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Taking a Long Vacation from Public School Was the Smartest Thing I Ever Did

I was a parent’s (and teacher’s) worst nightmare, but, with the freedom of homeschooling, I grew into a happy, accomplished adult with a zest for learning.

Teen boy with ADHD reading a book in the grass
Teen boy with ADHD reading a book in the grass

I was buying groceries the other day, when I noticed a boy in his school uniform arguing with his dad. Tired and frustrated, he held up his lunchbox and slammed it on the ground. A few parents looked on disapprovingly. I caught the boy’s eye for a second and threw him a wink that said, “Yeah, me too.” After all, that was me 15 years ago.

As a child, I was a parent’s worst nightmare. I got on the wrong side of my teachers at nursery school, I shouted over everyone at dinner parties, and I even broke my parents’ bed frame (they slept on the floor for a year thereafter).

Predictably, I didn’t get on well when I started school. Being able to read placed me a step ahead of the other children, meaning that I wasn’t allowed to answer any questions in class. That was fine by me. I found plenty of tables to draw on, paper balls to throw, and other kids whose ears I could flick from behind. Every day I was sent out of the classroom for misbehaving.

My parents realized that I probably wasn’t being challenged enough by teachers droning on about things that didn’t interest me. It was at this point that formal education and I decided to take a break from each other.

The silver lining was that my older brother also withdrew from school. The two of us spent time at home engaging in endless activities. We had a blast and learned a great deal, too. Invariably, my brother’s maturity meant he could stick with things longer than I could. He patiently sat and learned new skills, like perspective drawing or dancing. I tested the durability of chess figurines in a self-devised chess-piece-versus-table-top competition.

It soon became clear that I was “different.” There was the time I broke a playmate’s leg during some overzealous play fighting; the afternoon I hit my brother over the head with a hammer playing “police vs. burglars”; and the unforgettable day my violin teacher refused to teach me anymore on the grounds that I was uncontrollable. So what was the solution — send me to my room? I would just empty all the bookshelves and bang on the walls. No, there had to be another way.

Eventually, Mum and Dad reached their wits’ end. Left with no other option, they stopped trying. I don’t mean they gave up on me. Loving parents don’t neglect their own child, no matter how irksome he is. Neglect and creative freedom, however, are different.

My parents, acting as teachers, stepped back and let me write my own syllabus. Of course, the syllabus changed daily: on Mondays, I read astronomy books and talked nonstop about quasars; on Tuesday mornings, I wrote poems or made clay pottery. The important thing was not what I was learning, but that I was learning. By allowing me to learn whatever I chose, my parents enabled me to motivate myself. This led me down lots of intellectual paths and allowed me to assimilate volumes of knowledge about certain subjects, just as anyone can when they are passionate about something.

Sure, I wasted time climbing trees while other kids were working hard at school, but I never wasted a second trying to learn something I had no interest in. When I did eventually go back to school, there were some pretty hefty knowledge gaps to fill in, but my mental faculty was so well practiced that it took hardly any time at all for me to catch up.

Nowadays, I have learned to harness the upside of my short attention span. I run around daily forgetting what it was that I was so keen on accomplishing the day before, and I never cease to find new pointless avenues to focus all of my attention on — for no other reason than the sheer joy of learning. I have planners and apps to help me keep track of things, so I have no intention of “squashing” my hyperactivity. It’s what helped me attain a first-class honors degree, and it has always been the greatest tool in my arsenal of employable skills. My racing mind enables me to solve problems efficiently and to multitask with ease.

Maybe I regret winking at the kid in the supermarket. Maybe I should have gone up to his dad and said, “It’s OK. He’s just not made to fit into that uniform. Not quite yet, anyhow.”

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