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Playing School

Playing School
By Angelica Mortensen

“School is boring,” my then four-year-old daughter reported to her Waldorf-attending best friend.

“I don’t think school is boring,” the friend’s nanny countered.

“Mama says it is.”

Everyone looked at me.  I smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “My school was. All schools are different.” I made a far better effort at being diplomatic than I had with my daughter when I made the original comment.

I’d uttered the “school is boring” comment out of frustration – as is usually the case when I speak thoughtlessly. My daughter had developed a fascination with, a longing for school. She wanted to be like her best friend, who had started preschool. She wanted to be like Junie B., Chrysanthemum, or any of the other myriad characters who overcome their fear of starting school and find school a place full of friends, kind teachers, and delightful activities. Aside from our ideological commitment to homeschooling, preschool was beyond our financial abilities; there would be no Waldorf school with its high teacher to child ratios, handicrafts, and storytelling.

My daughter, quite obligingly, found us a compromise. We would play school. In theory, I could see this was an excellent way of working through this ubiquitous cultural phenomenon from which she had been excluded. In practice, playing school made me grumpy. If you’re up for an intelligent treatise of why I choose to homeschool, I think I can provide that; if you want a careful, timid excuse, I can (and, frequently, do), mumble something wishy-washy about all the moving we are doing due to my husband’s academic job, and how we are “trying out” homeschooling “for now.” But what playing school reminded me was that, when it comes down to it, I just don’t like schools. I didn’t like school at age three, when I hid under the bed and hoped my mother would prove unable to find me and take me to preschool; nor did I like it in seventh grade, when I was bullied every day at our lunchroom assigned seats; nor did I like it in my twenties, when I volunteered at a Head Start and found myself spending all my time on standardized testing and “behavior management” – code for getting the kids to sit down and shut up. Maybe I needed to play school to work through some issues myself.

The imaginary school I created for with daughter was not Waldorf-inspired. We did not dye fabrics with vegetables or do puppet shows. That’s the sort of thing we could – we did – do any day, as part of our daily life. She wanted to play school, fine, we would play school in the way that I remembered school: “Copy down those math problems, then solve them. Copy those sight words. Sit at your seat and read silently.” “This is boring!” Kit complained. And then I uttered those injudicious words: “School is boring!”

The play fell apart for the day, and I didn’t think much about it until I got outed to the best friend and her nanny. Obviously, I had gone too far in playing up the disadvantages of school. This experience speaks to a perennial parenting challenge, in this case focused on the homeschooling arena: how to validate one’s own family choices while respecting the choices of others.

It reminds me of my introduction to the concept of pluralism in a college religion class. After reading an essay by the theologian, most of the students, many of them devout Lutherans, enthusiastically discussed looking for the best in all religions and respecting others beliefs. Our professors tried to point out the how many of the students’ enthusiasm for pluralism might contradict their professed religious beliefs. Finally, another student described her beliefs, and the trouble with pluralism, most succinctly: “I think I’m right, because, otherwise, I would think something different.”

When that person at the park asks me if my daughter goes to the school down the street, I want to explain clearly and confidently that we have chosen homeschooling for our daughter, while somehow acknowledging that some people have positive experiences with that school down the street. I want to really believe it when I say, "Everyone is doing the best for their family." But I'm not sure I do. While it’s true that different families have different needs, it’s also true that if I didn’t believe homeschooling was better for my kids than traditional schooling, I wouldn’t be doing it. But, obviously, I can’t say that to my friends who have chosen traditional schooling, and, especially, I musn’t say that to their children. I want my daughter to feel good about her life situation and our family choices – not weird, not jealous; but I also want that for other children, for those whose families have chosen schooling.

My daughter is five now. She could have started kindergarten this fall, although her right-on-the-border, end of August birthdate allows me to be noncommittal and wishy-washy when talking about homeschooling to parents who have chosen traditional schooling. Clearly, I still need to work on projecting pride and confidence in our choices while being respectful of others' choices. My daughter’s fascination with school waxes and wanes. We live a block from an elementary school, and in the fall she liked to take walks past the school at recess time; crowding against the fence, the children in the schoolyard were just as fascinated with her and her baby sister as she was with them.

I’ve gotten better at playing school. We still reserve dying cloth and puppet shows for our everyday play, but instead of taking charge of my imaginary classroom (the way I imagine a real teacher does), I ask Kit in a stage whisper, “What do you want to do at school today?” And then we do math problems, sight words, craft projects, art, and show and tell. I’m pretty sure we spend a larger proportion of our time on arts and crafts than your average school, our spelling words had a Valentine theme for about two months, and our story problems tend to involve cats and Tinkerbell, but I guess I can sacrifice a bit of mimesis.

Playing school has also proved useful to the secretly anxious part of me which is at odds with my unschooling beliefs. I stand in front of my "blackboard" (a slightly rumpled large piece of paper, former packing material for cat food) and make up a story problem involving two cats with four kittens apiece. I peek at my pupil’s paper: 4+4=8. 8+2=10.

Sure, I feel more delighted with homeschooling when my daughter and I make bread while listening to historical fiction audiobooks. I feel more enthusiastic when visiting a science museum. But when I see her "8+2=10," this verification that she can also do those things that I did in school at her age, I feel something perhaps less positive, less admirable, but also very important. I feel relieved. I feel at the very least, when I exclude her from schooling, I am not failing her. And certainly, “we are all trying not to fail our children” may be a much weaker statement than “we all do the best for our children,” but they’re both pluralist statements. And maybe that’s the best I can do for now; and in that, also, I am not failing.

Angelica Mortensen homeschools her two children all over the Midwestern USA – currently in Des Moines, Iowa. As she emerges from a fog of babyhood and multiple moves, she is getting back to writing regularly.

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