Not for Everyone
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Explaining Homeschooling to Those Who Run 7 a.m. Carpools
It's not easy to get attention at a social gathering in this town. Each of us has his own virtues and agendas to discuss, but we have to wait impatiently through the virtues and agendas of others. The Urban Man, however, has one no-fail way to engage even an Angeleno's full interest:
I simply let it drop that my wife and I have homeschooled our four children over the course of 13 years.
Other conversations always die. "What about socialization?" people ask. What about college?" Given recent headlines, they wonder, "Is it legal?"
My first job is to reassure them that we do not actually live on a compound, stockpile weapons, or traffic in creationism. "Homeschooling has become a mainstream sport," I say. "Millions do it. We get junk mail from textbook companies. Magic Mountain has a homeschooler day. My oldest now attends UCLA, his friend got into Princeton. I have no doubt California will keep us legal."
Then I describe a 13-year-old stretched out in late morning sunlight, reading David Copperfield and calling to his brother with great lines from Mr. Micawber. I mention an evening gathering to read through The Tempest, kids and adults trading roles. My wife organizing group tickets to Stravinsky. My 11-year-old leading hikes for inner-city kids.
Of course, other people often find this picture unbearable. "My girl does all those things," replies a woman with fierce emotion, and puts down her drink. "She likes the symphony. She hikes. She's read David Copperfield—and wrote a lovely report about it." This mother pushes away a loose strand of hair, and I see a thousand mornings of 7 a.m. carpools flash before her eyes; I see many science projects loaded into the back of her minivan, the trial of that fifth grade essay, that second job to pay for private school.
Who am I to say that constitutes unnecessary suffering?
How do you know your kids are working at the right level?" asks a man. "How do you know they're not behind in their grade?" And I see in his eye that greatest American fear: the fear of stepping off the train, of failing to make each stop along the line.
And I try, impossibly, to explain the palpable joy of pursuing paths with unexpected twists. I say, "It actually makes no difference if a kid gets earth science precisely in seventh grade. Knowledge is just not organized that way—only textbooks. And for a moment, I see my listeners recall their own seventh grade, staring out classroom windows at bright afternoons. I see them recalling how their own greatest moments with literature, even science, came without workbooks attached.
No wonder they get upset.
If prodded, I sometimes go even further. I say, "You know, the idea of herding kids together for 8 hours a day 5 days a week only goes back about 150 years. Really, it's an unproven social experiment with uncertain consequences. I never understood why, if you want a five-year-old to learn how to be a six-year-old, you keep him in a room only with five-year-olds.
I never understood how, if you want him to learn how to speak to an adult, you let him speak with only one or two stressed-out adults a day, drowned by the voices of many children.
"Suppose a native came from Borneo," I go on, "and you wanted to teach him about the modern world? Would you lock him in a room with other natives and sketch out our life on a chalkboard …or would you, like, take him outside?"
Okay, mostly, I've learned not to make that particular speech. Mostly I just smile and say, "Well, like school itself, homeschooling's not for everyone," and then I let folks get back to their own virtues and agendas.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada
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