Part 1/5 – Endings and Beginnings.
I sit here and wonder how they are doing today. Those two girls whose needs, desires and education consumed the last 15 months of my life, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. On those mornings, my older daughter would roll out of bed at 10 a.m. and smile at me sleepily as she sipped a cup of tea. My younger daughter — whose little 6-year-old feet still sounded like the pitter-patter of childhood — would search the house until she found me for her first-thing-in-the-morning hug. It was like that almost every single morning for the entire year I homeschooled them.
Neither of those things happened this morning. There wasn’t time. There were backpacks to fill, lunches to pack and a bus to catch. And then they were gone, for eight hours straight.
Eight hours straight. What would I do for eight hours? My mind drifted back to my last day at work, almost five years prior. My coworkers had thrown me a quaint, yet eccentric, farewell tea party. Plates were adorned with homemade cinnamon scones and our heads topped with yellow flowers and pink-ribbon fascinators. They all wished me well, some a little jealous, others just curious — what would I do with myself?
When I got home that night, I indulged in more than tea. I expected the libations to be celebratory, but by the time the evening came to a close that empty bottle was filled with tears, fears and false accusations. Like champagne spilling from a tilted glass, I slurred at my husband, “You’ll never appreciate my intelligence the way my coworkers did,” and I gulped down what I was sure was the last of my profession.
The next morning started my new life as a military spouse and stay-at-home mom. Setting my supposed intelligence aside, my husband more than demonstrated his by never mentioning what happened the night before. United, we moved forward in our new dynamic. As with everything, there was a learning curve and an adjustment. In time, our marriage reached a place of balanced partnership we had never experienced before. We were able to divide and conquer in the most traditional of ways, with my husband as provider and me as caregiver and homemaker.
Almost four years later to the day, I found myself at an outdoor cafe in Peru upping the ante as I announced to my daughters that I would be homeschooling them for the following year while their father was stationed in Korea. My then 6-year-old lit up in excitement. My 10-year-old eyed me skeptically and asked how I would choose a curriculum. The ceramic monkey perched by the entrance of the cafe stared at me with a giant grin on his face. I’m pretty sure he knew what I was in for.
Part 2/5 – Fuel for the Fire
Have you ever tried to convince a pre-teen with a mensa-qualifying IQ that you are capable of teaching her seventh-grade math? Well, don’t. Because you can’t. Can’t convince her, I mean. And also, maybe, can’t teach her. I’m not sure of that part, because I never got that far.
Staring down my not-yet teenager, I realized I needed to establish some boundaries, to set some expectations for myself and my “classroom”, because, clearly, I was incapable of meeting hers. I also needed to choose my battles. I decided math was not going to be one of them. After talking with my sister-in-law, we signed my older daughter up for Kumon, a popular tutoring program for reading and math that was founded in Japan and has offices across the United States. I was encouraged by the fact that the students took an assessment to determine the level at which they would start, and then moved forward at their own pace.
What we discovered was that the pace was very slow because it was very repetitive. My daughter was expected to complete ten pages per day at home and then do the same in the Kumon classroom twice per week for an hour. She did lots and lots of long multiplication, lots and lots of long division, lots and lots of adding and subtracting fractions, and lots and lots of multiplying and dividing fractions. In some ways I was impressed. She was doing so much math every day that she could do mental math faster than I ever could.
But after six months she hadn’t really learned anything. She already knew these basic mathematic mechanics, only now she could put it all together faster. One fateful morning while she was toiling away on a 50-page workbook, dividing numbers that had already been divided at least once, she looked at me in complete frustration — “CAN I PLEASE JUST BURN THIS?? CAN’T WE THROW IT IN A FIRE?”
I told her yes.
It was January, my father only lived 20 minutes away, and he had a fireplace.
Part 3/5 – Flying by the Seat of my Pants
When my older daughter was in kindergarten, I worked full time. She was usually at childcare or school for ten hours per day. One unusual morning, when the universe gifted me with an abundance of free time, I drove her to school and held her little hand as we walked toward the building. She looked at me with big golden eyes, smiled and declared, “I wish you were my teacher.” My heart broke as she walked into school and I drove off to work as a policy analyst for the State Legislature.
When I started our homeschooling journey, I hoped by the end of the year I would have challenged my children academically and enriched their lives. Most of all, I hoped they enjoyed having me as a teacher. If I’m generous with myself, the best I did was meet one of those three goals and it wasn’t even the one that included, “most of all.”
Developing a curriculum for two children, four and half years apart, when one was already deemed “gifted” and the other hardly knew how to read proved to be more than I could do, or at least more than I could do well. We joined a local co-op and signed up for online courses. I developed lesson plans around science and history. We bought workbooks. We embraced schedules. We rejected schedules and welcomed flexibility. We wrote at desks, we watched videos, we covered the craft table in paper, glue and the occasional chemical from the “Magic Science for Wizards Only” set we bought at Barnes and Noble. I even drew hydrogen and oxygen molecules on the board. We hiked through the woods, meandered through museums and ate at diners, a lot. All of us knowing, all of the time, that I was really just flying by the seat of my pants. Every day felt like a new experiment in the art of trial and error.
