When Denver Parent Magazine asked me to write a piece comparing childhood education I was all in because my four kids, when it comes to education, are seriously well rounded. They’ve been home schooled and have attended private, public and charter schools. You might wonder why all these different systems, since that certainly blows up consistency. It’s partly because my husband’s job moved us around, but most of the reason can be found in the story of my son Jared who, in fifth grade, sobbed the whole drive to school every single day. I remember buckling him and his older brother into the back seat of our white Dodge Caravan. I remember seeing his tears flowing down his cheeks in the rear-view mirror. I remember him not being able to tell me why school made him cry. I remember my heart breaking and feeling helpless. It was a good private school with a great reputation, the best. But, the tears? No. Just no.

Let me back up for a second. Before that year Jared had been homeschooled. It was only because my husband wanted to do it that way. When Sam first suggested homeschooling I had a simple answer, “No, no, no, no, no. No way.”  But Sam was handsome and persuasive and we lived in Mississippi where education was something like 48th on the charts. I told him I’d give it a try and we’d see. In the end I loved it; the kids were so much fun and I got to know new things about them. Like, my oldest son Jesse could memorize every fact under the sun with great and impossible ease. His brother, Jared, could take any puzzle or really complicated problem and solve it in astoundingly new ways. Jesse was the accountant, Jared was the artist. Their fifth and sixth grade years I sent them to school only because they needed it, but not because I wanted them to go.

We chose the best school around. It was in a neighboring town which meant a 35-minute commute one way, but we did it because it was worth it. The teachers were caring, the curriculum was good, and the test scores were great. At first all was well, but gradually Jared became unhappy and eventually, as I’ve already told you, he cried every single day on the way to school. His heart was breaking and mine was too. Of course, that would never do. Sam and I met with the administrator and the teachers and found that Jared, with his artist’s soul, just wasn’t fitting into the strict, rule-oriented, concrete-thinking, fact-memorizing, black-and-white culture of the school. They didn’t understand him at all and there were some tiny problems. Why, they wondered, did he show a girl his nipple?

“Did you ask him?”

No. They had not.

We did ask and he said “She was drawing me in a swimming pool and I was in swim shorts. She drew my nipples wrong. I was showing her what they look like.”  Sounds plausible for an artist. They didn’t understand why his art was “so dark” and as evidence, showed us a black and white pencil sketch of Jesus’s face with thorns on his head and blood flowing down. Jesus, whose eyes locked you with a gaze that made you shiver and glance away, looked miserable. It was quite gripping and it WAS dark, as most crucifixions are, and in that Christian school they should’ve known that. There were other things that showed us they thought Jared was weird. He knew it; he felt it in his little heart. We brought him home for the rest of the year.

The next year we had moved to Denver. Jared was 11 going on 12 and in another private school with a similar mentality. I should have learned the lesson the first time. He didn’t cry that year but he thought it was stupid that he couldn’t wear pockets sewn on the outside of his pants, or have his hair below his ears, or all the other nit-picking little rules that drove me crazy too.  He hated school. But I remembered his love for learning when he had been educated at home, I remembered his curiosity exploding all over new information, I remembered him dripped with creativity. Now that he hated school so very much, I feared he was going to drop out as soon as he got old enough. I needed to do something.

Denverites, we are so lucky when it comes to education. Do you know that? We have so many great options. I searched for schools and found one that fit his learning style and personality perfectly; Rocky Mountain School for Expeditionary Learning, a charter school. Its curriculum centered around hands-on problem solving. For example, a fifth-grade class built a house one year and all their lessons – math, research and writing were geared to help them do it. Jared’s sixth-grade class had a civil rights expedition and they traveled across country, all the way to Memphis, Tennessee to stand on the spot where Martin Luther King had been shot. They conversed with old, old, survivors of the civil rights movement, walked through the civil rights museum, and shadowed students their own age whose schools had been right in the middle of the controversies way back when. Jared, he ate it up. It turned his whole world around. Since there was no more rule about having his hair cut above his ears, he grew a pony tail immediately. His love for learning grew too, and grew and grew and grew. So did his self-value and creative spirit. 

A few years later he got himself into a kick-ass International Baccalaureate program at the public George Washington High School. It was the hardest program going and he excelled at it.  After graduation he went to a university on a full scholarship with money for living expenses thrown in on top.

The point is, no matter how great the reputation of the school, or what you think your children need or even what you want for them, watch them. What are they about? How do they learn? What makes them grow? Are they happy? Find the fit for them; it’s out there.

My three other kids have their own stories but none struggled with the typical education system like Jared did. I am pretty sure that If I had not seen his possibilities or his blocks, if I had not helped him fit with his passions and his personality, he might have been lost, fallen through the cracks and, like so many young learners who don’t fit into a particular system, he might have always been swimming upstream.

He’s 29 now; he’s been a journalist for years. He writes for two magazines and freelances too. This year he got a publishing deal for a book and just this week, after much deliberation, he cut his hair. As for me, I sigh with relief that he didn’t drop out after all.