Our road to homeschooling

close view of an uneven crack in concrete, surrounded by red sand excavated by the ants who live in there ©careerusinterruptus.com

We never planned to. The Skeptic and I were great at school, and I’d been deeply committed to my career before stepping away to have kids, so we – quite reasonably – expected I’d find new work once they settled at school.

They never did.

That’s not the school’s fault. It was straight-up AWESOME.

They did everything right. No – better than right, because they taught me everything about understanding howbehaviour communicates needs, about the diversity of needs and behaviours, about teaching and modelling emotional regulation and non-violent conflict resolution.

I know! Not what you’d expect from a school, but then, this place was truly special. Their democratic, play-based approach to learning informed everything, and it was so small, it worked. As a community school, families and former students were always welcome, so there was plenty of help when things got messy – which was often. For several years, that extra pair of hands was mine. I logged a lot of observational hours, I cleaned up all sorts of … stuff, and I learned HEAPS.

My kids, not so much.

Mr Pixel, of course, came with significant challenges: chronic ill health, anxiety, perfectionism, SAF, and a brain teeming with Big Questions. He had no idea what to make of kids who just wanted to run round yelling and throwing leaves at each other, nor of work that focussed on tiny little concepts like words and sums. He didn’t participate much and was terribly anxious about everything he did do, so, although he was well liked, easily accomplished any work he did attempt, and even had a teacher who specialised in giftedness devise work tailored to his interests, it’s fair to say he never saw the point. Therefore he bitterly resented my making him go, and he sure as hell wasn’t staying without me. (Did I mention the SAF?) He was able – so able – but school for him was war.

CraftyFish, on the other hand, slotted straight into being the fastest runner throwing the most leaves as she led a small posse of girls through 900 activities a day. She’d race in, belt out her work in two minutes flat (almost illegible but 100% correct), and race back out to add another layer of monkey-bar blisters to her hands.

For two years, this was fine. Her wonderful teacher let CraftyFish work at her own pace and level (wherever that might be on any given day) and handled her emotional outbursts with a skill and sensitivity I’m still trying to emulate. But instead of allowing CraftyFish to write stories and then work on corrections, for instance, her next teacher insisted that story-writing came after mastering /ee/ spellings. Way to slam the brakes on, lady!

Meanwhile, the social side was also fraying, as some in her posse began excluding her. Unfortunately this teacher’s skills didn’t extend beyond, “Our rule is kindness, okay? So be kind, please, girls,” which was even less effective than it sounds. (She was new and not adapting well.)

When CraftyFish developed visual migraines from the stress and anxiety, age seven, the writing was on the wall. We battled through another two years (!) because CraftyFish wanted to win back her crown, because I had chronic fatigue and was still desperately hoping they’d go to school so I could get a freaking rest, and because, sigh, my kids’ SAF didn’t come from nowhere.

But when, after five years of solid struggle, I found myself sobbing all the way to the first day of year six, even I had to admit defeat.

That was hard, you know? Really fucking painful. Parents are told, we’re responsible for everything our kids do or don’t do (and when they do it). We’re supposed to control our own destinies, too: set goals, work hard, persist, success, right? I’d been quite good at that, pre-kids. Now I was finally accepting that I couldn’t even get my kids to do the most basic thing (it seemed) every other kid managed – enjoyed – rocked!

And my kids knew it. Having emotional OE up the wazoo meant that by the time we quit, all three of us were pulpy with misery, anxiety, shame, failure, frustration, and whatever the word is for, “what on earth is WRONG with us?!” The Skeptic, who is far more institutionalised than I am, was baffled and frankly terrified as we finally staggered off-piste.

So I’m sorry to say, we didn’t come to homeschooling via lofty principals, cool appraisal, and/or a thoughtful response to our kids’ needs. It was more like one of those old cartoons where the jalopy’s wheels pop off one by one, the chassis ploughs into the mud, springs and bolts fly every which way, and once it’s finally ground to a halt, the doors and bumpers drop off as well. It was pretty much exactly what you don’t want for your family.

Why am I sharing this?

Well, rumour has it that when, after months trapped in the ice, Endurance finally sank in Antarctic waters, Ernest Shackleton said, “Ship and stores are gone, boys, so now we’ll go home.”

That was the chance I had. All that time I’d been learning about our wiring, and about the parent I wanted to be, while still bombing down the same road. Wrecked, we had to spend time repairing our health, our emotions, and our relationships, and reevaluating our values, needs, and goals.

Since then, we have—well, this side of adolescence I won’t risk saying “we’re home”, because any second now the kids will start up heir own jalopies and they’re bound to head down a few wrong roads themselves.

Point is, sometimes we have to crash and burn, to get our own attention. It’s awful and painful, but it is survivable. Modelling self-forgiveness, the process of grief and recovery, learning to change course according to your needs – those are absolutely essential life skills, especially for out-of-the-box kids growing into a world of increasing uncertainty – and crashing out makes you do it. That’s not ‘silver-lining’ BS, btw. It’s your lifeline: kindness and compassion for yourself and your kids is how you survive.

Of course, if you read this as a cautionary tale and change course before the wheels start flying? That’s even better.

Sanctuary

One of the great joys in my life, is our homeschool group. The women who started and run it are, without a doubt, among the most amazing people I have ever met. Having been through stuff that would make your toes curl, the lessons they took away have made them consistently empathetic, tolerant, compassionate, and kind.

Also, they’re quirky as all get out and so are all our kids, so there’s bucketloads of that particular, tar-black sense of humour.

We all bask in finding this concentration of other mothers who Get It; even if the particular diagnosis doesn’t apply in your house, you’ve had the experience of trying to raise a child who doesn’t follow any of the developmental rules and therefore having to overhaul every last one of your expectations. And then keep overhauling. When someone arrives with teeth gritted, everyone else has a pretty good idea of what they’ve likely been through that morning. Both parents and kids are treated with an extra dose of kindness, and everyone feels, you know – understood.

