I have faith that our combined internal compasses will lead us to the next blue diamond as a family. I understand and accept that we will travel over mountain passes and through storms. I also know along the way we will find spectacular sunrises and sunsets and maybe even a few perfect turns in knee deep powder.
I will remember that day always. We (my husband, son, and myself) woke up in a quiet underground cocoon on Saint Marks Place in the East Village of New York City, after an evening spent exploring the Lower East Side. The earth held us in a studio-sized deprivation tank dressed up as an apartment. Thank God we had slept well; I knew the day would be an adventure. We were scheduled to meet Native American Cochiti artist Virgil Ortiz, my son’s mentor, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that morning to deliver four necklaces our son had made the day before we flew to NYC. He had already designed, fabricated, and shipped staffs for the performance the week prior. We took pictures on the imposing and elegant front steps, impressed and wooed by the stunning architecture. Inside the museum, I was captivated by an ancient Egyptian ivory ornamental hair comb from 3200 BC with animals carved into it. The second wave of astonishment washed over me several steps later as I gazed at hieroglyphs. I thought about how art was never meant to be separated from life. Why is the current culture segregating education from the arts? The integration is permanent. Not chosen, not directed. It is interwoven into our inhales and our exhales. Art is an elective class in schools after elementary age and at most, involves a few hours a week. What if a student’s first language is creativity? What if the way they process life, love, and knowledge is wholly dependent on art, on creativity? We understand that each individual has a preferred and most efficient way of learning new things. Some people are auditory dominant, some are visual/spatial learners, some prefer reading printed language, and some prefer kinesthetic pathways. How many people need to process new information in a creative, abstract, artistic way? I have no idea, because very very very few people are ever given this opportunity. This type of process needs space. Literal and figurative. Emotional space. Space between the parent’s fear about what their children are or are not learning.
Einstein said, “Creativity is the by-product of time wasted.” I remember this quote because one Saturday, I was bustling around accomplishing my to-do list and feeling both smug and resentful that I was washing the car and vacuuming, while my husband sat in the same chair all day, working on an art submission. Every time I stopped by his work space it looked like nothing was happening. Later that day I was in the car listening to NPR and I heard this quote. I pulled the car over and asked myself, “What are you doing? What do you value? Who are you hustling for? It was sobering to realize that I knew the questions mattered, and yet I didn’t know the answers. Dr. Porges, author of the polyvagal theory, explains how the evaluative atmosphere of K-12 and university settings impact our autonomic nervous systems. This constant evaluation creates a defensive flight or fight response. The information we receive from our environment is processed in the brain stem and isn’t a part of our higher thinking brain. The simple expectations of trying to pass the test, do what they want, perform and please, and to conform to expectations creates a biological imperative to remain in the safety of the herd. From a polyvagal lens, survival is always more important than creative thinking. When we, as homeschool parents, create the same evaluative space for school at home that exists in brick and mortar schools, we are boxing them in. Who made productivity the ultimate ascension when it comes to raising children? If we look at what type of students schools reward, it’s productive, compliant students. Artists and creative thinkers are many things, but compliant is not one of them.
Art is a central focus of my son’s self-directed education. He carries a creative approach into his studies of electronics, engineering, rock climbing, and a few other current fascinations. How would our culture shift if this was an everyday approach for families, schools, and academia in general? What if we quit trying to separate our creative life from the rest of our identity?
Back to this unforgettable fall day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We arrived at the Temple that evening for the performance to find our son’s name printed in the program, listed as an artist next to icons, legends, and professionals. Backstage, he was recognized, applauded, and congratulated by the astonishing performers who marveled at his work and were shocked to learn he was in high school. The event was transcending. Nona Hyndryx, along with Harlem Stage, created an immersive experience as a tribute to the music of jazz musician Sun Ra. The performance took place in the ancient Temple of Dendur, brought to the Met from Egypt fifty years ago. Virgil’s costumes were a tantalizing blend of ancient Egyptian culture with a splash of science fiction. Today it is easy to celebrate that we have chosen to leave written math, printed language, and his other deficits behind us. They aren’t a part of our curriculum, our goals, or any plans. It’s yesterday’s news for this homeschool family.
When we left three different schools to unschool, it was easy to worry that we were doing it wrong because we were doing it differently. It turns out that differently suits us just fine. My gifted, quirky, twice-exceptional son was never celebrated like this in school. They didn’t know how. The word gifted wasn’t spoken during the many school conferences, emails, and phone calls over the years. Instead, the conversations centered around his deficits. Curriculum often rotates around printed language and math. Read this, write that. This is out of sync with my son’s brain, mind, and soul. He is a creator, a maker, an engineer, an artist. Time and time again he faded into darkness when he was enrolled in school. He would quit creating. The light went out.
To tend to his internal flame, I focused on emotional literacy and general well-being. I studied parenting approaches with a focus on connection in place of compliance. I had a lot of my own work to do around this. Did I need him to show up in a certain way to feel confident in my parenting role? How much of my frustrations were my own ego and identity issues? It was difficult to leave the well-worn path and bushwhack our way through the mountains. Some days, I waited for bedtime so I could rest and try again in the morning. Pioneering requires fortitude and resilience. There are a lot of opinions out there on education, and when we began homeschooling with an unschooling approach, I was concerned about other people’s opinions. I valued them and relied too heavily on external counsel. It took years of inner work to let go and understand that these beautiful people loved us, and yet they could only see what they could see. Our map must be created by our own inner voices, as individuals and as a family. My job is to cultivate my son’s ability to hear his own inner voice and set his compass by it. I support this by modeling it for him and by cocreating his future with him. Sometimes this means recognizing his fears and not supporting decisions that are geared toward keeping him small. When this pops up, I use whatever persuasion tools I have. Money, a special meal out, foot massages, and lots of scaffolding. When an opportunity appeared to submit a proposal for a public art show, he declined for weeks. I pursued and helped him with the application process. (We found out yesterday that he was chosen!) Later when we hugged in celebration, he whispered a thank you for pushing him. It was a moment to breathe in, pause, and be grateful for the joyful harmony.
These are the moments I search for as my guideposts. We love to backcountry ski in the Colorado mountains, and the trails are marked by blue diamonds on trees. Much of the time is spent wandering through the landscape blindly hoping you are headed in the right direction. It’s common to ski for miles without seeing a blue diamond, and when one comes into view, the relief is a balm for the entire soul. The night at The Met was a BIG blue diamond for us. The celebration hug last night was another one. I have faith that our combined internal compasses will lead us to the next blue diamond as a family. I understand and accept that we will travel over mountain passes and through storms. I also know along the way we will find spectacular sunrises and sunsets and maybe even a few perfect turns in knee deep powder. We will hoot and holler at the unexpected glorious conditions. The reticent snow will be our witness.