P.O. Box 4803 Baltimore MD 21211
The Sea of Life
Today my 16 year old daughter dropped out of High School. “Drop out: that sounds so negative - it should be called ending a chapter of schooling and diving headfirst into the sea of life,” said my daughter as we walked into her high school together to sign the papers, “but that is too long a description to tell them”. I laughed and agreed, not wanting to go into the office and tell them she is “dropping out” but perhaps homeschooling? Going on to other things?
She was a Junior at an all girls magnet High School in Baltimore: a really good school. (Magnet schools are free like public schools but you need to get good scores on tests in order to make it in) She used to love school but one day she totally shocked me by telling me she wanted to drop out. What?! I mean this is my daughter: the kid who always wanted to go to school and then onto college. She made me buy her the most expensive school ring, the platinum one! Dropping out is more my style than hers.
I remember when she was an infant: I told people on the subject of schooling “Look, I wouldn’t even have a child if I was going to turn them over to the public school indoctrination system, what’s the point?” I was pretty adamantly anti-school. I still have a fat file about this subject: Paul Goodman, A.S. Neil, Frantz Fanon, Ivan Illich, John Holt, George Dennison and such. I thought I would write a column about it one day but by time I got around to it my daughter was pretty deep into the school system and I was more ambivalent about it. I mean: I learned a lot of stuff when I went back to college and she was learning stuff in her schools. The truth is you can learn a lot anywhere you go: in or out of a school.
Sometimes school can be a supportive environment. Her high school for example: it had a lot of unity and school spirit. She had the same chorus teacher for the last three years and she was the only teacher that she hugged and cried while saying goodbye. She had some good teachers there, her American Government teacher last year encouraged her to debate controversial views in class, speak her mind. He was engaging and had the oratory style of a Black Panther or Minister. She never could figure out his position exactly, but oh he did have them learn this political system inside and out. My daughter once smirked at a story I told her of anarchists playing a drinking trivia game at the Wharf Rat and losing cuz the subject was American government (They should have won: “know your enemy”)
She was so excited to be in the larger world of a big school. Dances, Sports, School Paper, Traditions, Revel, Pennies for Poe, Big Sisters and Little Sisters. (Their marching band, a combo with the school next door, Poly, was one of the best in Baltimore) It was like a fraternity, in a good way, and was preparing the girls for college. Bluntly, to have a school that pushes you, inspires you, in a poor city, means something different than within privileged circles. These kids weren’t spoiled, just proud and strong. (Hell, this is the year that School kids walked out and protested in order to try to Save their schools with all the drastic budget cuts going on, this was the year of my daughter going to her first protest on her own volition.)
And as a poor single mom, I can tell you, a good school can be a blessing. It gave us more structure, support, and help than I would have on my own. It made me feel good to know my daughter was happy. It was everything. I know I am not the only anarchist that has found a happy middle ground with a public school. My friend Vikki has her toddler in Head Start in NYC. She likes that her child can be part of a larger world away from her and that her child’s classmates are Chinese which is the half of her cultural make up that she is less exposed to. She feels that a NYC public school education exposes you to different kinds of people instead of being in your own little niche. She has told me about people expressing a negativity to her on this choice: that unschooling or being in radical communities is the only way to go or something.
Fuck that. Make your own choices as you go along in life.
Originally, I felt I had no support in my own community that my daughter had to be turned over to “the system” when I first put her in kindergarten so that she and I could get a break from each other. It wasn’t what I believed in. That was the first thing I did as a parent that I really felt shitty about - not just the school but the control from the state that begins there - I immunized my child so she could go to school (which I didn’t believe in and if you don’t - sign the religious objection forms!). I researched all the options in Baltimore and came up with a private school that (surprise! How unlike me!) had school uniforms and church stuff once a week *But* their make up was as racially diverse as the city (unlike Waldorf or Montessori which was predominately white) and they were located downtown and took a lot of field trips out into the city. There approach to learning was creative and active. And I heard they had an openly gay teacher on staff.
I moved the next year - to Minneapolis - in big part because I felt that city would have more support for the subculture parent and more healthy environment for children than Baltimore. My daughter went to a free school there for 1st grade. Totally free. A hippy punk kind of school started in the sixties. Kids signed up for classes they wanted to go to, attendance was not mandatory the only thing that was weekly democratic meeting where kids held positions to call on people to speak, second motions, and vote on outcomes. This school was pretty awesome though at times a slacker school.
