Sunday, March 11, 2012

Homeschooled Girls and Trash Cans: The Social Isolation of Homeschooling

What do homeschooled girls and trash cans have in common?  
They both only leave the house once a week.

This joke was well-received among homeschooled youth because it rang true for so many of us.  For almost all of my teen years, church was the only social activity that I engaged in, the only time during the whole week that I might have a chance to interact with people who were not my immediate family.  Making friends in that context, especially as a shy teen girl, seems daunting.  However, I had an even greater obstacle to deal with: I was not allowed to participate in youth group.

My parents were absolutely terrified of teenage rebellion.  Thanks to various books and speakers popular in the homeschooling community, my parents believed teen rebellion to be a recent American trend due to indulgent parenting and peer pressure.  A rebellious teen was more than just an annoyance in the homeschooling community: that teen was turning his/her back not only on the parents, but also on God.  What a tragic waste of years of sacrifice and careful training by the parents!  This type of thinking motivated my parents to maintain careful discipline and to shelter us from almost all contact with our peers, even at church.

I distinctly remember the conversation between the youth pastor and my mom.  I was probably 14 or 15, and so shy that I would start shaking if anyone tried to talk to me at church.  Although social interaction was painful, I desperately needed it, and I think the youth pastor noticed that.  He approached my parents after church one day to invite us to Sunday school.  My mom asked for the materials that were being used in Sunday school, and took them home to peruse them with my dad.  I heard the decision the next week at the same time as the youth pastor: "Our kids will not be attending Sunday school."  The reason?  Apparently the material mentioned a teen who was frustrated with his parents, and it was dangerous for me to think that frustration was a valid or normal feeling for a teen to have toward parents.

The tough thing about social phobia is that it is often self-reinforcing.  In my case, my severe social anxiety displayed itself in uncontrollable muscle spasms, and anticipating the shaking made me even more anxious about interacting with people.  What if someone noticed me shaking?  I used to cry myself to sleep at night quite often, occasionally trying to get my mom to notice my tears by sniffing juuuust loud enough for her to hear as she walked by my door.  When she came in to ask why I was crying, I would say something like, "I don't have any friends" or "I don't know how to talk to people."  The answer to these was always the same: "You have us" or "You're talking to me right now."  In the morning, life would proceed as usual.

Unfortunately, the "usual" for my life at home was very empty and quiet.  My dad was working long hours and was permanently in a bad mood when at home, and my mom was always sapped of energy for various reasons.  She left us kids to do our schoolwork independently much of the time; we even corrected our own errors from the answer key.  Later, due to mysterious and debilitating health problems, her energy was so low that just going to the grocery store was often too much for her to handle.  It was simply understood in the family that we shouldn't harass her about wanting to leave the house.  Since I wasn't able to get my driver's license until I was 18, I was stuck for hours, days, weeks, months, years with little-to-no mental or social stimulation.

Little-to-no stimulation is not an exaggeration; obviously, a teen girl who can't even go to Sunday school due to "bad influences" is going to find many other things forbidden to her as well.  Our home did not have a TV; we watched few movies; we only read pre-approved Christian or classical books; we did not have internet access; and we certainly did not listen to most music.  My one musical joy was listening to Steve Green and going to his concert with another homeschooling mom.  When I tried to add Rebecca St. James to my CD collection, my mom almost had a meltdown because of the beat and the heavy breathing; it didn't matter that almost every song was a verbatim quote from the Bible.  I knew my role--honor your parents--so that CD went straight into the trash and I tried to feel happy that I was obeying God.

What did I do with my time at home?  I dragged my school work out to take up most of the day; I spent large amounts of time spaced out, lying on my bed; I wrote in my journals; and I made my own clothes.  My homemade clothes were the outward sign of my feelings of isolation.  Starting at about age 13, I was responsible for furnishing my own wardrobe (within the boundaries of modesty my parents provided, of course).  I had $25 a month to work with, and my mom could tolerate shopping at fabric stores much more than at clothing stores, where everything was "immodest."  (And that was in the women's clothing sections--I didn't even know that clothing came in junior sizes until after I had graduated from high school!)  Out on various errands or on family vacations, wearing my very odd, ill-fitting clothing, I felt the stares and desperately wished that human contact was unnecessary.  "I wish I could just be a hermit!" ....this sentence occurs a little too frequently in my teen journals.

