HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “PhilosophicalPerspectives” is the author’s chosen pseudonym.
In this series: Part One — We Need Advocates | Part Two — A Tool In Someone Else’s Culture War
The stories shared so far on HA are rough. Whenever another story pops up on my blogroll, I take a deep breath before reading – and sometimes I have to cut myself off. There’s only so much trauma I can read in a day, especially when so much of it triggers my own.
Part of growing up in the homeschool community in the 80’s and 90’s was living defensively. Our parents felt like they were culture warriors, and everyone and everything in the world was against them and their choice to homeschool. We, their children, were the proof they offered to the world (and each other) that they weren’t screwing up. Not only was it vital that we act like little adults on all occasions, but we had to be well-spoken, articulate, and ourselves advocates for homeschooling. I remember many conversations with my mother at the age of 8, where I agreed with her disapproval of *that* family whose children just couldn’t sit still and be quiet, or walk through a museum and respectful read all the placards. We, on the other hand, were excellent at it – and this meant that we were “good children”.
We visited well-respected leaders in government and business, we politely and persuasively argued the case for our political agenda, all while going through puberty. We were nowhere near normal, but that’s why we appealed to powerful people. Who has ever heard of a 15 year old who argues persuasively in front of the state legislature, instead of hanging out at the mall with her friends? No one.
Except homeschoolers. We sure churn out a lot of teenage spokespeople.
I always cringe when I hear stories like Sarah Merkle’s, because I was one of the kids who spoke before legislatures and guest-lectured in local high schools. I was a tool in someone else’s culture war. I was remarkable for my non-normalcy, and I was praised for it.
My reality check came later. I don’t know Sarah, but when I was in her shoes, I didn’t actually have my own, well researched, well-formed and nuanced thoughts on gun control or any other topic – I had my parents’ thoughts, or my pastor’s thoughts, or the thoughts of another influential adult who told me what the “good arguments” were on the topic in question. I was smart, so I didn’t just take talking points from my handlers – I accumulated a lot of other people’s ideas, and even a couple of dissenting opinions, and synthesized them all so that I could speak from “my own” perspective. The thing is, it didn’t require me to seriously wrestle with dissent, or the complications of policy ideas, it just required me to adopt, reformulate, and regurgitate what I’d heard. What’s worse – I was never really allowed to ask questions about the assumptions that were passed on to me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was actually free to think and ponder and explore, intellectually as well as personally.
I didn’t have my own thoughts at 15 – they weren’t allowed. As others have noted here, debate is seen as a vital skill for homeschooled offspring – after all, “God’s Harvard” prides itself on the quality of their moot court team (as well as, apparently, soccer…). Debate is important, not because it teaches kids to think, but because it gives us the skill to package propaganda in a convenient, Bill O’Reilly-friendly segment, and makes us appealing politicians and lawyers, ready to be the next generation of culture warriors.
For all our debating, dissent wasn’t allowed. I remember losing debate rounds because an argument that I made sounded something remotely like it could be related to a philosophical principle advocated by Marx. I’m not kidding.
Wait, let me rephrase. Dissent was fine, within a prescribed sphere.
The following topics were open for discussion:
• Infant vs. Adult Baptism
• Predestination vs. Free Will
• The moral weight of a vote for a republican (compared, of course, to a vote for the constitution party)
• The US Farm Bill.
• The failings of other religions and how to prove Christianity was right
• Whether or not it’s morally acceptable to wear a sleeveless dress on your wedding day (the answer: no)
• And, my favorite — the real reasons for the Civil War (slavery or states’ rights?!)
Anyway, the real point — we’ve been parroting a Republican platform and the great things about homeschooling since we were toddlers. Any negative or critical commentary was marked as “rebellious”, and unacceptable, especially when it was directed at homeschooling itself. The options were, repent, or get out. I carried my parents’ defensiveness about the homeschooling movement with me into college, where I had many conversations that started off, “yes, there are some downsides to homeschooling, but…”
It’s taken me a long time away from the homeschooling movement to detox, and come to terms with the pain it inflicted. After eight years away from the movement, I started realizing that I wasn’t just a disobedient, sinful, and rebellious teen. I began naming the things I suffered, and the perpetrators who inflicted them.
I felt totally alone.
