North Star Annual Brunch Speech 2008
by Ken Danford
At Passover this year, in April, I was asked to consider my sources of stress and what my life would look like if those issues were overcome. As my thoughts drifted to my work life and North Star, I thought, “Hey, wait! My current stresses are what I was wishing for last year!” We are doing great as an organization. We have settled in our new home, we have a strong membership of more than 50 families, we have a tremendous staff, and good relationships with the community. It is astounding to be here in this beautiful room with all of you, and to almost take it for granted that North Star can produce an event of this elegance and magnitude!
This year has been interesting in a special way for me: We’ve kept North Star going long enough that now my son Sam, who was born in August, 1996, the month we opened our doors as Pathfinder Learning Center, could now join us. Predictably enough, Sam has no interest in homeschooling or joining North Star. Our exploration of the options for his seventh grade year led us to visit many schools, and has given me fresh perspective on the entire project of schooling. I saw many interesting and inspiring places during this search. The experience has expanded my empathy for parents and teens who find their way to North Star.
Someday I’d like to make an audio collage of the phone calls we receive. Parents call with sadness, with despair, with anger, and with fear. School just isn’t working any more, they say. My child is bright, but is failing. She doesn’t want to get out of bed anymore. He’s dropped all the activities he used to do. She doesn’t have time for herself. He doesn’t think the stuff he’s learning matters. Homework takes longer than seems right. You can imagine the litany of presenting problems.
I have the great pleasure of hearing them out, and then responding with what is news to most of these worried parents: You can let it go. Your child doesn’t have to go to school. There is another way, it’s called homeschooling. Not only is it legal, we at North Star will make it possible for your family. There is often silence, and there is often resistance. People sometimes feel surprised, shocked, even betrayed. How long have they suffered needlessly? But, before the call is over, I hear some glimmer of hope, some bit of optimism. It is a gift to be the bearer of good news.
Who are these people? I’ll name a few:
Ariana, 17 years old, is running off to join the circus. She went to school through ninth grade. She couldn’t do her circus training, her gymnastics, and her school to her honor roll standards without being worried and tired most of the time. She describes how she felt at the end of ninth grade: “I had to either drop everything and keep school, or drop school and keep everything.” She has had a wonderful two-year experience at North Star, and instead of heading into her senior year of high school, she is headed off to the full-time professional-track program of Nimble Arts in Brattleboro, VT (with another teen homeschooler I’ve worked with from Arlington, MA)
Like Ariana, Drew, age 14, has an athletic gift: tennis. He is ranked 19th among 14 and unders in New England. Drew is polite, kind, and cooperative, but one thing that he doesn’t do well is sit still. After one month at North Star, his mom shook her head and said, “I should have pulled him from school years ago.”
Thomas, 15, came to North Star in September because he wanted more time to make music. He is an exceptional jazz pianist, and those of you who came to our theater production watched his performance-long improv accompaniment. It was phenomenal. Thomas has also been studying the guitar, and electronic music, and he’s been volunteering at Valley Free Radio in Florence and WMUA at UMass. He wanted a year a to explore his passions, and he has made the most of it.
Rebecca, 16, had hit a dead end in school during 10h grade. She had stopped playing sports, and after going to rock and roll camp the previous summer, was losing her enthusiasm for drumming. She no longer smiled, and she was clearly struggling to make it through each day at school. A year later, buoyed by the fact that her friend Hannah joined North Star this year, Rebecca is a strong presence at North Star. Hannah and Rebecca are musicians, and we have watched Rebecca play guitar, drums, and sing throughout the year. What moves me the most, however, is her smile while she is playing, and even while she is just hanging out. Her parents feel like they have their daughter back again.
Brian, 15, and his mother Sue, report that Brian always hated school. He went to the nurse every day for three years, from kindergarten to second grade. He was on a first name basis with the nurse, and considered her his friend because she sent him home. As he got older, she says that he would come home angry every day, and would go off to his room, slam the door, and want to be alone for a while. In his first year with North Star this year, he has had private tutorials with Catherine for math, Susannah for reading and writing, and myself for history. Brian showed up regularly for these appointments without any reminders or need to be tracked down, and at his end of the year presentation he announced that “I really like these one-on-one classes. It’s a much better way for me to learn.” He plans to return to North Star next year, and sees himself studying for his GED so that when he turns 16 he can apply to Springfield Technical Community College to become a licensed electrician. In less than one year, North Star’s staff and approach have reclaimed a frustrated youth waiting to drop out, and have allowed him to see himself as a learner and a future contributor to society. He’s ready to jump into electrical work right now if any of you have suggestions or connections.
By the way, all of these teens I’ve mentioned say that homeschooling has given them more time with their families and better relationships with their parents.
