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Home Education Magazine

July-August 1998 - Articles

Interview with Grace Llewellyn: Champion of the Unschooled

Neysa C.M. Jensen

"Perhaps school's greatest danger is that it may convince you life is nothing more than an institutionalized rat race," writes Grace Llewellyn in The Teenage Liberation Handbook. This is just one of my many favorite quotes from the first of her books. In this and her other two published books, Real Lives and Freedom Challenge:African American Homeschoolers, Grace writes with a wit, irreverence, and confidence that would convince anyone to leave school and forge out on their own.

Before I read her books and got to know her, I had an image of a 50-ish mom with several kids whom she homeschooled successively through teenager-hood and went on to write a book to let the rest of us know the wisdom she had to share. NOT. Grace Llewellyn is 34 years old, married to Skip "and no-big sigh-we don't have kids" she says. Her views on school come from several years spent teaching in both public and private classrooms. With wisdom that seems to spring from within, Grace has become a staunch advocate for the freedom and self-direction to be gained by anyone, especially teens, when they take control of their own learning and live a life of conviction, passion, and importance.

What brought Grace Llewellyn to the place where she began writing to teenagers about taking command of their lives and all the other things she does to support kids to take that step? I'll let her tell you.

I thought we should start at the beginning of your story, for readers who may not have read your books. What was your childhood like?

I went to public school, did very well, got along with most of my teachers and the other students, was respected but generally only on the fringes of the popular crowd (much to my consternation, until I was about 16 when I stopped caring). I didn't particularly like school, daydreamed constantly about the weekend or summer vacation, and had a sort of arrogant attitude-I felt superior, intellectually, to many of my teachers-but I didn't even begin to develop a real critique of school while I was still in it. I thought school was boring simply because my teachers were unintelligent, lazy, and uncreative. So I decided, "I'll be a teacher, and my students will have a wonderful time with me."

I should add, though, that of course there were highlights along the way. My high school choir experience was by far my best experience, and basically kept me sane for those last three years. We came together as serious musicians-Mr. Vevig, the director, treated us as musicians rather than as children, and we all rose to the occasion.

Besides school, my school-year life consisted mostly of church (several times a week), dance and gymnastics classes, and co-existing with my family. In the summers, we often spent months at a time camping in remote parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. When we got to craving human contact we'd drive into Yellowstone Park for a few days-it seemed like a trip to a city. That was a formative part of my childhood and adolescence, wonderful but not without its problems.

Did your parents believe in you, support you?

Yes, very much so. On the one hand, their thinking about school and education was quite conventional-I don't fault them for that in the least; they didn't have John Holt to read, after all. On the other hand, they bent over backwards to give me all kinds of opportunities which I'm still very grateful for-lessons and activities that I really valued and loved-ballet twice a week, piano lessons, gymnastics classes and team practice. Of course, in keeping with the conventional thinking about the importance of "education," it was always understood that these activities were secondary to school. So when, in junior high, I started to feel overwhelmed with my schedule, of course it didn't occur to any of us that I might stop going to school (or church). I sadly gave up ballet class.

Did you find other outlets for your interests? What kind of a kid were you?

I loved to write (poems, stories, journals) from about age 6 onward, was completely addicted to books, and had various slightly bizarre interests. Such as, when my brother Ned and I were about 8 and 9 or so we got into secret codes and ciphers. We spent hours memorizing arcane stuff about alphabets (English and otherwise), writing our own reference books, encoding messages for each other to decipher. We quickly exhausted the information in the children's library, so we went upstairs to the adult section for the first time in our lives. I'll never ever forget that day and my feeling that I'd infiltrated a vast, mysterious palace full of hidden treasure-grey and fluorescently lit though it was.

Was your experience at college any different from public school?

I went on to Carleton College, which is a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. My experience there was vastly different from public school, mostly because I was living away from my parents, experiencing adult freedom for the first time.

