We’re crossing F street and Phoenix asks me for the difference between empathy and sympathy. And this leads to a discussion on two tangential experiences: commiseration and understanding. Watching my children grasp new concepts so swiftly, it’s still breathtaking all these years in. I don’t know what brought these emotional-relations topics on but I can think of some salient, personal examples in our lives, and I share them with my oldest as I feel the steering wheel hot under my hand. I glance across the street at a carved wooden structure; the sun is hitting the swollen river and I’d planned to let my oldest drive us down to class today but we were feeling rushed. Phoenix has his new learner’s permit folded up in his wallet, which he’s learning to take everywhere with him.
I’ve recently had the good fortune of receiving a moderate volume of calls, emails, and texts from parents who are curious about homeschooling and unschooling for their children. Part of the increased activity may be the small community ripple our thirteen-year old daughter made this fall when she tested into, and enrolled at, our local community college. Regardless of the factors behind this increased interest, I love the subjects of homeschooling, unschooling, parenting, and living with children. I am honored when adults and children alike trust me enough to share their concerns.
Today I’ve fielded texts from a mother to six who is trying to navigate her family’s first year of home- and unschooling. She tells me her family spent a year deschooling – living without books and curriculum – and now she’s worried, because they’re “behind”. She was feeling upset because in an online unschooling community she brought up these concerns and was told by members of the group that she “hadn’t deschooled yet”. This kind of thing can be unschooling-speak for: “you’re still part of The System! Bad unschooler, bad!” (Meanwhile those unfamiliar with unschooling are probably scratching their heads thinking – “What in the WORLD is ‘deschooling’?”)
Let’s think about my friend’s position for a moment.
The last thirty hours or so have been intense. I’ve written about all I want to, publicly, on my Facebook page (sadtimes if you don’t have FB, but I don’t have the energy to write it up again). Developments today – a meeting and formal apology, and then re-enrollment for my child in the classes she’d qualified for – have helped, but we are still rather frazzled. Ralph and I feel like we’ve had an ass-kicking.
I am not new to the non-traditional, autodidactic route. Readers. You know this. Recent events weren’t a surprise, but were shocking and hurtful to us – for obvious reasons.
Moving on. Without further incident. I hope. At least for a day or two. Maybe?
I’m tired, but more to the point I’m sad. I have a grey cloud over my head vis-a-vis my troubles and my temperament is such I get entangled in this ish most nights. I’ve tried talking it out, I’ve tried praying on it, I’ve tried meditating, I’ve tried not thinking. But I’m a mess over it all the same.
But now, I sit on my daughter’s bed and try to be with her for a bit. She’s playing on her brother’s 3DS but she puts it aside to cuddle me a while.
She suddenly remembers she has something for me and fetches it from her bag: her progress report, her grades. I flip through a frankly confusing printout and see all A’s and several classes recording over 100%. I am beginning to suspect she’s top of the class. Kind of incredible to me as kids have so much school- and homework these days and she is completely self-motivated about all of it.
“This looks really good. I’m impressed,” I tell her, flipping the packet back on the bed.
I’m quiet a moment and then I say, “You know by doing so well, you’re doing a favor for future homeschoolers and unschoolers out there.”
“You mean I prove that kids can go to school after unschooling and succeed?”
“Yeah,” I say. “You know a lot of people are afraid to unschool or homeschool their kids,” I tell her.
“That’s okay,” she says. And just when I’m thinking how compassionate and live-and-let-live she is she follows up with:
“They just have to get their shit together.”
She says it in the gentlest tone possible.
Ah… my little Beak.
During our new swim session a few of the homeschool parents descend on me at poolside – almost ravenously. It had been a couple years since I connected with the group. Touchingly, even though I have been absent for a while, and I don’t remember their names nor their children’s, a few ask about my daughter. I tell them about Phoenix enrolling in school, and how she’s doing. There is a bit of a flutter as a few of them seem to be deciphering that in some way. One woman says, “You can write on your blog about how you can go from unschooling, to [successful] schooling. Most people I talk to think unschooling won’t work.”
Why YES I CAN! And what a great idea that is! And – you are right! And – thank you for the reminder! I am a little delighted. My brain is all rusty and cobwebby.
