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Looking Back After A Year of College (Part 1)
at the Beginning of My Homeschooling Years

by Shannon Lee Clair, Princeton University Class of ‘09

Shannon homeschooled from second grade through high school in Los Angeles, CA. This is the first of a series of articles reflecting on her experiences homeschooling and making the transition to college. See part 2 of the article here.

Shannon in Santa Monica Mountains
Shannon Lee Clair enjoying the sun on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains during her homeschooling days.

I’m sitting in the middle of the Green Mountains of Vermont, feeling a bit grimy after a day of backpacking. Around me, relaxing among the scattered packs and fallen logs are my equally grimy fellow hikers. Eight of us, including myself, are members of Princeton’s freshman class, enjoying the pre-orientation Outdoor Action trip; the two others are our Upperclassmen leaders.

We’re playing Mafia – a game of questions, careful observations of people and manipulating accusations – a lot of fun. I’ve been playing it for years with my homeschool buddies, and it’s comfortably familiar playing it here in the woods, with a bunch of new acquaintances who hail from places as distant as Ohio and Romania.

Throughout my homeschool years (ten of them), my homeschool buddies and I felt special, we felt we had some advantage over those poor school kids, locked up in classrooms all day. However, here among my new college friends, who have all gone to school (one even to boarding school) for most of their lives, I feel very little difference. We are all highly motivated. We all have strong ideas of what we want to do with our lives. We converse like curious, knowledgeable, mature individuals. These school kids certainly don’t fall into the category of lost, immature, material-minded schoolers that my friends and I used to generalize about.

So, I wonder, might I just as well have gone to school? If only comparing the end results, homeschooling gave me no obvious advantage over these other Princeton students who spent their lives in school. Now, granted, these are some of the top students in the country and the world, but still they serve as an example that school can produce creative, motivated, individuals. I might very well have developed just as much self-confidence and imagination had I gone to school. However, perhaps the process is equally as valuable as the result. Would I ever exchange the experiences I had through the process of homeschooling for those of a school kid? Come to think of it, no. The experience I had homeschooling was incredibly unique, and I would not trade it for anything.

The most important element of homeschooling for me was freedom. We were a fairly unstructured homeschool household (my only brother, John, has also been homeschooled since second grade). Our most consistent academic task was doing Saxon math. My mom figured it was good to work that problem solving part of our brains on a frequent basis. She also dreaded the prospect of teaching algebra; Saxon is very gradual and good for self-instruction. My parents also consistently read aloud to my brother and me. My mom chose true-life and historical material like Dove and Up from Slavery, while my dad read the adventure stories – Treasure Island and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which he further enlivened through the voices he created for the characters.

Shannon in Homeschool Play
In costume for one of Shannon’s many living room performances (from left to right): me, Marina and Isabel Marlins, and Raphael Berrios.
Henry Purcell

Outside of the daily math lessons and reading, our own curiosity was the strongest guide. My brother and I spent almost an entire year learning about the Civil War. Our whole family enjoyed and was awed by Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series on the Civil War. My dad, a Civil War buff, had quite a collection of books from which to choose. We’d been inspired both by his interest and by watching our uncles in reenactments at Gettysburg. I remember sitting around in the brutal, humid heat of July wishing I had a hoop skirt and petticoats to wear as I watched the reenactors get shot down and then creep back into the firing line to make up for the shortage of soldiers.

Before the Civil War craze, I had been fairly obsessed with ancient history, particularly the Egyptians. My mom came home from the library with armloads of books on pyramids and hieroglyphics. Together we sewed a Nefertiti costume for Halloween when I was eight. I even got my brother to join me in making Egyptian mummies and tombs out of clay, complete with our own hieroglyphics on the walls and numerous secret passages, of course.

Probably the longest, ongoing game my brother and I ever played was with our stuffed animals. We had all their birthdays listed in a little record book. Every year, we held elections for a new stuffed animal president, whose job it was to spur the construction of occasional “stuffty” towns and theme parks. “I think there should be theatre,” announced Elizabeth the cat, by way of John, as she addressed the stuffty voters from the top of a cardboard box. “I think all our kids would really benefit from good productions of Shakespeare.” During her term, the stuffties performed Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with sock costumes. Thanks to my brother and his favorite stuffed dog, Chip (Elizabeth’s husband), they also organized a little league and played baseball regularly with pencil bats and marbles. A friend of mine, Meghan, played a similarly elaborate game with her plastic dinosaurs in the backyard. She even wove them blankets and rugs.

Speaking of friends, we were lucky to have a very diverse and active homeschooling group – L.A. Homeschoolers. I realize now that, even amongst homeschooling groups, ours was quite unique in its lack of influence from popular culture. We didn’t have to worry about conforming to images or attitudes; we were just ourselves. Through the early years, we were very organized – taking frequent field trips and holding weekly park days, where we played imagination games – space explorers, elves and men, dragon riders. “Wa-ter, wa-ter,” Camille and I chanted after drinking from the strangely addictive water fountain on the third planet from the star Arenlin during space explorers. “Give us wa-ter.” “No,” replied John, the captain. “It must be rationed so everyone can have some.”

Shannon with Civil War Re-enactor
Shannon with her uncle, Larry Quirk, in his Civil War reenactment attire.

