Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Homeschooling: What I never learned.

This was a very hard post to write. I've let it sit for a couple days to...digest itself. Explaining this shit is rather impossible without explaining how it imploded. Please note: This is not to condemn my parents or anyone involved. It's just...this is what happened. This is how I saw it. I can't describe it another way.  

 It comes in images I don't want want to remember. They're isolated. Disconnected from context. This makes them safe. It's as if my brain has quarantined these pieces of my life out of fear that the rest of me will get infected. They stretch under my life anyway, sinews of motive I don't have to see. 

It's 2003. The test book sat in front of me, open to a bewildering set of blank, globe-shaped charts that I am supposed to answer somehow. It's math. I've always hated math. Four other books sit off to the left. Reading. Social Studies. Science. The Bible. It's the placement test for the ACE curriculum and I've begged my mother for it for the last six months.

I don't have the answers.

It's my fault, I think, because I didn't do enough work. I'm a failure. It's all my fault.

Children accept blame for things they didn't do, because it's safer to be in control and destroy everything you touch than to be helpless and alone. 

Our living room is in the middle of Flour Bluff, the unfortunately named suburb of Corpus Christi that survives because of the naval base. We are less than a mile away from it. When the massive carriers fly in, the windows and cups rattle. The last Fourth of July we watched the Blue Angels preform from atop the pool slide in our back yard. Everything inside this house is dismal, office-supply store brown. The outside is an unhappy pink that forgot it isn't maroon. There are several trees in the front yard and most of them were dead when we moved in. The summer of 2004 a storm rolls through at midnight, and I see the palm trees almost flush with the ground, the wind is so bad. The dead trees fall into the street. The transformers for our entire neighborhood explode like christmas lights in a bad hollywood movie and these trees keep the fire trucks from putting the one on our corner out. We can walk to the Laguna Madre from our house, but it's choked by the causeway out to Padre Island and it smells bad.

I don't realize why I've been asking and asking for this curriculum. I told my mom what I believed myself--I was seventeen and I needed a highschool diploma. What I don't understand is that this urge is fueled by desperation: everything is about to end.

When you are homeschooled, your life is your family. You raise your younger siblings as increasing responsibility is placed on your shoulders. To this day I talk in the royal "we" whenever I'm not careful. It's not an expression of MPD/DID, far as I know--it's because the idea of personal independence just...did not exist. We went to events together. My mother trailing us behind her to adult art classes and sometimes even business events, my Dad bringing me or my brother on long trips. I brought my parents to the first session of any event or group--dance class, writer's group, AWANAS--and frequently, most consecutive meetings. When my parents weren't present, my brother was. When none of them were around I felt as if a limb were amputated.

And by the last year of my homeschooled life, my family was dying.

I felt it in the house: a duplex rental property that my father operated his business out of. Everything smelled like mildew from the time we were flooded out (The storm of 2004. As the transformers in front of our house blew up, a tornado demolished the Del Mar GED program's temporary buildings. Ironically enough, I'd be sitting in one of those classes within four months of their replacement) and also car exhaust, gasoline, and the stale dry smell of "I give up." For the first year in that house we'd struggle to maintain the pool--it was roughly the size of a garden pond and dropped to a grand five feet at its deepest--but near the end the green algea stains were creeping up the side like the ghost of Swamp Thing.

I felt it when I woke up alone. I'm seventeen, and there's days where I don't see another human being until nine PM at night. Mom was going to college to be a nurse. Money, she said, because it was always tight. But it was escape. Running away. I don't blame her. I encourage her, like a flightless bird to an albatross, because this is my family and I'm not supposed to escape but she's miserable and I hate that she's miserable. Dad was neck-deep in a business that would fail within another two years. Money flowed in and then back out like the tide. I saw $20,000 checks; the next week, we'd be eating frozen corn and Ramen. Learning how to get creative when the only edible things in the kitchen are a bag of frozen ravioli and a can of mushroom soup isn't the kind of thing anybody should learn. Sometimes Dad's employees would call the house and demand their money. Once, the wife of an employee called. She said she wanted to talk to her husband. She had just taken a whole bottle of Tylenol PM and she wanted to say goodbye.

