School is out

The important thing about home schooling isn't getting away from school. It's getting back into your home.

Published October 1, 1997 10:37AM (EDT)

I really do look around at times with a little surge of bewilderment, even mild panic, at finding myself here in the middle of the dropout's dream, and it's teaching the kids at home that makes it all happen. Right at this moment, while other parents are starting the day's work and other kids the first week of school, I'm in my ragged bathrobe drinking tea and writing these very notes, and lounging on one couch while my daughter Lana, wrapped in an afghan on another, reads a French-Indian War novel called "Flame-Colored Taffeta" and my wife Cindy and son Dan play chess ... and when, in the interest of being specific for this article, I wonder out loud what time it is, nobody seems to know.

It's hard to recall the moment just yesterday when Dan's struggle against mathematics, waged with subtle strength, with a deadpan face and a deft, not quite deliberate obtuseness, made me feel like killing him. The tears and terrors are fewer now than when we started this experiment, but it's still hard to imagine a public school teacher exciting this kind of stubborn and personal resistance over mere lessons -- to rules and bossing, yes -- but to decimal points? The laws of science feel less important when it's just Mom delivering them in the living room. Even after three years, there's still something not quite right about it: She doesn't bring the weight of a massive modern public institution to bear on the process of conveying that it's time to review math. (Most of Dan's disgust yesterday was with the repetition, the reviewing. Just as I once did in the soul-stifling, uninspiring government schools, he wants to provide the answer, forget the lesson and move on.)

As parents with home-based occupations, we'd always had at least a little time for at least a fumbling interest in the kids' schooling. First we were in the volunteer phase down at the school -- Cindy was anyway, heading over there twice a week to help out. I'd seen plenty of school in my life and didn't go around those places any more. Cindy's volunteer period ended when we moved for a few months to Iowa City, where we'd been told we'd find "the second-best schools in the country," and she found it was just a lot of keeping quiet and forming two lines, and decided that maybe the kids had to go school, but she didn't.

We were back in our country-style North Idaho school district hardly a month before, my hands trembling with rage, I was firing off letters to the local papers:

My family and I just read about the sweep-search of the Sandpoint Middle School. Cops and dogs locked the children down for three hours while they combed through lockers and belongings. They found a pistol and a bag of marijuana, not a big haul, but the principal was satisfied that he'd managed to "send a message." Wow! That's some message! My kids go to Mt. Hall Elementary about 50 miles north, and they heard it all the way up here. A couple of questions: What language is that message in, exactly? And one my son Daniel asked: "How come they didn't just use the intercom?"

We'd been wondering about alternatives anyhow, if only because the bus stop was five miles from our house, and the school was 13 miles from the bus stop. We'd asked around vaguely about home schooling -- who do you apply to for permission to do that? It turned out that Idaho is one of several states where education isn't compulsory. Hey, you don't even have to Just Say No. All you do is quit putting the kids on the bus.

Then the canine squad searched the local high school, and found a joint in a car. Would they get around to searching the grade school our kids attended? No. But a police sergeant brought a dog around and introduced him to all the kids. And you can bet there wasn't any discussion of the Fourth Amendment with the pup, Fido, Sparky, I really didn't care what his name was. I just didn't want him included in my children's education. I didn't want them taught to sit still for suspicionless searches.

I wrote more letters to the local editors, actually the same letter in many moods -- funny-sarcastic, terrified-hysterical, insane-obscene -- then we took the kids out of school.

Did we have any doubts? Nothing but doubts. I'd taught elementary school for a year in my 20s, but in addition to getting some classroom experience that wouldn't apply in this situation, I'd only proved to myself unassailably that I wasn't qualified to teach children anything. Daniel and Lana were willing and curious, but a little confused. Cindy didn't know where to start either, so we agreed to start anywhere.

And we did. We started getting up later and hanging around together and Cindy and I tried to teach Lana and Daniel, formerly of the third and fourth grades, what the professionals were teaching over at Mt. Hall Elementary. We began by spending about three hours at it every weekday, using a first- through eighth-grade mail-order curriculum from the Calvert School, a correspondence outfit that's been in business for a century. I didn't like it any better than real school, and pretty soon I wasn't helping much. In fact before long it began to seem to me not only possible but maybe even desirable and perhaps even wonderful that our children would develop into ignorant savages.

