Unschooling Didn’t Make Me Abnormal Enough

(image source here)

I just painted my nails blue. Turquoise, really. They shimmer. The area around my nails shimmers too, because my aim is really bad. How does anyone paint nails neatly? I knew girls who had mastered it by the time they were twelve. But not too many. Because I didn’t really know that many girls.

For most of my life, people have asked me how I learned to socialize. Even while I’m socializing with them. They imagine that you can only learn from a lot of other people almost exactly the same age as you. I learned how to socialize the same way everyone else did. From my parents, first, from my friends, and from the people I ran into, admired from a distance, and read about.

I’ve had to pretend for a long time that I’m normal, because “normal” is proof that I am a success, as an unschooler. Which is funny. Because normal is a pretty boring goal for such a radical lifestyle. It always felt like a conflict. I was obviously really different, because I didn’t spend any time in a classroom, and I spent a lot of time in the woods. And at the piano. And, I don’t know, doing a million things in the middle of the day, when I was the only kid in sight. But then, whenever I met anyone new, I was supposed to show them just how normal I was.

I accomplished this by wearing jeans and being friendly and liking boys a lot. I was much friendlier than a lot of kids who went to school. And more confident. At least around adults. A lot of kids who went to school looked sort of sulky and sullen and too cool to smile. I was never too cool to smile. In fact, I was never particularly cool at all. Both of my brothers turned out incredibly cool, though, if you need proof of unschoolers accomplishing this most coveted of statuses. They have a lot more facebook friends than I do. They have a lot less moments of not knowing what to do with their hands.

The thing that disappoints me most about having been unschooled is how normal I actually turned out to be. With a start like that, by now I should have patented fuel-efficient, invisible commuter spacepods that can get someone from Connecticut to a job in Tokyo in under forty minutes. But here I am, talking about how chubby my arms are. I feel like an unschooling failure.

I blame this on several things:

  1. Being a girl
  2. Not being forced to study enough math
  3. Being naturally normal
  4. My arms

I’m a girl. And I’m smart. And I have a big nose. Therefore, I was set up to be nerdy. But not nerdy enough. If I had learned more math, maybe I would’ve figured out the spacepods. But because my mind is suspiciously normal (see aforementioned boy-craziness as teenager), I didn’t have the slightest interest in math. And the bit about my arms is a joke.

Being cool seems relatively simple for my brothers. They do it like this:

  1. Not ever reacting to anything seriously
  2. Working out a lot
  3. Being tall
  4. Knowing what to do with their hands

I’m always a little impressed. And always a little stuck in the middle, myself. I’m confident, but not very cool. I’m smart, but not spectacularly so. I’m girly, but I don’t know how to paint my nails. Or perform a lot of the femininity that girls learned from other girls who were all being feminine together as kids and teenagers. My femininity came from my mom, who is an extremely strong-willed feminist who, had she blogged, would’ve become The Pioneer Woman, minus the cattle. And my friends Emma and Nell, who grew up in rural North Carolina, and had the goal of starting a farm together as adults and driving a white Ford F-150 pickup truck. And my friend Emily, who wore a bikini top under her overalls when she was eleven, and convinced me that was the best outfit EVER. And Robin McKinley, who wrote about women heroes who wielded magical swords.

So the fact that I ever learned to feel bad about my body is really a testament to the success and power of the pressure placed on women to look a certain way. And to the failure of unschooling to make me truly different. Or different enough. Or maybe it’s a testament to the fact that, no matter what your background is, at some point, you’re going to have to struggle to figure out how you want to filter the world. And what kind of person you want to feel like.

I missed out on learning how to paint my nails. I didn’t miss out on learning how to socialize. Or learning that I wasn’t pretty or feminine enough. I learned that lesson as soon as I met up with my peer group, finally, in college. But here I am, painting my nails, and re-learning. Maybe I have a chance at being abnormal after all.

(image source here)

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Un-Roast: Today I love how I look with paint all over me. Nail polish serves the same function. It makes me feel sexy, like I’m daring and artistic, not just like I should take a shower.

P.S. Send me photos of yourself eating or with cake! I’ll post them in my cake section. It’ll be great. I promise.