I'm seventeen and I'm responsible for all of my education, and now I have a suicidal woman on the phone and I have no idea what to do.

My brother spent all his time in his room playing video games.

Schoolwork piled up, forgotten and unwanted because it was a duty and a job and I wanted to  escape. I didn't have video games. I'd been writing since I was thirteen but now it was my way out and I dove into it. I did NaNoWriMo that year and it was like I was getting oxygen. I wrote eighty five thousand words in three weeks.

My first lace shawl was knitted in that house. My brother got a chihuahua puppy cheap because he had a heart defect, and that puppy took the half-completed shawl and ran three times around the house with it. I sat at the kitchen table for three days with a small crochet hook and my pattern book, slowly restitching the hundred-odd dropped stitches, the ladders, the runs. My school work would sit only a few inches away. I'd glare at it, then carefully work a stitch through a few dozen yarn overs and decreases.

It was escape. That's all.

There was no one to talk to. I tried to befriend the girl down the street, invited her over for a sleep-over. In the process I found a letter my mother had given my father, in which she said she wanted out. I sat there looking at it like it was written in hieroglyphics and I was waiting on a Rosetta Stone to walk me through the permutations of understanding. My parents  can't want a divorce. They can't.

I stopped trying to make IRL friends. It felt like too much work to reach their version of normal.

I discovered webcomics.  I dove into making it--learning how to draw, how to use photoshop for coloring, how to do sequential art. I did it all day, every day, obsessively.

The workbooks I'd begged so much for began to pile up too. They weren't enough. They couldn't drown out that feeling, that awareness that something awful was happening that I couldn't identify, that I did not understand. My life was my family. Nothing could happen to it. Nothing.


I decided that the tension was because I wasn't doing a good enough job on the schoolwork. It wasn't working. I needed to get my GED. I need to go to the prep classes at Del Mar because I cannot possibly be skilled enough. I've done so poorly on my workbooks. I've let my family down so much.

The first assessment test they put in front of me, I test out of the program. It was a month before the next set of classes. I would attend the program until then.

It was like the eye of the hurricane. Peaceful. I didn't have to answer a phone. I didn't have to feel hungry. I didn't have to keep track of my brother (I have no idea what he did while I was in the GED program. I do know that he was expected to supervise himself) and I got daily affirmations from strangers. Good job. Good work.

My mother came into it too. She came with me to sign up for the test. She cheered with me when I got the second highest score in the county for the year (It would be beaten out by one other girl, which I was fine with. It meant I didn't have to give a speech) But mostly she was sidelined. She had her own things to deal with, including a major and at the time frightening health issue.

I'd found peace. I'd found the nearest thing I'd ever come to normal school. I didn't recognise it. At the same time, I looked forward to going there every day. Part of me was scared to come home.

We moved.

We moved to a perfect house. Beautiful, in the middle of a cotton farm. There was a small patch of corn right next to the house which would, in a few months, provide us with something to eat for several weeks. It had what felt like a million acres of yard, perfectly manicured. Fruit bearing trees that I was unfortunately very allergic to. I could glean all the cotton I wanted for spinning, and I did.

There was no way in hell we could afford it. Ever. And all of us knew it.

We were like a wild animal chewing off its own limb to stay alive. It was a last ditch desperation move, quite literally. We had nothing left to lose.

It was escape.

