By AKILAH S. RICHARDS
“What I’m observing in some of the comments around the Pretoria Girls High discussions is that in addition to the racism that is inherent in many of the objections to the girls taking a stand is the inherent ageism/childism. There is a lack of recognition that young people can have opinions and can and should act with agency and autonomy. It’s not a lack of discipline that they act with, but with discipline and dedication to their beliefs and identities.” —Zakiyya Ismail, South African Unschooler
Yes. Exactly. Ditto. Jazz hands.
Over the past weeks, I’ve been captivated by the images of Zulaikha Patel and her brave schoolmates protesting anti-black rules at Pretoria Girls High School. Like anybody with good sense, I was outraged when I learned that the school’s code of conduct mandates chemically straightened hair. Students have gone on record to report the numerous attempts to berate the girls for having “untidy” hair, even having their natural hair compared to birds’ nests.
Indeed, I was outraged, but not at all surprised.
I know South Africa’s history with apartheid. And I know that deep wounds don’t heal fast. Much like the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s multi-layered markings still warp the perspectives of black folks in America, so too did I expect apartheid—a far more recent dissolving than slavery in America—to influence the people and practices of South Africa.
Outside of that, I had the benefits of personal insight from Zakiyya Ismail, a mother of three and a third-generation South African of Indian descent. As people of color, Zakiyya and her husband—having lived through apartheid and its dissolution in the nineties—saw firsthand how racism had settled itself into South Africa’s school system.
It was that continued observation of deeply embedded racism that prompted Zakiyya and her husband to raise their two sons and daughter outside the school system. They unschooled—an unpopular, even illegal, choice in many countries, and certainly a radical choice even in the modern city of Johannesburg, where Zakiyya’s family reside.
The Core of Unschooling
Unschooling is often referred to as a new trend, but it isn’t. Indigenous cultures the world over have effectively used this natural way of learning to foster leadership and life skills practice in children and young adults. Essentially, unschoolers see learning as a natural byproduct of living in environments where people, not processes, are valued. Unschooled children learn whatever they want to learn, whenever they are ready to learn it. They use every available resource, including books, people, games, places, and even online classes, to explore and understand the things that pique our interest. Unschooling doesn’t look the same for every family, but the tenets are the same: observe children, provide resources when they ask for them, introduce them to new ideas and ways of exploring, pay attention, be a facilitator/guide, not a teacher, trust that learning happens naturally.
For my husband and me, unschooling is an ideal fit for our core parenting value of confident autonomy. We want our daughters to understand that though we call them “ours,” they own themselves. We want to foster a sense of agency and trust in their ability to lead themselves, and to trust their own discernment.
Certainly, since they are 12 and 10 years old at the time of writing this, we have boundaries and rules they need to follow. But in that space, there is plenty room for us, as their parents, to back up, trust learning, and to make room for them to practice the vital life skills they will need in adulthood. It has been nearly six years since we’ve embraced this journey, and we continue to marvel at the myriad of ways our girls learn and grow.
And while we live together, and continue to deschool our minds from the more common, coercive way of parenting and educating children, we keep making the connection between a strong sense of agency and a maturing child. We also get to observe that many adults are quite uncomfortable with confidence in children that extends outside of academics. Through my lens, the girls at Pretoria Girls High School are feeling that same backlash as the school’s code of conduct aims to suppress the girls’ sense of agency and autonomy.
How The World Provides our “Curriculum”
When the images of the protest hit the Internet, I called the girls into my room to show them what was happening, and to invite discussion. That’s part of what we do as unschoolers. We use relevant current events to deep-dive into the layers of living and navigating culture and context in the world. We read articles and tweets, watched videos, stared at images, and talked about how we felt. As usual, our conversation did not stay within the confines of its catalyst. Instead, we ended up in loud, spirited dialogue around:
- The psychological imprint of slavery
- How racism affects communication (citing Pretoria Girls High School as another example of how students are often chastised for speaking in their mother tongues instead of the “proper” English language)
- Agency / bodily autonomy (examples like #freethenipple)
- Organizations (schools and corporations, for example) having the right to determine the culture of their organization, including dress code
- Respectability politics
- Brown v. Board of Education
- How internalized racism shows up in black folks’ lives
- Segregation and integration
And then some. Because, as I’ve written about before, that’s how learning happens among us. Nothing in the world happens inside a vacuum and interconnectedness is nearly impossible to avoid. Any conversation we have inevitably leads us down a path that finds us spending time (sometimes hours) connecting dots and expanding our understanding.
And oftentimes, our daughters make their own connections and do their own research, forming new pathways to learning that their father and I never even fathomed, much less recommended or enforced.
That’s how we roll in our tribe. Hella curious, always exploring, seeking context, valuing perspective, and always learning. Learning doesn’t look like recitation, curricula, and mandates. Instead, it looks like conversation, context, and continued exploration.
We do not need them to prove to us that they are learning. We need to continue to understand the multiple ways to observe learning and to trust that they do not need to be told what to study—or how to look while doing it—in order to learn, to grow, and to thrive.
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Akilah S. Richards is a Jamaican mermaid who spends her land time as an independent author, intersectional feminist writer, unschooling mama, and self-expression speaker. She writes regularly at Everyday Feminism and has penned pieces for The Mid, For Harriet, Tiny Buddha, and MyBrownBaby, among others. Akilah is also the founder of the only summer weekend camp for grown-ass women. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.