I know these exceptional mums love what they’ve created, and I also know that this doesn’t stop it being physically, mentally, emotionally and sensorily demanding, very hard work, the sort that would drive most school-teachers to despair or cruelty or quitting. But instead they have created that very rare, very special thing, a place where extraordinarily challenging kids – the ones who are always butting so painfully against the world – feel completely accepted and valued.

And, you know how I know? Because this morning, this happened:

My daughter and some of the other kids have been reading a book by a local author, who also happens to be friends with the group’s founder. She’s been invited to come chat to the kids, later this week, so when I ‘bumped into’ her online, I said, we have friends in common; I’m looking forward to meeting you this week! She replied, oh, are you with the school? Yes, I said, but you’ll be better prepared if you think of it as a circus. (Having no better description of what it’s like, being in a roomful of 2e kids, especially one where they feel fully accepted for who they are.)

At this point, CraftyFish came in, so I related the tale to her, knowing she’s excited to meet the author, and that she’d get a kick out of the circus comment.

I didn’t get that far, though. As soon as I mentioned the word ‘school’, she puffed up like a society matron smelling a fart. “Do NOT call our group a SCHOOL,” she exclaims, outraged. “It is NOT a SCHOOL. It’s a SANCTUARY.”

Can I invite you to sit with that, for a moment? Because there is a lot packed into that one word: The sense that school (even the wonderful school we went to) asks us to be something else, something other than who we are, to meet other people’s expectations, often regardless of your own. The converse sense of safety and recognition that our group provides. The sense of ownership, of belonging. The sense that this is, in fact, a place safe enough for her to do things that have so far been challenging, such as … reading a novel. The drama of the delivery, sure, because as long as you’re not hurting someone else or being disrespectful, that’s okay.

It made my heart melt, it did. It is all I would wish for anyone, but perhaps most for our quirky kids: that they find a sanctuary.

That day they went nuts

Wanna play a fun game? It’s called, “spot the curriculum checkbox”.

I’m strongly of the go-with-the-flow homeschooling ilk, mainly because whenever I’ve tried to lead there’s been such an almighty blow-back that we all have to lie down with cold gins compresses for two hours afterwards and nothing gets done at all. See my other posts on teh stubborn.

Then, too, part of my reasoning is that my kids will have days like this:

CraftyFish decides to write a song about how rich she is. (Literacy)

It’s kind of going all over the place so we discuss beats, rhythm and syllables. Then, dredging up a forty-year-old memory, I talk her through the AB AB C AB structure. (Music theory)

We edit and rewrite. CraftyFish is so ecstatic at her own wit that she decides she must make a music video to go with the song.

She gets out paper, pencils, ruler, scissors, and starts making fake money. (Art, but also math because she’s measuring and dividing and ruling)

Then she searches up some logos which she prints to make herself some bling accessories. By now Mr Pixel has caught her enthusiasm and joins in. I don’t even try to keep up with their discussions on branding but I do chip in on wealth, performance of identity, costume, and ‘flexing’. (Social studies)

As they work CraftyFish describes the video to Mr Pixel (this is verbal storyboarding; art again I guess or maybe literacy?) One scene involves her minion walking ahead of her, strewing money out of a basket for her to walk on. But our box of foreign change (Geography, history; because yes, we discuss where coins are from and the switches from sterling to decimal; francs and marks to euros) is old and manky, so we start trying to clean it.

Toothpaste doesn’t work so we ask the internet and learn about salt and vinegar. Only the first recipe doesn’t work fast enough for CraftyFish, so she fiddles around with it. Mr Pixel comes in to see what we are doing. He wonders which way is better, mine or CraftyFish’s – so he decides to set up separate boxes with, you know, actual measurements, and compare the results after a set time. (Science!)

So many questions emerge from this: does it work differently on different currencies? (Yes! Because different metals) Why is that one black coin there fizzing like an alka-seltzer? (No idea!) What is that green stuff called? (Malachite, apparently.) Does leaving it in longer get it cleaner? (Only up to about ten minutes.) What is the chemical reaction that is occurring? (Umm…. let’s see. I grab pencil and paper. Salt is NaCl + vinegar which is CH3COOH gives sodium hydroxide NaOH and water H2O, but the copper’s clearly reacting too so… um… kids? Hello?)

Kids have taken my phone and are shooting gangsta-style “publicity shots”. (Photography. Also, we talk Goldie – no, child, you cannot have gold caps on your teeth) – and rap culture and ‘bling’, so more music history/pop culture studiels. Also: God help me.) They send some shots to a friend with a similar sense of humor. His mum messages back, suggesting that we get them together for an afternoon of filming. This sends my kids into a frenzy of coin-cleaning, costume-constructing, and cash-creating.

But it’s lunchtime and the sizzling energy in the air is in danger of leaving everyone scorched (and starving) if it burns out of control, so I order everyone to sit down for an hour’s quiet time and food. (Health studies)

Their friend arrives. He teaches them all he knows about iMovie and they spend the next five hours making movies, talking cars, chickens, Lego …

Do you see? Do you see how one idea can lead to an entire rabbit-warren of learning for these kids? Can you see how they ended up literally exhausted, by the end of it? Because let me tell you, we were all exhausted, that day.

Yes, I would dearly love more order and predictability. I would love love love to direct their learning. What I am coming to realise, though, is that my job is to make their learning possible: finding and creating opportunities, chase them out of ruts and habits, facilitate looking-up and getting in supplies. Anything else is just ,,, yeah. Throwing marshmallows at their heads.