Better Than School by Nancy Wallace (Larson Publications, 1983)
Child's Work: Taking Children's Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace (Holt Associates, 1990)
These stories of the education of Ishmael and Vita Wallace have been high on my list of favorite books since our own homeschooling days. Recently I re-read them both, confirming my suspicions that the Wallaces—flying by the seat of their pants in an era when homeschooling was almost unheard of, and often illegal—discovered many of the principles now refined in Project-Based Homeschooling.
The last time I read about the Wallaces' struggles with onerous regulations and imperious school boards, I noted how blessedly out of date it was, for although there are still those in the United States who would make homeschooling illegal again if they could, for the most part homeschoolers here can rest in the knowledge that the right to direct the education of our own children is recognized in all fifty states. This time, however, I read those parts of the books with renewed interest, since Switzerland, while much more advanced than the U.S. in some areas, is woefully behind us in this. Some of the Wallaces' experiences and arguments may turn out to be relevant, or at least to give inspiration.
Don't you just hate it when you read an inspiring story from the past and have no idea what happened to the characters in subsequent years? With Vita and Ishmael, at least, that question can be answered by visiting their Orpheo Duo website.
Here are a few, somewhat random, quotations. You really need to read the books to get a good sense of the story, however.
Walking into the meeting knowing that we had a majority [of the school board] on our side was a lot better than not knowing what to expect, but I guess I really wanted more than that. I wanted the whole board to admit that we were doing a terrific job with our kids and to be interested in our approach to education. After all, there was a lot the public schools could have learned from us. What disturbed me the most was that not only were two of the board members completely uninterested in what we were doing but they seemed to want the kids to go to school no matter what. When I wrote about this to John Holt, he responded with some very insightful remarks that I'll never forget. "One of the saddest things I've learned in my life," he said, "one of the things I least wanted to believe and resisted believing for as long as I could, was that people in chains don't want to get them off, but want to get them on everyone else. 'Where are your chains?' they want to know. 'How come you're not wearing chains? Do you think you are too good to wear them? What makes you think you're so special?'" (BTS, 114-115)
It always puts me on edge when people talk about Ishmael as being "gifted." I get even more uptight when they politely inquire whether Vita is "the same" as her brother. No, Vita isn't the same. Her personality is quite different and so are her interests and ways of learning. But most important, neither child is an aberration—a creature born from a normal set of parents but with an extra set of wrinkles on its brain.
True, even I am struck when I see Vita, who is five, happily typing away at a story on the living room floor, or hear Ishmael, at age nine, alluding to Hamlet or Macbeth; but at the same time I know that Bob and I had a lot to do with the way the kids are—they weren't born that way. ... Now if Ishmael had become a math whiz while growing up in this house, which was almost barren of numbers before we took him out of school, I'd seriously begin thinking about "giftedness" or brain wrinkles, but that never happened. Instead, we are raising two normal kids who happen to enjoy reading and writing. (BTS, 135-136)
Neither Ishmael nor Vita slept through the night until they were about three or four years old. Not only did they liven up around midnight, but they always insisted on company. ... Finally, we managed to hit upon a fairly satisfactory compromise. Ishmael first, and later Vita, would sit in bed and listen as Bob and I took turns reading to them. We read thick books with few pictures in the hopes of boring them to sleep. ... The big trouble, though, was that the kids didn't bore easily. Often we had to read for hours at a stretch—but at least Bob and I insisted on reading the books that we liked. (BTS, 136)
It was a really scary thing to face up to the fact that we might risk being labeled criminals or child abusers by moving casually into a state which might, for all we knew, prohibit homeschooling or have such stringent regulations that we couldn't possibly meet them. As I anxiously researched New York State's education laws and court precedents, I had visions of Peter and Brigitta Van Daam, home-schoolers in Rhode Island. Thanks to the TV screen at a neighbor's house, I had watched them bravely waving good-bye to their children as a policeman drove them off to jail for failing to comply with the state's compulsory attendance law. I thought, too, of the Sessions family in Iowa, in and out of court for years while fighting to keep their boys out of school, and of John Singer, the father of seven children in Utah, whose battle with school authorities ended tragically when he was shot to death in a battle with some sheriff's deputies. (BTS, 238)
[A]s musicians usually judge the talent of young beginners, these children were not at the start unusually talented. I know some of the tests by which musicians try (to no useful purpose) to measure and judge musical talent in young children, and by these tests and measures I don't think either of the Wallace children would have been called more than average. They have gone as far as they have not because they began with unusual talents but because they have the good luck to have parents who love and make music, because their mother is herself a very sensitive, understanding, patient, and skillful teacher, because they have been much encouraged without being in the least pressured, and because—since they don't go to school—they have time to work on music as much as they like. (BTS, Introduction by John Holt)
