Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Hook: Our Little Educational Experiment Worked

There’s a famous scene in the movie “Jerry Maguire” – the “You complete me” scene – that includes the memorable finishing line, “You had me at hello.” 

For me, however, the best dialogue from that scene happens near the middle when the character played by Tom Cruise says, “But tonight, our little project, our company, had a very big night. A very, very big night.”

Well, a week ago our little project, our family, had a very big afternoon. A very, very big afternoon. Our son graduated from the University at Buffalo. Summa cum laude – for those into Latin. Our little experiment worked. 

Our “little experiment” is how I have spent the last 25 years referring to the adventure that was the education of our daughter and son. I called it an experiment because we traveled a path that we had never expected to travel and did so not knowing if it would work, let alone have a positive result. A positive result ultimately, of course, being two healthy contributing children pursuing their life’s passion, and maybe even the attainment of a college degree – because in a college town like Happy Valley what else says success like “I got my degree!” 

Not to mention that my wife and I had unintentionally set the bar at that height the day they were born. Our daughter’s birth announcement included references to her being a member of Penn State’s class of 2017, and our son’s birth announcement included references to his being a member of Penn State’s class of 2023.

So the die was cast at an early age. It’s just that the path to the end – the proverbial means – wasn’t anything remotely what we expected.

Our daughter homeschooled – “unschooled” actually – most of the way through her K-11 career, then attended State High her senior year. She started her college years at Penn State, spent a semester online at a smaller college in Florida, then transferred to the University of Central Florida, made the rowing team and did her last three semesters online at UCF. 

Our son homeschooled through fifth grade, spent his sixth-grade year at Centre Learning Community Charter School, then went down a traditional path from seventh through 12th grades. He spent his first college semester at Wagner College on Staten Island where he was on the football team, then spent a semester at a community college in upstate New York and did his last three years at the University at Buffalo – also while being a member of the football team. A football team that was ranked as high as No. 23 in the AP Poll during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. 

I’ve written about our educational experiment a few times before on these pages. A little less than nine years ago, I detailed the how and why of our start down this path in this column. When I wrote that column we were very much in the middle of this experiment and still unsure how it would turn out. 

Then a year later I wrote this column explaining how homeschooling could be – and still would be – a win-win-win for students, parents and the school district. Clearly my selling skills aren’t very good, as it didn’t result in a mass migration! 

Then, because of our homeschooling expertise, at the beginning of the pandemic I offered a paragraph of advice to parents who were suddenly thrust into the remote-learning paradigm. 

The overarching points of this whole experiment for my wife and me is that there are many ways to do the educational journey, and that listening to your kids is a powerful opportunity for letting go. We, as a society in these United States of America, have spent so much time, energy and money on the foundations of our public education system that we earnestly believe that sending our kids off to the care of others for hours and hours every day for nine months a year is the way for them to achieve the goal of degree enlightenment. 

But it doesn’t have to happen that way, and the belief isn’t accurate. Our daughter and son taught us that. They went through a number of K-12 options, both attended three different colleges and both ultimately graduated with honors from major universities. And neither my wife nor I hold any educational qualifications or ever had any desire to be teachers. We simply wanted the best for our kids like most every other parent does. 

The interesting takeaway from the movie “Jerry Maguire” is that despite the voluminous trials and tribulations all the adult characters in the movie go through, the one constant voice of stability is the young son. While Tom Cruise’s character is having an existential moment, the young boy just wants to go to the zoo. When the two main characters are meeting at baggage claim and exhibiting adult tendencies, the young boy just wants to play. When Tom Cruise’s character is flaunting his sports knowledge the young boy has a comeback every time. Out of the mouths of babes…

Although our little educational experiment worked – and both our daughter and son have expectations of at least one advanced degree in their futures – obviously the parenting adventure continues. And like the end of “Jerry Maguire,” when the young son picks up a baseball and completely out of nowhere displays an amazing throwing ability, we look forward to listening to our young adult offspring as they keep deciding how to navigate this wonderful trip called life.