Yesterday I interviewed my husband, David, about his experiences with schooling. We have had many conversations over the years (we have been together for 25 years and have three children together, all of whom were homeschooled) about our school experiences and what we learned from them, but I wanted to hear what he would say to my specific questions, and wanted to see if he could help me better understand for myself what questions I truly want to ask.
David is 55 years old, a painter and poet and studier, and for the past 13 years a stay at home, homeschooling, dad. He grew up in a church-going family, the eldest of 7 siblings, his father a Baptist minster, his mother mothering full time. They lived in small to mid size Iowa towns as he was growing up, moving every 5 years or so. David attended a Bible college for a short time after graduating from high school, and later attended a 4 year state university. When I started asking David about schooling, he drew regular parallels between school and church.
Me: If you think back to being a kid, how did you feel about school at the time?
D: Probably still trusting in whatever experience that was being encouraged for me to participate in. School and church are similar in the way that they establish boundaries and questions and right answers. Approval. Or disapproval. Part of that is understanding rewards and consequences. What resonates is what gets approval. You see other kids. Who gets acknowledged and why. What they did or what they said got approval, or rewarded. And so in the same way when there are students who seem to be having difficulty paying attention and are punished for either lack of cooperation with the program or their inability to keep up with a curriculum that has a pace.
What kind of attention you get throughout the course of a day starts to make its initial imprint in you. What are you getting attention for? Did you want attention for that? And if you go through a day with a curriculum that carries with it a hard line of reward and consequence, if you go through a day and nothing you did or said got that much attention, those days seem, maybe, kind of a good day. The more invisible days…And that way you can enjoy everything else in your head and the environment that doesn’t have all of what people put in you — “no, you should look at this”. And when you wake up in the morning and somebody decided that before you get a head start on what you want to be thinking about, this is what you should be thinking about.
Me: How did that make you feel?
D: Like I wanna do everything that would be of no benefit or consequence eternally.
Me: Wow. Well that’s that impulse to be invisible, right?
D: Right, because when you get the different deeper views of rewards and punishment, fear and guilt, “oh no I didn’t get my assignment done”, “oh no I didn’t get my Sunday school lesson”, “oh no there’s sin I forgot to ask forgiveness for” — All of these are familiar. It’s just like with athletic events, or clubs and contests that generate people’s participation. You want participation because that shows you the success of your method. And you cannot take the idea that your method would be in error. Everything you do as a pupil needs to support the curriculum, because the curriculum is like the inerrant word of God. It needs to be supported by this automatic response. They need to know, they need to see evidence that this works. That this is correct. They’re not learning anything. They’re looking for an echo. So you realize how you feel as an individual with your identity being an echo chamber. And — what does that do for you? You look around at the other echo chambers who are giving the teachers whatever it is that they want, and perfectly. “Wow! You lifted that right out of the book – you must have read the chapter! You studied! You know, you’re a good student.” And so that’s exactly what they’re looking for. And since you’re not oblivious, you see all of the ones who are punished for not delivering. You can get all these familiar forms of punishment, spanks, slaps, shakes, detention, demerits, demerits lead to detentions. There is a penalty. It’s a precursor to the judicial system — Why did they have to go to the principal’s office? Well, it started with —- and then there are the mysteries. We don’t know why little Johnny isn’t doing well in school. Is there a problem at home? There isn’t a problem with the curriculum any more than there’s a problem with the Bible. There’s a problem with you. Or whoever, for not being able to adapt. And that’s where art comes in.
Me: Tell me more about that.
