A Blue-Collar Girl in a White-Collar WorldAugust 25th, 2012 at 10:56
I am republishing this piece written by my daughter Emma and originally published on Daily KOS (click here to see on Daily KOS). Also some extensive replies Emma made to some comments she got…
I am (and to some extent, have always been) a writer, but my desire to become a novelist did not emerge until after I’d made the choice to drop out of high school and become an “autodidact” (someone who is self-taught — see My Experience With Unschooling). All I knew then was that being in a traditional school setting made me terribly unhappy (for reasons that could fill a separate blog piece) and that I’d always had a knack for creative writing. I had no idea what was in store for me, venturing out into the wilderness, leaving everything I was expected to believe about school behind.
I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it, either, if my parents hadn’t been so supportive and my brother hadn’t already blazed the trail before me (see leftyparent’s blog — Pulling Eric out of School). I met some form of resistance from almost everyone else, having come from two generations of college graduates, a world where all of my adult role models worked white-collar jobs, and a Unitarian Universalist community of (primarily white) kids who all had college in their sights.
Growing up middle class only reinforced this notion that not only could college give me a leg up in life, it would prove something about how smart I was. I won’t deny that getting into college is no easy feat (and would have been doubly hard for me without a proper transcript), and I admire anyone who has the focus and mental fortitude to pursue that kind of intensive study. But once I left high school, once I began to pursue things entirely in my own way and on my own time, I knew in my gut that a 4 year university wasn’t going to be right for me.
Why? Because no matter the exposure to people, places and knowledge, I wasn’t willing to give up total ownership of my learning process. It was a tough sell to the people around me, who could not divorce the concept of “learning” from “teacher” and “classroom”. But part of being an autodidact is embracing how you learn best, and for me, the first step to becoming a writer meant doing just that — writing. A lot. In those initial post-high-school years, that’s all I did, in a community of people who could enjoy writing with me.
I still had a small college fund at my disposal, but it would only be enough to cover a year’s worth of expenses at most universities. I didn’t want that much debt, and while I may have had to shut the door on certain aspects of the college experience that had always appealed to me — networking, living in another city and studying abroad — I was able to have my own unique adventures because I was not in school — working on a farm in French Canada, attending language school in Montreal for a couple months, and going to Australia to meet some of the closest friends I’d made in my online writing sphere.
These were empowering experiences, but my family and friends’ combined pedigree still hung over my head like a cloud. It was my own judgment I had to face, moving forward with my life, watching my peers drift off to college, one by one. Like them, I wanted to be someone successful, who was educated, articulate and witty. But in the white-collar world of the liberal elite (a club that I had grown up eager to enter), that meant you went to college. Plain and simple.
Instead, I got what I would classify as a “blue-collar” job, and resigned myself to being looked down upon. We all know the stereotype — you drop out of high school, don’t go to college, still live with your parents and eke out an existence flipping burgers. Well, I had a little more gumption than that! I was 18, had just gotten back from Montreal, and I’d only ever worked at my local coffee shop for a dollar above minimum wage. I ended up charming my way into a waitressing gig at another small business — a full service breakfast/lunch place and bakery.
At times it could be exhausting work, getting up before the sun, juggling a restaurant full of people (and many regulars) with a very small staff, and doing just about everything outside of serving, myself — set-up and breakdown of the restaurant, bussing, making drinks, running food, fielding the pastry and bread counter, and taking orders by phone.
But I was making a living wage. By 19, I had moved out of the house. I was paying for a studio apartment, art and piano lessons, a cell phone, monthly car payments (and everything a car entails), and I was able to eat out several times a week. I was always in a little bit of debt, truth be told (until my boyfriend moved in and cut my rent in half), but I had shattered the stereotype. I was on my own and thriving. It may not have been glamorous, and it wasn’t sustainable in the long term (at least, not for me), but I knew that I could survive. And it was only part-time, so I could still write.
I started to let go of my preconceptions, one by one, to just accept what I had and what I could make of it. I can still remember the day my boyfriend helped me move stuff out of my room and into my new apartment (it only took one trip in a rented pick-up truck). Just before we left my parent’s house (which is about 30 minutes away from where I currently live), he insisted my mother and I pose for a quick cell phone photo. He preceded it by saying: “This is a big moment, after all!” and my mother and I sort of shrugged and laughed and said: “I guess you’re right”. At that point I’d been spending 5-6 nights a week at my boyfriend’s apartment, anyway. I had already moved out without meaning to. It was unceremonious… it was just life.
