I remind my students that in order to effectively help others, it is important to "know your story" and that felt relevant for this post about my homeschooling story
As I mentioned several posts ago, I’ve received some requests to write more about homeschooling. I realized I’m a little stumped on the direction to take, realizing that I used a lot of my “homeschool philosophy” type of energy up writing papers on the subject in college and that I also don’t feel like I have any “how to” advice to give about homeschooling either. Nor can I really figure out how to write a “how we structure our day” type post either, because our days frequently look very different and change based on the needs of the day and the people. These things said, I also don’t mean to suggest in any way that I’ve got it all figured out, I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about homeschooling. I mentioned it to my mom and she suggested that people might just be interested in my own experiences, both from my childhood and then currently, with my own kids. So, that’s what I’ve decided to offer in this series of two posts. No philosophy, theories, or advice, just my own narrative about being a homeschooled kid who grew up to homeschool her own kids.
My own homeschooling story/saga is such an integrated part of my past, or my life story, that it has barely occurred to me that people might be interested to hear it. Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t be. This is LONG post and who knows if anyone will even make it until the end! I do think I am in a fairly unique position as an adult former homeschooler. I know almost no one else who was homeschooled throughout the childhood and teenage years, never setting foot in a formal school until entering college. Did I mention its long? Be warned!
I have three younger siblings and my mom homeschooled all of us. At the time, we considered ourselves “unschoolers” but I feel like that label has evolved to encompass a more developed philosophy and set of beliefs than it did when I was a kid. To my mom it meant that we homeschooled without curriculum and that learning in the house was primarily child-led/child-directed, with Mom’s primary purpose to make quality resources available to us and to answer questions. My mom has a degree in early childhood education, which always gave her a little additional credibility in the eyes of casual questioners or people wondering if you were “allowed” to homeschool. As a kid, I truly felt like my mom homeschooled because she enjoyed our company so much that she couldn’t stand to have us away from her all day at school. It wasn’t until adulthood that I fully realized that she probably could have used the “break” school would have provided, but she homeschooled us because of her own convictions that it was in our best interest and that the public school system was a “broken” one to which she was philosophically opposed. As a teenager, I did catch on to some of these convictions and would passionately advocate for homeschooling when encountering those who would express skepticism or doubt (this is what I mean about having “used up” this energy already).
My dominant memories of my childhood years consist mainly of playing with my sister, reading, and having my mom make things for us. My youngest siblings are 9 and 11 years younger than I am and do not feature prominently in my childhood memories. My other sister is 22 months younger than I am and our lives together are so inextricably linked that I rarely speak about my childhood without using the pronoun “we.” We spent so much time playing. It was the bulk of our day really, just playing with each other. We were each other’s best friend. We played outside, we played with toys, we made toys, and played some more. We had neighbors (loosely speaking—within five miles from us) who were also homeschoolers and we saw and played with them frequently as well (and, grew up to be bridesmaids in each other’s weddings). With our friends, we often played house, restaurant and yes, school. We made all kinds of worksheets for our dolls and I was always the teacher. At home, we sometimes did worksheets with mom. Almost every year she bought “Super Workbooks” for us (i.e. “My Third Grade Super Workbook”) and we’d start off with a bang with her saying that this was the year when we were really going to buckle down and do school every day. This usually lasted a couple of weeks and we’d be back to our freeform, playing days with occasional bursts of workbooks as we expressed interest in them. We had old-fashioned readers like Dick & Jane that were always fun to read, as well as lots of other schoolbooks in addition to the Super Workbooks. These were always available to us on the bookshelf if we wanted them. I learned to read when I was three and have been a voracious reader ever since. We would go to the library once a week and I would check out every new book they had.
Because of my tendency to read until my eyes glazed over, my mom eventually limited me to reading two books a day (full-length “chapter books” such as Trixie Belden—favorites of mine when I was about 6). I literally read every single book in the children and youth sections at both local libraries. A lot of my learning truly came from fiction. I still feel like my most long-lasting lessons about history came from American Girl books! We also used to get all kinds of educational magazines. Mom also read to us every night until we were in our early teens, usually book series like Narnia. We were in 4-H for many years and did all kinds of projects through 4-H, went to summer camp, and eventually participated in their many leadership-opportunity programs. I’ve never forgotten the mock trial of the ethically and morally complicated case of Nancy Cruzan we participated in at the state Capitol building through the 4-H civic leadership program I took part in. We belonged to the local homeschool support group and regularly went to homeschool bowling, skating, and other events. My mom also did a “craft club” for girls and we would get together and make craft projects every week. We also had lots of sleepovers.
