This is part two of my conversation with the Beck family – mom and dad, Angie and Darren, and their grown children, Josh, Rylie, and Ellie. Check out the transcript of part one here.
I want to dig a bit more into the kids’ paths, because each of them has chosen a very different path. I would love to hear more about how that unfolded and the differences you’ve seen.
And I’m sure we’ll see threads, how they mesh with each personality, with who you are, each of you, kids, as a person, the things you chose. Because it’s so interesting, the path through school is very well-trodden and very well known. And everybody follows that path. What is so fascinating is that even within the same family and living in the same environment, how different each child’s path can be. So, does anyone want to take a stab at starting that?
JOSH: Yeah, I can jump into that. So, for me I think really what helped land me where I am today is going back to that class that dad and I took, that History of Motorcycles class. And that opened up a lot of doors, because I have always been passionate about working on cars, working on motorcycles, anything like that.
And so, through that, I had a couple of projects of my own and then I started taking classes at the community college once I was old enough to go in there, in their automotive program and working through those, working through the steps there. And eventually, I came to a point and I think this goes back to the realizing that maybe what you thought you want, isn’t quite what you want and being okay to change it, is I started to realize, I think I like working on my own stuff more than maybe becoming a mechanic and working on other people’s things.
I started working in a parts department rather than working on the cars themselves, and I found that to be a lot more enjoyable, because then I got to do the stuff I wanted to do in my own time and for myself. And so, that’s led me to where I am today, which is working in a semi-truck parts department, selling parts, working with fleets, and stuff like that, which has been really interesting. That’s been a whole new ballpark learning about those, as well.
But, growing up, I had just so many different interests. It felt like sometimes a different thing every week almost. I’ve always been interested in building things, whether it be out of electronics, soldering together little circuits, or building things out of wood and things like that. Chain mail has been a huge thing that I’ve been into for a long time, making jewelry and items out of little rings. It just has been a multifaceted thing.
And then with the sports, I went through so many different sports growing up. I came to find that really team sports weren’t quite what I was interested in. I think I was okay at them. I think the one goal maybe I ever scored in soccer was on my own team though.
ANGIE: It was right after your shoe came off.
JOSH: Right after my shoe came off. And the one basket I ever scored in basketball was not shooting it properly, but throwing it up underhanded, I think, and it went in and I don’t think they counted it, because I didn’t shoot it properly. So, I said, “To heck with this. I don’t like this anymore.”
And then, what really resonated and what I found really piqued my interest was finding parkour, finding freerunning online. This was probably 2007, 2008, just when the very first few videos were popping up on YouTube. And I started to think, oh, wow, that looks fun. I think I’ll start trying that. And I would go down to the playground at the school down the street from us and try out things.
And I think it was the day that I came home and told my parents that I had tried to do some front flips off of the playset onto the pea gravel landing under the place that that mom said, “I think we need to find you somewhere that’s padded to try this out.”
ANGIE: Sometimes a parent’s comfort level comes into play, too. I’m like, if you’re at the playground all by yourself and you’re doing backflips off the top of the monkey bars and you get injured and no one’s there to know, maybe we need to find a gym.
JOSH: Yeah, absolutely. And to my surprise, she got online and found a gym in our area that was teaching classes that blew my mind.
DARREN: Urban Ninjas.
JOSH: Yeah, the Urban Ninjas, at the time. That just completely blew my mind that there was anything in our area being offered class-wise about that.
DARREN: In our area meant a 45-minute drive north.
PAM: I was just going to say, that was a good memory, because same thing with my youngest son. You’d say in our area, it was like 40, 45 minutes to get there. Our parkour gym in the area is called the Monkey Vault.
PAM: So yeah, it was. I’m trying to remember if I found it or if Michael found it, but yeah, that was a big part of our lives for a few years, at least at least once a month, but usually a couple of times taking him and his friends down to play. So, that’s a really cool memory. Thanks, Josh.
JOSH: Yeah, absolutely. So, I was just completely surprised that we found that. So, we started going there and taking classes and it was fantastic. I loved it. And, eventually, the teachers of that class, they were a group of friends teaching it, they decided they wanted to try and move out to California and pursue doing stunt work.
And so, they came to me one day and I think I had just turned 16. So, I’d been taking classes for about three years with them and they said, “Josh, would you be interested in teaching these classes? We’re looking at moving on and we need somebody to take it over and we think you would be the one to take it on from here.”
And I was just like, “Sure. Okay. Yeah, let’s, let’s try it out.” So, that was actually my first job, was teaching parkour classes at this gym. And then, that didn’t end up being very profitable due to the 45-minute drive each direction. I think I was teaching maybe two classes, so I paid for gas money and that was about it.
I ended up finding a gym that was only about 10 minutes away from our house that wanted to start something like this. And I met another guy there that they were like, “Hey, we want to start this program. And I think you guys, you two, would be the ones to start it.” And so, ended up moving down to this gym and we were actually able to build up the parkour program for them.
And I taught there for another two or three years and helped them build that up. And then eventually interests shifted into more of what I’m doing now. And we ended up passing the torch on to another couple of people, I think students again from the class who took it on from there.
So, yeah, it it’s been a multifaceted journey for sure.
PAM: I love that.
DARREN: One thing I’ll add is, it was challenging. Josh, you can put your own words to this.
It was challenging getting to that point where you’re almost shifting over to the adulting side where Josh had so many interests. I mean, what we’ve talked about here, but also, he was making money as a DJ from time to time, showing up. He did a lot of great video work on his own. He’s really a Renaissance man right across so many different kinds of interests.
I think the challenge many unschoolers face is when you collect that kind of interest, when you have to go out and get a job, does that eventually soak up so much time that the rest of your interests have to be put aside? And watching you go through that experience, Josh, I think that was something you wrestled with a little bit.
When you actually have to lean in and start finding whatever that gig is that allows you to be self-sufficient, are all these things you love doing right now and having free roam to be able to do a little of this and a little of this, does that steal away some of that time that you can put towards other things?
Maybe I’m projecting, but did you feel a little bit like that along the way?
JOSH: Yeah, I think definitely I came across a point where I was like, oh man, if I start doing this full time, am I going to be able to maybe still do some of these other things I’m interested in?
And since I am interested in so many things, what do I want to finally stick with and keep pursuing for a while? So, I think there was definitely a time where it was a little bit tough trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to go with and making time to still do the other things I’m interested in.
So, that was definitely a little bit of a challenge for a while, but I feel like I’ve found a balance now to where I still get to do what I’m interested in, maybe not as my job, necessarily. I still am interested in what I do as a job, but I still get to spend time at home, whether it be playing video games, making things, I still get to do all that on the side, too. Finding the balance was a challenge, for sure. But it’s something I think I’ve been able to find now. And yeah, it’s been, it’s been really nice.
ELLIE: I feel like Katie has been a big facilitator in that, too. I feel like you and Katie have gotten really creative together as a couple. Even if it’s just the things that you guys are cooking, the gardens that you’re making, I feel like she brings a lot of the artistic side that it brings out of you, I guess.
JOSH: Absolutely. Oh yeah. Yeah. I agree, for sure. There are definitely some things that I never even thought about trying. I think I always had a little bit of an interest in in doing a garden, but together we’ve created a pretty nice garden out in the backyard and one that we’re expanding out this year to include even more things. One thing we’ve been doing is restoring old sewing machines, vintage sewing machines, trying to find some that might need some repairs to them, and then doing that together has been a lot of fun, as well.
PAM: It’s so fascinating just to hear how things unfold, because you can see the thread in the repair aspect of that. You can see the fun in the active, like gardening’s a more active thing as well. So, you can see how that ties into so many things you have talked about, Josh. So, I think that’s just awesome. Yeah, Darren?
DARREN: There’s one of the things I’m going to offer up as a prompt. What I found just was so instrumental in your experience growing up, Josh, was Not Back to School Camp.
JOSH: Oh, absolutely.
DARREN: It opened up a community for you. It’s kind of like we had the LEARN community locally, but then you got your own community in some ways through that. Do you mind sharing any thoughts on that?
JOSH: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I started going to Not Back to School Camp when I was 14. That was the first time I went. I went to a one-week session and I fell in love with it. Of course, I had had friends here in Kansas City from the homeschool group, but to find people from around the country who are all interested in this stuff and had so many new things to contribute was amazing. And I definitely built up a whole new group of friends, whole new group of people who I would consider family from that experience, as well.
And so, I went there when I was 14. I went through until I was 18 and graduated, went through their graduation ceremony there. And yeah, it was a huge part of my life as a teenager. Something I looked forward to going to every year and I have very fond memories of going there.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. So, Rylie, you want to share a little bit about your path?
RYLIE: Yeah. My path is a long, twisted one, as well. Not long, but there’s lots of ins and outs of it, but I think the main thing is, from when I was very young, probably before I can even remember, I was dancing. I danced everywhere. That was the only thing that I wanted to be when I grew up was a professional dancer. I think at the time when I was younger, I didn’t really care what I was doing, but I wanted to be on stage and I wanted to be performing. And dancing was just what I was passionate about.
And so, I had this mission from the very beginning that that’s what my end goal is. I’m going to be a professional dancer. And so, I went through all the steps that it takes to become a professional dancer from when I was very young, like starting to go to my local dance studio several days a week for long hours. I think it was 4:30 to 9:30, five days a week. And then coming in on Saturdays and dancing.
I had that as a huge part of my upbringing and that brought its own challenges as far as having this two-separate-worlds syndrome of this very, very structured world, which was classical ballet, and then having a world outside of the dance studio, which was completely unstructured.
And I think as a kid, I craved structure in a way that I haven’t fully digested until now, kind of understanding why I was drawn to that. And I think where I had no interest in doing schoolwork, had no interest in any sort of sit-down class, even in our co-op classes that my parents were talking about, had no interest in sitting down and doing a class that they would make me read a book, or that they would ask for any sort of like participation besides creative was not my thing at all.
But then, where the structure came in was every afternoon after I would leave those co-op days, I would go to the dance studio and I would be so honed in and so focused on what I was doing. And I’m starting to realize that now that that was a structure thing for me. I was craving that sort of structure. And so, navigating all of that through my adolescence and my teen years, I guess, of having two separate friend groups. I had friend groups that were private school, Catholic school, public school kids from my dance studio and then having a world of free-flowers and people that were doing all sorts of different, amazing activities outside of that.
So, I think personally, navigating both sides of that was interesting, because I got to dive in and out of both worlds. But then, moving on through that, I was probably 14 and I was getting to an advanced enough level in my dancing that I started taking classes a couple of days a week at the college. UMKC is a school here. They have a dance program. So, I was invited to come in and start taking the senior level classes of college when I was young and that pushed me into this world of really advancing me further. I think that was a big, crucial step in my path was that transition into those classes.
And then, I was 17 and I got accepted into a dance program in Charlotte, North Carolina. So, if I was in school, it would have been my senior year going into high school. I moved away from home, lived in an apartment with a roommate. My parents were so supportive and so helpful for all of it and it was amazing. What I went to was a training program, like a ballet boarding school where I danced from 9:00 to noon. And then, there was a chunk maybe a couple hours in the day where the kids in school would do their schoolwork. And then, I would be in rehearsals or I would have a break in the day.
