Monday, November 10, 2014

On Homeschooling and Growing Up: Real School

I kept getting in trouble for skipping school.

It's funny that I'm going to open this possible series about homeschooling by talking about the one time I did go to a normal school. But it set a standard in my mind. As I grew up and gained more autonomy, the episode with real school became more and more important. It's what turned Homeschooling into my choice, into something that I owned and defended every chance I got.

In retrospect that school probably wasn't normal. I had a very small class--7th and 8th grade put together, 13 students--and the curriculum was A Beka. A Beka is primarily aimed at conservative homeschooling groups; I was very familiar with the materials. I'd been using things like them for as long as I can remember. The American History books, for example, used the same photographs and paintings on the same pages in both the 4th grade and 6th grade textbooks. The most we ever learned about Native American cultures were the evangelical attempts of David Brainerd. George Whitfield got more space than George Washington. Civil rights were a footnote; Billy Graham was a chapter.

World History did not exist.

Paddles did.

Of course, the parents had to sign a permission slip. Most of them did. This was a very tight knit community. Most of them went to the same church I did, until that church had a doctrinal falling out and split up. Most of these kids had gone to this same school from first grade on up. Most of the parents agreed that the world might end the next election if we didn't get a Republican into the White House, but they disagreed on wheither or not the End of the World would be good or bad. Clinton was still president. I overheard several adults once have a serious conversation about how he fit all the criteria for the Antichrist.

 Every morning we would gather in the gymasium--which doubled as a church sanctuary on Sundays--and sing worship songs after the Pledge of Allegiance...and the Pledge to the Christian Flag, and the Pledge to the Bible. I was familiar with all three; I'd been doing Awanas AKA Christian Girl Scouts for as long as I could remember. A different class would get to come up to the front and hold up the big, hand-lettered song lyric cards up so that everyone could read them. These were songs that most of us knew by heart. Amazing Grace. Go tell it on the Mountain. As the Deer. I thought everyone knew these songs, because everyone I knew did. Contemporary Christian music was edgy. Pop music like Madonna and N'Sync was unheard of. Literally. No one listened to it. When we were allowed to bring outside novels to school they were the Left Behind series. C.S. Lewis was risky because there were talking animals and magic in them. My class memorized the entire book of James, one chapter at a time. When it came time to learn about evolution, our science teacher gave us a big speech about how this was a state mandated course and we didn't really need to pay attention. He followed it up with a special on how Mt. St. Helens disproved the whole thing because of petrified trees.

We got tested on that.

My brother and I were enrolled there because my mother wanted to have a job. Our homelife was chaotic and financially unpredictable, and Mom's tactic for solving this was to get a job. She did this several times that I can remember. Sometimes she would try to homeschool us while working. I'd be the one taking care of my brother and supervising both his lessons and my own. Mom would grade our work when she got home. But this was difficult and stressful and more often than not I'd wind up playing dolls upstairs, or digging in the side yard with my brother, or up the nearest tree with a science fiction novel. Sometimes I'd even get my brother wrapped up in a video game, then get on my bike and take off for the library. Then, bookbag balanced on the handlebars, I'd go down to the city park, hide my bike in the bushes and walk down to the riverbank. This time around, she decided to place us in school. I was very excited. It felt like a special treat. I'd get to be with other kids. I'd have all these great new books to read. But because her job started earlier than my dad's, it became his job to get me and my brother to school.

We were never on time. NEVER. I would be outside, sitting in the car fifteen minutes before we were supposed to leave; my father would come out ten minutes after. Then the rush to my classroom, hoping and praying to God that I'd get there and the class would still be there, that this time Assembly was a few minutes late. No luck. Shove the coat and lunch box into the cubby--everybody brought their lunch, the school served no food--and race down the hall. If I was lucky and Dad were quicker I'd make it in time for the Pledge to the Christian Flag or the Pledge to the Bible. More often than not we were on the third or fourth song, and I had to make my way to my class with my head down in shame. I was so awfully, horribly late. It was my fault for not making Dad get out to the car sooner. I'd have to be better tomorrow.

After a few months, though, Dad decided to stop taking us to school.

It wasn't an every day thing. He had a job, after all. But at least once a week, on Tuesday or Wednesday, sometimes on Friday, he'd decide we didn't need to go to school that day. We'd get in the car--I'd be nerviously drumming my fingers on the armrest, worried about being late--and when we got to the highway he'd turn left instead of right and we'd start driving. We'd end up in Weatherbury, or Grandbury, or Dublin, and he'd go to garage sales while we sat in the car. When our grades began to suffer, he'd take my brother to school and keep me out, and we'd be driving, driving, driving all day until it was time to pick my brother up and take us home. We'd go to lunch. He'd tell me how special I was. He'd introduce me to all his friends. I learned to bring books with me because I knew I'd get very bored. I'd ask nicely to listen to Christian radio; more often than not, we just played Rush Limbaugh.

By this time I hated school. I hated how boring the materials were. I hated that we were allowed to use calculators during math, that I wasn't allowed to learn how to calculate square roots longhand, that we spent two weeks on "practical" math, like learning how to read electric meters and how to divide recipes, but only spent one day on pi. I hated that we traded World History--something I'd never gotten to study--for Texas Government. I hated, hated, hated the bible study period. I hated the materials we had to study in language arts. The english teacher had an obsession with Spain, so when it came time to do research reports we were each assigned a different Provence. Some of the books we had to study were good--Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Shiloh stand out as high points--but some of them were just teeth-grittingly awful. Johnny Tremaine should never be inflicted on an adult, much less a thirteen year old. Each day we had to read an assigned chapter, summerize what we'd just read, and then identify the parts of the sentences in our summery. This is a noun, this is a verb, this is an adjective. I'd been diagramming sentences since I was eight, so this was completely uninteresting. Finally, I stopped copying down the lessons altogether. I already knew this and I was sick of all of it. I just wanted to go back home to my homemade yarn dolls and the epic fantasy adventure we were having beneath my bed.

