How I (Barely) Survived Home Schooling: Jonny Scaramanga’s Story

How I (Barely) Survived Home Schooling: Jonny Scaramanga’s Story

Jonny Scaramanga blogs on Accelerated Christian Education and leaving fundamentalism at his blog, Leaving Fundamentalism. He is building a resource on ACE here, and collects survivor stories from students with experience of ACE.

"I was a shining light for Jesus. Then, suddenly and brutally, I became suicidal."
“I was a shining light for Jesus. Then, suddenly and brutally, I became suicidal.”

I must admit something: I wasn’t really home schooled. I attended an Accelerated Christian Education school, which is probably the closest thing to home schooling you can get outside of a home, but, officially, I was in a school.

At first, I loved it. When I started at the school, so many of the other children were perfect. The boys held the doors open; they smiled and nodded attentively when the supervisors spoke, and they behaved like good Christians. I was not like them. I spoke back to my mother sometimes, and I swore occasionally. If I held a door at all, it was a casual shove to make sure it didn’t hit the person behind me in the face. I never did the proper stand-beside-the-door-and-salute-everyone door-holding. And I only said please and thank you occasionally, unlike my new schoolmates, who could not ask for anything without saying both. 

They were good Christian boys and girls, and I was determined to be the best. Whenever a supervisor spoke to me, I nodded vigorously and said “Yes, Mrs. Staggs” at regular intervals. At the end of school functions, I often found that my face was hurting from smiling so much.

I became the best Christian boy. My first year ended in triumph at the school awards ceremony as I picked up the certificates for the most work completed and the highest average test score, among other achievements. I was a shining light for Jesus.

Then, suddenly and brutally, I became suicidal. At the time I thought no one knew, because no one offered any help. In hindsight, I think everyone was at least vaguely aware, and absolutely clueless what to do. My report card from my second year actually says, “We wish you could find a way to enjoy this, Jonnie.” 

What had seemed like God’s perfect place for me became a prison. And so I hatched a plan.

As many of you will know, ACE allows you to work at your own speed. If you complete the work fast enough, you can graduate early. I knew I had to get out, because I hated that school so much. So I decided I would complete 100 PACEs (ACE workbooks) in a year (compared with the average 60) and graduate young.

This meant that, in effect, I had to be home schooled through the summer. To make 100 PACEs per year possible, I needed to work through the holidays. 

What followed was probably the worst type of home education imaginable. ACE is “teacherless”, at least in theory. The student just completes the workbooks individually. So my parents left me to get on with my work and went out. I couldn’t face it. The second they went out, I was on the internet. This was in the days before high-speed connections, and even before unlimited internet access. I ran up an bill of £500 ($750) in one month, desperately looking for anything to do except PACEs. My Dad made me pay the bill, but it didn’t change the fact that I would do anything to avoid those PACEs.

Having avoided work all day, I couldn’t socialise in the evenings. I spent a summer in solitary confinement, avoiding PACEs during the day and completing PACEs in the evening. Then when I should have been asleep, I wrote diary entries about how I wished I was dead but didn’t know how to kill myself.

One day, walking through my village with my mum, I passed a boy I used to know. Before my ACE school, we had been friends. He had even come to my house to play. 

“Jonnie!” he cried, obviously pleased to see me.

“Hi,” I replied. Well, I tried to reply. My voice came out as a squeak barely audible even to me. I had lost the ability to talk to anyone I didn’t see regularly. 

“Aren’t you going to say hi?” asked Mum. I hadn’t even managed to make a noise loud enough for her to hear.

When we moved churches, we spent an evening at our new pastor’s house, and I barely managed to utter a word to anyone. Eventually the pastor’s daughter spoke to me one-on-one, and I could just about manage that because she went to an ACE school too (I use the word “school” loosely; there were three children, including her). 

Somehow, I managed my hundred PACEs, but it became obvious that I would need to do the same again next year before I was even close to graduating. I felt so resentful that I was missing out on a good education, even though I had no idea what a good education might be. I just had this vague sense that somewhere out there were real schools, with science labs and libraries and literature, and I wasn’t getting any of that. 