And so was my job. While the majority of my friends spent 4 years experiencing college, I spent 4 years working at the restaurant. It’s how I met my boyfriend, Luke… for that alone, it was worth it. A year in, I was promoted to manager, but don’t let that fool you — it was really more like waitress-plus. I still had to work hard and get my hands dirty, but I was also responsible for the mess.
I could talk a long time about my experiences there; how much I learned about myself, how tough it made me, how my small cadre of co-workers grew into a family. How stressful and intense those shifts could be. I made good money for what I did, but that fact was bittersweet. I was proud of my job, and proud of myself for how good I became at it, but it wasn’t my passion.
I was working on my very first novel on the side, taking courses through UCLA’s Extension, even meeting weekly with a writing group, but it was an uphill climb, and the more serious I was about writing the novel, the more I realized that my job was taking too much out of me. I envied my peers in college their time to devote to their fields of study, but I had to wonder… how many of them were there to pursue what they hoped would be a career? And how many of them were as clear about their passion in life as I was? It seemed that many of them were only there because that was what was expected of them.
My best friend was one of the only people I knew in a predicament similar to mine. She, too, had dropped out of high school, and while she’d taken the time to pass the G.E.D. (which we jokingly called the “Good Enough Diploma”), she simply didn’t have the money or resources to go to college, and was not willing to put in that amount of effort when her interest lay in the restaurant industry, a field where practical experience largely outweighs education.
Our initial job experience was very similar, too, and I took comfort in that. We’d both been baristas and servers at small businesses. But while I was moving out and in with my boyfriend and starting to integrate into his circle of friends, her life had taken a very different turn. In the wake of losing her father to cancer, she and her sister decided to leave L.A. and move to Chicago, where her sister’s boyfriend was already situated.
We did our best to keep in touch, but it was definitely a shift for me, as I found myself surrounded by people 5-10 years my senior, my boyfriend included. Many of them were aspiring actors (this is L.A., after all), and almost all of them had had some sort of college experience, whether it was for theatre or something else (I came across Poli-Sci, Psychology and Communications majors quite often).
As I began to interact more and more with these mid-to-late-twenties/early-thirty somethings, I noticed something startling — the majority of them were in the very same situation that I was. We were all working blue-collar (or more menial white-collar) jobs, trying to launch some kind of artistic or otherwise higher paying career. In the case of my co-workers, who were virtually all college graduates, I (the youngest among them) was their boss.
They felt like my peers, and whenever I admitted my age to them, they tended to be astonished. When I would reveal that I had not only never gone to college, I had dropped out of high school… their jaws would literally drop. “But you’re so smart,” they would say. “You’re so mature.”
To the latter I would often answer: “Well, I’ve been out of school for nearly 5 years”, and that seemed to resonate with them. But what does that say about what constitutes a person’s maturity in the “real world”? Because I had been in it for as long as some of them had, I read as 25-30, when I was really just shy of my early 20s. It seemed that not only was college not always indicative of success, it wasn’t necessarily a barometer for maturity, either.
For the first time, the choices I’d made didn’t feel so baseless. It was like I’d gotten the jump on life. While going to college had definitely broadened the intellectual/artistic horizons of many of my peers, practically speaking, I’d come out ahead. I had a reliable job that paid well, ample time to work on my book, and I wasn’t mired in debt.
Sure, there were times when I felt under-educated (and secretly embarrassed), but I had come to realize that my lack of knowledge had very little to do with dropping out. Even when I was in school, I didn’t feel very smart — retaining factual information has always been hard for me, which made me a terrible test taker. It’s one of the biggest reasons I left. I could understand the information put before me, but absorbing it was an entirely different matter, even when I was interested in the subject. I knew that no matter the choices and freedoms a college experience could offer me, it would still be largely that — a classroom, a textbook, lectures, notes and test-taking. And that wasn’t me.
