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May-June 2011 Selected Content

An Interview with Kate Fridkis - Helen Hegener


Writer and grown unschooler Kate Fridkis recently received her Master's degree from Columbia, works as a cantor at a synagogue, writes for The Huffington Post, and blogs at Skipping School and Eat the Damn Cake about body image, unschooling, and being a young woman in the city. She's also writing a book about her unschooling experience.

Helen: Tell us about your family, your unschooling, growing up. Was homeschooling easily accepted in your neighborhood, by your friends and extended family, or was it considered a walk on the wild side?

Kate: My family. Y'know, they're weird and normal and opinionated and funny. I have two younger brothers who I brag about a lot and two parents who I call immediately anytime anything interesting happens in my life and also sometimes when I'm bored. Describing my childhood is hard for me, because my days weren't structured the way kids days usually are. When I think about growing up, I remember this little stream in the woods, and this stick I found that looked like a spear, and how I could spend hours out there, accumulating ticks and pretending that I was a rugged explorer. My mom was interested in everything. Everything was fascinating and informative. We'd go on walks and learn to identify the edible plants and all the trees and the birds by their song. She was much better at it than we were, but we could pick out a chickadee no problem.

Until I was around twelve, we lived in this sad little spread-thin town in rural New Jersey. People don't even know there's such a thing as rural NJ. The teenagers a couple houses down bashed in our other neighbor's mailbox a lot, and everyone knew it was because the other neighbor was black. They also carved a swastika in a corn field and spray painted "GO HOME" on a piece of plywood, which they left on the lawn of a Chinese immigrant family. So I remember us all going over to visit the Chinese family to say "Welcome. Please ignore that sign. Is there anything we can do for you?" And I remember my dad hanging out with the cop whose mailbox was destroyed again, and shaking his head and talking grimly. And I remember it felt very obvious that we were Jewish and we were one of the groups of people who weren't liked as much on our street.

None of that is about homeschooling, but it is, really, because it all meant that I knew that people who were different weren't exactly safe, and I also knew that people who were different were strong and cool and helped each other out.

Our extended family was...sort of OK with us homeschooling. My uncle and aunt used to take me aside and ask me math questions. My uncle bought me a little Jeopardy game, probably in the hope that it'd teach me something real. The grandparents had been wary at first, but before I was old enough to understand what wary looked and sounded like, so I just remember them defending me to their friends who said things like, "I was a schoolteacher for thirty years, and I know this girl isn't getting the education she needs. And what about socialization?"

I was shy with people who weren't my close friends and family when I was very young. I hung out with other homeschooled kids in the groups my mom started, and they thought I was great because they were homeschooled, too. By the time I was a teenager, I was very confident and outgoing. I was always showing everyone how very socialized I was. By then, we'd moved to Princeton, and I was auditing classes at the university (because I wanted to, not because it was part of a curriculum) and building a fort in a new forest with my suddenly tall and strong brothers.

Helen: Tell us about your husband, Simon. There's a delightful New York Times piece by Rosalie Radomsky about how you met, when you told him "I demand a flower..."

Kate: I did say that. When we were planning our first date, he asked if he should bring a flower, and that was my response. He brought a huge sunflower, and it balanced awkwardly on the little table in the restaurant as we blushed our way through our first in-person conversation.

He is very different from me. Sometimes it's a little shocking when I think about it. He thinks math is tons of fun. I don't. But since he thinks I'm even more fun than math, it works. I thought people who got married young were kind of crazy and probably ill-fated, and then I married him at twenty-four. Sometimes you just know.

He thinks homeschooling our future kids is a great idea. Hooray!

Helen: Hooray, indeed! So, turning back to homeschooling... In a 1995 article for Home Education Magazine your mom wrote about Oak Meadow School: "Their curriculum emphasizes the child's imagination and concerns itself with the process of the child's work and not the product. It sounded perfect for Kate. Kate had always spent her days pretending, drawing, dreaming, and playing."

Does this description fit with how you remember yourself as a child?

Kate: Hell yes. Can I say that? I never remember if that's offensive to anyone. I started drawing as soon as I could hold something to draw with, and I kept at it until college. Even though mom tried on and off to work more structured stuff into our days, there were never days that didn't have hours and hours and hours to hang out and play and write and draw. I was always making up stories. That was my favorite thing to do (still is). And I had to illustrate them or act them out or both. It was more fun that way. Mom also really encouraged this type of learning and playing. Whenever she read books aloud to us (which was every day for most of our childhood), she asked us if we wanted to draw pictures of what was happening in the story. She drew pictures, too.

Helen: Did you enjoy learning at home, or in the community, or did you, like so many homeschooled kids, secretly yearn for the perceived excitement of going to school?