When we started homeschooling, my older daughter had just completed fifth grade. My younger daughter had just completed kindergarten. By the time we finished our one year of homeschooling, my older daughter should have been going into seventh grade and my younger into second grade.
In a span of 15 months, we moved from Florida (where the girls went to public school), to New Jersey (where I homeschooled) and then to Italy (where the girls would go back to public school — this time on a military base). It was my husband who first stopped by the elementary and middle schools to pick up the enrollment paperwork. He came home with two stacks of forms for me to fill out. As he slid them across the table, he explained the school would need copies of the girls’ records from Florida and any records I had of the work they did while homeschooling.
I thought about my father’s fireplace.
Part 4/5 – Magic Confetti
An echoing voice bounced off the walls, desperately attempting to overcome the buzz of hundreds of parents and children attending the new student orientation at my younger daughter’s elementary school in Italy. We listened to her principal recite the school motto, the guidance counselors assure the students they are always there to help and the nurse beg parents to keep children home if they are suffering from sickness.
When the administrative introductions concluded, we were released to wander through the school to find our children’s new classrooms. The principal explained that the teachers had been very busy that week and there was no guarantee of meeting your child’s new teacher, but we could go to the classroom. My little 7-year-old tensed and looked at me nervously. The thought of not meeting her teacher today and being greeted by a stranger on the first day of school terrified her. And rightfully so.
When my younger daughter was three, we started looking for preschools. She has always been, for lack of a better term, unique. She is sensitive and determined, easily frustrated and overwhelmed but also easily enthused and joyful. She doesn’t like crowded rooms or loud noises. No doubt, a typical preschool would overwhelm her. We found an alternative preschool with a nationally recognized name that promised yoga, music and lots of quiet time for play.
Being who she is, my daughter cried inconsolably when I dropped her off each morning. Remembering my days as a working mother, I would leave, sure that she would calm down once I was out of sight. On the third day, after dropping her off, I returned to the school with her forgotten lunch. As I walked in I heard my daughter crying — behind a closed door. I paused. Could that really be what I was hearing? I heard the crying again but this time it sounded different in a way that I couldn’t characterize. My daughter’s upset welled up yet a third time and a teacher’s firm voice cut through the tears, “Do you want the crying to stop? You need to push the button.” My daughter wailed louder. “You want it to stop? Push the button,” the voice demanded.
I felt heat rising in my throat and my heart racing. I’m not sure what stopped me from bursting through the door in my supermom cape, but instead I channeled Velma in a bad Scooby-Doo episode and crouched behind a plastic plant in the corner. My daughter’s crying doubled — literally doubled — and I realized what was happening. This “teacher” had my daughter cornered in a bathroom and was playing her own recorded wailing and crying back at her, repeatedly. If my overwhelmed 3-year-old could calm down long enough to the push the button on the teacher’s cell phone, her crying, and the crying being played back at her, would stop.
This was some type of messed-up lesson in self-regulation.
I took a few deep breaths, and the bathroom door opened. Because I was still camouflaged behind the plastic plant, the teacher didn’t see me. She led my daughter to an empty classroom, sat her down and starting playing music over the loud speaker — loud enough to drown out my younger daughters’ cries — and then walked away, leaving my 3-year-old in a foreign room to be alone with her tears and fears.
Still huddled behind the fake shrub, I decided to wait to see what would happen. The teacher returned. “Are you ready to join the class?” My little girl continued to cry. The teacher increased the volume of the music and started to walk away. At that point I stood up. The teacher’s eyes rounded in surprise and something akin to fear. Locking my gaze with hers, all I managed to say was, “I’ve been here the whole the time.” I turned to my daughter, opened my arms and hugged her with all the love my heart and soul could muster.
As we were leaving, in a poor attempt at self-justification, the teacher tried to thank me for my Velma-style spying and giving her the opportunity to use her own methods to deal with my daughter’s behavior. Jaw clenched and harnessing all of the self-regulation I could summon, I stated, “We won’t be back.” and walked out the door. I held my daughter close, up on my hip, her soft, 3-year-old cheek rubbing against mine and promised her I would never, ever take her back to that place.
It was six months before we tried preschool again. We didn’t work on “self-regulation” to better prepare her, but rather on un-teaching the messed-up part. It was six months of hugs, kisses and expressions of compassion.
With this type of history, I knew that if my younger daughter’s second grade teacher wasn’t in that classroom, and all she had to look forward to was a stranger, she might not leave my arms on Monday morning.
