Social Issues

an average homeschooler: the beginning


My first experience with school was HeadStart at a Department of Defense school, since my father was in the Air Force. I don’t have very many clear memories of this, although they’re mostly positive. I remember coloring a large squirrel, playing with blocks, and listening to stories. However, there were a few drawbacks.

One incident is actually my earliest memory of sexism. I was playing with wooden blocks–not a toy we had at home, so the only one I was really interested in at school– and I was building towers with another little boy. My parents had shown me concepts like having a wide base in order to build a tall tower, but the boy was stacking one block on top of another– not that I cared or was paying much attention, until he became angry that my tower was taller than his. I remember the teacher coming over and reprimanding me for “showing off” and how I shouldn’t do “boy things.”

I got reprimanded for “showing off” quite a bit, actually. I have always been a perfectionist and I’ve always been incredibly proud of my work. When I colored, I did it excruciatingly slowly and carefully– and turned out what I felt were “realistic” results with my childish attempts at shading and blending. Teachers would encourage me to “have more fun” and not to take things so seriously, which I remember being very confusing. I’ve also always been talkative, and I remember struggling to make friends and feeling that I was disliked, although I had a few good friends and playmates, although I don’t remember my closest friends being from school, but my neighborhood.

What my mother’s main concern about this time period was that I went to HeadStart being able to read, and then my reading skills not only did not progress, but instead regressed. I actually lost some of my ability to read, and my mother spent the summer catching me up to where I’d been before.

We were transferred to Iceland, and I think my first day at kindergarten was in the middle of the school year. Again, my memories of this are mostly positive. There was finger painting, which actually frustrated me because I felt that I wasn’t very “good” at it, and we did science experiments, and I think there was a school performance with singing. An interesting factor about attending a DOD school in Iceland was the cultural enrichment– every so often an Icelandic teacher would come in and teach us something about the country. Most of the time this was fairly simple– teaching us to count to 10 in Icelandic, some basic Icelandic history, some of what Iceland is known for (like their horses and fishing, the geizers and waterfalls).

However, one of the lessons was really confusing to me. The visiting teacher had us sit cross-legged on our reading mats, close our eyes, and to imagine a light coming to speak to us. She explained that the light we could see was an angel and he would allow us to talk to someone we’d known who had died. When I got home from school that day and tried to explain to my mother what I’d “learned,” her reaction was, of course, rather horrified. We’d practically held a séance in class. I didn’t go back to school, and that was when my mother officially began homeschooling me.

The first few years I don’t honestly remember much of my schooling. I have vague memories of the curriculum we used (something with a white cover and a blue shield), but I do remember the “school room” my mother set up. She converted a closet, putting in a desk, some shelves, and a large map on the wall. Sometimes we used the room, but I remember spending most of my school days in makeshift blanket forts (how awesome, right?). When I got a little bit older and started playing with the other kids in our apartment building, my mom made a little cross-stitch to hang on the door to let them know that I was doing schoolwork and couldn’t come out to play.

We had an incredibly active homeschool group in Iceland, and I remember it being very diverse. There were kids from a bunch of different churches, kids who didn’t go to church at all, and parents who were homeschooling in a bunch of different ways. Being at an overseas military base meant that your resources were limited, so you took advantage of what you had. I also continued playing with kids who were still enrolled in the DOD school– kids in my building, the children of my father’s co-workers, and because it was the military, the people I knew were Philippino, and Japanese, and African-American, and German. This time was spent eating baklava and fried seaweed, and I loved it.

Homeschooling in these early years was extremely good for me. I remember being frustrated at school because I wanted to advance further, ask more questions, and I could become incredibly– almost myopically–focused. Once I was curious about a topic– like how a bean grows in a plastic bag taped to a window– it was very difficult to keep me from dominating the next half hour, and I remember teachers being very frustrated with me because they just didn’t have that kind of time. A classroom setting, for me as a six-year-old, was not a good fit. Once I was liberated to do as much schoolwork as I wanted when I wanted and free to read anything I wanted to when I wanted to was incredible.

That actually created some interesting moments– there were days when I would whip through whole sections of my textbooks, and other days when I didn’t want to do schoolwork at all. My mother tried to get me to take it one lesson at a time, but I remember fighting with her about this and sneaking off to do more schoolwork. When I progressed to the point in my math where I was adding more than one column, my mother became incredibly confused at my answers– and then figured out that I was adding up each column separately and then answering 12+48 with 510 (carrying the one, apparently, was a confusing concept for a while).

When we moved back to the States and my mother had the opportunity to put me in public school, another DOD school, or the local church school, she decided to continue homeschooling me– and eventually my sister– because it had worked so well for me and I was obviously doing well. However, State-side homeschooling turned out to be a little different, and that’s where we started running into problems.

What I’ve found that’s a common pattern for most of the homeschoolers I’ve interacted with was that our parents had excellent reasons for starting to homeschool us. While part of why my mother started to homeschool me was religious, it turned out that the primary reason was that the typical classroom experience seemed to be holding me back, so we continued homeschooling because it seemed to be better for me.

However, what I’ve encountered is that once you start homeschooling and become entrenched in homeschooling culture, parents seem to be actively and preemptively discouraged from reevaluating that decision. Children’s educational needs change over time, and while it was obvious that homeschooling me was the best decision for me when I was young, we never really took a step back and asked if it was the best method for my later education. When I was old enough to perhaps ask the question if being homeschooled was what I wanted, I was already absolutely convinced that going to public or private school would be horribly disastrous.

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  • 🙂
    I’ve been a pretty active commenter of late, so you’re probably cringing every time you see my name at this point. lol

    But I just wanted to say, that’s incredibly interesting. I just read Sylvia’s Sense of Snow for a lit crit class, and it was my first encounter with Icelandic culture, really, so it’s fascinating to me to hear about your early experience. THAT is what homeschool should be like, IMHO.