P.P.S. Check out my Huffpo piece about Eat Pray Love

P.P.P.S If you’re not already signed up for email alerts, do it!

P.P.P.P.S. That was the most ever. Penelope Trunk should read this post. And then she should text me back. Please?

21 Comments »

Kate on August 19th 2010 in beauty, being different, homeschooling

21 Responses to “Unschooling Didn’t Make Me Abnormal Enough”

  1. San D responded on 19 Aug 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    As someone who has taught gifted kids for about 20 years, I can tell you that you are gifted, and that is not the “norm”. As someone who has known you all of your life, I can tell you that while you might feel “normal” you have been different since birth. While your “formal” education was not in a school room, your mother made sure that you learned at your own pace, on your own terms. There are at least 8 difference types of learning styles, and unschooling made it possible that all of your intelligences were stimulated to some degree. While you decry your lack of math, music and math are directly related. You are a product of your successful education. Do not fall into the myth that unschoolers are geniuses that change the world and students who attended brick and mortar schools lost out. Now the “normalness” you are feeling (and the sometime insecurity) are most probably a combination of environment and genes, two things that you can not change. Being the first born, a girl among two boys, an offspring of quirky, intelligent parents, who incidently ran their own successful business, cooked healthy foods, laughed alot, and love you more than you can imagine, has impacted you in ways that will take a lifetime to figure out. All I can say is that once it hit me, I had a necklace made and it says “Sh*t, I have become my mother”.

  2. zoe responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 12:32 am #

    what is normal anyway? i’m sure “abnormal” people feel “normal”, too. unfortunately for me, i attended “normal” school (not a good environment for me, i think). but you know what? i never actually learned how to paint my nails very well (except today i did a pretty decent job, actually). i’m not sure i would assume femininity grows out of a group of girls. sure, i learned a lot of “girly” things but i am certainly not the typical result that supposedly comes from these groups of girls. i’m girly but not very feminine. and you can certainly be nerdy about subjects outside of math! (though i think you probably know this). i cannot tell you the amount of eye rolls and sighs i endured in my high school english classes. english nerd, to the max. we all nerd out in different ways.

    really, people are just people everywhere. it doesn’t matter what school you went to. you’ll find all types of people in all types of situations and places. you kind of already said it: “Or maybe it’s a testament to the fact that, no matter what your background is, at some point, you’re going to have to struggle to figure out how you want to filter the world. And what kind of person you want to feel like.”

  3. Rob responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 2:18 am #

    Good post! I think what it all boils down to is, are you living the life you want to live? Scientists debate the nature of intelligence: whether IQ tests really measure it; whether there are different kinds; whether men and women on average have different levels, and so on. But when it comes down to it, what is intelligence, really, except knowing what makes you happy and figuring out how to achieve it?

    I know someone who has advanced degrees in psychology and probably scores off the chart on standardized IQ tests, but has no more insight into himself than a toaster oven and possibly a great deal less. Now in his sixties, he’s managed to alienate his whole family. His kids despise him and don’t want him involved in his grandchild’s life. His niece calls him a waste of oxygen. He lives alone in a rented garage, old and infirm, and nobody wants anything to do with him. He might be “intelligent” by a lot of estimations, but it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to see that he’s as dumb as a brick!

    On the other hand, I know people who have far less to show for themselves in terms of academic achievement. People who work the land for their food, and barely manage to sustain themselves — yet their homes are filled with love and they live their lives with a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Their children wonder at nature and every living thing, and don’t give a damn about cell phones and video games. They wouldn’t change the way they live for anything. They might not be able to solve a Rubik’s cube in ten seconds or ace the SAT, but where it truly counts, they’re geniuses.

    As a lifelong homeschooler who might or might not have autism (or might just be under-socialized; the “experts” have never reached a consensus) I spent a lot of years feeling badly about myself because my uniqueness made me unsuitable for any kind of life that I thought was “normal” or “respectable” judged by other people’s terms. I thought that making my own way in the world meant either conforming myself to an artificial life that felt more like a slow, monotonous march toward death, or else being a lifelong loser with no right to feel proud of myself. It took me until I reached a certain age, and had gained a certain amount of perspective on life, before I realized there was a third option.

