07/07/2010 05:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Now That School Is Out, What Did They Really Learn?

"So what do they teach at that new school, anyway?" my friend Donna asked recently. "Does Aidan still learn math and science? Will he be ready for high school?"

School has been out for a week now, and the kids have moved on to whatever they're doing this summer, notebooks and backpacks happily abandoned in whatever closet they'll live in until we dust them off in September. So Donna's question took me by surprise.

"What do you mean?" I asked. "Of course he learned math."

"I thought it was an alternative school," she pressed. "What kind of education is it?"

Last fall, my son Aidan started seventh grade at the public junior high school. It was a disaster; my son hated it so much that I had to crowbar him out of the house.

What didn't he like?

Everything. Mostly, Aidan was bored. In his view: There were too many classes. The homework was stupid. The bus ride was too long.

"What a complainer," my mother sniffed. "Just make him get up and go. Everyone goes to school. You did."

I did, it was true. And I hated school too. Especially junior high. I was bored. In my view: There were too many classes. The homework was stupid. The bus ride was too long.


Our four older children went to the public high school and did well. All got into good colleges. This caboose of a child is a different story. Aidan isn't the type to sit still when bored. No, he's the kind of kid who, when he wants excitement, will make his own, like the day he got busted in elementary school for running a casino at his desk. His favorite times in seventh grade were when he got sent to the principal's office.

"At least then I'm not sitting in some boring class," he said.

I had to do something before trouble became Aidan's favorite pastime. I met with his teachers, who just said he had to learn to sit still and control his impulsive behavior. They whispered about ADHD.

I already knew that Aidan had attention and organization problems. I also knew that, under certain circumstances, he could focus better than anyone.

After visiting several private schools in our area, I stumbled across a small Montessori school. Amazingly, they had an opening mid-fall in their seventh grade. Even more amazingly, when I described Aidan's progress, or lack of it, they were up to the challenge.

I knew nothing about Montessori. But I was at the end of my rope: Aidan had to go somewhere that wasn't the school he was in, and nobody else had any openings. I took a deep breath and made the switch.

For a long time, I worried, as Donna did, that Aidan might be missing out by not being in the public school. I quizzed my friends whose children were in seventh grade about what their kids were doing in math, social studies, English and science to see if I could pinpoint anything that Aidan was missing. I worried, too, that by "letting" him act out in school instead of making him "sit up and fly right," as my father would have put it, I might be doing Aidan a disservice. We all have to go to school, learn how to get along with others, and put up with supervisors who bore us. Was I spoiling Aidan by pulling him out of the public school? Would he emerge uneducated and unprepared for the so-called "real world?" because he was now going to a crazy school where the kids call the teachers by their first names, wear slippers to class and can eat snack whenever they want?

Fast forward six months. It is nearly summer, and for their culminating event, Aidan and his classmates at the Montessori School are performing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. On a real stage, with real costumes and lights. I'm sitting in the audience, and there is Aidan on stage as Lysander, holding hands with Hermia. Aidan is wearing a tunic and tights. He is saying his lines. He is not the best actor on stage, but he's into it, waving his hands around and managing to lie still with his eyes closed while Puck dances wildly around his head.

If you had asked me what I wanted Aidan to learn during his first year of middle school, I would have said math, science, social studies and maybe how to write a book review. I would never have predicted that Aidan would create, as he did at this school, a model of a half-size camel, which he presented while spouting facts about the desert biome. I never would have predicted how much Aidan loved volunteering with senior citizens, as his middle school does once each week. And I certainly never could have imagined the stories I heard about how, during the middle school field trip backpacking in the White Mountains, Aidan stood up as the moon was rising and started reciting lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Did my son learn math at his new school, Donna? Oh yes. He studied language arts and geography, current events and science, too.

But what Aidan really learned was much more important than any of that: His new Montessori school gave Aidan the confidence to be creative and joyful, to ask questions and seek the answers himself. As his teacher wrote in her final progress report, Aidan "embraced learning to understand, rather than studying to get a specific grade on a test."

And that, to me, is a real education.