I was an excellent student, and I don’t want my kids to be like me

This is a guest post from Purva Brown. Her blog is The Classical Unschooler.

I don’t homeschool because I did badly in school; I homeschool because I was a good, no, a great student. If you ask my teachers if they remember me, I would bet a body part that twenty-two years later, they still do.

I didn’t talk during class; I didn’t raise my hand too often so as to give others a chance even when I knew the right answer; I waited my turn. I asked for permission. I waited for test days to let my personality shine through.

Which is exactly the reason I homeschool. Classrooms taught me enough bad habits to last a lifetime.

I was once put beside the most disruptive boy in my classroom during Science class. I cried. The reason, the teacher explained to the class of fifty, was to encourage the boy to behave better.

“But you’re punishing me,” I sobbed to the teacher. “You’re punishing me for being good.”

“No, I’m not,” he smiled at me through his large spectacles. He oozed the easy confidence of someone who can explain the world to sixth graders in antiseptic terms. “I’m not punishing you, I’m punishing him,” he insisted, nodding at the troublesome kid.  

I did well that year in Science. But more importantly, I learned an enduring lesson – mediocrity meant that you got to sit with your friends. No desk shuffling ever happened to those who drew no attention to themselves.

Being in the middle let you slip through cracks. Being well-behaved made you a role model; being “naughty” was just plain fun, and hey, I bet the teachers remember the bad students just as well as the good ones in twenty-two years.

Mediocrity, on the other hand, was the safest place to be in a classroom.

Classrooms also taught me to wait for permission. It was something I was especially good at doing.

I realized early in my life that I knew the answers, (because, really, how hard is it to find the right sentence and copy it under some comprehension questions?) but every year, the teachers wanted something different.

The answers had to be couched in the right language. Some teachers wanted more references, some wanted answers “in your own words,” some wanted quotes from the text woven into the answers. It was an elaborate game and I played it well. I learned to match my tone to what was required, I learned to modulate my voice according to my teacher’s desire.

I often hung back, waiting to be sure I had the answer right. I didn’t want to be wrong. The classroom of fifty taught me that a mistake was the worst thing I could make – blurting out the wrong answer was tantamount to a public shaming. Better to wait to be sure. I got really good at waiting. I became the strong, silent type – the one who knew all the answers, but waited to be called upon, the one who didn’t show off.

Teachers liked that. They called on me when they wanted the right answer. I was thrilled.

Classrooms reinforce classroom rules. Unfortunately, life does not respect classroom discipline.

After school was over, school became all I was suited for. Outside school, mediocrity did not guarantee safety. No one in a group asked me for my opinion because I had made a reputation for myself as quiet but wise. Waiting for permission was the worst possible thing I could do in a professional environment. The world belonged to the brave and the bold – the rowdy boy sitting next to me was better suited to it than I was.

The classroom, I have realized, is as antithetical to real life as possible. And this is why I homeschool. I want my children to learn to read, but not to wait, to add and subtract, multiply and divide, but not settle for the middle.

I want them to at least, just once, whole-heartedly blurt out a freaking answer, believing that it is right, find out that is, in fact, wrong, and be okay with it. I want them to be unafraid, real. Courageous. I don’t want them to wait for permission, shuffling around the edges, wondering if they have anything to contribute.

This is why I homeschool.

And yet. And yet, the classroom part of me rebels. It is unsure. I have a voice inside me tell me that I am not giving my children a “proper education.” It finds echoes in the world around me.

“But how will they ever learn the discipline of a classroom in a homeschool?” a relative asks.

“They won’t,” I say.

The beauty of those two words is lost on him.

49 replies
  1. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Hi Purva,

    You did a very good job with this post by reminding me about what I hate the most about classrooms.

    I went to a private school, and I was a rule follower for a little while. Then later starting around the tween years I managed to be a smart-ass and still get good grades and STILL be a favorite! We had classrooms of less than 30 kids and we all knew each other extremely well. Everything that I personally enjoyed about school had zero to do with learning and education.

