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Another data point in the wall.

Jim Henley, after touching on the issue of homeschooling in a shouts-and-murmurs entry, points us to this year-old column by Eve Tushnet, which spins a sort of anti-CW vortex about the whole phenomenon: Blam! Kapow! Homeschooling isn’t just for religious isolationist freaks anymore! —I’m being unfair. Her basic point—that homeschooling has the potential of involving kids far more and more healthily in the real world than the highly artificial madding crowds of American public schools—is sound; it’s muffled, though, by gauzy layers of op-ed hyperbole and impersonal generalization. Not her fault; it’s a limitation of the punditsprech form, one that palls rapidly once you’re accustomed to a varied diet of blogging, with its cranky, loopy unpredictability and its raw personal viewpoint, and this isn’t supposed to be an “Advantage: blogosphere!” piece, so I’ll cut that out right now.

I was homeschooled for a few years.

It started in Kentucky, where the local elementary school was small enough that there were two grades per classroom: while the sixth grade was having its English class, say, the fifth grade was free to do their homework, or read, or draw the really cool van they’d buy when they were an adult and a defense lawyer traveling from city to city saving desperate, innocent folks from wrongful accusations (it pulled a Dodge Charger on a trailer—the van was great for sleeping in, and office space, but you needed something with more get-up-and-go for the inevitable car chases), or scribbling a revolutionary sci fi magnum opus in a loose-leaf notebook (pseudonym of choice: Christopher Kyndyll. Don’t ask), or whatever, so long as you were quiet and not disruptive. —My mother, noticing my sister and I didn’t seem to bring any homework, you know, home, and maybe concerned we weren’t getting as much out of our day as we could be, picked up on something—I’m betting it was an ad in the Mother Earth News—and decided to give the Calvert School a try.

(Mom: feel free to pitch in. I wasn’t taking notes at the time—I started out with Art History [this is a Doric capital, and this an Ionic; I, of course, liked Corinthians best; and I just now remembered what entasis means], but was that all I took, that first year?)

—A brief digression, to frame the anecdote: we were living on a 70-acre farm on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. The nearest town was Ammons Bottom: a Baptist church and a post office with a gas pump out front and if my memory’s insisting on sticking one of those waist-high coolers full of old Coke in green glass bottles by the screen door, well, it might not be far wrong. The aforementioned school had a rule: if your driveway was more than a mile long, the bus had to drive down it and pick you up outside your house. Ours was three-quarters of a mile. We walked. There were hills. It snowed. —We leased most of the land to a couple of local farmers who planted corn and soy and tobacco, and we had an acre and a half of organic, pesticide-free garden, which I got mighty tired of hoeing. I used to duck chores by hiding in the tobacco barn: when the leaves are harvested, they’re hung on a grid of rafters in a big empty barn to dry. You could climb a good two storeys off the ground and be completely hidden between giant, fleshy leaves that smelled like really good, damp cigars; I read a lot of Ian Fleming up there, which seems only appropriate. We got a lot of our staples shipped to us from Walnut Acres, and between their old skool packaging and Calvert’s retro-Edwardian design sensibilities, I’ve got a Pavlovian thing for muted colors and clean, simple, strong typography: integrity, it says to me; purity. Authority. Whatever it is, it’s going to be good for me.

(Oh, and lest you get the wrong idea: Ford, Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush—insofar as I can tell.)

