"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I went to college when I was 18, like everyone else. But unlike other people, I had never been to school before. The first standardized test I ever took was the SAT. The day I took it was the first time I’d ever been in a high school classroom. It didn’t seem like a fun place.
I started college as a Music Ed major, because while I didn’t know what I wanted to study, I knew I liked music. The Intro to Music Education teacher, a woman I’ll call Mrs. Grimini, had taught kindergarten at a local school before joining the university faculty. She led us in songs like “The wheels on the bus go round and round!” She wanted us to share a memory of our own music teachers from kindergarten and first grade.
Everyone had one: The triangle. Holding hands in a circle. Those rainbow xylophones.
“Actually,” I said, “I didn’t go to school. But my dad is a jazz pianist?”
He played every day when I was a little kid. I used to sit under the piano and he’d ask if I could remember the melody, or he’d teach me how to play a few notes. Sometimes I sat with him on the couch in the darkened living room and we listened to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” together, talking about how scary Mars was, and how big Jupiter was. We were almost never not listening to music.
But before I could say any of that, Mrs. Grimini interrupted me. “Home-schooled?” she said tightly.
“Yes,” I said, offering my politest smile.
“OK, you don’t need to participate.” And she moved on.
I was home-schooled. Unschooled, really, because my brothers and I didn’t follow a formal curriculum at all. But home schooling sounds radical enough, so I usually use that term to describe how I grew up. The latest statistics about American home-schoolers from the U.S. Department of Education were collected in 2007. They estimate around 1.5 million home-schoolers were in the country at that point, up from 1.1 million in 2003. No one seems to have any idea how many of those home-schoolers call themselves unschoolers, but it’s a pretty safe bet that there are more of us now than ever.
I look really normal, I promise. No one would think I’m a freak. Which is important, because if I didn’t appear normal, it would look bad for everyone in my group. We’re a very small group, and the world hasn’t had much time to get to know us. Like most minorities, we get stereotyped a lot. People think the wrong things about us and keep on thinking those things. Like that all home-schoolers are evangelical Christians who don’t believe in evolution, or that home-schooled kids can’t socialize, that we’re huge nerds who win spelling bees but can’t grasp simple pop cultural references. We’re all radical hippies or strange child prodigies. Whatever people think about home schooling, they’re pretty sure it’s emotionally damaging. We make people uncomfortable, even angry, maybe because they just don’t know us well.
“How arrogant does someone have to be,” they say, “to think they know better than everyone else in the world?”
That part is about my parents, because they made the decision initially. Sometimes all of the anger is directed at my parents (mostly my mother), and I am force-fed bitter, watery spoonfuls of pity.
“You poor thing! You didn’t get to be like the other children …”
That’s definitely true.
“How arrogant,” people like to say of my parents, “to think you could educate your child better than qualified teachers!”
“I could never do that,” women often say, of my mother. “I don’t have the energy.”
“But how will they learn science without a lab?” everyone says in unison.
These people have no idea how unschooling works.
And it’s hard for me to explain it to them. Because unschooling, for me, worked a lot like living. It wasn’t a dramatic political statement about our broken society. My parents decided not to send me to school because they liked hanging out with me. It sounds too simple. Were they radical anarchists or free-love types? Nope. They were just two brave people who believed that kids are naturally smart, and will naturally learn the things people need to learn to get by. As a result I am very polite and pretty bad at math. My parents were entrepreneurs. They were running their own business when I was born. They thought they could probably make it work. They didn’t think they were smarter than other people; they just trusted themselves to figure it out.
For me, home schooling meant getting to read all day and then read all the next day. It meant being able to apprentice myself to the adults whose work I admired, spend a lot of time playing in the nearby brook, write the books I couldn’t find but wanted to read, try directing Shakespeare plays and competing in classical piano and learning some Greek, all without having to worry about what might happen if I failed. Home schooling was about making mistakes that didn’t have bigger consequences than momentary embarrassment. Because I didn’t have grades. I worked hard to get better, because I cared about being better, because, I think, maybe people just care about that.
And then there was the occasional math textbook and online biology course, which Mom researched and purchased when she got nervous. Sometimes she became overwhelmed with concern. What if I fell behind the school kids? What if I didn’t go to college? It was important that I could still be good at the things people were supposed to be good at.
I wasn’t worried. I was happy.
I thought college would be interesting, but it didn’t sound particularly necessary, and I only applied to one school, the state university, which I chose for its proximity to my job and its relatively low cost. Home-schoolers often already have jobs, and I’d gotten mine at 15. I led services and tutored bar and bat mitzvah students at my synagogue. I was the one who sang the prayers in Hebrew on the bima, at the podium across from the rabbi’s. Adults sometimes asked for my advice. I was a community leader. I was making more money than all of my friends (a lot of them went to school and didn’t have time to work as much as me). College was going to be a piece of cake compared to this. But I had no idea what that particular piece of cake would be like.
