How I Became a Homeschool Believer: Part II of III
Though I homeschooled for 15 years and, by all indications, still can’t stop talking about it, I’ve made my peace with public schools. Why? Because they are a necessary and valuable part of society — and because we had some very positive experiences with them. I ended my previous post with memories of the elementary school my oldest child attended. It had the feel of a church that is at the center of community life, a hub to which people flock, a place that encourages you to make it yours.
During those days, I realized I had expectations about what school should look like for my child. There were certain things that I believed were an essential part of education; others, I remembered warmly from my own schooling. That our little neighborhood school wasn’t meeting all my expectations wasn’t a black mark against it; no one school can do everything. So I simply found ways myself to add those things to my daughter’s education. For instance, if her writing contained a grammatical error that wasn’t addressed in school, I taught her the correct structure at home. If all the poetry her class was reading at school seemed to have been written in the last 25 years, I introduced her to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. We continued to read books aloud as a family. It was easy enough to do, because homework in our school was kept to a minimum so that children could have lives outside of school. I called what I was doing “supplementing”; today it would be called “afterschooling.”
Around this time, I suddenly began meeting people who were engaged in this homeschooling thing I had heard of five years before. They didn’t have horns, and they weren’t freaks; they genuinely loved their children and were making a significant family commitment in order to educate them this way. And I began to see the many ways in which I was already doing some of the things they were doing. Perhaps homeschooling wasn’t so loony after all. It certainly wasn’t something we needed, but maybe I could glean some good ideas by getting to know homeschooling families and reading up on the subject. This I did for a good seven or eight years, during which time we had three more children. The more I learned, the more I read, and the more our family grew, the more I was intrigued by the idea of our family homeschooling.
The summer before my oldest was to start fourth grade, we moved to a neighboring state. One morning at the playground, I struck up a conversation with another mom whose kids were close to my kids’ ages. She asked me which teacher my oldest was going to have in the coming year.
“She’s going to be in Mrs. C____’s class,” I answered.
“Ah, yes,” the mom said knowingly. “Mrs. C____.” Pause. “We call her ‘The Nazi.’”
My eyes widened in horror.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the mom reassured me. “She just has a well-deserved reputation for being a zealot. You’ll find out soon enough.”
And indeed I did. At the first parent-teacher conference, Mrs. C____ shared that her children had just finished high school, with the rigors of Regents and AP classes and exams and the college application process. She knew how “brutal” it was and so, she said, it was her responsibility to prepare her students for what lay ahead.
My daughter was in the fourth grade. She was nine years old.
It wasn’t a terrible school year; it was a challenge to which my daughter rose. Fifth grade, with a different kind of teacher, was more like her early elementary years had been. But things changed radically when she entered middle school. Basically, we never saw her anymore. She would come home from school, go upstairs to her room to start on her homework, emerge for dinner, and then hunker down in her room again to work on homework until about 10:00. I could see that the workload was overwhelming, so I helped her with organizational strategies. But the difference that made was minimal. So I contacted the principal, expressing my concerns about how radically my daughter’s life had changed since starting middle school and asking whether this was typical. “Mrs. Watson,” intoned the principal, “your daughter simply has a time management problem.”
“No, sir,” I thought, as I hung up the phone. “Your school is the one with the time management problem: it can’t fit into eight hours — ⅓ of the day — everything that it feels is necessary to create the perfect graduate, so it is co-opting an ever larger share of our children’s discretionary time.” Just a few years before, I had felt that school was a partner with our family. Now I felt that school was actively working against our family. It expected us to bow to its programme. I was not going to do anything to undermine my daughter’s standing in her school (such as tell her not to do her homework, or make a Great Big Noisy Fuss to her teachers), but as far as I was concerned, this changed everything. I had discovered the way that the educational system viewed the family, and I could not trust its motives.
At this point, my reading on education began to include works by authors like Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society) and John Taylor Gatto (The Exhausted School) as well as those by more mainstream homeschooling proponents who wrote malevolently of public education. I was angry and saw homeschooling as the way to save my children from the system. My oldest was in middle school, and her younger sister had just started kindergarten; taking them out of school would be a major upheaval, but we would be striking a blow against tyranny.
It was not lost on my husband that I was on something of a crusade. Though he was not opposed to the idea of homeschooling, he did not support my teaching our children in my current philosophical state.
“You wouldn’t be doing it for the right reasons,” he counseled me. “You’re being too political.”
“This is a war of the state against the family!” I countered, not realizing that I was making his point for him.
“It can’t be political. It has to be about our kids,” he said quietly. And I knew that was his final word on the matter.
There’s an old saying: “If you love something, let it go. If it doesn’t come back, it was never yours. If it returns, it’s yours forever.” In my teenage years, this phrase got a lot of mileage; my friends and I recited it to one another in an attempt to keep our spirits high in the face of relentless romantic rejection. But there’s truth in it. I had to let go of my (admittedly new) dream of homeschooling in order for the story to end the way it was supposed to. How that happened is the next, and final, chapter of that story.