For some reason, no one in my family ever seems to do anything the conventional way. I’m sure it’s not intentional; it’s just how things keep turning out. My education was no different. I’ve been to public school and private school, was homeschooled, studied at a little Christian college for my undergraduate degree and at a large secular college for my postgraduate degree. For this bookish little eternal student, it’s been an exciting journey.
I don’t remember much of my earliest school days. Mostly, it’s just a collection of random memories which have little to do with books or learning and more to do with the things that five and seven and ten-year-old minds find significant. For kindergarten and first grade, I went to a public school in the small town where I spent most of my childhood years. I assume it was fun because I remember always liking school, and I did okay in my yearly reports. Though their faces are a blur, I still remember the names of my teachers there. I also remember the shame and embarrassment of realizing I wasn’t as brilliant as I thought I was. When the teacher asked the class what color water was, I listened serenely and patiently while one child after another yelled out, “Blue!” When the answers stopped flying, I offered my superior piece of information: “It’s white.” Then I sat back and waited for the teacher to beam on me. Of course, she didn’t and I was mortified. I guess I was kind of a perfectionist – or maybe just an obnoxious gap-toothed five-year-old, jostling for position as teacher’s pet?
From grades two to six, I attended a small Christian school which began with just twenty-five students and one teacher fresh out of college, responsible for all seven grades. After lunch, from kindergarteners to grade sixers, we had nap time, and I don’t blame that teacher one bit. Although the school eventually grew much larger, it still had that small-school flavour and I had fun at this place where every student basically knew every other student. I enjoyed the classes – English and writing most of all – and I hung out in the library so much that the librarian eventually gave me a job proofreading the new junior fiction books for age-appropriateness and quality of content.
Although social in the friend groups I knew, I was something of an introvert and most definitely a ‘young’ twelve-year-old. When it came time to consider high school (which starts with seventh grade in New South Wales), my parents balked at the thought of sending me to the 1600-student-strong public high school in our town. It was renowned for its sketchiness and its drug problems. The original intent was to send me to a Christian high school locally, but when the school failed to get off the ground, my parents were left scratching their heads. Someone mentioned homeschooling, and although initially my mother ran, horrified, from such a hippie idea, God eventually changed her mind.
I started homeschooling on the first day of seventh grade. I’d loved school, but I loved homeschooling even more. It was all the best bits of school, amplified. Homeschooling took everything I’d loved about
school and combined it with boundless opportunities and a personalized focus. My mother wrote a program, inspired in part by the one my teenage mentor studied. It consisted of all the core ingredients of a well-rounded, slightly classical education, but the components were customization and adaptable. Recognizing my hatred of math, my mother hunted out a consumer mathematics program which made algebra and equations actually relevant to real life stuff. It didn’t make me immediately enamored of math, but I did finally recognize a use for the whole ridiculous business.
During the homeschool years, I could get into work early and have it all done by lunchtime. There was space in the schedule for art and sewing. I spent my spare hours making ridiculously niche zines before zines were actually a thing. I took music lessons. Then I taught music lessons. I learnt how to cook meals and clean out a fridge, and make phone calls – which at times felt like the bane of my existence.
The whole friend issue – everyone’s favourite homeschooling concern – was irrelevant. I had friends whom I saw on a regular basis, and just a few months after I started homeschooling, one of my former classmates also began schooling at home. And though I’d privately thought of him as kind of a show-off when we were in school, I discovered that he was actually a very funny guy. We became firm friends and had regular craft afternoons (which he’d be delighted to know I’m broadcasting to the internet) as well as study sessions at the library. These studious hours mostly consisted of him goofing off and me completing our proposed group assignment on my own while alternating between laughter and frowns. When his younger brothers started homeschooling, the fun just compounded. We had regular Tuesday afternoon hangouts, and when my younger sisters and brother got home from school, the seven of us generally ended up in the pool. There we’d stay until we were prunes in the hope that our parents wouldn’t notice the passing of time; we’d all have to have dinner together and the weekly party could continue on uninterrupted.
