The Trouble Maker

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” – Katherine Hepburn

It comes as a surprise to some people that my kids haven’t always been unschooled (or in another SDE environment). On the contrary, my two oldest daughters were in mainstream school for many years.

I myself was fully invested in that system as a child and young mother. I was a classic overachiever. I skipped a grade, tested well, and graduated both high school and college at the top of my classes. Teachers and parents loved me. I bought into the formula for success that was presented to me and jumped through every hoop placed before me. I expected the same of my children. THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE.

Until Penelope.

Penelope is my 2nd daughter, and she has a spirit made of magic and sparkles, cartoons and rainbows. The world of imagination in her head is lush. She dives into her passions and curiosity with gusto. She is unexpected. When she says something offhand about being “bored,” I get super excited inside knowing that she’s about to come up with something extraordinary, as she always does in her ebb and flow.

Penny knows who she is and insists on being that person. When she was 3 and in preschool, I once laid out a perfect cutesy outfit for her picture day. I had bought it just for the occasion. When she saw it, her eyes welled up with tears, and she genuinely wept. Her lip quivered “But. I wanted to be PRETTY.” Oh. What did you have in mind, Penny? She dove into her closet and came out with a Halloween costume: full princess Glinda the Good Witch regalia complete with tiara. I took a breath and relinquished control. I have never loved a school picture as much as I love that picture of Penny insisting on being herself.

Penny began kindergarten, followed by 1st and 2nd grade, and something shifted over the course of those 3 years. It was subtle at first. She no longer popped out of bed with a smile, ready to chase the excitement of a new day. She resisted leaving me. The spring in her step became less springy and altogether disappeared. Our relationship became adversarial. From getting out of bed, to getting dressed, to separating from my arm at the school door, to completing homework… it was exhausting for both of us.

By every traditional measure, she was “succeeding.” Her grades were perfect. She exceeded grade-level expectations and tested at the top. She followed instructions, obeyed rules, pleased her teachers, and never made trouble.

And that was the problem, really, that she had become a girl who never made trouble. Because Penny…my spirited Penny, was NOT a girl who didn’t make trouble. When she was 2.5 she colored my entire bathroom red with a crayon right down to the toilet seat and bathtub. When she was 4, she used a marker to color her whole face, lips, everything dark blue. She dug in the dirt, she jumped in pools, buried herself in the sand and made disproportionately large messes. I used to ask her “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?!” And she would smile and answer in a sweet little matter-of-fact cartoon voice “Ummm, because I want to.” Until she didn’t anymore.

She no longer fought me about going to school. She simply woke up dreading the day, sad and resigned. “I’m so alone,” she would say. “No one understands me. I have no friends. I feel like I don’t belong in this family. I have no time to just BE.” She was 7. I could see her very soul being sucked away by the hamster wheel shuffle: school to sports to homework to bed to repeat ad infinitum.

Around this time, my friend (and now co facilitator) Moria was unschooling her daughter, who reminded me of Penny, and I talked to her a little about what I was seeing. She asked me a pivotal question: what are your goals for Penny? What are your deepest dreams?

Goals. Huh. My most important goals… Rich? No. Ivy League? No. Perfect grades? No no no. I guess I just want her to be kind. I want her to do the right thing. I want her to pay her own bills someday. Most of all, I want her to be happy and content as an adult. I don’t want her to spend her adulthood with the chronic depression I’ve had to contend with.

Moria’s response was something along the lines of “And do you think, for PENNY, that continuing with this thing she dreads (school) will help her achieve those things? Do you really need school for that? And in the meantime, isn’t her happiness NOW worth something?”

I took her out of school halfway through second grade. (Her older sister followed shortly thereafter.) At first we felt a little directionless. We even did a few worksheets out of desperation. She slept. A lot. It must have felt so good to sleep after so many mornings of waking up early in dread. It sure felt good to start our days in a place of peace. We ate breakfast leisurely, in our pajamas. We stretched into the days. We went to playgrounds and parks. We watched TV.

Slowly, Penny began to unfold. She became enchanted with the movie “Ghostbusters,” and we built her a replica proton pack and cosplay uniform. She discovered Wild Kratts and dove into a rabbit hole of animal biology. We visited zoos. She followed a novelty cake-maker on YouTube, and we recorded ourselves making ridiculous cakes. I began to see her playing games of imagination again. The spring in her step returned. Her interior world seemed to heal and blossom and grow lush once more.

I didn’t just get my Penelope back, though. I got our relationship back. That was the biggest surprise really. I didn’t know it could be like this! Once I surrendered and began to practice radical acceptance of Penny and who she is, she began to trust me again. She began to show me more and more of her inner world. We became partners instead of adversaries. We don’t just love each other, we LIKE each other. A lot! Listen, I want to say more about how our relationship changed, because that’s the coolest part of all this, but it’s going to require more context, and this post is already getting kind of long. I’ll elaborate on that in another post.

Penny is now 10, and we’ve been at this for 2.5 years. We’re still figuring things out, and we’re having fun doing it. For the last several months, Penny has been into that ubiquitous polymer of the ‘tween set: SLIME. She once again makes disproportionately large messes. A few weeks ago, she found a way to climb, scoot and weasel her way onto the roof of our house. (!!!!!) She goes there now to be alone and eat popsicles.

I guess what I’m saying is: she’s a girl who makes trouble. Hallelujah!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *