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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood Beyond Tenure: How Rap Music Saved My Life
October 2, 2008 - 4:47am

So far my sabbatical is not what I expected. I thought I’d stare for hours at a blank computer screen as I tried to muster enough enthusiasm to finish my book. My husband, on the other hand, was more concerned that I’d stay in my pajamas all day, not shower, and get nutty from a lack of social interaction.

We were both unprepared for what happened: I now find myself so totally engrossed in my new project, I have to tear myself away from the computer for dinner. I have discovered a wonderful community of other families in my neighborhood that provide me with a never-ending series of backyard cookouts, Obama campaigning, and babysitting swapping. Here’s my secret: I decided to do what I enjoy.

For this insight, I have to thank my younger brother. After being kicked out of every school he attended (and having serious run-ins with the law), my brother dropped out of high school. We worried about him constantly and his future seemed bleak. Then he became part of a rap group. Now, at 28, he is a successful hip hop music producer who travels around the world, hobnobs with celebrities, and lives in a spacious Tribeca apartment with an exquisite woman. But what I’m proud of is the fact that he is doing what he really wants to do. In the process, my brother has had to accrue a lot of business savvy, handle difficult musicians, deliver his product consistently, and promote himself. He also puts in hundreds of hours a week in his recording studio. When I asked him how he developed such self-discipline, he laughed and said,” I’m not working, I’m just playing around with music.”

It’s ironic that I would need this reminder, since I spent the first four years of my education playing. I attended a small alternative “free school” in Buffalo, NY which had very little structure and no grades. I remember spending days dancing to early Beatles music, writing my own little books made of stapled surplus paper, and going on field trips to local Indian reservations. Students learned what they wanted, when they wanted. The school operated on the assumption that children were naturally curious and would learn when they were ready. I didn’t decide to learn to read until around 3rd grade. Some parents were understandably concerned: after all, many of us were the children of professors who deeply valued education.

When our school closed and I was mainstreamed into a public school, I was terrified that I’d never catch up. After all, these kids had been sitting in desks, learning lessons in all the subjects (not just the ones they liked), doing homework and taking tests for 5 years while I had been playing.

It took me one month to catch up. And I was not a precocious child.

The hardest part was remembering to raise my hand when I needed to go to the bathroom, learning how to properly “head” my paper, and keeping myself from swearing. I did fine in school, made friends, and had some very kind teachers, but I don’t think I was ever really myself again until college.

Now, at 44 and with a daughter about to start kindergarten, I’ve begun to think more about those early years. My sassy daughter makes me remember what an outgoing, creative child I was at the “free school.” Of course, not all the students were well-served by this lack of structure. But I’m curious what effect alternative education has had on our lives. I’ve decided to work on a collection of essays by former children of alternative schools. And I can’t wait to start working every day.

For more information on submitting essays about alternative education, email


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