But, as someone who grew up with a lot of privilege and the inbred promise of more, choosing another path meant altering my expectations. It was very humbling to make a living working a blue-collar job. Even more humbling to realize that on the spectrum of blue-collar jobs I was very much at the top of the pecking order (particularly once I was promoted), in large part because I was young and white. The back-of-house Latino kitchen staff were the ones who really had it hard (and their families back in Mexico, even harder), working 10-12 hour shifts, 6 days a week, many with second jobs and no cars to get around. I knew it was likely they’d be working blue-collar jobs for the rest of their lives, but for many of them, it was a step up.
It really started to open my eyes to my own sense of entitlement. I may have been supporting myself financially, but it was only part-time, and I would always have a roof over my head and food on my plate if I needed it. I was still living in the first world — I would never know poverty, and unlike many people (college educated or no), I had an immense support network in place to help me achieve my dreams. It made me feel so grateful for all of these things.
And I realized, too, that I had always unconsciously assumed I would go to college because it was just what people of my caliber did. But now I know that there are people in this world with the capacity to do great things who don’t have or can’t get a degree to prove it. My experience in the service industry really drove home why my parents and grandparents didn’t want me to spend my life working at the expense of my dreams. I learned that I didn’t want that either (and that I was lucky enough to be able to make a different choice), but I think it was worth coming to that place on my own, to solidify just how much my dreams meant to me.
I’m a firm believer in “going with your gut” when it comes to navigating your own life, but part of trusting yourself is having the time, space and support to develop those instincts without being too outwardly influenced. I had some of that time while I was unschooling, but I have to wonder how much further along I’d be on the path to publication if I had unschooled from the beginning. When I look back, I’ve been writing and enjoying stories since I was a small child, often entering contests at school and winning awards, even choosing to spend a large chunk of my adolescence online, immersed in fantasy roleplaying worlds and forums, writing to my heart’s content.
And when I think about what I took away from school, I honestly come up with more negative than positive. I don’t feel like I came out of it well-rounded or balanced. If anything, I took away a feeling of inadequacy, a penchant for insomnia that I still can’t seem to shake, and some serious damage to my self-esteem that took years to rebuild. I don’t blame my parents, though, who were willing to listen when I wanted to try something else. They were on their own journey to figure out how they felt about traditional education, and so was I. If I learned anything from school, it was what I didn’t like about it.
It can really shape kids’ priorities and expectations, which they internalize over time, and then they’re set on someone else’s idea of the “right path”, for better or worse. It no longer surprises me that many of my peers nowadays seem lost or confused about their own direction, now that they’ve finally been given full custody of their own life. I felt that way, too, but I was 15. I had a lot more time to figure things out and a lot less of the pressures that come with adulthood.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I came out the other end of what would’ve been my college years that I finally felt ready to commit myself to full-time “study”. I was able to use my small college fund to leave my job last September and pursue my dream of finishing the novel at last. I’ve spent the last 10 months learning what it means to be a novelist full-time. I have my grandparents to thank for the money, and I love them for fully supporting the choices I’ve made with it.
While I’m still not done with the novel, I’ve made some significant progress, and the experience of this past year has been invaluable to me. Just in the last month I’ve had to open myself up to the idea of part-time work again, knowing that the money I’ve been subsisting on will be gone soon. I decided to approach the restaurant industry from a new angle by going to Bartending School, and was able to get back in touch with just how hardworking, poised and adaptable I can be in any environment.
While bartending isn’t my eventual career aspiration, it was for many of the people around me. There’s a threshold to the amount of money you can make as one, certainly, and it’s a physically demanding job, but as I sat there, learning about Mixology and Dramshop Laws, it felt as valid a choice as anything else, blue-collar and all. I realized that everyone’s entitled to their own experience, and to put our own qualifiers on it seems shortsighted.
Now that I’m a certified bartender, I’ve begun to look for a job again, but even as I resign myself to the amount of time and energy it will require to return to the restaurant industry, I no longer consider my aspirations of becoming a writer to be “higher” or “better”, just different. And while I’m happy to ensure people have a good experience wherever I work, performing that function shouldn’t relegate me to the background. Regardless of whether it’s for life or just in the interim, being blue-collar shouldn’t make me wallpaper in a white-collar world.
