"Are you moving, Zachary?" the teacher asks.
"I'm dropping out," the 7-year-old tells her. "I'm going to be home-schooled."
It was spring 1996. Jane Van Benthusen and her husband, Loran, had been two of the most active parents at Lee's Summit Elementary School. They worked school carnivals and skating parties. They attended assemblies and plays, volunteered at holiday parties and chaperoned field trips. Jane was planning to run for PTA president.
"We spent a huge amount of time there, those two years," Loran recalls. Eventually, though, the couple decided that they would be better off putting all of that effort into their own kids "instead of everybody else's," Loran says.
Things had gone badly with show and tell. Zach had prepared a presentation on his most prized possession, a piece of petrified wood. When he called the wood a fossil, the teacher corrected him, saying it wasn't a fossil.
"Excuse me?" Zach said. "It is a fossil."
The teacher wouldn't listen, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
The second-grader decided Zach was done. He researched home-schooling on the Internet. "I started reading that Einstein was home-schooled," Zach says. "And Abraham Lincoln." They were great men why couldn't he do that?
Jane and Loran decided to try it for a year. Jane was already staying home with Zach's younger brother, Jace. They didn't have a plan, but Jane wasn't worried. Zach was already finishing assignments before the other kids, she says.
Zach and Jace filled in workbooks, drilled with flash cards and took online tests. But about three months into their home-schooling experiment, Jane and Loran threw out the curriculum. That was after they attended a meeting of Let Education Always Remain Natural, a secular home-schooling group. There, they heard the group's leaders, Kriss Miller and Kelly Wilson, describe "unschooling" a hands-off approach that allows a child to choose his or her educational path. Unschooling is based on the belief that children's natural curiosity will guide them.
When Miller and Wilson started LEARN in the Kansas City area in 1995, almost every other support group required a signed statement of faith, Miller says. They made LEARN open to all faiths, and the group's members represented diverse religions Jews, Muslims, Catholics. It also included atheists.
Miller swears by unschooling. Her three children Ashley, 23; Abbi, 21; and Madison, 11 have been unschooled. Ashley now lives in an apartment at his parents' home and runs a recording studio there, making enough to get by and pay his college loans, his mother says. Abbi lives in New York City but is on an eight-month tour of Southeast Asia performing in Grease. Madison writes and sews; lately she has been interested in Hawaiian mythology, medieval history and archery.
Miller says she knows at least 40 families in the metro area whose children are unschooled.
In Zach's case, music has been a motivator. It was always playing in his family's house, and he was fascinated by his dad's Kiss records hanging on the walls. For Halloween in first grade, he dressed up like Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley.
When Zach wanted to learn guitar, his parents bought him a six-string and set up lessons with "Fast" Johnny Ricker.
When Zach wanted to make latex masks, they bought the materials and worked with him.
When Zach was 12, he started working as a puppeteer for Paul Mesner Puppets, working in puppet shows at schools and churches.
"That's an unbelievable education," Miller says. "And to say it would be better for him to be sitting in a classroom learning about the Civil War is it? I don't know. I'm not saying it doesn't have value, but is it necessary at that particular moment, or would it be better to wait?"
The more Jane and Loran Van Benthusen let the boys control their education, the more comfortable they felt.
"As they followed their interests, all the other subjects just went together," Jane says.
Unschooling isn't new, but it's drawing more interest. A February 2 story on CNN.com estimated that 150,000 of the 1.5 million home-schooled children in the United States in 2005 were unschooled.
Unschooling is legal in Missouri and Kansas. Neither state's board of education monitors, regulates or imposes guidelines on home-schooling. In Missouri, statutes say parents are responsible for making sure that their children get 1,000 hours of instruction 600 hours of reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies and science throughout the school year. They must also keep a written record of their children's progress. But these guidelines are hollow; there's no monitoring mechanism.
"When you see kids developing their own base of knowledge and being able to use it, it's really reassuring," Miller says. "If what you believe is that independence, self-sufficiency and satisfaction lead to a happy life, then you don't have those preconceived notions about what kind of education they need to have."
Elementary-school dropout Zach Van Benthusen hasn't answered a school bell, written a book report or solved a calculus problem in the past 10 years.
But the 17-year-old has written a couple of plays, one of which the Coterie Theatre will stage at its Young Playwrights Festival later this month. In 2004, Time magazine named the Coterie one of the country's five best theaters for young audiences.
