A bit about you …
Victoria Young Bennison
What does your family look like?
Our family includes myself, my husband Dave, our two children, D.J. and Jessie (who are technically no longer children), two very pleasant dogs, and a cat with attitude.
This morning our dining room table is covered with bits and pieces of wand bag material. I need to finish 40 more of these before Niagara Falls Comic Con in two weeks. We know our son, who turns 22 next month, will be returning home from Michigan soon. He’s been a highway transport driver for almost a year, and his luggage, computer, and coolers will soon be resting by the door. There are a few empty containers drying on the counter of our tidied kitchen. It wasn’t tidy last night, but I often wake up to such gifts from our 20 year old daughter. She finds it easier to work on her art through the night and has been adding to the pieces that she will be selling, beside her father’s work, at the upcoming Con. Dave and I are working on a new template for our business cards.
Officially, our kids are past unschooling age, but everything I see this morning is directly related to the years we spent doing so.
The departure phase of your journey …
How did you first hear about unschooling? What spurred you to begin exploring unschooling for your family?
I had worked in a daycare earlier in my life and had decided that, if I ever had children, there would always be a parent as one of their primary caregivers. In the very beginning that involved Dave working days and me working nights, but that was not an ideal situation because Dave and I never saw each other.
We then decided that I would stay home with the kids, but that meant Dave would need to bring in more money. So we started an investigation as to what his interests were, and what work was available in those areas. One of the things he was interested in was truck driving, and studies showed that there would be a shortage of skilled drivers in that field in 10 years. So, it made the top of the list. But truck driving meant he would be away from home, and us. The solution was that the kids and I would travel with him. And so we began to learn the location of every play park that had parking for a truck? every restaurant that had a playland, and every hotel that had a swimming pool. We developed a vast collection of books on tape, puppets (a truck seat makes a great puppet theater) etc. We were already learning to incorporate our children, and their needs, into the real world, and we were happy. But then it started, “You won’t be able to do this when they start school!” The solution was that they wouldn’t go to school.
We had already looked into homeschooling and met others that were doing it, but something still wasn’t quite right for me. When asking D.J. if he wanted to learn his letters, he would say, “No. What are Aztec Mud Gods for?” He always had PBS playing in the background, and when the kid’s shows went off at noon, he just kept listening.
“But D.J. you have to learn your letters for school.”
“I don’t want to go to school.” was his reply. And we would go to the library, because we didn’t have a computer at the time, and amazingly enough … I had no idea what an Aztec Mud God was for. ?)
People having choices has always been important to me, but didn’t he have to learn his letters at five? This was a little more complicated than asking him if he wanted cereal or eggs for breakfast, or letting him choose when breakfast would be because he was busy drawing a book about trucks. (After all, no one would have stopped Einstein from his work because it was time for toast. Would they?) Once again, we didn’t have a computer … living in the country meant we didn’t even have cable, so I couldn’t just google. And then a solution came.
It was a Tuesday. As often happened, Dave was home during the week instead of the weekend, and he was building a snowman with D.J. and Jessie. I looked out the window and thought, if D.J. starts school in the fall he will miss doing this with his Dad, and if Jessie starts the next fall, they are going to miss doing it together. It turned out to be a lucky thing that D.J. always left PBS playing in the background, because at that precise moment an interview came on with a woman who was discussing how her homeschooled children were learning naturally by following their interests. She also mentioned John Holt, and the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents. I ordered material from OFTP to check on the legalities, I read every John Holt book I could find in the library, and, since it was February, I ignored all those school signs saying, “Register your child for kindergarten.”
We closed our eyes and jumped.
Were there any fears you needed to overcome initially?
I think that with any form of parenting there are fears. The difference is that choosing school over unschooling seems to offer you certain guarantees about a successful future … a certainty to alleviate those fears. So, I took some time to observe the world around me, and noticed that those guarantees of what society tends to see as a successful future, weren’t exactly working out in all cases. And besides … I had already been questioning society’s idea of a successful future in my life.
But still, because I didn’t have internet, John Holt only took me so far, and the only homeschooling groups in our area were very structured and conservative, I maintained a certain feeling that reading needed to happen at a certain time. On occasion, I would try to encourage it … and on some of those occasions that encouragement took an excessively pushy tone. But then it occurred to me that forcing someone to use their brain in a way that they didn’t want to was no different than forcing someone to use their body in a way that they didn’t want to. And that my pushy encouragement was really an attack driven by my needs, and facilitated by my power. It was the image I needed to stop pushing, stop prodding, and stop attacking … until we moved, got internet, and found the Unschooling Bulletin Board.
