Once my unschooling son announced he wants to get a Ph.D. in biology I decided I had to get serious about making sure he can get into college.  I had been hard-core about not teaching the kids to read (kids can teach themselves, really). And I read over and over again that there is no reason to start teaching kids math until sixth grade, so we didn’t do math either.

The flip side of his Asperger social skills is that he’s a master of memorization. So catching up in math and science has not been difficult.

So I turned my efforts to the SAT. How would he get a good score if he is not reading or writing what school kids are reading and writing? I called an SAT tutor, and he said he can tell how well kids will do on the verbal SAT by asking them what was the last book they read.

“Oh,” I said. “What’s a good book?”

“Great Expectations.”

Finally. I understood why the advanced kids in my high school read Great Expectations. And why I couldn’t get through it. It’s hard reading. Complicated sentences.

The SAT tutor told me to call him back in three years.

In the meantime, I went searching for a reading list for my son. I went to Exeter, because it’s the first rich-kid school that came to mind.

I downloaded the list and he started reading.

First: A Separate Peace.

He told me there’s too much description and it’s slow.

I told him I just read an article about how scientific papers that incorporate writing from other fields are more impactful papers. Reading lots of different styles of writing is important for writing good scientific papers. I said, “Would you like to read that research?”

“Forget it,” he said, “I’ll just read A Separate Peace.”

At the end of the book I looked up some literary criticism because maybe we’d have some sort of conversation in the car or something. And I found that the book is not on any reading list anymore except for Exeter’s because the book took place there.

Okay. So it was a bad choice.

Next up: Lord of the Flies. My favorite book in college.

He loved it. He looked up fan fiction.

I thought that was only for Harry Potter, but it’s for everything.

There are Lord of the Flies fan fiction sites where the boys are gay. There’s one where Piggy gets revenge. There are hundreds of sites. My son thinks maybe he will write his own fan fiction for Lord of the Flies. He says, “I think they should have killed Jack right off the bat. I’ll write that.”

This is not exactly what I had planned for SAT preparation, but I’m touched that he’d do his own extended reading about Lord of the Flies. And writing.

Next he read Animal Farm. And he loved it. So I thought, I’m on a roll and I gave him 1984, and then Fahrenheit 451 and then Brave New World.

I ask him if he’s going to write fan fiction for any of those.

He gives me a horrified look, the sort of expression you get when you appropriate teen slang and sound stupid.

So I am quiet.

Then he tells me he’s not doing fan fiction, “But,” he says, “I do think we need a VPN.”


“Now that I’ve read all that speculative fiction, it’s clear to me that the core problem of our society is privacy.”

I wonder to myself, “Who is this child? And, can he get AP credit for this conversation?”

He tells me we need a VPN to protect our privacy.

I am pretty sure I remember that VPNs are for logging into company servers or something like that. But I assume I’m outdated in my knowledge. I google how why do we need a VPN and I find out we don’t.

But there is no arguing with him.

So I tell him to write a list for me of why our family needs a VPN and I tell him to find some supporting evidence because I can’t find any and also because I need some reassurance that he can write whatever he’ll need to write for the SAT.

Then I give him a fresh new copy of Of Mice and Men.