Back in high school I spent a lot of time with my friend Jim. Jim was a few years old than me. He had an old Saab he’d bought cheap and we liked to drive around listening to music and maybe smoking a little weed. I said “maybe” and “a little,” ok?
Anyway. Back then, we mostly listened to Rush. My favorite Rush album was (and remains) 2112. I guess you’d call 2112 a “concept” album, or at least the first half of it, which consists of an uninterrupted 20-minute expanse of music that tells of a dystopian future in which a commoner stumbles upon an acoustic guitar long after such instruments have been judged frivolous and thus jettisoned somewhere between now and then.
The lyrics begin like this:
“We’ve taken care of everything/the words you read the songs you sing/the pictures that give pleasure to your eye/It’s one for all and all for one/We work together common sons/never need to wonder how or why.”
I liked 2112 so much, I think, because it fit my worldview at the time, which was largely oriented around an acute sense of disempowerment related primarily to my schooling. (It’s probably telling that another of my favorite songs was a Bad Brains number called The Regulator, a one-minute, seven-second hardcore punk riff on, well, being regulated). This is how I described my relationship to high school in Home Grown:
Did I hate school? Well, yes, I suppose so, but only in aggregate. There were elements of it I liked very much. For instance, I liked hanging out in the parking lot with my friends. That was a lot of fun, or at least, it fit my version of fun at the time. I liked Creative Writing, one of the few classes I rarely cut. I liked my physics class, not because I liked Physics (I flunked it, along with Algebra, Calculus, History, and French) but because Tom, my teacher, was something of an oddball. He smelled horrific, wearing the accumulation of his fetid perspiration like a badge of honor. But despite the odor, and despite my flailing half attempts to succeed in his class, there were compensations, such as the time he encouraged my friend Django and me to paint an old steel barrel with the international warning symbol for nuclear waste and leave it in a conspicuous place on school grounds. In no way could I discern how this had anything to do with physics.
“Why?” we asked him.
He raised his walrus-ian eyebrows into inverted V’s. “To see what happens,” he replied.
We jettisoned the barrel in a shallow depression at the edge of one of the playing fields, after which followed a sleepless night listening to the Bad Brains and fretting over the legal ramifications of creating counterfeit toxic waste. What special sort of wrath might the law reserve for a couple of sixteen-year-olds with an old barrel, a can of spray paint, and an ingrained sense of mischief? At two thirty a.m., in the lonely darkness of my childhood bedroom, my imagination ran toward long years of solitary confinement in the sort of juvenile facilities that are, at some point in the distant future, revealed to have been riddled with abuse.
The following morning, the barrel was gone. Django and I waited anxiously for news of its discovery, but none came, and for reasons I still do not understand, this delighted Tom.
Despite these shenanigans and despite the pleasure I derived from my creative writing class, the prevailing theme of my truncated high school career was one of simple boredom. And with it, a sense of my time being wasted, of my life slipping through my young fingers. In class after class, I slumped in my chair, quietly seething at my captors and, more broadly, at the unquestioned assumption that I should be held captive in the first place. Where was the relevance in what I was learning? In what ways might it inform and improve my life outside the context of school? It felt to me as if the entire experience was unfolding in a vacuum and that, once I graduated, the seal on the vacuum would burst, and I would be helplessly sucked into the real world, for which my schooling had done little to prepare me. I think this feeling frightened me, although I doubt I would have admitted so at the time.
Restlessly, I would shift my gaze from the algebraic equations scrawled across the chalkboard to the fields and forest and sky that for the majority of my waking hours remained achingly out of reach beyond the classroom’s plate glass windows which, for all their transparency, felt like nothing so much as the bars of a prison cell. What was I looking for? Nothing in particular, frankly. Nothing more than simple escape, a refuge from captivity, where the information I was being forced to memorize and recite (as if the latter were proof of having learned something) felt as if it mattered only against the backdrop of school.
Again I must return to the article I quoted from a few days back:
Education and upbringing is a hallmark example of the extent to which the system of control has saturated our lives, bodies and minds. We do not realize is how extensively our way of seeing the world and more importantly; how we see ourselves in it, is a direct result of our upbringing and education. As Ivan Illich, the author of “Deschooling Society” puts it: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”
I think Illich is precisely right in the above quote: School is the advertising agency which makes us believe that we need the society as it is, and it is incredibly effective precisely because so few parents (but interestingly, maybe not so few children) recognize this. I wonder if this is ultimately why I felt so disempowered by it: It was trying to force me to accept a view of myself, the world, and the confluence of the two that did not jibe with what I felt and understood to be true. I also wonder if this is why some people are so threatened by the notion of children being reared in the absence of compulsory “learning”: It is not merely a repudiation of their views on education, it’s a repudiation of their views on life.
Or – and I’m guessing this might be closer to the truth – maybe they’re so threatened precisely because on some level, they do recognize the extent to which the system of control has saturated their lives. They recognize it, but it is simply too frightening to acknowledge. They are too immersed it in to see a way out, and therefore, they will do whatever they can to make themselves comfortable within its confines. I guess maybe we all do this to a certain extent, no?
Even among those parents who do see the messaging implicit to compulsory institutional education, fewer still have the luxury of choosing differently. Or maybe they are simply too afraid for their children’s economic futures to choose differently – I’ve heard some variation of this theme from numerous parents. I know it’s not great, but how else will he get into college? Who will hire her? Etc, etc. Pragmatism over passion, though I suppose the two needn’t always be mutually exclusive.
For those of us who have chosen a different path, the challenge is that we forever exist on the fringes. For most families, school creates a default community. It offers a way to pass the days, a place for children to go while parents are working or otherwise engaged. This I hear a lot, too: I’d love to homeschool my children, but I could never spend that much time with them. That’s what I was thinking of yesterday when I wrote about working alongside, talking to, and learning from our children. That’s not something many parents know how to do these days. I know I’m still figuring it out. But my point, really, is that by opting out of school, you’re not merely opting out of school, and whether you believe that is for the better or the worse, it is no small thing.
I am meandering, now, losing sight of my message, so I guess I’ll pull the old writer’s trick of circling around to the beginning, running in that old Saab with Jim. As you know, I dropped out of school, while Jim went on to a technical college, before ultimately founding a solar installation business. He was smart enough to see what school could offer him, the stuff he needed to know to do the stuff he wanted to do. I don’t think he felt as trapped or disempowered as I did. It’d be interesting to ask him about it now, but I can’t, because he died a few years ago. His heart just up and quit while he was sleeping.
A few months before he died, Jim invited me to a Rush concert in Saratoga Springs. I demurred, so his wife went with him instead. They had a great time, and though there’s part of me that wishes I could claim the memory of my friend and me at the concert, pumping our fists and singing along to 2112, there’s another part of me that figures his wife deserves to remember that at least as much as I do.