D: You gotta do something artistic because you don’t feel enough of an identity. “Oh, I want more of an identity, because this being an echo chamber isn’t really feeding me too much, and I really don’t have friends, and it seems that there’s more to life that this.” And then everybody who’s independently pursuing anything that doesn’t sound like an echo chamber is interesting. And those people are usually the loners, and they’re the ones that you would probably be okay — feel good about how time feels with them. Time feels good because there’s imagination, they’re outside of the rhythm that is always endorsed. And it’s like a song. And you can feel that in teachers and sometimes it’s frustrating not to get [endorsement] — you had an idea you were going to get more. So if you’re singing a song, and somebody sounds flat, then it’s like with the curriculum, just keep going when you’re losing a lot of people and you’re not producing any results where people are bouncing with the educational process. If you made it your own, if you got passionate about something, if you never expected the curriculum to deliver for you anyway, then you’re good. If you had expectations about the immediate environment, and that’s what you internalized, and you felt the curse of it or the reward of it, those are some pretty hard hard floors to fall on. You’re gonna feel everything. And then you look at what they expect versus what you expect of yourself, and you think, wow, you expect what from me? And you think I’m capable of what? Too much scrutiny from a teacher of the wrong kind makes it so you don’t want to do what they expect of you. Anybody that experiences a positive in terms of a relationship with an environment, it had something to do with the whole empty space that’s necessary to be creative. To commune with your own soul, have the private space. The attention you get feels bland and generic when people are paying attention to only the same things all the time. It’s a demerit or a trophy. Demerits and trophies are familiar pictures.
Me: How do you think about school with our own kids?
D: I think it’s probably where you start taking a hard look at community and what supports you and where you feel alliances that are unquestionably looking for the best possible environment. The best possible feedback. Because, you know, you start breaking everything down and start look at everything artificial that gets put in the soil, “this is mandatory state-approved, on schedule”, and so your own experience, you think, yeah, I survived that, but it’s not like I would recommend it. I think kids are resilient. I would like to think. Plus they’re not stuck in the rhetorical sludge that their mentors are. They are still — it’s a bouncy faith in possibility, and, “okay, I’ll do this if you want to”, but it’s not sticking. The curriculum.
Me: That’s the awesome thing.
D: And you feel the ones that are servants. Unquestioning servants of the system that they are participating in, and where they want to execute condemnation or pin a blue ribbon on somebody, and otherwise they don’t see it. And there’s a whole lot of, you could call it creativity or life experience, that just goes into this dark space. That big space where everything that does not get attention. There are no flood lights on it. The flood lights are saying, this is what you should be paying attention to. And anything, like, “what am I doing at the principal’s office? Well, I guess I got bored in class. And I shouldn’t have put ink on that ruler. I shouldn’t have done it.”
Me: The idea that we will always learn from whatever we are given, we just aren’t necessarily learning what they think we are learning or what the curriculum says we are supposed to learn.
D: In the Philip Roth movie [Indignation], if you just take that small bit where the guy who’s in the fraternity says, “you don’t even have to take it this seriously” and the way that you feel obligated, in the same way that you do in church from my experience — it’s not a choice, you do this. It’s not a suggestion. You hear people say things like, “I wasn’t asking you, I’m telling you.” When people say that kind of thing, that hits me as hard as the first time I got spanked. And there’s a rejection. You say, why did they get that migraine? Why are they vomiting profusely? Because that goes all the way back to early early stages, that your only value is obedience.
Me: Talk about dark stuff — regardless of what’s going on on the surface, something deep in us rejects that and resists it.
D: And for some people, those definitions of you and how well you acquiesce, that’s all it takes. And if you’re surrounded by a lot of people doing well in that curriculum, why do you have a problem? I’m not in the right place, am I? If you have a lot of options. So, the worst of some human behavior that you witness in this culture is, “wow, they’re so spoiled, they get everything they want. They think the world revolves around them. Boy, when I was growing up, uh huh, you knew your place”. So there’s gotta be something else, because you don’t want a seat at any of those tables. I don’t identify with somebody who just gets everything they want and perceives the world this way, and places value on people in their relation to what they can do for you, and that’s it? That seems cold. And just being somebody who is obedient and knows their place, that’s generic. And doesn’t really do you any spiritual favors.