Zach's latest short play, Editions of You (1887-1946-199?), references obscure historical figures (Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that hand washing reduced the number of cases of childbed fever, a now-rare infection contracted by women during childbirth or abortion), pop-culture mythology (the first 100 copies of Aleister Crowley's book White Stains were slathered with white stains from Crowley's groin) and failed marketing attempts (Crystal Pepsi).
His writing comprises mostly pieces of his own life.
In Editions of You, a character named Zach tries to reclaim his manhood by living his life as Queen singer Freddie Mercury. He dresses flamboyantly with a mustache, leather hot pants and a Flash Gordon T-shirt.
At one point, his character delivers a mini-bio taken entirely from Zach's life: "I was born to a young couple just barely out of high school. I lived my childhood as a child. Learned to read very early on, then attended school from kindergarten to second grade and dropped out of school not even starting third. I then led my own life, my parents fully supporting my decision; I lived on art history books, classic literature, monster movies and the biographies of rock-and-roll's greatest."
This is the second year that the Coterie has selected one of his plays to be produced.
"Right away, Zach surfaced as a very interesting, sort of charismatic idea guy," says Coterie Producing Artistic Director Jeff Church (who will be inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on April 23).
The Coterie Young Playwrights Roundtable consists of Kansas City's best young dramatists; its name is inspired by New York City's famed Algonquin Round Table, at which critics writers and actors of the mid-1920s met to battle their wits (a sometimes daily routine that lasted about a decade).
Zach's roundtable stint was nearly short-lived. Church recalls Zach sending him a letter of resignation, saying he wasn't quitting for a lack of interest but because he considered himself more of a performer than a playwright.
"It's funny because anybody else who did that, I would say, 'Fine. You don't see yourself as a writer, don't hold the slot that some other kid could use,'" Church says.
But Church talked him out of quitting. "What other kid's going to come in and write ... about a kid that's obsessed with Freddie Mercury and David Bowie? That's really good for the other kids to have that kind of thinking. Not that the other kids aren't original they are. That whole roundtable is a group of original thinkers, but Zach is particularly so."
At the first read-through, in early March, Zach's script got a chilly reception. The 25 or so roundtable members couldn't get past the fact that Pepsi once came in a color-free version called Crystal Pepsi.
Zach repeatedly tried to explain. "Crystal Pepsi was Pepsi, but it had no caramel color. It was like when Coke went to a new design and everyone hated it. Crystal Pepsi was the soft drink without caramel coloring." It's what Freddie Mercury would have drunk, he said.
The kids were fascinated with the thought of Crystal Pepsi.
Frustrated, Zach ditched the roundtable a few minutes early. He waited in the lobby of Crown Center for his best friend, Jesse Trible, to pick him up.
"From a really young time in my life, I was always like, 'I'm going to be something. I'm going to be a rock star, man,'" Zach says. "I always knew that I wanted to be in art. I always knew that I wanted to be in music. I never wanted to be a rocket scientist. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I never wanted to be a firefighter."
He started reading at age 3, his mother says. He had no desire for Pippi Longstocking. Instead, he was into William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robinson. He tackled Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species when he was 11.
One of his first big math projects, his mother says, took place when Zach was a Friday-night guest DJ on KKFI 90.1. "He was 9, and he had to add up all of the songs and figure out how many he could play during this hourlong show. And it was more math than I've ever seen him do. And he would rearrange it, and he'd come up with a different playlist, and he wrote it all out."
She remembers how his small voice sounded as he talked about the Doors. It was a one-shot deal, but people called Jane and Loran, telling them they'd heard Zach on the radio. He closed the set with Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," with its iconic refrain: We don't need no education.
Music-star biographies on Bowie, Queen, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Rolling Stones, Marilyn Manson, Jim Morrison, Miles Davis could have provided a seemingly endless education on sex, drugs and alcohol. But Zach says he learned about songwriting and performing, the stars' backstage lives and "their early revelations about art and music."
Anything he wants to know, he looks up on Wikipedia.org, the much-scrutinized user-written online encyclopedia. That's a risky way to get an education, considering that anyone can put bad information up on the Web site and has, including the highly publicized falsifying of former USA Today editorial page editor John Seigenthaler's biography, which linked him to the Kennedy assassinations.
Zach also watches the History and Discovery channels, from which, he says, he learned about the bubonic plague and Nazi death camps.
