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Going Back to Kindergarten at Age 28: Melia Dicker’s Quest

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Have you ever wanted to go back to your school days knowing what you know now? In her part-Billy Madison style, part-personal development quest, Melia Dicker did just that.

Introduce yourself!

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a kid, I loved to write stories and draw, but as I got older, I began to focus on school at the expense of everything else. I put immense pressure on myself to get perfect grades and test scores.

I operated under the assumption that doing well in school would lead to a life as a happy, self-assured, and financially stable adult. But six years out of college, I realized that I was none of those things. The habits that had made me an excellent student were the very ones that made me terrible at being an autonomous adult.

I avoided taking risks because I was afraid of making mistakes. I was used to waiting for instruction, so I had a hard time making my own decisions. After so many years of following the path laid out in front of me, I had very little idea about what I wanted to do with my life.

So I undertook a quest I called “Reschool Yourself” to give myself a fresh start by reliving my school days. I got permission from my elementary school, middle school, high school, and university to spend a week in each grade alongside the current students.

I moved back in with my parents and started kindergarten again at age 28. I spent that fall doing whatever the other students happened to be doing. I played tetherball at recess and filled out science worksheets; I took algebra exams and stayed up late talking with other students in the hallway of my college dorm; and I rediscovered my love of writing, drawing, and music.

In essence, I let go of what I thought I was supposed to do and began to get a sense of what I wanted to do.

Starting at the beginning: Kindergarten.

Starting at the beginning: Kindergarten.

What exactly inspired you to embark on this quest?

I was running an after-school program and had begun scrolling through a bunch of photos from the semester to put together a slideshow. I saw photo after photo of my energetic students smiling or goofing off – and then I saw a photo of myself, pressing my phone to my ear and looking miserable.

I kept scrolling. There were more photos of happy kids, then another one of me scowling, my face pinched with stress. This was the first time that I’d seen myself objectively, and I didn’t like what I saw.

At that moment, I knew that I needed to make a change in my life. I didn’t want to send my students the message that adulthood was a burden, something to fear and dread. Even more, I didn’t want to be the person in those photos.

To clear my head, I drove out to the California coast. It was the first time that I could remember doing exactly what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. I suddenly found myself having actual IDEAS again. It felt foreign after packing my days so tightly that I didn’t have any unscheduled time.

I thought about what I would most want to do if I could do anything, and this was the answer that came: “I wish I could be a kid again.” And then: “I wish I could do school over again.” School was where I’d learned to follow instructions instead of my own intuition. It was where I’d lost touch with my hobbies, and the joy and wonder that I’d naturally had as a child. It seemed like a crazy idea, but I also didn’t have a lot to lose by trying.

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Are there costs associated with Reschool Yourself?  

The total cost was $8,900 for six months of project and living expenses. I was stunned by how much I needed to live on, even when I’d cut back on most costs. I deferred my student loans and paused my retirement contributions, but I still had to pay for my health insurance, cell phone, everyday supplies like contact lens solution, and gas for my car. I lived with my parents for the duration of the project, so I didn’t have to pay for rent or food, except when I had the occasional outing with friends.

My project costs were around $2,500 of the total budget. It covered the tools that I needed to document the project — a new laptop, a digital camera, a FlipCam, and a mini tripod — as well as web hosting, software, and a few books on writing and publishing.

I funded most of the project through donations and crowdfunding. I was humbled by how generous people were in supporting my dream. I even received several donations in the mail from people around the country whom I didn’t know.

On top of that, I earned a bit of income by working a few hours a week, filling in for the receptionist at my dad’s office in the afternoons and tutoring high school students in the evenings.

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Working on art in first grade.

How have you dealt with a low point in your quest?

The hardest part of my journey was experiencing how poorly I treated myself when left to my own devices. I didn’t sleep nearly enough; I let my worry, anxiety, and self-loathing run rampant; and I worked myself into the ground because I simply didn’t know any other way to be. I felt as if nothing I did was good enough.

When Darren, the man I would later marry, visited me for a week, I had planned a date for us that included dinner at the farmer’s market and a drink at a local pub. We’d both been looking forward to it for months. But I went through that day feeling stuck.