The next year my daughter wanted to go to public school because their was only two little kids in her free school (It was all ages from K to 12th grade. Most of the kids were older) and she really wanted to ride the school bus with the kids in her neighborhood, so I let her. It was kind of rough. We lived in a rough neighborhood. My daughter has always thought I am wrong for protecting her, looking out for her. She is always trying to do the more “normal” or “standard” things, like for instance Public Schools.
Things got too hard for me at that point, and I decided to move in with my grandmother and go to nursing school so that I could play it straight myself and be empowered to never have to be that poor again (just plain poor - not alternative) as I wound up being.
So with me going to College: it had to be, live with my grandmother in the suburbs and my daughter go to her suburban public elementary school. It only took a few times of bringing sprouts and tofu in her school lunches to learn to ask for white bread and what everybody else was eating. Yes my daughter went over to the other side and she went over big time. Conservative daughter of the freak mother - you know the drill right? Once we even argued about school: I told her if she insisted on staying in high school and immediately then going into College - that I wanted her to take a year off somewhere so she could explore her own interests and have time to find herself. “NO!” She said. “No Soy Milk. And No damn anarchy. I believe its more effective to create change from within the system. And I’m gonna bottle feed my baby if/when I have one - breast feeding is disgusting.” (says the attachment parented wild child)
Our arguments seem very funny to some people and sometimes it seems like we have reversed positions, that she is the parent and I am the child. I’m just saying: It is very possible to rebel from a “I’m giving you nothing to rebel from” parent.
I used to blame school, in part, for this. But somewhere along the line things changed. (College didn’t exactly work out for me like I planned - I never did become a nurse, and I’m not even using my graphic design degree right now.) We moved back into the city. (Thank God! There is nothing like being poor and culturally isolated as being transplanted into the suburbs from urban living) She went to an “alternative” school I paid for. OH yes, you do have to pay for things like Respect, Experiential Learning, and other high falutin’ ideals. But not too bad. This school started as a parents co-op and was maintained on that participation. My daughter loved that they were reading Shakespeare and that they had time to talk between subjects - I loved the idea of all the camping trips they would make, apprentice hours in the neighborhood and graduating trip abroad (She went to Holland and France and Denmark). But still my daughter didn’t belong! Not because she loved avocados and mangos and once wore two velvet skirts on top of each other in 2nd grade, but because she wore make-up and liked some mainstream culture. She wasn’t “weird” enough and she thought the kids were too sheltered. (By this point she had been expelled from middle school in the suburbs for fighting and suffered a disastrous homeschooling attempt that mostly consisted of me going to work and she staying home watching soap operas)
By the time she made it to High School - she was excited. This school she made a better fit than the others. It was full of Diversity, Smart and Fashionable! Still, she was an outsider. As the most white looking half Spanish girl in the world, she was a bit of an outsider with her all African American table she sat with. It wasn’t too bad, just her peers didn’t invite her to go places on the weekend, made rumors about her after a party where they saw she was a really good dancer, and danced with boys, and accused her of trying to talk black when she said, “it’s only natural that you pick up the speech patterns of your friends.”
She used to hold much disdain for the hot topic punks - as much of the minority of white girls at her school did fall into fashion victims or alternative types. “They are just being different - in all the same ways. I know your friends and this isn’t what punk is about.” Strange punk has gone on for so many generations now - that my friends daughter could say to her peers who accused her in middle school of not being punk enough “How can I not be punk enough, Ian Mckaye changed my diapers?” Anyway.
But then this year she started hanging out with them and listening to some “alternative rock” instead of the R and B (and her personal interest in Motown) that she had been for so many years. Weird. But I could see she felt more at ease with making her own fashion creations and being her own self than when she had been hanging out with the very fashionable (need money to buy it too) set. The Cons was White Kids smoke. Ug! Yep, it all started going down from there when she started hanging out with white kids.
The thing was: I had totally accepted that my kid was kind of straight laced. It was funny. I was proud. And I felt good. Although stressed: how can I afford all she wants?, and the way she sees life, the things she wants: expensive cars, “good” colleges, how she sees I am poor because I don’t do the right things that I should do. My daughter would go onto college - take a sensible path - work hard - and have money.
My daughter didn’t drink or smoke. She had already been through stuff in her early adolescence and early teen years. That is not the kind of stuff my kid does!