Finally, I had a meltdown at school. Someone said something that triggered me. My vision blurred, and for a few seconds I couldn’t see. Then I started shouting at everyone.

Following this explosion, my parents finally removed me and sent me to a regular school. And, of course, fitting in was murder because I didn’t know how to talk to anyone who wasn’t a super-conservative Christian. But I had escaped. And I changed the way I spelled my name, from “Jonnie” to “Jonny”. It was a tiny thing, but it was my way of saying that I wasn’t the same person I used to be.

Now I think fundamentalist Christian home school curricula are part of the problem. Educating children is difficult. Very few parents are equipped to do it well. An off-the-shelf curriculum gives parents a false confidence that they can provide an education with little effort. In fact, a pre-packaged curriculum for every student is not going to fit any student. Systems like ACE just provide a simplistic answer to a difficult problem. Rather like fundamentalism, in fact. 

I Can’t Tell My Story Without A Trigger Warning: Elizabeth’s Story

I Can’t Tell My Story Without A Trigger Warning: Elizabeth’s Story

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

*****

Trigger warnings: this story contains graphic and detailed descriptions of rape, physical abuse, the physical results of abuse, and religious apologisms for both physical and sexual abuse of children.

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I can’t tell my story without a trigger warning. I try writing it without describing physical and sexual abuse and it just doesn’t work. It could get graphic.

I just spent the last half an hour sitting in the corner, hugging my knees, and bashing my head into my wall because I dared to post a link to the HSLDA petition. I’m nearly 40, but I’m terrified of getting into trouble.

I can’t use my name–call me Elizabeth. This name I write with isn’t mine. I picked a name that I think is the sort of name that a typical white, protestant American would have. I hope that some homeschooled kid with that name and a similar story won’t be tortured or shunned on account of my speaking out. I just hope that anyone who reads this and sees someone they know knows that it wasn’t really them. It’s just an eerie similarity. Please don’t punish them for speaking out, because I’m someone else.

I can’t tell my story exactly. I’m afraid my family will recognize that it’s me writing. I only feel safe writing anything at all, even vagueing up the details, after reading the lawsuit filed by survivors of abuse covered up by sovereign grace ministries. It’s sad when the text of a lawsuit reads like your biography, but there you have it. It made me realize that this culture of abuse is sufficiently widespread that my parents could just read my personal story of our nightmare family and assume it comes from any anyone anywhere.

It at least gives me some plausible deniability. Not that I need plausible deniability–I have no contact with my family or anyone from my childhood. I won’t even be setting foot in a church again. But I’m so terrified of repercussions that I need a crutch. The brainwashing runs deep. I know I’m safe intellectually, but the rest of me doesn’t believe that safety is possible.

What lets me comment on the differences between homeschooling and other kinds of schooling? I’ve done it all. We started in a religious homeschooling coop–we did PACES first, later A Beka. Then my parents homeschooled us by themselves in a Northern European country–the rest of my education was in the United States. When we homeschooled in Europe there was no curriculum: it was closer to unschooling. Then they sent us to a private fundamentalist Christian school. Then they sent us to public school.

My parents’  reason for homeschooling us was ostensibly religious. We never heard that we’d get a better education than in public school. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was that public school would corrupt us. There’d be peer pressure. We’d risk getting caught up in a bad crowd and imperiling our immortal souls.

This seemed plausible at the time. After all, our church was very isolationist. You know that Emo Philips joke about the Baptists on a bridge? That was us. Everyone else was wrong. We spent hours learning about other denominations and how they got it wrong. Maybe some other Christians would still get into heaven, if God was extra merciful, but we were the only ones who actually had it right!

Did I mention that I basically had zero friends?

We were taught that children had to obey all adults unconditionally and instantly. We were taught that good Christian children who don’t want to burn in hell submit to their parents. They submit to discipline from their parents, other adults, or older children. They submit to spankings. They do not talk back. And so on. If you are wrongly accused you should still accept your punishment because you are a worthless sinful being and the punishment is probably good for you anyway. If you don’t accept punishment when you’re wrongly accused, that’s a sin, so you need to be punished for that now. Catch 22.

