homeschooling: an apology among apologies

Posted by on June 23, 2013

Since early spring, when we decided for certain to homeschool, my mind has been involuntarily assembling a defense. I wanted to have some persuasive points ready when the inevitable inquiries began to come our way. Since then I’ve realized that my inclination to prepare a defense is not at all original. Others–many others–have already given words to many of the ideas that have been brewing in the cauldron of my soul over the last academic year. There seems to be a movement toward homeschooling happening right now in the U.S., and I would cite this article as some proof of that. So it makes sense that there also seems to be a style of articles and blog posts emerging which could be grouped together in an emergent genre I might call homeschooling apologetics.

The first I saw was on a blog connected to St. Louis Children’s Hospital (which is authored by doctors at the hospital who are also mothers): 18 Reasons Why Doctors and Lawyers Homeschool their Children. I love that the author announces her status as a homeschooler as something she has kept a secret, the implication being that homeschooling carries a stigma (i.e., it is the choice of societal misfits, hyper-religious or otherwise). I have been very slow to come into a willingness to homeschool, but I would be lying if I said vanity–a strong desire to disassociate myself from these stereotypes–had nothing to do with it.

I needed to send my child to public school for two years. The experience showed me that my strengths and weaknesses, what I can handle and what I cannot handle, are in many ways the inverse opposite of what I assumed. I did not think myself equal to the challenge of homeschooling and I thought that having a child in public school could be nothing if not easy.

I imagined I could be one of those laid back, cheerful moms who volunteers for the Halloween carnival and helps organize the Book Fair. In practice I discovered that I could not muster up this kind of participation upon seeing how little power any of these things had to engage me in any way that was genuine. I didn’t like the Halloween carnival because it was chaotic and overstimulating with an obnoxiously loud DJ blasting Taylor Swift break-up songs. Competing with these gigantic speakers and the booming voice of the DJ was an outdoor movie screen offering Scooby Doo. The innocent and traditional pumpkin carving table was positioned in between this zone of competing noise. How anyone could wield a carving knife accurately in that setting, I have no idea. The scene might have made sense at a high school, but in the crowded and dark parking lot jostling with five and six year-olds holding their parents’ hands, I found it bewildering. To sit in on a planning committee with the parents who thought this was a great idea would be to invite feelings of alienation and loneliness– not something I am, as a general rule, eager to sign up for.

And I didn’t like the book fair–the school’s primary fund raiser– because it was hawking as many cheap toys and trinkets as it was books (see photo below), not to mention books that are closer to being toys than books (i.e. having glitter stickers, plastic parts, or requiring batteries). To participate in these events would require a superhuman effort on my part to fake an interest. On the rare occasion that we take our girls to the mall, we brace ourselves for a requisite visit to the Disney and Build-a-Bear stores. Those visits can be annoying, but I expect and accept them, because it is, after all, the mall. However, when we go to the science museum and find a Build-a-Bear store (yes, this happened recently) next to the fossil exhibit, feelings of betrayal are admissible. Someone with the word curator in his or her job title is not quite doing his or her job. A place devoted to science or books should be about science or books. Any idiot knows that children will always choose the stimulating, the glittery, the sweet, over the subtle and muted appearance of, say, The Frog and Toad Collection Box Set (something I personally would be delighted for them to discover). I don’t want to take my children to a space that is supposed to be about books and find myself, yet again, competing with toys, trinkets, and candy.

But this is endemic in our culture. Any American parent trying to shield their child from the flood of commercialism should expect many challenges and few allies. I was naive to expect an ally in the form of public school administrators. Librarians too have fallen. I know now that when I take my children to the library I will have to be the one to pull them away from the computers set up with  licensed characters like Dora the Explorer and Peep and the Big Wide World. Oh for the good ol’ days when libraries were all about books.

My naivety has been purged. The only place in this land where I venture to nourish the hope that my children might have half a chance of experiencing the subtle colors and finespun story lines of traditional fairy tales, free from the competition of pink bunnies with rhinestone accessories, turns out to be our humble home. And that just barely.