But then one night she didn’t come home and went drinking with neighborhood kids! Shit - she would worry me too death. She did this for a few weekends. I tried talking to her, grounding her (cuz honestly I thought she really wanted me too, and perhaps this is what a good mother should do) and then I gave up. I am totally scared of her being drunk in the city streets with kids I don’t even know. Look around this neighborhood - you know!
And then she wanted to drop out of school! I mean I thought it would pass. I got very comfortable with the role I had adjusted to, the daughter I thought I had. Which had always been a daughter who liked school, conservative even if she was a hybrid of forces, open minded (She was the vice president of the Straight and Gay Alliance club at school - for example), and radical in ways that didn’t capture her attention because heaven forbid she be anything like her mother.
It came so sudden and I didn’t like that. I felt pretty upset. I didn’t want to hear the typical anarchist agenda nor the typical straight ahead advice. Neither of this was me or her. Please - no propaganda! What’s right for us? How should I, as a mother act? So I felt it out for a while. And I talked to her. And I talked to other people.
I encouraged her to stay in school. I let her have a day off to think about it. She gave me all her reasons: that school was killing her soul; what is all this work all the time for? She wanted to work (she has had 3 jobs before), explore her interests, get her GED, take some college courses. (For me - that is a must and the same thing my mother told me, I however hated school for two years and had to agonize before I was allowed to drop out). She said she felt like me now, she understood what I had said about school before. That by the time you get out you don’t even know who you are.
Right now she wants to work in a restaurant, be a bartender when she is old enough and maybe own her own business one day. Last year she was considering being a Forensic doctor for a long time. She’s thought about different careers—lawyer, massage therapist, clothes designer, music technician—through out the years. She still has time to explore, to try, and to change her mind. Heck, when does that ever stop?
But at least she will have a head start on having the time and experience to explore her interests and get out in the world. Time to pull out all those unschooling theories. Maybe borrow a copy of the Teenage Liberation Handbook. If we are going to do this—and she never wavered nor changed her mind—I might as well get a positive attitude.
It’s not an easy path. Looking for employment is depressing and their is a real danger of my daughter watching too much day time television and sinking into the social isolation that drop outs and the unemployed are inclined too. Its easier to go the societal approved path. When I was in college my dad bought me a car. Going to school gets you to wake up and finish more projects on time. But life is always what you put into it. I feel confident of all the skills my daughter has already gained: she’s a great cook, extremely crafty with her hands, good at thinking, compassionate, secure in her independence, knows some things about life. I think she is going to grow up a lot this year and that’s what she wants to do. There’s some things I have a hard time imagining: my baby driving a car - egads that’s scary! Suddenly I am not on safe ground: it’s like what I thought was going to happen next year is happening this year. My kid is out of high school.
It was easier for me when my daughter was in school—I could go about my own way knowing where she was. I was comfortable being negligent and what the hell, my daughter had no interest in my interests anyway so I didn’t bring them up. Now I feel I have to parent a bit more during this time period of transition. I assist her with what she is interested in and get her out of the house. She is open to and likes my help now: I am fairly good at talking to people, I know what’s up, and have connections out in the world (stuff she never took me up on before). I took her to Red Emma’s cafe to see an art show/Burning Man Slide Show and band play (Mongolian Glow). I asked the owner of a local restaurant if he could hire her (she’s supposed to talk to him tomorrow). I asked someone I know from seeing around if we could tour her workplace in the Foundry where she works Bronze Casting. That field trip was utterly intensely inspiring! After seeing the giant molds taken from clay sculptures and made into wax, the molten metal, the really cool woman who was welding together parts of this giant ape. We left with this fresh zest for life. “Want to go sign the papers at school now?” she asked me then. Yea, I’m ready - I replied. (I need to call back and ask the really cool woman (there’s no harm to ask, you never know, the person may say Yes or No) if she can apprentice and teach my daughter how to use a blow torch cuz my daughter said “That is the best job ever” and had actually been talking about wanting to use a blow torch the day before I found out that’s what Wendy does.) My daughter is shy but she went out on her own and asked a local arts store if they would buy the duct tape purses she makes (which are fantastic). She plays on her keyboard everyday and talks about how much she wants to learn Bass. She is looking into getting GED classes on her own and has applied for jobs she hasn’t gotten so far. She is ready for so much: to go to work, earn money, and follow her interests. There is lots of exciting possibilities, living her own way and jumping into the sea of life. - China / China410@hotmail.com / PO Box 4803 Baltimore MD 21211