To anybody curious about the essentials of home schooling, I'd say that's the key attitude: a willingness to fail utterly at doing what the schools do. Because what the schools do is stop the children from doing what the children can do.

Within a year, none of us really cared any more what the professionals were teaching. What we've derived in the way of a system continues to evolve, but I've just conducted a survey among the participants, and here's how things presently stand:

Everybody has to be up by 8 a.m. on weekdays, and sometime before lunch the kids have to do their chores (laundry, dishes, dog food) and complete one lesson each from the Saxon Math curriculum. The kids presently don't seem to know how many Calvert School grammar lessons they're expected to do per week. Two? Three? It's three, actually, but the irregularity makes it easy to skate. Once a month or so I put them to work writing an essay, using examples from a college textbook, the only thing handy. Sometimes they finish, and sometimes I forget I ever assigned it. Three days a week we drive to town for singing lessons, dancing lessons, tae kwon do. In the winter they go skiing every Friday.

On their own, Daniel and Lana each read four or five books a week, mostly fiction, although they've both picked up enough Greek and Roman mythology and American history to make me feel ignorant. Lana wrote a weekly newsletter for a year or so and volunteered at a private dog shelter until it closed. They both use the Internet a lot, Daniel searching for free games and Lana corresponding with key-pals and looking for bargain books she never actually buys.

What about friends their own age? The kids have to work at their friendships now, using the phone and mail and arranging visits. They don't see their comrades every day. Some days they don't like that, most days they don't seem bothered. But the question of friendships touches on a larger and vaguer question. Just as people used to ask me how much my Great Dane weighed and how much he ate, people invariably ask about home schooling -- "How will the kids be socialized?" When in turn I ask what it means to be socialized the answers vary wildly, but everybody seems to agree that there's no better way to get it done to you than to be tossed into a kind of semi-prison environment with a whole lot of other persons born the same year you were.

I question that now. After three years learning at home, Daniel and Lana seem sociable in a way I wouldn't have hoped for. They don't convey the impression I usually get from kids, and must have given to my own elders, that they're pretending, wishing -- as I certainly did -- that grown-ups didn't exist. They live in the same world we, their parents, live in. They look us in the eye. We're counted among their friends.

When I asked the kids this morning what they like about home schooling, they said "incredible freedom" and "lots of leisure." Lana mentioned being able to spend time with me and Cindy. What about the drawbacks? -- "Can't see our friends every day." "People act like we're odd." "They make me feel alienated." "People always say, 'So! When are you going back to school?'" This last is something I often notice too -- the expectation that every experiment must end.

I don't want it to. It's changed all of us, and speaking just for myself, I'd be hard put even to find the language to talk across the gap to the person I was before.

Like somebody who's finally through with a hopeless marriage after far, far too long, I get a little sideways when I talk about it, and I'm not sure my perceptions of the institution can be altogether trusted. But I'm finding it takes a long time to get loose of school, and it's time well spent.

We started out anxious about whether we could match what the schools give. We ended up with totally new heads -- wanting to match nothing, none of it, desiring only to wallow in this tremendous relief at no longer having to participate. Man! -- it's like the Church in the 14th century. And we've gone pagan.

From a place on the sidelines, out of the fray, I think I'm starting to see School for what it is: unbelievably deep-rooted, so all-pervading as to be beyond our powers to take it in, and almost 100 percent bogus.

School! A lot of my confusion as a human being would have cleared right up if I'd met just one person, among my educators, who didn't act surprised that I hated it, and them.

Daniel and Lana always got along fine in school, as a matter of fact, and really didn't mind it very much. Of course, I think this is a
much better way for them to live, and they think so too, otherwise we'd
send them back. But maybe I'm the one who's getting the most out of
this arrangement. I feel like I'm finally getting shed of the
classroom. I'm the one who needed to get away. The most important thing about home schooling is that it isn't School at all. It's Home. Well into middle age and happier than ever in the world, I'm finding that this is what I needed to close up the last really big gash in my past -- to belong to a family that has nothing to do with School, that lives apart from School, safe and protected from School.

By Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson is the author of a collection of short stories, "Jesus' Son," and five novels, including "Angels," "Fiskadoro" and his latest, "Already Dead: A California Gothic." His last piece for Salon, "Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells," was about a monsoon-plagued Boy Scout campout in the Philippines.

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