Homeschool Is Magic*

To homeschool or not to homeschool? In years past, a stray encouragement on Facebook to parents who were thinking about it but not sure they could do it may have elicited little response. But because we’re having a moment right now, and it’s politically correct to say we should shove ALL kids in front of a screen all day to somehow protect the “rights” of SOME unfortunate kids who have no choice, it’s now highly contentious. Hasn’t everyone been saying for years that it’s a broken system for many kids? Has throwing my tax dollars at it changed anything in several generations? Haven’t we all been nail-biting over school shootings and bullying for a decade? I don’t get it, because all I want is to be encouraging to those few people out there who are trying something new.

I was homeschooled for eight years. I had an amazing Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. W. Then my first grade year was marked by almost daily bullying by a male teacher who disliked me. I think he was tired and I made life more difficult for him by finishing my work early and asking a lot of questions and having my own strong opinions. I remember him sending me to the sink in our room by myself to wash out his dirty microwavable soup cups. When I gashed my finger on the edge of one of the cans, I could feel the waves of guilt rolling off of him as he walked me down to the nurse’s office. He probably couldn’t even pinpoint why he disliked me. 

In second grade, I hung out with Annette – who knew how to read an analogue watch and had estimated the length of the track around the playground. She set a goal for us to run a mile every day by portioning out a certain number of laps around it to each recess period. I also played kissy-kissy with the boys. Mrs. Sebasty read us James And The Giant Peach. I could not wait until that time each day. I was also given a LOT of busy-work to do – mostly alphebetizing words – when I inevitably finished my work before many of the other kids. Annette was always bent over her own busy work as well; most likely quadratic equations.

this is a photo I took the other day of the boarded up middle school across the street from us

When I went back to public school as a junior in high school, my experience there was similar. My health class teacher turned the speed on my treadmill up as high as it would go when he visited my P.E. class one day, which caused me to fall and scrape my knees. They oozed and wouldn’t heal for months until I debrided them myself in the bathtub. I nievely parroted “whore corps” (a popular slur for the color guard) to the band teacher – having heard it from the little brother of one of its members – in a move that would have me moping around his office for days trying to work up the nerve to apologize. His daughter was in color guard. My crowning achievement was mis-repeating a joke my friend Lindsey told in our honors English small group of four. The one Jewish kid was arguing about the Bible passage we were reading (he had been told not to argue theology, but to discuss literature). She had said, “get this Jewish kid out of here,” and we had all laughed – him included. I quipped to the whole class when the teacher repeated this instruction: “Yeah! Get This Jew Out Of Here!” 

I will never live it down. 

The overwhelming memory of my time in school is one of dehumanization. I was already prone to anxiety and depression, but the constant repetition of my days at school, being herded like cattle from one place to another in a windowless building with thousands of other depressed kids made it much worse. I made it through despite the system, and because I already had a lot going for me. I could sing, which put me in the top choir automatically and gave me an instant group of friends. And I was a good student. I quickly learned to dumb down my vocabulary and my heightened sense of morality so I could have friends. I was still the girl who got apologized to when someone else got drunk at a choir party, but what are you gonna do? 

My 8 years of being homeschooled was far from idyllic. My mom was struggling with an undiagnosed chronic illness that kept her from sleeping or eating well and left her in pain much of the time. She got down to 80 lbs at one point. My dad was moving us around and traveling half of every month sometimes, just to get that next raise and keep the family afloat financially. They felt morally obligated to educate us themselves, despite the toll it took. It would have been far easier for her not to do it all while still paying into the public education system we weren’t using. I was lonely sometimes. We have some gaps in our education. And when they put us all back in school the same year, it needed to happen for the sanity of our family. 

I’ve known I wanted to get married and have a family for a long time. Since I was a little girl. Most of my other desires have been subservient to that one. It’s not morally better than someone else’s choice, it’s just what it is. For a long time, I didn’t think I would homeschool my kids. In my 20s and early 30s I harped on all the negatives I associated with homeschooling and how I didn’t think I was cut out to be a teacher. Then I actually had children. 

