The pounding on the door sent my heart into overdrive.
It was almost too much for me to bear. Knowing I had failed, knowing excactly what was coming. Knowing I had stretched out my luck for too long, placed too many chips, and now it was time to pay my debt.
I heard my mother down the stairwell talking to the man who had came to see me. To collect me.
I objected so very deeply to this man. So very deeply to everything he stood for.
I hated school.
More than I had ever hated anything did I hate the stupendous lack of autonomy. The inane topics we had been forced to learn about. The extroadinarly boring way we were being taught them.
I didn’t always hate school. It was actually my favourite place in the world for the first nine years. I enjoyed spending time with my friends, I loved my teachers, and the work was interesting and just the right amount of challenge. I didn’t dedicate a lot of brainpower to thinking about why we were there, and I dimissed my fellow classmates complaints about it as being excessively grumpy.
But now I could hear his voice echo up through the stairwell… in my home…
I don’t expect to have this experience again, of someone coming to my home and not just demanding something from me, but demanding me, ordering me to get into his car, pulling a vape out of his pocket and taking a puff right in front of me, the fumes clouding my face as I walk behind him.
And it was surreal, because it was the exact force this man represented that I had loved so deeply. I had adored the brace to be at the top of the class, been enthralled by the challenge of something else.
But in the years between I had fallen in love with something else. Freedom. As I grew up, my interests began to sprawl wider than the narrow path they would need to be contained in in my secondary school. I couldn’t read about how to increase my productivity, about what the latest psychology studies say on the topic of community. In the confines of school I was unable to draft up my latest blog post, condensing what I had learned into something useful to others. I was unable to code, our computer science lessons taking place completing on paper from the fourth year onward, and could not use every facet of myself to create something functional for other people to use.
I had fallen in love, so very deeply, with the immense freedom granted by the endless jungle of information and opportunities that was the internet. But as my school transitioned from a state school to an academy, my real world was only growing as my in school freedom was only shrinking…
So I tried to destroy it.
I tried to escape, to never have to deal with the oppression again. I had self-taught myself enough web development to be competitive on the market, and planned with a great determination to drop out and become a web developer, learning everything I had to through recources freely available on the internet. I read up endlessly on the laws of education in the UK, trying desperately to find loopholes that would permit me my freedom.
But I was also grimly aware that in freeing myself it would give me far too many degrees of freedom to realease the idea of the billions of students suffering in school from my mind, dying from boredom in their government mandated cages. So I co-founded a movement to destroy all compulsory schooling, replacing them instead with institutions that supported significantly more freedom in learning, such as unschools. We called this movement End School Slavery, creating a twitter account to spread the message of the downsides of schooling, and a website with the intention that anyone who visited it would agree that compulsory schooling had to go by the time they left it.
But I wasn’t quick enough.
In attending to these other projects, I had misrolled my dice and missed too many days of school, and so the pounding, and so the driving. They took me to a room with my headteacher. They revealed they knew of my plans to try and circumvent the compulsory requirement for school, and started off the conversation kindly.
But it was false.
They berraded me and yelled at me, threatening me and threatening to sue my mother. They read my home address out to me just to let me know that if I ever came close to missing another day of school, they’d be at my door and I’d be back in that office.
Then they sent me back to class.
Trying to escape compulsory schooling was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Half a year of nonstop effort, nonstop research. At every turn, every loophole discovered through another dozen hours of research, every shred of hope, there was another obstacle in my way, stopping me from breaking free and spending my days learning and growing the way I wanted to.
It is a grim thought that I am told to think indepndendly by the same insitution that deployed its every recources to keep me where I was.
It is a funny thought that I am told to think independently by the institution, and trying to escape the institution was the most independly I have ever thought. There is no manual on how to defy every authority in your life, no rulebook on what’s fairgame, no definitions on what consistutes a strike, and excactly how many strikes you have until you’re out. So I actually had to think, and I had to actually try.
And so even when I failed, and I had many months left in school, I decided to use the skills I had to convert what would’ve been a miserable time into as accurate a time capsule of the feeling of being encaged as I could have. I took scraps of paper from my notebooks and began to write articles describing how I felt, one where every force that I had fought against was depicted as a monster which the narrator argued against, as the monster gleefully explained all the forces in the narrator’s way, which was contentious on the group blog “Lesswrong” with over seventy comments. The next was a nonfiction post called “I am Concious and I am Hurting”, honest journal of how I felt, which went viral on news aggregator HackerNews, receiving over two thousand views and over fifty comments. I also appeared on the End School Slavery podcast, explaining my experiences. I also learned web development in order to create a web app that provided an alternate form of learning, a way to self teach from videos using spaced repitition (increview.app).
Combined, I may say that it was worth having to go back to school, for those last months. Creating three artefacts, crystalizing what I felt so clearly are pieces that would be impossible for me to replicate now, the memories being faded with time. And seeing comments of other teenagers who connected with what I had written felt amazing, despite the tragedy.
However, there is perhaps one part of this story that is the most important part, that I have been yet to mention because I didn’t know at it at the time. I had been told it, but dismissed it because I did not feel this information anywhere deeply in my heart: my school was unusually bad.
The label “bad” being a proxy for authoritarian, cruel, intense, and similar values.
Of course, intellectually I understood that the idea of an “Behaviour Improvement Room” (yes, that’s it’s real name) to where you’re sent if you’re naughty and you are not allowed to speak for the day while you copy notes from one piece of paper to another instead of taking part in lessons, and if you talk or stop copying you get a strike and at three strikes you’re sent home and it’s put on your permanent record — well, it’s like the fish that never notices the water. I could see it was unusual, but not quite how amazingly Orwellian it was, and how my school was abnormally bad along these axes, and not all other schools were necessarily like that.
I had extremely little hope for my sixth form at the time of applying, but I’m so glad I did. Deciding to still try Wellington despite how thoroughly it had been beaten into me over the last five years that schools were miserable hell-holes was the best decision I ever made, and led me to having an absolute blast of a time over the last five years. It restored my faith in education institutions as places of fun, friends, and love and support from teachers, who occasionally did have to be wardens, but were mostly there to ensure you learned as much as possible and to support you as much as possible.