One of the best sessions I attended at NEU was the "Even More Different" talk led by Kathryn Baptista and Erika Davis-Pitre, about the experience of being a minority within a minority within a minority: unschoolers are minorities within homeschooling, but some of us - because of race, economic background, sexual orientation, family type, religious views, gender identity, etc. - are also minorities within unschooling. It was a fantastic talk overall, and I'll probably get several blog posts out of the things discussed there. But the biggest thing that got my attention was when Erika addressed an attitude that keeps cropping up in the unschooling community: the idea that there are no limitations, that life can be as awesome as you want it to be, that if bad things happen to you, you must be doing something wrong. Erika pointed out what should be the obvious, that bad things can happen to anyone.
I think most people who have this attitude think they're being optimists. I personally am a huge optimist, at least on good days, and I think positive thinking is incredibly powerful. But optimism does not grant superpowers. Life is good, but sometimes it isn't. People die, jobs are lost, natural disasters come, marriages end, haters beat you down with their -isms and phobias. A positive attitude, a joyful outlook on life, and a network of true friends are all things that will help to catch you when you fall, and that is an incredibly important thing to have. What they can't do, though, is allow you to bend the laws of gravity. Sometimes life pushes us down, and we fall.
All my life I've had the most gentle, attentive parents a kid could ask for, yet I can't say that I had an easy childhood. The tragedies of my family began long before I was thought of, before my mother was even old enough to think of me. It's easy for someone from a privileged background to believe they can create their reality with positive thoughts. But apart from being white and having loving parents, I come from no kind of privilege. I come from a family with a long history of poverty, divorce, mental illness, early death, and an inherited tendency toward anxiety, shyness, and a dysthymic sort of ennui. I come from a grandmother who once walked into a hotel just to knock the lights out, and a grandfather who once shot a phone because it kept ringing. These stories are funny, as I tell them at parties, but they speak of an instability that runs through my genes as surely as shortness and dark wavy hair. Throw in my uncle's death at 20 in a car he wasn't driving, and my mother's schizophrenia and teenage struggle with what was probably Reye syndrome, and you've got a pretty bleak picture. And this is only the story up to the 70s. Once I came along you can throw in my dad's absence and the subsequent food stamps and welfare checks, my grandfather's death when I was eight, my grandmother's refusal to leave her bed except to do chores and drive me places, and her eventual death when I was 17.
Perhaps as a cruel joke from the gods, I also came out queer, mildly autistic, and non-Christian.
We live in the rural South. I'm going to Hell, I've been told, though the people who say this have done a good job of creating Hell for me right here and now, thus saving me the travel expense.
I tell all this not to elicit pity, but to illustrate why even the years I spent unschooling, living free and following my passions and sleeping and eating exactly when I felt like it, were also filled with pain and depression and a very real sense that the world didn't want me around to sully its reputation. The world told me that I was a leech and a sinner, and that my mom, who is perhaps the gentlest person in the world, should be locked up somewhere. I heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages coming from everywhere saying I shouldn't have been born. My suicidal ideation came not from the sense that I wanted to die, but from the sense that I did not deserve to live. My mom could tell me over and over that I was fine just like I was, but she couldn't get the whole world to shut up and leave me alone. The fact that she didn't add to the chorus of disapproval was immensely helpful, but she couldn't silence it. She didn't have that power.
Leaving school helped a lot. My new freedom was deeply healing, and allowed me to eventually become a pretty happy person. What would not have helped was if someone had told me that I create my own reality. That probably would have just made me feel like even more of a fuck-up, since obviously everyone else had created a better reality than mine. When the world shits on someone, telling them they're entirely responsible for whatever happens to them is abusive. "Your thoughts create your reality" is the new age version of "Your daughter was born blind because of your past sins". Really. If you want to encourage optimism in someone, show them how good the world can be. Bring them to new sources of joy, show them possibilities they haven't seen before, introduce them to people who felt their same pain and survived. Love them unconditionally. Tell them they deserve better than this crap.
But please, please don't bristle at the fact that they're not bubbling fountains of joy. I realize unschoolers are subject to the pressure that all minority groups face, to make ourselves look good so the outside world can't scoff so easily at us. But in the process, we run the risk of excluding anyone who "makes us look bad": people with special needs who don't learn as easily, people who have pain in their lives, people whose kids are unhappy no matter what they do. Automatically assuming that anyone whose life isn't sunshine and rainbows must be doing something wrong doesn't do them any favors, and it adds to the perception of unschooling as a privileged thing that is only accessible to white upper-class hippies. That's a perception we really need to work on tearing down if we want all unschoolers to feel welcome and accepted. Unschooling isn't utopia, it's just life. It's a wonderful, free life, but it's not a perfect life. The real beauty of unschooling lies not in perfect bliss, but in the throwing off of unnecessary frustrations so we can save our energy for the unavoidable ones. We can't show that beauty to people who are contemplating unschooling, though, unless we show our frustrations along with our joys.