To Swing in a Tree and From Bullets be Free:
Why I Left School
By Eli Gerzon
A while back, after I had been unschooling for a year or so, I decided to write out some uncommon answers to very common homeschooling questions. The best one was, "Why did you decide to leave school?" My reply: "If you saw a monkey swinging in a tree, would you ask it why it left the zoo?" The essence of this tongue in cheek response is the start, but not the end, of how I would honestly answer the question now. The alternate way I've come to look at it evolved from a heated discussion with some homeschooling parents, friends of mine, after attending a John Taylor Gatto speech. I was trying to make a point when I asked, "Yes, but what is the main reason you don't send your children to school?" I expected them to simply answer "freedom" and thus help prove some point I was trying to make, but I was surprised when Glenn answered in a thoughtful voice almost to himself, "Why do I avoid sending my children into a battlefield where bullets are flying?" I had to stop and think about this answer because it sounded like a very good one, but I didn't fully appreciate it until about a year later. Now, I think those two rhetorical questions illustrate most clearly the reason I left school.
This is all very abstract and you might be wondering what was actually going through my head when I decided to leave. I guess it was something like this: "What! I can leave school legit? Okay!" To illustrate let us go back to the monkey metaphor: monkey sitting depressed, spent entire life behind bars occasionally flinging feces but not really doing anything to change situation, notices not only other monkeys free outside of cage but clear, unobstructed opening from which to escape! He gestures to zookeepers and they make it clear that he can, in fact, leave. Indeed, he goes and they never do bother him except when he, on occasion, goes back to the zoo to visit old friends, but this is the Arlington Zoo and every zoo is different. All in all, the only thing our furry friend can say is, "Okay!"
A more serious but no more truthful answer to the question of why I left school would be: "I found out that I could leave school." Indeed, I thought that that would be enough of a reason for many of my schoolmates, but I soon found that even for my closest and most like-minded friends, being able to leave was not enough of a reason to leave. In order to offer an adequate explanation to the discerning reader of why I decided to leave school, I need to start talking not just about myself, but about me in relation to my classmates, people in a similar or identical situation, who did not make the same choice as me. There was something dead inside of them that was alive inside of me. Some readers may find this initial description of my friends and classmates harsh, but I have no desire to be harsh, only the desire to describe truthfully what I observed. I remember very clearly sitting in one of my freshman classes and looking around the room at the students. I could not see much going on inside of them; there wasn't much life there. Again, I expect some people will want to know how in the world someone can claim to see into another person. I can't claim it at all. But I know that as I looked around the room, I saw young adults sitting, saying next to nothing, examining and biting their nails, looking aimlessly around the room, or outright sleeping. At times my regular arguments with teachers and other students nudged their stupor, either entertaining or annoying them.
Now, I have some shame, both appropriate and unnecessary, about all the arguing I did in my later years of school and certainly after I left school. A teacher really did have his/her work cut out for him/her if I was in the class. I was often a difficult person to converse with and maybe to even just listen to, according to some classmates. I'm not very proud of the aggressive way I spoke. Still, I realize that I was awake that whole time, something was going on inside of me every minute I sat in school. There's a lot one can say about what one should do while one is awake, but regardless one does have to start by at least being awake!
One specific example took place in Mr. O'Sullivan's Freshman Honors History class. It's significant to note that I was in all honors classes, not for me to brag, but for readers to realize that when I talk about the apathy of my fellow students, I'm referring to the supposedly most dedicated and intelligent students. At one point we were reading about the Vikings and I noticed that this group of people was referred to as "warlike barbarians." I raised my hand, which made some students quietly groan and despair: "Not another argument from Eli." In this case, I was upset by the fact that the Vikings were clearly presented as more violent, warmongering, and less sophisticated, reasonable, and advanced, along with all the other implications of "barbarian" and "uncivilized," than other nations we read about. Why is it that people who rape, pillage, occupy, and assimilate other nations, are more "civilized" than countries that just rape, pillage, and leave? Mr. O'Sullivan was clearly not very interested in discussing it and certainly no one else was saying anything about it. But I was persistent and eventually Mr. O'Sullivan said, "All right, Eli, maybe you are correct, but if you see a multiple choice question on a test that says 'How would you describe the Vikings?' and you want to check the right answer, you'll check the one that says, 'warlike barbarians.' " I was completely taken off-guard by this honest evaluation: I felt deflated and said simply, "Yes, of course I know that." The conversation ended there and I did in fact understand completely what he was saying. But, of course, that wasn't the point. I was interested in determining what was true and his ultimate response was that regardless of truth, you will be required to repeat what has been taught you. As I said the conversation ended there because no one else noticed or objected to this.
I don't mean to indicate that my classmates were not intelligent, or even less aware, active, or caring than me. In fact, it disturbed me the most when I was in a classroom that included people whose awareness I really respected. Yet they said nothing when untrue things were taught in class, in my opinion and, importantly, in theirs as well. After class I might ask privately why, after I challenged an issue, no one else contributed to the discussion. I don't remember getting an answer that satisfied me. The answer I got most often was: "Why bother?" At the time, this felt like very much of a non-answer to me. But I have come to see some wisdom in it.
The students I mentioned may have realized that it was a waste of time to fight every injustice and inaccuracy in school. I agree now, and that's why I have some regret about the time and energy I spent trying to do just that. But at the same time I go back to Glenn's question of, "Why do I avoid sending my children into a battlefield where bullets are flying?" I imagine myself on that battlefield. Lies and fear are being shot all around me and I know I do not want to just stand there while being riddled with such ammunition. I feel the need to fight back, fiercely, or flee. And so I did. One could say I left school because I was affected by the lies and fear more than the people around me. Then there is still another reason. My peers could have claimed they were saving their energy for more important things and they may have been right. But I felt an urgency to discover what was true with whomever I was speaking, wherever I was, and a place that claimed to exist in order to educate seemed an especially important place to start.
I started feeling that urgency at a young age and I still feel it today. When I discovered that I didn't need to sit myself down every day in school, in a place that I knew was dangerous in relation to truth and freedom, I acted. But long before I started unschooling I was looking for truth, and questioning every small detail and large aspect of life. School was in my way of doing this so it was a natural step to leave. Indeed, now, several years later, after attending some college, and traveling across a humble but goodly portion of the globe, I'm on the same path as when I was twelve years old and giving poor Ms. Nocella such a hard time.
She was trying to demonstrate a word problem on the board in which you buy such and such clothing for such and such a price. We were supposed to compute something that involved sales tax. I pointed out that there is no sales tax on clothing. That must have been the straw that broke the camel's back, because she started crying. In many ways, I was a jerk. Still, in the end, that may have been the spirit that got me out, and I need to be thankful for it. I need to be thankful for a fire that may have burned me and others, but also lit a way through dark and cold places. This fire seemed to drive me without my willing it. Nor could I always keep it from affecting others, like Ms. Nocella, in ways that I did not intend. I've tried ignoring and avoiding it, but life is a cold place without it. While one of my current projects is learning to use moderation in exercising my gifts by questioning, searching, challenging, and being respectful of others all at the same time, I need to honor the fire that freed and protected me. Ultimately, the answer to why I left school may be that fire that wouldn't go out.
[Eli Gerzon wrote this article for the Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts website (www.AHEM.info) in the winter of 2005.]