Did family and/or friends try to discourage you from setting out on your unschooling journey?
We had already made some decisions in our life that people had questioned, without resulting in our changing those decisions. So, I think there was probably a sense of “there’s no point” developed.
But there was some worry about socialization, and since it was something that I too was concerned about, I already had our solutions in place. D.J. was starting Beavers in the fall? Jessie was in dance class? there were homeschooling groups, and library club. So, those worries were quickly pushed away.
The initiation phase of the journey …
What were some of your favourite ways to learn more about unschooling? Did you prefer to read about other’s experiences or ask questions directly? Meet up with other unschooling families in person?
I loved learning about unschooling through other people’s stories. Reading these online allowed me to sit with them a while, and really get to know the ideas they presented. It also gave me the practical ideas … the daily stuff that I don’t feel I would have gotten anywhere else … like learning to read through gaming. And when I did find myself with a group of unschoolers, it gave us an immediate reference for discussion as to how these things may or may not be implemented in our lives.
But most importantly it showed me a world where other people allowed their children to have choices and I learned that I was not alone.
What allies did you discover along the way? What did you find helpful?
People who are passionate about what they are doing and willing to share it with kindness, regardless of whether they are strangers or part of our life, have always been allies. Even if they were only allies for a moment. Here are a few examples:
The people who worked at our local historical sites and noticed that the kids were showing up at all the special events. They asked questions about our life, and that allowed us more freedom to ask about theirs. Understanding how much work, and loving interest, went into setting up displays, finding artifacts etc. gave Jessie and D.J. a bonus appreciation and respect for what they were seeing. Their friends did this! Of course, the extra little helpings of historical food (as D.J. would call ginger snaps and hot cider at the time), more time in costumes, and a few extra puppet patterns didn’t hurt either. ?)
The waitresses that added a few extra gummy worms on their pudding, or told them how wonderful they were because they always said please and thank you, showed them that politeness has its benefits.
The artists that first inspired Jessie at festivals, and events, and then talked to her about their creative journeys.
My husband’s employer: Allowing our family to travel with Dave gave us the ability to sample some of the world that we may not have been able to afford otherwise. It also gave D.J. a chance to realize how much he really loved being in the truck.
Later, when D.J. decided that he too wanted a career in trucking, the fact that Dave had worked his way up to trainer meant he could be his son’s first instructor. And the little boy who never wanted to go to school had a full time job with benefits without ever having to go.
Gaming: Yes, there were days when I bit my tongue until it hurt … when I wanted to say, “I think that is enough.” But the pain was worth it, because every moment they played, they were learning something. For example:
D.J.’s job involves receiving written directions on a satellite (a quest), finding destinations on a map, and watching the world through the truck’s windshield (the computer screen) for any obstacles. He has commented that his years of playing WOW have had a very positive effect on his progress this year. Also, that first person shooter games have trained his eyes to see pedestrians … even when they seem camouflaged on those difficult foggy, and dusky days. Oh, and there was Euro Truck Simulator … hours on Euro Truck Simulator.
Of course, he has other duties like dealing with customs, delivering on time, and the list goes on, but that is covered with my next allies.
My kids: They know what they want, and they also know that they may have to face some challenges to get there.
D.J. found out that they had dropped the age for trucking from 23 to 21 just shortly before his 21st birthday. And he went from barely driving the car, to his AZ licence, to his first instruction with his dad, to highway training with another instructor, to orientation, to his first solo run—in three months. He has spent his first winter on the road without incident, and has dealt with minor incidents, such as flat tires, admirably. I have been inspired by his ability to do this, and share it in case others, who may be wondering about an unschooler’s future, may be inspired as well.
Jessie knew that she wanted a vending booth at the Hamilton Pagan Harvest Festival the first year she visited it. And that brings me to my next ally … Stick to the Story.
Stick to the Story: During the year between our first visit to the Hamilton Pagan Harvest Festival and the next, we magically fell into a little business called Stick to the Story (Facebook page). This business involved Dave crafting staffs and me writing stories that were pieced together by the wood, stones, or symbols he would use in that crafting. And since Jessie wanted a booth at the Pagan Festival, Dave decided we should have one. This was in July, and the festival was in September. I was somewhat overwhelmed.