    • Purva Brown
      Purva Brown says:

      Come to think of it, there was a time in my life when I figured out the system enough to be sneaky and still get good grades. All to my detriment. Ugh. But I remember a teacher holding me up as an example of someone who CAN be naughty but still get good grades.

      Glad you liked the post!

  2. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    I think girls are more adept than boys at finding that invisible middle. And yes, it hurts them later in their professional lives.

    • Purva Brown
      Purva Brown says:

      Yes, I think so, too! I’m often surprised that just telling my boys to do something doesn’t interest them enough to do it but it gives my daughter so much joy.

  3. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    This was me! Teachers pet, I earned good grades and knew how to do well on tests but I lost myself and never knew what I really liked to do. Homeschooling was scary but worth it. My kids are so different and I know it’s because I homeschooled.

    • Purva Brown
      Purva Brown says:

      I see that in my kids, too! Now hopefully that classroom part of me shuts up and sits down so they can continue to be very, very different from the way I was!

  4. Anaswara Jose
    Anaswara Jose says:

    Can totally relate to this Purva. You just voiced my thoughts. These are exactly the same reasons why I won’t be sending my 4 year old son to a conventional school.

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    This post makes me wonder whether part of the problem with schools is how similar they are.

    There’s really a lot to be said for learning how to work a system. When you take a new job in a new field or at a new company, you need to learn over again how to work that system.

    Purva learned how to work the school system perfectly. The problem she suggests is how little the skills or habits developed thereby proved useful to her later in life.

    I hated school pretty much from first grade through tenth, when I left it. One school after another, one state after another, all depressingly similar. I learned to work the system in my own crazy way.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be more fun, and more useful, for kids if schools were radically different from one another, so that a kid would have to learn to work fundamentally different systems. It took me until graduate school to have enough aptitude with working different kinds of systems to move forward from school.

    • Cate
      Cate says:

      Great point. I do think there is value in learning to work a system. There is value in learning to buckle down and do work you do not like or do not anticipate enjoying, but must be done. There is so much of that in life!

      I was forced to attend Catholic Mass growing up (even after I expressed my wish to no longer attend) and it even taught me a lot. How to endure things you dislike. How to sit still. How to listen. How to dislike something but still enjoy a homily. (Although to this day, I still experience strong feelings of dislike when I enter my mother’s church, where I was forced to attend growing up).

      School taught me well, actually. I don’t regret going. I send my children. I think a good teacher (and I had a few) can have a lifelong positive impact (mine did). I am a success in my job, enjoy it, and school (and a liberal arts degree) taught me how to do it really well.

      There is value for your children in being taught by others as well. Mentoring, I have found in retrospect, is life-changing.

      • Purva Brown
        Purva Brown says:

        Cate, I think there absolutely IS value in buckling down and doing what you don’t like, but only if you have a very good reason for it and/or you are convinced of the truth of it. Obedience for the sake of it, rules for the sake of having rules isn’t something I want to follow or inculcate in my children. Classrooms tend have a lot of these.

      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        You mean, like COBOL? Or were you thinking of Imperial measurements? Latin? No, I’ve got it: government acquisitions.

        Did I ever mention the decade I spent working as a logistician on government contracts? Or the ease with which I passed DAU and CPL certification? It would be hard to convince me that learning to work with antiquated and inefficient systems is useless.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          There is value in learning Latin for those who are interested in etymology. Not useless. I’m confused why you think I wouldn’t see value in your examples.

          I’m not certain I see value in enduring something that is irrelevant for life, learning, or enjoyment. Endurance for endurance sake? Is that the argument being presented? I can think of much better ways to learn to persevere than enduring classrooms for 13 years.

