“So where do you go to school?”
“West—er—well, I take some classes at HCC, and then I also go to this self-directed learning center in Hadley.”
“Self-directed learning center?”
“Yeah…it’s called North Star. It’s kinda like a school…you take classes, but only the ones which interest you…and there aren’t any grades or tests or anything.”
“Ahh, okay…so, you also take college classes? What’s your major?”
“Uh…well, I don’t exactly have a major…see, I’m dual enrollment, which means I’m technically still a junior in high school…”
You get used to having to explain things a lot when you have an “unconventional” education. People often want to know why I left high school when I was 10th in my class, with a GPA of 3.9. Sometimes, when I’m in a facetious kind of mood, or don’t feel like going through it all, I just say, “I’m too cool for school,” although that generally doesn’t go over well. Even on those days, however, I’d rather explain my education for hours than give the answer I gave up until this year; “Westfield High.”
When I am in the conversational kind of mood, however (which is most of the time), I’ll submit to being interviewed about what I’m doing with my education and what I plan to do in the future, and I’ll explain it all just for you right now.
I grew up in the Westfield Public School system. On my first day of kindergarten, I was excited to be going to school, despite having heard my brother’s frequent complaints about the place for four years. To tell the truth, I was pretty happy with kindergarten as a whole. It was only half a normal school day, I didn’t get homework, and I was usually encouraged to be creative. After that it started to get a little worse every year, although my grades were straight S’s (satisfactory) throughout elementary school. Usually I’d start the school year excited, slowly lose enthusiasm as the year went on, get sick of school by the end of third term, and then suddenly like it again when I had only a few months left. Every year, the periods of excitement got shorter, and the period of dissatisfaction grew longer. By high school, I quietly accepted the fact that I hated school, and got almost nothing out of my classes. I was well aware that I wasn’t learning anything by going home, memorizing facts, spitting them out, and then promptly forgetting them, but at least I was getting good grades out of the deal. I was also discouraged from doing the things that I loved, like art, which was mostly seen as distracting from “more important things,” and for some reason I accepted that. Besides, there wasn’t any alternative, was there? I looked at other schools a little, but there didn’t seem to be anything else around that was any better.
Then, one day, my life changed when I went to see Terminator III at the movie theater. The movie itself was kind of a disappointment (Terminator II was way better), but what interested me was an advertisement that came on the screen before the movie. The first time it came on I saw a bunch of real-looking, smiling teens and something about an alternative to high school. The second time, I memorized the website; www.northstarteens.com. When I got home that night and visited that website, you should have seen me! I couldn’t sit still…literally. I had to turn on some music and dance around for a while before I could sit down and read some more. It was the beginning of the end. By the time I’d read everything on the website, I knew that, now that I knew there was an alternative to the waste of time and intelligence known as high school, I could never bear to be restrained by it again.
My mother and I went to North Star and met Ken Danford, one of the founders of North Star. The most important thing he did at this meeting was lend me a copy of the Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn. Reading this book make me cry more than once. It made me angry, remembering the power-hungry teacher I’d had in elementary school, who was so caught up in her power trip that she probably spent more time making sure we were in perfectly straight, alphabetical, and silent lines on the way to lunch than she did actually teaching us (if anyone spoke, we had to walk back to class and start over). It reminded me of the reason I have math anxiety; the teacher that humiliated me in front of the class because I hadn’t memorized my multiplication tables and couldn’t say them fast enough. It reminded me of the oppressive art teacher who would actually take off points on my projects for creativity (his “art” lessons were more like “copy me” lessons, and he wanted everyone’s project to look the same as his). Just as important as letting me grieve my childhood losses, reading this book empowered me. I realized that I deserve better than being put to sleep in crowded classrooms and doing meaningless and unsatisfying busywork. I deserve to be free to create art, to really learn about the things that fascinate me, to experience the world. I remembered how ironic it was that I’d taken my biology book home at the beginning of the year, fascinated and excited by it, starting to flip through and read about the things that interested me, but how, once school really started, actually reading the book had been replaced by the boring task of hunting for answers to questions so I could copy them out of the book as homework. But most of all, the TLH inspired me. This book told me, “You were right all along; there is more to life, and it’s time that you go out and get it.”
Currently I am living a busy and exciting life. I am taking computer animation and acrylic painting classes at Holyoke Community College twice a week, as well as Web Programming and Design, Rise and Fall of the American Teen (a history class), Botany (I love plants!), Literature, Music Improv Ensemble, Theater, Business, and a few other classes at North Star, trying to read about 9 books at the same time, drawing portraits from some of the photographs I take with my Dad, and crocheting tons of scarves. The homework that I do for my classes isn’t empty busywork like in high school, it means something both to me and to the teacher that gave it. Instead of just copying things out of a book in order to get a good grade, I’m actually reading books that I choose about things that I find interesting. Since I’ve started classes this year, I feel like I’ve accomplished so much more than I ever had in public school, such as; singing in front of people and being recorded on a CD for the first time ever (“North Star Caravan,” you should get a copy!), going to different businesses and learning how they work, putting together a 320-frame computer animation, getting connected with a volunteer-run art gallery that I could work with and display my art in, writing this article, and meeting plenty of friendly, interesting, and open-minded people. Nothing I’ve done in high school has ever been as satisfying.
My future seems much more wide open than it did before I left school. Having the freedom to explore has helped me figure out who I am, and what I might want to do with my life. My passion for art is growing as I learn new things about different mediums, especially animation, which I’d always considered a weird hobby of mine with no real use. Now I’m thinking about becoming an animator, or working on special effects in movies, and I’m considering going to an art college like MassArt or Rhode Island School of Design. At the same time, an interest I never realized I had is also growing; marine biology. Who knows where these things will eventually take me...maybe I can combine them somehow, but the point is that I’m willing to put faith in myself and trust that following my passions will lead me to something that can support and fulfill me at the same time. I never had that faith before.
Before I end this, I should answer that question that people are always asking me. A few Thursdays ago, I was at a farm on a botany field trip, making cuttings of plants to bring back to North Star and try to grow, and as I bent over to cut off a sprig of sage, it suddenly hit me; I could be sitting around in school right now! I breathed in the open air, smelled the sage, closed my eyes, and smiled. And that’s why I left school when I was 10th in my class, with a GPA of 3.9…whatever that means. ☺
“So where do you go to school?”