by Amy Carpenter Leugs
Recently, as I was working on my computer on the couch in the Gathering Room at Open Doors, one of our members came in and sat with me as she ate her lunch. Cecilia had just come back from studying with a naturopath, Angie, with Continuum Healing in our building. As we sat and chatted, she shared with me what she’s been doing since she left high school a few months ago. Here are some snippets from our conversation.
Amy: Last time we talked, you were looking for a long-term research project. How is that going?
Cecilia: I found one! Fifteen years ago, my Grandma had a rare type of cancer in her throat, and due to the surgery to remove it, half of her tongue is paralyzed now. We’ve contacted her surgeon and we’ll have a chance to refer to her records and see exactly what has been damaged and what the treatment was. With so many medical advances over the last 15 years, plus the knowledge available from a naturopath like Angie, I want to see if anything can be done to help her. There are other projects I want to do, too, but this one is a good place to start. Maybe there’s nothing we can do, but on the other hand, I might actually help someone.
Amy: That’s great. And you’ve found some other interesting projects, haven’t you?
Cecilia: Yep. This summer I’m going to do a six-week surgical internship with the horse veterinarian that I shadow, so I’ll learn a lot there. I’ll also be going to the Grand Tetons with David Buth from Summer Journeys — it’s called a leadership adventure and we’ll be horsepacking in.
Amy: What have you learned about your own learning style since you’ve been here at Open Doors? I remember when you first started, you thought you wanted to do a dissection every week. But then you realized you needed some time to diagram and write things out, to process it, right? What else?
Cecilia: I also need to keep searching out mentors in the fields I’m interested in — I really like to learn with people, and especially with people doing their jobs. I want to do more internships. So that will be a challenge for next year, to find people in the fields I’m interested in. Over the last few months I’ve learned what works for me, and I can use that next year.
Amy: Now that you’ve been out of high school for a few months, are you glad that you left?
Cecilia: I am pretty glad. The only thing I miss — I loved being with a large group of kids my age. So next year I’m going to take yoga and choir at my high school, and have lunch period there as well.
Amy: That’s true. We do have more teens here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you have different interests and so you’ve been here on Monday and Fridays, when we just have a couple members here at a time.
Cecilia: And even now I still get to see my friends after school and on weekends. In fact, I get to enjoy my time with them even more, because I’m not stressed out about my own homework.
That’s the weird thing — sometimes I help my friends with their homework, and I realize that it’s mostly just busy work. I can figure it out without having been in the class. But my friends are so worried about grades and GPA and getting into college.
I used to worry all the time, too. Even though I didn’t believe in the system — I didn’t believe that good grades meant you were really learning — I still wanted to get good grades and go to college. And now I’m just out here, learning things and doing things. I’m doing dissections, I’m seeing how a naturopath works, I’m helping a vet. The other day a group of teens and I did biology in the Grand River with David Buth — we identified specimens we found in the water, and checked for mutations due to pollution.
Amy: That sounds fun. And I agree — grades don’t reflect much about learning, though they might show how good a student is at memorizing.
Cecilia: Yes! I used to just cram everything in my head for a test, and then forget it all afterward, so I could cram the new stuff in. Now I don’t forget as much — I keep building one thing on another.
Amy: Right — I notice that you keep asking questions, and those questions keep leading you to new places.
Soon our conversation drifted onto other things. Our talk about college placement tests led Cecilia to ask questions about my own college experience. I explained that though I loved college and learning, I also found it quite intellectual, when I often wanted to seek out the more emotional and relational side of life. When Cecilia asked if I ever considered going back for a higher degree than my Bachelor’s, I reflected that I had always found ways to meet those learning needs outside of college — whether through unschooling my own three boys, writing children’s books or other pieces, or working with a Jungian community in Three Rivers. Life has always presented me with an integrated way to “live the questions,” to use Wendell Berry’s phrase.
It is always such a pleasure to converse and reflect with our teens — they are each so different and each finding their way, and I know I speak for all our staff and volunteers when I say that witnessing it all is a huge honor.
Amy Carpenter Leugs is the Outreach Director at Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens. A former teacher, Amy unschools her three boys, reads and writes widely, plays with people of all ages, and speaks about life learning every chance she gets.