I was hiking in the woods, not far from my house yesterday. It had snowed and the trees all looked so beautiful. As I was walking, I played a game I often play where I try to identify as many plants and trees and I can see. Just for fun. This is a great time of year for that game because many trees and plants are just now beginning to bud and even leaf out, giving even more clues as to their identity.
A few years ago I took a seasonal job teaching environmental education to groups of school kids on a local mountain. Three or four times a week, I would lead kids on hikes up and down this mountain, reciting plant names and telling native stories about the flora and fauna. I loved the job and eventually could've ID'd local native plants in my sleep. As I walked down the trail yesterday, I whispered to myself, "Madrone, White Oak, Manzantia, Snow Berry..." then I stopped dead in my tracks. The bush in front of me was just barely beginning to leaf out. It's ash-colored bark peeled in flakes off the trunk and the new, green, baby leaves fanned out in a ridged, scalloped shape. I couldn't for the life of me remember the name of that native bush.
I remembered how the native people in our region used the branches to make their tools because the diameter was relatively narrow and the wood so hard. I remembered that the bark could be boiled to make a purple dye or a remedy for lung ailments. But I couldn't remember the name. I panicked. How could I not remember? I'd been so proud of all that information I knew. I loved that friends and their kids would come to me when they had questions about our native plants. What would happen if I slowly began to forget every single one?
I got that feeling in my stomach that I associate with being called on in class and not knowing the answer to the teacher's question. I hated it when that happened. My face would flush and I would stumble over my words and feel like a schmuck. As I continued down the trail, I relaxed and my unschooling brain kicked in. So what if I forgot? Would it be that bad to start hiking with my Pacific Northwest Plant Guide again? Couldn't I just look up the darn thing when I got home? I could even google it if I really needed to know fast. Ahhhhhh, that's better. I don't actually need to know everything all the time.
I used to think I did. If you and I were having a conversation and you used a word I wasn't familiar with, chances are I wouldn't have asked you for the meaning. I would have nodded confidently and acted as if I knew precisely what you were referring to. That was far better than admitting I hadn't a clue as to what you talking about. To me, that would have made me appear less educated, or less than you. Since embracing unschooling, I have found something that works much better for me: I ask! I clarify! I say, "I don't know, how about you?" all the time, and for me, it's liberating. I'm sure much of this past tendency can be attributed to my personality, but I have a hunch that over 16 years of formal education has something to do with it as well.
My kids have never been to school, and seem to have no trouble admitting when they don't know something. I remember the shocked looks on the faces of some children at the library years ago when my daughter Janey asked who Harry Potter was. It went like this: She asked. They were shocked. No one ridiculed. She got her answer, and moved on. As far as I could tell, she felt no shame. She just wanted to know. I have a feeling that if the very same conversation had occurred across a crowded cafeteria table at lunch time, the outcome might not have been quite so positive. I love that our life without school has given me the opportunity to shed the need to know everything all the time.
On my way home from my hike yesterday, I pondered these realizations and smiled to myself. The name of that bush popped right into my head as my house came into view: Mountain Mahogany.