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September 5, 2007

You know how you have someone in your life who you look up to, admire and respect? What happens when that person makes a choice that is unexpected and quite shocking? It takes a lot of adjustment to come to terms with it…that’s what I’ve come up with, at least.

Did an admired friend get a divorce, have an affair, embezzle money, announce they are gay? Nope. One of my good friends and the leader (de facto, not self-appointed) of our local homeschool group announced last week that she enrolled all her children in public school. This is not entirely surprising because her oldest started high school earlier this year and her two middle children were planning on beginning high school this fall part-time. The big surprise is that she enrolled her youngest in first grade. This may not seem like such a big deal to people who don’t know T., or aren’t homeschoolers-even her mother was shocked. It is difficult on a couple levels.

The first is ideological. Let me preface this by saying that I don’t believe that people who choose to public or private school their children are bad, negligent or uncaring parents, nor do I think that I am a better parent for making the choice to homeschool our children. I do believe that a public school isn’t the best place to get an education, in general, but I know that everyone has to make decision based on their particular circumstances.

From my experience there are different types of homeschoolers; there are parents who don’t think that public schooling is bad, and want to keep their children at home during their formative years and plan to enroll them in middle school or high school later down the road; then there are the people who really dislike public school and homeschooling is their way of life; it’s vitally important to them and they are generally politically active to keep their homeschooling rights from being infringed upon and also vocal proponents of homeschooling. We belong to a fairly liberal and eclectic homeschooling group with a majority, if not all, of our member families falling into the second camp of homeschoolers. It would only stand to reason that our leader really embodies those ideals. And she did for all five years that I have known her. I remember having conversations in which we judged a particularly family not as committed to homeschooling as we perceived other families in the group to be.

We have had several long-term member families enroll one or more of their older children in ps in the past year or so, this was just more painful because T. is somebody who seemed so sure in her decision. If somebody like that can change, can we also? And if we don’t want to change, what can we do now to help ensure that we will be heading in the direction that we want to be heading in the future? Can several bumps in the road actually throw us off our perceived path?

T. and the other families with children now enrolled in ps were radical unschoolers. (For the uninitiated, unschooling is the concept of child-led learning. You don’t follow a curriculum, you allow your child’s interest to lead what you study. It doesn’t mean that you don’t use lesson plans or books, it just means that subjects aren’t “forced” onto a child if they aren’t interested in it.) Is this coincidental? I think there is a correlation between unschooling and a return to school. Let me explain my hypothesis.

In my heart I think that I am an unschooler. I believe that unschooling can work in ideal circumstances. I think that most unschoolers don’t have ideal circumstances. Most families don’t lead a life enriching and budget-free enough to expose their children to a sufficient number of interests and I think that it is probably easier to unschool an only child. The children I know who have been unschooled are very confident as people. That is something that is wonderful and irreplaceable and so admirable in an age where adolescents aren’t generally sure of themselves, especially girls. The unschoolers I know aren’t confident in their education and their ability to measure up to their peers in the field of academics. They don’t have the assurance that they would be able to get into college easily or get a job if they didn’t want to go to college and I think that is the failing of unschooling.* If we, as parents, feel that our children have a well-rounded education, that as unschoolers we have provided them with minimal gaps, that is a good thing. However, even if we feel that we have done this and our children don’t feel the same confidence, that is a failing. Our children can’t do well if they don’t have confidence in their own abilities and education, even if they are confident in their person. This fear is why we aren’t practicing unschoolers. We do follow (albeit loosely) a curriculum. I don’t want my children to be be resentful that we didn’t do as much as we could have and they missed out on vital lessons. I don’t want to to be regretful that I didn’t do a better job.

T.’s middle daughter told me that she is so glad that she has been homeschooled all this years. That must feel good for T. to hear from her daughter. T. has told me that the past several years have been weighing heavily on her because she feels that she didn’t do as much as she had planned. All of this has been frequently on my mind, because we have taken on such a large responsibility for our children that it’s important that we evaluate where we are and what we are doing from time to time and I think that is probably the most important thing I have gained from this experience. Somebody who was so sure and confident and had it all together made this change, so we aren’t immune from it either.

The second issue this brings up is the future of our homeschool group. Sometimes getting eclectic homeschoolers together is like herding cats. (The major downfall in our homeschool co-op experiment.) T. is our leader. With her no longer homeschooling in the future (her two middles ones are part-time right now) I don’t clearly see a successor who would step up to the plate and lead the group. This fall will be a make or break time for our group, I think. I hope enough people realize that we need to put effort into it so that we don’t lose this great source of support and friendship. I appreciate all my friendships, but I have made some really good ones through our homeschooling group and there are some things that non-homeschooling friendships simply can’t provide and don’t understand because it is a different and difficult way of life that we have chosen.

The part that makes me saddest is that T. was worried that she might lose some of her friendships and that she delayed making her decision (despite the fact the her youngest has been asking to go to school for some time now) based on her connections with our homeschool group and not wanting to let us down. It saddens me that T. became so isolated, unintentionally, by our ties to her. I will always be T.’s friend. We may have met through homeschooling, but our friendship has grown in the past five years and I still respect and admire her immensely and I’m so proud of her four children. I’ve enjoyed watching them grow up. Her youngest was just a year old when we met and her oldest was a bit older than Maddy. They are wonderful individuals. T. & W. should be proud, too.

In the next couple of days I may post some reasons why we chose to homeschool, because some people don’t really “get” homeschooling or why it would be so important to a family. I think it is also helpful for me to go back and examine why we choose to do it as part of evaluating our progress.

*This is only my perception of the results unschooling. I could be way off the mark. I have also heard of cases of unschooling academic success, but I don’t think it is the norm.

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