My first friend of my teenage years came from Hope Chapel, when I was about 17.  Pastor Reb Bradley, with the support of the homeschooling families of HC, would not allow a youth group in the church.  Finally, I was not so odd!  It was easier to strike up a conversation with someone, knowing they might be just as desperate and nervous as me.  It was easier to not feel judged when the other person's clothes were just as odd as my own.  I could more easily feel successful at conversation because it was not full of cultural references that I had no idea about.  I became a little more confident socially, strengthened my atrophied conversational muscles, and got a little more hopeful about life.  I was even able to add a second friend by the time I was 19.

Now I'm 30 years old, with four years of college and eight years of work between me and my teen self, yet I still feel the effects of the isolation I experienced growing up.

First, I still feel significant social anxiety in even the most non-threatening situations.  I am particularly at a loss in group settings full of new people.  What do I say? When do I say it? Whom do I say it to?  How/when do I end a conversation?  Even in a circle setting, when it's my turn to say my name, my blood pressure skyrockets.

Second, in the whole world, there is no place and no group of people where I feel like I belong.  It's like I was raised in a different culture, with the distinct difference that I can never go "home" to it.  I'm permanently a foreigner; interacting in this foreign culture takes a lot of attention and effort.  I've tried to catch up on the culture I missed...to watch the movies, to listen to the music, to see pictures of the clothing styles.....but it will never mean to me what it means to you.  People always use cultural references and nostalgia as a way to build community and connections between people; for me, they create distance and remind me how different I am inside.

My profile photo is of the 80s star Molly Ringwald.  The first time I ever heard her name mentioned was at my first real job, when I was 22 years old.  God bless my dear gay boss, who saw through my awkwardness and gave me a chance at the job because I looked like his favorite childhood actress!  When he learned that I had no idea who she was, his jaw hit the floor.

These days, I manage to avoid shocking people too much, unless I decide to tell them about my past.  To me, the biggest compliment I can receive today is, "You were homeschooled? Wow, I can't even tell!"

27 comments:

  1. (This is the first post I've read on your blog, so I apologize if you know about this and say so later on.)
    I have social anxiety disorder and I have said some things in this post almost verbatim. My family wasn't fundie (though we have plenty of our own issues). Seeing a psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has helped a lot. CBT concentrates on changing your thought patterns using exposures and exercises. It's a lot more useful in day-to-day living than classic talk therapy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy
    I found your blog via No Longer Qivering, and look forward to reading more of your posts!

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  2. Oops, sorry, forgot something. It's late and my brain is halfway asleep already.
    I meant to add that the CBT has helped me control the "invisible" anxiety- I function decently but inside I can be a wreck. Similar to how your blood pressure still skyrockets sometimes. Basically I've gotten a lot better at telling that "voice" inside me that panics that I'm ok and it needs to shut up. So it's not just about functioning, it's about enjoying social situations as well. OK, I hope this all makes sense. :)

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    1. This information is very helpful. I've been wondering lately about getting some kind of therapy, but had no idea what type of therapist to look for. I tried talk therapy years ago with different therapists, but it didn't seem worth the money after a month or two.

      I try not to tell people I know in real life about my social anxiety because it just increases my stress response....which means I can't really go around asking for advice about dealing with it then, haha. So thank you for sharing about your experience with this!

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    2. I, too, have had good luck with CBT, not for social anxiety but for a tendency to see myself in a very negative way that was fueling depression. I'm still working on it.

