One of the best aspects of home education for me is the fact that we give our children, and ourselves, the message that today matters. Mainstream education is set up as a structured journey of ‘progression’ starting in reception and ending with (hopefully) a sheaf of exam passes. Once the journey is over the child is said to have been ‘prepared for life’. The sadness of this, of course, is that every day we wake is a day of our lives. Even in the world of home education there is a school of thought that children must learn that they have to ‘work’ (i.e. do something they don’t want to do at that moment) to prepare them for life. I first questioned the idea of education as preparation for life when my sister died - when I was fourteen.
I returned to school just as everyone was preparing for the end of year exams. In my rigidly streamed comprehensive school ‘we’ were the elite – the kids being pushed to acquire the fist full of O levels. At the end of every year of senior school we sat exams that were used to measure whether or not we were in the ‘right’ stream – and later to set us for exam classes. I remember sitting in the classroom as teacher after teacher lectured the class about the importance of the approaching exams, about how they could determine so much. I felt that my experiences, as my sister lay dying in intensive care, had stripped away all the pretence of life and left me staring at a new reality. As the teachers lectured on so I sat muttering to myself, ‘Doesn’t bloody matter. None of it bloody matters.’ I felt that everything I was told was important was clearly not so. My sister had got the O levels, A levels and gone off to university and there she had died – a random moment, a split second, her skull on the kerbstone and then nothing more.
I was suddenly aware that nothing about my future could be predicted - that the only thing I could count on was that I was here today. I never really cared about an exam again. I went on and sat them all, but they meant very little to me. The whole notion that I had to follow some path of ‘hard work’ to my adult life was shattered – I made conscious choices to prioritise the present. Once the heavy fog of grief lifted I realised that I had the present, no matter how much it hurt. I skipped classes to spend hours in bed with my first girlfriend, I stayed up all night talking with friends, I watched TV programmes that made me smile instead of writing essays on Yeats, who didn’t. I made choices that kept me sane and optimistic, that helped me build a notion of who I was, but that didn’t maximise my chances of good grades. I know that teachers were disappointed with my A level grades but I didn’t regret the choices I’d made then – and I’ve never regretted them since.
Of course, life sometimes involves planning and looking to the future, but I have tried all my adult life not to let the future get in the way of today. All we can really know, as parents, is that our children are here in the world today. We can’t know what tomorrow will bring them. Sometimes we do have to wait for good things to come to us – children have to learn that. Sometimes we do have to work towards something that we will enjoy when it’s finished. But I refuse to accept a today that is boring, or unfulfilling, or brings me no joy, for the promise of something in the future. I believe that my children deserve no less. If they are pressured into doing things that mean nothing to them, for the sake of future ‘success’ then they are being pushed to stake their life today against some possible future that no-one can guarantee. I believe this is a foolish gamble for anyone to take.
One day, I deeply hope, our children will be adults. In our culture we are schooled to believe that children have ‘potential’ which will be realised or wasted. We set up structures to measure how well this ‘potential’ has been realised. But who am I to make such a judgement of my children? Who is anyone? Only we, ourselves, can know if we are happy or fulfilled in the way we are living our lives. That ability is undermined by a culture that teaches us to look to the yard stick, to others to measure us – and to slog and strive for a life after the page of sums is all done, after the course, after the exams, after the mortgage, once we retire…
Our children are here, today. Today I can hear them laugh, shriek, bicker – live. I can let them know that this day is their day, my day, our day – a sunrise and sunset. We have so much that is here in this moment. I don’t know what will happen in the future. But I love it that we can live without the pretence that a happy tomorrow is bought with a lousy today.