Me graduating in no way diminished the pressure on the family. Mom had dropped out of college because of her health issue. My brother moved his games from the bedroom to the main room. My dad was always gone and when he was home there was a fight. o one hit anything alive but it was loud, and a few times he'd beat on the furnature until the fragiler pieces broke. He'd bought another truck--my brother made an animated sprite cartoon about this, and it did not end well for the truck-buyer. My mom and I all thought it was hysterical. We laughed at it until we hurt ourselves because we couldn't admit we wanted to cry--or another lawnmower, or he'd pawned something, or he'd spent all the money getting something out of pawn. I needed to focus on my future--art college was starting to look possible--but I couldn't do it. My life was my family, and I was watching it unravel. I did not have the capacity to look beyond it. The world outside of Family was a strange, scary place where children get abducted by the government and the music is loud and ugly and God is not allowed. If Family ended...

Homeschooling doesn't end when you graduate, you see. Because it's not just the education that impresses itself on you. It's the attitudes and cultures of your family. You are clay; your family's needs are pressed into you and you're not strong enough to resist. Your life is your family. Your family is your life. To claim anything like normal you have to break it. Everything you're taught to value. Everything you believe about you. Everything you ever relied on for strength and comfort and self image and pride. You have to break it all and go down to nothing, and then start rebuilding, which is even harder than breaking.

The last straw was when my mother's car got repossessed. We'd gone on a trip and left Dad with the money to pay the bills; these bills--including rent--never got paid. Instead we had new tires on the cars and new electronics in the house. We did not discover this until the landlord called, and the bank came for Mom's car.

She kicked Dad out.

I remember the panic. I remember knowing that my mom had thrown my dad out of the house. I remember darkness. I remember hurting myself for the second time several days later. Self injury is a red moment that you take from the inside and put on the outside where it's safe, where you can minimize it and fix it with a bandaid rather than risky, honest therapy. I remember struggling on, struggling on, making plans, hoping. Praying. At one point the GED graduation ceremony happened and we threw ourselves into it with suicidal abandon. It no longer mattered what we said or did, it only mattered that for one hour we weren't here, where everything was failing.

We got evicted. Dad found us another place to live.

That last month is mostly blank with small flashes of relevance. Packing. Packing. Packing. Getting to the new house. Watching my dad drag my piano against the door jam, gouging the wood I'd kept pristine. The fucking corn on the cob that we ate almost every day that last month because we literally had nothing. else. to eat. My cat, who was still a kitten and still being bottle fed, curled up on my chest in an expression of trust and security that I was no longer capable of.

 That's why I brought her with me when we went to Houston for vacation. A trip for one week to see my grandparents. Riding up with the cat in the carrier feeling so glad, because not only was this going to be an escape from the house but we'd be able to eat something that wasn't fucking corn for once. I had to bottle feed her still, and I knew my dad couldn't do it. She was so small, and I wasn't able to admit how much I needed her to need me. Like she was my anchor point.

It was October 2004.

I wouldn't see my Dad until Christmas. Snow was falling in Texas. Everything I knew and trusted and believed in had ended.

The one thing I never learned from Homeschooling was how to live when everything I counted on was gone. 


  1. Wow, that carried a hell of a punch. I'll need to read this a couple of times to really absorb it.

  2. Not teaching people about the outside world, not teaching people how to handle life's hard moments, seems to be a big part of the point of homeschooling. If you repeatedly tell people that the outside world is bad and scary, that deviating from the "norm" is painful and confusing, that leaves them very few options in life when they hit a bad patch. They can either cling to the identity offered to them by the community, retreating from the outside world, or they can try to abandon those teachings they were brought up in - Which is a painful process and only reinforces the idea that rejecting the community is wrong because it hurts.

    This is a great set-up if you're a heirarch in the movement, because it forces people to cling to your teachings to keep their identity. But it's a shitty thing to do to the actual people who have to grow up in the movement. The more I hear about it the more I think the entire identity-based homeschool/evangelical/fundamentalist community is a form of systemized spiritual and emotional abuse.

    1. A great deal of it really, REALLY is. A thing I have to remind myself of (often) is that the religion itself--the practices and beliefs--and actual homeschooling have NOTHING to do with the hijacking of that system.