Unlike many other homeschoolers of the time, we did not homeschool for religious reasons and in fact were not religious at all. I felt a barrier throughout my childhood in relating authentically to other people because I was not religious—it felt like something I needed to play close to the chest and keep “secret.” Many of my friends were fundamentalist Christians, which was not compatible with my own burgeoning sense of social justice and women’s rights. My own self-identification as a feminist was my first taste of activism and my first involvement with a “cause” (other than homeschooling). I had many experiences with my homeschooled peers that left a very bad taste in my mouth towards religion, primarily religious attitudes toward women, to the extent that I maintained a knee-jerk almost anti-religious response to any discussion of religious or spiritual issues until I was close to 30. As a child and teenager, I came to feel like being religious and being feminist were fundamentally incompatible and I chose feminism. I truly did not know that someone could be religious or Christian without being frighteningly fundamentalist about it. It wasn’t until much, much later that I discovered that are a lot of “normal Christians” in the world (including “normal homeschooling Christians”).
I grew up in an off-the-grid log cabin in the woods. We did not have a TV until I was 12 when we got a TV/VCR combo unit—it did not get any TV channels, but after that point we watched one movie per night.
When I approached age 14, my parents gave me the choice of continuing to be homeschooled or to start high school. Several of my homeschooling friends started high school at this point and homeschooled boys in particular were hard to come by, many having been lured to public high school from desire to play organized sports. Those of us who remained actually organized our own homeschool basketball “team,” playing basketball together in local parks at least once a week. I opted to begin a homeschool correspondence program, American School, a (supposedly) college-prep high school program that offered an accredited diploma at the end. Any naysayers were quickly silenced to learn that the same accrediting body that accredited the local high school, also accredited the correspondence high school I attended.
During my early teenage years, I also remained very involved with 4-H, serving as president of my club, etc. I also joined an Explorers post, the co-ed, young adult version of Boy Scouts and this is where I ended up meeting the boy who would eventually become my husband. Through dating his public-schooled self, I ended up participating in all of those things that people express concern about homeschoolers “missing out on,” such as the prom. I cannot count the number of time people have asked, “but what about prom?!” when they hear that someone is homeschooled. After going to prom myself, I felt deeply sad that this experience was what some people apparently considered the pinnacle of their lives! My homeschooled-til-high-school friends were in band and another friend’s brother played football, so I went to many high school football and basketball games to watch them play, thus again not missing out on a classic high school experience. (I’m glad I didn’t need to spend 12 years in public school in order to earn these fabulous honors!)
I quickly discovered that I could complete my high school classes very quickly, sometimes completing an entire high school course during one weekend (of intensive work). My only challenging area was math and sometimes my mom and I both ended up crying over it as I struggled through algebra and geometry at the kitchen table. I started to toy with the notion of possibly completing high school in three years. As classes passed, I realized I could finish even more quickly than that, and in 1994, I received my high school diploma at age 15—14 months after having started the correspondence classes. Yes, I completed 4 years worth of high school work in slightly over a year! This really solidified for me that high school was likely a “waste of time” for everyone. After starting college, I was interviewed by the local paper and was asked if I felt like I had “missed anything” by not going to school like everyone else, I responded that I had missed out on “having been institutionalized.” I was dating my future husband at this time and his friends were extremely annoyed at my “snotty” attitude in this quote stating that I couldn’t know what high school was like, having never been there. They also said, “it isn’t an institution! It has windows and the lockers are painted different colors.” I rested my case.
While my parents and I debated about whether it made sense or not for me to start college so young, I really felt like I might as well be spending my time in college as in high school—if I could do it, why not start. So, at 15 1/2 I enrolled in a branch college to “get my feet wet.” My primary motivation for starting at this school rather than at the local university, was because the branch college did not require an ACT score to be admitted and I really, really did not want to take the ACT. I eventually took the GRE to get into graduate school and that remains the only standardized test I’ve ever taken.
