On the Importance of Whole Soul Safety or the Real Reason to Rise-Out of School

By Eli Gerzon

It’s difficult for me to talk about unschooling and education because I have so much passion and so many thoughts and feelings about it that I’m not sure where to start. So, I’ll start with a story from my school years. At the time, I was really into “Star Trek: the Next Generation” (I still think it’s one of the best shows ever). On Star Trek they have all this ridiculous lingo: the hull was always “about to buckle” or the “warp core was going to breach.” The captain shouted one of the simpler trademark sayings whenever they encountered a hostile alien ship. He’d yell, “Shields Up! We’re under attack!” Then they’d fire some “photon torpedoes.” I was in fourth grade and I have this memory of walking onto the grounds of Bishop Elementary School and saying to myself, “Shields Up! We’re entering school!”

Part of me wants to tell you all about my experience with school: nine years in and nine year out. I was born unschooling (like everyone), and exactly three years ago in this week of April I decided to unschool. The Waldorf School was my introduction to school for first and second grade and then Arlington Public Schools from third grade to freshman year of high school. Understanding education in all its forms has been the main course of my unschooling curriculum, but I still don’t feel like I understand it enough to speak with authority. I don’t feel like I’m an author of my education story but still a character like Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings thinking, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” What effect exactly did school have on me? How was this effect accomplished? Why did it happen? Even, Who is responsible for it? What is true, complete whole education? How do we accomplish whole education in this society? Are there some things that people do need to be “taught?” The question of school goes beyond school and the question of whole education needs to go beyond this society to be answered. I have done this type of studying beyond school and beyond this society but the only thing that I am totally certain of is the importance of whole soul safety. I do not understand exactly what goes on in school but I know that it is not safe and that is why I do not go and that is why I do not want the people I care about to go.

What is interesting about my memory from fourth grade is that I was already conscious of having to “put up a shield,” because until recently I’ve mainly thought about the oppression, lies, disconnection, and social ramifications associated with the educational system of this country. But today I’m mainly going to talk about why keeping myself safe has been a major driving force of my unschooling (so much for dispelling the myth that homeschoolers are sheltered!). Why is safety so important? It wasn’t until last summer while deep in the wilderness of Maine that I became conscious of the importance of safety to me and it’s still difficult for me to explain because it didn’t come to me by logical reasoning. Now I can give logical reasons but they are still not it; still not the basis for this very basic feeling. Is that enough cryptic ambiguities? Here is what happened:

Last August, I was at a camp called Coyote’s Quest with six other teens and three counselors on a lake in Maine for ten days. At the end of the camp we were to spend two days and two nights alone on a vision quest but, as is the way with things of that nature, not all the “visions” come during those two days. Instead, lots of lessons come long before and after. And the way I saw my lesson was through caring about another person. While I was there I began thinking about a girl I know who goes to school. Imagining her in school, I began to feel so concerned with what she had to do to survive there; how much she had to smother her self with phony personas, silly social life, meaningless work, empty goals, fruitless endeavors, and the inhalation of constant lies. I imagined her “stressed-out” over school work and social issues that have meaning for a day, a week, a month, maybe even a year but by stepping back for an instant one realizes in the span of life they have as much substance as a shadow or a wisp of wind. I imagined her with all these problems and I simply wanted her to be safe from them. She was someone I had had very interesting conversations about school with and is one of the many schoolers I know who does step back and is aware of the emptiness of school. And yet she still goes and we still discuss. But this time I felt like it was beyond discussing and philosophizing; this was too important. Forget figuring out exactly what was going on, why, how, and when it started: I just wanted to protect her. I wanted her to know how important it was for her to simply keep herself safe.

This whole vision of safety, wanting to protect this girl, or at least convince her how important it was for her to protect herself came to me while in the wilderness of Maine and it is one of the most important things I have learned while unschooling. And it is certainly not something I “learned” in any usual sense of the word. I definitely did not find it in a textbook (if I did I probably would have cracked-up laughing)! Of course, what really made the lesson helpful was when I realized that everything that I so wanted to say to this girl (protect yourself, don’t worry what others think because safety’s the most important thing) was what I didn’t have the guts to say to myself! It may sound odd but it is a lot easier to tell someone else to care about themselves and to take care of themselves than to tell yourself. Then, actually doing it is even harder, because I’m not talking about taking a day off, buying a quart of ice cream, a bag of cheetos, and stack of movies; that’s not really taking care of yourself (it’s taking something... but not care). Anyway, as much as I cared about this girl my own safety needed to be the first step. Then, if she ever wanted my help I could actually give it because I would have something to give. Nonetheless, even if I did not ever help this girl she certainly had helped me: she had taught me something. It shows one more time that you don’t need to have a teacher’s degree to be a good teacher: sometimes you simply need to be a smart lovable girl.