In 1983, we upped and left Kentucky for the Carolinas. We first stopped in a thereless suburb of Charlotte (Quail Hollow, was it?), camping out in a cheap little rental while the folks went house-hunting. This was my first introduction to a really big school, where you went to a different room for each class: seventh grade. I wasn’t there long enough to be especially traumatized by any particular peer, but my revolutionary sci fi magnum opus—up to 300 loose-leaf pages at that point, grubby with old graphite—was stolen from its three-ring binder. The crime puzzles me to this day: weirdly particular, and yet no one knew me, and I didn’t know anyone; I was just this quiet kid who was there for, what, six weeks? Eight weeks? (All I remember learning for sure at this school were the names of the five Pythagorean solids and how to cheat a Rubik’s cube by popping a corner loose, taking it apart, and snapping it all back together again. Well, that, and the kid I sometimes hung out with from across the cul de sac, who ended up giving me his D&D books because his mother had decided they were tools of the devil or something, and didn’t that turn out well.) —When I discovered the crime, I did what anyone would do: I went immediately to the authorities to report it. I didn’t even make it past the receptionist in the administration office. Some kid’s notes had been stolen. Weren’t even anything to do with a class. Big whup. Next! (And if I have some sympathy for the other side, now—how big was that school? how many kids? how impossible to track down this particular needle? And if I can look back and realize now that it was nothing more than a kid’s pastiche of Brian Daley’s Han Solo books? It does me little good, standing in front of that desk, trying to get somebody, anybody to listen to what had just been done to me.)

I doubt the theft of my magnum opus had much to do with the decision to pull us out of the school system entirely, once we finally settled over the state line in Rock Hill, South Carolina; I think it had a lot more to do with the fact that the public schools in Rock Hill, South Carolina sucked. I’m not sure how much of a pioneer we were. There was some (testy) negotiation. A newspaper article or two was written, and a photographer dispatched. Local political races were scrutinized for the slightest hint of where they stood on homeschooling. It all worked out, in the end: we had to maintain an accredited curriculum (again, Calvert), and at least show up to take whatever standardized tests the state mandated for whatever grade we were in whenever they were scheduled. (I seem to recall we also had to have a formal name, to cross some t or dot some i; and so we were the Cherry Hill Academy. Mom had letterhead printed.) —We were off.

What was a day of homeschooling like?

Mostly, I sat in my room and read. Bliss.

Calvert’s curriculum, at the middle school level, was pretty much self-directed: you followed the guidelines, did the reading, and when you were ready you took a pretty thorough exam which was sent off to Baltimore, graded, and sent back. English, geography, math, history—Cathy, if you’re reading this, chime in with what you were up to; heck, Tim: I have only the vaguest of notions of what second or third grade were like. —It wasn’t entirely me up in my room: I had a Latin tutor, two or three times a week, and the folks picked up a huge chalkboard for five bucks at a college auction: it was set up in the back den, and I’d conjugate on it, or Dad would show us the dangers of dividing by zero by proving that 1 equaled 2. He brought home a TRS-80 Model III, and I learned BASIC so I could figure out how to mess around with computer games and I learned Scripsit so I wouldn’t have to scribble my various revolutionary sci fi opera in vulnerable notebooks anymore. I made soap as a combination craft and science project. Calvert didn’t have much of a high school program then, so I jumped to a new correspondence school (whose name escapes me) for my freshman year (though I kept with Calvert’s Latin course); one of my projects was to thoroughly research the town’s water-treatment system. Mom set up the appointments and we made family field trips of checking out pumping stations and filtering ponds.

But mostly, it was me, up in my room, reading.

We weren’t isolated, though. There was youth group at the church and handbell choir, and Cathy and I were on the YMCA swim team. There was summer camp—church-based trips to Washington, DC; YMCA camp at King’s Mountain. There were the neighborhood kids. We weren’t sitting with them at desks lined up neatly in small rooms for hours at a stretch, but that was fine by me: we had as much of a social life as I wanted, pretty much. I was a quiet kid. I stayed up in my head a lot. I liked sitting around reading, mostly.

Which, you’ll note, is mostly what I was doing.

