HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on December 23, 2012.
I figured since I am one of the rare former Quiverfull kids that was both homeschooled and public schooled, I’d talk about my experience. First off, though, I want to say that I find the debate about whether homeschool or public school is inherently better to be the educational equivalent of arguing whether Coke or orange soda is better. It’s utter foolishness when people act like their personal preference is the only one that counts. Overall I believe that human beings are resilient and adaptable creatures, capable of learning in many different environments if given the opportunity and some quality mentoring. If I was choosing how to educate my own kids, I’d want mixed methods, the best of both worlds.
I realize looking back that I have had two different kinds of homeschooling and two different kinds of public schooling, so figured I’d share my experience with each.
The first kind of homeschooling I had was unschooling without the very necessary cultivation and introduction to resources aspect.
Basically it was educational neglect.
This is a pretty common problem in the unschooling world from what I understand. I also got intensive religious messages and was forced to submit to rigid and oppressive gender roles. The bits of educational instruction I got were often pretty abusive too because every now and then, when my Dad got it in his head to formally teach me something, the session would generally end with me getting a spanking, grounded, or having the papers thrown at me in disgust because I was “being stupid,” “obstinate” or “stubborn and difficult.” Unsurprisingly, all that did was leave me with a pretty decent math phobia and worries about my mental capabilities. My parents also often told my sister that she was just stubborn and didn’t want to learn to read.
Thing is, my Mom said she didn’t really teach me how to read. She just read me books out loud when I was small and soon I was reading them back to her. That pattern didn’t happen with my sister or any other siblings because it isn’t typical. Yet my parents expected it to work that same way somehow.
They had little understanding of how kids actually learn, or what motivates them, or that it simply isn’t the same for each kid.
I was a self-directed learner who ate up the few books that had been donated to us by other homeschoolers and the boxes full of classic literature that my Grandad sent me. I didn’t get to go to the library. I just read these books and sometimes when I got too absorbed and forgot to wash dishes or change diapers, my Dad came in, snatched my book from me, hit me with it, and yelled at me. My Mom went from claiming that my book reading was “constructive” to saying that it was “selfish.”
Classic Home Tutoring
After this first kind of homeschooling experience had been thoroughly put to shame by my grandparents and the Sylvan standardized testing they secretly got for me and my sister, I started the second kind of homeschooling. It generally involved sitting at a desk every day at the same time, working through problems, diagramming sentences, having problem sets to solve and a row of sharpened pencils, with regular interspersed “field trips.”
Now I had to answer to my tough, tattooed up old Grandad, a former Navy commander who’d never homeschooled anyone or previously had the desire to.
He had flown me out West to stay with them for a few months and to give an excellently intensive if sometimes harsh go of his brand of tutoring, motivated by his love and concern for me.
My Grandad and I drove each other crazy at times but ultimately bonded for life. He loved being a homeschooling grandfather. He would go on to do the same with my other school age siblings, and later told me that he found his role in his grandchildren’s education to be one of the most satisfying things he’d done in retirement.
He was not motivated by any sort of religious instruction goals, but rather valued and had respect for classical curriculums that connected history to current events, modern life, and a versatile skill set. He also said being cosmopolitan and well-rounded was the primary goal of education.
It wasn’t just about finding a job or about knowing stuff, but making yourself question and think, being a world citizen.
He introduced me to books on Native American history, and Greek and Roman mythology. He brought me outside at night to point out the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades among the stars and tell me the story, and recount what these constellations had meant to sailors of old. He and my Grammy took me to museums and national parks and to go try sushi, fried rattlesnake, and spanikopita. They brought me to see Phantom of the Opera. They got me once a week snow-skiing lessons with teens my age. I was encouraged to find pen pals among them and to practice penmanship, and so I did. I was told to keep a diary and a scrapbook where I wrote down my experiences and saved mementos from events.
I still have those things and they are some of my most valued belongings.
My Grandad continually said, “The world needs lerts, so be alert!”
