One of the biggest questions yet to be answered by educators is whether academic success is an accurate predictor of success later on in life.

My youngest sister works at a busy restaurant in the town where I grew up. One night a couple of guys who were a few years behind me in high school asked her what I was up to now. “She’s a rocket scientist, right?” one of them guessed. “Well,” my sister replied, “not really. She’s a mom.” Both men burst out laughing. “No, really, what is she doing now? She’s a doctor, right?” My sister tried again, “No. She’s a mom, and she teaches her kids at home.”

This marks the year of my 20th high school class reunion. My senior class portrait is splattered across some website right now along with the caption, “Most Likely to Succeed.” It’s hard for me not to feel like a disappointment to the class that bestowed that honor upon me. When the class valedictorian goes off to college and grad school and then decides to stay at home and teach her kids, does that qualify as success? I’m not sure that’s what anyone had in mind back then, including me.


Now my children have the opportunity to do something different. They have the chance to learn in freedom, to experience education free of bells and whistles and the requisite hoops. They know what it’s like to follow their interests and trust their instincts.


When I was in school, success was easy to measure. There were numerical scores, letter grades, percentage points. You rack up enough A’s and 100%’s, and everybody thinks you’re destined to become a rocket scientist. I must have been genetically wired to know exactly what hoops to jump through. I gathered up my A’s like they were precious gems—and later traded them in for a college scholarship. While I’m not ashamed of those achievements, it’s not the way I want my children to learn. The longer I home school, the more I realize that I gave up as much as I gained (if not more). I routed my own curiosity if I couldn’t get “credit” for it. I traded creativity for technical perfection. I regret some of those compromises, but at the time it was the only game in town.

Now my children have the opportunity to do something different. They have the chance to learn in freedom, to experience education free of bells and whistles and the requisite hoops. They know what it’s like to follow their interests and trust their instincts. And I’m able to see the world anew in their eyes. Together we’re learning how the universe works in the context of, well, the universe instead of some textbook. It’s a great privilege. Unfortunately, those things are almost impossible to measure, and even harder to put on a résumé.

But for those who try, there’s the temptation to measure your kid’s successes and then claim them as your own. It would be just as wrong for me to show up at my high school reunion and say, “My second grader is doing college-level algebra” as it would be to say, “I’m a success because I make X amount of dollars.” (Both are artificial standards of success, plus my second grader is only doing second-grade math.)

In our overachieving society, success is often defined by the addition of things: more money, advanced degrees, bigger houses, better jobs. But the best explanation I’ve heard for what I do involves taking away, not adding to. John Taylor Gatto has said that teaching is not at all like painting, where an image is created by the addition of material to a canvas, “but more like the art of sculpture, where, by the subtraction of material, an image already locked in the stone is enabled to emerge.” Because of that, he says: “I dropped the idea that I was an expert, whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise, and began to explore how I could remove these obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself.” (Dumbing Us Down, p. xii-xiii)

So if my sister is ever again asked what I’m up to these days, perhaps she can say that I’m sculpting. I don’t know if I’ll make it back home for my high school reunion, but I do know this much: What has changed the most about me in the last 20 years is not the likelihood of my success, but my willingness to admit that there might be something more important.

© 2000, Amy Hollingsworth

Amy Hollingsworth received her B.A. degree in psychology and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and
her M.A. degree in Education/Counseling and Human Services from Regent University. Amy  teaches psychology at Mary Washington College while continuing to home school her two children, Jonathan (9) and Emily (7).  She and her husband Jeff, a pastor, live in Fredericksburg, Va. She has written extensively on home schooling and parenting issues for Home Education Magazine, The American Partisan, Christianity.com, Reconciliation Press Online and numerous educational web sites. Her article, "Behind the Mask:  What the Phantom of the Opera Taught Us," was recently featured in the book Christian Unschooling.