It’s hard to describe what I mean when I say that, because what I knew the moment I gave birth to my first child defies description. Maybe I’ll try to write more about it someday. From that first moment, through their early childhood when I was drowning, until this day, I have had the sense that there was no going back. Until you hold that baby you’ve just pushed out of your own body, you don’t realize what a weighty thing you are doing.  You don’t realize it in pregnancy, even. All my ideas of who I planned to become and how I was going to conduct motherhood got dismantled in that moment. A new person has just entered the world through you, and he’s a real person, not an idea. And then you give up your sleep and your body and your autonomy to keep that person alive. To me, it was crazy that I would send him away from me for 6,7,8 hours a day to be shepherded by government employees a mere 5 years later. So I could do what? 

When you spend that much time with your child, so much so that you know what they want before they can say it with words, it changes you. You want the best for him. I don’t know. I guess I was just confident enough to insist that I was the best thing I could give my child. Who else on earth would be willing to give him more than I was? 

Here’s what I did get “in homeschool:” stories. Stories, stories and more stories. My mom read The Chronicles of Narnia to us and my life changed forever. My imagination exploded. My memories of that time are filled with running around outside in the woods and in our backyard exploring. Getting muddy. Inventing stupid new games. Playing Indians. Playing dress-up. I read so many books. I was reading all the time. I was also writing, without anyone prompting me to write a word. I was drawing, and painting, and sewing. I would bake a cake in the afternoon from scratch, just because. My mom didn’t pull out the pristine baking set, don a flowery apron and gather us lovingly around to let us all “help” her bake. She didn’t have to. I knew how to read and I was interested, so I did it. I also microwaved an aluminum pan for like 5 minutes and then grabbed the handle. I did get burned, but I’m still baffled that the microwave survived it.

I learned to play the piano and take care of horses. I sang in church choir and learned to play the guitar. I wrote a song or two. Those years, despite being sometimes lonely and sometimes sad and angsty, were filled with room to breathe. There was quiet and order in our house, and there was enough to do and to think about without a lot of lessons or homework. Even if I didn’t get the perfect education (what constitutes the perfect education?), I did get those priceless gifts. Not to mention, the gift of parents who stayed married and who lived according to a creed they believed outranked themselves.

I ended up being one of 12 valedictorians at my public high school. It’s silly, and I shouldn’t have been there because I wasn’t getting A’s in calculus like the other kids, but that’s just to illustrate that I kept up pretty well when I went back. I also had plenty of friends, just so you know. And then I went on to get into a very competitive college (their most competitive program, in the most competitive slot if you want to know) and aaaaaaalmost pulled off a Cum Laude (damn C in Philosophy 101. Boy problems). I wasn’t actually trying for any certain grade either. 

But you know what I would really be proud of, if I had done it? Starting my own successful business. We have come to have all these marks of success that are laid out on well-tended paths, and those are fine. It’s hard to become a doctor or a lawyer in many ways. But it takes guts to be different. It takes a lot of stamina to keep doing something people don’t understand and won’t support you in. It’s hard to stand out and flap in the breeze, not knowing if you’ll actually achieve what you’re trying to achieve; but that you believe you should be doing because it’s what you were made for. 

My mom was doing something remarkable, and I know she blames herself for the bad parts of it. I don’t think she realizes how profoundly her choice to homeschool me has shaped the way I think about the world. When I say we can be innovators I don’t mean that every family has to homeschool. It’s not feasible for my neighbor – a single mom of 5 kids who works nights as a nurse’s aid – to homeschool her kids. I know they’re unavoidably alone most of the day right now for school, and I feel for them. Some of them, the younger ones, come over to play with my kids almost every day and I’m so thankful for that.

