The Styrofoam Cup: Sam Neely’s Story

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Series disclaimer: HA’s “Let’s Talk About Sex (Ed)” series contains frank, honest, and uncensored conversations about sexuality and sex education. It is intended for mature audiences.

Author note: Sam Neely blogs at Yes We Sam!

*****

It was just a Styrofoam cup. But the man said to examine it, so I did.

I was fifteen years old, and was sitting in a classroom at the church building where my homeschool umbrella met. I passed the cup to the next guy in the line. I don’t remember who it was, but we had been segregated, boys and girls, so I know it was a guy.

I don’t remember who this teacher was either. He was an older gentleman, bearded, husky. He wasn’t the parent of one of my friends, like most of my teachers were… he was a guest.

The Styrofoam cup had made its way down the line, and the instructor held it up to us again.

“It looks normal, right?” he asked. We agreed, yes it did. Then he poured water from a pitcher into the cup. The water leaked out the bottoms and sides of the cup.

“Just because something appears sturdy,” he said, “doesn’t mean that it is.”

The message was clear: condoms have holes in them. Never mind that the difference in material between Styrofoam and latex makes the analogy useless. Never mind that the only reason the cup he used in his example only had holes because he put them there and intentionally made them undetectable. No, the point of the illustration was that protection doesn’t exist.

Another illustration used by this lecturer involved a gun. He brought a printout of a handgun as an illustration of “A good thing that can sometimes be used for bad”. Like sex, he said.

But why did his illustration have to be a gun? This was less than a month after the shootings at Columbine High School. (I remember this, because he said that was why he only brought a picture of a gun, instead of the real thing).

After his presentation, we traded places with the girls, and they presumably sat through the same collection of demonstrations. We had another lecturer, I believe she was a former nurse, show us a slide show of graphic STD photographs.

The message was clear: Don’t have sex.

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So why does this bother me? I got this message all the time — at home, at church, even in a series of public service announcements on television. Why did it bother me here?

Because this was science class.

The biology class at my homeschool co-op divided the A Beka textbook into the systems of the human body, focusing on one at a time, but the course did not cover the chapter on the reproductive system. Instead, we had an optional (parental permission required) course called “Crossroads” where we were supposed to learn about sex. I signed up for it, assuming it would be the science that was left out of the curriculum.

But it wasn’t…

It was just the “don’t do it” lectures, with scare tactics and manipulation.

*****

I’ve spent the last five days trying to expand this story into a deeper post. I’ve tried to tell stories of my sexual history, and how it was painted by certain experiences, how many of them come from purity culture, and how many simply come from my own bad luck, but the thoughts are too jumbled, and everything is too complicated. Instead, I’m left only with this anecdote.

It says nothing, and it says everything.

It is one of the funniest stories I tell.

It is also one of the saddest.

Reaching the Other Side: Deanna Stollar’s Thoughts

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Deanna Stollar lives in Springfield, Oregon and is a former homeschooling mother of four children (including HA’s R.L. Stollar) and grandmother of two grandchildren. In the 1990’s she co-founded the San Jose, California homeschool support group SELAH (Students Educated Lovingly At Home) as well as San Jose homeschool debate club, CLASH. Deanna has written two debate textbooks for homeschool debate families, It Takes a Parent and Coaching Policy Debate. Along with her husband Terry, Deanna has spoken at numerous homeschool conventions, on topics ranging from “Creating Good Writers” to “Raising False Expectations.” In her spare time she loves to write; her work has been featured in a number of publications, most recently in A Cup of Comfort for Horse Lovers and A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.

*****

Today at the library I watched as a mother told her kids that they needed to leave.

“Time to go home,” the Mom said. “That computer is gross. Someone else’s eyelash is on it – ugh. We don’t want to use a computer that has something like that on it.”

Her son looked dismayed, “But mom, I was in the middle of my report.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, a military determination in her eyes.

His brown hair, shoulder length in a blunt cut, he looked about twelve years old. His younger sister stood next to him. She didn’t argue with her mother, seemingly resigned to the fact they must leave — not willing to question her.

*****

We all know how ridiculous we homeschooling parents can be at times, but I shudder when realizing how dark and cruel some homes can be where instead safety and love should exist.  It sometimes overwhelms me to think of the kind of education taking place in such homes, and often I don’t want to even read about them.