The book trinket fair at my daughter’s elementary school

So, the culture of my daughter’s elementary school forced my hand, in a sense. I found that I could not be passive and active at the same time. That is, I could not passively relinquish my child to an entrenched system that chaffed against my internal sense of what is lovely and worthwhile, and at the same time behave like an inspired, actively involved parent. If I am inspired, I have energy to serve and participate– I believe in what is happening in and through a place or system. If I lack that sincerity, I cannot seem to lift a pinky. I turn useless.

So I made a bad public school mom. And while I wasn’t particularly proud of that fact, I had little energy or will to change it. But I was also not comfortable with my daughter feeling like she had an uninvolved, absent mother, living in a world totally separate from her school world. I should also mention here that I am very much an introvert, so even if my children attended schools that did inspire me, getting involved would always require a certain conscious effort from me. But when inspiration was completely lacking, I was doomed to station myself outside of the peripheries of the action. This presented me with a dilemma. For her sake I would consider being a martyr– going through the motions of being an involved mother, even though it bored me terribly and left a slimy residue of resentment. Or, I could practice a perfectly reasonable regime of “self-care” and not involve myself in order to save my energy. But then I would have to make peace with the persistent discomfort that my daughter had a separate life happening elsewhere, where other people were making a lot of choices about what she would be exposed to– choices that I often found uninspiring at best, harmful at worst.

My daughter’s school has won many awards. Parents are actively involved there and many think of this area of St. Louis as a kind of utopian ideal of family life. Real estate here is desirable partly because of the reputation of the school district. I cannot entirely explain why I do not fit in here or feel the magic, but so far this has been the case. Yes, it is a lonely experience. It is lonely to feel that one’s idea of what would make a lovely Halloween carnival for children differs so radically from the idea of the majority of the other parents populating one’s community. Maybe it would help if our family could develop an affinity for Cardinals baseball so that on “Cardinal’s Day” at school my daughter could wear her Cardinal’s shirt along with all the other kids in school (she didn’t, and I am being facetious). But whatever the case, I started to perceive something. I perceived that one of two things would likely happen if we stayed on this course. Either my daughter would identify more with her parents and feel a sense of alienation from her peers, thus going through her childhood feeling slightly alienated at school (the very place where she would spend most of her childhood), or she would find herself identifying more and more with the culture of her school and feeling slightly alienated from her parents. Either scenario would create a rift in her life that might never entirely heal. This divide was already beginning to happen in subtle ways.

I have come to believe that one of the most important and lifelong tasks in the development of every person is integration– integrating the different parts of yourself and your life to bring the disparate parts into harmony with one another. This task is much harder if, from an early age, there are already a lot of moving parts which seem to have no relation to each other. I know because this was the case for me. I remember feeling as if my family and my school existed in such separate spheres that they could barely tolerate a side-to-side comparison. I was quiet and introverted, so I always identified with my family more than the culture of my school and that protected me from a lot of negative things, but it was also painful and not particularly healthy. Sometimes I feel as if I am still trying to heal that rift.

Often I have resented my parents for not finding ways to bridge the gap between our family life and my school life. I thought I could forge a better way for my own children by being an involved mother and acting as an integrating force between home and school. It was a sad dawning for me to realize that this was an unrealistic goal. My personality, my values, every fiber of my being was not going to cooperate. Maybe I need to accept that on some level, I am something of a cultural misfit, and that is okay.