      I didn't grow up fundie and wasn't homeschooled, but I did grow up Catholic and attended Catholic schools -- including an all-girls Catholic high school -- until college. My parents expected me home right after school on weekdays, and took me away to a weekend house every weekend, in a rural, mostly retirement community; they were trying to protect me, but as a result I was hopelessly shy and antisocial when I entered college. I was almost as hopelessly shy and antisocial when I graduated, having made only one or two friends during my entire time there. I married the first guy who was really interested in me; fortunately, it's turned out to be a reasonable marriage and we'll celebrate our 32nd anniversary this year.

      It was in the working world that I learned to greet people, to make small talk, to be friendly and open, to make friends, to speak up for myself, and even to speak in public. All these things were required of me, either to be happy in the workplace or to do my job. All these things scared the hell out of me at first, and I had to pretend to know what I was doing. I pretended pretty well. In fact, I got so good at pretending that I started to really believe I could do these things, and... I can. In social interactions, there's a WHOLE lot to be said for, "when all else fails, fake it."

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    3. I second her recommendation. CBT helped me with social anxiety a great deal. While I wasn't anywhere near as isolated as you, I did have a similarly isolating childhood. My father was in the army and we've moved a great deal. I attended 11 different schools. Anyways, I highly recommend it for anxiety, it can be hard work but well worth it. And as Karen said, faking it works -- after awhile it just becomes your habit.

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    4. CBT is amazing! I have Asperger's with anxiety, and it really helped me. It took me several tries for it to "click" with me, and what helped the most was MoodGYM: http://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome . This might be because it was the third time, it might be because I do much better with written instructions than verbal face-to-face ones (due to the Asperger's), but it might just be amazing.

      On the topic of your blog - I'm amazed that a joke like that passed your parents' censorship.

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    5. Wow. My story is almost exactly the same, except I'm a guy. Same thing with youth group, Christian music, etc. My parents thought they were protecting me and it turns out a year after I leave the house I'm overdosing on heroin, the next year I'm going to rehab for meth addiction. In and out of jail the whole time, my parents thought they were going to raise a saint but they raised a gangster. I've lived on the streets, I've been to jail multiple times, I've dealt drugs, I've rapped on stage in front of hundred of people, and still there's something inside of me that's missing. I feel like I don't hear people right, I never know what to say, and I'm uncomfortable around everyone I don't know. I'm writing an argumentative essay on homeschooling right now for my English final. thanks for your essay

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  3. Well... you are sharing a remarkable story, and I thank you for opening up about yourself. I'm looking forward to reading your future posts.

    I can kind of relate in some ways, although my upbringing wasn't NEARLY as severe as yours. I went to a public school but I felt like I didn't belong there. I went home and I felt like I didn't belong there either. I was as different from my peers and my parents as could be. We got along, but I did more of a routine of "going along to get along".

    I grew up in a wealthy Jewish area (we aren't wealthy), where the clothes and the cars were the thing and it was all about impressing the neighbors. You had to dress and act a certain way to gain acceptance. I will never forget the anxiety I felt in a certain clothing store and even hearing the name nowadays will fill me with dread. I was a square peg.

    I am Jewish, although much more spiritual and involved now than I ever was as a kid. But growing up was like having the whole neighborhood in the house, and free thinking was scorned and ridiculed. Now when my dad says something to my kids like "don't listen to rock music, waltzes are the most beautiful music ever made" I know to tell my son to not listen to him, I say "listen to whatever you like". I mean, who would say that to a kid? I always though my parents, both extremely bright, made all the right decisions. Goodness knows, they are good people, but I know now, if they say 'down' I say 'up'. I never ask their advice anymore. I love them, but no. My mother was full of anxieties, a chain smoker, smoked like a stack. Who wouldn't be in that situation? We could never measure up, and it took it's toll on our family in a big way, BELIEVE me. Not good. At all. But later on we found out... it was all a sham. No one measured up, but we were always led to believe that so-and-so's son was doing so well and making so much money. PS, he's in jail now. That kind of thing.