None of my non-homeschooled friends had any categories to begin to understand what I was talking about. I was lucky if they’d ever even heard of Josh Harris, and they’d certainly never had personal interaction with his family. They had no concept of a world where it was acceptable for a father to deny a daughter her driver’s license, because her husband might not want her to have that freedom (a position I heard advocated at a young age, at a homeschool conference in my home state). Any time I began a conversation about my own experiences, I ended up answering the same questions. “Did you, like, have a desk in your living room?” “Did you go to school in your pajamas?” “Did you get to sleep in until 10?” Sometimes, we’d get to the real crap, but they were so shocked by the extremes of the movement that they didn’t believe they were real, or that something so blatantly ridiculous had actually impacted my life. I never got to process the things that really changed me. I never had space to talk about how the patriarchal narrative that reigns uncontested within the homeschooling movement affected my identity as a woman, or how purity and courtship teachings twisted my view of cross-gender relationships, whether platonic or romantic. Two examples spring to mind.
1. I remember telling a prominent female homeschooling leader during my senior year of high school how excited I was to go to the prestigious college to which I’d been accepted. She responded with concern, asking me “whether or not I was planning to pursue a career.” I think I told her that I didn’t really know, but I was looking forward to all the new opportunities to learn. The next time I saw her, she gave me a graduation present with a note reading, “with prayers that God will reveal his word and will clearly to you that you might joyfully embrace His ways.” For those not adept at reading between homeschooler lines – my pursuit of a secular education, and potentially a career, she was telling me, was at best based on ignorance of the Word of God, and at worst, on disobedience and rebellion.
With a few swift words and a terrible present, she not only undermined my accomplishments, skills, and personality (I was too ‘leaderly’ for a woman), she questioned my obedience to the God I claimed to follow. I’ve noticed that the thoughts that this woman reinforced (they’d been planted much earlier) have haunted me as I’ve applied for fellowships, talked to recruiters, and pursued career paths. Despite my (objectively) impressive resume, I find myself wrestling with a toxic combination of shame, insecurity, and guilt whenever I pursue or am offered a prestigious position or set an ambitious goal. Mental accusations of pride, selfishness, or narcissism rush to the forefront. I’m just now learning how to fend them off.
2. I recently came across an Instant Message conversation with the guy I sort of dated in high school (culture notes, for the uninitiated – AIM was a primary source of social interaction for many of us. I say “sort of dated” because the attraction we felt was taboo, and therefore secret). It was the conversation where we decided that we “had romantic feelings for each other”. I was 18 at the time. The exchange went something like this:
Me – “I need to pray about what to tell my parents.”
Him – “What kind of commitment do we have to each other?”
Me – “well, we’re not dating… we can’t”
Him – “just because we haven’t verbalized it doesn’t mean we don’t have one. I think our commitment should be to prayerfully and cautiously court nine months from now, when you go to college.”
Me – “That sounds great.”
Him – “Shall we state our commitment?”
Me – “I commit to begin a relationship with you for the purpose of exploring a deeper commitment, while bathed in prayer”
Him – “I commit to prayerfully begin a relationship for the purpose of exploring the possibility of a more permanent and concrete commitment, to begin approximately nine months from now. I intend to ask your father’s blessing when we begin the next phase”.
When I found this conversation, I couldn’t help but laugh. Such contractual language was the model we had for beginning a mature, and godly relationship – and it gave us both the warm fuzzies (I’ll spare you the rest of the conversation). All of this, mind you, was undertaken under much secrecy, because our parents would have objected in a million unimaginable ways. This doesn’t even begin to cover the number of problematic things about that relationship – but it strikes me how deep courtship culture influenced me. I saw myself as an object to be negotiated for, between me, my “beau” (as my mom always calls them), my father, and God. I was “progressive” in that I was willing to strike a deal on my own, at least in the short term. Thus, this dry, non-salacious exchange between people who were legally adults, via computer, across thousands of miles, was considered both the height of “romance” (because of the bargain we struck) and the height of rebellion (because my dad wasn’t at the negotiating table).
To get back to the point. As I look back at experiences like these, which are far less intense than many others shared on this blog, I realize that I have never had a chance to actually dig into the underlying values I imbibed, and process the pain, anger, and embarrassment that I experienced. I need space to write, and to read, and to be reassured I’m not crazy or alone when I tell stories like mine.
That’s why Homeschoolers Anonymous is so important. We’ve been isolated from each other from a long time. We’ve never had anywhere to share our stories with each other and the world. This is a space for recounting the past and healing from the damage it has done. Trust me, we know the good bits of homeschooling, and we know the ways it’s benefitted us – we’ve been talking about it since we could talk. What we need now is space to voice the bad.
To be continued.