Academically, it was essentially more of the same except that I no longer felt superior to my teachers. I knew that I was in the company of great intellectuals, and felt guilty that I was not more excited about doing my homework. I did fairly well, academically, but it seemed impossible to keep up with all the assigned work, considering that I also wanted to sleep, eat, go folkdancing, write letters to my sister, and hang onto my friends.

I did continue to cling to my idea of being an English teacher. Through my new friends and through one course that opened my eyes to racism and sexism as an ongoing and institutionalized reality, my teaching dream took on a new dimension. I imagined myself teaching in a depressed area or in an inner city, changing kids' lives by reading great literature with them and by showing them that they could write.

Tell us about your teaching experiences.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after finishing college, and much to my disappointment, did not find a real teaching position that fall. So I started substitute teaching in Oakland and Berkeley during the 1986-87 school year.

As a substitute teacher some of my lofty idealism crashed to my feet immediately. I began to realize that no matter how excited I was about teaching and learning, my efforts would be impacted by everything else in the school-the teachers who barely opened their eyes when they talked with their students, the teachers who routinely took Mondays and Fridays off, the administrators who obviously (and necessarily, I suppose) concerned themselves more with order than with learning and who treated students with condescension and disrespect, the previous years of damage to each student. Not to mention all the forces outside the school building that also impacted kids' learning-poverty, malnutrition, gangs.

My mission still burned inside me, and I didn't want to abandon the city. I was still stuck in the rather arrogant idea that these kids "needed" me, but I started thinking that maybe I'd best step outside of the system. So I started planning a tiny one- teacher independent school, without an official building. I decided that with about 10 students I could accomplish great things and keep it very inexpensive. I envisioned us working together on all kinds of projects-making a documentary film in someone's basement, going on long wilderness trips together, etc.

It could have been a relatively good project, but reading John Holt at about that time made me feel very foolish. Yes, that independent school might be a good idea, but I had hardly any well-developed, useful skills to share. In a situation like that, an adult who simply wants to "help kids" is nearly useless-and that's about all I was at the time. Thanks to John Holt, I was suddenly acutely aware of my own ignorance and lack of skills, and I thought I'd best set about becoming a more interesting, skilled person before I entertained further notions of being god's gift to teenagers.

How did you begin to learn about unschooling? Had you any inklings before you read John Holt of there being a different way to learn? What grabbed you about John Holt's ideas?

When I was in college, homeschooling only came up twice. The first time was in my educational philosophy class, and the professor asked us, "What about homeschooling? Should parents be allowed to teach their kids at home?" I thought about it for a second. I seemed to remember my mother telling me that our next door neighbors back home were helping to homeschool their grandchildren. They were great people. "Sure," I thought, "homeschooling should be allowed." The professor spoke again: "What about parents who homeschool in order to be able to screen the information that comes toward their kids? What about parents who don't want their kids to learn about science, or who want to pass on to their children certain racial or religious prejudices? As long as homeschooling is allowed, how can we be sure that those kids aren't being given a censored, skewed education?" My naive, uncritical mind quickly followed her lead. "She's right," I thought, quickly forgetting the next-door neighbors, "Homeschooling should not be allowed."

The next time the issue came up it was cloaked in different language, far more simple and thus more strange. One summer five of us, all college students, ran a natural history day camp for kids. One evening we talked about our plans for the future. When I said that I wanted to be an English teacher in a public high school, Lisa, The other camp counselors, said, "I don't think kids should go to school."

That was an entirely new concept to me-in fact, so new and so contrary to my entire upbringing and world view, that I didn't even know what to say. I thought the idea was completely ridiculous. Lisa explained her position a bit-in retrospect I assume she'd been reading John Holt-but I couldn't pay attention. My mind simply kept contracting in on itself for some sort of comfort. I was thinking, "But that's what kids do. Kids go to school. What else would they do? How would they learn to read and write? Where would they be all day? She must be talking about some weird anarchistic philosophy based on some utopian society. For now, in 20th century America, kids go to school. That's just how it is and how it has to be."