While I only got a glimmer of what it feels like to be disenfranchised, it was enough to know that there were worlds of people who would never even have the opportunities that I had always assumed I was owed. It reminded me that we are all human together, and that so much goes into determining our circumstance in life. It no longer seems fair for me to feel entitled to so much when so many people have so little.
Instead, I try never to forget how lucky I am in the grand scheme of things, that I’m able to strive toward exactly what I want in my life and be happy. Recently, my father confided in my brother and me that he was glad each of us had charted our own course and that neither of us was “working for the man”. It just goes to show that it all comes down to perspective; another parent might’ve disowned me for the choices I’d made.
I’m so happy we’re on the same page, and I’m relieved to no longer be overly worried with whether or not I “measure up”. If experience has shown me anything, it’s that being a blue-collar girl in a white-collar world doesn’t mean that I’m somehow worse off. It just means that I took a different path, and that’s what works for me.
Here are some further comments by Emma to people on Daily KOS who commented on her piece above…
On being born to middle-class privilege and appreciating money…
I really have my parents to thank for doing their best to provide for me without warping my expectations too severely. I can imagine it’s a fine line to tread. From a relatively early age they started teaching me how to save money for the things that I really wanted that felt important (big things, like a new computer, for example) and initially they would even meet me half way, but the older I got the more I would use my own money to pay for those pivotal items. It really helped me appreciate their worth. Even my car… while my first car was inherited from my grandmother, the second I paid for entirely on my own, taking out a 3-year loan to do it (which my mother graciously co-signed). I’ve also paid for the majority of the repairs, since. I definitely feel I value it more and take better care of it than I would’ve if it had just been handed to me like a shiny new toy.
And even though I didn’t start to really work until 17, my allowance wasn’t limitless from what I remember, and it was up to me to spend it wisely, and to save it (along with money from holidays) when I needed to. But once I started making my own money, I no longer got the allowance and I also started to pay for some of my own expenses, like clothing and eating out. When I got my second job and started making more money, I then began to take on my monthly expenses (car insurance and gas, cell phone bill, etc.). Moving out and paying rent/utilities was really the final frontier; it was a gradual progression up to that point, which helped me adjust to the financial reality of being an adult.
While I may have been subsisting off money I didn’t make myself for the last 10 months, it’s been with a specific goal in mind, in the hopes of kick-starting my career. Otherwise I’ve learned what it means to support myself, and that goes a long way in making me feel like I can navigate “the real world” and well… be a functioning “grown up”.
On the expectations of growing up in a white-collar family among other such families
It took a lot for me to let go of this ingrained expectation to strive for “something better”, which of course included a college education. I had to take a step back and look at exactly whose expectations I was trying to meet, where they had originated, and what it was that I wanted and why that worked for me. I also had to acknowledge that many of those expectations came from a well-intentioned place, but that doesn’t mean that I needed to make them my own.
Your story reminds me a bit of my middle school experience at a progressive charter school. The majority of my friends there had come from a traditional school setting and were constantly testing the more liberal boundaries they’d been allowed as a result of the charter’s philosophy. While I readily embraced taking more ownership over my learning process (and was considered more “mature”, often winning accolades and leniency from many of the teachers there, as a result, to my friends’ perpetual vexation), my friends did their best to sabotage themselves and point to their own failure as evidence to discredit the charter school, overall.
I think they were just echoing their parents’ values and likewise their fears that without external control via rewards and punishments (which included A-F letter grades, something this school had pointedly abolished) their children would never “learn” anything and would be doomed to a life of failure and social ridicule.
A little over a year ago I went to something of a middle school reunion only to find that not much had changed with my friends in terms of their level of maturity or their interest in their own direction in life. The only key differences were that all of them had some form of low paying employment (that they were disenchanted with) and they could now drink and party accordingly. Most of them hadn’t moved out yet and had ended up in local and/or community college. It just struck me that they had done everything they were expected to do including college in some for or another, and yet their interests remained largely superficial and their self esteem fairly low. Whereas I had dropped out and was now living on my own with a serious boyfriend and serious career aspirations. I felt like we were leagues apart, due in large part to the fact that I knew what I wanted and I believed in myself.
