5 things I learned about boredom from homeschooling

I remember the first time I was ever bored. It was at The Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia. I was sitting on the floor, and a man was delivering a lecture about geology to a group of us homeschoolers. I was probably seven or eight. He was holding up different rocks. He had been holding up rocks for an hour. He had a big plastic case with drawers in it. In each drawer was a rock. We were supposed to sit there and listen and listen and listen. A strange feeling crept over me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to leave. Time felt slow. I didn’t care about the rocks. Not even a tiny bit. I wasn’t sure how to distract myself. I wasn’t sure what to daydream about, because I actually didn’t have much experience with daydreaming.

(I’ll never be a geologist…source)

I think my relationship with boredom has been different from most people’s. Maybe this has a lot to do with the unique composition of my brain, my particular weirdnesses, and my unshakable penchant for peanut butter milkshakes. But more likely, it has to do with being homeschooled. I’m trying to figure out what I’ve learned about boredom. Here are five things:

1. Learning is not boring when it’s not called “learning.”

It sounds like a really un-catchy bumper sticker. But there’s a problem with how people define learning. Today I was walking down Broadway on my way to buy jelly donuts for my class (to celebrate Chanukah*), and I overheard a little girl saying to her father, “But police don’t have to go to school to be police.” The father said, laughing, “Police have to go to school like everyone else. Where else would they learn?”

School is where you learn. We all know that. Yet classrooms are boring. I know. I got bored in college all the time. And then I got bored in grad school. And everyone around me seemed to be having the same experience.

But as a homeschooler, I was rarely bored. I think this might have been because learning was usually wrapped up in something else. There weren’t any subjects. Or assignments. There wasn’t any sitting unless it was because I had to sit. There was a reason for everything. And the reason wasn’t, “You have to learn this.”

When someone else decides for you what is worth knowing, and what’s important to learn, it’s likely to feel arbitrary and out of context. This is even worse when the person telling you what to think about is someone you don’t respect.

Like my Hebrew School teacher who pinched my cheeks with her impossibly long red nails and told the class stories about all the football players she’d been friendly with when she was a teenager. Once she even brought in a picture of herself with the football team.

2. Hanging out in a group is boring.

I know. I’m not allowed to say this. This is one of those taboo subjects. I’m supposed to love socializing in a group, to prove that homeschoolers are normal. But hanging out in a group (let’s say…more than six people) is boring. People rarely talk about anything in detail, and they don’t share information that they are willing to share one on one. If one person is loud and annoying and makes a lot of jokes, often everyone else has to play along with them. The conversation gets stuck, or it moves too quickly. You don’t get to learn much about people’s lives. In college, I was shocked when my entire freshman music ed class automatically began to eat all of their meals together. It would take about an hour longer than when I ate alone, and people would look at me funny when I didn’t laugh at the antics of the enormous, flailing guy who always took control of the discussion.

It’s still like this, as an adult. The dynamics don’t change that much. Even now, I have to convince myself to go to parties. Most of the time, I can’t. I think about what I might be able to accomplish in the time it will take to stand around making small talk with people I’ll probably never see again, and I can’t make myself budge. Which is why I think I am a social failure, on some level. At least, I fail to be interested in a kind of socialization that most people seem unable to be happy without.

As a kid, I did a lot of stuff by myself, and it was too much fun. I never had to be in a big group of other kids, and I never had any desire to. My brother did, which is why he went to school at fifteen. We get along really well, as long as he doesn’t bring all his friends over.

3. Sitting still is boring (work is boring).

It just is. Especially if you have to sit still for long periods of time. Unless you’re writing a book. But if you’re not, your body starts to stagnate. You get tired. You stop caring about things. Olivia Judson explains in the New York Times what’s going on and why sitting is bad.

It’s strange that people are forced to sit for so long every day. When I worked in an office, I felt really self-conscious about moving around in my seat. I was careful not to get up and go to the bathroom too many times. Or the water cooler. I started fidgeting and I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just sit still like a normal person?

(This guy is clearly missing the point. It’s all about walking over to it, not drinking from it. source)

Most types of work that people I know do involve sitting still in order to complete tasks assigned by someone else (often someone you don’t particularly respect).

4. It’s next to impossible to get bored when you are writing a book.

I spent a lot of time writing books as a homeschooler. They were terrible, almost without exception. In the one I wrote when I was fourteen, the hero is this blind mage named Drayuuk Cuare who is more powerful than everyone else in the world of Kaesk (and all six other worlds). His first line is “I see. Let me take a look at this.” I mean, come on. It took me three years to catch that mistake.

Writing a book takes a lot of time and patience and research and attention to detail. You have to study the way people behave. You have to think about communication. It takes a lot of passion.I can still feel exactly what it’s like to write the last sentence. Or the first. Or to figure out the plot twist. It is thrilling in a way that nothing else is thrilling.

Education is supposed to be about all of these separate subjects that, mastered individually, while sitting still and listening, create that precious state of well-roundedness that even the middle ranking private liberal arts colleges feel entitled to demand from their applicants these days. But try just doing one thing for a while. Building a car, inventing a language, or writing a book. It’s more fun. And you learn a lot.

But, on the flipside, you may never want to stop inventing languages or writing books. And writing books is not a practical way to make a living.

5. I don’t know how to be a proper adult because I don’t know how to deal with being bored

Homeschooling spoiled me for the adult world. I never learned the value of the kind of work that provides the majority of the population with a livelihood. As a result, I’m forced to be creative, even when I feel really, really lazy. Other people accept boring jobs that allow them to make lots of money, or at least enough money to survive. I can’t convince myself to accept a boring job. Even when I think I should, in order to learn an important lesson about growing up and living in the world. It never feels worthwhile.