The human experience likes to be validated with other people, and over a period of time looking at, okay, this is what I have to do to be accepted by a community. If you don’t like the way you feel giving that community everything it wants, what are your community options? When you’re really young you’re very fortunate to think that you have options. If you’re around people who say, “if this is not working we can go over in this direction”. The severity of the outcome of your original hardline experience, if you had one of those, and it does not consider everyone. That’s probably the thing that you find disturbing is its lack of willingness to look at what’s really in the glass or on the other side. And if you are not getting the response that you need, you need to correct it like anything that needs to be fixed or corrected. Everything from spare the rod, spoil the child, to — everything that is on paper. It’s been typed up, it’s in books. This is what’s correct. We’ve got it documented.
Me: We’ve got it all figured out, see— What am I supposed to do then? Memorize it? What’s the fun in that?
D: Well, in Bible college, I remember, there’s a guy, who goes to this church, who they label a heretic. That’s out there. That’s something. He asked a question in this doctrine teacher’s class, and they started calling him a heretic. Wow. They’re quick on the trigger finger with the heretic reflex. And then another day, I’m supposed to be in church, and instead I went to the bowling alley. And that felt really strange. And so in school you see that conditional regard. So when I would ask questions myself, like, “why this?” that would turn into a demerit. “You wanna keep asking questions??” And just making more demerit marks — realizing, oh, there’s a penalty to go with my natural flow of thoughts. My brain is saying things that I should not send through my lips. How frequently could I say that’s true? I should censor. And that’s, boy — you know what gets a lot of applause besides memorizing lots of material or knowing how to do something really well, performances of plays and recitation of verse and song — people who, I love it when people are economical with their words. It’s not a lot of filler. They’re powerful because they have well-chosen words. But what you see applause for is censorship. When you read through a play for example, and they say, “table it”? You run through the scene, these are the building blocks of how the play is going to go — and the director has a view on these scenes, talking to the people who are going to be in this performance. And it’s not going to happen on the clock if there’s debate or confrontation about the interpretation of something. It just needs to go because it needs to happen by this date, performances at this time. The way that your brain works in the curriculum format, it’s not ready to adapt to that schedule all the time. Or, is it ready to censor itself based on what everybody else needs to hear? So, that becomes the groundwork for internalization. “I already know, you showed me a long time ago what you want to hear and what you don’t want to hear, and I can do all the editing that you need.” And, you’re not dealing with performance dates like curtain call, first dress rehearsal, final dress rehearsal, you’re just on a punctuated editing process that will never cease because you know what people need to hear.
Me: I’m thinking about that phrase — “do that on your own time”. When is that gonna happen? So this isn’t my time? All these hours of school time, these aren’t mine, they’re yours? Or, what, the state’s? Whose time is it?
D: The clock, from the very beginning, the clock and the calendar carry with it a certain gravity. “If you were to die today, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” “Is your assignment done? Do you know that’s due Monday at 7:00?” “No exceptions. If you get your paper in a day late you’re gonna drop a whole letter grade.” If you’re lucky half a letter grade. If you fail to — if you fail to give whoever it is that’s in charge exactly what they wanted, this will be on your permanent record.
With everybody that you have a conversation with, if you’re going back to early school days, you feel like, well, this is it. If you were just working undercover, I’m going to pose as a student or an obedient member of the church. And then you went back to a group of people, maybe they’re aliens from another planet who are taking notes, and they’re looking to you, you are the beacon of light, you are the voice of a more enlightened experience, because you’re directly going to pass through this portal of what they’ve just been observing from out here — and you say, “wow, they’re doing this and this and this” — and they say “oh, yes, hmm”, and analyze it. This experience is not an absolute definition of how life is supposed to be. You’re participating in it so that you can go workshop it with a group of people that are interested in this. “Who is the soldier that’s holding their gun incorrectly? That one!” “I pledge allegiance to the flag, to the Christian flag, to the Bible.” All of these are interesting pieces of furniture while you’re walking through your life. You’re walking through, and whatever is free thought and speculation, here are the whistles and bells ringing, church bells, whistles, buzzers at half time, first call, last call, clock and calendar. And so you get used to your mind having a relationship with the clock and calendar in a way that, however I can enjoy my mind the most, just what I would want to see, and/or explore, with all of that in the background, that you can do the mixing board and turn the sound down on all of this.