And we were taught that good, Christian children do not ever let anyone find out that they aren’t completely thrilled with their lives. We should never complain to secular authorities (or anyone, for that matter, but especially secular authorities) about anything. It makes us bad witnesses. It makes us bad Christians. And we might also be selfishly risking the destruction of our families because CPS will come and take us away. And there isn’t anything better, so after CPS destroys our families, we’ll still be disciplined so destroying our families and our parents’ good names will have been for nothing. If your bottom is sore from a spanking, you’d better not wince as you sit down. If you’re in pain down there, you’d better not let it keep you from walking normally. Don’t talk about your punishment. Don’t let anyone see you cry.

And we weren’t taught about sex, or wrong touching, or children’s rights. Most kids would get this in public school. At a young age, they’d learn that there are things adults aren’t allowed to do to them. They’d learn that they have the right to say ‘no.’ They’d learn that if something is wrong they can tell their teacher or call the police or something. Later, they’d have sex education and learn what sex is.

Here’s what I thought the word “spanking” meant when I was a kid: if your dad is home, usually it happens right away in your bedroom or his. If your dad isn’t home, you get sent to the guest room, where there’s nothing to do in the meantime, to wait for him to get home. Then the spanking commences. Maybe he’ll go for the big wooden paddle. Maybe he’ll pull off his belt. Sometimes he gets them both out and makes you chose. If he makes you choose, he’s feeling particularly sadistic.

Just the paddle is better. Then he sticks to your unclothed bottom and thighs. The pain is excruciating, but it’s a good sign if he doesn’t take his belt off at all. He’ll probably just finger you a bit when he’s done. Ditto if he bends you over his lap instead of over the edge of the bed. If he just breaks out the belt, he’s lost his temper. You’ll get hit everywhere that can be covered by clothes. The individual strikes aren’t as hard as with a stick, but the beating goes on forever. Sometimes your body just shuts down. Maybe that’s better; if you wet yourself the spanking might stop there because you’re now too gross and dirty to rape. But usually he’s going to finish the “spanking.” The whacks stop coming and then he’s inside you, crushing you with all his weight and ramming into you over and over until he’s done with his business.

I was told that all kids got spanked. I didn’t understand that ‘spank’ meant a bit of a beating for most people and not an extreme beating followed by rape. I didn’t even know what rape was, as I knew nothing about sex. I had no idea what was going on.

Spanking was how my dad got access during the day. If he wanted it and I hadn’t done anything wrong, he would make up something wrong. Notably, he’d wait for me to look at the telephone. Mind you, I was too short to actually reach the telephone up on the wall, but he needed to make sure the message was ingrained. He’d wait for me to look at the phone then punish me for thinking about making a phone call. For thinking about lying to people that I was being abused. It was part of his way to drill into my mind that there was no way out. That this way of life was all there was or ever could be.

I only remember a few instances of explicit training. I remember a gruesome rape when I was too young. I can see my baby fat hands in my memory. I can taste blood. I wonder if that was the first time. I think the ripping might have caused some nerve damage. I can’t actually feel much on the surface, which might have made me the perfect victim in the future. He could do whatever they wanted and I wouldn’t react much. I remember one day when I was older–maybe 3ish–getting taught to relax properly, to stretch out, to be able to take in something larger. Being told that this is what big girls are supposed to do. This is what good girls are supposed to do.

Compared to a spanking, simple molestation didn’t mean much. There was a ‘monster’ that came at night and did his thing. I was told that I had nightmares. And I had to comply instantly with any demand made by an adult. I had to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. So if I was running around at church and an adult said I had to come give him a hug, I had to. And if his hand slipped up under my skirt, I was supposed to relax like a good girl and ignore the uncomfortable pressure filling me up. I guess it got out to anyone who was interested that I was groomed for complete submission and wouldn’t make a scene. I don’t know if he shared me on purpose or if all the perverts attracted to the good cover of a patriarchal church found me independently.

