The other night my man asked what ‘success’ means to me.  His question dovetailed seamlessly with another question I am currently holding: what is genuinely valuable to learn?

If school is so much ‘busy-work’ – with kids often so bored cos they know the work they do there is largely meaningless and almost totally disconnected from ‘real life’ – then what is actually worth learning?  And what is worth doing?  And what is success?

(I am reminded of Vasco Pyjama’s question of what is worth doing, and what is worth having?  To which Mr Curly replies: “It is worth doing nothing and having a rest”!)

(And if you don’t buy this description of school, can you tell me why I spent so much energy working towards getting good marks, an effort culminating in a tertiary entrance rank, a supposedly important and pivotal number which NO ONE HAS EVER ASKED ME ABOUT, not once, since I left secondary school??  I surmise it’s because such a rank has absolutely no relevance or meaning in everyday life…)

I have been reading Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto, and have so appreciated his questions, grief, inspiration and rage, based on a lifelong engagement with the institution of school (including being awarded New York State’s Teacher of the Year).  Well worth the read – no need to agree with it all – just be nourished by some new perspectives!

Gatto writes:

We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think ‘success’ is synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, ‘schooling’ but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a financial sense.  And plenty of people throughout the world today find ways to educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons.  Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system?  What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?

My ‘successes’ – the experiences I look back on with pride and joy, the experiences I have wrestled with deeply, such as the birth of each child at home, our adventures in homeschooling and alternative living in general, my vision-questing in the bush, my time spent in circle with women, or my ongoing explorations in this container called marriage – didn’t often arise out of a sense of future planning, knowing how I wanted my life to turn out and working towards ‘success’ in that forward-thinking way.  For example, I had never even considered homebirth until 20 weeks into my first pregnancy.

Upon reflection I can see that, in my experience, that feeling of ‘success’ – that mixture of pride, contentment and inspiration – is a consistent by-product of ‘response-ability.’  It was my ability to respond to the needs of my pregnant body and the babe within me that led me down the unexpected but joyful path of birthing at home.


And it was this decision to homebirth – to take responsibility for myself and my birthing, to step away from the institution of the hospital – which led to my decisions (multiple times) to not hand my children (and my life as well) over to the rhythms and imperatives of institutional schooling.

It is my ongoing response to David Schnarch’s radical invitation in Passionate Marriage to take responsibility for my part in this dance of intimate relationship – the only part over which I have any control! – that has created a stronger sense of differentiation and, ironically, more connection and vitality in my marriage.

These are decisions I continue to be deeply nourished by, even years later.  Decisions I count as ‘success,’ often hard-won and not without pain.

Being response-able: biting into the issues arising in the present moment and grappling with them whole-heartedly to reach an authentic, individual response.  Speaking our truth and acting on what we know is right, regardless of the opinions of others.

Being response-able: being able to hear the call of one’s deepest self, and act in alignment with this call; a dedicated listening to the self (and the family and the community and the planet, for we are deeply interconnected) that leads to a dynamic inner guidance system and the flexibility to change course where necessary.

And if this is a pathway to ‘success’ in my own lived experience – making the best choices I can in the present moment, in a context of as much self-knowing as I can muster – how do I encourage and make room for my children to take full responsibility for themselves?  What contexts will deepen their knowledge of themselves?  And how can I create opportunities (or really, butt out long enough for opportunities to arise) where they are in a direct feedback loop of their own choices and the consequences?

Can I trust them as much as Richard Branson’s mother, who left him in an unfamiliar part of London to walk home by himself (with his assent) when he was only four?  Can I step out of the way enough for Necessity and Independence to become their teachers?  And what Necessity is there, for my children, white and affluent as they are?  It may only become apparent when I stop covering all the bases…

Oh, such potent, soul-expanding questions!  I am learning in parallel with my children, oh-so-slowly deconditioning myself of the schooling I received and opening myself to the huge array of possible avenues of meaningful education.  We are all stepping into the freedom to explore that which makes our individual souls sing!

And yes, some days it looks and feels chaotic.  As Gatto says:

In open source, students are active initiators.  It all sounds too undisciplined, I know, but life beyond schooling is exactly like that.  You either write your own script, or you become an actor in someone else’s script.

(March 2011)