And then, from the evening on, it was 4:00 to 7:30 or something, we would dance again. So, it was very intense training, guiding you to get ready for a company.
And so, I did that. I went through there for a year. And then, I guess backtracking a little bit, I spent my summers leading up to that in Austin, Texas, and I did dance programs six weeks or three weeks at this company, Ballet Austin in Texas.
And so, I moved to Charlotte and in the back of my mind, I wanted to be in Austin. That was my goal. I wanted to be there. I wanted to live in the city. I loved that whole area and just felt like that was what was calling me. And so, after I spent a year in Charlotte, I moved to Austin, went to a dance program there, got accepted into this program, and spent some time there. And throughout this time of me transitioning from a student into a professional dancer, there was a lot of unhappiness within myself, of, “This isn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
It was a lot more, I don’t want to say intense, I knew how intense it was going to be, but I realized that I had a very specific, unique style of dancing interestingly enough, with my upbringing, that makes sense. But I was never quite like everybody else. And in a company that has a corps de ballet and there’s 30 girls on stage, they all have to look exactly the same.
I was always the one that would be like, “Rylie, move over a little bit,” or, “Rylie, lower your arm,” or different things. I was always a little bit off and I hated that. I did not like that I was always just a little bit off and everything and I felt like there was something within myself that was wrong, I guess, for being that way. So, it was like this transition. It happened in Charlotte. It happened in Austin. I thought moving to Austin might fix it or I might feel different in that company. And I still wasn’t really finding what I felt like was my flow within it all.
So, I left there after a year and I moved to Arizona and I joined another company and I did a contract, which is 42 weeks, in Arizona. And I think that was a breaking point year for me, where I had gone through two years that were vigorous. This third year I was going into, I was feeling like, “There’s something wrong with me. I don’t know why this isn’t working out. Something’s not right.” I was mentally exhausted. Physically, my body was fatigued and after that year, it was, “I’m going to move home,” I was thinking, I’m done with dance.
I came to this huge moment within me where I was like, I have this identity crisis of, I put my whole life into this. This is what I wanted. I was three and I decided I wanted to be a dancer. And I had a moment where I was like, did I waste that time? Did I waste that time and training and everything?
And I didn’t waste that time, but I had a moment where I was like, I’m going to quit dance. I’m done with it. I’m going to move home. And I’m going to restart my life. Everything’s going to be fresh. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but something’s going to happen. And I think I was in a place and when you’re in as far as I was, I was pretty deep in this world, and people were like, “Well, what are you going to do if you’re not gonna dance?”
Typically, you don’t leave a company unless you get a contract to go somewhere else or your contract wasn’t renewed. And so, I had a contract offered to me and I turned it down and I just said, “I don’t want it.” And people were like, “That’s a contract. That’s a job for a dancer. That’s hard to get. What are you going to do?” And I was like, I have trust and I have faith that whatever happens next is going to be perfect. I moved home and I didn’t dance for a while. And then, I missed dance. I missed dancing and I didn’t want to go to a structured ballet class.
And someone told me, they were like, “There’s a company called Quixotic in Kansas City and they do $5 drop-in classes.” And I was like, okay, that sounds cool. I’ll go. And I took this ballet class there one day and then afterwards the person teaching class came up to me and was just like, “Who are you?” And they were like, “We need a dancer for a gig next weekend. Are you available?” And I was thinking, actually, no, I’m not. I was going out of town, but I was like, “But please reach out to me whenever you need someone else.” And they did. And that ended up taking me down this whole new path of dance that was out of the classical ballet world.
And this company was a contemporary circus group, so similar to Cirque de Soleil, where it’s like they have dancers and acrobats and fire eaters and all this different stuff. And my world opened up to this, I don’t want to say the underdog world, but it was like, I felt like this company was everybody that was kind of like me. They were in their classical form of classical circus, classical ballet. They were kind of off. And they all came together and created this group that was moving mountains, because everyone had such a unique dance style.
I felt like my confidence flew through the roof. I was encouraged to be different, which was something that, in ballet, you’re encouraged to conform to the structure. And I was drawn to that for a long time. And then I had this point that I feel like was like, everything from my upbringing and everything was coming back to me being like, this is what you need to be doing. And this feels right.
And so, I did that for about three years. And at the end of year three, I was feeling this moment of curiosities were sparking for other things in my life and I didn’t know what it was going to be. And then, right about that time, the pandemic hit and there was this exit from the performing world that felt natural to me, because I was kind of already starting to drift from it. And then, this was like, well, you don’t have any performances for the next year, so what do you want to do?
And I think living in the moment and feeling my intuition just guided me out of it naturally. And so, now I’m living in Idaho and I had a call to be close to nature. And I live at the base of a ski mountain and I live five minutes from this beautiful lake that’s 120 miles in perimeter and I’m surrounded by good people and beautiful landscapes. And I am at a point of, I don’t want to say rebirthing myself, but rediscovering what makes me happy and where I thrive, really. So, I’m doing that.
And then I’m also teaching ballet, which has been something new. I never thought I would want to teach ballet. But the opportunity presented itself and I’m learning from it and learning to love ballet in a way that I had started to dislike ballet in a way. And now, I’m teaching it in a way that feels like I’m teaching in a way that I wish I had been taught. And I’m teaching in a way that feels like holistic, I guess, or natural for children to learn. And so, it’s been this awesome project that I’ve been working on this year. But, long story short, I guess it’s a straight shot, but there’s also so many different zigzags along the way that come and go.