The time a child spends at school is so dominating– so long, so huge, so filling. They go in the morning when they are fresh and awake, and only return in the late afternoon when they are tired, have low blood sugar, and are grumpy. Sending your child to school all day is totally normal. Most everyone does it. And yet, if you take just a few steps back and look at it from another angle, it is also totally weird. My role as a mother began to feel very custodial–the one who got her dressed, fed her breakfast and dinner, bathed her, made sure she got a good night’s sleep, and signed off on her homework sheets–while her teacher and schoolmates had the lion’s share of influencing her sense of self and her perceptions about the world. Timing can be crucial and mornings are especially important. School takes the mornings for itself and leaves parents with the leftover parts of a child’s day. My relationship with my six year-old felt like it was in crisis management mode most of the time. A low moment came toward the end of the school year when we got an email from her teacher which ended cheerily with, “Thanks for your help in keeping Esme organized.” Gosh, I wanted to reply, let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help out with raising my daughter.

If I were a single parent, or if I absolutely had to work, all of this would be a completely different story. I am grateful for the option of public schools for everyone and if it were our only choice, I would accept that graciously and work to make peace with my situation and do my best within its perimeters. I also personally believe that divine grace is available in the situations in our life that we have no control over, especially when children are involved. But since I do have the option to stay home and try for something better, the prospect of doing so inevitably began to take root in my mind.

I couldn’t help asking: If I felt so disconnected from my child when she was only in first grade, how would I feel when she was in fifth grade? In tenth grade? If she was coming home asking about Monster High dolls and the Twilight movies and repeating a song with the words “sexy lady,” and reporting that a girl in her class bragged that she “loved the devil,” in first grade, what would she be coming home asking about and talking about in eighth grade? If girls in her class were excluding her and telling lies to her and influencing her to change her mind about her favorite color and other likes and dislikes in first grade, what dramas would be going down in just a few more years which might affect her ways of relating to others for the rest of her life? I wasn’t eager to wait around and find out. I am a sensitive person. That is how I am wired. I began to understand that I was never wired for public school when I went through twelve years of it myself. To survive it, I shut down many parts of myself along the way. Some of those parts are only just now starting to re-emerge. All these years later, I am still not wired to handle it well via my own child. The difference is that now there is another option available to me.

I could go on and on about the aspects of public school that bothered me. I might mention that while the academic standards at my daughter’s school were about as high as public schools can get, the evidence of her learning came home in an endless stack of sloppy looking worksheets– totally without texture, aesthetic appeal, or interest. It seemed sad to me that most of what she was clearly spending her days pouring over did not have any kind of archival quality about it– something precious, worth saving and looking at in years to come. I always noticed that, with the exception of her once-a-week art class, her projects from school looked hastily put together, in contrast to the work she would sometimes do at home when she was able to really take time for a particular drawing or project. But even with a list of negatives as long as I am tall, I would never have been able to make a move toward homeschooling if I had not found something positive to lead me there. Negative feelings and discontent would not be enough to base such a decision upon. If I was going to build an entirely new context for my child’s education, I would need something more to build on than a flimsy list of complaints and a cloud of malcontent.

