Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #22: Homeschooling

Depending on your background, the word "homeschooling" might conjure up images of prairie dresses, nerdy spelling bee champions, and cultural disconnectedness -- or perhaps more positive pictures of cozy family educational moments around the dining room table, beaming children completely enthralled by their math problems and history projects. While reality includes a little bit of each of these pictures, it is also a lot more complex.

In my experience as a homeschooled child, homeschooling was both normal - in the church culture in which I grew up - and bizarre - to our neighbors and to the friends I met in my ballet class, not to mention the well-meaning strangers who were perplexed to see school-age children walking around the grocery store at noon on a weekday.

Even today, when I happen to mention that I was homeschooled for the majority of my elementary school career, I get varied responses: everything from "But you're so normal!" to "Me too!" to "I always wondered what that would be like." I've grown accustomed to the fact that my homeschooling background makes me somewhat of an oddity in most settings, and I actually rather enjoy the chance to describe my experience to those who are curious and even skeptical.

I tell them about the most commonly-described benefits of homeschooling, about how in contrast to a classroom of 20-30 students, homeschooled students receive the benefit of truly individualized instruction and are able to learn at their own pace. I tell them about how homeschooling allows students space to pursue their own interests and passions, how my "homework" was done by 1 or 2 p.m at the latest, allowing me plenty of time to read for pleasure, write in my journal, and run around outside in the fresh air. I also tell them that homeschooling is definitely not for everyone, how as an educator myself I would never recommend it for every family or every kid.

What I talk about less frequently though - and find more difficult to even notice - is how much my eight years of homeschooling shaped me as a person in so many little ways, mostly for the better, but sometimes making me, well, just a little different :)

Because I was homeschooled,

*I spent thousands more hours with my family than I ever would have otherwise.

*I sometimes felt/feel left out when people talk about elementary school experiences like recess, snow days, field trips, and school lunches. For example, I never got to bring cupcakes to class for my birthday, though I guess I wouldn't have anyway since my birthday is in July.

*I didn't write my name on my school papers until I started attending public school in middle school. I just expected to be known.

*I entered middle school not really knowing how I compared academically to other students. I got to enjoy 7 years of learning without seeing it as a competition or worrying about where I fit in the rankings. Though I would later find a great deal of identity in my scholastic achievements, my early years focused on learning for the sake of learning, a gift for which I am very grateful. I can only imagine how much more achievement-oriented I might be were it not for those years.

*I find it difficult to read novels unless I have the time and space to read them from cover to cover. When I was homeschooled, I read an entire book (usually Nancy Drew or Boxcar Children or the like) each afternoon, and I never really learned how to read a few chapters each day over the course of several weeks. As a result, I still tend to read fiction primarily when I am on vacation or when I can otherwise step away from my responsibilities for at least a few uninterrupted hours. I sometimes wish I had developed a habit of reading a few chapters before bedtime, as I would be able to read a lot more that way.

*Learning with and from my family feels normal to me. They are the first people I call when I have a question about something - be it domestic, theological, practical, scientific, or literary. When we are all together, we love to talk books and ideas.

*I'm comfortable working with and befriending people of lots of different ages. Since I didn't spend my early years surrounded by a large group of my peers, I value being around people both older and younger than me.

*My expectation of life tends to include freedom to pursue my various interests and to spend time with people. Since homeschooling took up such a relatively small portion of my day, I grew up accustomed to lots of "free" time; during busy seasons of life, I have often struggled that "work" takes up so much of my day. Homeschooling spoiled me a bit in that regard.

I am sure there are many more effects I could list; any other homeschooled folks care to add some?

Thirty Pieces of My Thirty Years #17: Teaching

One of my favorite 8th grade classes.

This week marks the start of spring classes at George Mason University. I read my colleagues' messages on Facebook, identifying with the first day jitters and excitement they are reporting, but for the first time in almost 9 years, I'm not headed back to teaching after winter break. Instead of managing a room full of squirrely eighth graders or trying to engage some lethargic second semester freshman in the wonders of Shakepeare, I'm here at home, sipping hot cocoa, blasting my space heater, and getting ready to have a baby.

I'm not sure the reality has really sunk in yet. So far, I just feel like I am on some sort of extended winter break. I'm relishing the time I have to organize our house, set up the nursery, read marriage and parenting books, and write. This time is a real gift to me.

But at some point, I expect, I will wake up one day and realize that I miss teaching. It might come in a few weeks, when the nursery is ready and waiting, when I am left with only the daunting uncertainties of motherhood stretching before me. Or it may come this spring, when my days are consumed with diapers and feedings and the absence of sleep, when even a pile of essays to grade or a classroom full of eighth graders after lunch in the springtime would be a welcome relief. Or perhaps it will take until the fall, when I always feel an almost magical excitement about a new school year, fresh, unmarred, waiting to be unfurled.

The reality is that I've been in school for 25 of my 30 years, either being taught or teaching. My only "real" jobs have been teaching jobs - five years of teaching English at a public middle school, three and a half years teaching composition and literature at George Mason.

And though it has often been very hard, I have loved much about teaching. I have loved putting good books into the hands of my students, loved seeing reluctant readers get hooked on a series and avid readers discovering a new favorite. I have loved the challenge of educating, the impossible task of connecting material with hundreds of different learners and personalities, of making a skill that seems abstract and impossible into one that students see as concrete and possible. I have loved the creative and energetic and sometimes downright goofy part of me that comes out when I am standing in front of a classroom, loved making my students laugh and have fun learning, sometimes in spite of themselves. I have loved the many colleagues who have become friends, loved collaborating with them and laughing and venting and sometimes even crying with them over the ups and downs of the teaching life.

And I have loved my students. Their faces flash before me now, so many of them - Jamie, Mike, Hilary, Cecilia, those whose names I can't remember but whose stories I will never forget. They have inspired me, challenged me, impressed me, and taught me. Because of them, I am more appreciative of God's creativity in making each person unique. Because of them, I am more aware of my impatience and self-righteousness and the ways I will be challenged as a parent. Because of them, I am more conscious of how very blessed I have been and of how very hard life can sometimes be. I could go on and on.

In truth, teaching has been so much a part of my life and my identity as an adult that in some ways, it is hard for me to imagine myself apart from it. When I meet people now and they ask me what I do, I still sometimes say that I am a teacher. It's the answer I've been giving the past eight and a half years, and since I don't really feel like a mother yet, it somehow seems like the most accurate thing to say.

I don't know when I might return to teaching in some sort of official capacity. I may teach a class or two on a part-time basis as soon as the fall; I may teach again when our children are in school themselves. And I may not ever again write the word teacher on my income tax return. The future holds many unknowns. But I do hope that whether I am being paid to stand in front of a classroom or not, I will carry with me the lessons from my teaching years and always be a teacher in the truest sense of the word, helping others to learn and grow and reach their full, God-given potential.