          • Bostonian
            Bostonian says:

            YMKAS, I think you’re working over a straw man here. The perspective I currently have on schools is that they can be useful sometimes. That depends on the school, on the kid, on the time. I hated my ten years of school, and conversely I loved college very much. I have taken classes at … nine? … different colleges and enjoyed them all. I do believe that some kids, at some times, can love school as much as I did college. Other kids, at other times, deserve very much to be sprung. Thirteen years of enduring irrelevant classrooms is hardly my blanket prescription for childhood.

            Right now, as you know, my son is entertaining the idea of going back to school in the fall. The school at the top of his list was founded in 1645 and holds to its traditions; its motto is Mortui Vivos Docent. My son would have ample opportunity to learn how to work with antiquated and inefficient systems there. This would be by his own choice, and I think it would be an excellent one.

            My daughter is also heading to school in the fall, leaving her farm school. Our first choice for her is the only school in New England cited as a “Model School for 21st Century Skills” by NAIS. Yeah, I’ll let you know what that means when I figure it out. I have talked with her about schools versus homeschooling, and her position (at age 5) is that she wants to go to school now – this one in particular – but that when she’s 13 she wants to homeschool.

            The predictions and predilections of a five year old must naturally be taken with a grain of salt. But the point of my bringing this all up is that I don’t feel all schools must be useless to all kids just because mine were to me. I don’t even feel that the school my son left because it was terrible for him was necessarily terrible for all the other kids there at the time. I feel it is most important that children have a choice in the matter, and know they have a choice.

            I know that one of the factors making college so enjoyable for me was that it was something I chose. It was _my_ project, not something I was pushed into. I had some frankly terrible teachers, and endured a good deal of entirely irrelevant nonsense, but I also had a great time, and learned the skills that have made me a success in my professional and personal life.

            So the answer to your question is that I don’t feel all schools are necessarily irrelevant and useless for all kids just because they may be antiquated. Let’s talk about sports for a moment. Or art. Uselessness is one of the defining characteristics of art. Irrelevance is one of the distinguishing features of sport. But we don’t stop doing them, or appreciating them, on that basis. Do the best schools increase their overall uselessness and irrelevance by requiring sports and arts participation? I don’t think so.

  6. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    This blog post could be my letter to all those who want to know the true reasons I homeschool mine. These are the most salient reasons. I was an A+ student yet unready for the real world. Struggling now to deschool when in your heart of hearts you want to be bold and entrepreneurial yet been trained to conform and need the approval of handlers/teachers. It’s actually stressful now to separate 2 decades of this brainwashing. I’m working on myself but I promised my kids “they won’t”

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I agree. These were not the reasons I began homeschooling, but they are why I continue. Having kids who refuse to go to school is still the main reason though ;)

      Outcome based performance within a high stakes environment isn’t conducive for meaningful learning. Teaching to the test by having to memorize a bunch of facts for those tests or creating a love of learning based on the child’s interests and learning preferences? I don’t think you can meaningfully do both.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Purva, I really enjoyed the post. You really captured many good reasons for homeschooling. I like this question – “But how will they ever learn the discipline of a classroom in a homeschool?” a relative asks.” It reminded me of the movie ‘The Matrix’. It also reminds me I may have asked a similar question not all that many years ago. It’s not an intuitive choice especially when the crowd is being schooled and college is school. Homeschooling is a creative and innovative venture that requires leaps of faith, resilience, and an open mind willing to experiment. And that goes for the parent as well as the child. It’s a partnership.

    • Purva Brown
      Purva Brown says:

      Funny that you bring up The Matrix because I’m beginning to realize that’s how it is when talking to some people who have never heard of homeschooling. That’s where you come across ignorant questions about socialization. I’m learning to be patient with the truly curious and clueless – it’s just so out of the norm for some that they need to be shown that it’s a viable option. I try not to waste time on the snarky, though.

  8. Anna
    Anna says:

    I just want to say: Purva, you are a very smart lady. I briefly checked out your blog and glanced at some of your other sites and love it. Keep it up! Thanks!

