Bushwhacking Education

My son at the summit of his first 14er.
My son at the summit of his first 14er.

I had never considered myself “that kind of mom.” Last year I let my son drop out of school. He was not yet 16, the “legal age” a person can drop out. In order to work around those legalities I was confronted with owning the title “homeschool mom.” In the last year, I’ve come to respect this title because of what has happened in my house since taking this less-traveled path.

The public school system was not working, and Ez had struggled through a couple of very challenging years. We decided that the best decision was for him to skip high school and go directly to community college. It felt like a bold move. It was a hell of a bold move actually. For the last year, we have been basically bushwhacking our way through his schooling. We’ve not known for sure if we were headed in the right direction, but the signs have felt right.

We tried the online school idea, and he found that it is basically a ridiculous task to learn Algebra II from pre-recorded lectures. He needed people. And I respected that. My most memorable learning moments have happened with people, teachers, professors and classmates, who changed my view of the world. I saw Ez missing those opportunities. So we took a bold step to find those opportunities. It has been scary and uncertain, but I have supported him and driven him on to bushwhack because I saw him change. And I continue to see him change in beautiful ways.

Since Ez started this adventure in his education, he has taken 23 hours of college courses, which he has been dedicated to and enjoyed immensely. He has excelled. He has become a person who is confident in being seen as smart, and he’s started supporting other students in his classes, most of whom are ten years older than he. He is becoming a leader and an inspiration to others. And most importantly, he and I have ongoing conversations about what is best for him, what his dreams are, and where he wants to go. These are amazing and thoughtful conversations to have with a young person.

The biggest question he’s gotten from other people is, “Aren’t you going to miss going to prom?” His response is “sure, but I might still be able to go to a prom if I had a girlfriend to go with. And prom isn’t a reason to go to high school.” But prom represents a something bigger, a more reliable and known paved avenue that is comfortable, even when it doesn’t lead a summit worth climbing for.

There are valuable, beautiful aims in life, and if Ez wants to aim for those, then I will face my own fears and support him to climb. Like learning. Like happiness. Like using strengths and doing beautiful thinking. Like letting him push those as far and wide as he can or wants to. Like supporting him to be as awesome as he can imagine.

I kind of think about it like driving to the grocery store. I can do that drive in my sleep, and probably do half the time. Going to middle school was like that for Ez. It was driving him to sleep. There was a lot of work, and he was busy, but he could not drive to any of his own interests. It was so prescriptive that I saw him settle into a numbness that was disturbing. Bushwhacking on the other hand, keeps him aware and thinking, looking for ways to ascend to the skyline or to descend along a creek or around a steep drop off.  He has to use his tools, gather more tools, and rely on his dead-reckoning. There is no sleeping, just more awareness, and learning to trust that the summit is reachable. There is a truth in self about bushwhacking that builds self reliance.

Now that he’s had a year of bushwhacking, he has found other teenagers who have skipped high school. We have read about learning communities that support teenagers who have dropped out of school. He has found other people who have taken the road he’s chosen. And I think, well of course, if a person sets out on a mission, inevitably you find others on the same mission.

We recently watched (and Ez read the memoir) the documentary of Laura Dekker, the young woman who sailed around the world on her own at 14. It was remarkable in many ways. She had the drive, tenacity and trust in herself to embark on that adventure. She was beautiful and poised, and she trusted herself. I think it said a lot about adults and our fears too. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “I could never do that,” or “I could never let my child do that.” I try to ask myself “Is that because of my own fear?” Most of the time it is. And when I can set aside my fear and recognize that there is an incredibly capable and strong person in front of me, I let go of aiming to control his actions with my fear.

That fear of the unknown is most often what keeps us from taking the less-traveled path, even if something inside us says “that road leads to beauty unseen before.” My son embraces that road that with such grace that wherever he ends up, I trust that it will be f**king awesome.

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