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Free Grafton


Wesley's Story--A Case for Educational Choice

   My parents sent me to public school when I was six years old.  At the time I could read at better than a fourth grade level.  I didn't know much phonics, but about as much as was taught in public school, since that was in the look/say, Dick-and-Jane era, when phonics were de-emphasized, and a generation of American schoolchildren grew up never learning to read properly.  I knew multiplication tables, and could do long division.  I could block print, and had the motor control necessary to learn to write cursive script.  In sum, I was ready in every way for fourth grade work in the standard curriculum of the times.


   The school, however, arbitrarily placed me in the first grade, without testing me or making any attempt to ascertain my appropriate level, disregarding my parents' request for a higher placement.  It left me there even after it became obvious that I was far more advanced than my classmates.  This meant that educationally school was a waste for me, since by the time anything came up in school I had already learned it from another source.  My parents, who were themselves teachers, deferred to the school on the matter, disregarding my ongoing protests.


   By the time I was in the sixth grade, I was about six grades behind where I should have been placed.  I would have had no trouble passing a high school GED test if I had been allowed to take one.  The schools I attended never made the slightest concession to my intellectual needs.  By then I was bored out of my gourd, and was beginning to think in terms of what Piaget terms the formal operations stage, understanding the implications of courses of action over time.  I realized this would be the last year I would be able to tolerate being in an anti-learning environment.  The school gave a three-day battery of multi-disciplinary tests to everyone in the upper grades, and I made the top score.  I then asked to be accelerated into the eighth grade.  This would have made me legal when I quit, since the law at the time only mandated schooling through the eighth grade.  The school summarily rejected this request.


   I continued until the end of the school year (not far off), while warning my parents (almost daily) I would not be going back.  They typically blew me off.  When they sent me back for seventh grade I refused to go.  They acted as though that were a big surprise.  They refused to accept my reason, and kept trying to find out the "real" reason.  That made communication impossible.


   I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps by taking degrees in physics and electrical engineering at the University of Colorado, which was in the process of upgrading its engineering school by adding a gifted program.  I hoped my parents could tell me how to get in without having finished "stupidity school," and was using their books to fill in any gaps in my high school knowledge. (Between the two of them, they could have taught the entire high school curriculum).


   The school authorities, however, had other ideas.  They pressured my parents into conniving with a "psychiatrist" who had never examined or spoken with me to sign me into the state "hospital," an institution in which no healing took place.  When my father refused, they bullied my mother into signing him into the "hospital"--not too hard to do in those days--so that she could then sign me in without his consent.


   They released him after holding him for a period of observation, but not before he had been permanently damaged by the tranquilizers given wholesale to mental patients in those days.  He never taught again, and died of a stress-related heart attack four years later.


   Being subject to my parents' wishes in the length of time I was incarcerated, I was held for a year and a half, until I was withdrawn by them after I escaped.  I was not given tranquilizers, but I was forcibly given electroshock treatments, which caused lasting brain damage.  They destroyed my ability to sustain my concentration and I often couldn't maintain a coherent chain of thought.  This put an end to my college aspirations, and, along with other effects of the damage, closed off most ways of earning a living.


   As a way of monitoring the damage, I took up playing tournament chess.  Within three years I was the best in the state at speed chess, because the problem was apparently related to the mechanism controlling the release of hormones in the brain, and a speed tournament could often be completed before I became depleted.  But it took me another three years to begin winning state championships at regular time limits.  Even then chess was not very gratifying to me, because I had not solved the problem, but merely found ways to circumvent it.


   For me public schools were never anything but an impediment to my education.  Had the Education Freedom Accounts recently passed by the New Hampshire legislature been in effect when and where I was going to school, I would not only have been allowed to pursue an education, but given some support for doing so.



Wesley Koehler is libertarian who has come to New Hampshire with the Free State Project.

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