by Anne Ohman
His note is now where I can easily see it, on the wall just to the right of my computer. I look at it from time to time and each time, I stop and pause and breathe in the glory of those five words and all that they mean to me… “I AM WAHT I AM.” Five words. Five short, simple words. But what a message. What a huge, wonderful, powerful concept for the author of that note, an eight-year-old boy, to possess.
That eight-year-old boy is my son Jacob, who is now 25 years old. Jacob brought us to this glorious path of radical unschooling, even though we didn’t know the concept existed back then in those pre-internet days. And so we say that Jacob invented radical unschooling.
Unschooling is so many things, and this is not the space where I want to try to define it. To me, however, it is mostly trusting in the fact that learning is a by-product of living a life, following one’s interests and passions and questions and curiosities… Just as children learn to walk and talk without being pushed or tested, children will continue to learn and children will continue to LOVE to learn when it is simply a part of their JOY.
John Holt said it best, that unschooling is about faith: “This faith is that by nature people are learning animals. Birds fly; fish swim; humans think and learn. Therefore, we do not need to motivate children into learning by wheedling, bribing, or bullying. We do not need to keep picking away at their minds to make sure they are learning. What we need to do – and all we need to do – is to give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for, listen respectfully when they feel like talking, and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest.”
The Universe put John Holt into my hands ~ literally ~ one afternoon when I was in the library searching for parenting answers for my Gloriously Unique, then two-year-old child, Jacob. I was SO TIRED of mainstream views of parenting, I was there for a different kind of inspiration. I don’t know how I ended up in the education section of the library, but there I was, and my hand landed on How Children Fail by John Holt.
And my heart CELEBRATED with every word I read, CONFIRMING my parenting of this amazing child by letting him lead the way and backing up all that JACOB was showing me, as well, about how it was absolutely necessary for him to learn in his own way, in his own time. It was as if John Holt wrote a book entitled, “You GO, Jacob!” And just to remind you ~ this was 1992.
From the moment he was born, my husband and I recognized that Jacob had an exceptional awareness of his world. His eyes had such depth and knowingness … this child came into our world knowing truths that some people take a lifetime to discover.
As he grew, our initial impression of our son was continually confirmed. His acute awareness of the world made everything seem new to us, as we were seeing it through his eyes, from his unique perspective.
The typical adults we encountered were confused, as their “Standard Approach to Talking to Children” did not work with Jacob. He subtly demanded and challenged adults to treat him as an equal, even as young as 18 months old. He spoke in perfect sentences at that age, corrected other people’s grammar, and interrogated everyone as they emerged from the bathroom as to the cleanliness of their hands. Before he was two years old, when an unsuspecting family member asked if Jacob could say, “Liverpool” (the city in which we resided at the time), Jacob conversationally responded with, “Yes. Can you say micropachysapholosaurus?”
Jacob’s world was so large, his mind always working. This child showed us the meaning of REAL learning, for not only did he want to find answers to his questions, he wanted to ask his own questions, too. MY HUSBAND AND I REALIZED THAT WE WERE NEVER ALLOWED TO ASK OUR OWN QUESTIONS. And so, of course, we loved that, followed that, nurtured that, encouraged that, and learned from that. We were learning all the time from Jacob, as he was learning all the time from the world.
We steered our lives toward Jacob’s strengths, his gifts, his questions, his observations, his JOY and his PEACE. This is how children SHINE! We made the mindful choice to not extinguish that light.
I don’t remember the exact moment when we decided Jacob would not go to school. I, myself, was questioning school even before I was pregnant with Jacob. I knew a homeschooling family and I was excited about that prospect. After Jacob was born, and my mothering instinct confirmed that school felt wrong, I knew that this was the journey we would be taking together, one without school.
With every new day, being a witness to all this child was absorbing from the world, it became more and more clear that this was right. At two years old, he would stand at our door in the morning and watching the neighborhood kids get on the school bus. He was fascinated by it, as if it was a science experiment. He would ask so many questions about it ~ about why they were leaving home, leaving their mothers, to go to this building all day … And he never settled for anything less than the truth and so we had very deep, honest conversations about it back then. He was two years old.
So, of course, it was Jacob who decided once and for all that school was not for him. And yes, we wholeheartedly agreed that this child should not be confined to a room in a building for most of his day. His world was SO HUGE! He was showing us that he was learning so much every day simply by living in the real world, we couldn’t imagine making his world smaller and taking away the best parts of his life.
Thus, from a very early age, we knew we would be homeschooling Jacob. Or rather, Jacob would continue to educate and enlighten us.
Our homeschooling method was painfully determined with my first attempt at teaching this child some “schoolwork.” He resisted. I insisted. He yelled. I yelled. He cried. I cried. And it was over. Thankfully! Our attempt at schooling at home had “failed.” I was so relieved because I most certainly was not happy with the person I thought I had to be in order to school my child at home.
As a result, our glorious unschooling lives were born, even though, as I said earlier, at the time we did not know that the concept even existed, let alone was in practice. For us, it was just a natural extension of the life we were already living, the life that Jacob had shown us was best and most fulfilling for him, and it turned out to be the best and most fulfilling path for all of us.
