The day before classes began this spring I should have suspected a busy semester. As the weekly campus newspaper, The Forward needed to kick off the start of school by producing an issue in three days. That meant a lot of work, considering that we were a new staff returning from winter break, expected to generate stories without any established system or preexisting set of contacts. We were all new, in fact, hired progressively throughout last semester. The only bastion of experience was our advisor, who in his own right wasn't particularly in touch with either the paper or the campus. A University of Massachusetts graduate student focusing on creative writing, he was neither a Hampshire College alumni nor frequently available. So we, the new staff, ran the show. As Managing Editor, it was my job not only to steer the paper in a new direction and try to polish our tarnished image, but also to keep the paper and its staff functioning as a whole. Anything but gradual, with a deadline of three days we were diving headlong into our new duties.
Of course, as both Managing Editor and one of only two staff members who had been on campus over January, much of the workload for the first issue fell to my shoulders. In fact, most of the work for the first issue fell to my shoulders; putting out an early issue was my idea, our strange, new, "nontraditional submission philosophy" was understood by few other than myself and I alone had the experience necessary to generate a large body of content without prior notice. After all, publishing had been my life before Hampshire, back when I was an unschooler. I haven't toured the world, served as a congressional aide, amassed an impressive resume of internships or saved the planet, but I have known the trials and tricks that accompany publication. Well, at least I knew more tricks than the rest of our inexperienced staff.
Producing The Forward's first issue of the semester sapped a lot of energy. The day before classes began I was a wraith; one minute I would be interviewing a Hampshire faculty member and the next moment fielding a phone call from a writer who needed just "one more day" to finish her story. If not available to take the call, I could be found loaning my tape recorder to a friend for last-minute transcription or rushing through the snow in the dead of night, trying to track down one of our staff photographers for an emergency photo shoot (which was possible by borrowing a digital camera from yet another friend). It was taxing and I'm not sure how it was done without the aid of caffeine, but the issue came together. I literally didn't sleep for the first two days of class and was thereafter only able to steal an hour or two of rest per night while the issue was preparing for publication. Despite missing classes, a total subservience to The Forward and disregard for my body (which was a questionable choice with various strains of the flu migrating throughout campus), I was oddly happy. More than happy, I was in my element.
Just as I had hoped, working for Hampshire's college newspaper has reignited some little spark that makes me Peter. Suddenly my classes are more fruitful, my friendships more robust, my time more limited - yet far more potent and useful. Without the confidence, I'm a little lost and lopsided. My social habits, while strong, are nonstandard. My philosophies sometimes take a turn towards the unconventional and I procrastinate too much for my own good. I worry too frequently, waste a lot of time with inconsequential, menial activities and am always concerned with the homeschooler's burden: proving that homeschooling makes you every bit as intelligent and successful as kids who go to school (being of the crop of older homeschoolers who didn't go to school prior to college, I'm especially prone to carrying the weight of the movement on my shoulders). When not passionately excited with life, essentially my success and level of intensity plummet at equal speeds. Last semester was a good indication of Peter without his spark.
The natural supposition for my renewed vigor is that I enjoy publishing, the media and the life that accompany those pursuits. It is the classic unschooler model: I do what I enjoy and the rest falls into place. By focusing on what I enjoy, I find a career, lifestyle and studies that excite me and feel very natural. (One exception are times when I have to explain to people that I write and distribute information not to sensationalize, but rather in an attempt to celebrate people and their lives. Getting past media stereotypes promises to be one of my greatest, unending hurdles.) Why shouldn't I expect to be confident and full of zest when having fun? Last issue I decided that publishing and the media are the nexus to my confidence and excitement. It may be more complicated than that, however. Lately I've been reconsidering that it is specifically the fast-paced, "need a story by tomorrow and let's do lunch next week. . . " lifestyle that gives me confidence. Harking back to yet another unschooling buzz phrase, maybe I'm happy with publishing because it is a part of my style of learning?
Frankly, analyzing the way I learn is creepy. On a personal level, learning styles are uncharted waters - which is quite a feat for a guy who writes about himself half of the time. Just like saying that I talk with an accent, others can have specific ways to learn best but it would be absurd to include myself in such groups. My brother has a style for learning: he reads maps, watches National Geographic specials, plays historical games and goes about his day without a strict plan of attack or seemingly cohesive academic agenda. Yet, Adam is no dullard. Obviously, he's got some secret style of learning that allows him to always have fun while educating himself. I, on the other hand, have never noticed any secret, super learning powers, despite a lifetime of unschooling. It comes as a shock, then, that publishing and the media might be a good fit less because I'm into publishing and more on account of the fact that it fills a need of mine for all-consuming projects.
The large, noteworthy, all-encompassing projects have been a hallmark of mine for several years now. It predates my work in starting Nation Magazine and even my ability to read. Before college, time was measured in activity. There were the design of board games, an obsession with weight-lifting, the life of a football player. Letter-writing became an early preoccupation, as did comic books and baseball cards, although all at different times. Then came publishing, with Nation Magazine and my poetry syndicate, Spiral Chambers. There has consistently been a central project with which I structure my day, something that instantly sparks fire in my eyes. Publishing has been a cast member in the show, but not the only one.
Once I started looking at my life from a project-based perspective, a number of observations surfaced. One interesting distinction is that everything I learn must be immediately applicable. If a connection to the current project isn't obvious, or use in a future project implied, I have great difficulty remembering or caring about the details. A quick survey of my recent classes illustrates a bias for immediate applicability: "Photo I" (providing photos for The Forward); "Macro/Micro Economics" (aiding in the planning of the publication's monetary future); "Senses, Culture and Power" (helping to better represent students in articles by the paper). Attending what is considered a liberal arts institution, it nevertheless takes a conscious effort on my part to be even a little vague. What I really yearn for are technical classes like "Learning PhotoShop" and "Advanced Techniques in Layout." The desire doesn't persist once I'm immersed in classes like "Brain and Language."
Still, there's a subversive tendency towards studies that directly relate to my project at hand, classes and concepts that are very tangible. When concepts aren't tangible or applicable, I invariably try to reify them into something that would relate to the project at hand if a connection did exist.
A more cogent distinction is that the fire in my eyes, the confidence, stems from the ability to focus on a particular project and not force equal - or even comparable - time with other aspects in my life. There are basic maintenance, a scatter of little activities and a central, intellectually and emotionally consuming project. Regardless of whether the style was inborn or a product of unschooling, it illustrates why I'm off-balance when between projects and most content with two hours sleep and fifteen minutes before the new issue of The Forward is slated for press. It also explains why I'm attending Hampshire, a school that encourages big projects.
So maybe publishing isn't my unique opportunity for happiness? If indeed I'm more productive and confident when revolving around a project - which seems to be the case - any number of careers or fields of study could potentially suffice. Writing, editing, publishing and the media just happened to enter my life at an early age. Now publishing has built some momentum and other professions don't stand a chance. As my mother would say, I've grown where I was planted.
Peter Kowalke is a lifelong unschooler now enrolled at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and is editor of Nation Magazine, a publication about people and their lives. To order a sample issue of Nation, send $2.95 to Nation Magazine, c/o Peter Kowalke, P.O. Box 713, Hampshire College, MA 01002.
� 1999, Peter Kowalke
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