    Now you have a fantastic opportunity of discovery ahead of you. And people will just love to share all this stuff with you, when you're ready to let them. Even I can think of some awesome things, jazz, Cole Porter, that you just MUST hear. Granted you didn't grow up with some of these things, but that doesn't mean they won't belong to you in their own special way. People will want to hear all about you. If you feel comfortable opening up about yourself, people generally won't judge you and you'll find you have a rapt audience. And you may be surprised to find that people with entirely different backgrounds share some similarities growing up as you. And you will raise your son and have a wonderful relationship with him because you will be tuned in with his feelings, his nature which will be entirely different from yours and you will accept that and embrace it and love it. What better gift can you get than that?

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    1. Thank you Carol, and thanks for sharing part of your story as well. Needing to put on a show to earn acceptance is a terrible message for a child, and it seems like there are unfortunately many ways to deliver that message. Good for you that you see through the facade now, and can move on with your life.

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  4. I thought I'd offer two posts I've written on this topic. First, But what about socialization?" You're so not alone in this!

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    1. Thank you so much Libby Anne! Those are both exactly what I've been feeling and trying to express! It's so encouraging to know I'm in good company :).

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  5. I am so sorry you had such a difficult childhood and homeschooling experience! My heart goes out to you! However, in defense of homeschooling, I will say that it totally depends on HOW you are homeschooled (which boils down to parental decisions/issues) To me, it sounds like the problem was much bigger than the fact that you were homeschooled.

    I will say right up front, homeschooling is not for everyone and it should NEVER be viewed as the only right way to educate. I homeschooled my three boys for 8 years and the last 5 of those years have been as a single mom. This year I am sending my two youngest sons to a small Christian school (for various reason I won't get into here). A number of those years we were involved in a wonderful homeschool group in a wonderful supportive community. Where we live now, it is required to do achievement tests every year and while I know I was not in any way an extra ordinary teacher (some days I wanted to pull my hair out! :) it is rewarding and reassuring when your children test way above their level. My oldest son is in the process of signing up in a college where he will be able to get duel credits his senior year of high school and college. He has extremely high goals of what he wants to do and where he wants to go. None of my sons are in any way what you can call lacking in social skills!

    I say all of that to bring out the point that not all homeschooled children have experiences like yours. It is very unfortunate, and I am so sorry you had such a difficult time. I am thankful you have had the opportunity and the strength to rise above all of that and prove that you can reach for the stars! I encourage you to keep reaching forward to all the opportunities in front of you rather than grieving the opportunities you may have missed in the past.

    Be blessed!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree that it is possible for homeschooling to be a positive experience for a child, and the point of this post was not to say that all homeschooling is bad. However, I wanted to point out a weak point of homeschooling: that it inherently involves less interaction with people outside the family. Parents who are aware of this and try to compensate for it will better prepare their kids for life and relationships after school. Unfortunately, for some parents (like mine), the isolation is a feature instead of a bug, and that can have a snowballing effect.

      I know you mean well in your comment, but sometimes it is appropriate to grieve. Sometimes that allows people to heal and then move on.

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  6. Thank you for this blog. I think what it points out is that different homeschoolers have different experiences, just as different schooled kids do. If you visit a site like Yahoo answers the users will vehemently deny your experience could ever happen. IMO that hurts homeschooling, as it looks like a cover up. So do parents who make it a point to speak for their children. I wonder how your mother would tell others about your homeschooling now. Homeschoolers are varied and there is no typical.

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    1. You're right, there are many possibilities. And sometimes people don't realize at first how they were affected by an experience....it can take time to see the effects and notice a pattern. It's especially hard because within fundamentalist culture, people are trained to blame themselves and their lack of spiritual maturity for every problem and every negative emotion. When I was in my late teens, even at my lowest point, I would have defended homeschooling as the right option for my family and all Christian families. I blamed myself for everything and felt like I was letting down the Christian homeschooling movement.

      With time and life experience, and after taking a step back to get a clearer view, I completely reversed my opinion of my homeschooling experience.

