Two diplomas lie in front of me, both issued in Simon’s name last week. The first diploma is in Dutch, called Getuigschrift van basisonderwijs (Elementary Education Certificate) from the Flemish department of education in Belgium. It is Simon’s ticket to another couple years of educational freedom, peace of mind and dignity. Funny that he had to earn this ticket and wasn’t entitled to educational freedom as a basic human right. What did the ticket cost? Many stressful nights and mornings breaking his natural biological rhythm, tears of fear and being put under pressure, three days among strangers at a strange school with no air conditioning in temperatures around 30°C (86°F) with a mask on, being tested in all Belgian school subjects and measured against some mythical average school child. Simon is not a school child, is truly a citizen of the world and his daily learning is all about personal growth and nothing about proving himself comparable to an average. He finds it highly debatable that average even exists.
For over a week I kept feeling as if our whole family had been run over by a bulldozer. The experience stirred many traumatic memories from years ago of the invasive compulsory schooling practices we had been going through back in our children’s native Amsterdam. Here we were, both of us it feeling like those young parents again, forced to force or coerce our child into a setting that was at best irrelevant and often times thoroughly detrimental to his learning process.
“Show me your history lessons”, Simon’s friend asked him. Simon couldn’t understand the question. “Your book”, the friend insisted, “show me your book!” The misunderstanding went on for a while until Simon finally said: “Ok, what I’m trying to say is…there is no book”. “How did you pass your exam then? Did you cheat or copy? ” the friend asked. “No I didn’t. If I don’t have the book, it doesn’t mean I can’t learn history”.
“Isn’t it great”, some people told us, “that now you know he can go through such stressful situations without loosing his cool?” No, I answer, I didn’t need to know that. Simon isn’t some experiment material of mine that I’m testing for strength and elasticity. I’m okay with him taking tests and being evaluated if that is his choice or if that is something leading to landing a dream project he aspires to get into. At the moment, he is continuously testing himself in speed cubing, he even programmed his own timer to test himself. The government making Simon subject to mandatory testing is something I have a very hard time coping with. Even though the exam school teachers were nice to Simon, I can’t help but see them as cogs in the system of compulsion, kind prison guards, if you will.
The second diploma is Simon’s certificate of completing the two-year program for exceptional math talents called World Science Scholars. This one is adorned with the famous physicist Brian Greene’s signature, the program’s co-founder. We also saw Brian Greene in a Big Bang Theory episode we watched last night. In other words, it’s an honor that Simon was selected to be part of this program when he was only 9 years old, as the youngest scholar among all the existing cohorts. It’s a huge honor he interacted with Brian Greene and followed his course. This diploma is not irrelevant to his learning journey, it definitely reflects a few sparks he experienced along his unique path. That said, it also reflects the rigid curriculum of a few other courses he wasn’t interested in engaging with at the time but felt like he had to, in order to remain part of program, which also brings back memories of tears, conflict and disconnection now that I look back at it. Over the years, I have learned my biggest lesson and that is that if allowed the freedom to learn, children learn with the sole purpose to learn and not to get approval or grades or diplomas. It’s funny how now that the World Science Scholars formal two-year period is over, Simon may find the program match his learning style better: as an alumnus, he has been kindly granted permission to continue following any courses and joining any live sessions of his choice in the years to come (he couldn’t pick courses during his two years within the program).
Simon didn’t take interest in his diplomas, so let’s put them away. Let’s instead look at his desk, covered in World Cube Association puzzles of all shapes and sizes and hand-written cheat sheets with CFOP and Ortega algorithms, scribbles with formulas and lines of code, a self-constructed webcam rig to show cubing moves to his friend Abhay and the omnipresent cup of tea which, as we have just learned from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, can power an improbability drive. The truth is, we don’t know where the journey will take us and the learning never ends.