Just as I was packing up to head home from North Star late one September afternoon, the phone rang in my office. “Hi, this is Angie. I’m in California, and I really need some help!” Yikes, I thought. It had been a full day of talking to people, and I had somewhere to go. “Well, I only have a minute, but go ahead and tell me what’s happening.”
Angie jumped at the moment. “My son is 16. He is an artist. He’s terrific. He has had some great summer experiences, he works with a professional artist, and he has a full vision for what he wants to do. But he hates school. It’s taking up all of his time, and he thinks it’s completely irrelevant to what he really wants to be doing. I’m just trying to help him make it through these last two years of high school, but it’s not working. Now I’m worried.”
“Okay,” I reply. I’ve got to keep this brief, so let me just tell you the main idea. Ready?”
Angie said, “Go on.”
“Well, the punch line is that there is no need for him to make it through the next two years. There is nothing he will be able to do with that diploma that he can’t already do without it, especially if he gets his GED.”
I pause for breath, to allow for a reaction. Not much. So I continue.
“Imagine for a moment if you shepherd you son through school, and two years from now he graduates with a diploma but rather grumpy from the effort. He’s unlikely to want to enroll directly in a four-year college. What will he want to do? Make art? Well, I suggest you move that moment to right now, to today. Let’s start asking him how he wants to live his life. Confronting that question over the next two years will be both exciting and rewarding. He will end up being way more self-aware and mature two years from now for the process. And, he’ll be happier, starting this very moment.”
I think Angie almost started to cry. She had some vague sense that this might be true, that there might be some way for her son to grow up okay without finishing high school. But she didn’t know for sure, and she couldn’t put words to it.
I told her that given the limited time, I couldn’t explain much more, but that because her son was 16 she could just withdraw him from school. She might want or even need to contact some local homeschoolers to find out the nuances of the process in her area, and to learn what social and academic opportunities might already be organized and available. I also suggested she contact the admissions offices of any art schools or universities her son might want to attend, and tell them the exact truth of her situation, and find out what they suggest. Also, I mentioned that in case her son wanted to study art in an academic manner immediately, she might contact a local community college and find out how high school age students can enroll in classes.
Above all, I repeated as many times as I could squeeze into this short conversation, “Just remember, he can leave school with a positive attitude. His mantra can be, ‘I don’t want to waste another minute of my life in a system that isn’t working for me.’ He will find out that people will respect him for this choice, and that all of his opportunities will remain open to him.”
Now, I could hear Angie really was choked up. “I think you just changed my life!” she said, as we were exchanging good-byes. “Excellent,” I said. “Let me know what happens.”
A few weeks later, Angie called again. Her son has stopped going to school. The local homeschoolers had explained to her the necessary process in her state. Her son has been posting video game art on some sort of website for sale, and it turns out some of it was purchased by a video game design company. In just those first weeks, that company offered her son a contract, and he’s now getting real money to make art for video games.
“He’s so happy it’s unbelievable,” Angie tells me. “I just needed someone to tell me it was okay. I needed your voice.”
That’s really just about all Angie and her son needed. Angie is a writer and researcher, and once I pointed her in the right direction, she was on her way. Her son really is an artist, it seems, and he just needed some clearance to get a two-year head start on his life.
Sometimes I can use the authority of my experience and position to make this sort of difference. Honestly, this particular phone call was a momentary blip in my day, an afterthought to several face-to-face meetings and a full day of work at North Star. But it meant everything to Angie and her son.
I realize that most parents and teens need more than a short phone call consultation. I believe most families need the face-to-face meeting and the ongoing program of North Star or a Liberated Learners center. That is why we are all engaged in this work.
But this story provides some real inspiration! We are promoting a powerful idea, and when we share it with the right people at the right time, we change lives.
Ken Danford is Co-founder and Executive Director at North Star: Self Directed Learning for Teens and Co-founder of Liberated Learners. Ken has been working intensively with teenagers and their families since 1991, and now consults with adults interested in opening a self-directed learning center with guidance from Liberated Learners.
Contact Ken at