“Get to” vs “Have to”


When I was 13 years old, I didn’t want to attend The Circle School. My mom and stepdad had fallen in love with the school, and found my two younger siblings required no selling on the idea, but I wasn’t buying.

I was mostly happy in public school, though in hindsight it’s clear I was finding the external validation of good grades increasingly empty. School was so easy, so unchallenging and demotivating that, in my boredom, I was finding silly ways to challenge myself and impress others. What’s more challenging and impressive than getting straight As? Getting straight As without studying. I learned that I should not only succeed, but excel, and excel without effort. This proved helpful only in that I eventually discovered it was completely bone-headedly wrong and came to prize my efforts above my innate talents.

The start of the 2004-2005 school year came, and my siblings started at The Circle School, while I stayed put at George W. Feaser Middle School in Middletown, Pennsylvania. The thing that finally piqued my interest in The Circle School came a few weeks later.

We were picking my 5-year-old brother up from soccer practice, and while walking back to the car, the subject of school came up. My school was closed the next day, but The Circle School was going to be open. I was luxuriating in the prospect of a day off from the grind, but my siblings laughed at me, saying “Haha, you don’t get to go to school!”

“Get to go to school???” I thought, incredulous. Where I came from, we said “have to” go to school. That flip really struck me. Gears started turning in my head, and soon I thought maybe I should check out this Circle School thing.

At The Circle School 2007 with Rose Plesic ’12

Before I knew it, I had enrolled at The Circle School. The rest, as they say, is history. History that is, amazingly, still being written. To this day, I try to make that same flip from “have to” to “get to” as often as I can. I try to experience my commitments more as opportunities than obligations. I try to experience my life as something that’s happening for me, not to me.

This summer I read The Psychology of Money: Timeless lessons on wealth, greed, and happiness by Morgan Housel. Something that really stuck with me was research that shows one of the most significant contributing factors to feelings of happiness and well-being is feeling in control of one’s own life. Housel cites psychologist and researcher Angus Campbell, who summarized years of research, saying:

“Having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of well-being than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered.”

That sense of agency, of autonomy, of steering your own life — it’s something I try to cultivate every chance I get. That moment on the soccer field, being made fun of by my younger siblings… That’s the moment I trace it all back to, and my 5 years at The Circle School further cemented it.

My life at school became something I chose, not something chosen for me. That seven hours each day became time that was mine, gloriously mine — for my shaping and my satisfaction. I came to experience life the same way.

Traditional schooling is like work at its worst — a job you must go to and can’t quit, doing work you haven’t chosen. Schools like The Circle School offer life at its best — free to do what you choose with whom you choose, navigating the abundance of growth opportunities born of a self-chosen life. I came to The Circle School, and I began to experience school, and, by extension, my life, not as something I have to do, but something I get to do.

What a treat.

-Cody Unger, Staff Member

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