My Unschooling Testimony
This story involves suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and bullying. Please do not read this if those topics will trigger you.
In elementary school, I was the girl who got perfect scores on everything – even pretests. Teachers and other adults expected a lot from me as an academically advanced student. I also noticed that teachers seemed to view me as superior to other students who didn’t do as well academically. Because of these things I started expecting a lot from myself. I slowly became more and more of a perfectionist. This wasn’t a huge problem in elementary school, but it caused me a lot of self-hate later on in middle school.
Middle school was a bit more difficult. I still got all A’s, but I was no longer getting 100% on everything. This bothered my perfectionist mind, leaving me much more affected when some other students started bullying me. They told me I was immature, ugly, and – what affected me the most – not actually smart. They also stole things from me often such as my school bag and my pencils.
The bullying would have been bad enough on its own, but my school’s staff made it worse. Teachers believed the bullies when they lied about me vandalizing the desks and punished me without ever letting me defend myself. When I came to class without my school supplies after having them stolen from me, one of my teachers gave me lunch detention and told me to “stop making excuses” when I explained what happened. By the time my math teacher finally believed something was going on, I didn’t trust teachers enough to be honest with them.
To be clear, I don’t blame my teachers entirely for how they handled the bullying. I understand that they’re victims of the system as well and didn’t have the time or energy to find out what was really happening. I’m against conventional schooling, not teachers.
All the bullying and the way my teachers acted during that time took a toll on my mental health. By the time I was in 8th grade, my depression was draining all the energy I might have had to do homework. My grades slowly started dropping. The bullies eventually moved on to a different target, but I had already fallen into a cycle of self-hate partially fueled by my dropping grades.
When I started high school, I was determined to keep my grades up. I started self-harming to get through my homework, and for the first quarter of the year I had A’s in every class. Then I got an English project that required me to analyze three stories of my choice and present my analyses in front of the class. After my experiences with bullying in middle school, I had a lot of anxiety around talking about myself. That English project required me to be open about my interests and that scared me. Of course, I could have just chosen popular media, but even that seemed too teasable. I never ended up completing that project.
I hated myself for losing all those points for my English grade. All the suicidal thoughts that had been piling up since 6th grade hit their peak, and I walked home from school that day planning to kill myself. On my way home, however, a guy that lived a street away from me asked me out on a date. A part of me was sure that he would break up with me within a week, but I still wanted to see how this would play out. I didn’t attempt suicide that night.
To my surprise, he was still my boyfriend by the end of winter break. After our first day of school in 2018, I reached for my razor blade as I was getting ready to do my homework, then my boyfriend texted me. I realized it would hurt him if he found out I was self-harming, so I threw away my blade and tried to do my homework without it. I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to for a while. But for what seemed like the first time in my life, there was something, or rather someone, I cared about more than getting perfect grades. This was my first step towards recovering from school.
My grades started dropping again, but this time I had someone to help me through it. In February, I stumbled upon a copy of The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn and I realized I wasn’t the only person that had a harmful experience with homework. Soon after, I got a persuasive essay assignment for English and decided to write an essay attempting to persuade teachers to stop giving students homework. During my research I discovered an essay by John Taylor Gatto. I didn’t really understand it at the time but I definitely remembered it.
When the year ended, my GPA was 3.32. Not bad, but not perfect. It looked like the next year was going to be worse, so I started dreading going back to school. That’s when I thought of the John Taylor Gatto essay I had read. I started searching the internet for it and eventually ended up on the site for the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. What I read there sounded amazing, so I signed up for the newsletter, and created an account for the forums soon after.
Unfortunately, school started up again and I fell right back into my old patterns of self-hate. I had thought about asking my parents to let me unschool but I was afraid my dad would react harshly to it. In October, however, it became too much for me and I broke down. It was then that I asked my parents to let me unschool.
I talked to my mom first. She was okay with it from the moment I first asked to leave school since she had seen how school was affecting me. She knew I needed to escape. However, I ended up creating a school-like schedule to get my dad to agree. My dad was concerned that unschooling would prevent me from getting into college or getting a job. I’ve shown him some articles from Peter Gray and the book College Without Highschool by Blake Boles, but I think he’s still a bit concerned. However, he slowly began to accept unschooling.
I transitioned to full unschooling in January. I slowly started learning to take care of my emotional needs. The feeling that I had to prove my worth also started to fade as I accepted that my grades shouldn’t define me. My mental health hasn’t completely recovered, but I’m getting there. I’ve also been able to learn so much more now that I’m taking care of my mental health and am able to learn at my own pace based on my own needs and interests. There was a transition period where I wasn’t doing much, but that time was essential for me to identify the emotional and physical needs that I had been ignoring for so long.
My story isn’t unique. Students around the world deal with the same issues. Transitioning from conventional schooling to Self-Directed Education as a society would improve so many lives. If you’re interested in joining the Self-Directed Education movement, please visit self-directed.org.