I only discovered there was a six-week class an hour before the class, so I’m just glad we made it here on time. I’m not quite ready to publicly interface in a graceful way. I have a pen in my hand and I’m meeting a friend and I’m watching my son in the pool – I’m watching him learn a bit more about proper swimming technique. I’m so glad the sun is shining through the windows and I’m so glad to be here with him.
I am not used to getting invasive questions but today I am not minding much. I am mellow like Ben Murphy. Since I don’t feel I owe anyone an explanation sometimes I just let the questions or assumptions roll over me like water.
And hell sometimes, I think directness (in the form of, “Why are you doing this? Why do you do that?”) can be refreshing. Because let me tell you, I have encountered some weird behaviors in my day. People who hint so many layers deep I know they’re fucking with me but I can’t figure out exactly why. People who aggressively compliment. Can’t figure that one out either. People who, like today, corner me and start telling me very detailed stories about a specific cultural aspect of their home – even though I am sitting with a workbook on my lap and I was busy writing in it when they approached. I am not here to socialize – not today, at least.
Nels is the last out of the pool; it is so warm out I simply wrap him in his towel and hold his clothing under my arm. Home for a bath and then to enjoy the sun. It’s a good day to walk this Earth.
So apparently some grading milestone has just passed, because we got a different grading report this week. And it turns out our unschooled daughter made the honor roll.
This is all the more impressive (to me) given she has had two near one-week absences already for family time, and I know she didn’t turn in all the necessary makeup work for those intermissions. (Getting an organized list of make-up work is weirdly logistically difficult… children have incredible amounts of homework assigned to them these days and I think overworked teachers can’t always keep it straight).
I’ve thought a lot about writing about our family’s experience of the eldest’s foray into schooling – especially since I’ve been asked to write about it. Long story short: my daughter is killing it. Meaning: she genuinely enjoys school and is a faithful and willing participant. She seems to be managing the social stuff well, although let’s be honest – if she was being a shady Ass she might not be willing to report to me. Time will tell; further observation will tell.
Academically, she is one of those bright kids praised for critical thinking, leadership in discussions, and friendly deportment. No one reading here is surprised. She is ranked the top reader of the class and … bottom… math-er (how would you put that?).
The math bit is interesting. Phoenix is catching up very quickly, positing that a child who’s never touched math workbooks in a classroom can catch up to five years’ of public school in a few months. [ inserts tongue into cheek ] I am not even kidding about how much she couldn’t do worksheet-math when she started. Her first week at school she’d look up at me and say, “What is ‘5’ plus ‘2’?” Part of her difficulty with even simple exercises in a math worksheet seemed to be her own conviction that she “didn’t do” math (her words, although of course she’s managed many fiscal matters quite sensibly and plays video games which involve math, estimation, and strategy). Part of it was she was a bit overwhelmed with those first couple weeks. She is now quite calm about math and cheerfully enough completes the volumes of homework required. As I type this she is downstairs filling out a bunch of balls’-numbing long division problems. You know, one of those things we grownups use our calculators for.
School administrators and staff are very interesting to work with. I live in a small enough community I will keep some of my opinions to myself, although I am fine with a one-on-one or email conversation for the genuinely curious (I am not down with gossip, so you will get nowhere with me if you try it). I will say that school staff seem to know school isn’t so great for kids and this knowledge is reflected in an odd combination of muffled obfuscation and obsequious, careful sizing-up while talking to a parent. That said, from what I can tell the staff are adults who genuinely enjoy children. I ain’t gonna lie, some adults like kids inasmuch as they can boss, rank, file, and even tease them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love them, too.
The logistics of school life is a tiny bit tricky, but we are making it. Phoenix and Ralph get up quite a bit earlier than Nels & I (except for days like today, when Ralph was out of town and I got the opportunity to take Phee to school). We drive nine-point-four miles to get her to a bus stop (then back to town or work). With our car and gas situation this is often sketchy, but it has worked out and it is a nice break, a nice bit of family-only time. I’m still glad we chose the school we did for a variety of reasons, and my daughter feels a part of the school community.
So far, so good.