PAM: Yeah, you’re right.
It looks like a straight shot from the outside, but when you look inside and how it was for you, it was zigging and zagging. It’s what you were talking about earlier, Rylie, the checking in with yourself, the intuition, the trying things out. Maybe this thing will fit well. Hmm. This isn’t feeling right. Okay. Even if they look like such minor steps to people, from one company to the next, but you brought so much more to each of those. The motivation behind it, why you were trying it out. You were really paying attention to how it felt for you each time.
So, thank you so much for sharing that. That was really, really beautiful to hear, because this unschooling thing, this checking in with ourselves, this self-awareness, again, it’s not just for kids. These tools that kids are learning and that we, as the parents, are learning alongside, because we didn’t learn a lot of that growing up, these are such valuable tools to take with us for the rest of our lives.
RYLIE: Absolutely. I feel like this isn’t going to be the first checkpoint for me to figure out. Throughout your whole life, you’re always evolving as a human. So, as your evolution continues, you’re constantly going to be checking in with yourself. So, yeah. It’s nice to have that grounded moral or grounded ethic within me from the get-go.
PAM: And the asking questions that you mentioned.
RYLIE: The questions. Always ask questions.
PAM: These darn questions. How about you, Ellie? You want to share a little bit about your path?
ELLIE: Man, that’s a big story to follow.
RYLIE: No, it’s not.
ELLIE: It’s so funny, because really each of us, truly, our whole lives, have had such distinct personalities that I think we still have.
RYLIE: We’re so disparate, all of us.
We each have always been different, but not in a bad way, just in like our true, core nature, each of us had a different energy, a different wavelength. And so, for me, I, kind of similar to Josh, had a million different interests and changed what I thought I wanted to do a million different times.
So, like I said, art was a really big thing for me when I was a younger kid. When people asked, “What do you do?” Or, “Who are you?” I’d say, “Well, I’m an artist.” And so, that was something, but I never really considered it as a career path. It was never something that I wanted to do for money. It was always just something that I found a lot of joy in.
Then I also started realizing that there’s a lot of art and baking and cooking. There’s a lot of art in that. And so, I started thinking, well, I’m really good at baking. I really enjoy baking. So, maybe that’s something I can do as a living. That’s the career I could do. I could open my own bakery. I could open my own restaurant and things like that.
So, then I started doing baking for money. I started doing these sugar cookies that people would order from me. And I started realizing, almost exactly like Josh, that I love baking for myself and hate doing it for money. And so, when I had to start baking for other people, and I love baking for other people, I enjoy baking a lot, but I don’t have a sweet tooth. I would rather bake something savory any day.
So, I bake all these things. Then I just give it all away, because I don’t want it. And so, I love baking for other people, but not when there’s money involved. For some reason, that just like kills the appetite for me. I don’t know why. And so, I worked in a bakery as a professional baker for a while, my first year in college at KU. And I hated it and it almost killed the joy of baking for me. So, I realized much younger than that, that I don’t think I wanted to do that for my career.
But I was always a bookworm and I think I get that from my mom. My mom loves books and I love books. And she had a philosophy that if your kid asks you to buy a book, you can’t say no. So, I took a little bit advantage of that and quickly filled up my bookshelves.
ANGIE: We also did a lot of library visits with stacks of books coming home.
ELLIE: Yeah. I could read an entire series in a week, that kind of kid who could read whole books in a day. But I think because of unschooling in some ways, I never felt like I had a place in schooling, I guess. You know what I mean? I never felt that I belonged in an academic setting, I guess, because I’d never been in a truly academic setting. And so, it just seemed like a very foreign world.
So, when I was 15, I started at JCCC, the community college. And I decided to just start slow. I took one class and it was an American Sign Language class, because I’d already been studying ASL for a while. And so, I thought I’ll dip my feet in, just figure out this whole college thing. And quickly, I started realizing that I not only am good at school, but I really enjoy school, like formalized academia, which is very funny, because for the first 15 years of my life, I had no exposure to that.
But throughout my time at community college, I started taking more academic classes and I really fell in love with anthropology. And I had this anthropology professor. Everybody has that one professor that they say changes their life. I had this anthropology professor that I just adored. And so, I really thought I was going to be an anthropologist until I found out that anthropology takes around 12 years of college, upper-level academia. And then you have about a one in 52 chance of getting a career out of it.
So, I decided maybe that wasn’t the most financially-sound decision. And then I started thinking, well what else is there? Because I loved that field of academia. I always loved reading and then I realized, you’re telling me I could read for a career? That was just my dream.
And so, I started feeling around, but right around that time from around 16 to 18, I started doing these trips abroad with this group called Rustic Pathways that’s a travel volunteer agency that is completely secular. It’s not at all a mission trip or anything like that, but the goal is to go and learn about something in that culture and find experts in that country that will teach you about something. So, I went first to Thailand and I learned about the history of elephant caregiving and elephant sanctuaries and how Buddhism ties in with that.
And then I went to Peru and learned about fair trade weaving co-ops and how this particular co-op Mosqoy is working to empower rural Quechua women’s lives, through weaving, through their own traditional culture. And so, I started going on these trips and just still thinking, that goes great with anthropology. But I knew that anthropology wasn’t where I was going to go. And so, I had always had in the back of my mind, I just wanted to do something that could improve people’s lives. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew I wanted to do something that was advocating, something that was fighting for other people.