—But that was a large part of what eventually became the problem, I think. The only regular benchmarks I had were those tests, which I took whenever I was ready; it was all too easy not to be ready, just yet. It didn’t help that the one class in which I did have regular contact with someone else was Latin, with my tutor, was the one I was not doing very well in. For just about the first time ever, I wasn’t skating to an easy A. Heck, I was having a hard time making the B. Sometimes, the C. For someone who’d matriculated at a number of Gifted ’n’ Talented programs, this was decidedly Not Good. My tutor sighed (gently, but he sighed); the red ink puddled; the malaise spread. It got easier to say, and not just about Latin: I’m not ready yet. I need to do some more reading. Go over it again. In a week. Maybe another week. (And of course what I was doing was reading other stuff, instead: John Varley; Julian May; Piers Anthony; Robert Heinlein; Blakely St. James; Ursula Le Guin; Orbitanything but hic, hæc, hoc, huius huius huius. —Why would I need to hide my cheap genre trash behind a propped-up copy of Nations of the World? I had the whole room to myself! —Okay, every now and then Mom would check up on me. But otherwise.)

Anyway, what with all the me sitting up in my room reading, it took three calendar years to get through eighth and ninth grades. There was disappointment (more sighing); vituperations were imparted; the malaise spread further; my heels dragged ever deeper. My sister was having similar difficulties (though I do not wish to speak specifically to them—vide supra re: being in my room reading all the time; not taking notes—so maybe we should edit that to “my sister was similarly having difficulties”)—after another round of protracted negotiation, it was agreed that we would re-enter public school. The Cherry Hill Academy was closed.

Now, what we were negotiating was that me and Cathy wanted to go back to public school. Sitting up in my room reading all day was wonderful; fucking up course work and disappointing my parents wasn’t. I didn’t know whether I’d be happier in the day-to-day grind of Northwest High School, but I knew it was a system I could do well in. And doing well, or the appurtenances of having done well, were what was important. —Funnily enough, one of the arguments Cathy and I made was the one about social deprivation: we’re cut off from our peers, we said. We need to be shut up in small rooms with twenty or thirty of them every day. (Perhaps we didn’t phrase it quite like that.) I doubt that argument turned the tide—it was bullshit, pure and simple; we went to youth group, after all, and the YMCA swim team, and a lot of the kids we saw in these social circumstances would be shut up in those small rooms with us. So much so that my reputation as a quiet bookish weirdo preceded me: I was picked last for tennis and bowling in gym and picked on for whatever book I was reading at lunch and, well. But how was the education, in this school system that so notoriously sucked? I couldn’t take Latin—it wasn’t on the curriculum—and I couldn’t research the town’s water treatment facilities in-depth (instead of one frowning, serious sixteen-year-old asking you questions about charcoal filtration, imagine 30-some-odd vying for your attention). But I could go on a field trip to Bull Island; I could make a series of bizarre short videos with classmates based on some e.e. cummings poems; I could learn the time-honored techniques for making it out of American Lit without ever cracking the cover of Ethan Frome. And I was making As again. So.

That said.

Looking back, I didn’t do too well with the homeschooling thing, did I. —But did it do well by me? What would have happened had we not tried it? Well, I’d be different, but better? Worse? We’re talking a counterfactual here, so any variant outcome is as true as any other: my spirit might well have been ground into gloomy alienation by the massed cruelty of my peers, a fate that months of reading by myself spared me; knuckling under and working to meet the regular goals imposed by an inflexible system might have helped me develop my focus and persistence, two qualities I still have trouble with today. (What?) Heck, there’s nothing to say that both those outcomes wouldn’t have been the case, and more besides! Better? Worse? —Different. But it’s the road not taken, and the snow’s both dark and deep; all the little horses are starting to think it’s queer. Let’s see if we can wrap this up.

Blam! Kapow! Homeschooling isn’t just for religious isolationist freaks anymore!

Then, it never really was. Nor is it necessarily isolating or insulating in and of itself. Homeschooled kids have plenty of other options for a kid-based social life, and any family that turns to homeschooling as a means to keep their kids safe from the world will a) have lots of other techniques for blocking the quotidian and b) inevitably end up disappointed. I don’t worry so much about home school in this regard; I worry about tiny little towns in the middle of nowhere and thereless cul de sacced subdivisions and nothing but strip malls and frontage roads.