You see, I had decided that each staff needed to be different, and it needed its own story, because each person’s journey would be different, and they would have their own story. (Yes, the unschooling mom was coming out in me.) But Dave said, “We can do this,” and Jessie was excited … so, we did it. And because we did it, she was able to spend a whole day floating from booth to booth, and meeting all kinds of people who had chosen their own way to celebrate, and create for, the autumn. It was the next step for the once little girl who would draw pictures of happy people for hours, and watch cartoons over and over again.
Later, people would ask us if we had made money, and we would look at each other confused, and ask, “Were we suppose to?” I know at some point I thought that it would be a great way to show the kids that you can make anything work, but that’s all I was really expecting to get from the experience. However, we did make money, and got so much more.
Stick to the Story was a chance for the kids to interact with others in a business setting. It led to D.J. having a flea market booth while he was waiting to start truck driving, and once again it gave Jess a chance to meet so many passionate, creative, people, with so many different beliefs and lifestyles that she once told me, “I don’t understand what people mean by fitting into society. There are so many different societies, that you just have to find the one that fits you.” And I believe that’s exactly what she did … find one of the societies that fit her.
My Husband Dave, as well as the theory of multiple intelligences: Dave came into our relationship saying “You should want to do things, not have to do things.” And he is constantly doing things, without giving any prior warning. Yes, I do mean warning … because I tend to like a little notice when it comes to change. He is my balance, but I wouldn’t appreciate that if I didn’t understand how different types of thinkers work in different ways. I wouldn’t know that my thinking and his doing are the perfect combination. Not that I never do, and he never thinks, but you understand. ?)
When I would doubt, he would believe.
And watching D.J. begin his career allows me to see how much more amazing it was that his father fit us into his own beginning … keeping a family, as well as a load, safe. How difficult it might have been when we didn’t travel with him to come home to a wife with two toddlers and little outside support while he was gone … when he just wanted to rest.
The Unschooling Bulletin Board: Of course!
And so many more, that I can’t possibly name them all. When you learn from the world, the world becomes your ally. Even when it makes you angry, or frustrated, it helps you to understand that it may be time for some changes, some solutions that will lead you closer to happiness. And eventually those moments of anger and frustration will grow smaller until they disappear.
How did you build trust in unschooling? Did you find that observing your children seeing unschooling in action helped?
I always believed in unschooling. I knew that I learned more from going camping, visiting an interesting place, or reading a book that I really wanted to read, than I ever did in class. It was myself … my ability to do the things that I needed to do when I needed to do them, that I doubted. That trust did come with time. And each time it did … each time I felt a sense of relief, a tear would escape, and I knew I was moving in the right direction.
Moving to unschooling often sparks a deeper, more spiritual, journey. In my experience one aspect of that is questioning the value of judging things and experiences as ‘good/bad’ or ‘right/wrong’, and how that relates to learning in the bigger picture. Can you share an experience or two where you came to see things you used to judge as “bad” in a new light.
Even though I had put aside my worries about the kids spelling correctly, and using punctuation, it seems I did not put aside my worries when it came to other people in the house. The kids had found spell check, began using capitals, periods etc. over time, but their father, who did not care for such things, didn’t. He can pull a date out of history quickly, he can create things out of nothing, and most importantly he can support a family of four for over 20 years, but when he wants to say something, he is just going to say it the way he wants to.
This was never a problem until we started the Stick to the Story’s facebook page, and I decided that a business page should be a little more professional … which apparently, in my mind, meant trying your best to spell things correctly, and use at least a few capitals.
I started by correcting him. (Yes, I am aware of how obnoxious that is, but I was driven by an inner force that embarrasses me more now than any spelling mistake could.) He began making more mistakes and, knowing my husband, I don’t believe they were accidental. ?) I then started editing his posts after he posted them. I hoped he wouldn’t notice, but he noticed … and he wasn’t happy. Luckily, the world stepped in, and I began observing other things besides those mistakes.
I heard stories from people with absolutely brilliant ideas and insights, who wouldn’t share them with the world because they were afraid that someone might comment on their spelling or grammar. I saw how their ability to communicate was being stifled by others. And I’ve always believed that if people aren’t allowed to communicate their thoughts, those thoughts can get stuck inside like ketchup in a bottle, and we all know what happens when that bottle is finally tapped … it’s a mess. I didn’t want a mess with my husband. And I didn’t want to stifle his communication.
