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Coming Back to Homeschool

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By Bonnie Fitts

After eight years of homeschooling, a few weeks ago I willingly loaded my eager eleven year old daughter Rebecca into our green mini van and plunked her in the lobby of a private Christian school two miles down the road from our home. Since I have an inordinate amount of time to reflect now that we're not homeschooling, I keep wondering why both of us, who value and love each other and education, want nothing more to do with each other and homeschooling. Had I transformed into a terrible teacher or an uncaring ogre who didn't understand her child? Could I not handle the throes of her pre-teen angst? Horrors upon horrors…had I succumbed to the dreaded homeschool burnout? And why had my normally enjoyable and delightful child recently turned into a disagreeable homeschool fiend right before my eyes?

During our last year of homeschooling, we argued. A lot. Like gladiators, we formed defensive lines on opposite sides of our oak kitchen table armed with textbooks, pencils, and lessons plans. It was a battle to the death, or at least of the wills, until one o'clock when our school day officially ended. During the morning, I demanded her attention, forced her to complete assignments, and struggled to remember the adage, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." My daughter retaliated against my onslaught by fiddling with her pencils and flicking them across the table. Glaring at me, she informed me she forgot to finish her grammar assignment from the day before. She'd erase incorrect math problems until smudgy dark holes appeared and declare, "This isn't fair!" a thousand times a day. By five o'clock, my daughter and I had already retreated to our respective corners on opposite sides of the house, discouraged and weary from the day's conflicts.

My mind told me to stick with it…it's only a stage we're going through, but my heart knew our homeschool days were gurgling away like water sucking down the drain. I didn't know how to plug the sink, or quite honestly, whether I even wanted to. After one particularly trying day near the end of the school year, my daughter and I slumped across from each other amidst the carnage of broken pencils, torn workbooks and incomplete papers---defeated, drained, and exhausted. We caught each other's eye and stared. "I think you need to go to school," I said. "I think I'd like to try it anyway," she answered. We were both secretly thrilled and relieved be done with the entire homeschooling journey. Or so we thought.

Our homeschool days weren't always this rough or hopeless. In fact, they were downright wonderful. During the first few years, we were giddy with excitement barely capable of waiting for September to roll around. The UPS man was our best friend during mid and late summer as he lugged large cardboard boxes chock full of books to our doorstep. My daughter and I dashed down the stairs and squealed with excitement when we heard his truck pull into the dirt driveway; his arrival always meant a delirious afternoon of tearing into packages of treasures and relishing the newness and smell of a new year. We'd sit among our garden of books for hours, reading, talking, and sharing. Surrounded by mounds of bubble wrap and scrunched packing paper, the day couldn't be brighter and I envisioned a happy productive year.

In those days, we took afternoon trips to Wal-Mart and picked our way through aisles of colored paper, pencils, and glittery three-ring binders. Some weeks we headed to the teacher supply stores and stuffed our van with multicolored posters along with spelling games, clay, talking globes, and neon-green flash cards. Once our school year began, I called homeschooling friends. "It's field trip time!" I exclaimed. Fascinated, we watched buckets of yogurt poured into tiny plastic containers and were thrilled when the assembly line jammed up, allowing pink yogurt to flow everywhere. The newspaper company enthralled us as we marveled at the size of the paper used in the printing machines and the amount of work that went into creating a fifty-cent paper. The fish department at the food store captivated us with a mixture of awe and disgust as the employees, like Samurais, speared and filleted haddocks with long knives.

We had a large circle of homeschooling friends back then, and I was an "expert." Many late afternoons I answered phone calls from other homeschool moms concerned about curriculum problems or how to schedule older children around the little one's feeding and diaper changes. We'd chat about their child's abilities, and I'd suggest changes for their textbooks, learning style, or agenda. After we'd hang up, a well-balanced dinner in our home was an actual planned event and on the table at a regularly anticipated time. A tidy organized house was the rule, not the exception.

