Cheating the System

My mom likes to tell a story about a letter she received from the state of California following her decision to keep me out of the public school system when I turned six years old, electing instead to become my teacher herself. She wrote to the education department requesting specific guidelines for keeping me on track with work that other children my age would complete, as well as advice on getting me into a university twelve years down the line. Their response stated that California did not endorse homeschooling and that if my mom did not make strides to enroll me in an accredited school, she would face legal action. I do not regret the decision my mother made by ignoring that letter.

My education derived from a number of sources in the years that followed that decision. My parents bought an RV that we used to traverse the United States, once driving two weeks from the badlands of California and up through the Alaska-Canada highway into Yukon territory, where I helped my dad fish for salmon that my mom taught me how to cook. I spied caribou and black bears as we drove through the towns of Wasilla and Willow, both of them my homes for two years. We still have the lone dog booty that my mom snatched up during the first day of the 2007 Iditarod, an event that we arrived at by way of snowmobile because of its proximity to our cabin.

Alaskan terrain is harsh, and living in it taught me a wealth of skills in self-sufficiency and survival. I learned the importance of keeping jumper cables in your vehicle and knowing how to use them. I learned how to stave off frostbite in the event that I should ever become lost in the cold. I learned how to listen for and avoid dangerous predators.

Then we moved to El Paso, Texas, where I started hearing nightly news reports on activity having to do with the Juarez border. I much preferred San Antonio, my next home, where my favorite place to wander became the River Walk. My mom once made a comment to a security agent there, saying how she just wanted to “take all of these baby ducks home with me, they’re so cute!” Befuddled, the agent replied that she didn’t think you could do that.

There exists a special place in my heart for the towering greenery of the Southern states, where sweet smells of magnolia and wisteria float through the sounds of the cicadas searching for their mates. I climbed trees and picked blackberries for homemade cobbler while my friends were locked away in a schoolhouse somewhere, and when the air turned warm, I was the first one on the river with my inner tube.

While kids much older than me were studying the rift between North and South Korea, I got to stand on the actual border and look into the eyes of the North Korean soldiers guarding the opposite side of the Demilitarized Zone. I practiced my Korean by sitting on the stoop outside my father’s apartment (which always smelled like kimchi) and yelling “annyeonghaseyo!” to the passing businessmen on their way in to work.

I have a drawer full of Junior Ranger badges to signify all of the national parks I have ventured through, and a basement full of the books my mother bought to educate my sister and me on all the places we went. Some students may possess the ability to tell you the correct date of Mount Rushmore’s construction, but I can tell you what it feels like to stand there below those grand cliffs.

I picked up academic skills when I turned fifteen by enrolling at Pikes Peak Community College (PPCC), and eventually I started publishing articles and tutoring first graders on the weekends. I figured I would be entirely prepared to begin university life, but I had no sense of where to begin the process. I called the admissions department at the University of Colorado Denver to see about an application and what I would need to provide, given my unique circumstances. When I explained my situation, that I had no high school transcripts or diploma, but that I could prove two years of good academic performance at PPCC, my coordinator asked me plainly and with no hesitation, “Why are you trying to cheat the system?”

I should not have said what I did following her question, but understand the shock and anger I felt at her accusation. I was six years old again and facing the same bureaucratic ideology that had triggered my mother’s temper eleven years ago. Eleven years of life experience, bookended by tedious officials reprimanding me for not holing up inside an underfunded institution for over a decade, for not following the rules.

It really burns me that I am not going to CU Denver next semester, but in thinking about it, I realized that I am all right. I have learned plenty without the aid of our broken system, and I can learn plenty more by continuing on that way. Maybe I did cheat the system, touring all over the world while my peers sat at desks and tested their way through an education, but this much I know: if I had not cheated the system, the system would have cheated me.