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Confession Time

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By Tammy M. Cardwell

This has been, perhaps, the hardest piece of writing I've ever worked on. I've begun it more times than I care to think about. I even wrote one complete article and tossed it because it didn't say what I felt needed saying. Some would ask why I've bothered with it at all, but I've seen things in the past month that. . .well. . . I've confessions to make--not big ones in the overall scheme of things, but big ones in my personal world--and I hope that in making them I can help someone else have an easier homeschooling experience.

Someone asked me once, after a conference workshop, when she would stop doubting herself. I laughingly answered, "Never!" and meant what I said. I went on to explain that, though we'd been homeschooling for years, I still doubted myself on a fairly regular basis. I then told her that one day, when both of my sons had successfully marched out into the world, I would write a book entitled, "See, I Told Me So!" In this book I would share all of the emotional struggles I'd gone through and how silly they were--how all of my fears had proved groundless and I had, indeed, managed to produce two respectable human beings. I'm not there yet, of course, but we have reached a milestone that has forced me to pause and take stock. My oldest son is now in college.

My oldest son is not only in college, but when he took the placement test he tested out of English Comp I with a perfect score on his essay. This excited me when he told me about it, and excited me all over again when my daughter-in-law's honors professor told her that getting a perfect score on the essay is something hardly anyone manages. After years of living with guilt and doubt, feeling I was doing Thomas a disservice in the area of education, I at last felt vindicated. I had, it would seem, done something right after all. But. . .

'I' had done nothing at all. . .not anything to speak of, that is.

Let's back up--way up--to 1992. We were in the early days of our second year of homeschooling. The first year had gone rather well; I taught Thomas to read using Sing, Spell, Read and Write, and we'd done some other interesting things along the way. He'd enjoyed the math program we were using (Bob Jones, for benefit of the curious) and I had decided to move on into our second year by purchasing our entire curriculum from the same company. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was a big departure from what we'd done the first year. . .from what had worked so well. We blindly jumped into school-at-home. . . and nearly drowned before I realized we needed to ditch those anchor-heavy textbooks and get out of the water.

This was the dawn of my foray into the wide variety of homeschooling methods and styles. We still liked the math program, so we kept that for a few more years, until I foolishly let someone talk me into switching to the curriculum that destroyed Thomas' math self-confidence. For the other stuff, though. . . I think we tried unit studies next, and there were some things we really liked about them, but the teacher prep time was murder for me--the mom of two young children and a part-time employee on limited time and money budgets. The next stop was A.C.E. workbooks, and there were things we liked about this method too, but during that time a family moved in with us and schooling fell by the wayside for almost a year.

After living with us for 18 months, the other family left. Then, having spent several weeks reclaiming the house we'd shared for so long, I started seeing school as something we must necessarily start back up. I wasn't looking forward to the experience, especially since I knew we would be way behind (Yes, today I ask myself, "Behind WHAT?") because we'd missed a year, but I obeyed the guilt that shouted at me and got the Alpha Omega placement test to see just how far behind we were, where we needed to place Thomas in the curriculum. He took the test, I graded the test. . .and I stared at the grades. After a year of virtually no school at all, Thomas wasn't really behind. Somehow, someway, he had actually picked up, during that year, the foundational things he needed to make progress educationally. Oh, sure, he was a little behind in math, but even in this area he wasn't as far behind as I'd expected. I was, to say the least, delightfully shocked.

At some point in this general time period, we joined AOL and I became actively involved in the homeschooling community. As a result, I was exposed to a wide variety of people with an even wider variety of educational experiences and theories. Coming from an area where the norm was Bob Jones, ABeka and A.C.E., this was truly eye-opening. One group that fascinated me was the unschoolers. It is nearly impossible to accurately define unschooling, but foundationally it rests upon the idea that if you provide a rich learning environment and plenty of opportunity, a child will learn what he needs to know when he needs to know it. Intellectually, my head was nodding over this one; I knew it worked for me, personally, and could see where it would work for children too, especially considering the progress Thomas had made during a year of NO SCHOOL. Not, mind you, that I would dare try unschooling my own sons. . .especially since I was surrounded by people (mostly relatives) who questioned the legitimacy of our homeschooling anyway. I only saw it as being a really good thing for those who possessed the. . .whatever it took. . .to actually do it.

So we did the Alpha Omega thing for every subject but math (by now I was desperately, unsuccessfully, searching for something that would restore his confidence in this subject area). . .until I realized Thomas had become an expert at scanning the readings in search of answers without fully grasping what was being taught. He did great on his daily work and okay on the tests, but only okay on the tests; between that and my own feelings that they weren't requiring him to write enough, I decided it was time to switch gears. . .which led us to Greenleaf Press.