    Now I’m living the life I want to live. I don’t work for anyone. I’m my own boss. I keep my own hours. If I want to sleep until noon, I do. If I want to stay up until 5 AM, I do. When I want to go out, I go out. When I want to stay in, I stay in. I don’t have a whole lot of money, but luckily my wants are few. Through a series of totally unplanned events, I’ve managed to find myself living the perfect life for me. It wouldn’t be the perfect life for you, or my parents, or Bill Gates, but it’s the perfect life for ME, and I feel fortunate… and yes, proud. I no longer feel like I have to justify myself, my choices, or my existence to anyone. If it’s good enough for me, then it’s good enough — period.

    This life I live might not always be so fulfilling for me. In the future I might want something more: a wife, kids, more money, or whatever. If that happens, I’ll make one small change at a time until the life I’m living is brought into alignment with my dreams. Maybe my dreams will change as that process is unfolding, and if that happens, I’ll start making one small change at a time in a different direction — probably a direction I can’t even imagine today! The point is, I’m finally able to appreciate what people mean when they say “the journey is what counts.”

    Nothing about this world is “normal”, and I mean that in both a glad and a sad way. I think the best thing we can do is stop wondering whether we’re normal enough (or abnormal enough!) and just ask ourselves: am I living the life I want to live? And if not, what can I change today that will bring me one step closer to living that life? One day we will all die, and in the moment I die, I want to be able to look back at my life and say, “It was good.” I want that more than anything else in the world. As long as I can have that, then I’ll know I was successful at life, regardless of what else I might have had or not had along the way. And I think I’ll be quite far from normal as well.

  4. Samantha Burns responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 7:49 am #

    When I was younger I wanted to be normal. I wanted to fit in, and be included, and I wanted people to like me.

    Now that I am grown, I can see that the best way to be is to be true to yourself. I am not normal. I like standing out in a crowd. I enjoy going against the grain. Maybe I just like the attention? Maybe I like showing the normals what they could be if they tried to live differently–not focusing on being what society wants or expects me to be.

    I found your blog while searching for more information on unschooling; currently I homeschool my two boys, but I’ve been considering the unschooling approach–or at least a more laid-back style. Thanks for this post regarding your youth–you now have a new follower :D

  5. Sally responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 9:02 am #

    You’re a phenomenally insightful woman. That is all.

  6. Virginia responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 9:42 am #

    UM, overalls with a bikini top underneath might actually BE the coolest outfit ever. Damn, where do I get me some overalls these days?

    Also, I am going to want to hear more about how unschooling works at some point. In the meantime, I think your writing is fab, as always, and I also cannot paint my own finger nails, despite years of concerted effort.

  7. Kate responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 10:07 am #

    @Rob
    I love your comment. I really think we should ask ourselves pretty frequently if we’re living the life we want to be living. I’m glad that you are! I think one of the things that unschooling did to me that makes the “real world” a little is that I learned not to have a schedule. The jobs that a lot of people work sound incredibly terrible to me, because they are so regimented. Of course, this is true for people who went to school too, but sometimes I think it might be the slightest bit more pronounced in me.

  8. Kate responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 10:09 am #

    @Virginia
    Yeah. I’m actually with you there. I still think that it’s the coolest outfit ever.

    And I’m going to start writing more about how unschooling works. A lot of people have been asking me, and it’s also the subject of the book I’m working on.

  9. Kate responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 10:11 am #

    @Samantha Burns
    Welcome! And feel free to email me to have more of a personal conversation about unschooling.

  10. Cindy responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    Rob’s comment was incredible! Thanks for that!

    why do we go thru life wanting to be “normal” and than again what is that anyways?

    I’ve never fit in… not really. I just let it go at 40 years old. it’s not important anymore

    funny thing, my teenager just started a new HS as a junior. He’s doing so well, making friends already. It has very deeply affected me and I find it odd.

    what I loved about Rob’s comment was that he has made the normalcy not important but finding and living his dreams and THAT…THAT right there is the whole point!

    well done!