Kate: HA! I LOVED being at home. Even when Mom was driving me crazy or Jake and Gabe were battling with lightsabers outside my room when I was having this very profound phone conversation with a guy whose heart I really didn't want to have to break. I used to wake up briefly and watch this kid with a massive backpack trudge by our house on his way to meet the bus every morning. He looked both depressed and resigned. I snuggled deeper into my covers and fell back asleep. I was friends with all these older women, who I went to a writing workshop with in Princeton. I was doing a million things in the community. Everyone knew I didn't go to school, and everyone thought it was really pretty awesome, and since I thought it was awesome, too, it worked out very nicely.

Helen: When I re-read your mother's 1995 article the most compelling part is when she writes about letting go of the structured curriculum after two years: "On some levels I likened the tensions and pressures to those of mothering. My idealized vision of motherhood had long been shattered by the day to day reality of living with three children. My children weren't perfect. They bickered, refused to share their toys, cried, complained, were noisy, and left a mess. So perhaps homeschooling too could only be done with this constant tug of wills. Wasn't it my job to coax our children to perform tasks that didn't interest them so they could learn what they were supposed to according to someone else's schedule? The more I thought about it the more I thought that I did not want be in this role."

I think many of our readers find themselves in this position at some point in their homeschooling, and how they handle that realization makes all the difference in their child's continuing education. Many, like your mom, find another way. Others, perhaps the majority, stay with the structure, the schedule, the perception of a 'safe' path. Would you discuss this idea from the perspective of the child whose future is being shaped?

Kate: I thought structure was stupid. As I got older, I felt like I was tolerating my mom's need to feel safe and successful when I sat with her and looked over yet another schedule for my days. I nodded and smiled a lot in those meetings. The schedules never stuck, but she was never ready to completely let go of the idea of them. This was the biggest point of tension in our relationship and my education. I felt like I didn't need to do math at all. She felt like I'd better do math, at least a little. I was positive that I would not use math anyway, she wanted me to at least have some basic knowledge.

The thing with basic knowledge, I've learned, is it's really easy to forget. I did end up learning some math. I took the SAT, and I later took the GRE, and I was fine. But I don't remember any of it now. Which is not to say "I told you so" and "I am so very wise." Because I get why she wanted me to learn math. It's scary-- putting a kid who is so different out there in the world. A kid who lives a life so dramatically different from the lives that practically everyone thinks kids are supposed to live.

Honestly, I'm not sure how I'll handle stuff like this with my own kids, when I someday have them. But I know exactly how I felt about it growing up. I felt like I was fine. I trusted myself to be able to learn things when I needed to learn them and felt like I was wasting my time otherwise. It wasn't that I thought all boring tasks were a waste of time. I practiced finger exercises on piano for hours and hours, because I had the goal of playing complicated pieces, and I was willing to work through the dull parts of the experience. In retrospect, I'm not sure how valuable all that Hannon (a guy who wrote a lot of finger exercises) was either, but really, that's kind of the way life works. You don't really know what's going to be valuable later on. And guess what-- neither do the people who say it's definitely "math, biology, essay-writing, and French." Or whatever it is that they've most recently decided. It's hard to tell what direction life will move in. I think the best anyone can do is try to help themselves and their children figure out what they're passionate about and then do that as much as possible. Because that's when learning is fun. And life should be enjoyable.

Helen: Your blogs, Eat the Damn Cake and Skipping School, are always a fun read, and have been an inspiration to many. How did you get into blogging, and why did you choose to focus on the somewhat unusual topics (for Eat the Damn Cake) of body image and being a young woman in the city?

Kate: Thanks! I started blogging because I wanted to write all the time, the way I wrote all the time as a kid. I wanted to be read. Even if it was only by a few people, and even if it was only in a casual medium. I chose body image because I had just moved to Manhattan for grad school, and everywhere I looked, women were not eating. My friends weren't eating. And I was looking in the mirror and thinking, "Maybe I'm ugly." As an unschooler, I never felt unattractive. In fact, I felt smokin' hot and like every boy I met was probably going to fall at my feet. And why not? No one ever told me I shouldn't feel that way. But in college, and in Manhattan especially, I felt like the whole world was telling me I had no right to feel sexy. I wanted to rebel. Or at least, I wanted to talk about it.

Helen: Through your writing and blogging you achieved a measure of media recognition which is unusual for anyone, no matter their educational background. Tell us how you got into writing at such a high-profile level.

Kate: I am really ambitious. It drives me crazy. It's the thing I like least about myself. I am always working on something. And when I care about what I'm working on, I will work until something good happens. A little over a year ago, I graduated from a Masters program and decided that instead of either continuing on to a PhD or moving to Israel for cantorial school, I was going to write full-time. I had always wanted to write full-time, but felt like I should do something more obviously responsible and grown-up. My dad (who started his now-successful company at seventeen) and I had a lot of talks about life and what I should do, and he thought I should do that crazy dream-following thing that some people do for a while before they starve to death in a ditch in Brooklyn. I agreed. My future husband also agreed. He thought it was ridiculous for me to do anything accept what made me happiest. Everyone agreed, because my life is full of people who don't mind if I'm impractical.

