Most of my elementary education was pretty amazing, I think. I don’t have very many clear memories, but most of it is just this fuzzy sense that it was pretty awesome and I loved it, especially when we were living in Iceland. I had a huge group of friends, I could learn whatever I wanted– in fact, I think the years we spent in Iceland were the happiest of my childhood. Part of that was we were going to an overseas military church, and that is a unique experience. The lines between church and family blurred.
When we got back to the States, though, everything was different.
One of the first unfortunate things that happened, I think, was the church we attended in New Mexico ostracized my mother in many ways because she decided to continue homeschooling us instead of enrolling us in the church school. She faced some pretty intense push back for that, for reasons I didn’t understand. How it affected my life was that I didn’t make friends with anyone at church, which deeply disappointed me. They were all friends with each other at school, so breaking into the 10-year-old’s clique proved too difficult for me to manage.
I didn’t do myself any favors with that, though. I think part of it was that I was hurt and angry over being unconsciously rejected by the kids at church, so the “well, I don’t need you anyway!” attitude became part of the equation. At one point I got a scorpion shoved down the back of my dress and I was done. I sat by myself after church ended and refused to speak to any of them.
That was really my first taste of the “us against them” mentality I would accept as the incontrovertible order of things once I was older. I was different because I was homeschooled. That was what made us separate.
When we transferred to Florida, one of the requirements my mother had for finding a church was other homeschool families. It wasn’t the only requirement, but I remember it being one of the biggest. We visited two churches, and I think one of the biggest reasons why we ultimately chose the church-cult was that a higher percentage of the families homeschooled. This also ended up being how we were cemented into the conservative Christian culture of homeschooling.
Let me make it clear: the conservative Christian/fundamentalist homeschooling culture was always present. In Iceland, many of the homeschooling families were extremely conservative. While the church was a far cry from fundamentalist, many of the people who attended it were. My mother began wearing skirts and destroyed all her Amy Grant and Steve Green CDs because the other homeschooling mothers she hung out with did. There was enormous pressure to conform, and we did. We were introduced to Michael and Debi Pearl in New Mexico, and the homeschooling families there helped inculcate in me many of the homeschooling stereotypes– especially a love for all things Pioneer and a Little House on the Prairie.
However, the church-cult was where I would spend more time than I have anywhere else, and it was where we got sucked even further into homeschooling culture. It was there that we started hearing the message homeschooling or bust, but messages like these weren’t being preached from the pulpit. It was in pamphlets and magazines that were being passed around by all the homeschooling moms. When I was in high school, I read a book called None Dare Call it Education, a book which spends a ridiculous amount of time wailing about how liberal Massachusetts is, and how public school is wrecking our great nation.
Almost all of the homeschooling material we received focused an awful lot of time on telling us how terrible every other kind of education is and how awesome we were for doing the “right thing.” It seems like most of the messages we got were all about building public education straw men than they were about helping homeschoolers do a good job educating their children.
It didn’t help that just like I had been ostracized by the kids at church in New Mexico we started ostracizing all the kids who weren’t homeschooled. There were three families where the children went to public school, and all of them left– some more quickly than others. I have vivid memories of hanging out at one of the girl’s house and being curious about her math textbook. She was confused when I asked if I could look at her textbooks, but I remember being blown away when I saw what they looked like. I had somehow believed that public schools “dumb down” the material, but what I found in those textbooks was far more advanced than what I was learning even though we were in the same grade. I remember struggling to come up with something to say– and then being deeply troubled by how much looking at those books had wrecked my perceptions.
It didn’t take me very long to come up with plenty of plausible explanations to explain the difference away. That experience was the first time I deliberately denied evidence that public school might– just maybe– be totally fine in favor of believing that being a homeschooler meant that I was superior.
I was twelve.
Middle school is where we first ran into problems with my education. Up until that point I remember being a pretty easy kid to homeschool. But when we hit middle school, all I can remember is either being incredibly bored or hating school. Eventually it got so bad that my mom decided that going through grade 5 was pointless since it was really just a re-cycle of grade 4, so I skipped from 4th grade to 6th grade.
That was the year my mom tried to mix things up. We tried Writing Strands and Saxon Math and I started studying Greek and Latin roots and logic. In some ways, it got me excited about school again, but that interest quickly faded. Me and my mother started struggling, and my frustration started increasing again, but this time it was because I couldn’t learn concepts as quickly as I’d become used to. Things like long division took me weeks to understand, and it made me an incredibly difficult student to deal with. There were days when my mother would throw up her hands and disappear into her bedroom, shouting “call me when you graduate from college!” I became resistant and stubborn, and both 6th and 7th grade were a struggle. I hated Saxon math so much I just refused to keep doing it.
At this point we fell into what I think is a pretty common homeschool trap. I don’t have a term for it, but it happens close to the end of the year. You spend the few months leading up to May or June barely doing any schoolwork at all because you’re sick of it and you don’t want to do it anymore, but you have to do something to finish so you throw together a quick compromise: if you do xyz, complete a few papers, and finish the last quarter of tests and quizzes you can be done for the year. So you spend the last few weeks cramming in all those tests and quizzes you forgot to take (grading many of them yourself and let’s be honest we usually cheated) and then hoo-ray it’s summertime.
Some homeschooling families are more disciplined than this, I know. But, from all the conversations I’ve had in the last eight years, disciplined homeschooling environments where projects were completed in a timely fashion and tests and quizzes were taken when they were supposed to, and you completed enough actual days? That is the exception, not the rule. The rule is much more haphazard and flexible– too flexible, really. And while the flexibility of homeschooling is one of the advantages, it’s also one of its drawbacks, too. Positive and negatives in homeschooling are usually two sides of the same coin.