Homeschooling Doesn’t Make You a Freak (or a Jesus Freak)
An inside look at homeschooling, from someone who lived it and loved it.
I have a confession. It’s not a deep, dark secret. It’s more like the kind of thing that makes for a great truth in “Two Truths and a Lie” during icebreaker sessions. “I have a Jack Russell terrier mix, I was homeschooled for ten years and I like to make ASMR videos in my spare time.” It’s the kind of thing that sounds absurd and patently false, but for me, it’s 100 percent true.
I was homeschooled for ten years.
For my junior and senior year, I went to public school, but from first until tenth grades, I learned at my kitchen table. Or in the backseat of a car. Or wherever we happened to be when there was learning to be done. I had a desk, a bright red one that had a top that opened, usually to a mess of half-finished worksheets, hole-punch confetti and broken pencil nubs. But if I wasn’t at that desk, it didn’t matter. I was able to go to school anywhere I could find a flat workspace.
Homeschool Made Things Easier for My Family
My family moved a lot. We weren’t military, which is what people assume when I say that. My dad just followed his tech job across the country from New York to Silicon Valley, then moved back to Alabama to be closer to family as they aged. By the time I was 12, I’d lived in four states, and six different houses. In a traditional environment, I would have changed schools three or four times by then. Being homeschooled allowed those transitions to be less difficult. It also allowed us, for instance, to spend two months driving across the country when my dad had to go back to California for work.
When we were getting ready to move cross-country in 1996, at the end of our lease, my mom and dad put together “car kits” for all of us. They had an eight-year-old, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. Mom was seven months pregnant, and we were all going to be driving across the country in our old, reliable 1986 Acura Legend. This was long before the concept of smartphones—I don’t even think we had noise-making toys, probably for the sake of my parents’ sanity.
Mom put our schoolbooks in my and my brother’s kits, and board books in the kit for my then-youngest sister. We all had paper and pencils and crayons, and she put small “journals” for us to write and draw in—to write about the things we saw as we journeyed. We had toy cars that my brother and I raced along the armrests, small pillows and our teddy bears. We counted cows in the Great Plains, played “I Spy” to help my sister learn her shapes and colors, and even the alphabet game. The first one to find all the letters in order won. We never won anything, but the pride of victory was just as good back then.
Textbooks Aren’t the Only Way to Learn
We were able to spend a month on that first long drive back, stopping at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and anywhere else that tickled our fancy. My family learned about geysers and how mountains were made. We learned about weather, and how it changes even across small portions of the country. We saw how the roads crisscrossed the land and talked about how the pioneers made this same journey over a hundred years earlier, in the other direction.
I learned about the Great Depression and the public works that FDR instituted at the Hoover Dam, one of the many things created as a result. There was a film we watched there, in black and white, that showed the men using dynamite to clear stones. Another film, at Mount Rushmore, explained how the carvers used the same substance to help create huge busts from a sheer mountain face.
In every place we stopped, we helped my mom find a natural souvenir. At one point, she had little glass vials of sand, sediment or water from every river, lake, stream and beach we ever visited. She stole one rock—just one—from every national park we visited, searching for those that looked like they had their own story to tell. Once, she even tried to take leaves to press, when a kind person took the time to tell her it was poison oak and best not to touch it.
I Learned Adults Can Be Wrong, Too
I had textbooks, too, of course. Saxon math books will always be both nostalgic and terrifying, all at once. Thanks to homeschooling, though, I also got far more real-world lessons than you can possibly cram into a traditional classroom setting.
One of the most important lessons I learned as a homeschooler is that adults aren’t always right. One day, in what must have been second grade, we were doing a unit on Australia. For some reason, my mom was not there to read my spelling words for a test, so my dad did it. It was Australian animals: kangaroo, platypus, Tasmanian devil, those sorts of things. Halfway through, he said a word I had never heard. “Coo-ay-lay,” he said. I spelled it like it sounded: cooaylay. But he marked it wrong! I was still arguing with him when my mom got home. It must have been a sight. He demanded that my mom pronounce it, because I’d been telling him that he’d said it wrong and that was why I missed it and so (obviously) it shouldn’t count! She made him say it first, and then—I will never know how she managed it—she managed not to laugh as she pronounced it right: “Koala.”
Most importantly, homeschooling allowed me to learn my own way and at my own pace, and my siblings at theirs. I learn best given instructions and the freedom to make mistakes and fix them myself. My brother is hands-on and learns best by doing with help. My sister? Tell her once and let her loose.
I am the oldest of four. In my senior year, my youngest sister was a third-grader. She went into a traditional school that year, when my mom went to work full time. Her teacher, a lovely older woman who had taught for 25 years, prepared herself for a child who couldn’t read, couldn’t do math and would be a “difficult student.” What she got was an honor roll student who struggled with division and whose only disciplinary issue was talking too much—which, in my experience, is an issue for lots of third graders.
The Stigma Against Homeschooling Is Based on Stereotypes
The most interesting part of being homeschooled, though, isn’t the stories from my childhood. It’s the reaction I get whenever I tell people I was homeschooled growing up. They generally assume I grew up sheltered and uneducated or as a hardcore Jesus freak. Or both. They’re often shocked to find out that I actually grew up—and remain—largely nonreligious, and I like to think I’m at least as normal as most nerds. I think this reaction is because mainstream media relegates the choice of homeschooling children to societal outliers. The Duggar family, for example, or those clickbait articles with shocking reports of half-feral, unvaccinated children being “unschooled” —which means they’re being allowed to run wild and do whatever they want. In the real world, homeschooling is a diverse option, one many families choose for reasons that are largely practical.
My mom chose to homeschool because it worked for our family at the time. It helped that when she tried to put me in a traditional kindergarten, they turned her away because they were not going to “challenge” me. It also helped that we were living in a place that had a lot of support for less-traditional schooling options. Those first few years, we had a program that offered onsite classes once a week, as well as a district home education specialist who came and helped my parents put together lessons, made sure I was on track and generally ensured that we were on pace with the traditional path—even if we didn’t follow that path exactly.
All Forms of Schooling Has Problems
When we moved to Alabama, I began to see why I always got asked if we were Jesus freaks. Alabama, at least when I was in school, was not as supportive of alternative schooling options. Here we had “cover schools,” which were largely hands-off, mostly deregulated and almost entirely church-based. My mother—without the assistance of the internet, which was in its infancy at the time—found one that didn’t require us to sign a statement of faith or regularly attend their church. She paid the low fee to enroll our whole family. Our friends, still in the program in California, shared their curriculum with us and we tested using the California standardized tests.
The one requirement I remember our cover school had was that we had to have a bible class. That’s the only requirement my parents ever skirted in my entire educational journey. It wasn’t hard; the cover school visited once or twice a year and looked over our records, and since we did go to church—Sunday school, once a week—we were able to show we had one (even if we technically didn’t). We continued to follow the path presented by our Californian compatriots, and we all four grew up to become functional members of society.
Homeschooling isn’t perfect. It involves a lot of extra work on the parent’s part: making sure they find a curriculum that meets requirements and keeps a child learning, all of which has been outsourced to paid professionals for a very long time. They also have to find ways to ensure that kids have a chance to be around other kids. With homeschooling, the built-in socialization that occurs in a traditional school has to be shipped in or manufactured, like snow on a ski slope in October. This, on top of handling all the day-to-day things a parent must as they guide a child into adulthood. It’s a lot, and it isn’t viable for every family. But it isn’t just for Jesus freaks and “unschoolers.” Perfectly normal human beings can come from homeschooling, too. Most days, I like to think I’m one.