A Childhood Inside: Richard’s Story
This is the story I’ve been trying to write for twelve years.
For the nine years before that — when most expected me to attend elementary school and learn to read and write, find my adolescence in middle school and stumble towards adulthood in high school — I stayed at home. The most logical name for this would be homeschool. However, I’m a little disturbed by the ease of that word – as if a situation so complex and incomprehensible could be so effortlessly labeled, a simple hybrid of the home and the school; a natural consequence, like homeoffice or schoolroom. It wasn’t just that the school was brought into the home; it was much more.
The specifics are easy to relate, I’ve had to explain them many times when the subject is brought up. However, the actual feelings are more difficult to write about. It was as if the nervousness the night before my first day at Kindergarten was extended infinitely and awkwardly. My entrance to school was delayed, forever. I had secret expectations of eventually going to a brick and mortar institution, the schools I read about in Judy Blume novels and saw momentarily on television. Looking back, I thought all schools were indoor hallways of lockers shut down on snow days, neither of which actually happen in West Coast schools. When I made a distinction between what I saw and what I was — my life at home and how I thought everyone else lived — I posed philosophical questions about my situation. My dad was always working, so they were directed at my mother/teacher. I questioned reality and my disconnection from it: “Why don’t I go to real school?” I tried to explore the paradox of our history: “Why did you two go to public school and I can’t?” My mother could only defend our unique separation from everything outside, rather than explain it.
Homeschooling is illegal, or exists in perilous legal terrain, in most developed countries. In Germany, families are not allowed to legally withdraw their children from school and train them within the family unit – this law is intended to “to prevent the emergence of parallel societies based on separate philosophical convictions.” Here they were able to carefully capture the essence of the homeschool: not only does it prescribe a separate education, but encourages a removed existence – separate lives running along parallel to the lives of others, distinct and never touching.
My parents both had advanced degrees. My father was a librarian, my mother a teacher. Their own education, rather than making them cosmopolitan, led them to construct a strict hierarchy along the lines of religion, culture, and race. Rather than seeing themselves on the top, they adopted the Protestant ethic: they were low beings scratching their way up to the top under the vengeful eyes of God. Both attended public schools and grew up in fairly secular households. The roots of how I was raised came not from their upbringings, but rather how they made themselves as adults. My mother attended a private Christian college and, after obtaining her teaching credential, only taught at small Christian schools. My father came from a family Catholic by default, but converted to Protestantism as an adolescent. He tells a story where he was bedridden from sickness and studied the Bible until he found his answer: a religion separate from others, distinct in its purity and historicity. His move from one aspect of Christianity to another, if one could call it a conversion, probably created a need to constantly entrench his position, to lay ideals and notions to ground. My parents, of course, met each other in church.
From what I understand, they came to homeschooling on their own; or perhaps there was some inspiration from others. This was before the echo box of the Internet. We were involved in a loose homeschooling network, but then stopped. We opened our doors to other families in our church for a year or two. Pictures show us: three original children in desks in a wing of the house we called our schoolroom. In a way, we were pioneers, doing something radically different, that had only been done many times before in equal isolation. Just like the picture book “The Little House”, we were an old-fashioned red schoolhouse, the world growing and developing around us as we remained undisturbed and alone, frozen in time.
In fact, the past is a big feature of religious fundamentalism, as I see it. It’s a refuge, a inspiration, a sourcebook. We used old textbooks in our school – they were cheaper, after all, and we didn’t have to rip out contradictory scientific notions. My friends, attending other schools also in their homes, watched Shirley Temple movies and listened to Nat King Cole alone in their rooms, as if stuck in a previous time. We prayed before food, consecrating it with our thoughts and guilt. We spoke in our parents’ dialect, adopting every manner of speech and idiom along with their beliefs, hopes, and dreams. We didn’t know any better than what was given us, and no one told us any different until much later.
I received a robust schooling. There was no “un” attached to what I had, no exploration of my inner motivations or allusions to natural learning. My mother knew how to teach. Our learning was structured, undemocratic, and curricular. But, as our numbers grew and waned, the three of us learned how to be independent. Many who had this type of “structured homeschooling” transition fairly well to future schools and colleges — academics isn’t a problem. When it comes to talking to other people and not pissing your pants in public, it’s a separate question.
I lived between a high school and middle school. The exteriors were familiar, while what was inside was a mystery. On some weekends, I would climb over the locked gates and wander onto the empty playgrounds and fields — empty fragments of something I didn’t quite understand.
I would run around the track or sit on the swings.