At the same time, I’m arrogant about my relationship with boredom. I’m proud of refusing to do things that I find dull, even when other people find them essential.  And I’m worried about what will happen when I have less control over my time. Like when I have kids someday, or when I have to support my entire family on a waitress salary. Or something.

The first time I was bored, I was caught off-guard. I’d never thought rocks were boring before. I played with them in the driveway and in Mom’s garden. I could stack them and roll them against each other for hours. I examined each one, looking for rose quartz, which was prettier than a diamond because of its pink blush. But boredom is an easy skill to acquire, and it came to me as naturally as it does to most people. I’m no academic genius. I like to be entertained.

(Some of the characters in my books definitely looked like this. Mysterious robes are crucial. source)

*  *  *

Wild fun list: If you ever end up with a lot of money, definitely build a treehouse. And put it up as high as you possibly can.

Thank you to Penelope Trunk for suggesting the topic of this post to me. Penelope, as always, I appreciate it and feel lucky to know you. Also, I totally copied the format of this post off your last one.

*Celebratory jelly donuts, called “sufganiyot” in Hebrew, are fried in oil. Oil played an important role in the Chanukah miracle in ancient Jerusalem’s holy temple. It’s a pretty weak connection, if you ask me, but I’m willing to go along with almost anything that involves eating donuts.

10 comments to 5 things I learned about boredom from homeschooling

  • Random question: since you seem to have grown up near Philadelphia and Hamilton (re: best thrift store ever, mentioned on Eat the Damn Cake) did this plasma physicist friend happen to work at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in NJ? That’s where I study!

    I continue to love and relate to your blogs. Though I was the one to enjoy math (when I hit algebra, at least), and my sister was the one to write the wonderfully creative books. :)

  • kate

    Yes, that sounds right!! That’s awesome! I’m impressed.

  • I too have an unshakable penchant for peanut butter milkshakes. And if that makes me wrong, I don’t want to be right. :)

  • Oh, dude, seriously, homeschooling has effin NOTHING to do with someone’s skills of socializing. I’m pretty sure that the ability to socialize is something that you’re born with.. or not. Yes, they say you can “educate” yourself to be more sociable, but it rarely ends up by coming to you as easily as if you were a natural.

    I went to normal school (in a country where attending public or private school for ten years is MANDATORY – they are just now fighting to introduce homeschooling as a viable, legal option and I hope they do until I have kids, or else I’ll have to move to the US or something) and socialization still sucks for me and I hate to do it. I’m now in my third year of college and I have TWO people that I can actually talk to about stuff.. and maybe four or five more with whom I can make small talk. And from this point of view, high school SUCKED BALLS. Mostly everybody there knew me, but I still hated most of them – and didn’t want anything to do with the rest. So yeah, I think school may have actually KILLED any wish I could have of being a social person. There.

    • kate

      Ha! You made me laugh. And you’re absolutely right. But learning that being alone is OK is definitely a part of the experience for some homeschoolers (not all!).

      Where are you from?

      • Yeah, I guess that’s the main difference between homeschoolers and.. um, non-homeschoolers. For us, former high school kids, being alone feels a bit wrong sometimes, like we’ve failed or something, even if we know – rationally – that it is, in fact, not a big deal..

        And I’m from Romania (Central-Eastern Europe, former Communist country).

  • sitting still IS boring and hard and I hate it.

    and social skills I think are totally inborn.

    I don’t have them but my toddler apparently does!

    happy day!

  • Claire Allison

    Wow, you and I would have got along in College. You pretty much described my first two and a half years until I joined theatre (about a semester of still being lonely when I did, since it took a while to make friends). Grad school is a rinse and repeat, and I’ve found myself socializing with the undergrads because the other grads can’t or won’t socialize with me.

    I agree on your boredom thing. I sit in my three hour class and by the time we get to break my legs are shaking and I’m spinning around in the chair (literally- it’s a spiny chair) and I don’t think that helps my reputation. I ended up leaving my first career in part because I realized it was boring me and would only continue to do so- when I told my grandma (who was not impressed with my life choices and wanted me to do bigger and brighter things) that I was going to grad school the first thing she said was “good. I told everyone else that you’d get bored at that other job! This was the child who could never sit still and always wanted to do something new every five minutes!”

  • Thanks for good article. Hope to see more soon.

  • i noticed someone added this link on another one of your posts, but just in case those commenting here haven’t seen it.. this video is great – how to be alone: http://tinyurl.com/28zzhhq

    so i’ve yet to find a post of yours yet that hasn’t resonated Kate. and i’ve been reading and sharing about 5-10 a day. (ever since Lisa Nielsen, can’t thank her enough, intro’d you in her post)

    first, because we’re on this mission to unleash the kazillion people in public school for a kazillion hours in their life, to follow their fancy, their passion, and everything you write keeps going into, and better explaining, all that we’re doing/documenting.

    second, because personally, my passion growing up was to help people. only i was too embarrassed to share that when asked, because it was looked upon as too vague and too utopian. so i went on to master math, actually, to master school, a much more worthy venture. recently, i’ve unleashed myself. i think what kept me captive the most was that while my passion was to help people, i didn’t like crowds either. i, too, found them impersonal and compliant. but because, at the time, it seemed ironic to want to help people, but not be with them in large groups, i helped myself to a little dissing my own passion because the irony seemed to invalidate it.

    thank you – for all you are doing to help us embrace the abnormal. to be ourselves.

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