In all our years of living and growing without coercive, compulsory education, reactions from others have included complete support, concern, pushback, good questions, loaded questions, skeptical fascination, hasty judgments, and polite rejection. But we had never been directly accosted by a stranger about it until last night.
Our building is a mix of full-time residents and part-timers who rent their places out while they’re not here in Key West, Florida. My son loves the interaction with visitors from all over the world and has our trust and the freedom to strike up conversations without a parent by his side. He loves playing with other kids of all ages but he also loves chatting with adults. Part of that is his personality and part of that comes from escaping unnatural age/grade hierarchy and teacher/adult worship culture. He’s learning that while adults generally have more experience, they really aren’t experts at life. And last night, he took an accelerated graduate seminar on the topic of adults with low self-worth who buoy themselves by bullying kids.
The vast majority of people in the world are good. I know that. The kid knows that. The risk-to-gain analysis usually makes interactions with strangers worthwhile for him and things normally go very well. So for him to be hanging out with (or near) a group of adults in the hot tub is no biggie.
I was swimming in the pool, nearby enough to hear that the conversation had become between just one dude and my kid, and that it was getting louder. I couldn’t make out the words, so I decided to make my way closer, not necessarily to intervene, but to assess the dynamic. But the look on another woman’s face said, “If he’s yours, swim faster. This guy is a prick.” Later, I wondered why none of the other adults in the hot tub had intervened. Instead, they’d stayed quiet and let it play out. It’s nobody else’s responsibility, but I feel confident I wouldn’t let a person (of any age) be verbally assaulted in front of me without saying something.
When I got there, I thought de-escalation was the best approach, so I smiled, sat down, and said, “Hi there! What’s up?”
“You his mother?”
“Yeah. Are you having trouble getting a word in? He can really hold his own,” I said, still smiling, still hoping to de-escalate with a safe-enough joke that I knew wouldn’t embarrass my son.
“No, he can’t. He’s the one having trouble getting a word in,” he said, pointing to my kid.
“I was stuttering,” my son said, eyes locked on mine, like stuttering meant he deserved this. He sometimes pauses mid-word and experiences echolalia, especially under stress. It’s not uncommon with Tourette Syndrome (which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with why we unschool — we began our self-directed journey well before symptoms were present).
“Wow,” I said to the manbaby across the hot tub, then turned to my son and said, “Let’s go.”
My son ran back to the pool. I took my time getting out because I felt dizzy.
“So is he home-educated or not?” he demanded of me as I was leaving.
“We’re not home much,” I said.
“But does he even know math?” he demanded again, irritated with me and clearly unsatisfied with my son’s answers to his gotcha pop-quiz. “Math” is always a sticking point for detractors, isn’t it? (Nevermind that I had an expensive private school education, went on to graduate school, and still count on my fingers.)
“He’s self-directed. He knows what he wants to know, like everybody else. For example, he knows when to quit, unlike many adults,” I said, referring to him. By now it was only this guy and his partner left in the hot tub. She was stone silent but looked mortified. (Later, I think I heard them fighting–him on their balcony, her inside yelling out the door.)
Captain Obnoxious said some other things that I can’t entirely remember because I was admittedly kind of shocked (and still a bit dizzy from the heat). I ended simply with, “We didn’t come here to be quizzed,” and went back to the pool. Engagement would’ve served no one and a safe exit was my priority.
My son wanted to dissect the situation right there in the shallow end because that’s his nature. So we talked about how he doesn’t owe other people (especially angry, hostile people) an explanation about how he learns and that it’s not his job to convince anybody. I apologized for my part in leaving him in a position to feel he had to defend himself that way. We also talked about the bystander effect, which he’s coincidentally been interested in lately. The people who said nothing in and near the hot tub served as a perfect example.
Forensically, I learned more about how the man had been grilling and belittling my son in ways that make me want to find him again and do something I’d probably regret. I haven’t lost faith in humanity and won’t attempt to alter his freedom, but my parental protective instincts are definitely getting some exercise.
I want so much to be able to say it was no big deal and that I crushed the guy, but that would just be posturing since I’m obviously still shaken about it after a fitful night. And I didn’t crush him. He crushed me. Hurting a child is an easy and cowardly way to crush a parent.
As I was writing this, my son sat down next to me, read a little, and said, “If that mean guy last night was born in the 1800s, I bet he would’ve fought for the Confederacy.”
I couldn’t help but agree and we had a good laugh. And then we thought together about all the discussions we’ve had over the past two days alone, purely because he was curious about them. In complete honesty, I think we both needed to take inventory and feel some comfort and reassurance about it all, and that’s okay. Doubt creeps in, even for us, because we’re only human and live in a largely schooled society with near-constant pressure to conform. Sometimes being different is hard and takes courage. That’s life.
And because I turn everything into an unschooling commercial, here’s a small sampling, off the cuff, of what he’s been curious enough to learn more about over the past couple of days:
What can happen when a leader likes power but not responsibility?
Why are Confederate flags sold alongside Trump memorabilia?
Stereotypes related to the southern states and why it can be harmful to perpetuate them.
White nose syndrome is killing bats.
What would lungs do in space without protection?
Silicon Valley makes silicon sound synthetic but it’s an element!
How disease-resistant plants are developed and if/how that applies to animals.
The anatomy of dark humor.
Sharing music/sound demos and beat-making.
Pixel art and animation.
Are loot boxes in gaming like gambling? (Thx, Planet Money.)
How many milliseconds in one second? What about nanoseconds?
Impeachment vs. removal from office.
Checks and balances.
The bystander effect!
Two days ago we were exploring a cave system and walking the trails at Mammoth Cave National Park. Our Facebook memories showed us that at this time in past years we have been in Philadelphia visiting the Franklin Institute and seeing the Liberty Bell, building a treehouse in the woods in Northwest Michigan, playing with democratic free school friends in Maryland, and tending to baby lime trees in Key West — none of which would have been possible without the freedom of Self-Directed Education and the knowledge (not just the belief) that no genuine learning occurs outside the will of the learner.
We feel happy, safe, curious, and challenged. Life is good and we are so very lucky. Thanks for the reminder, hot tub asshole.