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An Autodidact on the Open Road

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When I was a kid, I wanted to spend all of my time building umbrellas out of old wire hangers, duct tape and garbage bags; I wanted to take my bike, my notebook and my PB&J sandwich and be on the road all day long. I observed insects, drew their pictures and named them; I learned the names of the local rivers and made my own routes; I saved baby birds from the mouths of cats and learned how to care for them by talking with neighbors and going to the library. I once kept a baby Goldfinch in my room for nearly two weeks; every morning, I woke with the sun to bring it outside where its mother taught it how to fly until it flew away one day. I have to admit, though, that some tears were shed that day. Tweeters was indeed missed.


I felt more invigorated and more alive in these moments than I ever did in school. I found school to be a place where kids were mean, or they didn’t care about all the cool stuff I was doing. I remember longingly gazing out the windows, wanting so badly to be on my bike with my notebook and with other kids who were as into adventure as I was. The smell of textbooks made me ill; homework was a death march. I dreaded being squeezed into the school cafeteria with all of those smells - nervous sweat, Tetherball sweat; the odor of cheese zombies (think lots of butter, slabs of white bread and Velveeta cheese - all smashed flat by sweaty, miserable cafeteria cooks).


This was elementary school; prepubescent frustration with school led to downright rebellion in middle and high school. That’s a story for another venue.


So here I am, recalling the memories and details of what I remember from ages eight to twelve; what I learned from my own education during those years far surpasses what I learned in school - other than the terrible smells and anxiety of worksheets and text books. I don’t remember anything from all of those lessons, save for a few ridiculously awesome field trips and outdoor school.

If I would have had a few adults in my life who realized that school was actually choking me, and who would have allowed me to stay on the path I was on while coaching me along the way, I might not have dropped out of high school to play Hacky Sack with all of the stoner kids. In fact, I might have been coached into designing a really cool school club, where all the Hacky Sackers could go to kick sack and discuss politics or science; we could have had our own newsletter for the school to read and showed them that we were sharp. Since we weren’t seen as smart, but rather as slackers, it was all too easy for many of my friends to believe that. I believed it, too, for quite some time.


As the story goes, I now have my own self-directed learner, Zoe. She’s 16. She has struggled with school (academically) since the beginning. I’ll never forget - when she was in the 2nd grade, one of her assignments was to color in her hand turkey (you know, when you trace your hand and make your thumb into the turkey’s head; then all your fingers become feathers.); she had very little interest in doing this assignment. I remember thinking to myself:  Why wouldn’t she be into this? What’s so hard about coloring in a cute little turkey? She didn’t see the value in it. She wasn’t interested in doing that. What she was interested in doing was spending hours and hours building an elaborate and well-designed (functional) palace for her hamster, or in running around outside and climbing trees. She was also really into fashion and dance. She was putting outfits together that Versace could learn from in the 4th grade.

I was a young mother, in college, studying to become a teacher. I knew that my daughter was the kind of kid my mother wished on me - she was like me. To this day, she hasn’t seen the value in cramming for tests, writing essays that fit into a rubric or learning about the threat and danger of suicide in health class for weeks on end. Inside, I agreed with her; I was right there with her when I was a kid in school, and my own values surrounding education contradicted every punitive action I took when it came to bad grades. But I couldn’t tell her these things - it would just fuel the “eh, who cares about homework” even more.

The ego can sometimes be mistaken for love.

As a parent and an English instructor, I was torn. My kid had to do well in school. She’s a representation of me. My ego and my genuine concern for my daughter were playing chess - one of those painfully long games, too, where an important move is so important that it takes years to make. I made her education about that for too long. I didn’t want either of us to be just another statistic of a single mother whose child flunks out of school. And if I am such a good instructor, then why is my own kid flunking out of school? Okay, I can understand why she’s failing math - but there’s no way she should be failing English!

Ninth grade was the last year I struggled with this whole debacle. My daughter goes to a good school, but it’s not good for her. She was on the varsity dance team with girls whose parents earned more money in a year than I will in my lifetime. She wasn’t one of them, and it was painfully obvious. I volunteered as a food mom, and during competitions, she often sat alone. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that fees for dance team were well over $2K for the year and they offered no scholarships. I was barely able to come up with this kind of money, but to keep her involved in what she’s passionate about was important to me. And because she failed a few classes, she wasn’t able to dance for the final competition. And that broke my heart. I needed to make that chess move before my opponent forgot how to play chess.

I wanted my child to do well in school, or so I thought. When I let my love for her take over, and not my ego, I came up with a new question.

Do I want her to do well in school, or do I want her to do well in life?

This is right about the time I was introduced to Alan Burnce, founder of a new program here in Portland called Open Road Learning Community for Teens. I met with him; we talked as teachers together in this, and we talked from my position as a parent. This is the answer to my problems. My daughter met with him, we all talked together. It was unlike any other conversation I’d had before because we didn’t have to talk about forecasting, grades, classes that need to be repeated, test scores or whether or not we live in the district. My daughter is a dancer, she’s an amazing cook - totally into healthy designer food; she is an artist, and comes to many great conclusions and finds new interests through that art.

The dress my daughter is wearing in this photo was taken last year at summer camp. She was given a room filled with supplies, a sewing machine, a mentor and the time to make anything she wanted to make. She came up with this design years ago - a flapper dress is something she always wanted to make. There you have it. She made it. It took her hours and hours to glue those crayons onto that dress; and to this day, she is proud of her creation and dedication to her vision. This one dress boosted her confidence in ways I seldom see happen in school.

Knowing that Open Road can guide her through her passions and talents, connect her with people from the community who will work with her on turning those talents into real world opportunities puts my mind at ease. Without programs like these, too many creative and innovative kids get lost in the cracks of subject matter and tests.

I look forward to watching Zoe become confident and proud of doing what she does, and does well. This entire experience - parenthood - is a healthy and humbling beast. My grownup ego and hypocrisy have been sufficiently squashed. Zoe is her own force; she’s on her own path just as I was.

Open Road is building something special for teens like Zoe. If this concept moves you, visit their campaign on IncitED and share their work with your friends. 

www.incited.org 

— Kevilina Burbank

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