The violence was most extreme when we were at the cooperative homeschool. The school and the church reinforced the message. We only came into contact with other kids in the same situation. The probably weren’t all being seriously abused, but some of them sported regular bruises–new dark blues and purples in a new pattern over the fading browns and yellows from last week. Even the ones who weren’t abused weren’t told that they had rights. None of us was going to compare notes and discover that rapes weren’t a standard part of spanking. It was Orwellian. We didn’t have the words or concepts to address any of it.

No one at church would question my dad’s authority. He was a well respected member of the community. He was all godly and stuff. The benefit of the doubt extended to someone in his position was endless. By homeschooling us through this crucial period, my dad normalized abuse and kept me from finding out that I had rights. I literally had no idea until I was an adult that there was anything else out there, that this was not the natural order of things, that everyone wasn’t raised with this sort of abuse. Insofar as I ever heard about child abuse, I was taught that abuse was something that happened to other people.

When we homeschooled in another country, the abuse stopped almost completely. My dad was away from the comfort and safety of being an established pillar of the community. The monster still came at night, but the daytime abuse was drastically curtailed. I spent huge amounts of time being free and happy. The only punishment I recall was being yelled at.

I was only punished for one thing: speaking the other language. Somehow I’d picked it up, although my parents and other siblings hadn’t. My dad could use English at work and didn’t need to know it. Everyone spoke English in the shops anyway. My mom didn’t have a problem with it, but my use of the other language outraged my dad. If I uttered a word in front of him, his face would turn red and he would explode with anger.

How dare I speak another language. I couldn’t know what I was saying if it wasn’t English. I could be insulting someone and not know it! Because I couldn’t possibly know what I was saying if he didn’t know what I was saying. I couldn’t guarantee to him that I wasn’t saying something inappropriate because he couldn’t speak the language. So the act of speaking the other language was deceptive: I was hiding things from my parents by not speaking English. I never knew that I wouldn’t be spanked after these outbursts; I only connect the dots with the illegality of spanking in the other country now, as an adult. Looking back, I realize that he was afraid of getting caught in a country that cared about its children. He needed to make sure that I didn’t trigger any alarm bells there and get rescued by their child protection agencies.

When we returned to the US, we went to a fundamentalist Christian school. The ‘spanking’ resumed but it was much less frequent. Partly the training had kicked in and I was a good little robot. It was very difficult to find a reason to spank me. Partly we now lived in a bigger house. I had my own room and was far enough away from my parents room that it was unlikely for it to wake anyone up when he came in at night. Partly he couldn’t assume that he’d get a free pass at the new school. Teachers were from other denominations who might be just as distrustful of us as we were of them. Some students were just there because their parents thought they’d get a better education at a private school. Some students were even there because they’d been expelled from every other school and their parents couldn’t find anywhere else to take them. While I was guaranteed to not get any sex education or get told I had rights by the school, it was less clear that I wouldn’t exchange information with peers who knew stuff.

The fundamentalist Christian school went bust over doctrinal differences (surprise, surprise) and I was allowed to finish out high school at the local public school. It was the most supportive and loving environment I’d experienced in my life. No one made fun of me, as they had at the Christian school, for having zero social skills. People, not just teachers but students as well, put up with horrific ideas from my upbringing and gently taught me tolerance. Even people who didn’t like me were still patient and cordial with me. And my dad had to stop the ‘spankings’ altogether.

He still came in at night. He suffocated me so I wouldn’t wake up. I only woke up to absolute terror a few times. Rape is a thousand times more terrified when you fade in and out of consciousness from lack of oxygen. When I asked the youth pastor at church he said it was a demonic attack. I tend to trust my gut; I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box. I think he was just gullible and never got any sex education himself either. He was a relatively young adult who had never dated. I don’t think he had any idea that he was passing on a lie used to conceal abuse.

Unfortunately, I got to public school too late to get sex education. It would have been covered in junior high. I’d learned about periods the day my first one started (I was at the Christian school at the time). A neighborhood girl who went to public school found out how little I knew about it and tried explaining the facts of life to me, but she was several years younger than me and hadn’t learned all the details herself yet. I am grateful that she noticed something was wrong with my complete lack of education and did her best to step in and fill in my educational gaps. But there was so much she couldn’t tell me.