What I mean is what I quoted in a previous post: “Genius is as ordinary as dirt.” Homeschooling is one way of getting out of the way of the genius that’s inside every human child, and/or helping it to come out. I remain firmly convinced that even such simple changes as more free play and more time outside and in nature can work wonders for kids who are having a hard time academically or emotionally. I spent enough time in and then out of school to know that most of it is busy work. No offense to the great teachers out there, but a lot of the time I spent in school was social time, or filling-up-time time. What if (just as one example) kids could interact with nature in a meaningful and personal way every day, rather than spend so much time inside and bored? And what if some of those same kids could be left with enough time outside of formal study to think about and pursue their own ideas? It’s the “accidents” of the school systems that have given us our most celebrated geniuses like Einstein. What if we are missing out on a hundred such geniuses who could have helped solve our environmental crises because we’re insisting this broken system is the only system? 

When I encourage parents who have thought about homeschooling to do it, and tell them it’s not as hard as you think it is, I am trying to “be the change,” and all that. I’m telling you from the mere first steps past the other side that you CAN do it – whether it’s homeschooling your own kids or forming a small school for your neighborhood, or helping an inner-city mom who has just HAD IT to take back the power. (I know someone who is doing this, and I am beyond amazed by the few Black mamas I know out there who are going against what all of their friends and families are doing to homeschool their children. That’s true pioneering and it’s fearsome to behold.)

science experiments on Sunday evenings at the dining room table

I’m here to tell whoever wants to hear it that it’s worth it. Once you’ve done something hard and scary and lived through the self-doubt and the criticism and you’ve prevailed (sometimes all that means is not giving up), you feel powerful. You feel more human. You feel like you can do what you were made to do. That’s the thing I want more parents and more kids to experience. Yes, you can get a better education through homeschooling than in public school. You can also get a worse one (just saying). But the best thing about it, in my opinion, is the thing it will teach you and your kids when you do it: 

You can change your life. You can create new things. You have the power to work hard and be diligent and all sorts of opportunities will open to you. There are countless examples of this throughout history. You can innovate. You can think for yourself. There is genius inside of you, and you are not like anyone else. And yes, the world needs you. It needs the fullness of all you can be. 

*homeschool is not magic, but it can be pretty remarkable.

6 thoughts on “Homeschool Is Magic*

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  1. Hello Jenn! This is Brady! I’ve been happy to get your blog posts in my inbox again! I had two thoughts as I read this.

    (1) As someone who spent lots of time with you in high school, let me just say that first of all I’m sad this was your experience but also, to me, your were truly this beautiful, mysterious, witty friend with an amazing voice. These tough moments you describe didn’t register to me one bit, but I certainly do understand them because I have many of my own.

    (2) I am homeschooling my oldest (kindergarten) because he just straight up hates virtual learning and it never squared to me that I’ve spent the past 6 years hearing from pediatricians to keep him off screens then hearing from Chicago Public Schools that he was going to be staring at one for minimum three hours a day. We’ll be back in our regular public school, warts and all, when COVID is over, but I really loved your description of the space and time learning at home gave you. I think Andy is experiencing the same thing. He is introverted and self-motivated and I think he really likes this experience. I like it too!

    That’s all. Miss you.

    1. Brady! Hugs!! Thank you for your kind words. You don’t know how much it means to me when people from my past take the time to say kind things. I miss you too! Yes, I struggled with anxiety and depression all throughout high school and college. I mean…I still do at times. I had some amazing times too. You were always so encouraging and sweet and down-to-earth. And you still are. I’m delighted to hear that you like your son’s school and that it’s an overall good thing. I don’t think homeschooling is for everyone, for sure. There are so many great teachers out there! But I’m super impressed with you for doing what you’re doing for the moment, knowing what your son needs, and making that decision with confidence. I totally agree that the screen thing seems problematic at best. Our little neighbor kid got suspended from school for two days for playing with his phone during virtual school. It’s just so unfair to him – not that he cares at all. He was excited! I feel for them not having the resources to do anything else. Anyway, good luck. I’m sure he’s going to love it and that he’ll be super prepared for next year or whenever he returns. He has some fantastic parents!

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