    It’s also validating to hear that taking a step back and re-evaluating are good things to do with homeschool. You’re right- the homeschool community, in general, can be very close-minded about change. I ran into a few of those thinkers in my local LEAH group, and didn’t join up for that reason. We were evaluating our homeschooling on a yearly basis.

    Finally, just wanted to say, so glad again for this blog. It’s been a source of convo starters in my writing group and even with my own kiddos. So, even though you might not necessarily see all the effects… the ripples are going out from what you write here, and touching lives.

    Take care of you.

    • Of course I’m not cringing! 🙂 and I’m glad my blog has been a conversation starter, that’s really encouraging.

  • SunnySide

    The last paragraph is so familiar – I was homeschooled because there was a HUGE kindergarten class the year I was supposed to start so my parents were left with sending me to another city for kindergarten or homeschooling. Since my parents were both displeased with their public school elementary education (one was diagnosed with ADHD later in life, the other had mild dyslexia), they opted to homeschool and planned to put me in public school after I had a good foundation. I also had mild dyslexia, so it really did work out well – mom spent lots of time with me and reading is a pleasure. I’m not sure it would have been that smooth in public school because my first response was always to get frustrated and shut down. Not a big deal at home when we could take a break or switch subjects and come back to it.

    Anyway, more siblings came along and my parents stuck to it, joined a fundiegelical church, and there we were. Suddenly it was an identity and the best decision rather than one of many. By the time I had the option of going to public school, I was completely unsure of my ability to handle it. I’m mad/sad that I never really knew how good of a student I was (have you seen the Glee episode about an Asian F? I think that’s a homeschool thing, too) and that the doubt followed me through college, even though I was always in the top quarter of my class. Years of spending more than half the day at home or in groups lacking diversity left the biggest impact. Like many other homeschoolers, my social needs were not met and my parents didn’t see them as a priority. It probably didn’t help that I really didn’t fit into the homeschool crowd. I was too skeptical, too much of a closet feminist. I manage just fine, am a fantastic salesperson, but I often feel like I’m on the outside – too much time spent there, I guess, and it’s a lot of work to overcome.

    Thanks for doing this series – there’s a lot I’ve forgotten and and remembering helps me take stock and be a little kinder to myself.

  • frasersherman

    Do you know if your teacher’s little session was just typical Icelandic class stuff or was she going rogue, so to speak?

    • I have no idea. While we were stationed there, a moderate practice of paganism was very much a part of the culture, at least in the semi-rural fishing village we lived nearby. It was a very common practice to build exact replicas of their cities outside the border, and they built them so that “demons” would live in the replica instead of in their homes. When I asked an Icelandic child about the “demons” the description she gave me was a cross between a gnome and a goblin.

      Iceland has an incredibly rich culture, and they’re very proud of their heritage and their country.

      This teacher, tho, I don’t know.

      • That’s fascinating. So- didn’t Beetlejuice keep getting stuck in a model town in the Beetlejuice movie?

  • I think I probably would have been better in homeschooling during early elementary school if it meant I could focus in on topics. I tended to do the same thing where I’d be obsessed with a particular topic for like a week and come home from school and pretend to be an amoeba all week, or only want to grow plants in little styrofoam cups for a week, or only want to go caterpillar hunting, or only want to play “explorer”. All of these things were things that I could do after school, though, so it ended up not being toooo frustrating.

  • I can relate to this post. I also started homeschooling my oldest son for what I thought were legitimate reasons. He was not learning to read in public school and I was told by a so-called expert (a dr. of education) that he would never learn to read. That was unacceptable to me, so I brought him home and taught him to read myself. Yes, it took some trial and error to find the right curriculum and method to find out how he learned, but I was able to make school enjoyable for him by allowing him to explore his interests at his own pace and by reading to him a lot.

    But, just as you said in your post, after we were entrenched in the lifestyle and culture, it was difficult for me to assess whether it continued to be the right decision for him and for my two subsequent children. It became a matter of pride for me not to be a failure at homeschooling my kids.

    We did stop for 1 1/2 years. My children were in 9th, 7th, and 4th grades that first year. Half way through the next school year, although they had all adjusted to school and were succeeding, my oldest and youngest children begged me to bring them back home again. By default, my middle child had to come home, too, although it probably would have been best for her to stay in school.

    I hope my children didn’t miss out on too much socially and emotionally through my decision to keep them at home, and as young adults now in college and careers after college, they don’t have too many regrets…thankfully…and we have a very tight, close relationship to this day.

  • I’m so glad you’re doing this series. So far, I really relate to what you’ve said, and I have a feeling that our stories are really similar.

    “When I was old enough to perhaps ask the question if being homeschooled was what I wanted, I was already absolutely convinced that going to public or private school would be horribly disastrous.” This. 100 x this. If I hadn’t believed that public schools were evil and that I was superior to public schoolers, I probably would have wanted to go to public school and would probably have really enjoyed it.

    can’t wait to read the rest of this series!

  • It’s interesting how many of us were initially home schooled for non-religious reasons, before our parents got sucked down into the whole culture.

    My poor health was the reason I was home schooled. In fact, my principal is the one who suggested we do so, because we were already taking most of the work home.

    We also avoided most of the craziness until I reached high school, and my parents discovered Bill Gothard, so I don’t feel that I lost much socially.

    I’ll also note the number of stories of kids that simply were not having their needs met in the traditional setting. I still think that is the best reason to home school. Many kids just don’t fit the mold, and the continuing obsession with testing and test prep that so many of my teacher friends loathe isn’t helping.