“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
“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
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
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
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
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.