At the end of our intensive tutoring sessions or a day walking in the redwoods, or a day learning about volcanic activity while swimming at Mammoth Lakes hot creek, my brain would feel tired in a satisfied sort of way. I knew without a doubt that I was learning and it made me much happier about life. I loved it.
When I went back home to my parents, my Grandad gave me a self-study schedule written out on a yellow legal pad so I could hopefully somewhat replicate this rapid rate of absorption. I wish I could say I kept up with the books like he’d had me doing at his house, but I didn’t. No one was pushing me at home, so I only studied what I liked, and what I liked were novels that I could become totally absorbed in and ignore the stressful reality of a family situation I now loathed even more.
Cliquey Public School
Because my parents still weren’t teaching us and my Mom had pretty much given up, the next year we all got sent to public school.
I was both excited and scared. The local high school was known as the “bad school in the good district.” Over a third of the kids (including me) got free lunch because their parents were poor, and it was about half white, half “people of color” — mostly black and creole, a few Hispanic and Vietnamese. My school did really well in sports, less so in academics.
At registration nobody checked to see if I was up to grade level or oriented me to what public school would be like, instead simply assigning me to 9th grade based on my age.
The first week of classes were absolutely overwhelming.
I got laughed at on the bus for handing the driver the paperwork and saying, “My Mom said to give you this.” After being isolated so much, now I was constantly surrounded by people my own age, hundreds of conversations going on in the lunchroom at once, but nobody wanted to sit by me. They already had friends. I was an unwelcome stranger. Someone even threw my backpack on the floor and told me to go sit somewhere else. Finally I got invited to sit at a lunch table by a guy who had a lisp and I gratefully shared eating space with him, a “super-senior,” a pregnant girl, and a tall skinny gamer who wore his backpack on one shoulder and ran to lunch when the bell rang in order to be first in line. They were nice to me, the first friends I made, and I will be forever grateful. They reassured me and gave me hints after I got lost going to my home room class, received a detention for lateness, and got glared at often because I apparently unknowingly stared at people. I’m sure I did stare.
These teenagers were fascinating and I’d never seen anything like it.
Then there was the weirdness of learning how to do homework and study for tests and figure out when and how you are or aren’t supposed to ask questions in class while surrounded by people who’d done these things their whole lives. Everybody assumed I should just know this stuff and was from another planet when I didn’t.
By the end of the first week I was pretty much singled out as a weird kid, by both teachers and students.
One teacher thought I might have a learning disability and scheduled a parent-teacher conference. Classmates made fun of my Walmart shoes. Some boy asked me for a blow job and got people laughing when it was obvious I had no idea what that was. A group of girls walked by and one put gum in my hair. A boy hit me in gym class, I hit back, and we both got suspended for fighting under the “zero tolerance” rules. That’s how for a short time I became one of the “bad kids.”
I had to attend three nights of “PM school” with other suspended kids from around the district, some who’d thrown chairs at teachers, had sex in the bathrooms, set things on fire, or brought vodka to school hidden in Sprite bottles. We all sat around in a circle and talked about what we did wrong and what we should do better next time. Most of them were pretty disrespectful and said school was stupid and they couldn’t wait to drop out when they turned 16.
I really hit the culture shock head on right there.
Why didn’t they want an education? I’d had to fight so hard to get mine and I had no intention of letting anything take it away from me.
Around that time I discovered that high school was two-tiered. There were the regular and remedial classes and then the honors classes and advanced placement classes. The kinds of people who took either of the latter were treated better. Honors and AP classes also had people who were more invested and were given more in-depth information, but nobody else in that classroom seemed to feel as enthusiastic about learning as me. I was absorbing everything all at one time — the coursework was only part of it. How to walk, how to talk to people, what were appropriate topics of conversation, what to wear, what not to say seemed even more crucial.
Often it seemed there were more important things I was missing in my education than book learning, and I just made social mistake after social mistake. I was made fun of ruthlessly about them, remembering even one of the coaches laughing when some boys threw balls of paper at me in civics class.
