Credit: James Adamson
When I was 28 years old, I went back to kindergarten. Not to be a teacher or a volunteer. I went back to be a student again.
Since I’d graduated from college, I’d felt lost and let down. I’d worked my tail off in school for 17 years with the vague promise of success and happiness at the end of it all. I had studied hard, gotten good grades, and gone to a well-respected university. But the payoff that I was expecting never came.
Instead, I struggled, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. In school, I’d become an expert at following instructions. But in real life there was no instruction manual, and I had no clue how to write my own. I was afraid of taking risks and making mistakes, and I was so used to giving my teachers what they wanted that I didn’t know what I wanted anymore. I felt as if school had taken away the creativity and joy that I’d had as a child and replaced it with helplessness and anxiety.
I kept wondering how I’d do school differently if I had a second chance at it. I knew that I’d spend more time figuring out what I wanted from life than I’d spend following someone else’s idea of what I “should” want. I felt like my life needed a major reboot.
So when I had the crazy idea that maybe I could do my education over again, on my own terms, I went for it. I contacted teachers at my old schools in my small California hometown, and my college an hour south of San Francisco; I asked them if I could spend a week in each grade and blog about it. To my surprise, they were excited about what I was proposing, and they welcomed me back. I called the project “Reschool Yourself.”
I spent nearly four months at my old schools alongside the students there, doing whatever they happened to be doing at the time. I fingerpainted with first-graders, turned cartwheels (badly) with third-graders, and took algebra tests with high school students. Here are three things I learned from the experience:
1. Seeing things with a child’s eyes opens up completely new perspectives for adults.
During my first days in the kindergarten classroom, the teacher asked me to assist her when I wasn’t being just one of the kids. I sat at a small table in the back of the room and called each child to join me one by one, in order to see how many letters of the alphabet they could identify.
Some of their answers were spontaneous and imaginative. Capital O was “a circle.” Capital J was “a hook.” Lowercase h was “a chair.” A few of the Spanish speaking kids saw “a stick,” “a head,” and “a granny” in the letters I showed them.
It was the first time since I’d learned how to read that I’d ever considered different ways of seeing letters than the one “right” way of seeing them. When I was able to pause and look at the shapes on the page from the kids’ point of view, I could see how their interpretations made sense, each in their own way. I hoped that these little creative minds, these future Picassos and Dalís, would emerge from school not only knowing the alphabet, but also with their imaginations intact.
2. Making time for the arts is important for kids and adults alike.
In second grade, the teacher, Mrs. Griffith, read a story to the class called “Dragon Gets By.” It’s about a dragon who has a mixed-up day, beginning with frying the morning paper and reading an egg. The silly illustrations made the kids giggle.
Mrs. Griffith announced that we’d each be choosing a scene from the story to illustrate ourselves. On a sheet of newsprint, I began sketching the scene that I’d chosen of the dragon in a grocery store. I carefully added shading and cross-hatching. Transfixed by doing art, something I’d loved as a kid but hadn’t done in years, I didn’t pick up the pencil from the page.
When Mrs. Griffith said that it was time to put away our drawings and open up our math textbooks, I felt almost panicked. But I didn’t want to do math. I wanted to draw!
A thought hit me then: If only I’d been allowed to draw – or read, or play music – as much as I wanted as a kid, how much more fulfilled would I be as an adult? While these activities had been part of my classes in my younger years, they had dwindled as I got older, to leave more time for subjects that were deemed more important. I knew a lot of creative people who hadn’t picked up a paintbrush or musical instrument in years. It wasn’t as if we needed these outlets any less than we had as children. If anything, with all of the responsibilities of adulthood, we needed them even more. I promised myself that no matter how busy my schedule was, I’d make more time for art.
3. Kids have plenty to teach adults, if we observe and listen to them.
Although my reschooling process was often difficult because it brought up a slew of old regrets and failures, it also gifted me with many moments of pure joy. Kids laugh many more times per day than adults do, at the silliest of things, and that laughter was contagious. The kids at my elementary school gave me bear hugs and invited me onto the swings with them. They oohed and ahhed when their teachers read about Curious George or The Polar Express. They were like puppies, endlessly fascinated by the world around them and always ready to play. It was impossible for me to ruminate when there was a five-year-old pulling on my arm and saying random things like, “Hey guess what? Guess what? My grandma has a dog.”
Of all the lessons that I learned during Reschool Yourself, the ones that I learned from the kids were the most powerful. They helped me sort out what was really important. It wasn’t grades, or praise, or doing things the way I “should.” It was my relationships with the people around me, contentment with the simple pleasures in life, laughter, new discoveries, and art.
We can teach kids to tie their shoes, read, and do math. We can teach them to say “please” and “thank-you.” But they can teach us – or re-teach us, really, because we naturally understood it when we were their age – what it’s like to be fully present in one exciting moment after the next. They can teach us that there’s something new to discover about the world every day, and that most of the time, life isn’t nearly as serious as we grown-ups make it out to be.
Melia Dicker is a writer and educator who has worked with students of all ages in the U.S. and abroad. She co-founded Spark, a nonprofit youth organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, and IDEA, a national nonprofit that advances democratic education. Melia is currently working on a book about Reschool Yourself. Read her blog about the project at www.reschoolyourself.com.