    I think San D is right too….you are gifted!!!!

  11. caronae responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Just wanted to let you know I agree COMPLETELY with your review of/thoughts on Eat Pray Love. Couldn’t have said it better.

  12. Diane responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    @ Cindy

    That’s funny you should say that about your son. I never quite felt like I fit in (more so when I was younger, but a bit now too) and still sometimes wonder how I even came to have friends, I was so awkward. I have always wondered what I will do if my kids are confident and outgoing and make friends easily. I’ll be happy, of course, but I’m not sure I will be able to relate.

  13. Emily responded on 20 Aug 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    YES! that is the coolest outfit ever. At the very least it was for a twelve year old in the 90′s. I liked the plaid bikini top best.

  14. Wei-Wei responded on 21 Aug 2010 at 6:01 am #

    I actually don’t know what normal is. All the girls at our school claim to be “outcasts” and like rock and indie music and wear t-shirts with clever indie sayings on them and are boyish and like sports and wear lots of handmade bracelets and are good at art, performance, and drama, and they call themselves outcasts. They however, would be considered the “popular ones” at our school. I’m not quite understanding here… Is normal abnormal or not?

  15. Kate responded on 21 Aug 2010 at 10:27 am #

    @Wei-Wei
    Ha! Amazing. And I guess “normal” here is whatever all the other girls are learning how to do. If it’s “being outcasts,” that’s normal. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’d fail (now, not necessarily if I was put in it as a little kid) to become popular in that environment by doing it, because it always depends on learning an intensely complex set of tiny rules about behavior and belief.

    Good comment, as always. You’re awesome.

  16. Edith responded on 23 Aug 2010 at 10:13 am #

    Although I was also unschooled :) If you just aren’t careful and get it all over the place, after the nails are completely dry, just soak them in warm water for a few mins. The if you barely scratch at it, the paint will come right off the skin :) I never worry about staying in the lines anymore!

  17. Ivy responded on 24 Aug 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    OMG, Robin McKinley. The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown are some of my favorite books ever. I still reread them from time to time.

    As for your nails: You live in NYC and have disposable income. Get them done. It’s such a fun indulgence and costs about $10 for a mani. Blue isn’t that big of a crazy nonconformist trend. Errybody’s been rocking nails in all shades of blue for a few years now. This summer seems to be all about the sky blue and turquoise.

  18. Anna responded on 07 Sep 2010 at 12:04 am #

    Funny how that is; I was homeschooled as well, and I also seem to have absorbed a lot of what society says about women, beauty, and social interactions. If I absorbed those, why wouldn’t I have also absorbed rules of social etiquette (I never did think that assumption was true)?

    Interestingly, I’ve found that being abnormal is as likely to receive positive reactions. People may admire one for the boldness of wearing something unusual! I found this out after giving up on being normal. And even if people were negative, it’s funner being me for me. :)

  19. Eat the Damn Cake » 20-Somethings: Doing Nothing and Everything At the Same Time responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    [...] As an unschooler, I was extraordinary. I mean, to the world. The world was impressed that I could function at all. That I could shake people’s hands and say, “Nice to meet you!” after having lived in the social desert of space outside of school for my entire childhood. It was a little like being one of those feral kids. [...]

  20. Kate Fridkis: Doing Nothing and Everything in Your Twenties « LaLaLandBlog.com responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 1:29 am #

    [...] As an unschooler, I was extraordinary. I mean, to the world. The world was impressed that I could function at all. That I could shake people’s hands and say, “Nice to meet you!” after having lived in the social desert of space outside of school for my entire childhood. The world was impressed by all of the stuff that I was doing. I was good at so many things simultaneously. It was shocking! [...]

  21. Zandria responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 11:53 am #

    I was homeschooled for most of my life, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I developed an eating disorder. Like you said, a LACK of emphasis on body issues earlier in life saved me the pain for a while, but it couldn’t do so forever.

    I’m 30 now, and I no longer have an eating disorder, but I don’t think it’s ever possible to ever completely get over it. (I’m back at a normal weight, but I’ve been wanting to lose 5 lbs for over a year…)