As a now retired homeschooling mom of twenty-six years, I certainly made my fair share of mistakes both as a parent and educator.

Seeing this mom, however, struck a chord in me I have not felt in a while. It sat with me for days. I kept seeing the young boy’s disappointed face and his sister’s disengaged one. From their body language, it was clear this scene of irrationality was an often occurrence for them — a mother who changed her mind on a whim, over the perceived health danger in something as simple as an eyelash imbedded in computer keys; why not use that eyelash as a springboard for an imaginary story? Did a fairy leave it there or a unicorn? Why run away in fear from it?

This scene in the library, their words, their faces, haunted me for nearly a week until it rose to the surface what was really bothering me about it: what was this woman teaching her kids everyday?

She was teaching them to be afraid: afraid of a stranger, of someone who had dirty eyelashes, of equipment shared by others. How was she equipping and preparing them for the future? She was teaching them to fear something that was not real.

She was teaching them to be afraid of the library, of others, of society, and perhaps even of learning itself.

This made me very sad. What made me even sadder was that the librarian, who also witnessed this scenario, along with me, did nothing to remedy the situation either. Maybe she concluded, as I had, why bother.  What could we have realistically accomplished by stepping into this mom’s life in that one moment? Maybe nothing, but maybe our interjections could have helped her children. They perhaps for the first time would have heard something different — a taste of freedom — and longed for it more. Our words might have stayed with them over time and been beneficial.

I will never know now what difference we might have made.

About twenty years ago, I watched on a street corner as another mother screamed at her young blue-eyed, curly blond girl of three. The mother’s tone was both abusive and her reasoning completely unrealistic. Her three-year old was expressing valid fears at crossing the street and the mother refused to console her. She only berated her child. I watched for a moment then went up to the mother. I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. At first her voice was curt, annoyed with my interference, but eventually both she and her daughter calmed down and crossed the street together. As they held hands, the three-year-old girl added a skip in her gait. As they reached the other side, the little girl turned around and waved at me.

Reflecting back on that moment I wish now that I had tried to help the mother in the library. I wished I had tried to help get them to the other side, instead of being stuck in ignorance and fear, but I was too afraid to try that day — bound up in fear myself — the fear that I could not help her.

This is part of why I am glad that Homeschoolers Anonymous exists and that passionate people work hard on a regular basis to help others reach the other side of difficult and often horrifying situations.

They are making a difference, and that is a good thing indeed.

Happy 2014 HA! May it be a blessed year for you.

More Than Just a Love Story: Phoebe’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Phoebe” is a pseudonym.

It was awkwardly quiet in the car as my words settled. They echoed in my own brain, I could only imagine what Michael was thinking.

“I have the highest respect for you, but I don’t think we can keep dating. I feel like I need to find someone who is more like-minded.”

The problem was, Michael was not a homeschooler and did not come from an evangelical background like I did, just the opposite in fact. His family was laid back about spirituality and never addressed it with structured religious custom. Pressure from my homeschooling family and friends and internal guilt had brought me to this point. I was sitting in the car with him having this awkward conversation because I felt there was no other option. I had grown up in a cloistered, homogenous community and I needed to find someone who would help me create the same kind of community for my own future children. This had been made clear to me when my family found out what kind of man I was dating.

When he graciously hugged me despite his confusion and left the car without looking back, I felt the old loneliness unpacking its bags and moving back into my heart.

For me, the story of being homeschooled was a story of being told to sit down and shut up. “An ideal woman is quiet and submissive,” I was told time and time again. As a weird, geeky, slightly tomboyish girl, I certainly didn’t fit that description at all. I ran around in the woods for hours at a time, I loved competitive debate, Cheese-Its and oversized cargo pants. My stubborn, goofy personality did not fit well in the sheltered, pressure-cooker that is the homeschooling culture.

My family followed the Quiverfull doctrine, which meant I was told that I was an arrow in my parent’s quiver, to be shot out into the world for God’s glory. As time went on, I began to realize that girl arrows get a much narrower, more specific target than boy arrows. They are to become wives and mothers or celibate missionaries. End of story.