I told my parents about the bullying once.
When my Dad’s response was, “Well, it’s ok with me if you drop out.” I never said another word about it.
I didn’t want them to have any excuse to pull me out. I just soldiered through. I made up my mind I would not be one of the dropout crowd. Here’s the thing about bullying though — it often just happens to new kids. Once your quirks and social status have been thoroughly made fun of, then you start to become accepted. The hazing (however wrong it is) is over. Girls start to give you tips about how to dress and talk and ask if you want a cigarette (no thanks), and guys start to flirt and ask to copy your homework (um, no. Well…maybe an exception for that cute one).
The learning curve that first year and a half was quite steep and I was stuck between different educational worlds where I had to know very different things to get by. I failed my first algebra class (what on earth were those letters doing in the math problems?!) and so sophomore year I took remedial math and honors English and history. I got invited to work on the school newspaper and the literary publication due to my work in honors English, and I got suspended again for getting in another fight (in the middle of class, no less) in remedial Algebra. This time I knew what these school fights required, so when the girl called me out and threw a punch, I grabbed her by the hair and hit her in the head a bunch of times until some guys pulled us apart. Now I figured people would get the message and nobody was going to threaten or try to fight me again.
I was also going to make her pay for ruining my perfect attendance record.
After serving my suspension, I apologized profusely to my poor math teacher (she was this nice Pentecostal lady who patiently tutored me during free time in math class and at lunch), and about six months later I made peace with the girl I’d fought.
I’d listened to the principal talk to her Mom and realized her home life was harder than mine.
Still, what would have once seemed counterintuitive to me — fight harshly to avoid more fights — had worked. Nobody tried fighting me again and the bullying subsided.
College-Bound Academic Track
By the time junior year came around I pretty much had the high school thing down. I was now one of the “smart kids” due to being in honors and AP classes. I rarely got detentions and never got suspended again. I found myself being nice to new people and often befriending exchange students, giving them the same tips I’d needed myself. I made a number of good friends, had lots of acquaintances, got good grades, passed notes in class, had a couple short-term boyfriends, and went to a number of high school dances.
I was passing for normal, working at the local grocery store, and feeling like my life was headed in the right direction.
Except for how awful it often was at home.
Quiverfull Values vs. Public School Values
My parents were still ideologically attached to the Quiverfull stuff even though their marriage was disintegrating and it was plain to see that actively living it was no longer doable. I had thoroughly rebelled against all of it and my younger siblings were now oriented in a similar direction. According to my Mom I was a bad example — disrespectful, a negative influence, and I had a poor attitude.
When I was given a Good Attitude Award at school for all my Key Club volunteer work, I waved it at her as vindication.
It was ignored though. Her criteria were different. I faced one perspective at school and another at home. At home I had to help care for a bunch of younger siblings in addition to homework, and was still hit by my Dad as “punishment,” (even though I fought back) right up until I moved out at age 17. After that I tried to throw all of it in the past, start college, and successfully “pass as normal.”
So do I think homeschooling can be great?
Do I think public school can be great?
Can they each be mediocre and uninspiring? Yes.
Can they both be awful and hurtful and soul sucking and practically the worst thing ever? Yes.
Can you work to overcome the bad stuff? Yes.
It’s all about implementation and setting goals and neither can be successfully done in a vacuum, ignoring what else is going on around you.
When people just look at the labels and decide whether it’s good or bad based on only that, they are being incredibly shortsighted. Education has so much more to do with mentorship, respect, and access to a challenging and inspiring curriculum.
I loved the type of homeschooling my Grandad did, and I loved my AP high school classes and the friends I made (some of whom I am still close to).
But most of all I loved going to college. It was like the best of the homeschooling and public school worlds combined. I could choose my classes, topics, and schedule, yet I had people guiding and supervising my work, helping me improve it.
I value my education and expect to always be committed to lifelong learning, no matter the setting.