In both of the jobs I’ve held so far, I’ve been the sole person to be promoted for showing initiative and investment in my workplace, as well as an aptitude for leadership. These were skills I feel I garnered entirely outside of school during my YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) days. As I said in my piece, school didn’t really help my self esteem, and I spent a good amount of “detoxing” before I was able to make any real progress in terms of charting my own course in life.
To a comment that college is a place to get new experiences, to meet lots of difference kinds of people, and to learn all kinds of interesting things.
I totally get your point and have definitely learned a lot through enrolling in UCLA’s Writer Extension Program. Not only did I get a dedicated writing group out of it, I also now have a writing mentor (a published author) whose taught me a ton about novel writing that I’d feel lost without, as I move forward with my own work.
But I have to echo my dad’s reply to this — it wasn’t just about investing the time and accepting the format (lectures, test taking, etc.), it was about the money. I definitely used my college fund to help me pay for my extension courses, but that was about all I could afford if I wanted to keep any of it to be able to write full time at some point (which is what I ended up doing). Sure, I may have been working a part-time job, but just enough to cover basic expenses, not part-time school on top of that. The closest I got was taking french through community college (and going to language school).
I love the idea of being able to take specific courses to enrich myself, but I either couldn’t afford it, or didn’t feel like I could afford to give up my time, when I was trying to figure out how to write my novel. That was sort of part of my “blue-collar” experience, and part of what I mean when I said that I got a “glimmer of what it felt like to be disenfranchised”. Not that I truly was, by any means, but I had grown up in a world where college was typically handed to you on a silver platter. That wasn’t the case for me, so I had to be a lot more picky. Maybe even too picky, because I didn’t expose myself to as many things. But that was just the reality of it, for me, and I feel like I took away some valuable life lessons, even if I wasn’t quite as “enriched”.
To comment detecting a slight tone of defensiveness in the diary and throughout the stand of comments and replies.
It sounds like you made the system work for you and your needs, and I think that’s one of the best ways to move through it. If you sense any defensiveness, it’s because I spent a lot of my time defending my choices to people, or outright evading even talking about it. I don’t sense that same level of judgment from you (which I appreciate), but you’re sort of an exception to what became a rule, at least for me.
I never meant to imply that learning cannot happen in formal settings. But I was speaking from my own experience, where learning generally didn’t happen for me in a formal setting, or if it did, it came with some kind of caveat. I also explained why I felt that was true in my case — I’ve never been much of a “book learner” and that tended to be the format I was exposed to.
Of all the classes I took in 9th grade (which was my last, official year of formal schooling) I can only remember some of what I took away in English class (being a writer and all, I was interested), Art class (art is a secondary pursuit for me), and French class, since I’ve always been into foreign languages. I went on to pursue all three subjects more intensively, too, whether through private instruction or practical experience, so it helps that that knowledge and literature I was initially exposed to has since been solidified. These were things I was interested in regardless, part of why I chose the school I went to and the schedule I ended up with that year.
But of the other subjects, I remember little at all. I hated my Geometry class; my teacher was mean and not only made me feel like I was stupid, but did his best to make me feel guilty for the fact that he had to put up with me. My history teacher thought that “learning” meant making us write an outline of an entire chapter in our history book, essentially making us rewrite all of the information (that was already provided) in an abbreviated format, without really bothering to ensure whether or not we absorbed the information or understood it in context. I guess the only other class I had was P.E., and I intentionally took a class focused primarily on body conditioning, because I’ve never been a fan of being arbitrarily ranked in a competitive environment where merit is based purely on athleticism, something I wasn’t super interested in taking the time to really develop (beyond staying in some kind of shape). I do remember that I was forced to run a mile every Friday, and that my teacher did nothing to show us how to pace ourselves or control our own breathing, he just sat there, praising the kids who came in first and picking on the stragglers, which was always me.
Even the three classes I did like I had a lot of issues with, whether it was the format of the class or the instructor. Whenever I would try to commiserate with other students, I was often told: “Oh well, just wait a couple years. 9th grade always sucks.” I’m sorry, but I don’t accept that. I don’t accept a system that requires a certain amount of my time and is only really effective and/or enriching depending on random variables completely out of my control, like which teachers I have to choose from or which time slots certain things are available.