Fortunately, a middle-aged woman with a warm smile and long black hair greeted us from her desk. Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure a white aura softly radiated from her entire body. This saint-of-a-teacher handed my daughter a little bag of pastel, hole-punched confetti. It’s magic, she said, and encouraged my daughter to sprinkled it under her pillow. It would help her sleep through the night before the first day of school. My little girl raised her eyebrows questioningly, decided to believe, and held her magic tight. I was never more grateful to a no-longer-stranger and a few tiny scraps of paper.
As we left the building, I thought about all the people at that school, and globally, who make a profession of providing children with a quality and well-rounded education, people who have dedicated years of training to that purpose. There might the rare incompetent fool that applies their knowledge through some type of nazi filter and corners children in bathrooms with recordings of their own misery — but not most of teachers. I knew the team at this school would do a better job of providing my younger daughter with a complete education than I ever did. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel quite so alone.
That night, as I breathed a sigh of relief, my daughter sprinkled magic confetti under her pillow.
Part 5/5 – Soul Lessons
“I got an 80 on my math assessment. There were only 10 problems. There was even some stuff on it that I learned during homeschool,” my older daughter announced.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Absolute value. Some of the other kids didn’t know absolute value.”
“What about pre-algebra? Was there any pre-algebra?”
“No, no pre-algebra.”
And like magic, my older daughter was accepted into the seventh grade advanced math program.
Magic. Just like the magic that my younger daughter’s now second grade teacher put into a plastic bag full of paper bits — tears, sweat, heart, resilience, and compassion. After burning my older daughter’s Kumon pages, we didn’t give up. Instead we rolled up our sleeves and tackled a different set of workbooks. I was more deliberate — choosing specific topics, pages and problems to work through that would challenge her without being overwhelming.
My older daughter’s assessment announcement was not the only good news to arrive that day. Earlier in the week I had emailed my younger daughter’s teacher, sharing concerns about her reading level. I wasn’t sure that, through homeschooling, we had gotten as far as we should. Her half saint and whole teacher reassured me that she believes my younger daughter will do fine in reading, and “she is not only a hard worker but also a great listener too.”
It turns out self-regulation had found its way into my younger daughter’s life without resorting to twisted cell phone intimidation tactics.
When our year of homeschooling came to a close, I was sure I had done it all wrong. Even after reflecting on it through writing this series, I’m still sure I did it mostly wrong. If I had homeschooled my daughters for two years, instead of one, I’m fairly certain they would have been held back a grade.
When the new military school requested documentation of the girls homeschooling, I was able to look back through the photos and files of the prior year and cobble together an outline of the girls’ work. As I read through all of our “class trips,” the curriculum I attempted to write, the classes the girls completed online and the classes they completed in person – piece by piece – it came together as a whole. I was even borderline proud of it.
But that skeleton of a document does not adequately demonstrate what we learned, really learned that year. Our lessons had less to with brains and more to do with tears, sweat and hearts.
I admit, in the past, I eyed homeschooled families with a bit of wonder, awe and skepticism. The parents so often seemed so calm. And the kids? They generally listened. And siblings? They generally got along. Do homeschooling parents drug their children? Do they spend all of their time praying and then exist at a higher plane of consciousness than me and my kids?
That’s not it – or at least it wasn’t for us. I didn’t drug my children or build an alter in the basement. However, during the growing pains, during the hurt of their father moving to the other side of the world, during the hurt of leaving their friends in Florida, during the stress of starting over – all we had were each other. There were family members that stepped up and helped out – but for the most part, it was the three of us, all day, every day. My children saw me cry, try and fail, and then try again. I saw them reach for friends, not make a connection, resort to getting lost on YouTube, and then finally reach for each other. It was The Hard Year of Just Us.
We learned how to live together. There were no breaks. No kids going school. No parents going to work. Few playdates. Few nights out for mama. We learned how to give hugs when we needed them, space when we needed it, to yell at each when we needed to, and then to forgive each other for those harsh moments, which over time, became rarer and rarer.
Other homeschooling families don’t seem so mystical anymore. Maybe the biggest lessons of homeschooling have less to with the classroom and more to do with the hearth. While we may not have reached a higher level of consciousness nor engaged in stellar academic exercise, our year of homeschooling was full magic – that special kind of paper confetti magic — tears, sweat, heart, resilience, compassion and love.
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I’d like to close this series by expressing a special thank you to my father-in-law. While my husband was in Korea, my father-in-law opened his home and heart to us. We used two of his bedrooms, ate in his kitchen and struggled through homeschooling in his basement. He is a busy man, volunteering in his local church, golfing, biking, and spending winters in Florida. Yet he still found time to cook for us, share stories and ease the burden we carried during the Hard Year of Just Us. I know it wasn’t really just us, and I thank him for being an important and significant part of it. Many thanks also to my father (and his fireplace!!), for the time he spent with us on our “class trips” and the hugs he gave us when we really need them. Thanks also to my friend Melissa and her two wonderful children. We never would have made it through without you.