I have walked away from posting on Stick to the Story’s facebook page, and left it completely up to Dave. And there’s a reason for that … aside from harmony in our marriage. First, he’s never received a comment from anyone about the way he writes (apparently, people are too busy seeing what he says with his art to bother), and, most importantly, because there may be someone out there who is afraid to share their ideas because of the way they write and it might help them think, “well if he can do it…”
I also began to observe the many other ways, besides writing, in which people communicate. Yes, I’ve always understood that art was a form of communication, but there was a direct line of understanding developing between Dave’s staffs, my stories, and later D.J.’s music and Jessie’s pictures, that had me wondering how much I actually miss by predominantly using words? how much society actually misses by predominantly using words. Maybe words aren’t the best way to communicate at all. I’m still considering this one.
The return phase of your journey …
What, for you, was the most valuable thing to come from your journey to unschooling?
This evening our kitchen has been turned into a salon. My hair has been trimmed by Jessie, and dyed by Dave. I’m sitting in the living room with D.J., whose hair has also been trimmed, and his girlfriend, Ariel, who is visiting from Missouri and travelling with him in the truck. I see Dave and Jessie highlighted by the ceiling light … they are balancing Jessie’s need not to have her scalp burned, and Dave’s need to get the colour on every strand. They pull out the instructions and start to read. I feel a tear slip from the corner of my eye.
This is what is most valuable? this night when trust, and confidence, in self and each other is demonstrated through the simple act of hair design? this night when the joy my son felt growing up is shown through his decision to keep living that life? and this night that allows my daughter and husband to communicate peacefully. This night is most valuable, and last night was most valuable, and tomorrow … Our life is most valuable.
A Child’s Voice Walking Stick
Creation is a funny thing,
sometimes it flows? sometimes it doesn’t.
Knowledge isn’t always wise,
the facts can change? it’s all about perspective.
On this day, Magician, found
he needed help, a little assistance.
He took a child’s book from the shelf,
laying it down, he started to remember.
His house had once been filled with colours,
magical worlds, created by his children.
He longed to see those colours now,
But the children had grown? he started to wonder…
Were the visions they had now,
just as strong, as when they were younger.
It started to make him sad,
to realize, he didn’t have an answer.
The spirits saw his sadness, and knew…
it was time, for his biggest lesson,
It seemed as if the child flew,
into his workshop, in need of attention.
He answered her questions with care?
his chosen method? the changes he would bring.
She wondered how she even dared,
to explain, that wasn’t how she saw things.
He looked at her with wonder, and knew…
her visions were strong? she’d chosen to hide them.
How was his child to believe,
in her own gifts, if he didn’t use them.
He chose a different wand that would shape…
the head of a snake, she saw in her vision.
The child felt pride when she saw,
the father she loved? trust her decision.
The spirits saw her pride, and they knew…
this child was strong, her path was protected.
If every child was listened to,
The world would have hope, beyond expectations.
~ A Stick to the Story story
I want to thank Vicky for taking the time to ponder and reflect on her family’s unschooling years. I’m honoured that she would so generously make space for it in their busy lives so I could share it with you.
I first met Vicky and her family at the Toronto Unschooling Conference and I’ve enjoyed staying connected with her through Facebook. I even quoted something she posted in my book, Free to Live!
And if I’m lucky, some day I’ll be the proud owner of a beautiful Stick to the Story walking stick. 🙂
The road so far …
Departure phase of the journey
Call to adventure: We discover unschooling and excitedly imagine the possibilities.
Refusal of the call: The many implications of choosing unschooling hit. Do we commit?
Supernatural aid: Our children guide us on our unschooling journey.
Crossing of the first threshold: Confronting the guardians who claim to protect us.
The belly of the whale: Transitioning to a learning mindset.
Initiation phase of the journey
The road of trials: The heart of deschooling.
The meeting with the goddess: Seeing the value in all experiences.
Woman as the temptress: Accepting our nature.
Atonement with the father: Accepting others where they are.
Apotheosis: Moving to compassion.
The ultimate boon: Unschooling with confidence and grace.
Return phase of the journey
Refusal of the return: Will we choose to step back out of our unschooling bubble?
The magic flight: Finding a safe place in the ordinary world.
Rescue from without: When the ordinary world comes knocking.
The crossing of the return threshold: Integrating your new perspective into everyday life.