Some of our stories are more complicated. Some of our members don’t have passions. They don’t have confidence in their academic abilities. They think everyone is good at something but them. They aren’t sure how to spend their free time. Some make bad decisions. What these members learn is that North Star is for them, too. We have no timetables, no standardized tests, no annual measurements. We can be patient, because we know people have the capacity to grow and to change. How we are today is not how we have to be. Each of us can improve our strengths, address our weaknesses, and explore new activities. We can all meet new people who don’t know us and make a new presentation of ourselves. We can all have a fresh start.
Believe it or not, this is shocking news to many people unhappy in school. Doesn’t our school record follow us? Isn’t it our Permanent Record? Well, the record doesn’t follow us, and it’s certainly not permanent. I encourage people with particularly awful stories to request their school records and then have a ceremonial bonfire.
Can they go to college? Yes. Just this month, two alumni I haven’t seen in years dropped by. Both wanted me to announce their stories far and wide. Stefan Ward-Wheten came to North Star for a year, when he was 12 or 13. After that he tried school, and moved out of the area. He stopped by last week, and it’s been about 6 years since I’ve seen him, so I needed a good look to remember who he was. He told me that he is now a freshman at Williams College. I heard about the intervening years, and how he had ended up at a prep school. I said he must have really done well there, and he said, “Sure, but my year at North Star was the key year in my schooling career. I really needed that year.”
Paul Ganssle showed up as well. Paul came to North Star when he was 14. At 15 he started taking classes at HCC. A couple of years later he began working for Service Net as an evening-shift group home supervisor. He has just graduated from UMass with a degree in Chemistry, and he’s heading off to grad school to get a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley…a program he added, “that’s really hard to get in to.” Paul is proud of his choice to leave high school.
With us today: Miro Sprague has just graduated from Manhattan School of Music. His brother Tibet graduated from Brown a few years ago. Reuben Telushkin is now heading to Hampshire College with a full scholarship. Emily Rosenberg is now in London doing historic costume design after graduating from Amherst College. Ellen Morbyrne, our theater director, is nearly done with Smith College. Some of our members go into the work world, and start their own businesses. Lesley Arak is a photographer.
You are about to hear from John Robison, who left school in tenth grade and has led a fascinating life. (Hey, KISS was one of my favorite bands when I was in sixth grade and John was making guitars for Ace Frehley!) Obviously I encourage you to read his book, Look Me In the Eye. (We have some for sale which he will sign today.) You will hear from Carrie Roe, Abe Jenkins, and Jordana Harper-Ewert who each have their own story to tell about homeschooling and North Star. But each will say clearly that leaving school and using homeschooling has opened the world for them and their families. They, like all of our alumni, have not encountered brick walls, dead ends, or other obstacles in any arena because of their choice to homeschool. I understand that not everyone wants to homeschool, and we see regularly that homeschooling isn’t the best option for some people. At the same time, however, I want everyone here to know the simple truth that you don’t have to go to school to thrive in our culture.
As I was writing this speech, I received this email from the parent of a non-North Star family I’ve been consulting, and who reads Liberated Learners:
It gives me great pleasure to give North Star a $1,000 contribution. I'm truly excited to be able to give this time. Almost every time I read your newsletter I think, "Wow. They do INCREDIBLE work. I'm so happy they're there. Practically saving the lives -- or at least the souls -- of those teenagers and their families."
And you have been a central support to me through the adventure of homeschooling, helping me chill out and stay the course. I really might have given up if it hadn't been for your steady confidence that I was fine and my son was fine, and that what we were doing (which seemed awfully little at times) was far better for him than school.
Yes, some people are better off outside of school. But most people don’t know there is another way to live, and even if they do, they believe it’s a choice that is not available to them. North Star, backed by your interest and generosity, makes this choice real. Thank you.
For those of you new to North Star, I plan to briefly talk about What is North Star and Who is North Star for? Then I plan to share you some thoughts about what we mean by Learning when we say, Learning is natural, Schooling is optional.
North Star makes homeschooling possible for any teen in the Pioneer Valley (and beyond!) Homeschooling does not have to mean having a parent teach their child at home. It means the home takes responsibility and initiative for deciding what and how to learn, when and how much to learn, and from whom and where to learn it. Homeschooling is a way of life, a project families embark on together. It’s something parents do with, not to, their children. And at North Star, many of our members have siblings who choose to attend school. We often say, it’s not that every family needs to homeschool, but that there’s one kid in every family who needs this approach.
