Shine with Unschooling

In Search of Riverglass…Finding Unschooling… 

(originally written 2005) 

I admit it…I’m obsessed. It probably began in the year 2000, when we first started spending our summers at our cabin on the Pennsylvania side of the upper Delaware River. I remember that first thrill I felt as I spotted what I would soon consider to be a treasure ~ a piece of smooth and beautiful riverglass. As soon as I picked up that first piece, I felt so sweetly satisfied, and as I put the piece in my pocket, I felt I was carrying the heart of the river with me. 

Each piece of riverglass is so incredibly unique, and I feel that each one holds its own story. Perhaps this is the treasure I am able to feel within its core. When I find a piece, I hold it, turning it over in my hand, my fingers finding a natural fit in its curves, enjoying the feel of the once jagged edges that were made smooth because of its journey down the river. 

The satisfaction in owning these pieces of riverglass is actually quite small compared to the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the find. This is the part about which I am obsessed…so much so that I tend to forget that assuming the bent-over, river-glass-searching position somewhere OTHER than the river shore only results in items known as litter. 

But a natural and common place to find me while at our cabin is on the beach, frequently surveying the areas where the river rocks are just the right size to capture a piece of glass and end its journey downstream. In fact, my riverglass searching time has become a time of peace and contentment for me, for as I search, my mind is free to go in other directions, and things that weren’t clear to me yesterday become clear as I hunt. It’s kind of like how my friend, Jessica, describes how her daughter needs to come at life—sideways. My riverglass hunting is like knitting or mowing the lawn ~ a zen-ish activity that doesn’t require my entire focus, therefore allowing me to look at things in my life sideways and perhaps *see* or put together pieces that were hidden or weren’t able to fit before. 

Early in the spring the riverbank is much larger than later in the season, before the Japanese knotweed spreads and grows to a height taller than my own. This is my prime riverglass hunting time. I walk and I walk...left foot...right foot...left foot…literally losing connection of where I am physically in the world, focusing only on the pebbles in front of me, hoping to see a glimmer of color, evidence of glass. 

I have learned that this is the only way to find glass. Other people complain to me of never finding any, even accusing me of taking it all. But I know there’s more glass there…you just have to train your eyes to study ONLY the path directly in front of you...train your eyes to distinguish even the smallest visible corner of a piece of glass amongst the zillions of pebbles. 

I know that if I try to scan a large amount of river shore at once, I’ll only see rocks, rocks and more rocks. I have learned that in doing so, I not only miss any glass that is there right in front of me, but it also tends to create a space for unwanted panic to enter my otherwise calm state of mind, panic that stems from a feeling of hopelessness, from looking at all the ground that is exposed and wondering how I will ever cover it all and find All The Glass. It is a fear that comes from thinking about what I might be missing. It is a fear of lack. If it seems that I am only finding beer bottle dark greens and amber pieces, I can easily convince myself that the sea greens and the barely blues that I so love MUST be on a different path, and I am, therefore, on the wrong path. 

One day this summer while I was searching for riverglass and contemplating life, I thought about how these fears and concerns reminded me of those that come from people new to understanding unschooling, those who are having trouble seeing the world from an unschooling perspective because their vision is blocked by the definitions of learning that were handed to them by the schools. At the forefront of my mind were the questions presented to me by a woman at a conference at which I spoke in 2005.  She asked, “What if my child is never interested in knowing how to do long division unless I make him? What if my child never cares about knowing where Italy is? What about the holes that will be in our children’s educations?” 

I smiled thinking back to that conference, her questions.  I could see that the answers to those questions are the pieces of glass that I'm missing because they are down by the river while I’m walking a path that’s closer to the cabin. The panic is from looking at too much terrain at once and losing sight of what is right in front of you in this moment. I go to my mantra… In this moment, all I have is all I need.  With this, I am able to choose to keep my focus on the abundance of where I am, instead of the lack from what I’m missing. I can more easily see the gifts in front of me, and not even think about the challenges.  I laughed to myself, thinking that when we eat Swiss cheese, we don’t focus on the holes… we just enjoy the cheese.  And so I trust in the enormous value of the treasures that are right here in my path. All I have is all I need, in this moment. 

It is a mantra of Trust.  Trust that you can simply GET what you need and desire, or it will be provided, when you mindfully choose to live in the light and in the Joy and in the abundance instead of in the fear and the worry and the lack.

