This has been reprinted by permission of Evelyn Hardesty. It appeared originally in the Newsletter of the Diablo Valley School, aDVerSaria, in January of 2004, and also appears on her website, www.hipmama.com.
I'm in the fourth grade. I trudge slowly home to my apartment. Usually, I gallop home pretending I'm a mustang running free across a grassy plain. I'm passionate about horses, and mustangs are my favorite. I read everything I can about them. If I were tested on mustangs, I would get straight "A's."
But this is fourth grade and I'm not tested on mustangs. I'm tested on long division which I cannot grasp. The report card in my pocket has a "D" on it. Every time I touch it, I burn with shame. I dread telling my parents. The "C's" I often get are bad enough. This "D" adds the lead weight of "dunce" and "dumb."
Five years ago, I sat in my first conference with my daughter Rose's kindergarten teacher.
She told me, "I planned this conference with you early because I wanted you to know that I realize Rose is learning beyond grade level, and I'm getting first and second grade assignments for her to work on." She used the phrase "gifted and talented". I was beaming. This was every public school parent's dream.
The beauty of this situation was that it took no effort on my part. Rose decided on her own to start reading at age three. She memorized what teachers wanted her to learn with ease. It was like she was gleaning information throughout her day, the way whales take in plankton, effortlessly while they swim through the ocean.
In first grade, she made a computer printout and handed it to me. She asked if she could print out several copies and give them to her friends in the neighborhood. I looked at the paper. It was a math test. She had made her own math test, just like the ones she had been getting in school.
I said to her, "These are math tests."
She said, "Yeah, I know. Can I please make more copies to give to my friends? I think they'll really like them."
I had a funny feeling in my stomach. I didn't think her friends would really like them, but it wasn't like she was asking to offer them cigarettes. I turned on the printer.
By the time second-grade rolled around, I had more than a funny feeling in my stomach. It was clear the other kids did not value her intelligence the way her teachers did. Teachers referred to her as "a little grownup." The girl next door, who had been her best friend, refused to play with her. I was in her classroom one day waiting for the teacher to call out who was to ride in which cars for a field trip. I saw two girls roll their eyes when they found out they were going in Rose's car. It made me wince with pain.
Rose had always hated recess. She wanted to stay in the classroom at recess and help the teacher like she had the past two years. The teacher insisted she go out and play with the other children. The children didn't want to play with her, so she spent most recesses by herself waiting for them to be over.
Rose started faking illness so she could stay home. It took me awhile to catch on, but when I did, I made a hard and fast rule that she couldn't stay home unless she had a fever, a runny nose, or was throwing up. I dropped her off many mornings in tears. One day, she began crying because she didn't want to go to school. I recited the symptoms she needed to be able to stay home. She cried harder and harder until she began to dry heave.
"Look, Mom," she cried. "I'm throwing up! Can I please stay home?"
That day, I started the search for another school. I thought she would be more accepted if she were around other bright kids. One big problem, however, was money; we didn't have the income to send a child to private school. Through a careful search, I finally found one school with tuition low enough that, if we squeezed our budget, we could afford.
We scheduled an interview. In my excitement over the low tuition, I hadn't read the fine print. This school had no curriculum, didn't use grades, and wasn't accredited. We were touring the school when a friendly boy named Andrew came up to us. We got on the subject of Halloween costumes.
He said to Rose, "I'm going to be the Pythagorean Theorem. What are you going to be?"
At that moment, I knew this was the school for my daughter. It was a democratic free school where children prepared for adulthood by being treated with the same respect as adults in pursuit of their own passions. Except for having to attend two required meetings a week called judicial meetings, children had the freedom to choose how they spent their time at the school. The purpose of the judicial meetings was to resolve conflicts that occurred in the community. The students also voted on hiring and firing staff and decided how the school's money was spent.
That was three-and-a-half years ago. These days, Rose's morning laments take place only on Tuesdays and Fridays because that's judicial meeting day. She says, "Mom, why did you let me sleep so late? I have to type today's agenda!" I'm filled with pride that she takes her position as assistant judicial clerk so seriously.
In the fall of 1976 I walked into my freshman English class. The professor opened a book and began reading out loud. By the time he was finished, I had a new love - essays. I wanted to make music with language like that. I worked harder than I had in any other class trying to make that music. I dropped other classes because essay writing did not come easily - to me. I believe that this happens to all of us, from time to time. We fall in love with something and are willing to do whatever it takes to master it. My youngest daughter, who is six, has been attending the school since she was five. She spends hours jumping rope, not because it is easy for her, but because the music she wants to make is one perfect jump after another.
If there is any truth to the Hindu belief that children choose their parents before they're born, then my daughters chose me. They chose me to show that it wasn't that ten-year-old girl who was flawed, but the system. My daughters enjoy their school, but I'm the one who's passionate about it. I'm the one who believes your interests will inspire you to work hard and take you where you want to go. I'm the one who believes children should go to a school where they can learn to be anything, even mustangs.
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