Now I was able to see how this issue of safety directly pertained to me and start remembering stories like thinking “shields up!” when I entered school in fourth grade. I started to realize that safety was behind the reason I started unschooling. If you had asked me at the time I would have given you more reasons than you’d want to hear but behind them all was that something felt very wrong about school and I didn’t want to be a part of it. People would ask me “Were you scared to leave school?” and I would honestly answer, “No, I was scared to stay in school!” And when making this choice to take care of myself by getting out of school I actively affirmed the fact that I am worth taking care of. This may be the best reason to truly keep yourself safe: it reminds you every instant that you’re important. When you realize you’re important you can’t help get the notion that you’re wants, desires, and dreams are also important. As James Baldwin wrote: “People ought to do what they want, what else are they alive for?” And when you’re safe you’re not afraid to question and explore in order to accomplish those little wants or those fantastic dreams.

We all have to remember that school, in essence, was created to prevent people from accomplishing their own individual dreams. That may sound harsh but it is a known fact that the modern American methods of schooling were created in order to make good factory workers and they still have the same function, just the factories aren’t always physical now and the conveyor belts aren’t quite as concrete. But people still plug away without caring about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it will effect the world or even how it will effect themselves. And the only way an institution can make you accept an existence like that is by breaking your spirit; by abusing you enough that, in a last resort to protect your soul, you disconnect from it. When you are not connected to your soul you are not connected to your soul truths and your soul desires, and that is exactly the point. So how does school do this?

I don’t pretend to understand it completely but I think most of it is based on control. Who is in control in school? Time and time again students are sent the message that they are the last ones in control. How often do students, in any school, decide what, how, and when they are going to study? Albert Einstein said of the desire to learn: “I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.” The “food” is “selected accordingly.” Some of my high school friends will actually say things along the lines of, “Alright, guys let’s stop talking about this; we’re out of school: we don’t need to be intelligent anymore.” Students are overwhelmed with meaningless work and arbitrary deadlines and then pitted against each other to see who can endure the most abusive self-denying, authority following, fear driven, sad behavior euphemistically referred to as “education.” That is not true education or whole education, which involves actual learning through your own self and is based on taking care of yourself, keeping yourself safe. This is not only something you owe to yourself, but to those around you as well.

One of the most important reasons to keep yourself safe is the effect it has on others. When people feel really unsafe they’re unsafe for others to be around. How many of us have felt threatened by deadlines, difficult situations, difficult people, and, consciously or not, taken our negative emotions (fear, anger, sadness, worry, etc.) out on other people who have nothing to do with our painful predicament? Why does the teacher hound the students about scoring well on tests after being hounded by the principal, who was hounded by the superintendent, etc.? We all lash out when we feel threatened even at things that have nothing to do with the threat. There is a story by an Abenaki Indian, named Tsonakwa, that addresses beautifully this issue of those in pain causing further pain.

The Abenaki are traditionally from the area of Quebec and this man tells a story about when he was a very young boy living with his family in Quebec. At the beginning of the story Tsonakwa makes sure to say that his people have a peaceful relationship with the animals on their land and whenever they do go hunting they do it “in a sacred manner.” With this prelude, Tsonakwa tells of a time he was wandering around a small stream when he found a muskrat with one leg caught in a trap. Seeing this muskrat in pain, he wanted to help it. So he reached down to let it out of the trap but as he reached the muskrat bit him. Tsonakwa describes how he was physically hurt but was even more emotionally hurt: he was trying to help the muskrat but the muskrat hurt him. He walked home to his father who bandaged him up. After telling what happened his father asked him how he felt about it now, and Tsonakwa said that he still wanted to help the muskrat. So, his father got some heavy work gloves, followed little Tsonakwa to the muskrat, put on the gloves, and let the muskrat free. As they were walking home his father turned to him and said, “Do you know why that muskrat bit you?” Tsonakwa said, “No, I was trying to help him so I don’t know why he would hurt me.” His father then explained why the muskrat bit him.

Sometimes people (one of the muskrat people in this case) can feel so caught, be in so much pain that they “lose their understanding.” When somebody reaches out to a person in this state, even if they’re reaching to help, that person “can only imagine they’re going hurt them more.” Tsonakwa’s father pointed out that when he went to help that muskrat he made sure to put on some heavy gloves because he knew the muskrat would bite him. He said, “Before I could do anything to help him I had to protect myself.” His father then tells him that when he leaves this village he is going to meet a lot of people who are caught in traps and in pain. Tsonakwa says that it was many years later that he even remembered his father’s advice. He remembered it when he “became that muskrat” and he “was the one who was sick and caught in a trap.” After that he began to understand people a lot better and the spiritual damage that has been inflicted upon the entire planet, “even to the great whales of the ocean,” as he says. There is what he calls a “powerful entity... a life-force or a non-life-force” that he describes as “not a bad thing, not a malicious thing. It’s not malevolent; it’s not evil. But it will draw out your life force.” When we encounter this force he says “we need to protect ourselves spiritually, lest we get bit.”