And time after time, life provides me with proof that this trust is well-rewarded…because every single time I venture to the river shore, I Find Glass. I find really beautiful and perfect and smooth and sweetly colored glass. I find glass I could not have imagined finding—treasures that exceed my own idea and definitions of what I wanted or thought I could find. Had I limited my search to only those ideas that my brain was capable of conceiving, I’d surely have passed right over the really unique and glorious pieces. Had I filled my mind with the panic, the worry, the lack, the holes, then I would be blind to the beauty of the pieces that were there in front of me. I’d be seeing rocks instead of the amazing pieces of glass that I was  finding and holding and honoring. 

And what’s really cool and never ceases to amaze me is that just when I thought I had walked a path so much and so often that I couldn’t POSSIBLY find another piece of glass there, I Do. Those well-trodden paths ~ from the river to the cabin, from the cabin to the river ~ reward my trust by drawing my attention to even the smallest piece of glass, renewing my faith and my hope. 

So now let’s go river glass hunting together. Except the treasures that we’ll be finding will be the real learning that our children do through living a joyful life, living from that place that’s right in front of them instead of living from a fear of what’s NOT in front of them… living from the abundance of the world instead of focusing on a lack. And this time, we’ll watch our children choosing the paths… not on the river shore, but in the world that is right in front of them.

Our children’s paths deserve to be as gloriously unique as our children’s hearts are. If we have preconceived ideas and definitions of what our children’s learning should look like, we’ll be blind to all of the learning that is always happening. 

If we impose those preconceived ideas and definitions ONTO our children, we’ll be blocking those treasures that can only come our children’s way by following what is in their hearts…left foot...right foot...left they walk through life, directed by their definition of this moment and not by someone else’s panic and fear over what the child may be missing. Those treasures, those paths, all that real learning will be missed because we felt it was necessary to show our child the “right” path as defined by someone else—by society and by the schools instead of trusting our child to know his own way and his own heart. 

I attended an Irish step-dancing demonstration and performance a few summers ago at my little rural library. The teacher of this particular class was also the mother of two of the students. She shared with the audience her personal history of the dance. She told of her childhood days when her family would go to her grandparent’s house, joined by all of her aunts and uncles and cousins. At the end of the evening, they would push back all of the furniture in the living room to make way for dancing—step-dancing. And she and her family members would joyfully dance into the wee hours of the night. 

I loved listening to her story. I could feel her passion for the dance, how much it meant to her beyond her teaching it, and I felt happy to think that she was doing what she loved for her life’s work. 

But then she went on to tell us about the time her children were young and attended a performance. She said that when it was over, she thought, “I want my children to do that.” 

I was shocked that anyone would project their love of something onto their children, and I quickly ran through a condensed version of my life with my children to see if I had ever thought that or said that about anything. I have invited my children to join me in my passions, but the choice was ultimately their own. I have never thought, “I want them to do this.” 

This revelation from the step-dancer actually gave me the missing piece I needed to put together the puzzle her daughters’ behavior at the performance. Both of them had displayed a great reluctance to dance as much as their mother had wanted them to…they needed to be coaxed, persuaded, and practically bribed to dance enough to fill up the 45 minute time slot. It was clear to me even before the mother revealed the origin of her daughters’ path to step-dancing that this was not the children’s passion. This was a role they were fulfilling, someone else’s vision they were living. 

A vast contrast to that performance was a jazz concert we attended at the library, the band consisting of three middle-age men and one young man. The young man was Ollie, an unschooled boy I knew but hadn’t seen in years. Watching Ollie play his trumpet in this band was, to me, better than listening to the music they were creating. He was so passionate, joyful, interesting, so eager to share his gift and his knowledge about jazz and its history with the audience ~ especially the young children. At the end of the concert, the spokesperson for the band spoke of Ollie with great admiration and respect. He said that the band was going to miss Ollie, as he was leaving them to study music in Boston. He thanked Ollie for all the gifts he had brought to the band ~ mostly an enthusiasm that they had never seen before. It was evident that this was Ollie’s passion; this was from the depths of his heart. 

We were with Ollie for 45 minutes, and his talent and knowledge in the area of jazz had exceeded any I have ever witnessed before…exceeded that of the middle-aged band members. He took us on a verbal trip all over the United States, all over the world, from jazz’s earliest days to today. I imagined Ollie at home, consuming all the information he could on the topic that he loved, a topic that he could not get enough of. 

This is the difference between living a life from your own heart and your own passions or being handed a pre-determined, pre-conceived, life defined by someone else’s ideas. When the real learning happens from the seeds of one’s own ponderings, questions, passions, curiosities, or just from living life, life is never fear-based and the focus is never on the holes that will be in your “education”…the focus is that which one is drawn to in this moment, and then the next thing that one's heart is drawn to doing, drawn to asking, drawn to solving, to creating, destroying, playing, checking. The learning is right there IN the living when the focus is on life. 