One evening in March while my husband was traveling and I was home alone, after the girls had gone to bed, I was lounging on the sofa with my laptop. Something had happened that day and I was feeling particularly forlorn about Esme’s school situation so I started searching online for–what?–I’m not sure. I think I googled “online elementary schools,” just tinkering with the idea of something I’d heard about– enrollment in public school that is entirely online. In retrospect, I don’t really know what I was expecting. I’m generally against too much screen time for children and certainly don’t want my child to spend her days in front of a computer screen, but I think I was just feeling a little desperate and wanting to somehow be rescued. I did find something like that–an online public school– and it was intriguing but I knew deep down that it felt too sterile and I would never commit to it. Then I found another website that held immediate appeal to me– a school based in Vermont called Oak Meadow that offered a Waldorf-inspired homeschooling curriculum and also the possibility for official enrollment–a sort of hybrid between homeschooling and distance learning in a school that would be fully accredited, offer support, keep official records, and so forth. In the end, we decided not to officially enroll Esme, but only use their curriculum and do it all ourselves. But at the time that I was first exploring this and my confidence in my ability was still floundering, I found the option of enrollment very comforting. I also found it comforting that although their curriculum is Waldorf-inspired and very distinct from the mainstream public school curriculum, it is nevertheless academically rigorous and shaped according to the grade level requirements that would meet the standards of most states. Call me conventional, but I needed that assurance as well. If I pull my child out of the mainstream, I need to know that, in a pinch, I could put her back there and she would be able to re-adapt. It seems uncanny to me that while I was very attracted to many things about Waldorf schooling when I was introduced to it several years ago, I was never entirely comfortable with it because its departure from traditional curriculums was just a bit too extreme for me. Jeff was concerned that the only career choice for a Waldorf educated child would be acting or basket weaving. The Oak Meadow curriculum blends just the right amount from both sides to feel balanced and comfortable for me. I knew also that this would have to garner Jeff’s (who is now, after all, a professor) endorsement for it to be something we could all realistically live with. He sat down with their catalog and scrutinized the curriculum and found it to be so inspiring that he also felt that this was what we should do. This is how my confidence was able to gather momentum so quickly. Some people decide to homeschool and then find a curriculum or construct one themselves, but I think I needed things to go in the other order. At that time I also started using Pinterest and following Oak Meadow’s boards where they are constantly posting ideas and articles that resonate with me deeply. Discovering that there are others out there who think similarly to me has been enormously uplifting. They do not live in a geographical cluster around me, so we will probably not be planning any carnivals together, but for now, the fact that they are out there is enough. And from what I hear, there is a very extensive network of homeschooling families locally as well.

It took every bit of my experience and the uneasiness over the past two years to prompt me to explore a little way down a fork that eventually appeared on the trail. I thought that this byway would just taper off into an unmarked, overgrown and desolate area of the woods and I would have to turn back gloomily to the established thoroughfare. Instead the narrow trail got wider and smoother. Trees were marked with ribbons. Other people had obviously been there and had created a lovely clearing–inhabitable, civilized, fully functional, and with all the signs of a burgeoning culture and lots of room for individuality and creativity. None of this is what I ever expected, but happily, life can be like this–people can be like this.

But metaphors and abstractions aside, I could also assemble a more concrete list similar to the ones found here, and here. Another story I find interesting can be read here. A lot of the details overlap from story to story while there is also something unique in each one. Mine would be the same– many of my reasons overlap with these others I have read while there are other parts of my experience I have not yet heard expressed elsewhere.

But for now, this is my abbreviated (albeit long, I know) case for of all that led me to decide to homeschool. Now it is just a matter of preparing and, in the fall, beginning. I don’t entirely know what to expect. I want to hold the decision loosely in my hand for now, without making any radical or arrogant claims. I only know that inner work and outer circumstances have led me here and for now it feels right. What more can anyone ask going forward?

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  1. Carol
    June 25, 2013

    Hi Julia,

    You don't know me, but I found your blog through Kris L's list. Your post struck a "nostalgic" chord with me, as it seems we went through the same experiences. We tried public school, but it so did not fit for us. I just want to let you know that while you may be questioning yourself and apprehensive about your decision, it can and will work. We took one year and a time, and are now homeschooling for year nine. Best of luck to you!

  2. Julia
    June 25, 2013

    Thanks for your comment, Carol. I am a little apprehensive. I'm definitely already seeing the necessity of not thinking/projecting too far ahead. One year at a time is definitely wise advice.

  3. Evelina
    June 25, 2013

    Thank you for assembling your reasons for us, Julia! Some of your reasons for homeschooling explained to me some of my own concerns about elementary school.
    There are some really hilarious pieces in the post too!

  4. Michele
    June 29, 2013

    It is interesting reading this from an european point of view. Here in Europe home schooling does not exist and the state controls education as it fears that parents will not be able to educate their children properly. I still believe I wouldn't be able to educate my children as good as teacher I trust can do; moreover (and more importantly) I also feel comfortable with the idea that they interact with other kids and grow their own relationships. But I guess there must be advantages as well which surely you are taking into account when deciding. I am sure it is going to be fun.