At that point, the English teacher pulled me out of class, sat me down, and gave me a long lecture on everything I was doing wrong. And the thing he focused on wasn't that I had stopped participating in the lessons, but that I was skipping school. And I sat there feeling deeply betrayed. I had not understood that Dad was pulling us out without permission from the school. I believed that a parent had every right to simply call in and say "So and so is sick today" and then just...not take us. I sat there, staring back at my teacher, and feeling like I'd just been tricked by all these adults. I'd been told my whole life the world worked a certain way. Now they were telling me it worked differently and that it was my fault I wasn't playing by the rules.

The next day, Dad wanted to keep me home again. I begged and pleaded no. I didn't explain about the talking to I'd gotten--I didn't want to get in trouble with him--so I just said that I really, really wanted to go to school that day. Please. I didn't want to skip it anymore. 

 He was very hurt. He didn't understand why I did not want to have fun with him anymore.

Now, as an adult, I understand: my brother and I existed for our parents, not for us. They saw school as warehousing kids, a place to get them out of their parent's hair for a few hours so they could go have jobs and whatnot. School was not a place for children. Education was something we got because the government said we had to do it, and because it'd be useful in some far off distant land where we'd be adults and our own people. When Dad decided that he didn't want to put his toys in the School box, he'd keep us out and spend the day amusing himself. When he didn't want to play with us, well, that's what school was for. And of course it all got dressed up in God's Will. We weren't going to evil public school--no hyperbole there, the public school system was the literal tool of Satan and my brother and I were so blessed not to be in it. No matter how bad things got at home, public school would be worse.

There is a part of me that understands how insane all of that sounds. There's another part that still thinks it is normal, that still cannot see what the problem was.

He cut down on the absenteeism, but he'd still do it. And now I'd sit in the car with high anxiety, knowing that the next day I'd be going to school and I'd probably get in trouble again. By then I wasn't allowed to go to recess anymore. I had to sit in class and do additional work to make up for the amount of school I'd skipped. I didn't care; the class had decided that they wanted to play basketball in the gym instead of going outside, and I was sick to death of basketball. I'd much rather sit in the classroom. When I finally got caught up, I still begged off. I didn't want to touch that goddamn ball ever again. I'd memorize bible verses until the class left, then sneak over to the bookcase and snag something interesting, like The Invisible Man or The Dark is Rising.

That's the only good thing I got out of that year of school: it introduced me to Susan Cooper.

When school ended, we moved. We'd been living up north near Dallas, and now we moved back south to just outside of Corpus Christi; that was when the wheels on the family bus really fell off. We went back to homeschooling. We'd learn out of old, battered college textbooks. I'd do research reports on whatever I wanted. I'd read the encyclopedia for fun. I never had to learn to spell. For maybe a year, things were stable. The one thing I knew, though, was that I did not ever want to go back to school. Mom was right--it was just a place to warehouse kids, where learning was limited by the slowest person in class, and where you were not allowed to study anything you wanted, but only what the teacher had assigned you.

After that, some years my mother would ask me if we wanted to enroll in real school or stay at home. I was always adamant. Homeschooling. Real school, I knew, would just be misery all over again.

A few weeks ago my mother and I were talking about the past, and my growing up and homeschooling, and I brought up how abysmal my lone experience with "real" school was. How I was often driven to frustrated tears in Math Class because I didn't understand, and I wanted to, and the rest of the class was just using their calculators when there was this whole wonderful thing we could have been learning about. How much I loathed reading the assigned books. And I mentioned how I got in trouble for absenteeism because Dad kept pulling us out of school.

She stared at me, amazed, because she never knew.


  1. That was very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I think it's crazy the school never notified your mother? I understand it wad your father keeping you out but they call & send letters now days. That's so crazy though.

    1. This was back in 98, and it was a privately funded Christian school. We didn't have standardized tests. Just the tear-out sheets in the back of the A Becka textbooks. I don't even know for sure if it was accredited.

      And they probably wouldn't have contacted her. The father is, after all, the spiritual head of household. He's in charge of everything. The Biblical thing to do is to contact the father. Going to the mother is usurping spiritual authority. I wish to GOD I were kidding about this. That's how these people think.

      There's a good chance they would have called HIM, but knowing my Dad it wouldn't have filtered down to the rest of the family, OR made a difference in how he behaved.

  2. As someone who went to public school, I can't help but think that your experience with an actual school might have been more positive if you'd gone to a public school. At the very least, A) you would have been able to read more of the stuff you enjoy (and most of it would probably have been on the Accelerated Reader list), and B) your attendance probably wouldn't have been so tied to the whims of your dad. At the very least the school would have made a fuss about it. And if you were really that far ahead, you could take Advanced Placement/college prep courses in high school. At least then you'd be around other smart people.

    Not that I'm bashing private schools - parents have every right to decide where/how they want their kid(s) to get an education. But they do owe it to their kid(s) to make sure they get said education, rather than treating school as an overgrown daycare center.

  3. Hmmmm I don't know how much stuff has changed since then. I'm surprised though if a private school doesn't have to mandate attendance. Talking to a child about it is so wrong!