This is something that has always been confirmed by my step-father, my Papa. This man has always been my family’s inspiration for being a lifelong learner. I love his passion for the world, his enthusiasm that he can’t help but share, his questions, his observations, the stories from all that he’s witnessed and lived in his life. This is the man I spoke of in my first session… the man who would show up unexpectedly at my school in the middle of the day. My sister and I knew that when the teacher called us out of our class because we had a dentist appointment that there was no dentist appointment. We knew what we would find outside: our Papa in the driver’s seat, our Mom in the passenger seat, our two younger siblings in between them (because there were no seatbelt laws back then…). Papa saying, “Get in! You’ll learn more out here than you will in there!” My Mom adding, “It’ll give everyone else a chance to catch up to you…” 

And we would be off. My sister and I knew better than to ask, “Where are we going?” There was never a plan, never a pre-determined destiny. We would just drive, literally following the direction of my Papa’s heart. 

And we would see the world ~ well, a large portion of our corner of the world ~ rarely traveling a main highway, often getting lost, often asking for directions and receiving an incomprehensible answer in French and then getting even more lost. We would find the best tiny hole-in-the-wall bakeries that made 

the best Italian bread, stop for some real butter, slather it on the warm bread, pop open a bottle of Coke (a glass bottle and a Coke that contained sugar, not high fructose corn syrup!) and indulge in our definition of a delectable feast. We would wander through the diverse ethnic neighborhoods of the big cities instead of only seeing the well-known landmarks. We would buy cherries at the local farm stand and spit the pits out of the windows as we drove. We would check into a hotel or motel at the end of a long day, our hands bearing nothing more than brown paper grocery bags, but our minds and our hearts full of real life, real living, and real learning from the real world. 

This is how my Papa lived most of his 93 years on this earth. At his 90th birthday party, my family and I were getting ready to leave and we went to say good-bye to him. We told him how much we loved him, how much he inspires us. His hands started moving, extending wide to encompass the whole world… and he said, “Every morning I wake up, excited to see your Mom, excited to see what I’ll be learning today.”

Are there holes in my Papa’s education? He’d probably be the first to answer yes. But then he’d shrug and change the subject to an article he read in the National Geographic. Or he’d tell you about something wonderful that he drove by when he chose to take a back road home from a job site. Or he’d ask you what you wanted him to draw and then proceed to draw Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara with the burning of Atlanta in the background, as requested once by my sister and yes, drawn by Papa on a piece of dried tree fungus.

He learned his profession by DOing his profession and right up until he was 92, one year before he passed, he was still one of the most in-demand design engineers in his area. 

So how do you get to this place in life if there are holes in your education? By not focusing on the holes. By focusing on the living, on the joy, and if there IS a particular hole that needs filling, by learning how to fill it, or by finding someone else who knows how to help you fill that hole. 

A child actually only sees the holes when they become something that is needed or desired, and then they are STILL not really holes, just more life that gets to be lived...more things you get to learn along the way. By not focusing on the holes, you get to be a 90 year old human being who is enthusiastic about life and about the world  and about the path that is in front of you, on the direction that your heart is urging you to follow. 

I’d be happy to talk about holes myself, as it seems to be the most accurate word to describe what I was left with after my 12 years in the school system. I have a difficult time recalling a single thing I REALLY learned during that time, even though my grades deceivingly reflected otherwise. And if I can recall a thing or two that I learned, I certainly can’t say that it was anything that had or has value in my real life ~ except for typing class, and that was only useful because my best friend, Becky Naklick, and I used to write notes to each other and learning how to type faster made it much more fun and efficient. Could I have learned to type faster and more efficiently without school forcing it on me? Uh, yeah. My always unschooled kids are proof of the affirmative. 

While the words “holes in your education” seem accurate for the years I spent in school, ever since I have been out of school and my children have shown me how to live a full, rich life, my learning seems huge, cumulative, with so many depths and layers and mind always examining, thinking, questioning, always aware and curious.

“Holes” doesn’t come close to describing the richness that is life now that I understand real learning. Now it seems as if it’s just one large, continual thought process…one question, one thought, one curious observation leading to an answer, another question, another connection, leading to a bigger thought, a smaller question, an answer, another curious observation…leading to another and another and another piece of the puzzle of the connections that make up real learning. 