So I didn’t know that periods were supposed to happen regularly, about once a month. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal to go months between periods. I didn’t understand that that much pain and that much blood was abnormal. I didn’t understand that something was very wrong if you had to spend several hours bleeding into the toilet and passing chunks. I didn’t put two and two together until I had my first miscarriage as an adult. Then it hit me that my period got regular after I got married. I wasn’t in so much pain. The flow was lighter – a pad was enough instead of having to spend time on the toilet because it was too much. And it hit me that while I’d had a few odd periods in high school, I’d mostly just had a succession of miscarriages. I still can’t have kids. I wonder if it’s from too much violence to my reproductive organs at such a young age. It’s not something I can face having a conversation with my doctor about.

I didn’t understand that I was experiencing rape until we had to read a short story in 12th grade advanced English about a girl being raped. That’s when I learned that that’s what rape was and, by extension, that’s what sex was. But I was too afraid to tell anyone. The programming to pretend everything was fine persisted. Teachers and counselors noticed and asked if something was wrong and I instinctually lied every time. I didn’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t believe anyone could help me, just that it would get back to my parents that I’d told someone. And then I’d be in for another spanking; I’d rather have died than risk another spanking.

I tried reporting my abuse to the authorities once as an adult but the law wasn’t on my side. If I’d been a minor, they could have gotten CPS involved. But as an adult, the law is written for specific instances. You can’t charge someone with years of violence and rape where there are so many memories jumbled together. You need a report of a specific instance. And remembering a specific instance with all its details when it happened all the time is like remembering what you had for dinner on March 12, 1986. What time was dinner? What did you eat? Did you have company? How was the food arranged on your plate? Who sat where at the table? Good luck with that.

Having been rebuffed, I tried getting out but it didn’t take. The economy was in shambles and I couldn’t find steady employment. The U.S. has a patchy safety net. One of the things that we as a society assume is that people’s parents don’t suck. If you’ve very lucky and your abuse is caught and you end up in the system, there are programs for young adults who have aged out of foster care. These programs aren’t perfect, but it beats the hell out of choosing between starvation and going back to an abusive family. After you’re an old enough adult (I think it varies by state), you are eligible for things on your own. But there’s an awkward gap between 18 and 20 something where your eligibility is determined by your parents income. Long story short, I ended up homeless. I had to go crawling back to my parents, tail between my legs, and enduring several more years of abuse before I married my husband and escaped.

I firmly believe that if public school teachers had gotten to me before the brainwashing set in that I might have told them the truth. I think the brainwashing would have been harder if I’d been getting a counterbalancing affirmation from public school that I was a human being with rights of my own. And you know what? Maybe my dad still would have found a way to abuse me, but he either would’ve had to pull me out of public school to keep the abuse hidden or he would’ve had to abuse me a heck of a lot less.

That’s what bugs me the most when homeschool parents bring up the fact that kids in public school get abused too. They act like that’s evidence that regulating homeschool is pointless. From where I’m sitting, that’s hogwash. I’d take rare beatings over frequent beatings. I’d take beatings severe enough to leave obvious marks during just summer vacation over getting those beatings several times a week around the year. I’d take just being raped over having the crap beaten out of me then being raped. I’d take being brutalized for the first 7 years of my life over being brutalized for the first 20 years of my life. I could go on down the line.

It’s clear to me how the abuse I received changed with the amount of control my parents had over the other adults in my life. When it was just them and church, the abuse was horrific. When it was public school teachers who weren’t going to give them a pass just for being Good Christians, the abuse was relatively minimal. I guess it reads as pretty extreme still, but that level of abuse required that they already have the prior controlled environment in which to make sure I never found out about my rights. And it’s way less than the baseline level of abuse they established when they had complete control of my environment.

