Saturday, May 25

Weird Creatures

I have hundreds of things to do around the house, but there's a voice in my head that's chanting 'write, write, write... you always have a more productive day when you write...' It's an annoying voice. So I'm going to write... I'm going to try and start to delve into the topics that have been swirling around in my head about homeschooling. Or unschooling. Or just homing? I haven't decided which phrase belongs to us yet. So here goes.

Why I hate(d) homeschoolers
a novel

This journey, my journey, towards homeschooling has been... surprising. Odd. Unexpected. As a child I was homeschooled for a couple of years, before being sent to boarding school(we lived overseas... that's a whole other blog post for a whole other day). When we came back to our 'homeland', my siblings and I entered into the public schooling system. It was apparent from day one that I was something of an oddity, and that sharp, prickly feeling of 'not fitting-in' would continue for the rest of my schooling. As a young adult, I was quick to place the blame at... well everyone's door... everyone but me of course!

Homeschoolers are Weird
On my endless quest to fit in and assimilate,  I had met a few other people were odd... even odder than me... who had been homeschooled, and I hated them! Such annoying people! Either completely submissive to their parents, enough so that they were too passive to ask for rides home on a cold evening, or stroppy, cocky and supercilious, enough to put you off entering any kind of conversation with them. Why try to talk to someone if they knew better than you - about EVERYTHING? And while I didn't blame my own brand of misfit on the fact that I was homeschooled(but instead pointed angry fingers at my parents, my years at boarding school etc), I hated to see the oddness in others, because something about their strangeness, the way they stuck out in a crowd, echoed within me, in the well hidden odd corners of my heart. I had assimilated into society(at great cost), but these strange people - they had not. They refused to fit themselves into the narrow box that I had FORCED myself to squeeze into. They reminded me that I too did not really belong, and that was not a comfortable nor pleasant feeling. 

From these scarce encounters with such weird creatures, I formed a notion of homeschooling - and it's flaws - that would carry through into adulthood. Homeschooled children were Weird. Odd. Strange. I assumed, from their oddness, that they were probably unhappy. Poor things! I was angry at their parents on their behalf. Why would you hide your child in a box, all their lives? Why crush their spirit and independence  Why did they WANT their children to be different? What cruel, overbearing, obsessive parents. Secretly however, in my heart of hearts, I had always wanted to be kept at home - protected from the cruel world - and I wanted to know why they were different? What made them so special that they got to stay at home, in a loving environment, while I slogged away at school trying to make myself invisible. 

The Turning Point: Turners and Tea
I did encounter one exception to the rule that I myself had created: the Turner family. Little did I know, when I first met a girl called Laura(lovely, bubbly, warm, confident Laura) that I had started my own journey back towards homeschooling. We were friends through other mutual friends, so I didn't really get to know her until after I was married(at the tender age of 19, desperately seeking some assurance from someone that we would always have each other and be together and live in one place forever and ever)(apart from the living in one place, yes, I'm still living that dream), and a mutual friend invited me to come to the Turners so that we could go for walks and watch ER. Genius plan, obviously. 3 or 4 of us girls would descend upon the poor Turner household, and unless it was raining, we would march off into the dusk and discuss the world and everything in it. I was wary at first, of this family of homeschoolers, but I grew to be amazed and delighted by all of them - Monday nights became the highlight of my week. I loved their house, in the country, with its rustic walls of mud and grass, its stone cobbled path, its rich tapestries and warm colours. It even had a fireplace! I have such good memories of that fireplace - we would gather around it, icy cold fingers wrapped around mugs of tea(they were constantly drinking tea, the Turners), and warm up before heading into the TV room to watch the latest episode of ER. From the Turners, I got my love of tea, of firesplaces, and of ER; all things that I had enjoyed before, but only in that year did I learn to LOVE a cup of tea and a medical drama).

What was even more amazing to me was the family itself. 7 children, 7 intelligent, independent children who were warm, friendly, socially engaging, and genuinely lovely. The youngest would offer to make me a cup of tea(he was 5 at the time) and then he would go off and make it himself!!!! I would walk in to the kitchen and find several members of the family all standing chopping vegetables, washing dishes and debating fiercely. Mrs Turner, or Cathy as I was reminded to call her, always made me feel welcome and warm, and her loving, calm spirit imbued the home around her. Steve, her husband, was funny and smart and wanted to hear what we were talking about - we were equals and made to feel as if we had something to offer. Of course there was chaos - happy friendly loud chaos as well as arguments and fights - over whose turn it was to play on the old piano in the corner or walk the dog. The Turners were my turning point. I witnessed firsthand the hubbub and joy of a family where every person was connected and tuned in, yet free to follow their own minds. Instead of pitying their oddness or hating their strangeness(they were neither), I admired their confidence and envied their lifestyle. It was a huge turning point for me; here was a family whose lifestyle I wished to emulate... and they homeschooled their children! Was it possible to have one without the other? Or were the two concepts deeply intertwined? My conclusion was that if I had been lucky enough to be born with a calm, loving, gentle and patient personality like Cathy had obviously been, then I would be able to take on the task of homeschooling my children. But I knew I was lacking.

