Wild Child

For Quinn Eaker, a son of the radical "unschooling" movement, school's out forever

When Quinn Eaker dropped out of a Colleyville high school in the second month of his senior year, his mother was so happy she threw him a huge party. A hundred guests descended on their home to celebrate Quinn's return to the freedom in which he'd been raised: days on end without classes, tests or grades, days free of any schedule, days for Quinn to learn what he wanted, when he wanted and how he wanted.

He returned to being unschooled.

Now 22, Quinn draws stares as he walks into a pizza parlor in Plano. Stubble sprinkles his square jaw, and his streaked hair looks like it's been styled with a blender. One braid wrapped in copper wire droops between his blue eyes, other braids sproing out in all directions and the rest is untamed.

Quinn Eaker, with his mother Barb Lundgren in their Colleyville backyard, where he says he spent an idyllic childhood.
Mark Graham
Quinn Eaker, with his mother Barb Lundgren in their Colleyville backyard, where he says he spent an idyllic childhood.
An unschooling family: clockwise from bottom left, Steve Eaker, Brenna, Barb Lundgren, Ike and Quinn
Holly Kuper
An unschooling family: clockwise from bottom left, Steve Eaker, Brenna, Barb Lundgren, Ike and Quinn

About 6-foot-3 and lean, Quinn has a hairless but muscular chest revealed by a laced-up white linen shirt. (Which he made.) Around his neck is a leather strap with a long silver pendant. (His design.) His feet are wrapped in shoes sewn of scraps of black leather with a bit of bone to hold them on. (Made two pairs of these, one black and one brown.)

The effect is of a handsome young man who has been raised by nice, middle-class wolves.

Animated, articulate and charming, with a vocabulary bent toward the metaphysical, Quinn describes his idyllic childhood spent at a rambling ranch house at the end of a dirt road. He and his two younger siblings had a pool and two wooded acres where they could frolic, build forts, romp with dogs and other pets, doing whatever they liked all day while the rest of their friends suffered in school.

"My mother taught us everything without teaching us anything," Quinn says. "Everything I know I've experienced myself, I've taught myself, I've learned myself. The whole childhood was magical."

Few people lived in Colleyville 20 years ago when his parents, Barb Lundgren and Steve Eaker, moved here from St. Louis. Since then, the surrounding farmland has filled in with acres of gargantuan custom homes of high-achieving parents. Lots of them probably moved here for the schools.

Lundgren wanted to get away from them.

Quinn tells the story of his mom's epiphany as if he were recounting a family legend. It started with his birth, an event that took place at their home in St. Louis in 1983. Lundgren was the college-educated director of financial aid at Washington University. Her husband was an advertising executive with an MBA in marketing and a big advertising agency job. Though neither ever wanted kids, Lundgren says that at age 27, her biological clock started ticking so loudly it was all she could hear.

She started reading Sante Fe-based Mothering magazine and soaked up its philosophy of natural childbirth, the wisdom of mothers and the instincts of babies. Lundgren's friends warned her that home birthing was not only painful but dangerous. But the experience was so amazing, so profound, that Lundgren began to wonder what other received wisdom was wrong.

As she delved deep into alternative parenting literature, Lundgren came to believe that sending her children to school--public or private--was a bad idea. In the early '80s, the homeschooling movement was small but gathering steam, especially in Texas. Parents, mostly conservative Christians, were quietly taking their children out of schools to educate them at home.

Lundgren had rejected her Lutheran upbringing but discovered the ideas of John Holt, who began in the '60s to advocate what has come to be called "unschooling." The child directs his education, deciding when and if he wants to learn reading, math, science, anything or nothing.

So when Quinn was 5, Lundgren didn't send him to kindergarten. At age 6, he didn't go to first grade. Neither did his sister Brenna or brother Ike. When Quinn decided in the eighth grade to try school, Lundgren was unhappy but bit her lip. Neither of his siblings has ever attended school.

It's an approach to child-rearing that would--and did--shock their families and neighbors. What about SAT scores? What about college? What about law school and medical school and getting a good job and marrying the right sort of person and then sending their grandkids to good schools?

Lundgren has heard it all, but, with a few detours, has remained a radical unschooler. It hasn't always been easy. A lover of books, Lundgren admits it bothered her when one child wasn't interested in learning to read until he was a teenager. An avid traveler, Quinn once came home with a tale of living on the streets in Hawaii with a homeless schizophrenic who taught him how to dumpster-dive--a practice he sometimes continues during pit stops at home.

"What I have learned to do is withdraw from the societal expectations that exist for my child and ask some basic questions," Lundgren says. "Does he seem happy with himself? Is he making inquiries into things he's interested in?"

Homeschooling's stepchild, the unschooling movement has quietly spread, especially in Texas, where there are virtually no legal restrictions against it. It produces either--as proponents contend--creative thinkers who are self-motivated to learn or, as critics maintain, illiterate young adults who can't read a menu or make correct change.

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