I'll not bore you with the rest of the details; they're really unnecessary as I've now reached the junior high years and the destination I had in mind. From here on out our formal schooling got really spotty. I would start a year off with great plans, but life would inevitably interfere and those plans would fall by the wayside. We did all sorts of fun, educational things (and some not fun, educational things--like watching loved relatives die), but very little formal school. By this point I was convinced in my head that the unschoolers had the right of it, but I could not overcome the fear that ruled my heart. I waffled between telling myself that I WAS a good mother and Thomas was obviously growing in all the ways that were eternally important (which was true) and groveling in guilt because we weren't ‘doing school' much at all anymore.

The bottom line is that, whether I admitted it or not, Thomas was unschooling. The problem was that I didn't have the guts to admit, even to myself, that this was the case. Even when I made out his diploma and graduated him, I was. . . Well, it's almost impossible to explain it to someone who hasn't been there, and those who have been there undoubtedly understand. Let's just say that, though I knew he was well-prepared for life as a whole, I still felt like a cheat.

So Thomas, who'd had ZERO interest in anything formally educational, decided to go to college a year after he'd graduated from high school. It was the sound engineering and music departments that had given him the motivation; he was willing to consider traditional educational stuff if he could learn more in the areas that interested him at the same time. Mom instantly entered panic mode of course. What if he took the placement test and failed? What if he did so horribly that he was in all remedial courses and everyone knew I was a failure as a homeschooling mom? You can imagine the many fervent prayers that went up from this mother's lips during the weeks he was preparing to take the placement test. In the end, due to a heavy work schedule, he had little time to prepare. His wife helped him by pulling practice tests off the internet and working with him in math (helping him to overcome math phobia, primarily). He also had me go over his one practice essay, making suggestions on how he could improve it, but even that we only did once; he never did bring the rewritten essay back to me. Then, shock of my life, he took the placement test and not only tested out of English Comp I, but got a perfect score on his essay. He gave me all the credit for that essay grade, and I took all the credit he was willing to give. At least. . .I took it at first.

Then I sent a note of rejoicing to one of my email loops and, in the ensuing conversation, realized that I had no credit to take. Though I'd never dared admit it to anyone, Thomas HAD unschooled about half of his educational life--and that the last half. Anything he had learned had not been taught to him by me, but by lessons he'd taken independently, the life he'd lived and his own reaching out to grasp the knowledge. The only credit I could even remotely take would be for the math phobia, which I'm reasonably sure resulted from my misguided use of a particular curriculum that did nothing but frustrate him and make him feel stupid. I now wonder if he would have done better on the math placement test if we'd totally unschooled math too. Regardless, though, he'll take the courses he needs to catch up, and I have no doubt at all that he will catch up quickly.

Now that he's in college, I've had to create a transcript--a somewhat intimidating task, all things considered. Again, my eyes have been opened wide. I had no problem coming up with course credits; though we did nothing formally in his high school years, the work was undoubtedly done --in his own time and his own way. He has quite a respectable transcript to turn in, one that anyone would look at and be comforted by, if comfort was what they needed. I almost wish I'd created the transcript earlier; it might have made breathing easier, might have sent the guilt a little further away.

So my confession or, rather, confessions are. . .

  1. I've been unintentionally lying for years. People would ask about our homeschooling and I'd share what I wished we were doing rather than what we actually were doing--which, on the surface, seemed to be nothing. This was never intentional, but was a result of my own fears and insecurities. I simply did not have the self-confidence to openly and actively run with what I instinctively knew worked for son number one.
  2. I very much regret my failure to simply ask God's advice and take it without reservation. When He reassured me that unschooling was the right thing for Thomas, I could not hear and act on that reassurance because I was petrified by the potential judgments of others. It's called fear of man, and it's sin, and I lived with that sin for too long.

It's almost inevitable that someone will point out that I have two sons, and ask about the second. Terry entered the high school years the September after Thomas graduated and God has led us down a totally different track where he's concerned. It's easier in many ways, because we're following a traditional course of study that no one could find fault with. It takes a lot more work on both our parts, of course, but this really is what God has instructed me to do for him and he is flourishing in it as much as he did while unschooling. Interestingly enough, he easily keeps pace with my nephew, who came straight out of a public school classroom to join us in our homeschooling adventure. Our years of unschooling obviously served him well too.

So. . . My name is Tammy Cardwell and I am the mother of two successful unschoolers. [grin]

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