As Jacob reached age nine, challenges surfaced that previously had gone unnoticed because of our free unschooling lifestyle, our focus on his Joy, and our conviction to allow Jake to BE completely HimSelf. He had always held a small level of anxiety in his spirit, for his awareness of the world not only brought enlightenment, but also disturbing knowledge for which his young years were not prepared. When his mild anxiety increased, his fine and large motor skills showed no signs of advancing as he got older, and his beloved quirks became more intense, my husband and I felt it was time to find some answers.
It was not our plan to label him. It was not our intention to research his challenges in order to improve him, change him, or fix him. He was perfect just the way was, of course. He was CELEBRATED for Being EXACTLY Who He Was. It was merely our intent to own a better understanding of him, his mind, and his spirit. It was our goal to find answers that would enable us to bring more joy and less anxiety into Jacob’s already very free life.
So I started researching. And I was shocked at my findings. I found label after label that my child fit into…a little bit here, a little bit there … labels ranging from Asperger’s to Gifted to Sensory Integration Dysfunction and everything else in between. How could this be? Yes, of course we knew for sure that Jacob was different from any child we had ever known … but it never ever occurred to me that the very traits which were a celebrated part of Who He Was would be considered dysfunctions or special needs … and while we understood he was gloriously unique, we never once looked at him and had the term “a-typical” pop into our heads. All we had known was that WE were so incredibly blessed to have this child who was unlike any other we had known before!
I developed a hunger for information about the labels, mostly curious about the other children and what their lives looked like WITH these labels. I read all I could … I joined message boards, lists … I read many books. And I only grew increasingly saddened with what I was finding.
The focus of the books and the lists was always the same: advice was given to assist you in forcing your “special needs” child into that society-typical box, mainly the school box. Parents are given the message that their child needs to be fixed, that their child is the one that needs to changed in order to fit into that box, no matter how demeaning and defeating it is to the child’s happiness and the child’s spirit. And right there in black and white in all of the books were experts to give you advice on how to do it … how to change and fix Who Your Child Is in order to have them fit into the box of society’s expectations. According to these “experts”, there was no alternative.
My sister-in-law was employed as a Direct Support Professional for our local ARC at that time and she asked me if I wanted to attend a support group meeting for families with children on the autistic spectrum, since she was attending anyway. I was interested, but not so much for MY child as for my interest in these families who WERE living according to society’s definitions and that box and these labels.
As the meeting began, the attendees were instructed to go around the room and share stories about our children. I felt so excited! I love talking about my children. I couldn’t wait to hear other people’s stories.
But as I listened, my heart began filling with a heaviness and a deep sadness for the children, as their parents’ stories were about the child’s “disabilities,” and their struggle to get appropriate services from the school and understanding from the teachers. Their stories were filled with pain and anger and a fierce determination to fight the system.
From my perspective, one thing was clearly and devastatingly missing from their stories: the children themselves.
When it was my turn to share, I took a deep breath and held my sweet Jacob in my mind, in my heart. And all I could see was that child’s amazing SHINE. And then I spoke. I spoke of my child who has always been so aware, so unique, so funny, and so creative. I spoke of the ways in which he has blessed our lives, how WE are always learning from HIM. I spoke of my child who does have some challenges, but what child does not? What human being does not? From Jake’s challenges, we were able to learn things about ourselves and about the world and about our lives and about love that we could not have learned otherwise. From Jake’s challenges we were able to steer even more determinedly toward his JOY.
I spoke of my child who has never been forced to be someone he was not, who never was and never will be expected to fit into someone else’s idea of who he should be and how he wouldn’t allow us to even TRY, thank God! I spoke of how my child has always been celebrated for being exactly who he is. I spoke about our unschooling lives ~ the JOY-led learning we completely trusted, following Jacob’s passions and interests, questions and curiosities.
I paused and noticed the silence in the room. It was a sharp contrast to the constant chatter that had been filling the room as the others spoke, as parents were talking over each other, sharing their methods to battle the school establishment to get the “services” their child required. In that silence, I realized that I hadn’t been looking at anyone as I spoke ~ I had been thinking so much about my boy. And when I finally looked up, I saw every single face turned toward me … every EYE on me, many of them containing tears. And on every lip was a gentle smile.
I had spoken that day with the same passion with which I parent … a passion for my child and a focus on how he Shines in this world. That is the focus of our lives … not the challenges … but the Shine. There is never a lack, never a need to fight with the world because we create our own world and we fill it with the ABUNDANCE of the GOODNESS that my child creates, simply by Being Who He Is and CELEBRATING that.
I strongly believe that all children Shine when they are celebrated for being exactly who they are…and when I spoke that night of how Jacob shines, I know for sure that I reminded the other parents about how THEIR child shines, too.
I learned all I needed to know that night. I learned, once again, that the answers were already within us and we were living them every day. I knew that the best way to help other children was to continue living our lives, because I saw first-hand that night how sharing our Shining perspective allowed others to relax into the Truth of their child’s own light.
We walked forward in our lives from that point with a new level of understanding, with even more compassion and empathy for those gifts that have always made Jacob so wonderfully unique. And because I was better able to see the world from his eyes, from his spirit, I found ways to help him with his challenges while still Celebrating him … in fact, it felt like we were celebrating him even MORE after having seen the other side.
I Am What I Am. To us, these five words that Jacob wrote when he was 8 years old simply mean that all children should be celebrated for Being Who They Are.
~ updated April 2016
Want to learn more about unschooling? Read my free book, What is Unschooling?