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me who they think North Star is for:
Existing Homeschoolers, Creative Non-Conformists Who Don’t Get Along In School, Amazing Self-Directed Teens With Talents and Passions, Troubled Or Rebellious Kids Who Resist School, and surprisingly enough, even, Rich Kids Who Hate School. Of course, we’re for each of these groups. These categories don’t contradict each other, and many times these labels overlap in the same individual. I’ll return to this idea of Who North Star is for at the end of my comments, but for now, please understand that North Star is for any teen who feels constrained or unhappy in school and wishes there was another way to live well besides giving one’s time and energy to school and homework until graduating at age 18.
Learning is Natural, School is Optional
We get the School is Optional part. School is optional for learning, School is optional for college (Paul Ganssle, Stefan Ward-Wheten), School is optional for life success. You’ll here more on this later from our featured speakers, John, Jordana, Abe, and Carrie.
But what about Learning is Natural. What do we at North Star mean by Learning?
In one way, we mean academic learning, personal-achievement learning:
Learning Calculus at age 15, Learning about Lewis and Clark or the Mexican War. Learning to play the guitar. Learning what it takes to plan a family trip to Ireland. Learning about Relativity or Evolutionary Biology or Religion or Meditation. Learning how to take the GED or SATs. Learning how to write. Learning whether one can write 50,000 words each month. Learning how to use a sewing machine. Learning how to do glassblowing and becoming a serious apprentice making glass jewelry. Learning to play Capoiera or Ultimate Medicine Ball. Learning about Puerto Rico and meeting the courageous people who led the non-violent struggle in Vieques to end U.S. military training there. Learning whether one is good enough to enter the professional track in the circus world. Learning to master the Rubik’s cube in under a minute.
These are the easy things for us to support at North Star. They happen all the time. Walk around and you will see classes and tutoring and all sorts of individual and group learning moments going on that are obvious and recognizable.
But when we talk about Learning, we mean much more than academic and achievement learning. We mean social learning, and discovering one’s place in the world. We mean learning that the way one behaves in school isn’t the way one has to behave in life, that the way one is treated and judged in school won’t necessarily be the way one is treated and judged in life. We mean:
Learning how to make friends. Learning how to be in a place where one doesn’t know anybody. Learning how to be at North Star and what to do with one’s time. Learning what it feels like to be accepted, and to not be afraid that people will make fun of you. Learning if one can handle a college class and the kind of expectations that have led you to avoid these settings for years. Learning how to deal with anxiety or depression that make it hard to go out of one’s house every day. Learning whether one can have a fresh start at age 15. Learning whether one can in fact have decent, open, trusting relationships with adults instead of having conflicts and disappointments. Learning whether one is already doomed to be a bad kid, a breed apart from the good kids, or whether one might have the capacity to somehow be like those other good kids in some way. Learning whether one can live up to the trust and optimism of North Star.
These are the hard cases. Walking around North Star, it would be hard to know these things are happening. These are the dramas that fill much of our staff time, in our meetings with teens and parents, and with each other. We worry, we counsel, we check-in, and we wonder. We don’t always get it right, either. We do always ask ourselves: are we making progress? Are we making this family’s life any better? We don’t have time limits for our meetings, nor do we have any limits on the number of meetings we offer to any family. When we work with a family, we do the best we can, for as long as it takes. I’d like to especially thank, and recognize John, Susannah, and Catherine for their investment in North Star’s teens and families and in this profoundly important work.
About a year ago, in NYC, I went to Ellis Island. The same ferry goes to the Statue of Liberty. It certainly made me think, maybe we ought to have a Statue of Liberty poster out front at North Star. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” What is important to remember is that not all immigrants were, nor are, tired. And some that are tired, aren’t poor, nor part of the huddled masses. Most are yearning to breathe free, but each has his or her own reason to leave where they were and seek a better life in this country. In many ways, North Star is an immigrant aid society, encouraging and welcoming people to know that there is another way to live, one that is available to them today.
Further, we don’t have an Ellis Island of Admissions at North Star. We don’t turn anyone around and send them back where they came from. We don’t have quarantines. We don’t give IQ tests or language tests. We don’t make sure they have a certain amount of money in their pockets. North Star accepts everyone willing to contribute to its community, regardless of their history, their health, or their financial circumstances. Why? Because we want to. Because it’s the right thing to do.
My favorite quote in the Ellis Island museum goes as follows: “When I came to America, I had heard that the streets were paved with gold. When I arrived I learned three things: first, that the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, in fact they weren’t even paved at all; and third, they wanted me to pave them. At North Star, this holds pretty well: Homeschooling isn’t a life paved with gold, sometimes it’s not paved at all, and sometimes we expect our teens and families to pave their own way. Leaving school to embark on a homeschooling life is a serious choice, and in the majority of cases, it’s harder than choosing to stay in school. But as you know, and as you will hear today, it’s a choice that makes all the difference. Thank you for being here today and for your help in making this choice available to so many who wouldn’t have this option without all of us.