Our mornings used to be great, too. Okay, well not every morning but most began without any foot dragging or whining from either of us. My organized and enthusiastic daughter hopped from bed, braided her hair, and cheerfully waited for me at the table like a dry sponge waiting to dunk into the dishwater. I pre-read my teacher books and knew what I was teaching that day. I researched and prepared unit studies more than a day in advance, and could always find a pen. More often than not, a peaceful, patient smile graced my face as I explained to my daughter the difference between "to, too, and two" for the hundredth time. I brushed my hair and wore makeup everyday, and I even materialized at the table, on time, dressed in shoes and articles of clothing other than a flannel shirt and sweat pants, which appeared more frequently in our latter homeschooling years.

Somewhere along the line, though, homeschooling and our routine unraveled like a skein of yarn. We started rolling out of bed later and later, and I snoozed the alarm clock an additional ten minutes…over and over and over again. The teacher manuals and the necessary pre-reading involved seemed terribly persnickety to me. The unit studies? Much too much effort. Phone calls from other homeschooling moms became intrusions on my afternoon, and the UPS man became a less frequent visitor. The mailman, however, became my brand new best friend as he stuffed my mailbox with informational packets on graduate schools.

My normally uncomplaining daughter whined her way through her math and writing assignments. Her braids became looser and looser, until she eventually combed it pin straight like a curtain around her face. Complaining that her work was too easy one day, it became too hard the next. After begging me for field trips, she'd say she wasn't interested or they were boring. The lure of computer games occupied her mind and she began snacking more often.

Clutter started appearing everywhere, materializing out of drawers and cabinets. The dishwasher didn't unload itself, and the beds stayed unmade. Frozen fish sticks and fries graced our table more often than vegetables and real entrees. Spiders busied themselves building colonies in the corners of the living room, and I started printing my name in the dust of the armoire as I trudged by.

In hindsight, I know where we made our mistake and our number one error. We started fantasizing. It started with small thoughts like when my daughter would say wistfully, "I bet real school wouldn't be so bad" or I'd say to my husband, "I wish I just had one minute in the day for myself." Similar to a horse that discovers its stall isn't locked tightly, we consistently nudged and bumped the homeschooling gate, imagining freedom's pasture with its sweet, lush grass. And like hungry horses, we began to sense, and then feel we knew, that the green meadow outside our stalls was much better than the warm familiar comfort of the stall because, well, the horses were hungry for what they thought was better.

My daughter dreamed of glitzy fun in the brightly lit corridors and classrooms of a traditional school system she'd never attended and knew only through popular television sitcoms. Logical, outgoing, and unusually scholarly for her age, she visualized school as a massive fun-ball mix of excitement and academics she wanted to bounce. Hot lunch line images of pleasant cafeteria ladies in hairnets serving gooey cheese pizza, while patient, soft-spoken teachers in pink sweaters directed studious, controlled classrooms dominated her fantasies. To her, school uniforms were scholastically chic. Thoughts of popular girls to share stories with, at a locker all her very own, were irresistible. Throngs of boys would fall madly in love with her upbeat personality, brains, and long swishing blondish-brown hair.

On my side of the homeschool table, the horse inside me galloped headlong toward a meadow—any remote field would do. I was ready for a red convertible life with my hair blowing in the wind rather than my sensible minivan. In my wonderful world of freedom from homeschool, I was a twenty-first century June Cleaver. I'd entertain long-lost colleagues. As we'd chat about current events, we'd eat something that didn't require a can opener to access and drink from glasses other than light green plastic tumblers. The spiders would fear me from their corner lairs in the living room, and I'd actually feel refreshed enough to converse with my husband at the end of the day.

My daydreaming didn't stop there. While harried car pool moms dropped their bedraggled students in the school foyer, I imagined they'd drool with envy watching me whiz by with my freshly scrubbed and braided pre-teen. I'd sip my Starbucks (tall, extra milk, with whipped cream) and admire my daughter as she crossed the front lobby threshold like a queen, carrying her blue backpack overflowing with completed and neatly written assignments, while other students, her minions and not quite as popular, stood court around her.

