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Everything’s Up for Grabs

By Judy Ephraums

‘Once you turn your back on the school system, everything’s up for grabs.’

So said one of the first home educating mums I met, at one of the first home education gatherings my young daughter and I attended. She was an experienced home educator, and a friendly and welcoming face at the gathering; we went on to become firm friends.

More than a decade has passed, our family is still home educating, and my friend’s words have stayed with me. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what she meant. I mean, I got the general idea: that is, if you say ‘no’ to sending your child to school – a given in our society – then what else might you say ‘no’ to? However, it’s only been with the passing of time that I’ve truly come to appreciate the wisdom of her words.

Before home education I, and maybe you too, used to view life a bit like a succession of games, possibly snakes and ladders. You know, you start at ‘start’ and proceed to make your way around the board in a more or less orderly fashion. You have one clear goal, and that is to reach the end square. Along the way you do your best to avoid the snakes and hope for the free rides afforded by the ladders. You always know where you are heading and you rarely, if ever, ask yourself, ‘Why?’

Game number one – we could call it the ‘early years’ game – started when you were born, before you even knew you were playing. It ended five years later, when you were sent to school. The second game – the ‘getting an education’ game – lasted much longer: at least ten years, possibly 13. By about halfway through this second game, you knew exactly what was going on. You knew the game and how it worked; you knew, because you were told it so many times, just how important, even crucial, a game it was. Whilst still playing the second game, you started thinking about game three. You had a few options to choose from for game three, but choose you must. Would it be the ‘further study’ game, the ‘paid work’ game, or the game you played when you wanted a short break from playing – the ‘gap year’ game?

I believed that life’s games (to continue with this imperfect metaphor) didn’t stop at three. While admittedly the number of game options increased with age, I always believed you still had to be playing some game. You could choose from the ‘establishing your career’ game, the ‘getting married’ game, the ‘renovating the house’ game, the ‘overseas travel’ game, the ‘raising a family’ game, and so on, right up to, and beyond, the ‘retirement’ game. You could, within reason, play more than one game at a time, if you wished, but not playing any game at all wasn’t really an option.
In fact, when you are asked the ubiquitous question – ‘and what do you do?’ – you’re really been asked which game, or games, you’re currently playing. Children are not asked this question because it is a given in our society that, depending on their age, they are playing either game one or two. However, older children are routinely questioned by well-meaning but unimaginative adults about which stage of the game they’re at, ‘And what year are you in at school?’

When you make the decision to home educate your child, you are making a decision to sit out that long, and supposedly crucial, second game. You are making the decision to withdraw your child, and your entire family, from a game that, whilst it is being played, defines all those who participate in it. That can feel like a very big decision. You worry about how it will feel not to be a part of the long and very important ‘getting an education’ game. How will your child get an education if she doesn’t play the game? Is it even possible to do so?

Then, after a while, something interesting starts to happen. As the months and years of home education go by, you start to suspect that game number two was probably never what is was cracked up to be in the first place; that there are many ways to ‘get an education’, and that most of them have nothing to do with the snakes and ladders game you always believed to be an integral part of the process.

You might start to question the wisdom of playing the second game. You might start to believe that ‘being schooled’ and ‘getting an education’ don’t necessarily have much in common with each other anyway, and that the former certainly does not guarantee the latter, and may even stand in the way of it. You start to question how you could have ever thought that playing the game was worth all the hoopla involved. You no longer see ‘getting an education’ as a game, anyway, and certainly not one with a designated start and finish point. You wonder how you could have ever seen it as such a cut and dried process. Perhaps you start to question why the game was ever invented in the first place.

And it’s around then that you might, if you’re lucky, start to ask yourself why life has to be a succession of games anyway. Couldn’t life be lived in a less rigid and structured way? Does everyone have to play the same games, in the same order, follow the same paths, in order to reach the same goals? Can’t we think up our own goals and find our own ways to attain them? So what if we don’t have a pat answer to the ‘and what do you do’ question? Can’t we simply be living our life in the best way possible, in the way that feels right for us at that point in time, in the way that gives our life meaning? If that way happens to resemble, or even replicate to the last detail, one of those snakes and ladders games, so be it. But does it have to?

And it’s about then that you realise that my friend was right all those years ago: once you turn your back on the school system, everything really is up for grabs.

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