This is a guest post from Daphne Gray-Grant. She is a writing and publication coach.
We started homeschooling our three kids because I’d hated school as a child. I wanted to give them a better life and I knew that had nothing to do with the public school down the street. Or with sitting at the kitchen table supervising math and English workbooks.
We embraced unschooling and soon discovered that our son, Duncan, was dyslexic, dysgraphic and gifted — a surprisingly common combination. But he excelled at technology and playing the piano by ear and I developed the notion that somehow, he’d eventually get a career in music production.
Was I ever wrong.
His interest in piano steered Duncan toward voice lessons when he was 16. About a year later the voice teacher called me. “I think your son should try out for the opera program at UBC,” he said, referring to our local college, the University of BC in Vancouver.
After recovering from the shock that my son had been secretly singing opera, I reminded the teacher that Duncan had never attended school. And that this particular university didn’t accept homeschoolers. “Still, give it a shot,” the voice teacher urged. So we did. And here are five lessons I learned:
1. Rules change all the time.
I started working my contacts at the school of music. One of the professors I knew mentioned other homeschooled students. Knowing that UBC didn’t accept homeschoolers (I’d researched this when my kids were 10) I assumed these were students who had homeschooled in the early grades before capitulating to brick- and-mortar high schools. But as Isaac Asimov said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
After a couple of weeks of miscommunication, I finally understood that UBC had changed its policy. It now accepted homeschoolers, if not exactly recruited them. (Their attitude is a bit different from many US colleges, notably some Ivy League ones, that actively seek homeschooled students.)
2. The rules may depend on the individual faculty.
At UBC, each faculty has the right to accept or deny homeschooled students by whatever criteria they wish. I took this as good news. The smaller the bureaucracy, the easier to sway. The opera program required a series of short questions (no essays, phew!), two letters of reference from other musicians, and an audition.
My son is a world-class procrastinator so I asked his sister, who was applying to the same university at the same time, to send us the questions in a Word document. I helped my son anguish each of five 250-word questions with the care of mother monkey grooming her young ones for nits.
Then, when my son went to submit his answers, the website wouldn’t accept it. A frantic call to the admissions office later, we learned that each faculty has its own form. We had been working on the one for Science rather than Music. Moral: don’t leave things to the last minute. Thank goodness we had one more day to answer the right questions.
3. You’ll likely be asked for a portfolio.
To make up for his absence of marks, my son also had to submit a portfolio. This was a problem because Duncan had completed almost no “real” school work. Instead, he’d done lots of music lessons, some significant reading tutoring for his dyslexia, and a host of short-term paid and volunteer jobs mostly relating to computers.
“I know, mom,” he said. “I should treat it like a job application and get a bunch of reference letters. That can be my portfolio.” I had to admit it was a brilliant idea. He made 21 enquires and received 21 glowing letters. His portfolio made him sound like a rock star.
4. You may have to do an interview. Be prepared.
In my son’s case, the interview was an audition. He had to prepare five songs and the panel was required to listen to only two of them, but could ask for more if they liked what they heard. My son spent more than six weeks practicing with his voice teacher and his accompanist. He threw in one popular song — Pretty Women from Sweeney Todd — just to show he was an unschooler who didn’t follow rules. The panel asked him for four songs (including the Sweeney Todd), which amounted to a guarantee of admission.
5. Every school is different; every student unique.
You may assume that my story has little relevance for you. After all wasn’t my son terrifically talented? And isn’t music different from, say, science? Or history? Or English Lit?
But here’s the deal: if your unschooled kid is passionate about something and if you’re able to help him or her research college options, get practical experience in the field and provide general support, some avenue will open up to you. You can’t predict exactly what it will be but I know that diligence is the mother of luck.
As a result of getting into UBC, Duncan performed in an opera in the Czech Republic this summer. More amazing to me — because I’m a professional writer and coach — he wrote a blog about the experience. His spelling and grammatical errors make me wince, but I’m proud he has an engaging written voice and the guts to use it.
Duncan enters his third year of university in September and hopes to do a master’s degree in voice at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. I can’t imagine anyone will ever ask him where he “did” high school. But if they do, he won’t hesitate to say he was unschooled.