In retrospect, I think of that flabbergasted moment as one of my greatest allies-when I wrote The Teenage Liberation Handbook I knew, viscerally and personally, how deeply ingrained our dependence on school is, so in that book I deliberately unraveled the myths of schooling one by one, carefully and thoroughly.

I finally read John Holt for myself when I was beginning to plan that tiny independent one-teacher school that I envisioned after my first year teaching. The first book I read was Instead of Education, and within the first few pages my world and my outlook had changed forever. One passage that hit me hard was this one:

"Education, with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern and worldwide slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and "fans," driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve "education" but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves.

This does not mean that no one should ever influence or try to influence what others think and feel. We all touch and change (and are changed by) those we live and work with. We are by instinct talkative and social creatures, and naturally share with those around us our view of reality. Both in my work as writer and lecturer, and among my friends, I do this all the time. But I refuse to put these others in a position where they feel they have no choice but to agree with me, or seem to agree. This is why, except as an occasional visitor, I will no longer do my teaching in compulsory and competitive schools..."

I went on to read most of Holt's books, in which he argued simply but persuasively that learning is a natural process that happens to anyone who is busy doing something real for its own sake, and that school destroys and confuses this process. Although most of his ideas had never occurred to me, they immediately made so much sense that I felt as though I'd thought of them myself.

For the next few weeks, I went through a period of intense introspection, review of my own childhood, and consequent grief and rage. For one thing, I made a list of all the skills I had, and subjects I felt I knew a lot about. The list was abysmally short, and what's more, there were only a few things on it that I'd learned mostly in school or college. I was shocked. Since I'd gotten mostly A's in high school and graduated cum laude from college, I'd assumed that meant I was educated. It had never, up to that point, occurred to me to evaluate my education by looking at the way I lived my life and by looking into my own mind. I cried bitter tears over all the time I'd obviously wasted sitting in school, looking out the window. For the first time I realized that that time could have meant something; I could have been using it to pursue my own dreams and to discover new interests.

To end the story, what happened next is that I decided I didn't want to be a teacher after all. I spent four months in Peru, then about four months halfheartedly substituting in Boise. Then I lived in Taos, New Mexico for three months, entertaining the idea that I would get a job as an alternative building apprentice or start my own bakery, but due to a family crisis and also because of my own lack of courage, that didn't happen. Since I didn't have any other strongly developed, marketable skill, I moved to Colorado Springs in 1988 and taught language arts for two years at the Colorado Springs School. I was given almost complete freedom to design my own curriculum, and so I created an independent study program in which my students could do whatever they wanted to within the framework of reading and writing, but even so I could see that my class, along with the rest of school, imposed too much control over their lives and their time. Every day I felt more and more convicted that this control should belong to them. I finished out the school year, but did not renew my contract.

How did events transpire after that?

Before the school year ended, I had several chapters of The Teenage Liberation Handbook written. I had saved almost enough money to live on, frugally, for a year, and I knew that what I wanted-needed-to do was write that book. I wanted my own former students-and all of the other teenagers I didn't know-to realize that there was a whole other way to spend adolescence.

I moved to Eugene, Oregon in June of 1990 and spent the summer living in a student co-op with 25 other people. That was my vacation, my decompression. I sent out questionnaires to hundreds of unschoolers around the country, and while I waited for them to come back I went swimming, blackberry picking, danced and drummed on the roof all night, kicked up my heels and let down my hair, recovered from the seriousness and grown-up-ness of being a teacher.

What other kinds of work have you been doing since then?

I started Genius Tribe, a resource center, and I had the crazy idea that I would fund it through a tiny one-room bookstore. Not only did the bookstore fail to pay for the rest of the resource center, but it ended up creating its own debt, and when I stopped operating the resource center I was left with a room full of great books that I couldn't return. I ended up creating a catalog called Genius Tribe as a way to sell the books.