It’s hard to narrow down my highschool-at-home experience to just a few key realisations, because there were many great things about it. But if I had to stick a pin in it somewhere, I’d stab it onto the point where it says I learnt to be myself – or at least went part of the way to it. Now I understand that this is a dreadful thing to say. It’s so schmaltzy. It reeks of platitude and even self-serving. But let me explain. I don’t mean that I found satisfaction in finding myself, or in boldly “just being me”, regardless of the cost or the rightness of that. What I mean is that homeschooling narrowed my focus while broadening my horizons. Free from a lot of the usual messy teen distractions, I got to spend time knowing people I’d never normally have met. I learnt to hang out with and enjoy my family. I could soak in God’s Word and start to formulate what I actually believed, instead of regurgitating Christianese with no understanding of it. These years did not make me perfect; I was pompous and self-righteous and I definitely saw the world in black and white. But life is a continuous sanctifying process and so there’s always something new to learn. And right there in my teen years I had the freedom to work out what I cared about and what I wanted to spend my life doing. I’m certain I would not be writing today if I had not had this rich season of learning to know myself, of working out what I believe and what I love.Homeschooling helped me break free of the restrictive confines of peer-only relationships, and this only got better when my three younger siblings started homeschooling, too. It was about that time that my dad gave himself over to the insatiable gypsy spirit which had somehow been tamped down in him until then. So, while we travelled about Australia, I actually got to know my siblings. Rather than our usual tactic, which was something along the lines of “Go away; I’m playing with my friend,” we actually became
great pals with one another. I have memories of epic Monopoly tournaments that lasted for days, and of setting up sprawling Lego townships with amazing buildings that defied gravity but never our imagination. And no, fourteen is not too old to play with Legos, thank you very much.
I didn’t actually graduate high school. I just kind of slipped from study into work. The evolution was natural and pretty cool, totally devoid of the whole HSC/SAT terror which would have weighed down an overthinky seventeen-year-old like me. Thanks to the adaptability of homeschooling, I already had work lined up post-school, work that I loved – teaching music and running a café and quilt store with my family – and I lived in a small rural town where college was not the only logical step following high school. I couldn’t see a reason for going “just because”, and so I somewhat breezily told people that if I ever wanted to begin tertiary study, I could do so as a mature age student further down the track. I still think it’s close to ridiculous that seventeen-year-olds are expected to pursue a further three or four years of study whether they know what they want to do with their life or not. Seventeen is really young to pigeonhole yourself forever. And maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I honestly believe that most seventeen-year-olds aren’t grown up – and perhaps the college party scene (and the amount of kids who have degrees they don’t care about) might prove evidential in this argument.
Apart from the all-encompassing nature of full-time study, and the hideous anxiety-laden, soul-wracking end-of-semester frenzies when absolutely everything is due all at once, I loved studying at the tertiary level. I loved it so much that I am actually apt to forget about the all-encompassing, soul-wracking part of it. I loved the variety that a Bachelor of Arts afforded; because my school was actually a Bible college, the core Humanities units covered topics like theology, philosophy, ethics, and church history. With a major in creative writing and a minor in history, I was in happy delirium. The professors, from a diversity of church backgrounds (and organisational skills!) were lovely and creative and gracious, and I appreciated the more personal interaction which was a happy result of the smaller class size. Their communication opened up other avenues of opportunity, and I had the chance to see some work published as a direct result of their guidance and my communication with other students.Fast forward ten years, and my little catch-all answer for the university question came true. I was in a strange place of endings all being tied up and was sniffing out direction for the coming year. I had applied for some jobs that would’ve been super ideal except for the fact that, you know, I didn’t get them, and then I quite randomly stumbled across an ad in the most-recently arrived issue of Writing Queensland. The ad was promoting a Creative Writing BA available externally through a tiny little non-denominational college which had fairly recently branched out from theology and ministry to encompass a humanities department, too. It’s so often the way God seems to show me things: by dropping something perfect in my lap when I’ve exhausted all my other options.