As soon as I started blogging, I started reaching out to established bloggers and trying to make connections. This is how unschooling in a community works (and the internet makes it so much easier!). You find mentors. You attach yourself to people who know what they're doing. I tried to do that. And slowly, it worked. Penelope Trunk, who is an absolutely HUGE blogger, became my mentor. I grinned for an entire day when that happened. And y'know, I just keep pitching people. I keep sending stuff out and getting rejected, like every writer, and then I cry quietly to myself as I wash pans in the sink, and eventually I put the pans down and go back to my computer and try again. And once in a while, something good happens, and I feel justified and like I might be making progress. It's not really a very interesting story. I'm sorry.

Helen: Ah, no, it's actually very interesting, and thank you for sharing the perspective. You've accomplished so much already, Kate, primarily through your own initiative and courage and determination. And your powerful writing skills, of course! How did you learn to express yourself so clearly and fearlessly in your writing?

Kate: Nice! Thank you! "Fearless" is an awesome compliment. I don't know that I really am, though. I'm usually at least a little afraid of offending people. I learned to express myself through writing by writing constantly. I started a journal at seven. It was my mom's idea. She would read over my entries and help with my spelling and grammar. She always said, "Try to use more adjectives. Can you describe what happened?"

I loved writing because I loved stories, and because we read stories all the time. I wanted to create my own. Writing felt dynamic and communicative and thrilling. It happened because my life happened. I wouldn't know how to live life without writing about it.

Helen: Whose writing do you turn to for inspiration, or when you feel like enjoying a good read?

Kate: I've been reading a lot of David Brooks recently. This is probably not good for my development as a writer, but I actually don't tend to pick up fiction very much, even though I love writing it. I like social commentary and books jammed with scientific research. "The Mating Mind" by Geoffrey Miller was great. I'm totally open to the possibility that art and language evolved this extensively because being good at them is sexy and helps attract a mate (I mean, I'm a writer, am I really going to disagree?). I also spend a lot of my reading time on books by authors I'm going to interview for AOL. "Manning Up" by Kay Hymowitz, about how the information age is reshaping jobs and gender roles, was easy to read, and inspired about a thousand conversations with friends. The book I'm reading for fun now is "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers.

Helen: You were given so much freedom and support, not only as a child, but even when you got older, and you ran with that and created the life you're obviously enjoying now. Most people are never encouraged to see all the many choices and options available to them, never given the support to pursue their own goals and dreams. What would you say to a parent who might be reading this interview and wondering how to bring that kind of potential, that kind of freedom to make their own choices and decisions, into their own childrens' lives?

Kate: Amazing question. I'm thinking, "Am I smart enough to answer that?" But since I'm cocky, I'll go ahead and give it a shot. I think it's really all about valuing your kid's interests. Not assuming that they should be interested in certain things, but letting them figure it out largely on their own. And then it's about encouraging hard work and dedication. My mom is big on praising the effort just as much or more than the results. All of these studies (just because I can't cite them off the top of my head doesn't mean they're not very important!) keep indicating that students do better when they're told they're impressively hard-working rather than naturally very smart. It gives them room to fail. Having room to fail is just about the most critical thing ever for effective learning. So, I guess, let your kids try and fail and treat them like their interests are valid. It sounds pretty simple. I'm not sure how simple it really is.

Helen: Good answer, Kate. I love reading your blog, 'Skipping School,' because there's so much in your writing which makes me think outside the box, beyond the lines and circles which encompass our lives. One memorable essay you wrote, after the report last fall, was titled "Homeschoolers Might Not Be So Weird After All," and you ended it with this note, "...not sitting in a classroom every day for twelve years in a row probably does make you pretty different. But maybe... in a good way?"

Would you expound on that idea for our readers, many of whom do worry about their kids growing up and feeling weird or different?

Kate: That essay was actually published on The Huffington Post, which explains why I ended on a question mark. Of course it's in a good way! (I try to be more balanced and polite about it when I write for a broader, schooled audience.) OK, so, here's the thing: Everyone is weird. Like, really. Absolutely everyone is weird. If you're not weird because you were homeschooled, you will definitely end up being weird for another reason. We should all try to get over the idea that being different is bad. This would solve a lot of the world's problems.

So I want to contradict my wimpy HuffPo article title and say, yes, homeschoolers ARE weird. We don't have twelve years of experience sitting in chairs all day, looking at a grownup at the front of the room. We are made weird by virtue of not having the same type of childhoods that most people have. But look at the childhoods we have instead! I mean, let's get real, we have what every other kid wishes they had. And by that I mean lunch whenever we feel like it and no homework.

And those two wonderful, almost mythically good things express something larger: we have freedom. Freedom in an increasingly frantic, anxious world, to discover our own interests and pursue them. Freedom to become more and more ourselves without being told that who we are is actually really lame and uncool. Freedom to see how far we can go, without our failures ending up on a permanent record that will impact our ability to go to a top-tier college. If that's what weirdness looks like, well, bring it on!

© 2011, Helen Hegener


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