Homeschooling is hard!

And not just for me, suddenly bereft of all structure and left floating with my own inadequate devices. Dad worked, Mom stayed at home—with four kids, three of them school-aged. Even with an externally supplied, accredited curriculum, even with outsourced grading, even with a Latin tutor, we were a full-time job and then some. And without casting any aspersions whatsoever, there’s something to be said for making as clean a break as possible between familial expectations and scholastic expectations: the complications of the one can interfere with attempts at the other. Parents teach, and teachers act in loco parentis, but the role of teacher is very different from the role of parent, much as child differs from student. Which is not to say this is an insurmountable problem; just that it’s one more brick on the load.

Homeschooling is a viable option!

Of course it is, and more attractive now than ever, what with zero tolerance and all. Of all the responsibilities that a kid entails, figuring out the hows and whys of securing a school that won’t be an utter hellhole is the one that quails me the most. Why not chuck it all? Why not hand your kid a desk and a library card and tell her not to come down till dinner? It would have to be an improvement over officious vice-principals and obsolete teachers and cruel pranks and stultifying monkey-work. Right? —Seriously: Tushnet’s exemplar (taking chemistry and calculus classes at a local private high school, receiving instruction in English and history from his mother, participating in an all-homeschooler French class taught by a neighborhood father, having a tutor for oboe lessons, playing on a public school sports team) is an ideal, but it’s an attractive ideal. There’s something at once communitarian and DIY punk about it all. And it would have to be better than cruelly stultifying, officiously obsolete pricks. Right? It would take money, and a firmly stay-at-home parent, but it would be worth it. Right?

And yet.

It’s too easy to blame public education. It’s a shattered, crippled, dangerous wreck; it’s also one of the best ideas we ever came up with. Education is vital; opening it up as much as possible, making those opportunities available to every kid you can reach, is not only the morally right thing to do, it’s the best way possible to make sure you as a society can best capitalize on the potential of each of your members. Anything that fragments that ideal risks punishing kids for the ineptitude and bad choices of their parents (or guardians). No, we can’t protect everyone from everything bad, and no, we shouldn’t have schools where careless parents can drop their kids off and pick them up, well-rounded and ready for college, after 12 years. But we haven’t done right by our best idea in decades. It’s shattered and crippled and dangerous, but for every officious prick waving the zero-tolerance handbook around, there’s still a half-dozen smart administrators making the best of a very delicate juggling act; you never hear about them because they do their jobs well. For every obsolete teacher, there’s a dozen doing good, solid, thankless work, and a couple that are brilliant, in spite of every reason in the world not to be. For each piece of stultifying monkey-work, there’s also, here and there, inspiration and serendipity and joy that you couldn’t find anywhere else. The ideal of the American public school is one worth fighting for. Not giving up on. And homeschooling feels all too much like giving up.

(But: teaching to the test and No Child Left Behind and teachers buying their own paper because the school budget can’t afford the copies they need to make and for God’s sake the religious isolationist freaks are taking over the school boards and demolishing text books left and right! When is enough enough? When do you leave the sinking hulk and try to launch a brand new ship? Would I homeschool my own kid, in spite of all the hardship and shortcomings? Would I sacrifice them at the altar of a broken idea? Would I take it as it came, trusting in the basic resilience of kids and the power of reading to them every night from infancy to muddle us through, much as we’ve all managed to muddle through, one way or another, more or less? —Ask me when the time comes.)

  1. Homeschool & Other Education Stuff    Mar 10, 05:32 PM    #
    A WONDERFUL ESSAY
    Diane Patterson pointed me to this essay by a former homeschooler. Absolutely terrific writing. And, on a subject that we know quite well:It’s too easy to blame public education. It’s a shattered, crippled, dangerous wreck; it’s also one of the...

