get there first, and the kids in the back always last. It is made quite clear that it's better to get there first.
Sure, there will be some (planned) "destinations" along the way, where you get to get off the train for a set amount of time. Maybe you are one of the lucky kids, for whom weekends and summers are actually destinations, places to stop moving, or at least to move in the vehicle of your own choosing, at your own pace. But maybe you are a kid whose weekends and summers involve more trains, maybe with a choice about which trains to ride, which sport train or which art-or-music-themed train. But still with little or no choice about the direction or the pace.
While riding any train, you have to do what the conductor says. Stop when he wants to stop, go when he wants to go. You might get new conductors every year, and sometimes multiple conductors will rotate through each day. Some of them will be amazing people, who will inspire you. Others will be mean, make you feel stupid. They all have different expectations of how the ride is supposed to go. You are expected to know this, and adapt to each one. To know what each one requires of you and be able to give it, even on your worst days. If you don't follow the rules on the train, they might kick you off. You might be relieved that you are getting off, until you realize they are only taking you to another train.
You watch the real world fly by you out the windows, and it looks like a blur. You might catch a glimpse of something that looks interesting and say, "Excuse me, can we stop for a minute? I saw something cool out there." But they say they can't make unplanned stops. That would make the whole train late. When you finally realize how futile it is to ask, you might find ways to sneak off and get to a destination on your own. Or you might just stop looking out the window.
The worst part of these train rides is where they drop you off at the end: your parents' house! This whole time, they were telling you how important it was to stay on schedule. Now you are back where you started. With a lot of knowledge about riding trains, and maybe not much else. They say go now, find your passion. You say "Now? But that's what I wanted to do all along and you... Never mind."
At this point, you might find that you are one of the really lucky ones who has managed to figure out at least one thing you are passionate about in school or in spite of school. Good for you.
Or you might get off at this point and have no idea how to live off of a train. You might have forgotten that it's even possible to live without a train, a timetable, a conductor. You will keep hopping from job train to job train, hoping to find one that makes you happy, or at least one that doesn't make you miserable. Or maybe you will stay on one that makes you miserable, because you realize that they are all inherently the same. It's just easier to stay on the one you're already on.
Or you might get off a train at 18 or 22 or 25 or 35, and say "Wow. That sucked." You might spend the rest of your life trying to avoid trains. You might be able to make up for the time you lost, and find some passion after all. Good luck to you.
Editor's note: Vicki Bergman eloquently summarizes the issue many of us had with traditional schooling. Vicki is an unschooling mom who will be sharing her insights here on The Innovative Educator blog. Check out Vicki's blog, Demanding Euphoria where she explains why for her family, happiness isn't enough. She "Demands Euphoria" and provides insights into how unschooling is a key ingredient to achieving her demands.