Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think it Means

It's a small-talk question. "You used to live in a small town? How many kids were in your graduating class?" people will ask. Or, "I went to Thomas Jefferson. Did you go to high school around here?" That one is easy to dodge if I don't feel like getting into the issue: "No, I grew up in Tennessee."

See, there's no telling which reaction I'll get once I disclose that I was homeschooled. Will it be "Oh, that's interesting," or "Really? My brother-in-law homeschools his kids," or the dreaded, "That's so strange. I never would have thought you were homeschooled. You don't seem like it."

It's not a fun conversation to have. For many people, public school is such a basic framework of reality that they can't believe I could grow up homeschooled and not have any resulting mutations, like an extra limb or gills. Having been homeschooled doesn't make me cool, the way that growing up in a foreign country makes people cool. It doesn't make me clever, the way that attending a competitive prep school makes people clever. It makes me. . . wrong. Neglected, probably; repressed, certainly; and absolutely uneducated.

"How could you learn anything?" they ask.

I find myself arguing why my education was much cooler than everybody else's. I never had to sit in a hard plastic chair and listen to a lecture, I say, so I didn't learn to be bored by learning. I did my schoolwork whenever I wanted to, lying on my bedroom floor with a bowl of ice cream. I studied biology at the Tennessee Aquarium bio labs. I took classes at the community college in high school and finished with college credit. I got to wander around my neighborhood and pick blackberries while all the other kids were in school. I didn't miss out on anything except for the local high school's record-setting teen pregnancy rate.

But people still think that I must have been one of those malnourished kids that show up the news every few weeks. "Until the neighbors noticed the smell of the decaying bodies," the stories usually read, "no one knew that the Hurleyhews had fourteen children. The surviving child, who was found hiding in the chimney, is estimated to be thirty-five years old, has a vocabulary of two words, and subsisted on a diet of Sears catalogs. The Hurleyhews had been homeschooling their children."

So people hear "homeschooled" and think they know what it meant for me. But they don't.

It didn't mean that I had a wardrobe of bonnets and pinafores.

It didn't mean that I was the dead-eyed proselyte of an obscure mountain cult.

It didn't mean that I grew up with more siblings than the Duggars.

It didn't mean that I was locked in the house and unknown to the neighbors.

It didn't mean that I was "unsocialized," whatever that was supposed to be.

No resemblance.
Now that I'm several years beyond college, the topic doesn't come up nearly as much, and when it does come up I'm not usually treated like a freak. Since most of the people I interact with are encountering me in the workplace, they must see that I wasn't left a hollow shell of a person by my lack of a public eduction. Back when I was a child, actually in the process of learning at home, the questions were nosier and the people asking the questions were more judgmental. Didn't my mother think I could get a good education in a real school?
I would respond that my mother was a college professor and perfectly capable of educating me, but I wanted to say, What, was your mother too stupid to teach you elementary school subjects, or did she just not love you enough to bother raising you herself?

A decade after finishing school and leaving home, I have a much-tempered view of non-homeschooling families. But I still dread the question: "So, what school did you go to?"


  1. We homeschooled our children until this past year. Then, my wife realized that she was doing a terrible job and following in the footsteps of her uneducated mother. I say uneducated, because she didn't have a college degree and my wife's mathematics ended at the 6th grade.

    We put our kids in public school and my bride went to college. Six kids, three in school, wife going to school, me working full time, and yet, they are getting a killer of an education.

    I would very much agree with your view of homeschooling and deem it to be very well done. I cannot say the same for much of what I see in other families. Lack of parental education. Lack of oversight/accountability. Oppressive brainwashing, etc, etc. There is a way to do it right and that way CAN be messy with some underlying foundational ideas. But if messy is your foundation or rigid and immoveable is your mantra, it won't go over well, in my opinion.

    What say you?

  2. I actually didn't know any families that were sloppy about the homeschooling-- except for ours! My mother was a single parent and full-time college teacher, so after 6th grade she'd put the curriculm together and then just check back every few weeks. (Worked for me, not for my brother, but he didn't do any better in public school or a private college.)

    What I saw was my mother dedicating huge numbers of hours to creating a curriculum, just as she did for her college classes. I think that people who aren't trained to do that usually follow a stricter, more traditional ready-made curriculum, and rely more on local co-op and support networks.

    Dayton is known as the "Buckle of the Bible Belt," and so you get a high density of people who homeschool for "religious" reasons. There were families who were part of the quiverfull movement or other ultra-fundamentalist, anti-outsider trends. So those kids were getting indoctrinated into unhealthy faith traditions without the daily reprieve from crazy parents and the alternate perspective that attending a school would have provided. But even had they been attending traditional school, I think the damage would still have been massive. The homeschooling isn't coming from a desire to encourage learning, but from a need to control the family. That kind of homeschooling isn't the root problem, but is symptomatic of the emotional abuse in the family.

  3. I agree with your analysis. It actually describes my single mom family who didn't homeschool, but wanted to, and yet maintained the tight parental control while being traditionally schooled.

    You have a seriously, maturated head on your shoulders - a joy to read. Thanks,