So, then I thought, okay, maybe either international law or working on international NGOs, something along those lines. So, I went to KU and the reason why I chose KU was because they have a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, which there’s not that many in the country. There are maybe 15 or 20 actual programs where you can get a full degree. There’s a lot of places where you can get a minor in it, but I wanted a full bachelor’s degree in it. And funnily enough, the school an hour west of us had the first WGSS program in the country. We opened ours two weeks before UC Berkeley, which anybody at KU will tell you if you ask.
And so, I went to KU and then I quickly decided that I also wanted to get a degree in Spanish, because I had taken four semesters of Spanish at JCCC. For any bachelor of arts degree, you need four semesters of a language and I had chosen Spanish, but I felt like I had gotten this far. I was able to read okay and speak if you really forced me to. And so, I thought, why stop right now when I could just keep going? So, I got a bachelor’s degree in Spanish as well, which I’ve actually completed already. Last semester I finished my senior thesis in that, but that was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life, because now I’m fully fluent in Spanish.
I’ve studied abroad in Argentina. I could hopefully go the rest of my life staying fluent in Spanish and have written 15-page senior theses in Spanish. And that was just something that I knew, again, I wanted to be advocating for people. So, it didn’t make sense to me why I wouldn’t follow through on being able to communicate with the people I wanted to advocate for.
So, throughout that, I somehow decided that law was the right path for me. But I didn’t want to go into corporate law. I didn’t want to go into big law, but I knew that I could get into civil rights law or civil activism through law, and it turns out I was also really good at that. And not only was I really good at it, I really enjoyed it.
And so, I took my LSATs and I loved studying for them, which seems crazy to most people who study for them. And I took it twice. The first time I was sick the day of, and also somebody was tapping their pencil beside me and it really, really threw me off, but I took it twice. I got the exact score I wanted to get. I applied to law school and actually I kind of had a bit of a breakdown during quarantine, because right as quarantine hit was right before I was supposed to take my next LSAT. And they hadn’t figured out how they were going to reschedule them or anything.
So, I thought, what if I can’t retake this, I need to get the score that I wanted to get. And also, will law schools even be open next year? And so, I called my law professor mentor that I had found at KU, sobbing, and telling her that I felt like the whole world was falling apart and that I just was rethinking everything and didn’t know if I even should go into law anymore, because what was the point if I couldn’t get in and the pandemic had thrown everything off? She was like, “Just take a breath. Everything will be fine.”
And so, I took a breath. Over the summer, I wrote my personal statement. I wrote my diversity statement. I filled out my applications. I sent all the applications in at the same time, and two weeks later, I’d already had a full ride offer. And so, from there, it just felt like, okay, maybe everything worked out how it was supposed to. That was just the first initial confirmation that I was where I was supposed to be at that moment. And I waited. It takes some schools a while, so just this past January, a few months ago, I accepted a full ride offer to KU law. So, yeah, that’s where I am right now.
PAM: Wow. I love that story, too. And what stood out for me there, Ellie, was when you talked about being excited to study for the LSATs and you found that you really enjoyed it. I feel like a chunk of that could be, not only are you choosing to be there, but you hadn’t spent 12 years before that being herded through the system where you weren’t getting to choose the cool courses that looked interesting to you.
I can sense, for some people, me included, that by the time I ended up doing an engineering degree, I didn’t get to choose courses till my fifth year of university, where I actually got to choose something outside of the path. So, it’s so fascinating to hear. I’m not surprised that you were super excited about all these things, because not only were you choosing it, but you were coming from a place where you hadn’t been beaten down about all the other things, so you could bring your energy and yourself and your excitement to it all.
Does that make sense?
I think there’s two sides to the coin. One, I had never experienced burnout in school, because I started college at 15, which I guess could lead to burnout, but really, I was taking classes that I was really interested in. And truly, I think if I had taken a degree that I wasn’t passionate about, if my parents had pushed me into the hard sciences instead, or things like that, I would absolutely have hated it. I have begrudgingly taken one biology class and one personal finance class and the few hard sciences that I needed and maths that I needed to get my degree. But I purposefully looked for a program that I was really passionate about. I mean, my degree is literally in feminism and Spanish, as well. That’s a kind of a fun major. You mostly spend your time reading poetry and reading books.
And so, I think part of it was, yeah, the lack of burnout and the lack of feeling like I had to do this. I was truly doing it because I wanted to. And also, because I knew why. I knew why I wanted to, which was I want a career where I’m making impactful changes in people’s lives and fighting the good fight or whatever. So, I had a reason and a driving force behind it. And also, I enjoyed what I was studying.
I liked the LSATs, too, because it was, once again, reading. And what they do is in one section you read basically a snippet of an academic article, but they’ll choose from random fields. So, nobody really has a leg-up over anybody else. So, some of them will be from hard sciences. Some of them will be from social sciences, different things. And so, I got to read all these random articles that I would’ve never read otherwise about the time-space continuum, like a million different things, which I thought was really fun.
PAM: I love that. I love that. Yeah.
You bring yourself to it. And back to open and curious, because sometimes when we have a bigger picture path, there are some things along the way that we “have to do”, but we know that we’re choosing it for a particular reason. So, working through that biology course or whatever to get the credit that you need to get to where you want to go, even though it’s a bit of a “have to”, we still feel the choice underneath that. I’m choosing to do this so that I can get here.
ELLIE: And I will say, I feel like unschooling has helped me in a philosophical way to get through college and get into law school, but also in a material way. In my personal statement, which everybody has to write for a law school application, you write basically two pages that has nothing to do with academics. It tells the committee something about you. There’s not really a requirement of what it has to be.
So, I wrote about basically my journey in education and my experience as somebody who had been unschooled and why that has made me the student that I am today. And I received back from I’d say five different law schools. I applied to seven, five different law schools specifically mentioned that personal statement in their response to me and KU Law’s dean actually called me and said, “Your personal statement made me consider pulling my kids out of school.”
