Why we homeschool, in too many words
First: I’m not a homeschooling zealot. I was dramatically (and, I hope, permanently) disenchanted of my brief love affair with zealotry regarding parenting choices years ago. But that’s another story.
I do believe there are right and wrong choices, yes, but when it comes to somewhat amoral decisions such as how your child is educated, certainty is not really an available posture. The impossibility of knowing the outcome of the choice dislodges certainty and makes it illusory at best. Public school, private school, homeschool… they are indeed quite different. Different formational experiences. We all like to think there’s some kind of level of reason outside of time and space, independent of particularity, to which we can appeal and which issues absolute certainty. That’s our bothersome Enlightenment brain rearing its bewigged, eminently reasonable head again. I’m not referring to trusting God - that’s faith, which is not coterminal with objective certainty, a thing that doesn’t exist, as much as we like to believe it does. I’m talking about the idea that we can appeal to some standard in order to be absolutely certain that a given decision is right, independent of trust in God and the Holy Spirit to lead us. The short answer is that we can’t.
(panicked shriek of horror)
And so, if I belabor my decision too much, I start to freak out. I start trying to use the internet as some kind of oracle to validate my choice (trying to use the internet in this manner is a voidish rabbit hole if there ever was one, because what is the internet but a cacophony of fallible human voices, each vying for supremacy in a neverending welter of grotesquely profligate verbiage? Wait, why I am writing this and publishing it on the internet again?).
I wince and feel a small bud of fear start to unfurl in my belly when reading testimonies of homeschooled children who are now adults and blame their home education for things such as social anxiety, listlessness and ineptitude. Apparently there are those out there who feel they are socially leperous, anxiety-ridden, malformed and misinformed, yet are simultaneously conscious enough of their inability to function to blame said inability on their homeschooling and seethe with burning hatred for the fools who spawned them into this cruel world.
But the same fear blossoms when I read or hear victim stories of the relentless, viperous bullying that seems rampant in schools. I fear Izzy and Arrow will be shaped by others’ mean-spirited words, mired in the pit of our hypersexed and useless pop culture, so drawn daily into the drama of the machinations of the school caste system that an education won’t happen at all. I fear they won’t develop independently, won’t have time to develop their gifts, will become overly identified with the “labeling” that springs from good and bad grades or test scores. I worry school would cripple rather than nurture them.
I have thoughtful friends who send their kids to school, and their reasons generally seem legitimate, well-reasoned and good to me. I have thoughtful friends who homeschool, and their reasons also generally seem legitimate, well-reasoned and good to me. I know very devoted public school teachers who work very hard and have a deep and real love for the little souls in their care. I personally had a couple of teachers like that, but also some who were apathetic and did the bare minimum required of them, and sometimes not even that - perhaps because of burnout from overwork and underpayment - but were negligent teachers just the same. It’s a most troubling impasse. So I start pleading with God for a definitive answer and then looking to the skies for a stone slab to fall with either “yes” or “no” engraved upon it. I start wondering where I can find a set of urim and thummim. But nothing can give a definitive answer. Even when I appeal to God in prayer, never does He seem to give me a definitive answer on this question in the way I define and desire definitiveness.
And yet, and yet… I have to admit the chorus of “Freedom” by George Michael resounded through my head when, en route to that sacred space known as The Library, we drove past the full school parking lot (just a block from our new home) on the first day of school in our district. Freedom, sweet freedom! Freedom from the endless testing, the herding, the distractions, the generalized dread that every school day engendered in me as a child.
In kindergarten, my teacher was Mrs. Whipple, she of the vivid red lipstick and besequined sweaters for every occasion. I don’t remember learning a great deal in an academic sense - I was already reading - but there was plenty of play and frivolity and made-up words like “conkywampus”, thanks to Mrs. Whipple. We all adored her. Kindergarten was only a half-day, and each morning just before noon my mom would pick me up and I’d ride home to a lunch of Chef Boyardee cheese ravioli while watching Sesame Street. Life was very, very good. It was golden.
Then came first grade. My teacher was Mrs. Michaelson, of the floor-length and lace-collared schoolmarm dresses and the tensely permed hair. Everything about her suggested an austerity that simply would not humor such things as fun and whimsy. I didn’t jibe with her and yet she wasn’t necessarily the source of my misery. Suddenly, I hated school. I hated everything about it - the constant forced socialization, the lack of reading time, the lack of privacy. There was also something beyond words about it that sucked the joy from my nascent mind and tender little heart.
