Education · Poetry

I Was an Unschooled Kid Who Attended School—Comment on Mary’s Previous Post: “Why Do So Many Kids Suffer from ADHD?”

Kansas City’s first supermarket, the A&P, 1940


From the time of first grade (which I passed “with reservation”) I was in internal exile.  I didn’t act up; I looked okay, but like the kids who couldn’t sit still, I felt like I was in prison.

What saved me was Kansas City’s first supermarket. It was an A&P, which  opened in the summer of 1940. I was nine years old.

Once a week, when my mother drove to this store to shop, she dropped my little sister and me off at the public library, expecting the librarians to act as de facto baby sitters. She sat us down in the children’s section and told us to stay put until she returned. But as soon as she left, I sneaked over to the adult side and began to explore.

The next week, I slipped a  couple of inappropriate adult books in among the appropriate children’s books I checked out. (In those days, “adult” books were not pornographic.) The librarian didn’t notice—or didn’t care. Mother didn’t notice. (If she had, she would have cared. She liked for me to exhibit age-appropriate behavior.) As a result I began reading a lot of inappropriate but interesting books. I didn’t understand everything in them, of course, but I didn’t have to because I wasn’t being tested on what I read by some supercilious know-it-all.

I ranged through those books like a dog sniffing for something interesting in the woods. I remember a few wonderful passages in Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, especially the fight on the causeway.

From then on, I was a regular reader of adult literature. You might say I was an “unschooled” child who attended school.

The following poem from Flying Backwards, just released by our publishing company, pretty much sums it up.


First, I’d hide behind the couch.

Then later on, I’d crouch

inside the tunnels the spirea made,

or drape myself on branches overhead.

or crawl out of the window by my bed

and lie upon the roof. From there I could

spy unseen upon the neighborhood

I’d hunt the messages I’d left

inside of hollow trees in vacant lots—

the treasures, underneath my favorite rocks.

And then there were the hours that I spent

inside a book,

wandering through “fresh woods and pastures new,”

where no one ever thought to look.

For more poems from Flying Backwards:


Why Do So Many Kids Suffer From ADHD?

Hints and Echoes has a new format—and a new focus. For five years, I’ve been blogging here about anything and everything from driverless cars to Wordsworth’s poetry. Over those years, a number of readers have become loyal followers and other readers have found the blog on occasion though various search engines. Thanks to you all for your interest!

Now Herb has joined me as co-author of the blog. This is not the first time we have collaborated on a writing project. We have written two books together: One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children and Red, White and Blue Paradise, a memoir of our years spent teaching in the Panama Canal Zone. And now we are going to take turns writing about the books in our life: books we’re reading , books we’ve read and books we’ve written. We hope you’ll stick around, read what we write, and join in the conversation. Your comments are always welcome.  — Mary                                                                           


Too many children are desperately unhappy because they cannot benefit from their schooling. They can’t focus; they can’t sit still; they are a teacher’s worst nightmare. These kids, usually boys, are typically diagnosed with Attention Defective Hyperactivity Disorder and are given drugs to control their disruptive behavior—drugs that often turn them into zombies.

Peter Gray, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Boston College, author of Free to Learn, suggests that our deeply embedded conviction about the way children learn is a major contributing factor to the problem. Children, according to Gray, are biologically programed to learn through free play. But the lesson they learn from school is that “learning is work, to be avoided whenever possible.”

But we adults believe that play is really something of a waste of time. While we might agree that children need a physical release in the form of recess, we are certain that learning is something that depends upon adults directly transmitting knowledge to children. We set the goals, provide the incentives, direct the activities, and hand out rewards to children when they learn what we want them to.

In order to improve our schools, therefore, we have, over the last sixty years or so, steadily lengthened the school day, decreased the time children are allowed to participate in unstructured play, made more academic and complicated demands on them, assigned more homework, and subjected them to an unreasonable amount of testing that judges them on information far removed from their interests or what they need to know. In short, they are oppressed by our educational system. And some of them simply cannot cope.

It’s hard to believe that children can learn to read, for instance, or understand mathematics on their own. Yet they can if allowed the freedom to explore their interests and to play without interference across age groups. Gray cites a convincing body of research to prove the point

When you consider that even many compliant children who have adapted to the demands of coercive education are frequently bored, fearful, stressed out, and cannot wait until summer, you have to wonder: do we really have to make our children unhappy in the name of education?

Of course most families who rely on two incomes can’t take their kids out of school even if they wanted to teach them at home, and honestly most of us don’t want to. That much “togetherness” would strain some families beyond endurance. And for most of us it is simply a bridge too far to give up the idea of offering some kind of adult direction. Even those who have chosen to homeschool usually follow some sort of curriculum with a parent playing the role of teacher. I say “usually” because there are families where children are actually in total charge of their own learning with the parent simply providing a rich environment where learning can take place. They are participants in what is known as the “unschool movement.”

Today one in four first-year college students has to enroll in a remedial class, according to a recent study by Educational Reform Now, a think tank. And since 2013 when Free to Learn was published, we have seen the emergence of a bizarre cohort of college students who are seriously arrested in their social development. Unable to tolerate any opinions contrary to their own, they insist on “safe spaces” and want to deny the right of free speech to everyone but themselves.

Gray maintains that it is through free play without adult interference that children learn to take turns, respect the rights of others, hear each other out, and compromise for the greater good. Our experience bears this out. When Herb and I did research for our book on children’s folklore, we were astonished to see how the traditional rhymes, games, and customs—the folklore of children that had been passed down through generations—has a very serious purpose. It facilitates the mastering of these important developmental tasks. We would expect young people to have learned these lessons by the time they reach college. Obviously many of them haven’t, and we have to ask ourselves why.

Free to Learn is an important book because it encourages us to take a fresh look at  what we are demanding of our children. If you’re up to having your most basic beliefs about education challenged, take a look at it. Fair warning: it may just break your heart.

Here is Peter Gray in a 15 minute TED talk about the decline of play.