My son Benny was out late last night at a bar in Soho. It’s now ten-thirty a.m. and he’s spread eagled across his bed, one long leg dangling off the mattress. His dirty bangs hang over his closed eyes, his mouth flutters open and shut as he breathes deep sleeping breaths. As ever, his socks are on, threadbare and gray at the heels.
In this pose, he’s an average teenage boy, except for two things: he’s just shy of five years old and today he starts un-kindergarten.
It’s the new school year and while Benny’s been sleeping this morning, many of his old babyhood friends have already eaten breakfast, donned their shining new backpacks and shoes, and trooped off toward their very first day of kindergarten.
Benny knows the word kindergarten. He’s read about kids going to such a place in his books, many of which he insists on reading on his own these days. But he hasn’t yet asked if he will be going to kindergarten. My partner, Brad, and I haven’t really mentioned that he wont be.
Benny’s never heard of un-kindergarten though. That’s because I made up the term last night.
We were out with friends having drinks. Benny was with us, as usual. We’d hit that lull time around nine o’clock, post happy hour and pre-late night revelers when New York City bartenders don’t seem to mind five-year-olds playing with cars and sipping cranberry juice near the bar.
Our friends have no kids, but were curious about our decision not to send Benny to school. They’re aware enough to know that homeschooling is no longer (and probably never was) just a bunch of Bible-thumping Seventh Day Adventists who teach their kids at home in order to avoid the heathens at public school. Our friends also understand that parents homeschool their kids in different ways and for different reasons.
Nonetheless, when I used the term “unschooling,” they needed an explanation.
“There’s no good soundbite to describe it,” I said, “just as there’s no good soundbite to describe school. But generally speaking, unschoolers don’t send their kids to regular school and avoid teaching by curriculum. You won’t find them at the kitchen table every morning doing math, then reading, then geography.”
I went on to explain that unschoolers believe in letting a kid’s curiosity, interests and natural hunger for knowledge guide their learning.
“So are you unschoolers, then?” Julie, our friend, asked.
Brad and I exchanged glances then gave vague yes/no head waggles.
On the homeschool spectrum we’re probably nearer to the unschool end – at least, for the time being. We have no lesson plans drawn up for the coming year. We’ve ordered no curriculums. The way we helped Benny learn to read was very ad hoc and unstructured. (He liked road signs a lot, so we started with the words “Bump,” “Stop,” “Yield Ahead” and went from there.)
Neither of us has ever read a word of John Holt – the grand master of the unschooling world who, apparently, wrote both about the failure of schools and the importance of teaching kids how to learn instead of what to learn. Nor do we believe that unschooling is necessarily the only and best way for every child to be educated.
Moreover, to call ourselves unschoolers seems so definitive and final and I’m not sure whether in two, or five, or ten years’ time, an unschooling, laissez-faire approach to Benny’s education will work for our family.
That’s when I came up with my new term.
“He’s going to un-kindergarten this year, that’s for sure,” I joked with our friends last night, before ordering us all another beer and Benny another cranberry juice.
On our first un-kindergarten day, Benny got up at noon, a little later than his usual eleven a.m. start. I worked on my latest novel while he slept, as I always do. Brad, who’s a professor at NYU, headed out to teach his first class of the semester.
After he got up, Benny spent an hour playing a complicated game which involved five toy cars and couple of bungee cords. Then we headed over to Brooklyn on the subway, stopping in Chinatown on the way to pick up fresh fruit and rice snacks. Benny delighted in counting out four quarters to pay a stall owner for some bananas.
Now, in the warm afternoon sun, Benny is playing with two other kids in a strip of mud in a small backyard. His two friends are completely naked. Benny has on his underpants and a pair of socks. Almost every inch of childish skin, cotton, and hair is covered with wet, sticky dirt. The kids are completely absorbed in the task at hand: burying a bobbing-eyed baby doll in the dirt. At the moment, the doll’s torso and legs are completely submerged. Her head is exposed, but one eyelid is held down by mud. An earthworm wriggles just a couple of inches away from the doll’s shining plastic scalp.
The whole scene could be a performance art piece or perhaps an excerpt from a very twisted movie about child killers. Instead this is just an average day at the new little homeschool/unschool/DIY-preschool playgroup we attend each week.
While Benny and his co-conspirators work on their burial project, other kids in the yard are also busy. One is fiddling with the brake system on a tricycle. Another is feeding a carrot to a rather worried pet rabbit. Two little girls are dancing, fully clothed, in a sprinkler.
We mothers and one father sit nearby drinking cool beer. Many of us have been away during the summer and we’re celebrating being back together again. We are a rag-tag bunch: writers, artists, actors, an activist, one doula and a carpenter. Our kids ages range from one to six.
As the baby doll takes her last one-eyed glimpse of daylight and the bunny retreats to his hutch, our conversation turns to the “whole school thing.” It’s the first day of school for the rest of the country.
Some of the group are die-hard unschoolers. They believe the current school system deadens young minds and that there is nothing worse for developing curiosity and self-learning than an overworked teacher spooning out knowledge in bite-sized chunks. The schoolhouse, they believe, is a “cage” and the only way to teach kids how to be and learn in the world is to take them out into it.
Others of us are on the fence. One mom has decided not to send her kids to preschool this year, but is still open to the idea of kindergarten next year. Another mom has twin sons in first grade at a public school, but has decided not to send her younger child to preschool, and hopes one day to homeschool all three.
A few of us like the idea of some sort of curriculum, or at the very least adding more structured activities such as reading circles or science experiments into our weekly meetings. One member of the group has already ordered a number of homeschool curriculums online and she and her son are very active in New York’s vibrant homeschool community.
As we talk, I realize that Benny is not at “real” kindergarten today, because it is what suits my family at this moment. I’m not against school. Not by any means. After all, Brad and I fared pretty nicely after a regular school education. With two PhDs between us and a couple of published books, our desire to learn clearly wasn’t quashed.
But un-kindergarten for us means Benny can sleep late so I can write. It means we don’t have to worry about bedtimes and can go out on the town with friends any night of the week. We can go to Europe and visit my family when the flights are cheap. Un-kindergarten also means we can pick and choose how we spend our days and who we spend them with. Benny can go to free classes at the Metropolitan Museum in the week when it’s less crowded. He can read a book on sharks when he feels like it. He can experiment with bungee cords while eating his breakfast at noon.
By the end of the afternoon, baby doll is finally sealed in her earthy tomb and the kids have been hosed down with cold water. Their shrieks are heard across Brooklyn. Benny and I will now head back to Manhattan, reading the subway signs along the way (“Do not lean on door,” “No exit”).
Tonight, we will meet Brad for dinner and go see a movie at the movie theater. Benny’s not into kid flicks like Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc.They scare him silly. Juno was Benny’s favorite this year. He likes to say, when he sees a pregnant woman, “She looks like a planet.”
After the movie, we’ll head home, read books, and all fall asleep around midnight. Our first day of unkindergarten will be done and we’ll sleep well knowing that Benny is learning, growing, and enjoying his five year old, mud-splattered life, even in the absence of workbooks, fingerpaints, and school bells.