Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Jesse's Story
by Sue Whitson

This is a story about two young men. One grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and the other in the 80’s and 90’s. The first is my husband, the second, my son.

As soon as my husband could walk, he discovered the awesome joys of helping his dad around the farm. He loved taking care of the animals, milking the cow, planting fields and gardens, the sound of a tractor plowing through the fields. Put him out in the barn cleaning out a stall or slopping pigs, and he was as happy as could he could be.

At age five, having committed no crime, he was suddenly imprisoned in a school all day long, nine months out of the year. He never learned to read (although he had a photographic memory) partly out of rebellion at being imprisoned and partly out of boredom. There simply wasn’t anything there that interested him. He wasn’t too bad in math, but you could never tell it by his grades. Basketball was really the only thing he excelled at, but hopes of NBA fame were totally unrealistic given his short and stocky Hancock county genes. He learned in school that life was boring and that he was a failure because only stupid people farm. He turned to cigarettes, alcohol and drugs to relieve his frustration and spent many thousands of dollars that might have otherwise been invested in his future because he felt there simply was no hope. When I met him at age twenty, he was taking an agriculture course at the local community college and had no dream of ever becoming more than a low paid farm hand. He learned to read when he was in his late twenties, but it took fifteen years of healing once he got out of college for him even to begin to think he might be able to make something out of himself, in spite of the fact that he was an incredible worker with an awesome talent for farming and a wonderful sense of responsibility.


Then came my son. We knew he was just like his dad very early. At the age of six months, he was content to sit on the kitchen counter and watch tractors and combines in the fields for hours at a time. When he got his hands on a toy tractor, he was in heaven. As soon as he learned to crawl, he was in the barn several times a day, in spite of the fact that there was a large gravel drive between there and the house. His first words were tru-tru-tru-tru and trac-trac-trac-trac. He loved dirt, and dirt loved him. I could never keep him clean!
Fortunately, when he was a baby, I discovered homeschooling. When it came time for “school,” Jesse was in the garden happily planting tomatoes and pulling weeds. By the age of eight, he still couldn’t read, but he planted and kept a 100 X 60 foot garden weed-free all by himself with no prodding from me! It wasn’t that we didn’t work on school work. We did some phonics and math facts, and I read to him. He just wasn’t getting it. So, rather than push him, I simply told him that he might not be good at those things, but that he was a Mozart at farming.

Focusing on His Talents

At age nine he learned to drive a lawn mower. After that, the garden got neglected, but I had to tell him, “No, you can’t mow the lawn!” several times a day. In frustration, he started a mowing business. Soon, he owned his own mower and had several customers. He learned all about money, loans and time management.

All this time, he worked on building a “farm” in his room. He had fields and pastures laid out with masking tape, and if he didn’t have a piece of equipment or a building that he needed, he built it out of cardboard and twist ties. We had it set up to scale so he and his dad could sit down and figure out how much seed, fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide he would need to plant the various fields. He would go through the planting and harvesting cycle several times a year, and oh, help the child who came in and used a desk on a field that was “already planted.”

At ten, he still wasn’t reading. There were people who chided me for not putting him in school where “he could get the help he needed,” but I knew that would destroy him, so I stubbornly refused. At around the age of twelve he finally started seeing the need for reading, so we sat down and read out of farm magazines each day. At fifteen he still couldn’t spell or write a coherent sentence, and getting him to “do school” was like pulling teeth, but we persevered because of truancy laws. Did he learn anything? No, but we did it anyway, on top of his mowing business and growing temporary farmhand service. He paid off his mower, by now a top of the line John Deere, and saved enough money to buy a car. By sixteen, he had several jobs at differing kinds of farms, so we decided his last two years of schooling would be mostly “apprentice” work through these jobs. In the meantime, he discovered e-mail and instant messaging. This caused a need to know how to spell and make sense while writing, so, amazingly, he learned it!

At eighteen, I gave him a diploma. He was earning equity by helping us buy his grandparents’ farmstead where we lived. At nineteen he bought himself a dump truck and learned all about how to meet government regulations and keep detailed records. At twenty he bought seven and a half acres and a house. Now, at less than three years officially out of “high school,” he is earning as much or more than most college graduates.

Following His Passions

Jesse always told us he was going to be the biggest farmer in Hancock County. That will probably happen – along with a fleet of trucks. He might never sit down to read a book, but it doesn’t matter. The profession he was built for doesn’t require it. My other two children love to read, but they would be bored silly driving a truck or a tractor all day long. Jesse lives for it! And we need truck drivers and farmers.

“No Child Left Behind” would not have worked for my son. It would have destroyed him by focusing on his weaknesses instead of his strengths. My experience has convinced me that compulsory school laws do more harm than good. Education is not a “one size fits all.” Parents are the only ones qualified to determine what educational path their children should take. They should be free to guide their children in whatever manner they see fit because they are the ones who know and love their children most.

Sue Whitson is a 20 year homeschool veteran with 3 grown children. She currently pastors a church, provides daycare, and homeschools other people’s children.



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