PAM: I have goosebumps. That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful, Ellie.
All right. So, I wanted to take a little bit of a shift now, and I just thought maybe you guys could share a story or two about challenges that you have worked through along the way.
We’ve talked a lot about not seeing limitations and moving through that and being creative and how we pursue things. But it’s a really different process when everyone’s working together. You find there’s really not a lot of teen rebellion or stuff like that when you know your parents are trying to help you do the things that you’re wanting to do, right?
So, as challenges come up, it looks really different for unschooling families to work through them rather than the parents going off, having their huddle, deciding on what the answer is, and coming out to tell you how we’re going to solve this issue. So, I was just wondering if there was maybe a story around that that you might share as an example for people.
DARREN: I’ll start just really quickly.
The biggest challenge I ran into was me. There were so many thoughts that I had about how life worked and how parenting should work and how schooling and education should work that we brought into just our experience as parents.
My mom and dad were the first generation to go through and complete college. They went on to get their master’s degrees. Angie and I both went on to get our master’s degrees. So, it was sort of like there was this definitive path that was sort of set for, hey, this is how education works. And there was a certain point along the way. I mean, I just kept throwing away all these old records I kept playing in my head. It was like, oh, wow. Yeah, the kids may not all go to college. How do I feel about that? Okay, well maybe I’ll throw out that record.
Maybe I’ll tuck it away for a little while and then I’ll bring the record back out later, but you just gotta keep playing some of these things over in your head. And I found that, all the time, I had to continue to find things that I thought were important and the way life is structured that I had to challenge myself around and thinking, oh, I need to be flexible here.
I was flexible when Angie first came to me with the idea. It was like, all right, let’s try it out. Let’s kind of watch it and see. But there’s also those moments when you wake up in the morning and you just think. I would wake up occasionally, not very often, but I’d think about, what about math? Are we doing enough? Are we giving the well-rounded education that I hope they would get over time? And then, I’d come to find, I know people in my life who are adults who don’t know how to balance checkbook, and they’re getting along just fine in life as it is right now, too. So, it’s just kind of like, to each their own.
But, for me, I think oftentimes it was sorta like just getting out of my own head or restructuring how I thought about the world so that I wouldn’t be an impediment, but there’s no clear path as to where do you hold the line? Because I felt like there was a line and I think Angie and the kids would say that we did find lines along the way, but it was a question of almost intuitively figuring out what works and sometimes maybe I held a line too long and the family would pull me back. And I think we would all do that for each other in some ways.
And also, we’ve talked about all these great things about unschooling and life was wonderful and it was. I wouldn’t trade the way we live for anything. But we have five very distinct personalities in our house. And we have three kids who bickered as siblings. And I grew up an only child and I was like, why can they not just get along? I don’t understand it. Why are they fighting? Why are they always grouching at each other? Why can’t somebody touch somebody else’s stuff? I don’t get it.
And again, my friend, Chris, who was one of the founders of LEARN would be like, “I promise you this too will pass.” She had great lines. Chris had wonderful tips to share along the way. And her youngest child is Josh’s age. And so, they were just enough older that I was like, okay, all right. All right. And it did. She’s right. This too did pass. These guys are great friends now. They survived their bickering as siblings and they are each other’s really good friends now and advocates. They have each other’s backs and they would be there in an instant if one of the others needed them.
So, I think that just because we chose an unschooling path doesn’t mean that there weren’t what somebody might say normal family dynamics along the way, because there were, for sure.
DARREN: And it is a group effort. I mean, Angie would probably have referred to it much more as a van-schooling than homeschooling, because they were always all around the city, but with three very different interests, you were constantly going in a group oftentimes for one person’s interest. Ellie would often bring her drawing pads so that she could draw and do some art while she’s yet another one of Rylie’s dance classes. You found that, yes, you follow everyone’s passions and interests, but you had to compromise a lot in terms of, “We were there for you for this one and you can be there for them for this one.”
ANGIE: That doesn’t mean we don’t have video of Josh making a gaggy face at Rylie’s ballet recital. So, I mean, there’s normal family dynamics that come into play. Every day isn’t sunshine and roses, but, because we were constantly there, we could work through them together as a family, versus where they’re a part all day at school and they come home and they bicker, that’s not to say that there’s families whose kids go to public school and the siblings aren’t close.
I know families that are like that, but there’s also a lot that don’t have that closeness, because they don’t spend that time together. And so, I just think that that was just one of the benefits that we had to work through those harder times of being there. We’re all in this together. Let’s brainstorm some ideas. How can we meet your needs while still meeting her needs? And hopefully, meet the other one’s needs, too.
PAM: Yeah. I think, for me, that was the big piece. It was the shift from, I need to have the solution to the, what are everybody’s needs and let’s see if we can figure out a path forward to meet them. Maybe they’re not the top priority. Maybe Josh got some ice cream after the ballet recital, or, like you were saying, Ellie brought the book and the drawing pad to some of the things, but because everybody knew they were being heard and when their thing came up, it would be respected and it would have that priority, I just found that it was so much easier. Because they felt heard and trusted that their needs would be taken care of and considered.
It was easier for them to say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll tag along. I’ll bring this,” until you could go hide up in the tree and you’re old enough to stay on your own as they went out and did the different things. But yeah, I think that was the relationship difference, that everybody was working together, versus parent child.
ANGIE: And we also had the benefit of being part of that really large homeschooling group. We would meet up and drop kids off and we had a lot of like extended play dates, like two- and three-night sleepovers, because they had friends all over the metro. Ellie’s best friend growing up lived an hour away from us.
