Why ditching the traditional education model was the right move for me

Recently, I was at a party and an acquaintance started talking about her plans for after she finished school. She was describing a route I’ve heard described a lot — A Levels, university, a good job — but the path I’m taking is very different. I was interested in her plans though, and I kept asking questions about her subjects, her plans to be a teacher, and her love of science. Then, it was her turn to ask me about my plans.

“What about you?” she said. “Rachael said you’re not in school a lot?”

I shook my head. “Nah, I don’t have to go in all the time.”

“What, so you’re, like, home-schooled?”

“No…yeah…no—.” There’s no easy way to explain my school situation, so I tried my best to condense it. “I only go in for one subject. So I’m only in school two days a week. I’m just doing Philosophy.”

She blinked. “Oh, right. Cool. So you only have to go in for two days a week?”

I nodded. “Yep. Wednesdays and Thursdays. For five hours a week.”

Lucky. What do you want to do?”

This is a question that comes up a lot for any student, but especially for one who is taking a non-traditional approach to education like I am. I always feel vaguely stupid when I answer, “write.” Even though I’ve never gotten any negative feedback about my dream career, I still feel somehow arrogant, like I’m just sitting around, expecting my dreams to be fulfilled while everyone else is actually going to university and Working Very Hard to achieve their goals.

But this girl grinned at me. “So, you’re working on writing now?”

I nodded and there was a general chorus of “well dones” before she added, “So, how come you only have to go to school two days a week?”

I gave a shrug and mumbled something about “anxiety” which is generally enough to satisfy the question. In this case, it was — she’d known me for a few years now, and that meant that she knew enough to drop the subject. (Also, we were at a party, and discussing anxiety, while interesting and necessary, is not always good party talk.)

Still, it’s pretty complicated to explain my school situation.

When I was younger, I used to beg to be home-schooled.

“You could just teach me,” I used to tell my mother, who would nod along to this conversation that we must have had about seven times a day.

“I don’t have the qualifications to teach that level, Lydia.”

“Then, you could hire me a tutor.”

“You need the socialization,” she would counter. I hated this argument, but it was also true. Being an only child who preferred staring at books to interacting with other people, school was one of the few times I got to be with other kids at that age. That, along with the fact I did well in class, meant that my parents thought attending school was pretty good for me on a developmental level, in addition to the education I was getting.

This meant that until I was 16, I attended an all-girls grammar school and managed to get through it, with the occasional break to leave class when things got overwhelming. But then, when I hit 16, my brain basically got attacked by anxiety.

I’d always had anxiety, but this was anxiety times ten. I remember coming home night after night and telling my parents there was no way I was going back to school the next day. I remember sitting in class with my head down on the table, thinking of how things would never get better, and then my brain would start to spin with thoughts that I was never going to leave and I was going to be trapped in that seat forever, and my breath would shorten until I’d end up sending myself into a panic attack. By the time we reached the Christmas holidays, I was spending most of my time I wasn’t in school lying on my bed, listing all the things that were wrong with me.

This all came to a head on Christmas Day when, while everyone else was sitting there, enjoying Christmas presents and dinner like healthy people, I was slumped against the sofa thinking about how worthless I was. My mother stroked my hair and hugged me, all while performing a thousand and one other Christmas-related tasks. I remember a particularly ironic moment, when I told my mother how much I dreaded going back to school, and how nothing was ever going to get better, at the exact moment that “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” started playing on the Christmas CD. At the time, I didn’t see the humor.

Understandably, this concerned my parents enough to get my therapists involved. At the time, I had very little idea of what I wanted to happen next. I just knew that I couldn’t handle being in school and after an hour of talking this over with my counselor, she agreed that right now there was just no way I could be in education full-time — it was having a detrimental effect on my mental health. After some discussion between my parents and the school, eventually it was agreed I would drop down to one A-Level (exams you take at eighteen to get a qualification for any non-Brits), which meant that I only had to be in school five hours a week.

This decision was huge for me and made such a difference for my mental health and emotional well-being.
 It took a few weeks for me to start to feel properly alive again, which sounds ridiculously overdramatic, but until then, I wasn’t feeling anything. It was like something had disappeared or been switched off temporarily, and it was only after a few weeks at home that I started to wake up again.

But I noticed there was something different about the times I was in school, too. I actually started to enjoy being there — which was weird enough, given that, in the past, I’d spent most of my time in school counting down the minutes until I could escape. The big difference now was that I didn’t feel trapped — I felt as though it was my choice to be there. I wasn’t being kept there. Before changing my schedule, I’d always felt as though I was suffocating when I was in school, like my chest was getting tighter and tighter until I used to go and lock myself in the bathroom to gasp through a panic attack.