An inexplicable dread would begin fermenting in my gut upon awakening and realizing it was not a Saturday or Sunday morning. I would contrive some kind of crisis in order to miss the bus and my mom or dad would be forced to drive me, weepy and inconsolable, to the school parking lot where I’d beg them, in vain, not to make me go. Eventually they took me to a psychologist or psychiatrist and all I remember is that I thought he was handsome like a Disney prince which made the whole ordeal ten times worse and I sat there staring hard at the cumulus of wadded-up tissues in my lap and was mostly silent or gave monosyllabic answers as tears rolled down my cheeks.
Summer came, and once again I was allowed to revel in the freedom of days that were my own. Summer is still my favorite season. But 2nd grade loomed, like a doom-portending dust storm on the horizon, slowly, almost imperceptibly creeping nearer. It was only June and then suddenly it was not and you realized you hadn’t eyed the horizon for some time and there it was, nearly upon you, the coming school year, intent on ruining the final vestiges of summer fun with its villainous whispers of imprisoned days and pointless busy work.
And so it went. Each school year, I became slightly more adept at navigating this world I vehemently disliked. 5th grade was notable, not for its educational richness (academics were a mere formality and background to socializing), but for the “dating” that began that year (which was really only in name; I was a dork but as far as I know no one was actually going anywhere together). As for middle school: let us never speak of it again! High school, eh. I made treasured friendships that have endured to this day, and did have a couple of brilliant teachers… but the environment of “school” still felt stifling. I am reminded of one time a couple years ago when we were playing Pictionary with a group of friends in Lamar, one of whom had twin teenaged sons. Steven was drawing something that must have appeared to be an incarcerated boil because one of the twins yelled “zit prison!” which was piggybacked by a retort from his twin: “high school!” Ah, yes. Zit prison, how apt.
I feel I should say at this point that this is entirely my experience as I perceived it then. It may sound spectacularly hyperbolic to some, but it was real to me. I passionately loathed school. My husband did not. I have friends who did not. So, am I projecting onto my children? Possibly. I make every effort not to vilify school to them, though, and have made it clear they’re welcome to try it eventually if and when they desire. Am I imposing my will on my children? Yes, absolutely. That’s impossible not to do, and furthermore would be undesirable. To do so would be some kind of philosophical construct - “neutrality parenting” (an absurd neologism I’ll go ahead and coin) - that would not, and could not, make any substantial contact with reality. We live in a world of particularity and embodiment, and it is good. We make decisions for our children that will be heavily formational. We make them actively or passively, but it’s impossible to avoid making them.
Inextricable from this decision-making business is cost. There is a cost for every choice, no matter how good, thoughtful, prayed-over, read about, considered, analyzed, or urim-and-thummimed to death. I tend to use excessive weighing of pros and cons as a deflective tactic to avoid actually making a decision. At some point, the weighing must end. And we must rest in our decision - and, if that decision requires further work on our part (as homeschooling most certainly does), invest ourselves in that work without reservation.
So, we decided to homeschool. Why this decision, above the other? Because of my experience. Because while I believe it’s good to be exposed to many different people, challenging people even, but I’m not sure the right time is ages 5 or 6 is the right time for doing that independently for many hours 5 days a week, as the powers that be tell us it is. Because I want my children to be firmly rooted in their sacred belovedness and worth and the sacred belovedness and worth of every single person that has ever lived and will ever live before they venture out independently into a world that seems bent on belying that truth. Because I believe institutions are by nature not hospitable environments for the human soul; because they thrive only insofar as relationships can grow within - and sometimes in spite of - them. Because most of the time, I love having my children at home; I love learning together and I treasure watching them bloom. Because I am open to change if it quits working. Because I believe in mercy and grace and that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him. Because, over and over again, God has told us to not be afraid.
I don’t sound very sure about my decision, do I? The truth is I’m not, at least not every single day. Some days sparkle with the crystalline fruit of wonderful books, learning with ease and curiosity and engagement, the immediacy of Christ's nearness and the luminous here-and-nowness which accompanies it. Love is the engine and it makes everything shine. Other days, it feels like nothing is working and we just give up and go to the library. I hope my children will be glad we made this choice, but I have to live with the possibility that they won’t be. And yet, there is nothing left for me but to trust, and test the fruit, and wait, and enjoy the nectar of daily life in the meantime.
And it is, indeed, nectarous (a word I made up and use here to mean "of, like, or pertaining to nectar" because one of those small handful of great teachers I had told us we have complete and unrestricted license to make up words).