"When I was 12 years old, I didn’t know what the term “bullying” meant - but I was scared to go to school"

When I was 12 years old, I didn’t know what the term “bullying” meant - but I was scared to go to school.  Not surprisingly: my classmates didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual. My peers didn’t enjoy reading in their spare time, hated math class, and had no desire to discuss Edgar Allen Poe or the 17th century French Wars of Religion with me. My classmates weren’t shy of showing their contempt, they teased me, called me abusive names, and a few times I was beaten up.

Also not surprisingly, I was convinced that I lacked any social skills and would never make friends, and I prepared myself for the isolated life of a hermit after school. If at that time homeschooling had been an option, I would have been delighted never to have to leave my house or interact with my peers at all. I always had great relationships with the adults in my life, so what was the point of making friends with any of my classmates?

If I’d had the option to stay at home, I would never even have thought about going to school. I remember this vividly, and I’m not surprised when I read current articles about the growing number of kids who choose homeschooling over attending their local public schools. The number of kids in Great Britain receiving homeschooling has grown one and a half times during the last five years, while in America, homeschooled children are now 3.4% of the population.

Unfortunately, when I was 12, homeschooling was not as widespread or accepted as it is now. So I persevered through middle school and thankfully made it to high school. There, I was able to meet like-minded peers and pursue common interests with other students, and I learned that there were other kids struggling to fit in during the middle school years just like me.

Ever since high school, I’ve considered myself very lucky to have found a school where I fitted in and was able to learn how to socialize with others. I fully attribute my making friends and acquiring social skills to my high school environment.  So it turned out I was able to avoid the hermit’s life that I’d predicted for myself, and indeed many of my friends now consider me to be highly extroverted and outgoing. All this happened thanks to my school. That’s why I always wanted to create places where people — adults and children — could meet those who understand them, where they could freely and safely communicate with each other.

I often think of my childhood experiences since my wife, psychologist Ekaterina Kadieva, and I launched an educational summer camp in Europe, “Marabou.” Kids from all over the world attend our camp, and I often meet many kids who are unhappy in their current schools, and seeing them, I now understand why I did not fit in when I was 12.

I realize now that my middle school peers were not ‘uneducated’ or ‘vulgar,’ it was just that I, like many academically gifted kids, did not have the skills or know-how to interact with my peers in a social setting. This made me an easy target for all the teasing and bullying. By any standard, it is not expected for a 12 year old to love math, be fluent in Edgar Allan Poe, and study European history independently, for fun. It was also not their fault that there was no school psychologist or teacher available to cultivate healthy socialization in the classroom, so I was made to believe that staying at home would have been the better option.

One of the privileges of working in Camp Marabou each summer, is seeing kids who have previously lost hope of having friends find out that they do fit in with others, and that they’re capable of making friends with peers from all over the world! This brings great joy to us, and we are saddened each time summer is over and worry that our campers will go back to large classrooms where they feel isolated from their peers, and do not receive as careful attention to their social well-being as they do at Camp Marabou.

This has been one of the main reasons for us to launch Academy Le Sallay, a school where students experience the best of both worlds: a cycle of distance learning alternating with in-person sessions where students receive engaging instruction tailored to meet their individual needs and foster critical thinking, and make lifelong friendships. I hope that through Le Sallay, we will be able to do for our students what my high school has done for me - to assure them that they will never feel socially isolated again.

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