I remember sitting down with my guidance counselor, trying to hammer out a schedule for 10th grade (before I decided to drop out). I really wanted to do theater, but the only way I was going to be able to while still meeting all the requirements was to take health/career planning in summer school. When I told the counselor that I didn’t want to be in school for the summer (I wasn’t going to give up the two months of freedom I had, and that’s what summer felt like to me — freedom), he said: “Well, it’s really just the best way to get this course ‘out of the way’”. It frustrated me to think that there was anything I had to just ‘get out of the way’. I’d taken a fairly comprehensive health class in 8th grade (having gone to a charter school, they were a bit ahead in some areas like that) and I had no interest in a career planning/aptitude class, when I was already starting to feel pretty good about what I wanted to do in life (something with writing and maybe art). But I wasn’t allowed to have total ownership over choices like that, which is another part of why I left.
I realize that this comment may sound defensive. It’s certainly not directed at you, but at a system that just did not end up working for me, and I guess at a certain mindset I encountered often that I should just grin and bear the bad for the possible good. I just felt like there had to be a better way, at least for someone like me, to learn and grow in the ways that felt like they’d benefit me the best, without sacrificing so much time on wasted efforts; certain subjects that would’ve been nice in theory for me to know, but in the end I retained very little of.
Responding to a comment on the process of learning music.
Thank you for the detailed breakdown of your process. Music is actually a tertiary pursuit of mine; I spent several years taking piano lessons, as well as guitar lessons for awhile. I was also a painter for many years (art is a secondary pursuit). While I’ve had to give up piano for the time being, I still play guitar on my own, just for fun. Music brings me a lot of joy, and I like to listen to a wide variety of it.
As to your process, it sounds a lot like how I go about novel writing. I’ve been trying to write this book, in some form, for the last 5 years. It’s been a long process of trial and error, which has included some semi-formal schooling via UCLA’s Extension, but even that was very hands on, focused on helping me through the trial and error process (although I was also exposed to some great literature, which was nice). Another big part of it was having an audience to give me constructive feedback on my work, which included the writing group I got out of it. We met weekly for over 2 years, and they’ve seen just about every iteration of my book that there is.
It’s only now that I’m finally coming to a place where I feel like I’m getting to a professional caliber of work. But I still encounter hurdles that are tough and set me back. It’s such a process and no one can really teach me how to do it, just impart their own experiences and skills. It’s up to me to apply those where necessary, as well as to learn how to accept feedback.
I actually spoke at length about this in the comments section of my previous blog, but I did my best to school myself in what I considered to be the classics of science fiction, since that is the genre I intend to write in. It helps that my dad read or encouraged me to read a lot of great sci-fi growing up. And nowadays, since my focus is on YA genre fiction, I read a ton of it, to critically access what I feel works and doesn’t work and to understand what’s selling and why. Nobody instructed me to do this — it’s just what my gut told me to do.
To a comment that teenagers are generally kind of dumb, and it takes a while for the hormones to subside before they can really learn to think.
Having recently been a teenager, it was really the kids who were not raised in nurturing environments where they had unconditional love and support to foster their own development — it was those kids who seemed “kind of dumb” or “overly hormonal”. Kids that felt like they had to rebel against authority figures (often their parents) trying to micro-manage their lives or judge their progress as individuals based on an arbitrary set of standards. Kids who saw this same top-down control model echoed in their learning environments and were burnt out dealing with it in their home lives, who’d never really been encouraged to do any deep learning on topics of interest, but instead were expected to absorb information on someone else’s timetable whether they wanted to or not. It was those kids, indeed, who seemed disconnected, disenchanted and even toxic. While I’m not trying to justify any bad or negligent behavior, it was kind of hard to blame kids caught up in downward spirals when I, too, was fighting my own battle with the system and trying to come to terms with leaving it and finding my own way, an option many of them just didn’t have.
It also feels a little unfair to judge teenagers so harshly when we haven’t really witnessed an entire generation of youth outside of the traditional schooling system (in it’s current iteration) for a good century. So much has changed in terms of how we view children/teens and their physical/emotional/intellectual development, and we’ve very slowly started to come to a place as a society where we’re all on more equal footing in terms of opportunity (although I know it’s still a long haul from here). I think it’s an incredibly noble ambition that all kids should be allowed to become literate and be exposed to a common body of knowledge, but I feel like the set routes we’ve institutionalized when it comes to going about that ambition are not as effective or nurturing as they could be.