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  7. I always felt like I could never speak of the bad effects my homeschooling had on my life out of respect for educational choice. That said, homeschooling parents really need to look hard at what they're doing; if they're not going to provide an alternative peer group and social experience, homeschooling can easily become an isolating and detrimental to normal development.

    I have social anxiety and while I think homeschooling didn't CAUSE it, it certainly didn't help; if a kid is labeled shy at a young age, word of advice, DON'T take them out of school and start homeschooling them (even if you think it's God's plan or whatever)

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    1. Yes, exactly this!

      I was shy as a child as well, and I didn't have the chance to learn any coping mechanisms. So when I finally entered society as an adult, I had the worst possible combination of childhood shyness, teenage self-consciousness, fundamentalist perfectionism, and absolutely no idea how society or even basic conversation worked.

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  8. Hello,
    I was also raised in a homeschooling family, though not as strict as yours, I still get gawked at when I tell some of my stories. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to go to public school when I reached high school (I think, because my parents had realized the harm that social isolation had done to me and my siblings). However, as a struggling 20-something, I am now trying (as I have at several stages in my life) to face the issues that my social isolation has left me with.
    I found your blog while looking for scientific articles about upbringing and social anxiety. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of material out there about the connections, but I'm sure based on many of the homeschooled kids that I know that there is at least some correlation.
    I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here, but I guess it's good to know I'm not alone, and so I thought I'd add my voice to show some solidarity.
    I have yet to come anywhere near to functioning in society in a way that makes me happy (I definitely related to feeling like I'm from an extinct culture), but I'm beginning to work to create the tools I need to travel the world to see the commonality in everyone.
    Thank you for sharing your story, I hope that you are making progress on your journey.

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  10. Wow. I literally just got chills reading this because this is exactly what I went through. From the no youth group thing to being in almost complete isolation to not getting cultural references to recovering from social awkwardness, literally everything you wrote I can identify with. It is almost like I am reading my thoughts. Would love to chat with you sometime. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Abigail, thanks so much for sharing! I think people need to know that social recovery can happen, although it can be a very slow and painful process. Your comment might give another person the courage to keep pushing for progress. If you are looking for conversation on the topic of recovering from homeschooling, I'm part of an online support group that you might be interested in. You can find it here: http://forum.homeschoolersanonymous.org/ucp.php?mode=register.

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  11. I Never before have I read something so close to my life story. Only difference for was that I was allowed to attend youth group(2 other people) and I went to a fundie christian high school. The high school was very small but it was too late. I had severe social anxiety. I remember crying in the first week of ninth grade in class. Almost no social interaction for the first 14 years of my life. I didnt know what to do, what to say, how to dress. High school was miserable for me. I met one friend who had a similar upbringing and we basically hung out in an empty classroom together for our high school careers.

    College was a little better. A little. I know I came off as a complete jerk because of my social anxiety. If I saw someone I knew I would still avoid them. I would avoid parties, busy cafeterias, anything with social interaction. I left college with one friend. The combination of social anxiety and religious isolation made me feel like I was from a different planet.

    After college was done, I decided to stop making excuses and get myself out there. I joined co-ed sports leagues and clubs. I literally forced myself to attend. I was a nervous wreck but I did it for me.

    Today I am 23. I am doing much better. I have thrown off religion and moved out on my own. The culture clash between me and the world is still very evident. People are shocked at my story. I very much resent homeschooling and religion. I feel ill prepared for life and am still struggling with my demons. Put it this way. At 23 years of age, just recently I had my very first kiss and held hands with a girl. Thats something that for most happens at around 12-14. I feel like everyone has a massive head start on me in life and I have to play catch up for the 18 years that were stolen from me.

    I try not to be resentful but I cant't help it. I was being groomed for a life of religous servitude, marrying a christian girl(how can you with sever social anxiety?), have 8 kids and homeschool them too. I resent the fact that the choice was made for me.

