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Starting College
This essay, by Earl Gary Stevens, was originally published in the Talk About Learning column in the March-April 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.

Last semester our son Jamie, 14, took a 4-credit Latin course at the University of Southern Maine. He had never in his life participated in a classroom, studied anything called a "subject," read a textbook, or been exposed to formal grammar. Although he loves to read, he had no experience in being a "student." Linda and I have often been asked how it could be possible to ignore schooling and all things schoolish and still expect that college will be a viable choice for Jamie. We didn't expect a demonstration quite so soon.

Why did Jamie choose to take a college course? I believe because he saw it as a kind of adventure and because he wanted to sample what it feels like to be a university student. Why a language? Partly because the playing field is level. Most of the students in his class knew what he knew about Latin: absolutely nothing. Why Latin? He had spoken with some people whose opinions he values and from that he felt that a knowledge of Latin would help him better understand the structure and roots of his own native language.
As Jamie settled into his Latin course, we made many discoveries.
We found that:
- Grammar can be learned at any age once a person finds a use for it.
- One does not need years of training in order to get out of bed for an early morning class.
- Study skills can be learned and put to work by anyone who needs to have them.
- Years of formal preparation for college are unnecessary. Anyone who reads fluently and is motivated can succeed.

Not that he didn't experience difficulties. With each passing day the work became more complex, and there was more to remember. Jamie's grades began to go down. When he failed a big exam he clearly realized that he needed to learn how to study more efficiently. The attention to detail that is required in a formal academic setting was unfamiliar to him, and it was a challenge. He worked on this, and soon he began to do better.

Speaking of grades, since our family has never thought about grades or any other mechanism of schooling some of our friends wondered why Jamie would care about grades now. It is because part of Jamie's adventure as a university student was to collect 4 credit hours for the course by getting a passing grade. I wasn't uncomfortable going from never considering academic measurements to being supportive about earning a grade.

But there are dangers. I feel that attention to grades and grade point averages is addictive and that these considerations should be handled with caution lest they begin to overshadow other more important goals. It is easy for a family to begin thinking of the grade as the sole measure of success. Isn't a "B" better than a "C" or an "A" better than a "B?" As long as one is trying for an "A" in one course shouldn't one try for an "A" in all of them? Isn't it good to earn a high grade point average, even better to earn one that is perfect? This line of thought can turn into a preoccupation that leads the unwary scholar far afield from his or her original passions and purposes.

We have enjoyed listening to Jamie's anecdotes. He reported that one morning before class when students were huddling together to put the finishing touches on an assignment, a young woman burst out with, "I don't believe this: a fourteen year old who never went to school is helping us with our homework!" We have also found that he has silenced the lecturing from well-meaning people who feared that his lack of schooling would forever close the door to college. Such fear is difficult to maintain if a person is already there.

Like Jamie, home educated kids all across the country who are interested in college are discovering that in many institutions they can register under open enrollment without waiting for a magic age or for a document which states that they have been officially prepared. In our support group alone three other kids between the ages of 10 and 15 have recently taken college courses in Japanese, electrical engineering, and geology.

I have noticed that some people who learn about the work and the accomplishments of these kids want to deny the applicability for others by claiming unusual circumstance: These kids must all be absolutely brilliant, and therefore their examples are useless for the rest of us. But that's not so. Jamie isn't somebody you might read about in a tabloid, solving calculus problems in his head while simultaneously performing Bach on the piano and playing chess with a dozen opponents. His achievement is a result of his willingness to participate and work.

What have we learned from all this? I still don't think college is a sensible choice for everyone. For some it is superfluous; for others it is very important. As time goes by, Jamie will figure out what it means to him. His Latin teacher asked him to come back and participate in her Latin II class for the spring semester whether he registers for it or not. His mom and I smile at this; we know what she means. One thing is certain. Jamie knows that he is perfectly capable of earning a college degree if he wants one, and he sees that there is no need to train for it in a high school. Many other independent learners are making the same discovery. All the doors are open.

Earl Gary Stevens 1995. State and local nonprofit volunteer-based support organizations may reprint this article for their members without asking for permission. As a favor, please send a copy to 25 Belmeade Road, Portland, Maine 04101. All others please ask.

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