To get together, we would meet in the middle, trade off a kid, and they would spend the night and then we would hook up at either the classes on Wednesday or meet somewhere else in the city the next day to pick them up or two or three days later. So that, also, I think helped them. Maybe they got dragged to an event, but then from there, they went on to do something with a friend and went off. So, we had a lot of what we called PODs, parents on duty. We had a lot of swapping around of children during the growing up years.
But I don’t know. You guys didn’t get a chance to answer that. How do you feel about any challenges?
RYLIE: Yeah, I think adding onto a little bit of what my dad said, the biggest struggle in my unschooling journey was myself, was personal. It wasn’t necessarily something that we experienced. I’m sure each and every one individually experienced it, but just the fact that my parents said at the beginning, they had to put trust in each other and themselves that this is a journey that not many people take. And just trusting the process along the way.
And I think from the child’s perspective, growing up in that situation, it was also about trusting the process along the way. There were lots of moments of self-doubt throughout my childhood of being questioned. I was always questioning, from a curious perspective, and I was being questioned when I would go to dance classes. I had public school kids who didn’t understand. And I can see that from a grownup perspective now as, those are just kids who didn’t quite understand what my life was like. But as a child, you feel attacked. You’re like, they’re asking me this crazy times-table thing that I don’t think even an adult could answer. And they’re asking me, expecting me to answer.
We had a lot of being questioned as children, whether we were at the grocery store and people were like, “Why aren’t you in school today?” And then when my mom would say, “Oh, we homeschool,” their reaction would retract a little bit like, oh. Or there are things that you feel energetically. Maybe it’s not even someone specifically saying something out loud, but I think that the general public has a certain view on homeschooling that is, I don’t want to say it’s negative, but it’s unknown.
And so, I think a lot of my struggles were due to that of trusting that this was gonna work. I had a lot of questioning of myself, like, should I know this? Should I be doing math? I don’t want to do math. I have no desire to do math, but it seems like people are telling me I should. Josh and Ellie can play off of that if you feel like it, but I think that that was one of the main struggles that I experienced growing up.
JOSH: I would agree with that. Yeah.
ELLIE: I would say that that was definitely one of the most daily struggles, the most consistent, never letting up, relentless. People just questioning you and making you feel so stupid. I genuinely remember being eight, nine, 10 years old and just feeling so, so dumb, because people would just question us. They’d quiz us. They’d be like, oh, who was the 27th president?
ANGIE: They didn’t even know who the 27th president was.
ELLIE: Or what is 10000 times whatever? They’d quiz you and I’m like, I didn’t study for this pop quiz. And I don’t know about other people, but it would make me feel so dumb. Every answer would be like, I don’t know. And then I just wished that they would stop. And I wondered, would other kids actually know the answers to these things? Or did they just come up with some random question in their head?
It was at grocery stores, for Rylie, it was kids from her dance, but I went to summer camp as a kid and it would be my fellow campers. They were just people really trying and looking for you to not feel like empowered in that situation. I can’t think of a reason why they would ask that if not to prove their point.
I think it’s also just a genuine curiosity, a curiosity that comes across in a way that feels harsh to a kid or to anybody really. But I think that it is just a place of not knowing or feeling like they might be uneducated on the circumstance or the situation that this family is in. And so, from their not knowing, they are projecting their fears and their concerns about what might be going on in this family onto the children.
ELLIE: That’s a more graceful response.
RYLIE: And probably I’m sure our parents got that, too.
PAM: I love that, because when my kids were in those pre-teen, early teen years, when they’re out and about more or they’re starting to be, they were meeting up with people who were living a very different lifestyle than we were. That was a big conversation. When I’d go pick up my daughter from Girl Guides or my son from karate or whatever it was, the drive home was often full of those conversations processing, like, “They were asking me this and they’re doing this,” and validating those feelings.
That’s not fun for somebody to be quizzing you and we’d be talking about, why are they doing that? What are they feeling about that? What might I do next time? There was actually one year with Girl Guides that it got bad enough. After the first month, I wrote a little letter. I even just called it homeschooling. I didn’t even use the word unschooling. I said, “We’re homeschooling. Yes. It’s legal.” Answering the questions that we’d get. And I gave it to the leader and I brought copies.
And I said, “Hey, can you hand this out to the parents just to let them know? Because they seem really curious about what we’re doing. Maybe I can answer the questions.” Because you could tell that the kids were leaving, were going home and saying, “Hey, she doesn’t go to school,” and, “Hey, do I have to go to school?”
And then you can hear the parents saying, “Yes, you need this. You need to get into college.” You can hear the answers that the parents were feeling they had to give. And then they would run to the next Girl Guide meeting and bringing those, “Oh, well you’re never going to get to college. You’re never going to have a good job.”
Because what 12-year-old is actually going to be saying those things on their own? You know where that whole message came from. So, I think that is something that a lot of homeschooled and unschooled kids experience as they’re getting out into the world a little bit more, because it’s so different. Yeah. They’re super curious.
But that curiosity, like you’re saying, Rylie, really feels very confrontational, because they don’t really have any other tools or any other way to ask. So, they’re trying to kind of validate their family’s choices. So, we could often do things like emphasizing that this is working for us now. We’re having a lot of fun. I remember they used to say to her, you must be so bored if you don’t go to school.
JOSH: I don’t think that was ever an issue.
PAM: Like, what?
Yeah. It’s all very fascinating. All right.
One last thing. Looking back now, I would be curious to hear what has surprised you most about having embraced unschooling for your family?
