Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shit happens. Even to unschoolers.

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.

Shit happens.

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.


Idzie Desmarais said...

Bonnie, I love this post. It's powerful, and, I believe, very important for people to hear! I really liked the Even More Different discussion as well, and was happy that Erika brought up the issue you're talking about here. She has so many important insights, and I'm happy to hear your thoughts on one of them!

By the way, it was lovely hanging out with you. :-)

Idzie P.S I hope this makes sense. I'm soooo tired!

ps pirro said...

Loved this. Especially this:

"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."

Life is life. Sometimes it's awesome. Sometimes bad shit happens. Yes. Even to us unschoolers. Thanks for saying so.

Unknown said...

I really like this post, and especially this sentence:

"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."

I've been thinking a lot today about the common criticism of unschooling that goes: "Children need to learn that not everything in life is going to be fun and that sometimes they are going have to do things they don't want to do." Does it follow that we should add more difficulty to their lives just to make double sure they learn to live with frustration? Life is already hard. I don't understand the logic behind trying to make it less hard by making it more hard, in order to "teach coping skills." Your sentence describes so well why it's okay to give kids happy lives, or as happy as you can. What better skill to learn than how to "throw off the unnecessary frustrations" of life--by doing just that!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for writing this honest and true post Bonnie. There are so many things here I want to quote. So much I've wanted to say that you cover!

And the way you honestly talk about your own "not so perfect" life, family, and environment inspires me to do the same.

And you're absolutely right that it doesn't help for people to say, "You always completely create your own reality." And it doens't help unschooling to pretend that it solves every problem.

Basically it takes care of a lot of unnecessary problems and if you do have enough privilege and luck you can choose to ignore all the others. But I just wonder why you would want to?

You have to cut yourself off from so much of the beauty and excitement of the world to live in that bubble.

Ya, it was great to hang out with you at the Northeast Unschooling Conference and I look forward to reading more.

(I tried to leave a comment before and it didn't work! so I'll try again!)

Unschoolers Rock the Campground said...

Great post, Bonnie.
I wasn't at that talk, so I especially love hearing a bit about it. Especially with such openness and honesty.

Deanne said...

"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'."

Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you so much for writing this post.

Sylvia said...

I love the abundance of blog postings after conference 'season' and yours is golden, Bonnie!

Mandy said...

Thank you for this post. I just discovered your blog today... twice in my facebook feed! I am, first of all, so sorry to hear that Christians have contributed to your depression and misery. That shouldn't happen. Ever. Makes me sad in so many ways.

Also, I have a husband who is always telling me that I create my own reality and that I have a self fulfilling prophecy when it comes to people not liking me because I push them away. But I'm just not buying it. I think people treat me badly because of their own issues and then I push them away because I have KEEN instincts. My instincts are almost always right.

I will be back to read more from you. I'm an unschooler too. I'd love to see you around on my blog too :)