Unschooling My High School Son, ISFPs and 13 Reasons Why

It’s almost 10:30 AM, and I’ve been sitting at my desk since 7 AM. I know I should get up and walk around. If only I had one of those chairs that ejected me every hour or some flashing alarm that made me get up to turn it off. I have an Alexa; maybe I should check if she has some app I can download that will prompt me each hour.

I have to accomplish quite a bit today for my day job. I need to complete a couple of screens for a long time client, a software interface design project. Upload a couple of logos for a client’s tradeshow (done). Check in on the progress of the WordPress customization of another website my business partner (and husband) is working on. And create a project schedule for a new client’s eCommerce website. All doable.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. Why I’m writing this post is to get down on paper (computer screen) my thoughts on my decision to pull my oldest son out of 9th grade this week and unschool him.

About two weeks ago, I received several automated emails from my son’s high school warning me that he had an “F” in the subject and was in danger of failing. Three emails to be precise. Three “F’s” in three classes.

The best part for me was the automation aspect. The second best part was that they were sent after school on Friday, the last day of school before Spring Break. Yippee.

Something you might want to know about me. I’m a yeller. I yell. My mother yelled, and I yell. I don’t like that I yell. I hate it. I’m working on changing that. Something you should also know about me is that I’ve never yelled in the workplace. I save my yelling for my family. In the workplace, with my clients, with employees, I am professional. I breathe. But this time, as I sat at my desk Friday afternoon, staring at the emails popping up in the upper right corner of my laptop, I took a breath. Perhaps it was the initial shock. You see I thought we were passed this with my son. I thought I’d finally found a school where he fit. Where he could be successful. Where he would thrive. Obviously, I was wrong.

I don’t have a problem admitting I’m wrong. I don’t like to be wrong, but I’m okay with it. Really I am.

So. I spent the better part of the first weekend of Spring Break going over the assignments with my son. Digging through Google Classroom and trying to figure out exactly what had happened. It appeared that he hadn’t turned in any homework or classwork in these classes since January. This was mid-April. I work a lot. I do. I’m busy. And when I’m not officially working on my day job, I’m writing. I have completed countless drafts of a suspense novel I’m writing and am in the home stretch of finishing it. I am also taking a developmental editing class at UCLA (online). Yes. I’m busy. But not too busy that I don’t spend each Saturday with my son ensuring that he has the support he needs to be successful in high school.

But, he hadn’t been honest with me about his schoolwork. Even so, I think I was under the impression that this school would be different than the standard LAUSD overcrowded schools he’d been to in the past.

This school was a small independent charter. A brilliant school with a strong emphasis on the “individual.” Less than 400 students for high school.

My high school had over 500 kids per grade. As a small high school, I was surprised to receive automated emails announcing my son is failing. I understand automated emails for missing assignments like the ones I receive for my 5th graders, but not automated emails three and a half months into a semester telling me my child is failing in three classes. I was surprised that the teachers hadn’t emailed sooner. I was surprised that it was acceptable for my son to fail when they know that he understands the material. I knew that in order to bring up his grade he would need to not only complete all missing assignments for the past three months (over Spring Break or maybe by the end of April)  but also to stay up to date on his current assignments, and do extra credit work. If my son were more like me, this would be doable. But he isn’t like me, or he would never be in this predicament.

I’d been here before, back at the LAUSD middle school my son had attended for 6th grade and half of 7th grade. A middle school that had more than 2,000 students in three grades. A middle school that also sent automated emails. A middle school that referred to my son by a number rather than a name. A middle school where they believed in tough love, where they taught the “life is tough and filled with a lot of disappointment and only the popular kids get noticed” lesson and “the sooner you learn it, the better.” A middle school where my son cracked his front tooth the first week of school, so badly he will need a veneer in a few more years. He fell while running across campus to get from PE to his class on time. My son will do anything not to walk into class late. Anything to avoid people staring at him. And no, he’s not on the spectrum (tested for that). No he’s not ADD. No he’s not ADHD. Like many children with my son’s personality type (and twice exceptional – meaning learning difference and highly gifted), they are often misdiagnosed as having ADD or ADHD when they don’t.

My first response for all this missing work was to put the onus on my son because I had been trying to shift the responsibility to him since 7th grade. His work. His grades. His future. Of course, I took his phone, his laptop, his freedom and told him that Spring Break would be spent doing all the assignments he chose not to do for the past three months.

I always start out strong. Then, as I see his spirit sinking, his smile disappearing, his lighthearted, in-the-moment joy vanishing, I usually cave.

I begin to question myself, my motives, and the paradigm of the entire educational system we force onto our children. He completed many assignments over break—at least ten worksheets in math, five in Biology, and a couple in Poetry—but it was a struggle.