It’s interesting to try and pinpoint just exactly what that degree gave me. I know right now it’s not really the piece of paper or the letters I can put on my resume. Rather, studying helped me grow in confidence about sharing my work. Getting feedback on my papers, with constructive criticism as well as bolstering praise, was affirming and helpful. I loved realising that, when push comes to shove, it’s possible to write about anything, and in so doing, to form an opinion about it. I got to read books I might normally have never found for myself. I liked having the reminder that inspiration doesn’t fly in on deadline; rather, sometimes you just have to apply seat of pants to chair and squeeze the words from your fingertips. Following that came the lightbulb realisation that the words produced in a delirium of inspiration are not necessarily better than the words wrung out with a great wrenching effort from underneath the looming grey cloud of a deadline. Sometimes, writing is just plain hard work, but the work that looks most effortless generally is quite the opposite.
People often asked what I was going to do when I finished my degree, because so often college is presented as the open gate leading to the dream job. But my dream job is to write good novels for young people, and there is no open gate leading to that one. There is simply hours and hours of word extraction, and sometimes the novel dream comes true, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know the statistics, but it’s probably something dreadfully disheartening – like, for every single novelist who gets a book published, there are five-hundred-and-seventy-eight others sitting at home ticking out words on their laptop. It would be depressing – and sometimes it is – except that writers are probably all a little bit mad, and even such ridiculous odds don’t scare them off the writing (at least, not forever).
So I did not study so that the dream job would be handed to me on a platter once I earned my degree. I studied because I wanted to learn more about this whole business of writing and, through that, hone my feeble appropriation of it. God opened the right doors at the right time and it just all came together into one of the mentally busiest three and a half years of my life.
Unfortunately, though, I was infected with a disease that may never leave me, and I’m back for more. I’m currently one semester into my Master of Arts through a big secular university. This time around, though, I’m studying part-time so that I can fit in work as well. It feels like a much more balanced way to study, but it has its challenges, too. It’s hard to fit in the study amidst family life, music students, English teaching, church life, and involvement in my little local writing community. Regardless, I’m still loving it, and I look forward to the fun (and frantic deadlines) of the work ahead.
So there you have it – a peek into the formalised part of my education; or maybe, rather, an extended gaze.
It’s been a varied and fun journey so far, and it’s one that I’m sure won’t stop when my postgrad degree is finished. None of us begin our education when we launch into the first grade of school, and we don’t stop learning once we take our final class. I hope to keep learning for the rest of my life, whether under university lecturers, the excellent people I know, or via the words of wonderful people I could never meet who have set down their thoughts for me and thousands of others to take in, relish, and learn from. In whatever stage of education I’ve been in, books have been among my greatest teachers.
I suppose it makes sense, then, that if I were to give any advice at all about education, it would be to make friends with books. Whether you are aiming for a PhD or hope to get your tenth grade certificate, you can be a learned, well-educated person if you read books and talk to people. Borrow books from friends. Hang out at your local library. Join up and take home more books than you could possibly read. Some will capture your imagination; others you will be unable to finish. That’s okay; you don’t have to finish them. Challenge yourself to read books by authors you are unfamiliar with. Read books outside your suggested age range. Read books written hundreds of years ago, and read books published this year. Talk to people about what they are reading. Consider why a book captivated you, or why it didn’t. Articulate your thoughts in writing. Read books from both sides of an argument. If you only read fiction, challenge yourself to read non-fiction – or if the opposite is true, you know what to do. One caution: don’t make books your god, nor education your idol. Education is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is beneficial if it helps us fulfil our calling, love others more, and serve God with our minds and our lives. Love learning, but leave room in your life to live.
So read books and love people. People are life, and books are life set down in words.