DARREN: I’ll offer up something again, just to kick us off. There’s this one moment I firmly hold in my mind. We were at a community center downtown and it was the annual dance that would happen in the spring. It was just joyful, because I looked out on the dance floor and this is something like preteens just coming in, maybe for the teens as well. And they’re there with their parents. They’re on the dance floor in the equivalent of what some might look at as a spring formal or a prom-like event, and they’re dancing with their parents. They wanted us to enjoy the evening with them. And I might’ve been looking from outside the circle at that point in time, but was quickly in there with Angie and the rest, as well.
But for me, that was the magical piece. That was a surprise. It was the piece I wasn’t expecting, but I now see all the time with most teenagers who are in a school setting that they will divert their eyes down. They will not connect with adults. Adults are not to be trusted, because they put them into a system under which their control has been taken from them. I’m reading deep. We can go long on that another time. But for this one, it was so fascinating to see that through this process, there is a family bond that was created and a trusting situation that not only began with Angie and I, but extended into the family as a whole to where there was a desire to share these experiences collectively.
And I’ll go one step further to say with that secular homeschooling group that we were a part of, there’s this kind of soft life skill that you just don’t get in school, which is a level of nurturing. So, you’ve got that family bond that goes a step further because your family, all of a sudden, becomes this wider community. And you see everything from breastfeeding happening in a setting where it’s just natural for everyone to see that happening, toddlers coming up, as Angie had mentioned, across different age groups.
It’s almost like brothers and sisters of all ages in this larger community. Someone gets sick, all of a sudden there is a dinner list circulating around and you’ve got 10 homeschooling families taking care of your dinners for the next two weeks. I mean, there’s a level of nurturing and caring for each other that just really doesn’t come out of the traditional school education that really, I think, sticks with you your entire life.
You see a level of maternal nurturing, parent nurturing, dads leaning in. How do you actively be a part of kind of this growing experience. The kids can speak for themselves, but I feel like for me, that was a bonus. It was a surprise. It was a bonus. I didn’t expect that, but it creates this level of empowerment for the kids as individuals, but for me, kind of this warm, fuzzy spot of knowing that not only did we do something that sent them on their own paths become who they are today, but nurtured and modeled for them what it means to have a family bond and to be a part of a nurturing community, if that makes sense.
PAM: Love that one. Angie, do you have anything to add about what surprised you?
I guess we started this as an education, a replacement for traditional education. And then, I guess for me looking back, unschooling didn’t end when Ellie graduated. I feel like we still are unschooling. We question things. We look at things through a different lens. I just feel like it’s become just our life and it’s no longer an educational choice. It’s a lifestyle choice that happens to encompass how your children learn.
Does that make sense?
PAM: Beautifully. Yeah. I love that. I love that. Ellie, how about you? What surprised you most so far?
ELLIE: I was born into unschooling. Like my mom said, she was pregnant with me when they decided. So, I’ve never known a life that wasn’t unschooling. I think, therefore, I didn’t really have any preconceived notions on what it might be, but I think I’m more surprised now having been in college for a while, having a lot of friends that all came through high school and came through the traditional education system, I’m more surprised that that exists.
It just sometimes amazes me when they say things and they’ll trauma-bond in a way, like, “Oh, you guys remember when we’d have those pizza parties and we’d get one slice of pizza that’s this tiny?” I’d be like, “Did you? They’ll say things that just genuinely amazed me that like, everybody experienced that same thing. You know what I mean? So, nothing surprised me about unschooling, because I never had any preconceived notions about it, but things have surprised me learning that other people didn’t have that same experience, I guess.
PAM: That makes a lot of sense. How about you, Rylie?
I think there’s so much to take away from it all, but I think just as an adult now, going through the experience, it’s just how I see the world. And I think how I see community and how I see family and feel connected to so many different things and so many different levels of awareness in every aspect of my life. But I think that that was really nourished when I was a kid going through that and now it’s carried on and it’s still being nourished through family and community and, like my parents said, the unschooling doesn’t stop when you turn 18 and you graduate. Unschooling is your whole life of deconstructing what people tell you to believe.
PAM: Beautiful. Yeah. I love that piece. It really does become a lifestyle. And Josh, how about you?
JOSH: Yeah, absolutely. No, I completely agree with what everyone said so far.
And I think for me, kind of along the lines of what Dad said about kids being able to have this relationship with their parents and with other adults in the homeschooling group, it was almost the reverse for me now that I’m older, to see how the parents treated kids in the group like people. And now seeing, being an adult, seeing how maybe some people treat kids in school.
There’s a total disconnect. A parent would be happy to have a conversation with you about something and they didn’t just treat you like you were just a kid who is running around being crazy and being annoying for them. They were all genuinely interested in what you were doing and would treat you like a person, which was fantastic.
PAM: Yeah. And it is a surprise when you get out, like maybe when you were teaching at the parkour gyms and stuff and dealing with parents and noticing how much they weren’t involving their kids. The parents, again, figuring things out and then telling the kids what they were gonna do. So yeah, sometimes it’s kind of a reverse surprise later when it’s something that you’ve known always growing up.
PAM: Well, thank you so much, guys. That was incredible. Truly. It was so fun to hear from all of you, all the different perspectives. And I love what you guys shared. Thanks so much for taking the time not only to talk to me, but to think about this stuff and actually share your experiences. I know people are gonna really appreciate having heard these. Thank you so much. I hope you enjoyed it a little bit.
JOSH: Absolutely. It was a great time.
RYLIE: Thanks for the platform to share.
PAM: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, guys. I wish you all a wonderful day.
JOSH: You, too. Thank you, Pam.