  2. David M. Chess    Mar 11, 01:27 AM    #
    "For every obsolete teacher, there’s a dozen doing good, solid, thankless work, and a couple that are brilliant, in spite of every reason in the world not to be." From my experience, that's not quite the right ratio. I'd put it at more like a dozen obsolete to a dozen doing good work to a couple that are brilliant. The public schools aren't attractive enough employment to skew the numbers any more positive than that. At least 'round here...

  3. Sebbo    Mar 11, 04:09 AM    #
    I'm an Ionic man, myself. Corinthian just looks messy--like someone stuck a basket of garden prunings on top of the column.

    Of course, on purely linguistic grounds, Corinthian is clearly the cooler term. And then there's the whole eyeball-eating thing...

  4. Sebbo    Mar 11, 04:14 AM    #
    I don't quite follow you in your first 'graph. You seem to be contrasting the raw & personal perspective of bloggers with the airy generalizations of Ms Tushnet.

    1) What's she known for, if not for blogging?
    2) In general, bloggers seem ready--and more than ready--to generalize at least as much as they are to speak from personal experience.

  5. --k.    Mar 11, 04:23 AM    #
    It would also depend on one's definitions of "obsolete" and "good, solid, and thankless" (I was, perhaps, being charitable, even generous, on both counts; thinking of how often standards are not met in other fields, with better wages and less bullshit), but given my utter lack of experience with the current state of public education in New York or the greater Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, I'll defer to your judgment, Mr. Chess. Or at the very least, meet you halfway.

    When given a chance, Sebbo, I go rococo. Unless I'm in a sparse, Modernist kind of mood, of course. (Mode?) —And aren't we glad Gaiman never formed a supervillain trio with that crew?

  6. Vincent    Mar 11, 04:28 AM    #
    Ask me when the time comes.

    If only it were that easy! The time comes over and over and over, and each time it comes you have to decide again fresh, and my kid's only halfway through first grade!

    Meg volunteers at Sebastian's school all the time. She teaches art weekly to both first grades and both kindergartens. For nothin', on her own time, bringing in her own supplies, because otherwise they'd have no art at all. When we finally take Seb out of school - I mean if, swear to god I mean if - his school loses him and his dedicated, involved, civic parents. Some of those kids, Meg is the single only adult in their lives who praises their creativity.

    It sucks. How far down do we ride the sinking ship? Just how civic are we? And know what's gonna happen? I predict: we're going to end up teachers, because we can't stand how bad it is. Is that stupid or what?

  7. --k.    Mar 11, 04:34 AM    #
    I meant, specifically, her column for Jewish World Review. Not her blog. (You did click through, right? I mean, I can be tagged for maybe not being entirely clear when I called it a "column," since she is, indeed, far better known for her blog, but I did provide a link...) —And sure, bloggers generalize (why, look! I'm doing it now!): but it's far from all they (most of them) do, and it's always clearly more from-the-hip than from-the-mountaintop. The personal (almost) always comes through with a vengeance, whereas in punditsprech, the personal always (always) becomes this vague, mushy political pablum. Yech.

    But I didn't want this to be about Bloggerhans triumphalism. So just keep mum, you hear?

    (The above to Sebbo, with naturally enough kisses; shouts out to Vince, who snuck in while I was typing. Damn this asynchronicity!

    (Do I need, by the way, to point out that the quote should be "if and then when the time comes"? No kids, not yet, and no storks on the horizon. Yet. So.)

  8. Jennworks    Mar 12, 08:46 AM    #
    Okay, more boring than I thought
    Haven't posted a damn thing for over a week and I'm still behind on all email. Suffice to say I've...

  9. Doug Morgan    Aug 11, 10:24 AM    #
    I would like to know the author of this piece since I too was born and raised in Ammons Kentucky.

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