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Re-educating the Inner Reluctant Homeschooler

Re-educating the Inner Reluctant Homeschooler
By Suki Wessling

I take part in a monthly homeschooling support group in my community. By now, I’m one of the seasoned ones who help new parents find their way. Those parents are sometimes self-assured life learners who never considered sending their kids to school. But lots of the parents remind me of myself: entering homeschooling with trepidation, not to mention occasional blaming and fits of rage.

I have the greatest respect for those who came to life learning naturally and hopefully. But that wasn’t my experience at all. I was the most reluctant of reluctant homeschoolers.

It should have been obvious that my daughter wasn’t fit for institutional learning from the day we enrolled her in preschool at eighteen months. She was already a child who looked at a rule, decided if it made sense to her, and if it didn’t, ignored it. She was a natural scientist, constantly testing the world with her “what would happen if…” explorations.

By the time she approached kindergarten age, we were in complete and blissful denial. Thinking that she just needed a different environment, we put her in a tiny Montessori school set in a fairytale cottage in the redwoods. Many children would have loved it—in fact, my older child did love it. But still my daughter tried to tell us what she needed in clear physical language.

Skip-counting with beads bore her, so she threw them around the room. Putting C-A-T blocks together was just plain dumb, and she refused to do it. This classroom had even more rules than preschool; she was constantly being reminded to push in her chair, clean up her last activity, place books on the correct shelf, stand in the correct place in line, stop at a designated location on the way to the playground, and even speak in approved ways.
Six weeks before winter break, I started to attend kindergarten with her in an attempt to work things out. Slowly, I started to see things from her perspective. Being at school was simply boring. She very seldom got to do activities that she would have chosen to do, and she was often being “taught” things that she either already knew or would learn much better on her own.

Our entire family left for winter vacation but, come January, only my older child returned to school. I was forced to become the most reluctant of home- schoolers.

I had many reasons to resist: Both of my parents have PhDs. My husband and I both have master’s degrees and attended top colleges. I was a straight-A student in school. I remembered myself as a good, willing student. Everything about my life story seemed to point away from homeschooling as I knew about it.

But as soon as I brought my daughter home, I started reading. (David Albert was a particular favorite.) And as I read, I started to think and remember. The pull of our cultural stories is very strong, and I had bought into our cultural story of the good student – hook, line, and sinker.

I remembered that I’d been, in fact, a reluctant student. Although at the top of my class academically, I’d never really wanted to go to school. When I was young, I cried easily and felt bullied and friendless. As I grew, I knew that my unwillingness to hide my excitement about learning led to being shunned by “the popular girls,” who were just doing time in school and spent much of the school day talking hair, make-up, and teen idols. As a teen, my friends were “weird” like me, outcasts for a variety of reasons.

There is a common experience that I’ve seen amongst new reluctant homeschoolers: At first, we resist the idea that homeschooling is a valid mode of education. We get over that. Then, we figure it’s okay for our kid, but we would never have needed it. It’s much harder to get over that. When we do, it’s often with great surprise.

My big aha moment didn’t come for years. First, I had to accept that school was not serving my son’s needs, either, although he had been a docile, largely well-behaved student just like his mother. We became a complete home- schooling family. Although I offered my kids the choice to go back to school at the end of each summer, I never expected them actually to do it.

But I still thought of myself as a kid who had basically been well-served by my education. Although I’d come to terms with the fact that I’d not been the happiest student in school, I hadn’t ever granted the possibility that I personally would have thrived as a home- schooler. In my 70’s Midwest town, it had simply been unthinkable.

I was writing and rewriting the introduction to a book that had been accepted for publication. Called From School to Homeschool, it’s a sort of manual for people like me – academically accelerated learners who find themselves taking their kids out of school. As I wrote, I found myself typing the realization before it had completely formed in my head: I was my family’s first homeschooler!

I was sixteen and beyond miserable. My mother was working toward her PhD at the University of Michigan, living part of the week in Ann Arbor, a two-hour drive from our home. By chance, when talking to someone about her straight-A, miserable daughter, she found out about a program at the university that accepted students without a high school diploma.

It would never have occurred to my school-focused family to allow me to drop out “just to learn,” but if I got a university’s stamp of approval, why not? So I did the only sort of homeschooling we could envision: I dropped out of high school, moved into my mom’s apartment with her roommate (a middle-aged nun – an appropriately odd couple!), and moved on with my life.

Why is it so hard for us reluctant homeschoolers to make peace with our decision? Many of us do what I used to do: We yearly offer our kids the chance to go back to school. Many of us make excuses to our school friends: “Well, homeschooling works for her right now, but maybe soon…” As if we are still hoping that school will be in our future.

I think part of the answer is that this is a transition that takes time. When I started homeschooling, I only knew schooling families. It took a while before I found that my social life revolved more around people who fully accepted homeschooling than around those families whose children went to school.

It’s also a change that is more fundamental than many of us realize: homeschooling really is a radical departure from our cultural norms. We reluctant homeschoolers take time to accept that we simply no longer buy the line that school is better. In the beginning, we agreed with people who said things like, “Hopefully she’ll be able to go back to school in a few years.” We thought of returning to school as the goal. But slowly, we start to realize that we agree just to keep from causing offence. And then we realize that it might be worth defending our child’s choice to homeschool, because we’re starting to see that it is, in fact, her choice.

Finally, we have to reject institutional learning in order to fully appreciate what is happening in our homes. Our kids are learning, thriving, and developing into thoughtful citizens of the world. Sure, I will admit to anyone who asks that we blithely miss most of the standards set by our educational institutions. What my kids understand deeply is what they’ve sought out; what they haven’t developed an interest in has been left for another day.

But I fully expect that my children will emerge into the world well-educated adults, not because they have been forced through the paces of a well-rounded curriculum, but because homeschooling is preparing them for real life. In college, my friends and I all found that, no matter the quality of school we’d attended, we had holes in our education that had to be filled in. We had to learn how to recognize what we needed to know in order to achieve our goals. In other words, we had to learn how to learn.

I know that my kids’ experience of entering the adult world will be vastly different from mine in that respect: It would not occur to them to sit around waiting for someone to tell them what they should learn. In each of their areas of passion, they read, experiment, and seek out experiences. Going out into the world, for them, won’t be the start of their independent learning – it will be a continuation.

When I first started attending homeschooling support group meetings, I thought it was funny to introduce myself as if I were at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, I’m Suki, and I’m a homeschooler.”

The fact is, though, that I actually had this piece of me that believed that somehow I would get out of this. My daughter would figure out how to behave in a classroom and I’d be able to get back to my “real life.”

These days, when I introduce myself at homeschooling support meetings, I feel secure that I have fully made the transition. Homeschooling is a state of mind, one that we reluctant homeschoolers reach through a process of denial, realization, and self-re-education. It takes us some time before we can say these words and really understand what they mean: I am a homeschooler.

Suki Wessling is a writer and the homeschooling mom of two children. She writes fiction and articles about parenting, gifted children, and education. She is the author of the book From School to Homeschool. You can visit her website for more writing and to learn about her book.

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