"That's history," he says. "That's great. I never knew how much information was on there. I watch Nova all the time on PBS."
He knows he'll eventually need to get a GED. The kid who says he never wanted to be a rocket scientist, an astronaut or a firefighter says what he really wants to do is sell real estate.
His rationale: "It's a really lucrative business."
"We are part of a big experiment," Jane Van Benthusen admits.
"Oh, yeah," Loran adds.
Jane is a bubbly woman with a boisterous laugh. She runs a house-painting business in Lee's Summit. Loran works with her. So do the boys when they need money.
Zach describes his dad as "an Izod-and-Keds, tennis-playing, Frankie Goes to Hollywood kind of guy." That was true until Loran met Jane, whom Zach calls "a disenfranchised youth of the '80s." He says his parents became "grunge kids," coming of age during the alternative-rock movement Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Jane's Addiction of the late '80s and early '90s. Jane isn't sure if the tag fits; she and Loran don't fit into Generation X, she says. She considers them to be open-minded, noncomforming freethinkers. She says they probably would have been hippies if they'd grown up during the '60s.
"We don't always have to put everything in a little box," she says.
Jane was the oldest daughter of five children. In 1985, her mother, Patty Prewitt, was convicted of murdering her father, Bill Prewitt, at their Holden, Missouri, farmhouse. Patty Prewitt was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Her mother maintains her innocence, and so do her children.
Jane married Loran in 1988. His demeanor is calm; in conversation, he interjects a thought or two, but Jane does most of the talking about their children. Zach is the extrovert, and Jace is the introvert, they say. They consider Jace more of a natural artist than Zach. Jace didn't read until he was 9 or 10, but he has a better grasp of mathematical concepts.
"Jace is a big gamer," Jane says. "And he likes to know how the games are made and how they're put together and who produced them and all of that."
Jane and Loran admit that they weren't sure what they were getting into when Zach quit school. But they say they're certain they did the right thing.
"We aren't anti-school at all," Jane says. "It just doesn't work for our family."
Zach spent a year baby-sitting Shirley Tarantino's boys, James (now 13, he goes to Campbell Middle School in Lee's Summit) and John (a 15-year-old at Lee's Summit North High School).
"My 13-year-old worships the ground he walks on," says Tarantino, who is friends with Jane and Loran Van Benthusen. "He didn't just baby-sit. He'd come over and play guitar and teach him drums, and they would create music."
Seeing Zach's example makes Tarantino think twice about public schools.
"I'll tell you what it'll make you want to do: Take your kids out of public school," she says. "It gave him the freedom to develop what he was good at, whereas traditional education tells you what to study. You don't get to explore what you like to do.... These home-schooling parents, they go way out of their way to make sure their kids are well-rounded because when they don't go to school, you have to bring them to their social life."
"For some reason, everybody thinks you've got to be in a classroom to do that [learn]," Loran says. "The more that we did it, the more everybody was figuring out that our kids were learning more and more just by being around people who are doing things."
Zach has worked as a puppeteer for Paul Mesner Puppets for the past five years and has started his own photography business. He doesn't make enough money to earn an independent living, so he bounces between his parents' home in downtown Lee's Summit and his girlfriend's parents' house in Kansas City, Kansas, where he has lived much of this year.
His glossy business cards read like a résumé of someone twice his age. He's an actor and an artist, a model and a musician, a photographer, a puppeteer and a writer.
On the black-and-white card, Zach wears a clingy T-shirt and a plastic smile that's both charming and cocky. His midnight-black hair is messed up just right.
In person, his face is nearly flawless. He's slim and athletic-looking but exudes a bit of androgyny, like his idol, David Bowie.
In January, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, his job description was "party bait," says filmmaker Gary Huggins.
Kansas City's underground arts scene was abuzz after Huggins' first film earned a screening at Sundance. Huggins is a 38-year-old part-time librarian and founder of the Chucky Lou A/V Club. His 20-minute movie, the creepy and hilarious First Date, follows an ex-con's frantic attempt to hook up with a teenage boy he met on the Internet ("Screen Test," January 19).
Huggins and his girlfriend, Rita Brinkerhoff, the mistress of Kansas City's burlesque scene, met Zach in the early morning hours of his 16th birthday, on April 2, 2005. They were at the Late Night Theatre, and Zach was onstage modeling men's underwear as part of a benefit for Rockula, the theater's vampire-hair-metal show.
