Wild Child

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

At about 11, Quinn decided he wanted a curriculum. Lundgren says friends who went to school were teasing him, saying he'd have to start in kindergarten if he ever went to school. "I think he wanted to prove to himself that 'I can do this,'" Lundgren says.

Lundgren agreed, telling Quinn if he wanted help, she'd sit down with him 10 hours a day, but she wasn't going to force him to study or do homework. It was all up to him.

She bought a curriculum package with lots of hands-on projects. But most of the books he'd already read. Quinn complained the science book was boring and didn't teach anything he didn't already know. Skeptical, Lundgren read him the experiments and asked him to describe the outcome. "He did," Lundgren says. "We tossed that book aside."

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

Quinn's initial excitement waned, but when another homeschool mom offered to buy the curriculum, he refused to give it up. Lundgren made her son a deal: For each week that he didn't keep up with the work, he paid her $4 from his allowance. He ended up paying for the whole thing. One night, Quinn cuddled up with his mom and said, "It makes more sense for me to do the things I'm interested in instead of what other people think."

But at age 14, Quinn announced he wanted to attend school.

Shocked, Lundgren thought the main reason was that his friends were all in school. Eaker says his oldest son was bored. "Quinn, of the three of our kids, is the more sensitive and had more of a need to be accepted," Eaker says. I think he felt more acutely the difference in which he was raised."

Quinn says the main reason was his love-hate relationship with his sister Brenna. Like most little sisters, she was driving him nuts. And Quinn admits he was rebelling. "I knew my mother didn't like school," Quinn says. His dad? "I think he was quite happy I was going."

Public schools are the nurseries of all vice and immorality.

--Henry Fielding

Steve Eaker's biggest conflict with his wife over unschooling was simple: How would his children find good jobs? What if all Ike wanted to do was play videogames and Frisbee golf, as it now seems?

But Eaker's own life took a weird twist that proved a top-flight college degree doesn't provide lifelong happiness, or even employment.

A soft blanket depicting a tiger drapes a table in the room at St. Paul Medical Center. Diagrams of "trigger pressure points" adorn the walls. After several years, Eaker's massage therapy practice has built up a client base, but it's still a struggle.

Tall, his graying brown hair in an upswept brush-cut, Eaker wears a purple scrub shirt and large glasses. Low-key and thoughtful, he has found a niche in the massage business providing relief to people with long-standing pain, but 30 years ago, if anyone had told Eaker he'd be rubbing backs for a living...well, it wasn't even a "remote possibility." In fact, Quinn was the one who was interested in massage school. But in 2001, Eaker got laid off. Nearing 50, in a business--advertising--slammed by the collapse of the stock market, Eaker had few prospects.

Eaker now looks back with some regrets. "I wouldn't say I wasted 25 or 30 years of my life, but I do think a lot of my choices I thought I made weren't really choices," Eaker says. "They were fulfilling expectations I integrated into my personality." If he'd had more freedom to explore other interests, he says, maybe he would have found not just a job but a passion.

His father insisted on Eaker getting a master's degree. "It was important to him what schools I applied to," Eaker says. "He was seeing who was being hired and promoted. He would have loved it if I'd gotten into Harvard, but I didn't."

He admits today that he's had anxiety over his children's educations. He'd repeat to himself, "I believe they will learn to read when they are ready." Ike's late start spooked him, but he was comforted by the fact that soon after his children got serious about reading, they quickly progressed to reading at their grade level.

"For most people, it's the lunatic fringe," he says. "What I've seen is that our kids are better-adjusted than most other kids."

Like Quinn, Brenna wanted to go to school in the eighth grade, so Lundgren took her on a tour of the public middle school. "It seemed so scary," Brenna says. "There were so many people. The way they went from one class to the next class. It sort of seemed like prison." She said no thanks.

Brenna's experience mirrors Quinn's, except that from an early age she kept a journal and wrote to pen pals. At Brenna's request, Lundgren started teaching her math. Brenna lost interest after two weeks but has kept track of her babysitting money since she was 12. "I think my dad may have been a little scared that we wouldn't know the things that we should," Brenna says. "But he didn't pressure us."

At 18, Brenna took a couple of classes in science and math at a community college to see if she'd like to pursue a degree. She did well but hated the boring material. Brenna still hasn't found her passion, but she feels "happy, capable and smart" as a result of her upbringing. She's been financially independent for several years. An avid climber, she moved a month ago to Boulder, Colorado, with her boyfriend. If there was any downside to unschooling, it was that she was never around people who didn't like her. "I don't have as much experience with people being negative toward me," Brenna says. "People who have been to school can take that with more of a grain of salt."

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