Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Golden Ticket?

There are lots of homeschool-related things percolating in my head today--Park Days; connecting with others; what our "typical day" is starting to look like; unschooling; the call I received today from Logan's former principal. I'm sure I'll write about all of that soon. But what's foremost in my mind is my oldest son Zach--the one child of mine who sailed through public school with nary a glitch. Zach was one of those kids for whom everything came easily: I never had to help him with homework, his teachers all loved him, he effortlessly maintained straight A's throughout his school career. By the time he graduated high school, he was a multi-sport athlete and was a member of the National Honor Society, a happy, confident young man. He applied and was accepted to Drexel University as a Finance major. We hadn't ever pushed him to attend college; we didn't have to. It was simply a natural assumption. Of course, he was going to college. He was so bright! He had been on a college track since first grade, and none of us had ever even thought to question it. After all, a college degree was the golden ticket to happiness, security and success, right? If he had doubts back then, he never shared them with me. Then again, I never asked.

But shortly after he went away to Drexel (he wasn't even 18 yet), problems began to crop up. For the first time his grades began to suffer. He flunked his first class ever. He began to question his choice of major. He became very active in his fraternity to the exclusion of almost everything else. By the end of his freshman year, his grades were abysmal, he was miserable, and he no longer wanted to continue at Drexel. So he came home to live with his dad (my ex) and attended our local community college for a year to bring his grades up and figure out what he wanted to do. Community college was a piece of cake for him--his grades shot back up to almost a 4.0--but living with his dad most definitely was not. At this time he was working with me at Chili's (where I've worked as a waitress for 13 years) and we talked a lot about his "future plans". He was feeling increasingly anxious and pressured because he really just didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, and now I'm forced to admit that a lot of that pressure probably came from me and his dad. He finally decided to transfer to another college about 45 minutes away from home, a college where a lot of his friends attended. He rented an apartment just off campus with three other guys, and has spent the last three years plugging away at his Finance degree, working almost full-time as a waiter, interning part-time at Smith-Barney, and getting deeper and deeper into debt with student loans (close to $40,000 at last count). Most of his friends graduated last year, but because Zach changed schools twice some of his credits didn't transfer, so he's still looking at another half- to full year before he will have that degree.

We rarely see him anymore because he's been working so hard. Several months ago, I tried to pin him down just long enough to have dinner together, and he said, "Mom, I just can't. I have no free time. I have no time when I'm not at school, or one of the jobs." He sounded so exhausted and resigned to the drudgery that was his life! My heart was breaking for him.

He finally came by around Easter, when we had just pulled his little brother Logan out of school. Logan asked him, "So what are you learning about in college, Zach?"

Zach replied, "Absolutely nothing, kid." Then, "No, scratch that. I'm learning how to be a very good little worker bee." Logan's only 7, but even he knew very well that meant. Later on, Zach told me privately, "You now, Mom, when you homeschooled Cody and Chelsea I thought you were nuts." (He was just entering high school at the time.) "But now I get completely why you're doing it, and I'm behind you 100%. Get that poor kid out now before they eat him up and spit him out."

But there was also a new life to Zach, a sparkle in his eye that hadn't been there for a while. He was excited about something! We knew he had been working on composing and producing music for some time, but he and two of his friends had set up a MySpace page with samples of their music, and the response had been tremendous. They had over 100 "friends" in less than 24 hours, and tons of positive comments. Their music is good--really, really good. (His brother Cody--younger than Zach by four years-- is also a very talented composer, and the two of them were working on very similar things, unbeknownst to each other, for almost a year. They are now collaborating on some projects, and Zach says Cody actually taught him quite a bit. How cool is that!)

So when Zach's call came the other day, I wasn't surprised. I could tell he was apprehensive about telling me, but he quit his internship at Smith-Barney. And he's not taking any summer classes, which means no degree for at least a year--if ever. Everything came to a head when Smith-Barney offered him a permanent job after graduation. He told me, "Mom, I don't think I can do it. I don't think I can spend the rest of my life sitting in a cubicle, calling people who don't want to be called, trying to talk them into handing over their life savings. It's a soul-sucking way to make a living." He kind of laughed, and said, "I just wish I hadn't spent 40 grand and five years of my life figuring this out." Oh my poor baby! What if I had unschooled this child? Could I have saved him from all this?

I took a deep breath and told him I loved him no matter what, and that I'd probably do the exact same thing in his position. I told him that he had clear musical talent and that if his heart and gut are telling him to go for it, then that's what he should do. I told him that following his passion will never steer him wrong, and might lead to interesting places he can't even imagine right now.

I could feel his relief through the phone. I think he was expecting some kind of lecture. Instead, he said, "Wow, mom, thank you so much for supporting me in this!"

I've been doing some self-analysis these past couple days trying to figure out how the all-powerful piece of paper known as the College Degree managed to reach such grail-like status in our house. I don't have a degree. I was expelled from high school in my senior year. My husband doesn't have one. He never made it past the 8th grade. And yet we've reached a certain measurable level of "success" as defined by our society's idea of the American Dream. We own a home, and two cars. We've raised (are still raising) four kids. We pay our bills on time. We have a houseful of "stuff".

But the older I get the more I find I'm redefining my personal idea of success. Now I look at success through the lens of my relationships, how I use my precious time, how I'm growing as a person. Some people might look at me and see: 46-year-old waitress. How could she possibly think of herself as a success? (My family stopped asking me when I was going to get a "real job" a long time ago.) But my job, with its flexible hours and short shifts, has allowed me the freedom to raise my kids with virtually no daycare for almost 23 years. It's allowed me the opportunity to homeschool with very little loss of income. It's given me the time to pursue my own passions--to learn Tarot, to read prodigiously, to hone my writing skills. If that's not success, then what is?

So why the fixation on a college degree? Why did we allow our unexamined expectations railroad our son onto a track he wasn't even sure he wanted? (And are we doing the same thing to 16-year-old Chelsea, who is considering colleges as we speak?) The only college-educated person I'm close to is my dad, who was an English teacher for many years, then a guidance counselor and school administrator. When I was a kid, we lived across from the high school where he taught. I was so proud he was a teacher! For a while, I thought I would probably grow up to be a teacher too. Our house growing up was steeped in school-think, and I guess it took root in me somewhere deep down inside.

Why wouldn't my mom's experience influence me just as much? She didn't finish college (she was pregnant with me), but she has reinvented herself so many times I've lost count: fashion model, retail manager, casino dealer and supervisor, business owner, to name just a few. She's the poster child for the idea that it's never too late to try something new. Not having a degree certainly never held her back.

I may never really know how deeply ingrained schoolish ideas are in me, or how they got there in the first place. It doesn't really matter, I suppose. My job now is to be vigilant and keep tearing them out by the roots every time they threaten to choke the relationships I've built (and am still building, every day) with my kids.


  1. This is really nice. I was mesmerized; it reads like an adventure story! I'm going to link this from the new page on comparisons and judgment.

  2. Thank you! I was hoping it would be helpful to somebody. :)

  3. I love this post. As a college professor I see so many students slogging through their degrees in something they think will be useful, like Finance, but which isn't their passion. It's heartbreaking. I applaud your son's courageous choice.

  4. This is a beautiful post. I've been thinking about college lately. What's all the hype? Can't we design our own "college" education to fit the dictates of our souls? I'm surprised I haven't questioned the holy grail of college education more as it seems I have questioned so much else. Thanks, I needed to read it.


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