As a result, we get a lot of burnt out kids and teens who spend their free time “goofing off”, when really I feel like they’re just detoxing from being expected to spend a large chunk of their lives in an artificial environment whose every aspect is controlled. I genuinely don’t think that teenagers are hardwired to “goof off” or be uninterested in anything of value to them, I think that’s a side effect of the current system, which, for the large part, remains authoritarian and unflinching when it comes to kids who don’t “measure up” to its standards.
Part of being a teenager is testing boundaries and learning what it means to create your own. When I was involved in YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) I was able to have real ownership of my community, participating in week long camps and conferences that were entirely youth planned and led. At one point a close friend and I put together an entire week long camp, including creating the schedule, putting together the staff, deciding on a theme, enlisting guest speakers, choosing special nightly events, and learning how to facilitate effective meetings with that team on the regular to ensure that the event progressed smoothly. In addition to this I had to be on hand to tackle any problems that arose (and believe me, there were plenty, because you’re right about one thing — the onset of sexual maturity is a big part of being a teenager) and to ensure that not only were the problems resolved, that they didn’t leave any lasting damage on the community.
This really made me value and be more invested in my community than I would’ve otherwise, I think. It also really brought out an aptitude for leadership that I didn’t even know I had. In addition to that I was a camp counselor for smaller children, and I learned just what it meant to start creating safe boundaries for other people, and I think that helped me to temper how I felt about my own.
I really felt like those leadership skills came into play at the last two jobs I’ve held, and are a big part of the reason I was promoted in both cases.
These were all experiences I had outside of (and largely after) school. Of course it helped that I was a part of this community and that I had been exposed to it, but life is all about exposure, and a big part of unschooling is ensuring that your kid is exposed to environments where there are opportunities for growth, whether that’s traditional school or something else, depending on what works for them. This was definitely something that worked for me.
And while being a teenager is certainly a very social time in one’s life, where the opinions of peers mean more than they ever have (and probably ever will), that’s developmental. Sure, I was hormonal and very conscious of how I fit in, but when it came to pursuing my interest — creative writing — my hormones never got in the way, and neither did anything else, for that matter. I did it because I wanted to do it, because I had had enough time to trust that that was what was right for me, and because I’d had that instinct nurtured in me from a young age. Many kids are not nearly so lucky, but I think part of the problem is that we then go onto assume they’re “unformed and uninformed” as you say, without really deeply speculating on the causes.
On a comment that teenagers are generally not “critical thinkers”
I think “critical thinking” can begin at a very young age, in the case of someone whose unschooled. When you truly are able to take ownership over your learning process, to think deeply about subjects that really interest you, the development of critical thinking is almost a natural side effect. You can’t help but be critical when you’re really invested in a subject and you begin to surround yourself with other people just as intrigued by the subject matter as you are. That’s certainly been my experience with creative writing and the merits of genre fiction. And I believe that it is human nature to be curious, deeply curious, about the world.
If it seems like this only begins to happen for most kids around college age, I can’t help but wonder if that’s as a result of moving through a system that did not allow them to develop and pursue their own interests in depth, but instead put a lot of emphasis on the expectation that they should be able to retain a certain body of information via one standardized route and then only start to critically apply that knowledge at an arbitrary age. It’s a lovely idea in theory and I do think it can work for some kids, but it’s a “one-size-fits-all” method that some kids (eager for praise) learn how to exploit without fully absorbing the information for later use, or that disenfranchises others whose brains (like mine) are just not wired to be optimized in such an environment.
My problem was that it took me a long time to understand how best it was that I learn, and before I did I had internalized the expectation that being a smart, good student meant moving through this particular system effectively, something I just failed to do after awhile. At least I had the love and support my parents to help me navigate a different path, but for many of the kids around me, they didn’t have that luxury, and I watched them turn themselves off to the idea of “learning” altogether, watched them convinced themselves they were, indeed, stupid.
I just don’t think people are as simple or as similar as the traditional school system seems to want them to be. It may be an effective model for some, but why then can’t there be a system in place to foster that kind of structure for the kids it works for and create a different environment for kids who operate differently.