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URBAN MAN: Why Are You Doing This? I Mean, What’s the Real Reason?
by Marc Porter Zasada
 
The Personal, Not the Political or Pedagogical, Drives Most Homeschoolers

When people ask my wife and I why we homeschool, I tend to answer with bold and high-flying words: “I want to ensure that my children encounter great books without their accompanying worksheets, live within the world instead of within an institution, have time to play with sticks in a forest, sit dreamily by fires, and talk to me late at night.”

But these words are only partly honest. In truth, I actually have hidden and highly personal motives. For example, I was one of those people who always disliked school, and a more truthful reply might be: “I homeschool because when I was 10 years old, I hated the smell of many children crowded into a small room. I withered under the mean, close-set eyes of the boys who sat in the last row. I despised the red-faced vice principal who bustled into my fourth-grade class, shirt-tail flying, to drag unhappy nine-year-olds to unknown fates. I loathed the scream of the whistle, the clamor of the bell, and the blank look of ignorance on the face of my 11th grade English teacher (Miss Angela Parker, may she rest in peace.)”

Although I was a successful student – won the awards, edited the school newspaper, ran for class office – schoolyard images still haunt my nightmares.

Homeschooling, although I would never admit it in public, is partly revenge.

When pressed, my beautiful wife will cheerfully confess her own hidden motive: “I am a total control freak. I can’t imagine letting anyone else decide what my children will read or do all day long…If my kids were in school, I’d be down there three times a week, looking over the teacher’s shoulder, nagging. It’s better for everyone that I homeschool.”

Lately, in my role as journalist, I have been seeking out the secret motivations of others, and I have been slyly asking homeschooling moms the question, “Why are you really doing this? I mean, really?”

I find that many do not have a clear answer, and indeed sometimes the question itself torments them.

“Every day I wake up and wonder if I’m doing this because of some unfulfilled need,” says Shelly (like all the other names in this column, not her real name). “Or maybe I’m just trying to avoid genuine honest labor. Or maybe I’m overprotective. Truth is, although my experience with schools has been pretty bad, I still have this reverent image of a perfect private school – reading the classics, having a tutor that would pick my kid’s brains. It is this image that I try to emulate at home, but never really do. It haunts me.”

Our friend Danielle neatly deflects the question: “I do think a lot of people – not me, of course – have hidden motivations which they don’t admit even to themselves. They set out to mend their broken pasts. They tend to be really educated, liberal types who were successful in school but all along actually hated academia – they thought it was all B.S. So they unschool their kids, give them no discipline, keep them away from intellectual stuff, and let them do whatever they want…”

I know she doesn’t mean me, because, well…

I see that a recent study out of Canada classifies homeschoolers into three convenient types: “Pedagogues,” “Ideologues” and “Mainstreamers.” The paper, by one Bruce Arai of Wilfrid Laurier University, skates the surface of our motivations.

For “Pedagogues,” these motivations include “1) Public School education is not demanding enough to provide a challenge for their children, and 2) Negative socialization at school, including teasing, pranks and exclusionary behavior.”

Okay, I can relate to that. This would cover everyone from our family to the Pattersons, whose little girl has such a demanding homeschool schedule (Math at 9:30, geography at 11:00, group writing class at 12:30 over bag lunch) that she has no time to play with my little girl (Stumble out of bed at 9:30, feed the guinea pigs at 10:00, draw a picture of a fairy at 11:00, read a couple chapters of Ann of Green Gables at 11:45, sneak a peanut butter sandwhich at 12:45.)

“Ideologues” are different. For Ideologues, the primary reasons to homeschool are: “1) Failure of public schools to provide religious education, and 2) a general unhappiness with mainstream society.” You can often spot ideologues by the home-cut hairstyles of their kids. Take the Rose family, whose eight children are gentle, protected, and devout. “The Bible says that a Father shall teach his son about the Lord,” says Davida Rose, “which means much more than sending them to Bible class. If you want to walk with the Lord, you have to walk with Him every day in all that you do. That’s not something you can learn in a classroom.”

Ideologues often sacrifice much, including income, for their ideals -- but they keep the rest of us honest.

A newer, and faster-growing group of homeschoolers are “Mainstreamers,” who unfortunately do not see the school as the enemy, and openly cooperate with the system through school district-operated Independent Study Programs (ISPs) and the like. Mainstreamers, sad to say for us Ideologues and Pedagogues, are beginning to blur the lines between school and homeschool.