Zach wanted to learn how to edit film, so Huggins invited him to work on First Date.
In January, Zach tagged along to Sundance. Huggins needed another person to help pay for the condo.
"He was like the party bait," Huggins says. "We would kind of like set him out in front of a bar or a party, and when some of the beautiful people would come and drag him in, we'd all kind of follow."
The plan worked.
"He's totally fearless, and so he was constantly approaching people with First Date and getting it into their hands," Huggins says. Zach slipped copies into the hands of director Michel Gondry (Dave Chappelle's Block Party), comic Bobcat Goldthwait and singer Nick Cave.
"He was giving it to everybody in town," Huggins says. "He's got that cockiness that comes with knowing how cute you are, so he was pretty valuable."
Zach understood his role.
"I was there to sell Gary's movie so I could use Gary to capitalize on it. Gary's a great friend of mine, but we have a mutual understanding: I'm a capitalist pig, and he is, too. That's the big thing about art you have to sell yourself."
While he was waiting to see the documentary Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, by former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Zach spoke with a woman in line and scored an invitation to the afterparty.
He hitched a ride with her and found himself in a castlelike house someplace in the mountains. Party people smoked from hookahs, and masseuses rubbed down partygoers. He felt lost.
When he ended up talking to Sting, his words spilled out in a hurry. "It's very nice to meet you, sir. I am a fan of your music, and I loved you in Dune."
Sting gave him a "nice to meet you" brushoff.
An uneasy feeling fell over him. How was he going to get back to the condo? He called Brinkerhoff, but she didn't answer.
Huggins recalls that Zach sounded nervous in his message: "I'm at a weird party up in the mountains with Sting. I don't like it here. I want to come home."
He was on his own.
He had no cash, but he finally convinced a cabbie (who was dropping off former Police guitarist Andy Sumner) to drive him to an ATM.
"The supercocky Zach got him in there," Huggins tells the Pitch. "And then when he was in there, he realized, 'Oh, crap. I'm 16, and I don't really belong here. Get me out.'"
The Coterie Roundtable's response to his work has left Zach dejected. As he sits in the Crown Center food court waiting for a ride, he's trying to understand why the others didn't understand his play and why he even tries.
"I come to these and I just totally feel like, what am I doing here?" he says. "The last week, I've really been on edge. I really want to get this done." When he was writing, he says, he felt pretty good about the piece. "And then I come here and it's just like, Shoooo. Over everyone's head. And it doesn't even work.
"If people were to tell me what they really thought about it," he continues, "they'd have gone, 'I don't know who Freddie Mercury is. I don't know what Crystal Pepsi is. I don't know who Aleister Crowley is.'"
His friend Jesse shows up. Jesse is a 17-year-old former unschooler who enrolled at the Kansas City Academy (a tiny, private college-prep school that, according to promotional materials, prides itself on having a "holistic" program "uniquely designed to recognize, nurture, and challenge each student's personal and academic potential") because he discovered that he needed structure or else he'd spend all of his time playing video games.
Zach relays the bad news. "I cast a girl as me, too," he laments. "I thought she looked closest to Freddie Mercury as I was going to get. She didn't know who Freddie Mercury was, but ... how do you not know who fucking Freddie Mercury is? I don't get it. 'We are the Champions,' I mean, what the fuck? It's so weird. It's like, what generation are you?"
Because Zach is unschooled, many of his friendships defy age barriers. When other teenagers' melodramas played out before him at the Coterie, he couldn't relate.
"I don't go to high school, I don't get that whole thing," he says of the typical teen angst. "Does this go on? I don't know."
A couple of weeks later, after a rewrite and a second read, his play is improving. Church selects it to be produced at the Young Playwrights' Festival.
However, Church wants him to rewrite the ending. At the moment, Editions of You is abstract, a play within a play: A painter finds a script and begins to read; as he reads, the script comes to life. The painter, in all white clothing, is supposed to epitomize tabula rasa, the philosophy that everyone is born a blank slate and learns from innate curiosity, Zach explains.
But he's in no position to argue with Church.
He'll come up with an ending, but it will be a challenge. Because his work is so autobiographical, erasing the painter would be like eliminating Zach Van Benthusen. He, too, was once a blank canvas. He has covered himself in knowledge taken from life experiences. Who has time to think about such a happy childhood coming to an end?
He's too busy flipping through the editions of Zach.