Re-educating the Inner Reluctant
By Suki Wessling
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 life learners 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…”
By the time she approached kindergarten age, we were
in complete and blissful denial. Thinking that she just needed a different
environment, we put her in a tiny Montessori school set in a fairytale cottage
in the redwoods. Many children would have loved it—in fact, my older child
did love it. But still my daughter tried to tell us what she needed in clear
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.
Six weeks before winter break, I started to attend kindergarten with her
in an attempt to work things out. Slowly, I started to see things from her
perspective. Being at school was simply boring. She very seldom got to do
activities that she would have chosen to do, and she was often being “taught”
things that she either already knew or would learn much better on her own.
Our entire family left for winter vacation but, come
January, only my older child returned to school. I was forced to become
the most reluctant of home- schoolers.
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,
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.
But I still thought of myself as a kid who had basically
been well-served by my education. Although I’d come to terms with the fact
that I’d not been the happiest student in school, I hadn’t ever granted
the possibility that I personally would have thrived as a home- schooler.
In my 70’s Midwest town, it had simply been unthinkable.
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
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 – 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 homeschoolers 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,
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.
But I fully expect that my children will emerge into
the world well-educated adults, not because they have been forced through
the paces of a well-rounded curriculum, but because homeschooling is preparing
them for real life. In college, my friends and I all found that, no matter
the quality of school we’d attended, we had holes in our education that
had to be filled in. We had to learn how to recognize what we needed to
know in order to achieve our goals. In other words, we had to learn how
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
These days, when I introduce myself at homeschooling
support meetings, I feel secure that I have fully made the transition. Homeschooling
is a state of mind, one that we reluctant homeschoolers reach through a
process of denial, realization, and self-re-education. It takes us some
time before we can say these words and really understand what they mean:
I am a homeschooler.
Suki Wessling is a writer and the homeschooling
mom of two children. She writes fiction and articles about parenting, gifted
children, and education. She is the author of the book From School to Homeschool.
You can visit her website for more
writing and to learn about her book.
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