“I know exactly why I’m doing this,” says Julie, who despite being a Mainstreamer, seems destined to become a close friend. Julie works with a “master teacher” at the district, and cashes in on some district-provided resources, while still keeping her daughter at home. Her secret motives? “Yes, my daughter always hated school…but everyone hates school, and for many years I didn’t think her unhappiness was so important,” answers Julie to my persistent probes. “But after 9/11 I came to feel that I didn’t really know how much longer this planet was going to exist. And suddenly, I wanted my daughter to have a good life now, right now. I wanted her to have days of happiness now, not days of ‘have to do this’ and ‘have to do that.’ I don’t want her to have to wait for her future. Does that make sense?”

I assure her it does. Indeed, although it would be difficult to fit into Mr. Arai’s study, I think it’s one of the best reasons to homeschool I’ve ever heard.

“I pulled out my son because he simply could not get along with other children in school and his whole life was becoming a story of conflict and discipline,” says another harried acquaintance who does not bother much with homeschooling theory.

“I pull my daughter in and out. Sometimes school is just too much for any of us to handle,” says another mom who lacks a cogent argument for me to analyze.

“I got in a fight with the principal. Well, a lot of fights,” says a third mother who would be equally difficult for Mr. Arai to categorize…there is, I would say, a whole group of homeschoolers who simply dislike school officials.

Indeed, the more I spoke with my homeschooling buddies, the more I found their answers to be highly idiosyncratic and highly personal – not “ideological” or “pedagogical” at all. And I suspect many homeschoolers just put up the ideologicial/pedagogical front for the outside world – so that they have an argument on which to hang their chosen lifestyle.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s just fine. In a world dominated by mass institutions, mass movements and mass media, the Urban Man celebrates the personal and the idiosyncratic wherever it is found – and thank G-d, it is pretty often found among homeschoolers.

As a final example, take a moment to listen to Deborah, a mainstay of our local community, and one of my homeschool heroines. Here is her cogent reply to my question of “why do you homeschool, I mean really?” See if you can summarize her deeper motivations:

“How did I get started homeschooling?” begins Deborah. “Well, I had met one enthusiastic homeschooler and I had read John Holt, and I had toyed with the idea of homeschooling for a long time, but I did not act until I saw what was happening to my children in their early years at school.”

“Before she entered kindergarten, my daughter was spontaneously creative and musical and…I don’t know…beautifully reflective. And before he entered school, my son was outgoing, playful, athletic and talkative. They were very different, but strong in their own ways. And because they were so close in age, they were close playmates as well.

“When they entered school, each of my children began to change, and change rapidly. In kindergarten my gregarious son suddenly became shy and withdrawn – indeed, the teacher hardly noticed he was there. I could see that he found the classroom, the crowds, the bells, and the whole thing overwhelming. My daughter, on the other hand, loved school, and became instantly popular. She immediately made tons of friends, gathered in giggling circles of other girls, and chatted endlessly about her teachers and playmates. But just as immediately, I could see her beginning to lose her artistic, reflective side.

“In each their opposite way, I was losing the children I thought I had, and the family I wanted to build.

“The crisis came one afternoon,” finishes Deborah, “when my daughter was playing with a school friend, and the other girl said something nasty about ‘little brothers’ – something mean and demeaning. I saw my daughter laugh and look over at her little brother in a different way. After that, her attitude toward him changed. She stopped playing with her brother, and began speaking to him more coldly. She didn’t mistreat him, but they lost that lovely closeness. There were other factors, of course, but my determination hardened, and by the next year we were homeschooling.”

Give up? These are not bold and high-flying words. Her motives are not ideological or pedagogical – they are, in fact, gloriously personal.

Deborah’s children, by the by, are now charming, clear-eyed teenagers with ready smiles and quick wits: Reflective, artistic, and outgoing. Red-faced vice principals, schoolyard whistles and clamorous bells are something they barely remember, and such images do not haunt their dreams.

I envy them.

_________________

Writer and marketing consultant Marc Porter Zasada and his wife Martine have been homeschooling their four children for the last nine years. Marc’s collected columns can be found at www.TheUrbanMan.com

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