I spent almost two years taking classes at the branch college until I had enough credit hours to transfer to the local university without an ACT score. I took College Algebra with trepidation, never having felt fully competent in math. I did successfully get an A in the class, but it involved literally hours of self-imposed practice problem solving at home sitting by the wood stove. I was a very enthusiastic and hard-working student, theorizing that I had so much energy for college because I hadn’t previously been “burned out” by high school. I earned all A’s at the branch school and continued to earn all A’s at the university to which I transferred, eventually graduating summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA. I was also the youngest graduate in the university’s history, finishing my bachelor’s degree at age 19 years and 13 days. I kept my age very private throughout college, only revealing my true age to a tiny handful of other students and then to a couple of my favorite professors in the two weeks before graduation. One classic moment was when a friend asked me to go to a bar after class to continue working on our group project. I said I couldn’t and he said, “why not? You’re 21, aren’t you?” I just said no, and he said, “22?” which I continue to find very amusing 😉 For all of those who worry about the “socialization” of homeschoolers, no one ever seemed to be able to identify me as a homeschooler or as overly young.
After it became clear that driving into town every day for classes and work no longer made a lot of sense, I lived in the dorm for one semester in my junior year and then moved into a small efficiency apartment when I was almost 18. I worked at the branch college I originally attended, which was a perfect job for me, allowing me to do all my homework and paper writing while at work. (I am now a professor at this same college!)
I was extremely obsessive about my grades, becoming almost panic-stricken at the thought of not getting an A in a class. Astronomy was my most horrible subject and I remember crying—wailing almost—certain that it was going to be the undoing of my 4.0. As it was, I calculated the exact score I needed to get on the final to manage a 90% in the class and I still remember the tension in my chest in going to look at the final grades on the professor’s door and seeing that, yes, I had received exactly that score on the final, not a single point over! I continued to date my only boyfriend throughout college and in July after I graduated we got married (we’ve been married for 13 years now). Immediately following college, I went on to graduate school and finished my master’s degree there at age 21, also with a perfect 4.0 GPA (though I’d been told by many people, including professors, that I’d have to lower my expectations of myself once I went to graduate school and that it would be a “bigger pond,” that didn’t end up being true). Again, I only revealed my age to a handful of people. At one point after being pushed into saying how old I was, my friend said, “wow! I would never have guessed. If someone had asked me, ‘is Molly 19 or 30,’ I would have said, ‘well, she looks young for 30.'” Even at the time, this struck me as mildly sad, like I had been “fast forwarded” through my adolescence.
My experienced as a homeschooled, now-adult taught me many things about education and about homeschooling. Primarily, I know from experience that it is not necessary to sit in desk all day. I also know that it is not necessary homeschool with a “school at home” mentality. Basically, children do pick up everything they need to know to be functional, socialized adults with access and opportunities. I always say I learned about the “real world” by living in it, rather than being closed up all day in an artificially age-segregated environment expressly modeled to serve the purposes of the Industrial Revolution, not human needs.
I do retain some sense of having been “fast forwarded,” in my life, but that isn’t really a bad thing (for example, now a 32, I have over 15 years of experience in my chosen field, rather than still “just starting out” as it seems to me like many thirty-something year olds are!). If I was starting all over again, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going to college that young, but nor would I recommend trying to prolong something that could be completed in less than four years.
My brother and sisters all did the same high school correspondence program, but paced themselves intentionally to finish later. They also all went to college and finished their bachelor’s degrees. I share this personal story for those of you who have wondering if homeschooling “works” and whether your kids will, indeed, grow into functional adult humans 🙂
I find it somewhat amusing that I’ve ended up in education as a career. I feel like my outlook was profoundly shaped by my homeschooled childhood and my students frequently express that I expect them to think in ways they’ve never thought before and that my assignments are not like anything they’ve experienced before, “I mean, you actually expect us to think.” (direct quote)
I have joked before, but am half-serious, that being unschooled “ruined” me for full-time employment. It did in the sense that I don’t think it is healthy for anyone—male, female, child, adult—to spend all day, every day doing the same thing at the same place. That is not how life is meant to be lived! I also feel like my childhood spent essentially doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, did have an impact on my experience of motherhood now, which not infrequently does not allow me to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and I chafe a little at those restrictions on my autonomy and all of my billions of ideas.
I also find it somewhat amusing that my life has taken a religious turn now, in that I am currently working on my doctoral degree (D.Min) in women’s spirituality. I also am the vice president of my very small UU church. I find myself very passionate about and absorbed in study of the divine feminine, the sacred feminine, women’s spirituality, feminist spirituality, and the Goddess. It took me a long time and some childhood religious “scars” to realize that there is a vast world out there beyond the dominant, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian lens and to discover that I connect to the women’s spirituality movement on a very deep and meaningful level.
Homeschooling My Own Kids
As I previously noted, homeschooling my own kids was a foregone conclusion for me. I literally cannot fathom the idea of sending them to public school. Please see Part 2 of this homeschooling post for more about what homeschooling looks like for us right now!