Welcome back to the flipside, dedicated readers (you know, probably just my mom. Hi mom!). After a quick hiatus for midterms, we’re back with another story, but this one is different than stories I’ve told so far. Until now, most of the educational stories I’ve shared have been quite positive, but now it’s time for some contrast. This week’s blog post is about Olivia Hussey, someone whom I have known for many years. We met through a homeschooling teen group, but we could have just as easily met on walks around the neighborhood as we live about 1 mile apart. She and her family were staples in the homeschool group I was lightly involved with throughout my teens, and I was able to see Olivia grow into a remarkable young woman as we attended QVCC together. I was very glad when Olivia agreed to do an interview with me, because I knew that she had a unique story to tell, but I had no idea just how unique until I actually sat down to talk with her.
Olivia was homeschooled from the start of her education, and she and her older brother began schooling with a fairly structured routine. However, as more time went on, she gained 4 more siblings and her curriculum became more relaxed, as she and her siblings followed an approach that was more unschooled. They still covered a lot of basics, such as reading, math, history, and science, but “you get to the point when you’re like 11, 12, 13, and you’re like ‘okay, I realize that I’m supposed to be putting effort into this, but I don’t know how.’ People are driven to start to feel like ‘what am I doing?’ when they’re still a little too young to be able to accomplish it,” and this was the catalyst that pushed Olivia to start looking into more traditional schools.
After exploring some of her options, Olivia decided to go to New Hope Academy, a small Baptist school in Northeast Connecticut. It was very small, having only about 6 kids in the entire high school educated by one teacher (who was also the principal), and 20 children in the elementary and middle schools taught by 3 teachers. When I asked Olivia how she felt about her first year at New Hope she told me that she thought it was a normal schooling experience initially, but she had nothing to gauge it against because she had never been enrolled in school before. In retrospect, she could say – “one teacher, one room, six high schoolers… It was phenomenally awful,” but at the time, she just thought it was a generic schooling experience. She learned a lot, and was able to discover that she thrived in a more traditional academic situation.
Following her first year at New Hope, Olivia took a year off. She really didn’t know what to think of her experience. Her siblings were all leaving, so she decided to join them back at home, but as she didn’t do much schooling during that year, she began to feel anxiety about her education again. This is when she decided to enroll in her second year at New Hope – when things really took a turn for the worst. “I’ve honestly repressed a lot of this, I’ve spent a lot of effort trying to forget it just because it’s not enjoyable to remember.” While there are many specifics that made Olivia’s time at New Hope traumatic, there is a broad theme of manipulation and verbal abuse that would scar even the toughest child. Olivia didn’t realize that in high school it wasn’t normal to spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with one teacher – especially when that teacher was mean and emotionally manipulative. Olivia was often called “snarky” and was constantly told that she could “do better.” In addition, keep in mind that this school was Baptist, so the principal also abused Olivia’s relationship with her faith. “She [the principal] would conflate school with religion, which I guess is what you’d expect out of a religious school, but there was the ‘you can always do better’ and she conflated it with ‘if you don’t try hard enough, you’re not doing our best for God.’ For a 15 year old kid, it was [really harsh].. I’ve had to spend a lot of time putting that aside.” Aside from horrible interpersonal relationships at New Hope, Olivia’s education was also severely neglected in several areas, especially when it came to Spanish and math. She told me that her Spanish teacher was the principal’s husband, who didn’t even speak the language. He couldn’t help Olivia beyond the scope of what was in the book and couldn’t answer her questions, so it was very frustrating for a student who just wanted to learn. She also didn’t have access to a math teacher. She was expected to teach herself algebra, and at 15, had a very hard time understanding the subject matter. If she had questions, she would have to go downstairs to the elementary school and wait behind several elementary school students to ask the elementary school teacher her questions.
After learning this, I just had to ask Olivia what happened between then and now. If you met Olivia now, the first thing you would notice is her intelligence. She exudes it out of her pores and the second she opens her mouth it’s clear that she is special. I’ve always been impressed by her skills in math (as I watched her go through differential equations at QVCC), but I was honestly blown away with the fact that she was able to excel so much in a subject that she had so little background in prior to college. I asked her how she went from no math background to getting into Wentworth for mechanical engineering and she told me that the key was Denise Walsh. Denise is a math teacher at QVCC and helped Olivia catch up to her peers. As a person, Olivia knew that she wanted to go into something based in math because “I just saw the person I was and decided I just couldn’t be that anymore, it’s just too associated with really unpleasant things. I changed in a lot of ways that I’m still understanding, like what caused what, and I don’t know if that would have happened in a public school scenario. Which leads me to the really awful question of ‘is it better that I went there [New Hope] and turned out the way I am?’ And that’s just a disgusting question to ask myself. I was very artistic, artsy, ‘loved talking about grey moral areas’ type of person. I just looked at that person and was like ‘I don’t want to be this [anymore],’ and I think math was the [opposite] of that person.”
These days, you can find Olivia in Boston studying mechanical engineering at Wentworth; the next stepping stone for her after graduating Magna Cum Laude with her Associate’s Degree in Engineering from QVCC. While I don’t know what the future has in store for her, I know that if anyone will set goals and actually achieve them, it will be Olivia. I have always been slightly intimidated by her outspoken intelligence, and find her presence in a room empowering. For as long as I’ve known her, Olivia has been completely unafraid to say whatever is on her mind. She is transparent, and really, unironically smart. But not only that, she is kind, and helpful, and incredibly resilient. I don’t know of anybody who could overcome an extremely limited math background to the extent where she is now majoring in engineering, but then there’s Olivia, doing what Olivia does, and impressing all of us in the process.