    The ONLY reason home schooling is acceptable is when it is a last resort either due to expulsions or other extenuating circumstances. Sheltering just means your children will have to play catch up when they escape from the religious stranglehold and mark my words parents, they will never forgive you for it.

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  12. I just discovered your blog, and am so excited to be here! Thank you for your bravery in sharing your story, it is a comfort to know there are more of us out there. :) I am from a homeschooling family, oldest of 8, and can completely relate to your story. Although my parents were less intentional about the isolation, I learned I was separate and different from everyone outside of my family, and if I did end up interacting with someone, I was to save their souls with my sheer overwhelming (and very quiet) godliness and kindness. :) I am now 31 and have made a huge amount of progress since I "graduated" from "high school". I've worked my way through a crippling depression, addiction, and just a bunch of crap, and I am functioning much better now (although I'm still getting up the nerve to go on a date or have a relationship with a member of the opposite sex…but I'm finally getting good at flirting). :) Anyway, I just wanted to share a resource that has helped me a lot in understanding what's wrong with me. Adult Children of Alcoholics is affiliated with AA, but is a group for adults who were raised in abusive/addicted and or dysfunctional families. I thought maybe the fact that my parents won't touch alcohol would be a distraction for me, but it hasn't gotten in the way at all, the symptoms are still the same for me (and I've observed in my siblings as well). There are meetings and books, the main text is available at adultchildren.org. I've been to a few meetings, and one thing that has really helped me, is that I get to be in a room full of people who missed out on a normal childhood. So there's no need to feel stupid for not knowing what is normal, because they can all relate. There is strength in solidarity. Hopefully someone finds that resource helpful. Again, thank you for opening up this opportunity to share common experiences, and everybody hang in there-it gets better every year! :) Amanda

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  14. I too have just found this blog and love it! I grew up in a strictly conservative LDS (Mormon) household and though I can't claim the same intensity of experiences as you, several of my memories do resonate with your reports.

    Several years ago, I got into an argument with some of my family about homeschooling. My sister was afraid to send her children to public school and I thought that it was because she was being a paranoid religious fanatic. I bristled at the thought of her keeping her children cooped up in the house so they wouldn't have to hear about evolution or rub shoulders with Mexican immigrants. I hated the idea of people weakening the public school system - the best hope of the disenfranchised - by keeping their children away from the riffraff and from the dangers of Secular Humanism.

    But I hated school. It's important to say that I loved to learn: I always have. But I had trouble in public school, even in well-funded schools of affluent suburbs in progressive Minnesota. For one thing, I wouldn't do my homework. After a while, teachers succeeded in convincing me that I was guilty of unrighteous rebellion. I don't buy the "secular humanism" thing, but there was definitely an ideology of religious character or at least force that found me guilty of a sin. If you care to read it, I wrote about it at some length on my own blog: http://desertloon.blogspot.com/2013/11/an-open-letter-to-teachers-of-usa-not.html.

    For a long time I was convinced that my school problems were because of the other kids. I now am satisfied that the structure of school causes those problems. It's important to acknowledge the authoritarianism of conventional schooling, and it's hugely important for children, youth and their parents to know that there are other options besides public school, snooty private schools and authoritative, stifling homeschooling.

    Education is the best hope of the disenfranchised, but education is not schooling. Socialization is vital, but the socialization of school is training to be subjects, not to be citizens. There are long-standing, numerous and growing movements for *unschooling* and other educational alternatives, like the Sudbury Valley School and others that follow the same model. Unschoolers might describe what they're doing as "homeschooling" for legal purposes, but what they do is opposite the insanity we see here. Their aim is to get their children out of their house, to let them discover the world with all the different people and all the different points of view, and to direct their own education.

    Not everyone can do it (I'm having to send my child to Kindergarten this year, something I didn't want), but if more people are honest about what school does to you (I did poorly in school *because* I like to learn, especially because I like to read), then they can work to make more alternatives to the meager choices they see before them.

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