Let's be honest. Nothing in my resume would suggest I’d unschool. I topped every class, won every contest. I applied to precisely one college for my undergraduate degree—by then, I was used to securing the things I desired—and was welcomed in. I moved abroad, earned two Master’s degrees—one in modern literature, another in broadcast journalism, besides a certificate in media law—and finally, pursued more certificates in studio art and creative writing.
In other words, I spent the first three decades of my existence collecting educational stamps. Stripped of them—what was I exactly?—I couldn’t tell.
It was while I was pursuing the last of the certificates that something in me shifted. I was in Greece. I had signed up for all the classes in The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts — photography and art history and sculpting. Every minute of every day, weekends included, was governed by a self-imposed timetable.
I was scurrying for my first photography class, when Elizabeth Carson, the famed American photographer with a gentle eye and an even gentler soul, stopped me. ‘How do you find the Aegean sunset?’ she asked. I stared.
It was the first time I had considered pausing. I paused long enough to realise that I had spent an entire fortnight on a Greek island and had barely noticed the sun.
I did not attend Liz’s photography class. Instead, I walked to the jetty. The sun was oozing. Soon, it would plunge into the bluer than blue sea, scatter red and gold.
I spent a lot of my time in Greece watching the sky. I attended classes sparingly, choosing those that truly called out to me, letting the rest pass. I gathered lupins. I lay in fields of poppies.
And as I lay down, I realised what had happened to me — how, in becoming the model student, the poster child for a school education, I had mislaid something vital — the capacity to know the world, to let the world touch me.
I had mislaid far too many sunsets.
So here’s the thing about mainstream schooling. We know it debilitates the kids who don’t fit in, the wild ones reluctant to compete and ascend. But what we don’t speak of sufficiently, or speak of at all, is how much more it injures those of us who do keep pace; the ones who shine.
In aligning ourselves with (oftentimes pointless) rigour, with the kind of busywork schooling asks for, we lose the ability to practice wonder.
To clarify, in my own instance, I don’t view my later education — the colleges and universities I sought out, the professors who held me by hand — as the problem (in fact, these experiences saved me). But I do hold schools culpable of a kind of traumatic reshaping; of instilling in me, when I was at my most impressionable, the belief that my worth was directly proportional to a number on a scorecard and my sole purpose was to meet a target.
It has taken over a decade to reclaim what I must have known when I was four — that I have nothing to prove. It has taken painful effort. It has asked for a constant letting go of a worldview that aligns achievement with busyness; that equates beauty with perfection.
It has asked for a toppling over of a ‘schoolish’ mindset — a mindset so firm, so central to self, that gentle parenting advocate Rachel Rainbolt says it can take over a month of emotional detox to shake off the impact of a single year of formal early education.
This shaking off — which often begins with an admission of school damage and evolves into an attempt at changing set patterns of schooled ‘thinking until a paradigm shift happens’ (Robyn Coburn) — is what is spoken of as deschooling.
I’m still getting deschooled. Ever so often — when my well-schooled self takes over — I find myself measuring my ‘achievements’ against an arbitrary timeline. I find myself seeking validation for my work. I find myself pulling back — there’s no time to dawdle! — as the sun sparks amber.
But my son, as yet untainted by school, insists that I pause.
So, I do.
Dharini Bhaskar is the author of These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light. She is working on her next novel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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