After dropping her off at school, I'd dust off my canvases and rummage through the paintbrushes and paint collecting dust underneath the school supplies stuffed in the hall closet. McCall's magazine would call responding to my query, and I'd cut a profitable business deal for an upcoming writing assignment. In my spare time, I'd volunteer at a local homeless shelter and enroll in graduate school. And after having such a positively productive and calm day, I'd be the model of serenity by the time the last bell of the day rang at school. I'd run and greet my daughter with hugs and warm chocolate oatmeal cookies and milk. Snuggled on the couch, we'd sip, munch, and chat about her amazing day. She'd tell me she aced her tests in Advanced Placement History and Math and tell me that because her proposal for raising money for underprivileged children in Somalia had garnered the school an award, the principal had bestowed on her a homework pass for the week. While I sat there listening attentively, she'd run to the phone because a girl from school called wanting her to come to a party.

Yeah, right.

The reality is the house is messier than ever because it's easier to think about being a writer than actually doing it, and I'm ending up in front of my laptop for hours. I've usually spent the day in my sweat pants hunched over the computer, and more often than not, I'm in the middle of the perfect idea when I realize the time and arrive at the schoolyard, screeching to a halt amid the flames of the exhaust. There I meet my daughter who looks like she's labored in the recesses of a coal-mine. Her braids are undone and like a camel with a too heavy pack, she bends like the number seven as she trudges to the car. Like an unfinished dot-to-dot pattern, she has gravy splats on the front of her uniform from the brown mystery meat the lunch ladies served. Within the first week of school, a volleyball bonked off her head in gym, and when another student didn't shut his locker, which was over hers, she whapped her head again. Between having only five minutes to get to each class, chitchat between girls is unthinkable; she barely has time to use the bathroom. The science teacher gave the entire class lunch detention because two kids misbehaved, and all sixth grade boys pick their noses or are completely annoying. We have no time to cuddle and munch cookies. Instead, we spend our evening sorting the piles of grammar, math, and writing homework that bursts through the seams of her backpack.

So where does this leave us? My daughter pleaded her case to come home. Frankly, after spending more time with her on nightly homework than we ever spent homeschooling during the day, I caved and called the principal, letting him know we were withdrawing her. My worst fear was that we'd go back into the gladiator's arena within days. But, wait! Something unusual happened. On our first day back at homeschooling, my daughter sat down at the table and smiled at me. Within the first week, she had abandoned her braids and veil-like hair in favor of a twisted ponytail. A pink invitation to a rollerblading birthday party sat on her desk, sent by a girl she met at a recent homeschool field trip. She's also met a couple of other eleven year old homeschooling girls from a 4-H horse group who believe they are all just amazingly athletic, smart, and thoroughly popular.

Within days of coming back to homeschool, I rummaged through the closet once more and dug out the dusty boxes of unit studies. We now spend our homeschool time together enjoying activities other than workbooks. As she glues together a plastic model of the body, we discuss what she wants to be when she grows up. She's thinking a lawyer. I'm thinking she's right. As she runs down the hallway toward the computer to play grammar games, I snuggle on the couch to read Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life for a part-time graduate course I'm taking.

The spiders continue to stick their tongues out at me and dance the can-can across the drapes, and the litter box has developed a peculiar, unusual kind of smell. McCall's thinks I need more writing experience, and I'm imagining the editors circulate my queries among the staff as stern advice on how not to write. But, hey—I sold an editor on the very story you're reading, so that means something. Yesterday, I even volunteered as a counselor at a woman's shelter and learned more from them than they did from me.

My daughter and I borrow each other's pencils, now, and instead of flicking them as if she wants to stab me, she smiles and hands me her favorite glittery one with the wispy, pink Troll-like hairs sticking haphazardly out from the top. We don't have time for arguments or glares. We're too busy living the day and getting our real work done. Time is precious. We're communicating again. And smiling.

Copyright ©  2004 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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