I don’t pine for my daughter like I did at first. It is still amazing to think of her just doing some shit all day long and I have no idea what it is. I am really glad for our family’s intimacy, though, and it keeps us strong. I enjoy having more time with just-my-son, and I enjoy having some work time. I enjoy watching my daughter build a life of her own.
My daughter is still one of the most directly affectionate people I know. When I pick her up from school at the end of a little rural road she walks right into my arms and kisses me and I hold her for a bit. We walk back in silence or talk about our day. I can see that friendship between us and I know that although it’s not a sure thing it will remain strong, so far it has been so wonderful, so rewarding. My daughter is probably the easiest person on the planet for me to be around. She is pretty special. Whomever she shares herself with is very lucky indeed.
I know over the years of writing here I have influenced many adults who are trying to figure out what is best for their children. I earnestly hope I have done more help than harm. As an unschooling parent for about a decade now, I have a few words as we journey through this latest bit. Parents and carers, if you are involved with your kids, love your kids, pay attention to your kids, and are brave enough to consider going against the grain – please don’t listen to what anyone ever says about school performance. Kids aren’t meant to be ranked and filed, “kept busy”, discussed like show dogs in a lineup, labeled, and with regularity told when they can eat and when they can take a crap.
Now if that’s your kid’s daily reality, Cool Beans, it’s one of my kids’ daily realities too. But I still say; if you’re thinking about it, YES, it is VERY WORTH IT to put off that reality for as many years as you can. Today, so far, I am pretty comfortable as a parent-whose-child-chooses-school, but to be fair it’s nothing I’ve done personally – it’s trusting Phoenix. We trusted her enough not to send her to school and let her be her. It was a smart investment.
It is an honor to be her mother and friend, to accompany her on her journies. I look forward to the next chapter.
In the process of enrolling my “unschooled” child into public school, we have ended up speaking with several individuals for input or, in some cases, necessary arrangements. These individuals include staff and faculty from school districts, some teachers (and ex-teachers), a homeschool email list (in this case, the “traditional”/curriculum type of homeschooling), and of course friends and relatives.
I am continually re-reminded that we Hogabooms swim in a different sea when it comes to some big life concepts, like How Children Learn, or just How Children Work in general (spoiler alert: they work a lot like regular people, except usually more honest!). Plenty of people who (obviously) love children very much, their own and others, will flat-out speak what I consider startling un-truths about children. Like how learning to mind authority and follow direction is equivalent to real learning as well as the moral prime directive of handling the kid problem. You know, LITTLE issues like that [she laughs]. I’m also reminded even a lengthy civil discussion (or two or three!) can’t possibly inject Ralph and my worldview and experiences into other individuals – and today I know it is rude and futile for me to try this. The child-as-second-class-citizen schema runs so deep that it takes months or even years to significantly de-program (hello! I’m still working on it!) – and I am coming to believe people would have to truly live the experience for a significant amount of time to speak with any real authority about it.
In Phoenix’s case, we have had many suggestions in the past few weeks: suggestions of how to organize her wardrobe, her curriculum, her food and lunch experience, how to test her, where to “place” her, how to “place” her. Every suggestion has been directed at me or my husband – patently ignoring the fact this entire world is hers, ignoring this even when we’ve said so directly and out loud, even while she’s in the room or available via email et cetera. In many cases, disturbingly but not surprisingly, my daughter is talked about like she’s chattel.
My daughter’s reaction to this makes me fall over dead with admiration. She leans back and tunes out. If she’s not being spoken to, a fine and friendly fuck all y’all. She’s not here to mess with anyone but she’s also not here to play “Good Girl”. She is like the best Buddhist I’ve met.
She is amazing.
Now I am used to adults’ baffling oversight – given that’s how many people treat most kids – but just to inform you how profound it really is, this happens over and over even when Ralph and I have demonstrated for years that this is not how our family operates. I am re-reminded of something I’d forgotten: that many grownups literally do not know how to talk about a child without knowing their grade and their so-called “aptitudes” or without considering grownups “owners” of children (as opposed to guardians or nurturers). And when it comes to these evaluations, I’m not talking about the logical surveying of a handful of factors in order to file a child into a classroom, which makes sense in light of the system – I mean that many adults cannot relate to a child without first “knowing” this information.
It is the oddest thing.