But the more I think about my upbringing, the more I think the church and homeschooling were just convenient. In the wake of the ohio kidnap victims’ escape, an article in the guardian addressed the issue of girls and women being trapped in long-term situations where they were kept as prisoners and raped repeatedly. It quotes Prof. Sherry Hamby of Sewanee and journal editor of Psychology of Violence as saying “I don’t think there is any question there are other victims in similar situations. We are only catching the dumb ones.” It’s the first time in, well, ever, that I’ve felt like I wasn’t invisible. Usually situations like mine are invisible to mainstream media that is usually so desperate to maintain our societal illusion that abuse is a rare thing that is done to and by people we don’t know.

There are victims in similar situations. And we do only catch the dumb ones. My dad is extremely intelligent. It doesn’t matter what his personal beliefs might be: the perfect place to isolate his prey was in a patriarchal religious sect. The perfect way to avoid letting his kids encounter mandated reporters is through homeschooling. The perfect way to keep me from going to authorities was to lie to me about my rights and to surround me by other kids who didn’t know their rights. I don’t think I’m special. I don’t think I’m unique. I think odds are high that there are plenty of other people who grew up just like me.

Looking Down Their Noses: Jamie’s Story

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

I have been mulling something over for about a month. Pieces of this for much longer. There is something I have noticed and it’s kind of driving me bonkers.

As someone who has taught in Christian/private schools, home schooled, been home schooled and now a mom of a public school student, I feel like I have a bone to pick.

Growing up home schooled and going to a billion home schooling conferences, I heard tons of “horror stories” of public school kids/classes/teachers. Looking back, I am surprised that some of these speakers didn’t dim all the lights and put a flashlight under their chin while they spoke. Parents leave these conferences determined not to let their kid go to a public school ever. So they keep home schooling, and honestly? Some home schooling families have no business “teaching” their kids, because they are learning nothing. (Those are the ones that give the “good” home schooling families a bad name.)

Even if these poor moms are ready to quit home schooling, they can’t. There’s fear. There’s judgement. There’s a pile of canned, self-righteous answers for all their reasons. Generally speaking, there’s no money to send their children to Christian school, public school is “out” (in their minds) and so they muddle on. Done, but not done.

When I taught (in several) Christian schools, there would be comments from the admins and staff alike that would poo-poo the other Christian school in the area. Basically, gossip:

“ABC school handled such and such poorly, we would have handled it so much better.”

“XYZ school allows such and such to go on, we would never allow that here.”

It all pretty much follows the pattern of “they are bad because ___, we are better because ____”.

Building yourself up with examples that may or may not be true (or based on truth) and tearing another down. It’s kind of a manipulative way to keep your staff and students right where you want them, all the while jacking up their tuition so much, it’s almost (if not impossible) to send even one child, never mind more than one. But still looking down their noses at public school families and rolling eyes at home schoolers.

I’m pretty tired of the whole scene.

There are fabulous teachers in the public school system, just like there are fabulous teachers at the little Christian school down the road, and fabulous mothers teaching their own children. And, news flash —

There are horror stories coming out of all three.

The public school system is not the enemy. It makes a convenient target, because it’s big and vague. And just because you assign too much home work, make your students wear uniforms, and have Christian in your title doesn’t make you “better.” And there are home schooling families that need to put aside their fear and the lies they have swallowed for years and admit they are in over their heads. The bottom line should be your children’s education. My oldest has learned more this year in public school than she has the last 3 years I have taught her. It’s been the best thing for her. I can “just” be her mom, and it’s taken a lot of pressure off of me.

It kills me when I hear people say, “I got to hear my child sing praise songs while cleaning their room. Ah, the benefits of home schooling.” Or, “I just got to see my child read a chapter out of the Bible. Ah, the benefits of home schooling.” Really? Somehow my children will never read the Bible or sing praise songs because they are in public school? They will never play nicely with their sisters or practice the piano or go to AWANA because they are in school? Just because it happens at 10:30 in the morning at your house, doesn’t mean it can’t happen after 3:30 in the afternoon at my house.

However you choose to educate your child is your business.

But there is not one way to do it. And there is not merely one way for each family. Kids are different, their needs are different, and situations change. Being fluid isn’t being weak. It’s being open minded and honest and putting your kids first.

And isn’t that what parenting is all about?

To be continued.