Also, for years I've been thinking about and experimenting with ways to spread the homeschooling message out beyond the world of people-already- homeschooling. So I created a slightly more "introductory" catalog. That's Gigi's House. We just mailed it a few weeks ago, and we've gotten lots of comments and notes along with the orders-"How did you know I was just starting to wonder about homeschooling?" "Wow! I never had any idea of what homeschooling really was until I got your catalog, and now I think we just might try it!" So I'm excited about Gigi's House which, by the way, is named after my grandmother, and her house.

Tell me about the Not Back to School Camp for teens.

Ah, Not Back to School Camp. NBTSC is now the highlight of my career. This summer will be the third annual camp. We're running two sessions in 1998 since we filled up so fast in 1997.

I started it mainly because I thought, "I'm burning out. I don't have enough direct face-to-face contact with the kids I've written for. What shall I do?" After a short brainstorm, I came up with the idea for the camp.

What happens is that 102 unschoolers aged 13-18 come to Oregon from all over the US and Canada. We meet in Eugene and take buses to the coast and camp for two nights at a state park on the ocean, and then take buses to a simple retreat center near Coos Bay. It's nestled in the forest and the coastal mountains, and there's a swimming creek and a huge grassy playing field. They spend a week teaching workshops to each other about whatever they love most. We swim, lay around talking with each other, go hiking in the forest, play on the swings. And at night we sing, dance, watch stunning talent shows, play crazy games. I get to work directly with the kids and it's an incredibly inspiring infusion for me that sparks the rest of my work for the coming year. I stay in touch with some of them throughout the year, and about 60% of them come back to camp year after year.

Do you have any other books in the works or future plans for any?

Oh yes, always. I've recently begun work on a handbook on quasi-self-directed education for kids who do go to school, whose parents won't let them unschool. And I'm writing a book with my friend Amy Silverman, who's a homeschooling mom. Our book, Guerilla Learning, attempts to show non-homeschooling parents how to help their kids get a real education despite their school. We hope to share some of the basic concepts that fuel the unschooling movement with people who wouldn't intentionally pick up a book about homeschooling... and of course I hope to convince a lot of readers that what they really want to do is get out of the system altogether.

I also want to make an instructional bellydance video.

I'm very interested in the way you have chosen to live your life. There's a word I've heard tossed around called "unjobbing," sort of like unschooling applied to the career world. It seems like an extension of the whole idea of unschooling, i.e. rising up out of the institutional model and really taking control of one's life and doing what you love. What's a typical day like for you?

Well, I would like to think of myself as an "unjobber" but in reality I'm often a horrible example of one. Yes, I am doing what I love and believe in. But I do way, way, way too much of it. I struggle to keep my work under 60 hours a week. Slowly but surely, I am making progress back toward a saner life, but unfortunately I'm not a very good role model just yet.

A typical day? I wake up, shower, stretch, walk down to the river, spend 20 minutes in the garden, drink tea, meditate. Then into my office. I answer the most urgent email messages. Spend a few hours doing clerical stuff-answering simple mail, paying bills, troubleshooting with my computer, answering backlogged email, returning phone calls, ordering books for our mail order catalog, processing new camp registrations, etc. Then I spend the rest of my work day on my current project-which might be revising this year's edition of the Not Back to School Camp handbooks for campers and staff (that's my current task), writing a chapter of a book, skimming through some of the possible candidates for my next mail order catalog, settling down and reading the more likely candidates, or contacting a dozen or so organizations to see if I want to list them as resources in the revised Teenage Liberation Handbook.... it just depends on what I'm working on. Skip usually makes dinner for both of us. Then, if I finish work before bedtime, I might spend the evening with friends, work on a new choreography or a new costume, just dance to music I like, read a novel or a gardening book, daydream over a seed catalog, trade massages with Skip, or write a letter or write in my journal. Occasionally we get a video or go out to a movie; occasionally I have an evening dance performance. It's a pretty ordinary life, really.

1998, Neysa C.M. Jensen

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