I know I sound feisty. I’m not angry, I’m just continually surprised at what I should no longer be surprised about. In a way, it still saddens me a bit. While today I have made peace with the mostly-schooling world (although that majority keeps shrinking), I think often of the neophyte home- or unschooler – as I once was! – so ill-supported or even vilified by so many. I think of this new family and how much anxiety is often produced by these clashing concepts of human relationships (cf. my handful of very angsty blog posts a few years back). No wonder people frantically self-affix labels – like “whole life unschooling” or “radical unschooling” or “interest-led learning” or “autodidactic unschooling” or even “un-unschooling”. Part of the label-grabbing motive is to defend one’s choice to raise one’s own child in the way seen fit: “Please trust us, we have a plan for our kids”; others may, as I did, be passionately trumpeting: “No. This is different. Different than (practically) everything you’ve been raised to believe!” (I’m still trumpeting that… or clown-horning that, if that’s how you see it.)
We’ve “unschooled” long enough to move past that particular label being useful – it merely serves as a shorthand that I employ when it makes sense.
Now I’m at the end of a day, and still recuperating from surgery, so I’m too tired to eloquently defend a premise I believe in: that nearly all labels, given time, will morph from being useful, to being impediments. Labels are fine, but a fanatic and stubborn adherence to them can keep us from practicing compassion, from practicing humility, and from helping others who are struggling.
Yes, our unschooling experience is valuable, and there is no substitute for it. Theory isn’t the same as living it. I have that life experience to offer – and I do. My blessings and support to any on the path.
Predictably, I’m about six hundred words into a three-hundred word post. I apologize. Let me get to more relevant points:
A few weeks ago I feared the biases my daughter might face from the teachers, adults, and children she’d be spending the day with. But I have worked through those fears (so far!) because I have re-reminded myself that it’s not my job to make people see things the way we do – and, more importantly, that Phoenix can handle this. Our children are whole, and that is what will help them. Our children are intelligent, kind, empathetic, strong, full of humor and compassion, and authentic.
We are here to support them, one hundred percent.
They also have something many children don’t have: a choice.
They have a choice. You know, sometimes I forget how amazing that really is? We’ve worked our asses off to give our children a choice and I’m grateful for the many factors, and all the kinds of support, that have made this possible. My goal in being out as a non-schooling family is to show people: I’m here, we’re here to help, if you ever want to try something even a little bit different.
These days I do not write to offend, or write to defend. I write here with passion. If there is any one else out there that wants to jump off the diving board, I’m here cheering from the cool deep water.
Well, let me torture the analogy a bit. Now? I’m waiting on the bleachers, watching my daughter jump, yet again. She is a beautiful sight.
In May this year, our family selected a family from sixteen family applicants to send to the Life Is Good Unschooling Conference in Vancouver, Washington. We Hogabooms fully-funded their trip and provided blog readers the opportunity to support us with donations.
Here is the interview of the Taylors’ expectations before the conference, and their experiences as related afterwards. The video provides a portrait of a family during a very specific time in their journey, and I found myself touched to share the Taylor’s lives a bit.
The total scholarship cost was about $700, covering four nights’ lodging, the conference registration fee, and $100 just-for-kicks spending money. Eight other donors/donor families stepped in and covered $375 of our total expense.
Thank you, readers, for your support.
I have a few personal words about our scholarship experiment.
First, I am grateful that despite the potential financial impracticality of such a venture for us Hogabooms, I took the plunge and, with my family’s support, led with my heart. Even though Ralph and I were careful not to require anything in particular for this experiment – that our scholarship family would end up enjoying the conference or that it would steer them in a particular direction – it is lovely to see that this conference helped the Taylors at this time in their life. Although we would have been happy to support an unschooling veteran family and are open to such a venture in the future, the Taylors were ideal applicants because they were on the fence, having just removed their child from the schooling system and having, by their own report at the time, little to no support from family and friends.
The scholarship expense was beyond what is “practical” for we Hogabooms but here we still are, having managed to breathe air and keep ourselves fed. I’m glad we reached out.