  9. Shawna
    Shawna says:

    Great post! I was a student just like you. I now homeschool my 2 children and I know it’s the best thing I could do for them. My nephew who is in 3rd grade is one of the ‘gifted’ kids at his school drives me crazy with his need to feel superior based on the fact that he can get the answers right faster than anyone else. His parents are so proud too and will quiz him on things in front of us and I can see his smug, proud face and I think, “What on earth are they trying to teach him? That the most important thing in life is to always have the right answer? To be the smartest person in the room (at least he will think he is, I’m sure)?” It really drives me crazy and it always reaffirms my decision to homeschool where I can teach my children that trying hard is more important than knowing everything, that being kind trumps being first, that asking questions is better than knowing all the answers and relationships are more important than facts.

    • moira corby
      moira corby says:

      “trying hard is more important than knowing everything, that being kind trumps being first, that asking questions is better than knowing all the answers and relationships are more important than facts.” Those are the values for growing a happy human. Thankyou!

  10. aquinas heard
    aquinas heard says:

    Ms. Brown,

    What an insightful post! It’s rare that I come across a parent who draws an accurate assessment of what was going on in a classroom during their youth. And what a powerful ending!:

    “But how will they ever learn the discipline of a classroom in a homeschool?” a relative asks.

    “They won’t,” I say.

    The beauty of those two words is lost on him.
    I’ve been following Penelope’s blog for quite some time and I have to say this is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on her blog. I hope to see more post by you on here.

    Aquinas Heard – children’s rights advocate, former Crossfitter, and wannabe paleo-diet follower :-)

  11. Joanna Daniel
    Joanna Daniel says:

    Great post, thank you. I had a similar conversation with a friend this morning. She is thinking about maybe homeschooling and had concerns about how to teach her sons algebra. They are 3 and 2.:)

    My children have never been to school the twins are 9, and our baby will be six in March. They have good problem-solving skills and excel in the subjects taught. More importantly, we give them the freedom to develop hobbies and interest.

  12. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Really good post, I have similar memories.

    What amazes me is that there can be adults working in the schools who do not see some of this stuff. How do they keep doing it everyday? Maybe all teachers should be required to have another job before becoming teachers. It does not take a person long to realize how inadequate school is, once you have to survive outside of it. If you go from school straight to being a teacher, maybe this reality just never hits you.

    • Purva Brown
      Purva Brown says:


      Thank you! I was almost – ALMOST! – one of those people who went from school to teaching. Thankfully, no one was hiring at that moment. Whew.

  13. A
    A says:

    I too had a bad boy moved to behind me in the first grade as to be a good influence on him. Instead he tormented me and loved to pull my hair. This is really profound to me as being always safe does not enable you to reach for your dreams.

  14. Caitlyn
    Caitlyn says:

    Great post! I am an eighth grader at a private middle school and I wish I could home school, but I don’t think that could ever happen in my family. What can I do outside of school to learn the skills I need for the future?

    • Purva Brown
      Purva Brown says:

      Hi Caitlyn,
      I would say learn as much as you can about anything you want. If you’re interested in it, learn about it. Listen to podcasts, read books, watch videos. Today, we have so much more access to information than before. Learn all about anything that interests you. You will be surprised by how much you end up using this material you have learned through self-direction.

  15. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I homeschooled my daughter up until 8th grade where she pleaded to go to school. I let her. She enrolled this November. I am 2 seconds away from pulling her out. So many freaking rules, teenage drama and game playing, and strict teachers. Today she woke up and threw up and so I kept her home. She doesn’t know how to be mediocre but also doesn’t like being labeled a troublemaker. So my mama heart is hoping she comes home to a place where she can learn and ask questions and be wrong sometimes. I hate systems. I hate that she can’t be bold without suffering a consequence for it. I loved this article!

  16. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Excellent points that put words to my own experiences in school. So happy I found your site Purva, it’s a wealth of information and things to ponder. Thank you!

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