On Monday, his first week back at school, most of his teachers responded to my concerns. And, like always, they explained that he could catch up. Just as I thought, he would have to turn in all missing assignments, keep up with current work and do extra credit. But, over break my son and I had some long talks that led me to be concerned for his well-being (more on that later). So, I picked him up each day from school (my husband usually does it), and listened to him. And, I began to question why I continue to fight against the current. Why I continue to do the same thing and expect different results? I know I’m not insane, but this whole predicament felt insane.

Every semester since 4th grade, it’s been a fight to keep his grades above passing. Even though his report cards always end up with A’s and B’s and maybe one C. Even though every semester each teacher writes how sweet he is. How his smile lights up the room. How caring and gentle and loving he is. How he’s a joy to have in class. Even though every semester teachers always let him make up all the work, I know the hell we had to go through at home. The hell he had to go through to get those grades back up before report card time. I know the stress it caused for our entire family. He does too.

Lately, he had become especially conscious of the stress he causes, to the point where he said to me, “Maybe it would be easier if I wasn’t here.”

That was the moment I sat up. That was the moment I got up from my desk. That was the moment I told my son that life wouldn’t be easier if he weren’t here. That life would be over if he weren’t here.

And, he looked at me bewildered and said “What do you mean? It would be easier without me, and you’d have more time for the twins.”

That was when I told him his siblings would no longer have a mother because I would be done parenting. That he meant the world to me, and I would be done parenting if he wasn’t here.

We’d all watched “13 Reasons Why” a few weeks before this conversation. The show everyone is talking about, at least in Los Angeles. I’m not sure if that started him thinking about it. I’m not sure.

But I’m thankful for “13 Reasons Why” for one thing. It made me ask my son the question, “Have you ever thought about suicide?” He paused, but then he said yes.

It made me wake up. I mean we all think about it a time or two, but this was different. Different because he had said, “that our life would be easier without him.” This was the moment that I was done with school. Not done like that last time I wrote about our predicament in 7th grade when I signed him for an online school. This time I was truly done with any traditional school curriculum. We’d reached critical mass, as we’d read in Biology.

On Tuesday morning, yesterday, I emailed the administrators and told them I was withdrawing him from the school. Over the weekend, I’d found a wonderful private school satellite program (PSP) that would allow me to homeschool legally in the state of California, immediately. I picked him up from school that day, and I asked him if he would be okay with that. If he would be okay with leaving school now. Not finishing the school year. He thought about it. Longer than I thought he would considering all his missing work. He thought about his team in Poetry and how that would impact them if he weren’t there. He asked me how he could learn the rest of Geometry. I explained there are plenty of options for math if that’s what he wanted to do. He asked me a few more questions. And then he said yes to homeschooling.

Yesterday, his first day at home, he swam in our pool and explained to me how lung capacity worked and the steps he’d taken to be able to swim two lengths of the pool underwater without taking a breath.

He captured spiders and put them in various jars and filmed and photographed them for his Instagram @creepycrawlypics. He rode his scooter for awhile and then swam again. Last night, he edited the film he’d made of two spiders fighting. Then, he listened to music and played drums. And at the end of the day, he was smiling. A bigger smile than I’ve seen in a long time. He wanted a hug before bed, something he hadn’t come to me for in a long time. And, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the decision I made yesterday is the right decision for him.

I’m glad I did my research this weekend. I’m thrilled I found Penelope Trunk‘s website. I wish I had known earlier that he is an ISFP type in the Myers-Briggs personality testing. As an ENFP Mom, I should have responded sooner. (I’ll talk about personality types and why it’s so important  in a later post.)

Everything just clicked yesterday, and no matter what anyone says to me, no matter how many people ask me “How is he going to learn?” or “How is he going to get into college?” or “Aren’t you going to put him in an online curriculum?” I know that unschooling is the right choice for my son.

Yes, like Penelope Trunk I will still work full time. And, I will probably spend less time helping him now than I did—trying to monitor if he was doing his schoolwork, with all the checking online to see if he was turning it in, and spending countless hours helping him make up missed work before report card time. I know for certain that he will have less screen time, and spend more time outdoors, where he is the happiest.

All in all, it’s been a great week so far, and it’s only Wednesday. I really will miss some of the teachers at his old school, especially his poetry and English teacher, but he needs to beat to his own drum, literally.

I’ll leave you with a poem my son wrote in his poetry class last week.

Letter to someone at my high school

I’m guessing that right now you think it’s going to end.
That nothing will ever be better.
But you’re wrong
things will get better.
Life is an amazing thing
full of ups and downs.
Some people will make you sink through the ground, and
some people will bring you up to the sky
like a door that goes both ways.
Life is an amazing thing,
a roller coaster of emotions that has unexpected drops.
Life is an amazing thing
that will always push you down.
But your job
is to get back up.



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