When my son was born, almost exactly seven years ago, I knew instinctively within a few months of his life that I wanted to homeschool my child. The desire felt something like a cross between a calling, almost spiritual in nature, and a logical choice, particularly given my interest in academics and the life of the intellect.
Eighteen months later my daughter was born, and for a couple of years I was happily consumed with the combined babyhoods of my two children: trips to museums and long walks and children’s books and occasionally escaping to ballet class were more my reality than planning their structured education. I was very happy during those years, and when one is happy there is a tendency to live more in the moment. I suppose I rather forgot about their inevitable, fast approaching maturity and need for “planned” education.
Suddenly my baby boy was four (I’m not sure how it happened, to this day). The women I knew who had children his age were in a panic: what to do after preschool? This was the constant topic of conversation: the choice between charter or public, or “choicing in” and getting lucky, or, if it was even possible, making the financial sacrifice to invest in private schooling.
To be perfectly honest, I’d never been very gifted or interested in the typical mama-chat that goes on at playgrounds and playdates. I got… bored. And isolated. And this of course made me feel like I was doing something wrong, or was somehow inadequate as a friend, as a mother, as a modern person making her way through the world of early (Western, yuppie) child-rearing. But it was the conversations about education that made me most withdraw. I simply couldn’t understand, or imagine, handing the bodies and minds of my children over to other human beings.
I am, however, aware of how controlling I can be, and how rigid. I am also prone to severe episodes of depression, I’m something of a loner, and I tend to idealize the way things “should” be, and then become overwhelmed with self-loathing when events unfold in their natural way, and are not the fantasy my mind has planned. How on earth, then could such a woman homeschool? This self-doubt was compounded by my extended family, who of course, like many people, had never even heard of homeschooling, much less considered it a viable choice for my children.
Ignoring the inner voice inside me, I made plans, along with all the other parents, to enroll my son in kindergarten. And then I became pregnant with my third child, which helped to bring on a (long-percolating) severe, lasting and life-changing nervous breakdown. Suddenly it wasn’t so much of a question of homeschooling, but would I even survive to pick my children up from school?
I did survive; the baby was born, and over an agonizingly extended period of time I clawed my way out of my breakdown. The scars and vulnerabilities are still present every day, but I have a newborn, luminous love for existence in all its strange forms that never would have come to the fore had I had not lived through Hell.
As my strength grows, I’m turning once again to my neglected vision of homeschooling my children. Traditional school has not worked for us: my son is stunningly, almost bizarrely precocious in some ways; he was testing, at the age of six, at the seventh grade level for reading, and fifth grade for math. But then he has delays and gaps in his capacities that traditional school easily overlooks: his handwriting is the writing of a kindergartener, and he is socially aloof and, for lack of a better term, overly self-contained for such a small child. It’s not that he can’t interact with others, it’s almost that he chooses not to, especially when his mind is occupied with reading and there are large groups of people around.
My daughter, on the other hand, is dreamy and extremely sensitive, and, I worry, given my own history with mental anguish, perhaps prone to depression. She is acutely aware of the people around her, their moods, their personalities, their tendencies… she is like a mood ring. Her mind is filled with color and stars and memory; once she learns French I think she’ll love, as an adult, the writings of Proust.
But for now, in our day to day reality, she is, incredibly, given that she is only in kindergarten, a target for young bullies. I did not know bullying could occur in children so young, but her cohorts have depressingly proven otherwise. Every day she comes home with wrenching stories of what a certain group of girls say to her, none of it kind, and I can see part of her mind, her lovely gentle spirit, receding and growing mistrustful of others. Lately she has taken to pleading in the most heartbreaking manner to go back to her old pre-school, “where the children were nice.”
My son is bored, and growing angry from the boredom. My daughter is traumatized, and growing sad from the trauma. We have begun to talk about homeschooling, and not surprisingly both of them, for their own very different reasons, are aching to begin.
The question for me is what, exactly are we going to begin? Traditional school has a well carved path, although now that path is being littered with the bureaucratic obsessions over testing, leaving many dedicated, intelligent teachers frustrated, over-worked, and essentially left out of decisions about their own classrooms. But it is a path nonetheless. One advances through grades, one takes the tests, one gains and loses friendships, “electives” are chosen, and if one is lucky enough to attend a school that hasn’t abandoned them, art and music are taught as if they were somehow secondary to “academics.”
When I look at the vast terrain of homeschooling, on the other hand, all I see are choices and experimentation. I have done much research at this point, and from what I can glean almost all homeschoolers change curricula often, are constantly weighing different options, and, even though most families seem extremely happy with their homeschooling choice, stress and sacrifice are an inherent part of their lives.
Like all mothers, I love my children with an indescribable intensity. When I envision homeschooling them, I think about giving them the greatest intellectual gift that can ever be given: teaching them to become autodidacts, and to love the process of education as its own fulfilling end. I also want them to understand that educating oneself isn’t separate from the rest of life; all of life, its play, its solitary moments, its joy and sorrow, is ground for deepening one’s understanding of oneself, the world, and reality itself. I also of course envision the fun parts: a freer schedule, traveling when we want (and can afford to), inventing projects that take us to museums, parks, farms and beyond.
It is the sacrifice that gives me pause. Is that selfish of me, given my beliefs about traditional schooling? Perhaps. But the same love of learning, and of a contemplative and curious life that I want to give to my children is one I want to live as well. I want to practice and teach yoga, and make some of my own money; I want to dance, perhaps, dare I say it, even professionally again, and I want to write. I need to write. And read.
In most homeschooling families, one parent works full time, and the other either works part time or stays home and manages a child’s education. I am lucky enough to have the extremely unusual situation of not working; I have been able to stay home with three children, which in our increasingly financially strained society is a true marvel of good fortune. However, I want to work, at least part time, and I believe a creative inner life is vital to not only one’s own mind, but one’s family as well.
I do not know how to put these pieces together. They swirl about, and are often so opaque and complicated as to be unfathomable: how to keep in place one’s own well being, and manage the tender development of the minds of three other humans? It is done all the time; I have spoken and read about and emailed with amazing people who do this. I would like to be one of them. It is not a road ahead I see, but open space. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.