At the local homeschooling meetups, it was hard for me to find a place in the circles of thin, whispy girls who were being groomed to be homeschooling mothers and wives. The pressure to be quiet, mousy and seemingly perfect was very high. I tried. I wore dresses and grew my hair out long. I read and quoted books about meekness and godly womanhood, and did my best to avoid hugging boys.

Ultimately, I wasn’t happy. I would hear the adults debate about how women were to be silent in the church. I would hear my dad yelling at my mother, telling her she was not a submissive wife. I would hear girls and mothers gossip about each other and use nasty words for whoever wasn’t ladylike enough. I saw the thousand mile stare and deadpan look on my mom’s face when she opted yet again to check-out, bottle up everything she was thinking and let her bitterness grow. I watched as other homeschooling mothers picked our family apart, criticizing us and pushing my mom around, spreading lies and rumors about each of us that my mother refused to refute. After years spent in this oppressively judgmental and chauvinistic environment, I listened to what I was told. I shut up just to avoid attention and judgment. I hoped to go unnoticed so no one would point out how inadequate I was. The silence and submission I was pushed into was ultimately a place of loneliness, bitterness and almost crippling insecurity. I wanted to get out, but I didn’t know how.

I went to the local college despite my parent’s discouragement. College (especially for women) is clearly contrary to the beliefs of many very zealous home-educators. In class, I met women who spoke up when they had something to say (sometimes even when they didn’t) without anyone thinking anything of it. Women who taught and led classes with passion and a certain touch of oddness that was all their own. They didn’t fit the submissive woman cookie-cutter shape I had grown up with. They were themselves. They were more feminine with their pant suits, unkempt hair and unabashed geek-out sessions than anyone else I had met. I wholeheartedly believe this is true because didn’t feel judged by them and I didn’t feel like less of a woman myself when I was around them. In my mind, that is a huge part of being truly feminine, letting other women feel comfortable being themselves around you. I cut my hair short, I got clothes that fit and I raised my hand in class.

Then I met Michael and we started dating. Michael is goofy, he is curious, he asks questions. He drew me out of my shell, took my hand and encouraged me to stand up and say something. We got into debates and he never once told me to shut up or submit. He was one of the first men I met who didn’t feel like women were solely meant to be homemakers; he helped me build a new confidence in the possibilities that were ahead of me.

Things got rough for Michael and I when my family and friends in the homeschooled circles realized what was going on. I was encouraged to dump him. I was told the path I was going down was dangerous. I was told our future children would go to hell, for sure. Michael was aggressively witnessed to by my family and friends almost constantly. He and I began to argue about religion and conservative beliefs almost every time we went out. I desperately wanted him to sit down with me, to shut up with me, so we could just quietly carry on and go unnoticed and free from judgment. Maybe if he would just nod his head in public and let the judgment pass us by.

He wouldn’t have any of that, so I tearfully dumped him. I decided in that moment that I would rather be comfortable, miserable and silent than be with the man I loved.

It took time, but we stayed in touch and slowly our friendship grew again. It became obvious that he was the man I wanted to be with and that the homogenous, fear-based homeschooling environment I had lived in for so long was holding me back from the life I now knew I really wanted. I wanted to be part of a family that could be open and honest and be married to a man who treated me as a true partner and an equal and respected my thoughts and goals. Two years later, on a pleasantly chilly day, we were married. My family and friends are still unhappy that this arrow went off target, but slowly they are learning to accept my husband and I for what we are and I am learning to stand up for myself around them.

With time I came to understand that my purpose on earth is not determined by my parents or the judgments of the homeschooling community. It can be hard to think and decide for yourself when you grow up without any autonomy, stuck at home with all your life decisions and friends carefully picked out for you. Sometimes, I get overwhelmed and slip back into passivity or dysfunction. I know this is frustrating for my husband to see, but he encourages me to step out of it.  Slowly, I am discovering how to communicate and take charge of my own life.

I am grateful to be away from an environment where women are told to sit down and shut up. Michael and I are slowly building a new family culture from the ground up, one that’s founded on mutual respect, openness and love. I hope if we ever have children, they will never feel like powerless arrows that their parents just shoot at set targets. I hope they will know that they are free to choose their own future, and that they will be prepared to take responsibility for doing so.

After homeschooling, this next phase of my life has become more than just a love story. It is about breaking the silence and learning to speak out for myself.