Monday, April 7, 2008

Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain

Have you ever worried that you have made a HUGE mistake? Have you ever made a decision that made sense at the time, only to wonder, when you carried it out, what in the world you could have possibly been thinking? This was the circumstance I found myself in early one morning as I watched out my front window, all of the children in our neighborhood heading back to school after their summer vacation. They were all wearing their new school clothes and sporting new back-packs. They were excited as they anticipated the new school year, new teachers and new friends. My own friends were equally excited to send their children back to school so that they could once again enjoy the peace and quiet they had relinquished for the duration of the summer.

When each child turned five years old, I dutifully got him or her the required kindergarten physical, collected the paperwork necessary to prove I was the mother, then marched that child down to the local elementary school to start on the long journey of public education. The teacher made her assessment of the child’s kindergarten readiness while I waited anxiously. To keep my mind off the interview, I answered numerous questions so the teacher would know all the strengths and weaknesses of my child. I mapped out all the dreams and aspirations I had for that child. I thoroughly listed that child’s specific gifts and talents. It was important to include all this information because it was what the teacher was going to use as a basis for what was in the best interest of my child.

As the child demonstrated that he knew all the sounds the letters make, yet faltered while naming a few of them, I made a mental note to not forget to teach the names of letters as well as sounds. Thankfully, he could correctly identify all of the colors of the crayons in the box, though I chuckled at the expression on his face as he wondered why the teacher didn’t know her own colors and had asked for his assistance. Then the teacher asked how many times we went to the library over the course of the summer. I told her we went twice, not offering the added explanation that the second time was to drop off the books through the drive-thru that we had checked out on our first visit. I made another mental note to quit being such a slacker and spend more time reading Dr. Seuss out loud. I left the appointment heaving a sigh of relief that I made it through and reassured myself that whatever short-comings my child had experienced thus far in his education would certainly be remedied by the fact that we lived within the boundaries of a very good school. He would shortly be turned over to the professionals and all would be well.

Luckily, the kindergarten as well as the second grade teachers were determined to train my children in the merits of homework from the get-go. They figured that if they could learn it early, their educational success would be assured. We did math assignments faithfully. Each night either before or after dinner, I took one child around the neighborhood and counted all the windows we could find. When we returned, we located all the stray buttons in the house for the other child to sort. I couldn’t help but wonder why they had so much work to do at home after spending most of the day at school. Nevertheless, I trusted in the merits of the system that was educated in how to educate. There were word searches that they needed help with and art projects I was responsible to turn in. For one assignment, we made a parade float out of a shoebox that demonstrated our vast knowledge of the state of Tennessee. My eighth-grader was unable to help around the house because he was busy working on an assignment for his English class. He was drawing and decorating (including borders) a letter of the alphabet that he had been assigned. The class actually spent a couple of weeks on that unit.

About this time, I noticed that the second-grader was struggling in his reading. The books he brought home had great pictures and a lot of words that could not be sounded out phonetically. In addition, he had some fancy math moves, none of which were familiar to me. My fifth grader was taking an eternity to make it through one multiplication problem, and when I asked him what was holding things up, he answered that it takes that long to add seven, eight times. I figured I could get to the bottom of this by going to parent-teacher-conference and expressing my concerns to the teacher. That way, she could give me her expert advice as to how I could best help my children through their individual struggles. She was, after all, the experienced and credentialed professional. I was merely the mother without any confidence in my own public education.

I eagerly met with the first teacher. She assured me that my child was reading right on grade-level. I was not sure how a second grader not reading at all was on grade level, but I moved on. As to his math genius, she said that she hadn’t taught the class anything. She just put up two problems on the board and the children talked among themselves until they figured out how to do them. My son either learned his system from another child in the class or he came up with it himself. She went so far as to say that some children even learn to “borrow” and “carry” at home. REALLY? In a near state of shock I approached the fifth-grade teacher about my son’s inability to perform simple multiplication tables efficiently. She admitted that there were many children in the class that were having the same struggle.

Over the next several weeks, I came increasingly to the realization that it didn’t matter whether or not I felt qualified to educate my own children. I didn’t have a choice. I was their mother and was the one ultimately responsible for their welfare and their education. The one to blame if they ended up delinquent would be me. At first I was frustrated at the prospect of taking on their entire schooling myself, but I also knew I was going to have to come to grips with the situation and figure it all out.

Since I didn’t have any idea of where to start, I looked up an old friend who had been homeschooled for much of her education. She had turned out alright, as had her siblings, so her mother would know what to do. Maybe she would be willing to steer me in the right direction. I hadn’t seen her in several years, but when I explained my dilemma, she was more than willing to help. She invited me to come over and see some of the things she was doing with her own young family. She pulled one book after another from a shelf and explained how she used them. If I didn’t have to make up everything myself, it might not be so overwhelming. The thing that I found most re-assuring, was the fact that there was actually a place to start.

Though I wasn’t as prepared as I had wished, I decided I didn’t have any time to waste. Ashamedly, I had somewhat prided myself on my ability to pull down good grades in school without much effort on my part. I impressed myself with how many books I didn’t read. Since that wasn’t the love of learning that I hoped to instill in my children, I started working on my own education. I went to the library, checked out a book and read it. I loved it. Then I chose another book to read out loud to my family

My husband made the observation that if all we did was turn the TV off, our family would be better off, and he was right. We discovered that one son wanted to find out about Roman, Greek and Norse mythology. He checked out books from the library and then went back for more. He read 5,000 pages over the course of a few months. One day he asked if I had a notebook he could have so that he could write down everything he had learned about mythology. My husband noted that he would probably not be reading at all if he were in school, because he would be tired of “school” by the time he got home in the afternoon.

We learned to step out on faith and trust the process. The son that previously was unable to read became hooked on a historical fiction series, which then sparked an interest in herbs and their medicinal uses. One daughter decided to check out all the books on Mozart and archeology, an odd combination I’ll admit, but I went along with it. She also wanted to learn to sew, so we found a woman in our neighborhood willing to let her come over and help her with her projects. We learned about things like cake decorating, organic gardening, guppy breeding, and recording engineering, to name just a few. Another son went looking for books on mathematics, not text-books, but books on math tricks and games. He was the one that always had the answers in his head. It became apparent that each child was individually gifted. Each had his unique interests and struggles. Luckily, we were able to address all of these in ways that most benefited each child.

We met other families who were educating their children at home. One mom was an expert at teaching math and science. She did summer science camps and invited my children to participate in exchange for me helping her daughter learn music. My children loved going to her house to play math games with their friends while she looked over their homework and gave new assignments. Other moms planned activities for their kids and would invite other families. There were field trips to the corn maze, the water-treatment plant, the children’s museum, and the zoo.

This isn’t to say that everything has been without challenges. We have never met our ideal of perfection, but we keep trying. Was the decision to home-school my children a huge mistake? Do I still have days when I wonder if I’m crazy? Yes, I do, but then I realize how much I love to learn new things and how each child is thriving in his or her own right. My only regret is that we didn’t start sooner.