Finally, I completely adore my nine year old son’s contributions to the interview. He took over with confidence, he quite adroitly explained “fear” and “excitement” in terms of being an unschooling parent, and even employed “air dick quotes”. I especially found his breakdown of the unschooling commitment and the benefits and detriments quite touching. His contributions were, of course – unscripted.
Once I saw a couple awesomesauce photographers at the Sauvie Island wedding locale, I gave myself permission to stop taking pictures and trust that, later, wonderful pictures would come to me. This accounts for the kind of inexcusable lapse in that I don’t have a single picture of the couple (or of my own husband, sister, or mother!) to offer you, this evening. Still, I stand by my choice to be in the experience, instead of recording it. If you don’t know the kind of intense energy that goes into a wedding, at least when you are family or involved in a major way, then – pssshhhfft. I’ll post more photos when they come around.
So, Portland then.
In the house we stayed at, Ralph told me he intended to treat me “like a Queen” all weekend – and he did. Strawberry pancakes, at my request:
Almost better than devouring them (while reading a junky noir novel!) was watching my daughter eat them. Delicious!
Getting ready for fancy shin-diggery. The kids’ togs are all silk and cotton – a silk/cotton blend for the suits, a very fine cotton for each shirt, and silk taffeta for the bowties.
Yes, I made bowties. Yes, it was awesome. And kind of tricky. Bowties, if you want to make real ones, you have to make the exact correct length for the neck. I am now all fired up and ready to make Ralph a few vests and bowties because he looked gooooood. My brother said my entire family was “sharp as a diamond tack.”
Reader, I wore not one but two outfits, changing before the reception. No pictures yet of my get-up, although I offer you my custom-ordered boutonniere, a little nicety I purchased along with a wrist corsage for the mother of the groom.
Phee models, after her wedding-morning bath:
My brother, I made an overdyed wool vest. Prick-stitched lining, bound buttonholes, brass buttons, and a secret charm sewn into the pocket. Shhhh!
The back belt:
We also bought them a two-night trip to Sol Duc hot springs!
The wedding was super-lovely and worth every bit of effort it took our family to get there, and get there in style.
Hm, how much do I love this picture? My brother, the groom, looking handsome and happy. Tony checking something in his hand – the ring? His phone? And Chris, marching like a goddamn champion, gripping a bottle of wine. Fuck YEAH.
And yeah I got teary-eyed at the wedding. Of course I did, what the hell is wrong with you?
So we had a lovely time, all in all. I got to see my friend B. and her wonderful family, and thanks to some donations from two online friends, we got to hit the Mummies this afternoon, and visit with my sister. This morning I wrote a piece for Underbellie, in large part sparked by gratitude for the blessing of friends and family who, perhaps unwittingly, continue to challenge me in my day-to-day life.
Oh, and this was the first time I went two nights without my dog, since we got him almost a year ago. I MISSED HIM and I think HE MISSED ME, but now we are reunited.
As of this afternoon the Taylors are installed in the Life is Good Unschooling Conference (pre- and post-conference interviews, coming soon!). We had a small kerfuffle while our designated family tried to check in today – but that was, thankfully, resolved. I am hoping they navigate the considerable and constant activity at their first Conference with aplomb, and have a wonderful time.
Today was quite busy. I had a last-minute mailout of several items, the typical errands and child- and home- and pet-business, plus a dead battery in the car I was borrowing and then the understated drama of getting a replacement driver’s license (mine recently and mysteriously went missing). This evening I biked to and from Aberdeen and had a wonderful time practicing mindfulness, even through the pain of the ride. I am still getting used to my bike, which is quite speedy and lovely, but requires a lot more upper-body work than my previous craft.
I am also recovering from urethritis (I know, right? WTF), a somewhat alarming and not-so-fun experience for which I sought medical attention yesterday. Even though I have never (to my knowledge) had this problem before, my GP thought it was quite far-fetched it could result from the intense pressure of a new (hard and unpleasant) bike saddle and an entirely new bike-stance. But me and my pubic bone think differently, and I now have the giggles thinking of an old childhood tune and replacing the word “fox” with the word “crotch.”*
Tomorrow: payday. I’m very grateful to be warm, safe, loved, and more or less intact – and to have my family along with me on my life’s journies.
* tender-bits soreness is bad enough, but of course, it could be a heck of a lot worse!