College, it turned out, was an ugly place with mismatching architecture, surrounded by a sagging, distracted-looking little city. I got a big scholarship, for my SAT score and my “class rank.” My SAT score was good, but then, it’s kind of a dumb test. I’d made up the class rank. I didn’t have a class, so I said first. Technically, I was last as well.
“We shouldn’t lie,” my mom said.
“Why not?” my dad said. “Look how stupid this is.”
I was naive. It’s embarrassing, but I was. I thought college would be full of students leaning forward in class, eager to learn. Mom thought that, too. Her family couldn’t afford it, so she hadn’t gone, but she always imagined it would be world-expanding and fantastic. Dad hadn’t gone because his family couldn’t afford it either, and he thought it sounded boring.
Since I was so naive, I didn’t think a music major sounded different from another major. Or a state university sounded different from a private one. College was college. As a home-schooler, I hadn’t learned to separate everything into its own categories and rank it according to some perceived value. I got better at doing that in college, but it made life less interesting.
That was one of the most jarring lessons I learned in college. Life is just less interesting in a classroom. In college, you don’t really have to contribute. Unless it’s one of those classes where participation is 15 percent of your final grade. I liked those classes best.
I also learned what it felt like to be truly bored. I learned it was much more important to memorize than to understand. I learned that it was cool to get drunk and not cool to admit, as my friend down the hall once did, that you were in AA because of all the getting drunk. I learned it was fine not to care about any of your classes and funny to lock someone out of a building they were trying to get into and important to band together in the hall of the dorm to scream, “Get out! Get out, bitch!” at a girl from another school who had come to see her boyfriend, and who, freshly broken up with, was crying hysterically, huddled against his locked door.
And I learned that I wasn’t allowed to talk in Mrs. Grimini’s class. The next time I raised my hand, she said to the other students, “Kate was home-schooled, she can’t participate in this discussion.” And she never called on me again.
“Can she really take points off this one?” I asked, holding out my recently graded test to a friend. “I think that’s the answer. What did you write?”
He showed me. He’d written the same thing. And she had not taken off any points.
I sighed. “Should I go to a dean or something?”
I didn’t want to. I wanted to pretend that Mrs. Grimini didn’t actually narrow her eyes when she looked at me. I wanted pretend that in college, people were smarter than they’d been outside of college. They were supposed to understand more about the way the world worked.
I needed some advice. I picked the scariest, most renowned, most bearded professor I could find, and I asked if I could meet with him.
“This is hard,” I told him. “All this is very new for me. I was home-schooled.”
“Oh!” he said, squinting at me like a puzzle he might have a chance at solving. “Home-schooled. And then here. A trial by fire.” He shook his head and chuckled in a way that only very bearded, very revered professors are able.
“So,” he said, as though we were about to begin a long talk. “Is it mostly the socialization?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. I didn’t sigh aloud; I sighed to myself. I liked him.
It was mostly that I had thought that college would be the beginning of an exciting new phase of life, and instead it felt like the end of one. Before, learning could happen at any moment, rather than waiting for a professor to get up in front of a blackboard and start talking. You could end up friends with anyone, not just people exactly the same age as you. There were lots of problems with being home-schooled, and they were all becoming apparent. Home schooling had made me expect too much. It had given me plenty of time to figure out who I was, so that I didn’t have to do it now. College, so formulaic to me, didn’t feel like the real world.
Which is sort of funny, because for my whole life, people have been telling me that I must not know what the real world is. People always think that home-schoolers live these small lives in a constricted little world. I don’t know how to explain my life to them. I don’t know how to clarify the open-ended world of my childhood, in which the rules made sense and I worked hard because it was fun to be productive. What world is that? It isn’t normal. There are no grades.
“So how is it?” Mom would ask. She was eager, much like any other mother, probably.
I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wanted her to feel that home schooling had been a success. The right kind of success that had prepared me for the next step. So I didn’t tell her that my little brothers were wittier than the students I was meeting. I didn’t tell her that they knew more about the Enlightenment than the upperclassmen in my history class. I didn’t tell her about Mrs. Grimini. But I didn’t lie to her, either.
“I’m getting really good grades,” I said.
Kate Fridkis, blogger at Eat The Damn Cake and Skipping School, has written for Jezebel, The Forward, the Huffington Post, and more. She lives in Brooklyn, and is writing a book about her experiences as a homeschooler.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)