Our dragon riders game actually developed into a writing group. We met at a friend’s house; “rider” doubled as “writer.” With Meghan’s mom as the wonderfully enthusiastic adult moderator, we started trying to write a story together, which got surprisingly far before we couldn’t agree on the same ending. Eventually, as more kids joined, it became a place for us all to share our latest pieces of creative writing whether poetry, short stories or pieces of novels. One of our favorite activities was the “write-around,” where everyone starts his own story, writes a sentence and a half, folds the paper so only the half can be seen and passes it on to the next person. That person finishes the sentence and writes another half sentence, folds the paper and passes it along again. The finished product makes for lots of laughs as penguins became chickens that went on escapades through valleys of mushrooms in search of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren (always present when my friend Meghan played).

On weekends, my dad sometimes took us camping with friends. We spent hours hiking, telling goofy/scary stories, exploring the underbrush or boulder-hopping down rivers and building stick forts. Once, when we were camping up in the Angeles National Forest, some friends decided to introduce us to durian fruit, an Asian delicacy. It tastes like a mixture of petrol and sugar in fairly gooey form, not the most appealing, in my opinion. But, apparently, the smell, which we found sickening, is quite attractive to bears, because, in the middle of the night, just as my friend, Sofi, and I were preparing to make a much-needed bathroom trip, a curious black bear came sniffing its way through our camp. As we watched through the netted tent window, silently begging it to go away, it slowly followed the smell up to the dumpster (right by the bathrooms), where it managed to open the bear-proof cover and roll around gloriously in the trash for the next few hours. Our bathroom trip was painfully delayed till morning.

My childhood exploration of and education about nature had a huge impact on me. My parents had taken my brother and me hiking and camping since we were wee tots. When we were three and one, John, and I, soaked by the constant rainy drizzle, amused ourselves immensely by balancing back and forth across a large log in our first campsite in the Catskills.

Our parents emphasized respect for the environment in everything we did. Before recycling became city-wide in Los Angeles, my mom tracked down private places to recycle our plastic bottles and cans. She brought her own canvas bags to the shopping market and bought organic whenever she could. A few years ago, my dad began a student recycling program at the middle school where he teaches. My first real career dreams (after my “I-want-to-be-a-ballerina” phase) were to become a park ranger and naturalist.

However, life wasn’t all stuffed animal games and camping. My parents gave up a substantial portion of income when my mom chose to stay home to homeschool us. Consequently, we lived pretty frugally, but that always made things a little more exciting. Heading home from Colorado on one of our many road trips, we were running short on money. When no campsites were available en route to the Grand Canyon, we decided to pull over at a truck stop rather than splurge on a motel. John slept cushioned by sleeping bags on the backseat floor, dad just leaned his driver’s seat back, mom stretched out across the backseat, and I curled up in the passenger seat, surrounded by many extra bags, full of all the games my mom thought we would play in the car and the library of books she finds it hard to do without. I can’t say it was a very restful night; my mom was constantly popping her frazzled head up at the sound of trucks pulling in. “Oh, Matt,” she’d screech. “Does he see us?! Is he going to run us over?!” “It’s fine,” dad would grumble, without opening his eyes. The next morning, however, we enjoyed a wonderful buffet breakfast at the truck stop kitchen before heading off for a day of hiking. And the experience proved to us that sleeping in the car was certainly an option on road trips.

Resourcefulness was a way of life, for which I am endlessly grateful. Partly a result of pecuniary limitations and partly to spur on our imaginations, my mom met most of mine and my brother’s requests for material things with a quick “Oh you can make that.” My brother credits this attitude with the creation of the numerous board games he has developed, and the two card games he developed with the help of friends. I benefited from it largely through the time I spent with my mom, bent over our frustratingly flighty sewing machine, putting together theatre and Halloween costumes by hand. Learning was just part of life and life was a joy.

While many of my fellow Princeton students’ school years were spent preparing for the top college experience, studying for APs and fighting for top grades, I was indulging my curiosity and luxuriating in the breadth of the learning experience. I am glad my family did things the way we did. I wouldn’t change the classic read-aloud nights, the living room play performances, the endless beach days for anything. I wouldn’t even change the hours of moaning through errand-running with my mom.

Through my discussions with school kids, I’ve learned that school can be a positive place. Some kids really thrive in an academic environment. In fact, I loved pleasing the teacher and doing assignments during my years in kindergarten and first grade, but I never regretted leaving. Many individuals rise above the generalizations we homeschoolers make about school. However, they have to put up with an awful lot more peer pressure, time-wasting busy work, bullying and boredom than I’ve ever come in contact with. Why choose the school route, cooped up in a classroom with all that pressure to conform, when another could be so much more fun?

Shannon "stuffty" production
Shannon and her brother, John, in front of the stage they set up for their “stuffty” production of Romeo and Juliet.
Henry Purcell

Now, I can’t make giant generalizations about homeschoolers either. Some of them have ended up going back to high school, because they long for that kind of environment. In fact, one the benefits of homeschooling is that it’s flexible, bending to the needs of each family and child. All I can say is that my experience of homeschooling is something that I would never change.

There’s a reason that, unlike many of my school friends, my brother and I didn’t ever want to grow up. It’s because we were enjoying amazingly fun and free childhoods. My mom likes to say that mine and my brother’s whole lives have been like the summer vacations she so cherished as a kid. There’s something more important to homeschooling than the result (a well-educated, confident child), and that is the joy of the experience. I don’t think the immense joy of learning offered by my homeschooling experience (a mishmash of structure and unschooling, of classics and outdoors) is something that can be well matched within the confines of school. At Princeton I am among my peers, in a challenging, but comfortable environment. I fit in quite well with everyone else and I am fortunate enough to have some pretty extraordinary childhood memories.

In the next article: more about developing my childhood interests, the teenage years and the decision to try college…■