Vita and Ishmael are impressively competent at their chosen work, so much so that some readers may think this is a story about prodigies and consider it irrelevant to their own children or children they know. Child's Work is, indeed, about Vita's and Ishmael's skill at music, composition, art, and writing. Yet if this were all that Nancy had to tell, the book would not be as useful as it in fact is. For Nancy, the most interesting question about Vita and Ishmael is not, "What can they do?" but "Why have they been able to do so much; what conditions have allowed them to flourish?" If we think of Vita and Ishmael as prodigies, we avoid having to think about what helped them become as competent as they are. What if all children had the time to experiment, to pursue their own work, to draw on the resources around them? Might we then discover that children's capacities, and their ability to find work they love and pursue it wholeheartedly, are greater than we ever dreamed? (CW, Forward by Susannah Sheffer)
When we first took Ishmael out of school nobody had yet had enough experience to tell us what was "normal," what was possible. In the beginning, at least, we had to discover it all for ourselves. Eventually, what came to seem to us the most normal was, in fact, our biggest discovery, and one that in many ways led to all the possibilities that homeschooling has since opened up for us. It was this: that when Vita and Ishmael are busy, they are simply busy. Despite the ways and attitudes of the rest of the world, they refuse to see a distinction between schoolwork and everything else they do. They are genuinely baffled when people ask, "But what do you do just for fun?" as if to imply that doing anything of real value and importance couldn't by definition be classified as giving light-hearted pleasure, and that after a hard day's work, we all need a change. "But why?" I see Vita and Ishmael wonder.
Once, when a reporter came to interview Ishmael, he was so amazed by Ishmael's bemused attitude that he said, "Oh, come on now, isn't there anything you have to do that you don't like?"
Ishmael thought and thought, his chin resting in the cup of his hand. Finally, to save time, and almost certainly because I was feeling desperate to appear at least somewhat conventional, I said, "Well, you don't really like math that much, do you, Ishmael?"
"Yes, I do," he said. "Algebra is really beautiful—at least when it works."
"What about taking out the trash, then," the reporter persisted.
"Well," Ishmael said thoughtfully, "I haven't done much of that. I'll have to try it." (CW, 5-6)
"Always do your own work. Never copy other people's." This lesson haunts most of us throughout our school years. It is one that, until Vita and Ishmael managed to teach me otherwise, I accepted without question. Yet now it seems to be one of the major misconceptions about learning that the schools perpetuate.
When we take it for granted that there is a clear distinction between knowing and not knowing ("Vita can't yet read"), we tend to become so sure of "right" answers that we don't realize the importance of allowing children to discover for themselves what is right and to develop their own solutions and their own methods for arriving at those solutions. Out of impatience with our children's tentativeness, as John [Holt] puts it, and a suspicion of their chosen methods, we all too often threaten their ability as scientists and separate them from their own curiosity. Once humiliated by my second grade teacher, I lost all sense of the meaning of multiplication. It took me years to rediscover it. (CW, 54)
As writers ... Vita and Ishmael used us the way Bob and I use each other, as colleagues rather than simply as teachers. Vita didn't want unasked-for help with spelling, but she certainly wanted help with style and clarity, even at four or five. (CW, 61)
I remember John Holt on one of his visits to us, pacing the kitchen floor and saying with some agitation, "Some people just don't understand! Tennis would be no fun at all if we simply hit the ball whenever we liked. It's the court, the net, and even the rules of scoring that make the game worth playing at all." As if inspired by the very limitations ... that [literary] forms establish, Vita and Ishmael have always experimented in their own writing with different literary styles, imitating (or more accurately, intuiting the rules of) the grammatical structures that the specific form demands. (CW, 63-64)
John Holt wrote, "We do not ask or expect a child to invent the wheel starting from scratch. He doesn't have to. The wheel has been invented. It is out there, in front of him. ... A child does not need to be told what wheels are and what they are for in order to know. He can figure that out for himself, in his own way, in his own good time. ... The whole culture is out there. What I urge is that a child be free to explore and make sense of that culture in his own way." (CW, 96)
[S]o often our expectations lead to disappointment and sorrow. Yet if we were absolutely detached from the world—even if we had no sorrows—that would be terrible. I'm convinced that we were born into the world in order to live in it and be attached to it, and if attachment to other people and things gives us sorrow, all that means is that happiness is not the absolutely most important thing in life. (CW, 96; Ishmael Wallace, age 14)