I couldn’t muster the words to write what I wanted to on the blog. I got a parking ticket, which was more than just an annoyance when I didn’t have a real income. I felt like I was surrounded by reasons to be happy — a loving partner, an evening filled with fresh food and live music — but I still wasn’t. I ended up standing in the middle of the farmer’s market crying and apologizing to Darren for ruining our date.

Blogging about my experience that day was therapeutic. So many personal development blogs are written as people look back and share lessons learned. My writing was a window into my awkward and sometimes painful growth that was happening at that very moment.

Until then, I had hesitated to share anything heavy because I didn’t want to be a downer. But people responded more to that post than the ones that were full of excitement or humor. They commented that they knew exactly what I was going through, and they offered words of understanding and encouragement.

What kind of support did you receive during Reschool Yourself?

Darren was actually a huge influence. He taught me to be kinder to myself by his own example. He didn’t suffer from guilt or shame, and he didn’t beat himself up over anything. His attitude was that he was always doing his best with the knowledge he had at the time, so there was no need to feel bad about himself. He knew how to work hard and then enjoy his downtime.

This was all revolutionary to me; it ran contrary to the way I had operated since I was a teenager. By spending enough time with Darren, these habits began to rub off on me.

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What has surprised you during Reschool Yourself?

When I told people about my school do-over, a lot of them said, “I wish I could do that, too.” Readers of the blog shared the kinds of school experiences that I was reliving, like lunchtime in the cafeteria, P.E. class, and school dances. I posted pictures of nostalgic scenes with the caption “Remember This?” — Fisher Price Little People in the kindergarten classroom, lockers in the high school hallway, and shower caddies in the dorm — and enjoyed hearing from people about the memories that these images evoked.

I had no idea how deeply the project would resonate with anyone else.

Tell us about a memorable encounter fresh in your mind.

At my elementary school, I became friends with a third-grader, Lisa. She was all skinny arms and legs, with short blond hair and an impish smile. One day after school, she grabbed my hand and dragged me down the hall to her guitar class. I’d grown up playing the piano and had been interested in learning the guitar, but I’d always been too intimidated to try.

Lisa threw me into the deep end before I could protest. The teacher, Mr. Madison, welcomed me in and lent me one of his spare guitars, and Lisa pulled an extra chair into the circle for me. Mr. Madison showed me the A chord, which his students had been practicing, and I very tentatively gave it a try.

On the other hand, Lisa wailed on the A chord like she was on stage at Madison Square Garden. Most of the other kids did, too. They weren’t yet concerned about making mistakes or looking silly in front of other people. They were just having fun playing music and learning how to do something new.

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Being around kids every day made me less self-conscious. Since that afternoon, I’ve taught myself quite a few songs on the guitar and still play when I want to relax. Learning the basics was much easier than I’d expected, and I’m grateful to my little buddy Lisa for making me try.

On my last day of elementary school, Lisa hugged me tight and said, “I’m not letting you go!” A few moments later, her turn came up at foursquare and she released me, calling “BYE!” over her shoulder. I had to laugh, because Lisa lived fully in the moment, something that I aspired to do myself.

What did we miss?

Choosing to go on my quest was likely the most important decision that I’ve made in my life, because it led me to a much happier place that has shaped everything that’s happened since. I took a big risk by quitting a stable job to go after my dream, without a clear picture of where I’d end up.

But as I learned to listen to my instincts, I kept pushing myself to the edges of my comfort zone, and I took another big risk by moving across the country to join Darren in his native Mississippi. Fast forward several years, and we have a little boy, a strong community of friends, and jobs we love. I still struggle with my demons, but the project gave me an arsenal of tools to keep them in check.

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Photo credit: James Adamson

What’s next?

I’ve been working for a long time on a book about the Reschool Yourself project. It’s been extremely challenging to write, and I’m looking forward to finishing it soon. In the meantime, I apply lessons from the project to my daily life as often as possible: I savor my downtime.

I’m less inclined to do things out of obligation rather than desire, and I strive for only achievements that truly matter to me. I practice treating myself like I would a friend.

Follow Melia at Reschool Yourself, or via Twitter @reschoolproject.

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