There is never a time when I’m not thinking or making connections, asking questions, awakening more and healing more and living more with each more fully understood answer.  By observing my always-free-to-be children, I have learned how to truly be alive in this world. 

I remember a summer when we were kayaking on the river and I wanted to watch my children… to see if I could find a time when they weren’t learning anything. After navigating the first set of rapids, I felt a sense of calm and peace, gently floating downstream, surrounded by my family. I looked at my kids and remembered what I was supposed to be looking for.

They were quiet and also seemingly at peace. Simply floating… enJOYing…

 I thought, “Is this it? Is this the time when they’re not learning anything?” 

Not my children, whose minds have been free their entire lives and who don’t define thinking and learning as a negative, difficult or burdensome task. 

I looked to Sam. He was quiet on the outside, yes, but I could tell his mind was busy. He was putting his paddle in the water, but not paddling, observing how different movements affected the water, the kayak. This child has been playing with water since the first day he took a bath as an infant…and yet, here he was, at a different place in his life, at a different level of knowing, a new level of awareness, his mind full of the past connections and those pieces of the puzzle that he had put together in all of his yesterdays, finding more questions, more observations, more pieces to fit together in this never ending puzzle of life and learning. His questions that led to him playing with the water that day were different than they were yesterday, or they needed more observation, or it was simply an entertaining way to pass the peaceful time. 

I continued to observe my children throughout the weekend, looking for periods when they are not learning or thinking or processing. Here is the conclusion to my challenge: everything has value in unschooling.

After the conference at which the woman asked about the holes in our unschooled children’s educations, about knowing where Italy was, Jake and I joined two other unschooling families at the closest pizza place we could find. 

Once in the restaurant, we began rearranging the tables to suit our needs. After we had all sat down and started looking at the menu, I looked closer at the paper placemat the server had set. There it was ~ right in front of us ~ a map of Italy. I held it up, smiling SO big, and in my best teacherly voice, I said, “Children!! Children!! So that there are no holes in your education, THIS is ITALY!” 

Everyone laughed—and what I really loved is that our children got the joke ~ the joke that was based on a fact that many people don’t get: our children knew that they would know Italy when knowing Italy had value in their real lives. In fact, interestingly enough, all of the children at our tables already knew Italy ~ from living in homes with maps on the walls, from rich conversations with family and friends, from movies, books, television shows, cartoons, their family’s roots, from remembering that the country was shaped like a boot. They knew Italy from living life. And for a child who doesn’t know Italy, it most likely would not be a hole in their life. It just might be a treasure yet to be discovered. 

The riverglass treasures that I did not find this season are not a loss, a hole, in my life. My summer was filled with days of finding more pieces than I was able to carry in my pockets in one trip. 

One of the coolest pieces I’ve ever found was the narrow top of a bottle, cut off, its sharp edges made smooth from its journey down the river. When I found it, a young piece of Japanese knotweed had sprouted up and was growing right through the middle of it. I had to slide it up and off of the plant in order to bring it home. 

I found this piece not when searching for riverglass, but when I was collecting river rocks to paint at my children’s library program. 

Because my unschooled children’s lives are not separated into subjects, they have no concept of the school mentality that science is science and is in a different room than math or English. They have lived the truth…that it’s all sweetly intermingled and swirling around each other in the world and the best treasures can be stumbled upon when walking a path of differing intent. 

As I’m writing this, I’m holding in my hand my favorite piece of all—the best piece of riverglass I’ve ever found—a beautiful clear glass bottle stopper chipped and made smooth again. When I hold it, I feel a connection to its history, its journey down the river that I love so much. I am thankful for the twists of fate that allowed it to end up on the shore near our cabin, for I’m not sure anyone else who might have found it would consider it to be such a treasure. But, yes, it has great value to me, far beyond any pre-conceived definition of a riverglass treasure that I may have held previously in my mind. 

Left foot...right foot...left step leading to another step, revealing a piece of glass, leading to thoughts and observations and curiosities, leading to the next step, revealing more glass, more questions, more answers… 

As long as my focus isn’t too far ahead, or set on comparing other paths to my own, all is very well, and life is as it should be. 

I’m always finding more glass, always ready to see glass in a different light, always trusting in the path that I have chosen instead of focusing on the paths I have not chosen, trusting that exactly what I need and desire will be easy to acquire, simply because there is a need and desire for it. 

But knowing most of all that in keeping an open mind, of following my heart in this moment instead of a pre-conceived idea of what my path should be, there will be the treasures that will have the most value in my life, just awaiting my awareness of them.