Re-educating the Inner Reluctant Homeschooler
I take part in a monthly homeschooling support group in my community. By now, I’m one of the seasoned ones who help new parents find their way. Those parents are sometimes self-assured unschoolers who never considered sending their kids to school. But lots of the parents remind me of myself: entering homeschooling with trepidation, not to mention occasional blaming and fits of rage.
I have the greatest respect for those who came to life learning naturally and hopefully. But that wasn’t my experience at all. I was the most reluctant of reluctant homeschoolers.
It should have been obvious that my daughter wasn’t fit for institutional learning from the day we enrolled her in preschool at eighteen months. She was already a child who looked at a rule, decided if it made sense to her, and if it didn’t, ignored it. She was a natural scientist, constantly testing the world with her “what would happen if…” explorations.
Skip-counting with beads bore her, so she threw
them around the room. Putting C-A-T blocks together was just plain dumb,
and she refused to do it. This classroom had even more rules than
preschool; she was constantly being reminded to push in her chair, clean
up her last activity, place books on the correct shelf, stand in the
correct place in line, stop at a designated location on the way to the
playground, and even speak in approved ways.
I had many reasons to resist: Both of my parents have PhDs. My husband and I both have master’s degrees and attended top colleges. I was a straight-A student in school. I remembered myself as a good, willing student. Everything about my life story seemed to point away from homeschooling as I knew about it.
But as soon as I brought my daughter home, I started reading. (David Albert was a particular favorite.) And as I read, I started to think and remember. The pull of our cultural stories is very strong, and I had bought into our cultural story of the good student – hook, line, and sinker.
I remembered that I’d been, in fact, a reluctant student. Although at the top of my class academically, I’d never really wanted to go to school. When I was young, I cried easily and felt bullied and friendless. As I grew, I knew that my unwillingness to hide my excitement about learning led to being shunned by “the popular girls,” who were just doing time in school and spent much of the school day talking hair, make-up, and teen idols. As a teen, my friends were “weird” like me, outcasts for a variety of reasons.
There is a common experience that I’ve seen amongst new reluctant homeschoolers: At first, we resist the idea that homeschooling is a valid mode of education. We get over that. Then, we figure it’s okay for our kid, but we would never have needed it. It’s much harder to get over that. When we do, it’s often with great surprise.
My big aha moment didn’t come for years. First, I
had to accept that school was not serving my son’s needs, either,
although he had been a docile, largely well-behaved student just like
his mother. We became a complete home- schooling family. Although I
offered my kids the choice to go back to school at the end of each
summer, I never expected them actually to do it.
I was writing and rewriting the introduction to a book that had been accepted for publication. Called From School to Homeschool, it’s a sort of manual for people like me – academically accelerated learners who find themselves taking their kids out of school. As I wrote, I found myself typing the realization before it had completely formed in my head: I was my family’s first homeschooler!
I was sixteen and beyond miserable. My mother was working toward her PhD at the University of Michigan, living part of the week in Ann Arbor, a two-hour drive from our home. By chance, when talking to someone about her straight-A, miserable daughter, she found out about a program at the university that accepted students without a high school diploma.
It would never have occurred to my school-focused family to allow me to drop out “just to learn,” but if I got a university’s stamp of approval, why not? So I did the only sort of homeschooling we could envision: I dropped out of high school, moved into my mom’s apartment with her roommate (a middle-aged nun – we made an appropriately odd couple!), and moved on with my life.
Why is it so hard for us reluctant homeschoolers to make peace with our decision? Many of us do what I used to do: We yearly offer our kids the chance to go back to school. Many of us make excuses to our school friends: “Well, homeschooling works for her right now, but maybe soon…” As if we are still hoping that school will be in our future.
I think part of the answer is that this is a transition that takes time. When I started homeschooling, I only knew schooling families. It took a while before I found that my social life revolved more around people who fully accepted homeschooling than around those families whose children went to school.
It’s also a change that is more fundamental than many of us realize: homeschooling really is a radical departure from our cultural norms. We reluctant home- schoolers take time to accept that we simply no longer buy the line that school is better. In the beginning, we agreed with people who said things like, “Hopefully she’ll be able to go back to school in a few years.” We thought of returning to school as the goal. But slowly, we start to realize that we agree just to keep from causing offence. And then we realize that it might be worth defending our child’s choice to homeschool, because we’re starting to see that it is, in fact, her choice.
Finally, we have to reject institutional learning in order to fully appreciate what is happening in our homes. Our kids are learning, thriving, and developing into thoughtful citizens of the world. Sure, I will admit to anyone who asks that we blithely miss most of the standards set by our educational institutions. What my kids understand deeply is what they’ve sought out; what they haven’t developed an interest in has been left for another day.
I know that my kids’ experience of entering the adult world will be vastly different from mine in that respect: It would not occur to them to sit around waiting for someone to tell them what they should learn. In each of their areas of passion, they read, experiment, and seek out experiences. Going out into the world, for them, won’t be the start of their independent learning – it will be a continuation.
When I first started attending homeschooling support group meetings, I thought it was funny to introduce myself as if I were at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, I’m Suki, and I’m a homeschooler.”
The fact is, though, that I actually had this piece of me that believed that somehow I would get out of this. My daughter would figure out how to behave in a classroom and I’d be able to get back to my “real life.”
These days, when I introduce myself at
homeschooling support meetings, I feel secure that I have fully made the