This is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard. When I apply it to my life many things become much clearer. Simply the phrase “draw out your life-force” is such a helpful tool for understanding. School’s methods and motivations for damaging people usually seem very complex but become much simpler when looked at from this perspective. School draws-out your life force: you give it time, energy, hard work, trust, worry, and expectations; people expect for the hard painful work in school to lead to something, to pay off, to give back, but in sad truth it never really does: school takes without giving. It does give you some things, but the knowledge, lessons, and friends you gain are usually superficial and the true knowledge, lessons, and friends we gain are rare and usually in spite of school. Most people say that they didn’t even learn anything in school; I think I’m one of the rare people who thinks they actually did, but I know that I could have learned a lot more on my own. Tsonakwa’s comment that this force is not a “bad... malicious... evil thing” is also amazing. Sometimes I find this view hard to accept but there are many times when I encounter people, writing, music, situations, etc. where by no means I can say they’re all bad. They are just not right for me at that time. Furthermore, even if something is completely wrong for me, and I know it will never be right for me, understanding what truly compels it to do the things it does makes me feel a lot better towards it.

That brings me to perhaps the worst and potentially the best aspect of this whole issue of safety: it is all a cycle. The more toxic things (including people) draw-out your life-force the less you can protect yourself against them; the more they take the more you let them take. Indeed, many things have such a strong grasp on us that we want and need them to take our life from us (school and drugs may come to mind but they aren’t the only things). Furthermore, the only reason people and things hurt you is because they too were hurt before by others, who were hurt before by others, who were hurt before by others, and so on. This is true on the small scale of individuals and families all the way to the large scale of nations, races, and religions. This does not excuse these abusive entities: it just explains them. We can see that pain and oppression start a very powerful cycle but, so does safety and caring.

I believe that each individual needs to start their own cycle of safety and caring; I believe we owe it to the world to be kind, gentle and caring to ourselves! It sounds like a joke because it’s such a radical notion. But as you begin to keep yourself safe it will become easier and easier to be kind, caring and peaceful to yourself and easier to do the same for others. Only, it’s very hard to do this until your own wounds have been healed. When I started unschooling I really wanted to convince everyone of how bad school was and how they just had to get out. Only, the truth was that I had gotten out of school but school hadn’t really gotten out of me! I wanted to help others but I couldn’t until I had helped myself. In the past three years I’ve tried to heal my wounds from school and from other areas of my life. There is such a difference between how I felt three years ago and how I feel now. Literally, it is hard to put into words but I find myself spontaneously saying, “God I love my life!” quite often. In the past I’ve had more dismal things to say about my life. I think this is a positive change.

Now I simply feel stronger, more certain about my views and myself. I feel more alive. This started from a cycle: both my parents have done a lot of healing and passed it along to me. My mother especially has passed on a lot of healing to me. Some with words but mostly by example and by unspoken things. I am so thankful for this. Thich Naht Hahn once said, “Smile for the unborn children.” I love this quote and wanting to continue this cycle of safety and healing has motivated much of my healing. I want to pass on that whole, holy, and healthy cycle spreading throughout this spiritually hurt planet. By no means have I healed all my wounds or been “cured.” But now I do feel like I come from enough of a base of safety that I can now begin to do the things in my life that I really want to do and am meant to do, without being stopped by overwhelming fear and self doubt. I feel like I can now take more and bigger risks than before when I was not as consciously concerned about safety. For example, believe it or not, I can make speeches in front of large audiences.

After all, whole soul safety is not about things that happen once in awhile (getting dumped or being yelled at for the first time), but it’s about getting up and you or others doing the same damage to you almost every day. It is the systematic assault to the sacredness of ones soul that is the sickness. And all of us are sacred, simply because we exist we are sacred. If something is sacred it deserves to be safe. I must say that the best way to do this is simply to refuse. Former slave and abolitionist author, Frederick Douglas wrote: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Endurance is usually considered a good thing but to endure certain things is an insult to our sacredness. Don’t insult your sacredness. If you are sitting here right now breathing, you are worth more than that. Then the next step is accepting the beauty around us, accepting healing. Healing can be anything, not just talk therapy, vitamins, pills, or homeopathy. Anything that makes you feel good, not in a superficial way but in a deep way, is healing.

I’ve done some weird healing over the years. You’ve heard of acupuncture? I did something like it, only weirder. You’ve heard of homeopathy? I did something like it, only a lot weirder. But simply things like walking through the woods have worked wonders for me. Nature is one of those things I do not understand where its power comes from but I can see the truths and secrets of my life reflected back most clearly and beautifully through nature. Nature helps me refuse to endure the ugly and wounding aspects of my environment and myself. Even more nature helps me open myself up to the good gifts of life. Through the beauty of nature I cannot help but be overwhelmed with thankfulness. When I just look up at a tree and see how it reaches up to the sky with such life, it seems like it’s just reaching up in reverence for its beautiful creation, I cannot deny the beautiful things in my life.

I still do not remember this fact enough but there is so much to be thankful for. The opportunity that unschooling has given me, the beautiful work which I have done, and the beautiful people and things, some of them unnamable things, which have helped me I have a deep sweet gratitude towards. Lastly, I am thankful to you, the audience, for listening to me speak. Enjoy the workshops and panel discussion, and a blessing to you all.


[Eli Gerzon gave this speech at the Whole Education Without Schooling Conference in Boston in the spring of 2002.]