Once I started spending less time in school, the time I did spend there was far more enjoyable. I was less anxious, so I didn’t resent it. And because I wasn’t alternately hating myself and hating the school (and sometimes hating myself and the school), I could concentrate on my work so my grades improved. Overall, not spending as much time on education ironically helped me achieve better results in my education.

The relief extended outside of school, too. When I wasn’t doing homework, I had more free time. I had more time to write. But I also had more time to think about things, to research things, to learn on my own. And I discovered that I actually retained a lot more information when I was learning myself rather than being told how to take the information in. Ever since I was a kid, I’d always succeeded more in projects that involved me studying independently outside of class, when I could work out my own time, my own aims, and study my own way. The projects I worked on in my own time nearly always got me higher marks than my classwork, which always made me feel like my brain was being forced down a narrow pathway, as if my thoughts were being squeezed into one straight line. Working in my own way made me feel as if my mind was cracked open again and my thoughts flowing more freely. So now, I found myself learning more about not just topics for school, but topics I was genuinely interested in.

When it got more difficult to learn, I could go out and walk to clear my head. I could play music while I worked on whatever writing project was currently the most important. I could work in the way I needed, sometimes looking for inspiration walking around the city, sometimes waking my mind up through decorating my room. Just sitting in a classroom, copying down notes, didn’t always help me. It just worsened my panic attacks and intensified the feeling that I was trapped, that there was no way out. There is more than one way to learn and devising things my own way is a lot better for me, my health and my education.

Not being in full-time education also meant I could focus a lot more time on my personal writing, which gave me time to play around with different writing styles and to approach writing in different ways. This means that now, a year on, I’ve become a contributor to Bethany Lamont’s Doll Hospital zine, which focuses on mental health issues, and have been able to write in other publications, including Germ magazine and, of course, HelloGiggles Teen!  It also means that I’ve been able to learn from people who are already in established careers, which for me as a writer, is really beneficial.

My father left school at 16 and basically built his own way up in a career. Some advice he gave me when I was starting out writing was that one of the best ways to learn about what you want to do is learn from other people, especially in creative or less traditional jobs like writing — he’s a musician/private detective (yes, really) and always says that he can learn more in one hour talking to other people in those careers than he has in the past year. For me, learning from other people is one of the things that really works for me as a writer — while I love learning and working independently, there’s so much I can learn from others already established in those careers that I probably wouldn’t have learned in a more “traditional” educational path, which is another reason my parents were so supportive of me attending school part-time, apart from the obvious benefits to my mental health.

Now, I’m not saying, “JUST LEAVE SCHOOL, IT’S THE BEST WAY TO GO.” For a lot of people, school is beneficial, even if it’s not enjoyable. But for me, mainstream school just wasn’t the best way for me to complete my last two years of education. There were better ways for me to learn and there were healthier ways for me to learn. There were ways that didn’t involve my mental health being put at stake.

I’m not trying to say the education system drove me to a breakdown. Once they understood the situation with my mental health, the school gave me all the support they could. It was just that my problems with school were making it worse and my health was more important to me than following a traditional educational route. Ultimately, being in school full-time wasn’t healthy for me. So we had to try it a different way.

Of course, this means I occasionally get the “You’re so lucky” line or the “How can you still be anxious when your life is so easy?” line. To be honest, it’s very difficult to explain what actually goes on in my head when I’m having an anxiety attack. It’s hard to explain why, if I’d stayed in school full-time, I don’t know what would have happened to me. While I guess to someone in school full-time, it might seem like those who aren’t are just slacking off — especially when they have something like anxiety, an illness that isn’t always visible — the simple fact is, being in school full-time for me wasn’t healthy. It’s just hard to explain to other people.

The “traditional” path to success is well-defined: school, then college/university, then work. There’s nothing wrong with following that path. The problem comes when people don’t just see it as “a” good path and instead view as “the only” good path. It’s a great plan for some people; it just wasn’t what worked for me and so I had to find an alternative route. But just because my approach to education is less common, doesn’t mean it’s less valid than any other way.

I’m now on track to graduate with the rest of my class this summer, and I don’t have any plans to attend college right now. It might turn out to be a gap year, or maybe my path will never take me to traditional higher education. At the moment, my plans are to keep writing, to travel (at the moment, the place I’m thinking of California), and to keep learning my own way. While I like to make long-term plans, I’m slowly learning that I can’t always worry too much about what’s ahead; I have to trust that everything work out for the best. I guess I’m not going the “traditional” route to success, whether people consider me home-schooled, part-time educated or something else altogether. But right now, I know that I’m happy to go the non-traditional route, if that’s the one that leads to where I want to be.

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