"I just read books to them"
And there was another woman who had a big impact on shaping how I thought about parenting and schooling(I haven't been able to get in touch with her yet so no name sorry!) Their family had turned up in our church when I was about 14 or 15, all 8 of them: two parents, five boys, one girl. I didn't have much to do with the family outside of youthgroup, camps, the usual church stuff, until I got a bit older(my would-be husband was in a few of the short-lived bands that the eldest boy formed). I did the odd spot of babysitting the younger 3, and visited their home many times as a friend of the two eldest boys.. and came to admire 'this mothers' capability, her calm-flurry(yes, there is such a thing), her sharp wit, and her care and love of all things home. When I was older, married and with my own baby, I came to her house weekly with a bunch of other young mums for a bible study; we would troop in through her door, pass our babies to her, and huddle over the continuous supply of coffee and cake, while we attempted to get our minds around this crazy new life of parenting. She was always available to chat on the phone and comfort or reassure us - or give us a loving kick up the backside when we needed it! 

While all of the kids went to public school back in NZ, 'this mother' had done her fair share of homeschooling, particularly when the boys were younger. She told us that boys shouldn't go to school at 5, weren't ready until they were older. She told us of walks through the park, of sliding down hills on cardboard boxes and of endless trips to the museum and library. "But what schoolwork did you do?" I would ask, trying to get to the bottom of this seemingly haphazard style of 'school'... "what curriculum did you use?" She never seemed to answer my question as I wanted her to, simply waving her hands disparagingly and saying "Oh, I just read to them all the time", "Oh we just read books, tonnes and tonnes of books" or "We just ordered lots of books from the States and read them". She never mentioned how she taught them to read, or how she taught them to count. It was confusing and unsatisfactory. She wouldn't be pegged down. Her teaching methods didn't fit in any box I knew. Little did I know that I was actually being informally instructed in the Charlotte Mason method of schooling! I was fascinated, horrified and intrigued...

The Colour Pink
Fast forward(because Ohmigosh this is turning into a novella) 5 years: I send my daughter(who has a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder and related anxiety issues) to school at the age of 5 and a half; leaving her at kindergarten for an extra 6 months while she began medication did a world of good for her confidence and self-esteem. The local school was small-ish and very culturally-diverse. Every child was a different colour and ate different food, which led to a relaxed atmosphere of tolerance. What I was surprised about, as I observed my daughter growing and changing, was how she was assimilating herself into certain expectations that she had observed. She came home one day and announced that pink was her favourite colour, because she was a girl... now anyone that knows me knows my staunch feminist values, and while I respect pink as a colour, and respect people's choices to like pink, that statement bothered me. She went on to tell Lewis that he could NOT like pink, because he was a boy. I asked her if this was something she had heard from her friends at school. She said she didn't know, but that it was just a thing that is true. Giant sigh from mother.This was the first of many changes that Maddy wrought upon herself, desiring so badly to fit in with the crowd, and to appear normal. Her colourful leggings and dinosaur t-shirts came out less and less, and skirts and dresses became the norm. Which again, is all fine and dandy if you happen to like skirts and dresses, but I could tell already that Maddy was learning that to fit in, you wore certain clothes, you said certain things, you played certain games. She started to play lots of marrying games, girlfriends and boyfriends etc, and more worryingly... games where she needed rescuing because something dire had happened(fire, flood, famine) and she was only a girl. 

I started to wish that there was a way that I could strengthen her self-esteem, wished that I had the time to teach her the value of being unique, of loving herself, how to make decisions based on what she likes and believes as opposed to what other people told her she should like and believe. My major concern was that being autistic would cause her to try even harder to fit in, that she would believe that what were general cultural norms were in fact black-and-white rules... and I could see it happening in front of my very eyes. But school came first, and by the time she came home, she was mentally and physically exhausted from her day spent 'fitting-in' with all the neurotypical children, a day spent following other people's rules, and not being able to ask WHY....

I wished(and it was a secret, because I knew it was not an acceptable grown-up feeling) that she didn't have to go to school. I wished she could just be herself, that she could grow and blossom and develop into who she was meant to be. I watched her different-ness, her unique-ness, being swallowed up as she craved same-ness. 

I wished that there was another way...


Tina said...

Thanks for sharing your journey. While my journey was a little different there were also a few similar experiences along the way and I love both those ladies you have spoken about...
PS: I do know a fair bit about feeling odd and trying to fit in too... Hated trying to fit in yet desperately wanted to! And the result: still don't fit in today and really don't mind so much.

Meghan at MNM's said...

I'm loving hearing the journey you have been on.

Norfolk Exposure said...

Oh don't stop there....I want to keep reading. I hope part 2 is on it's way!
I'm a school teacher and my sister is a home-schooler in Sydney. We home schooled before moving to Norfolk Island but we stopped when we moved here for reasons too numerous to get into in this little comment box. I miss home schooling and we hope to get back to it in the future.