Our family is sitting on the edge of Mallet Pond just before sunset. Dusky Doodles is beside the water, a look of perplexed consternation on her furry face. The September air is clear, and we’ve found a sweet spot, where if we call out across the way, our echoes return over the water as clearly as if someone stood on the opposite shore calling out to us.
Dusky thinks there might be another family wooing her to swim over and go live with them. She’s probably wondering if they buy cheese puffs.. Cheese puffs (the jalapeno or the blue cheese kind) are her favorite snack. Her own family is woefully defficient in stocking the larder with them with any kind of predictable continuity.
We’re having a blast.
And it occurs to me that other ten-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds are at home doing homework.
And that other ten-year-olds have mastered their multiplication facts.
And other fourteen-year-olds are now in AP math, the latest standard for high school freshmen, Saoirse informed me after her summer of immersion with normal kids.
Ula and I are still practicing our sevens times tables. We’re starting on our fours. Saoirse and I are still doing pre-algebra. We’re still working through the grade eight math text.
I know Ula has an excuse. She’s had a lot of vision obstacles to overcome, and we’re now finally getting to a point where she can learn math and enjoy it. I’m careful not to blow it.
What’s my excuse for Saoirse?
She practically taught herself to read. When we have to throw the obligatory standardized test at her every other year, she sighs, sits down and aces it.
If she were in school, she’d be a star pupil. If she were in school, maybe I’d be one of those moms complaining that the teachers were spending too much time on kids like Ula, and not enough time providing adequate stimulation for my academically gifted child. Maybe I’d be sending her to summer enrichment opportunities to help her get ahead.
Instead, we’re here on a school night, getting our shits and giggles watching the dog try to figure out our echoes.
This isn’t what I visioned when I decided to homeschool my children. If I’m to be totally honest, I think I believed those stories about homeschooled kids being so much farther ahead than public-schooled kids….that all the personalized direct attention enabled them to cover more material…to be all-around smarter.
And that’s how I think this journey started out. But I didn’t make it through the first week before I was complaining to Bob that I didn’t know how public school teachers managed to get so much done in a day. With my obsession for keeping up and getting ahead, the personalized direct attention for Saoirse was really more like targeted harrassment.
Ula helped to change that. I became so worried that my child couldn’t perform at grade level, that I fixated on her. Saoirse, at least, got me off her back. My hopes for her accelerated academic achievements were dashed by my need to help Ula try to keep up with her imaginary class.
But here we are now, at the start of the ninth year of our homeschooling journey. And as ever, I’m sorely lacking an educational theory for my daily practice, other than that I seem to teach to my own deficiencies.
In school I worried about being above grade level at all times. I aced college calculus before I finished high school. My evenings were spent doing homework. I rose every morning to do homework. I did homework on weekends.
My only reprieve from homework during the school year was when I walked up the road each Sunday to shovel out Ruth and Sanford’s cow barn. No matter what was due on Monday, by Sunday noon I had to have the week’s accumulation of shit out of the barn, the floor scraped and dusted with lime, and bags of leaves scattered across to make fresh bedding. My reward was a hot meal and a slice of pie for dinner.
And I remember how that became my grounding point. The imposed stresses of academic life that crawled up my back all week whithered away in the blatant reality that here, in real life, shit needed to be shoveled and then a good meal could be enjoyed.
But I never lingered long after. Sanford would want to sit and talk. Ruth would have liked to play dominoes. I had homework. And homework and academic achievement were how I defined my worth in the world. Never mind that Ruth and Sanford loved me, that they wanted to spend time with me. Never mind that there was delicious food coming out of the ground in my town. Never mind that September light turns the trees into towers of jewels, that the sky takes on a blue that we never see any other time of year. Never mind that I told myself over and over again that “I love learning,” only to have a near breakdown in college, because I had come to hate the separation it drove between me and my beautiful world. In spite of my misery, I never stopped getting straight A’s. I wiped away my tears and transferred to a school that had a greenhouse and a nature preserve to provide me some sanity. But I came home weekends. And shoveled the barn.
I remember vividly the shortness of breath I felt the first time I stepped foot back on a college campus as I contemplated my return to graduate school. I pushed my way through it, chanting all the while “I love learning.”
But I didn’t love learning. With the exception of a few classes here and there, I hated it. I only loved the validation of pushing through the hoops to each higher level. I was bereft of curiosity.
It wasn’t until I’d walked away for several years, until the fire to write Radical Homemakers ignited inside me, when I discovered the electrifying thrill of learning.
In all, I estimate that I spent twenty years immersed in education: excelling, advance-placing, homeworking, and lying to myself that I enjoyed it, because it was the language I’d learned to use to define myself as intelligent and worthy. It was the golden ticket, I believed, to a respectable (if not happy) adulthood.
Nine years into homeschooling, I am certain only that whatever pedogogical methods I employ could be proven wrong at a later date by the next study, the next turn of history, the next change in the marketplace. But so too could the rush to advance-place our kids. And I don’t want my daughters to endure the academic loathing and squelched curiosity that I was too clueless to even understand within myself. I want them to love learning as much as I do today. And to me, that means creating the time and space to let them enjoy it because its pleasurable…not because they have to “keep up,” or because they are “better” or “smarter” than another kid.
And that brings me back to Saoirse’s math. She’s at least a year behind an “average” student, and two years behind an accelerated one. We’re plodding along through our pre-algebra text together slowly for one reason.
We savor it.
We come across a new and different problem, and she pushes my pencil away from the notebook. I whine. I always want to work it out myself first, because math problems are just so great to play with. But she wants to be the first to try. I really should get my own notebook, but it’s more fun to spar. We play, thinking about new ways to reconfigure numbers to add them in our heads. We marvel at our different paths to the same solutions. We bicker and we laugh. Her homework is always brief: a few problems to practice the new concepts. Nothing more. I snap the book shut.
How could I push her on to more advanced math when we’re having so much fun right now? Why race for the academic finish if the journey’s so darn interesting?
And I consider if I am somehow failing her. She’s aware that her peers are in the race to “get ahead.” She doesn’t seem to care. We’ve pushed aside our hopes that our daughters will be brilliant, preferring instead that they be radiant with joy. We’ve contented ourselves with being perpetually behind, in a world where math is delicious, and school nights are just as magical as weekend nights. That’s especially true on this warm September evening, when the echoes are so clear, the dog is certain there might be cheese puffs on the other side of Mallet Pond.