“I was home-schooled.”
It’s a line I used to explain a lot of my shortcomings. Like the fact that I have never seen “The Big Lebowski” or that I didn’t know what “Friends” was until college. And to be honest, I’ve still only seen a couple of episodes.
So I tell people, “I was home-schooled,” along with my seven siblings and until my freshman year of high school, when I talk about why I never learned to do long division until the pandemic forced me to learn from Khan Academy videos at my kitchen table, while my daughter cried over her worksheet and asked me why I couldn’t do third-grade math. It’s why I didn’t know about the Civil Rights movement until I entered my senior year of high school, and didn’t know about Watergate until college, but could name the entire pantheon of Greek gods.
Even though there are many holes in my cultural education, for the most part I loved being home-schooled. In suburban Dallas, where I grew up, my siblings and I wallowed and rolled up and down in the mud by the creek. I read whatever I could get my hands on, spending hours up in trees with a stack of books, a thermos of lemonade and a lunch of leftover fried chicken and bread and butter. At age 10, I learned to shoot at 4-H, and shot a 2-in-1 with a French dueling pistol and musket balls I’d made myself.
In birth order it goes like this: Oldest sister, me, Zach, Becky, Cat, Ruth, Caleb and Noah, and we were each home-schooled for different amounts of time. Some of us went to public high school, others were home-schooled and then went to a private Christian school run out of a church in Florida, before going to public school, or not, or just going straight to community college. My youngest brother, who has Down syndrome, is the only exception — he has always gone to public school.
When my parents began home-schooling in the mid-80s, it was even more of a fringe movement. My mom was often afraid that the state would try to take us away from her because she didn’t enroll us in school.
But as I grew older, and more siblings were born, the internet expanded access to home-school groups, and some local school districts adapted, hiring liaisons to coordinate educational standards. In 1995, when I was 13, between 1-2 percent of children in America were home-schooled. In 2016, that number was closer to 3 percent — a small but growing proportion of the school-age population.
With the exception of my oldest sister, we all thought that we would never home-school our children. But then the pandemic came, and made liars out of the rest of us. We were forced to contend with our past, pressured to see the good, or go running screaming farther from it.
Personally, I didn’t want to home-school my children. Home-schooling was my mother’s full-time job and I didn’t want it to be mine. And then there is religion. The home-schooled world I grew up in was heavily Evangelical, as are the home-schoolers I know in town. I felt it would be hard to escape if I chose to home-school where I live. I also wanted my kids to learn from other people, other perspectives — I wanted their worlds to be bigger than mine was.
But I wanted to hear what my siblings felt about their home-school experience, so I interviewed five of them. My oldest sister did not want to participate, and my youngest brother could not participate because he is mostly nonverbal. I asked them how they felt about our past and what they wanted for their children. And I talked to my parents about their thoughts on how they raised us and what, if they could, they would do different.
Asking each one of us what it was like to grow up in our house is like breaking a mirror and watching the pieces reflect the light. It is the same but always different.
My dad emails me to say he’d do it all over again. “Home-schooling provided opportunities to do things with you guys, like 4-H, extended vacations, playing with rockets and owl pellets, that may not have been there in competition with all that’s involved with ‘outsourced’ schooling.” (By “outsourced schooling” he means public and private schools.)
And when he talks about vacations and 4-H, he’s talking about long road trips we’d take to visit historical sites across America. Trundling out of Texas in our 15-passenger van, pulling an R.V. We saw Plymouth, Mass., the Hudson Valley and went to every place Laura Ingalls Wilder ever lived. We raised chickens, although they didn’t do well because my mom didn’t know how to work the incubator, and the chickens that survived mostly pecked each other to death. I had to present about our chickens to 4-H in a presentation my parents insisted I title “A Fowl Failure.”
And then my dad added something surprising: “I’m proud of how you all turned out. I don’t sense that any of you have been panicked or overwhelmed by the prospect of pandemic schooling. It seems like an opportunity to get grounded with your kids, who are turning out fine as well.”
I talk to my mom on the phone and tell her what my dad said. She laughed. “Of course he thinks it’s fine, he wasn’t there! He was at work.”
Now that she’s decided my dad is wrong, my mom wants me to know that I am wrong. She didn’t home-school us for religious reasons; she wanted to home-school us because she and my dad remembered what it was like to be kids in school, feeling lost and unchallenged. They are both very smart, and our family folklore includes tales of my dad being bored in school so he caused mischief — things like putting rotten eggs in the heating vent, and fixing it so a doorknob had a small electrical current.
My parents moved to Texas in 1983, right after my dad graduated from Stanford Law School. My mom says the schools were so bad that she didn’t want to send us. I don’t know what “bad” means. She explained it as testing scores, but we were in the suburbs of Dallas, how bad could it have been?
My mom has a degree in Early Childhood education from Worchester State College. She was reading a lot of Rousseau and Transcendentalists and studies on the fundamentals of play and learning, and she decided to keep us home. The religion came later, she says. The women she knew who home-schooled she met through the Bible church we attended. Our lessons began and ended with the Bible. Stories about people in history like Abigail Adams and Robert E. Lee reflected on their biblical character qualities. We learned handwriting by copying out Bible verses.
She would change things if she had it to do over again. My mother would have done more of a hybrid experience — part home-school, part online or in a classroom — like my younger siblings had after I left for college. She said she’d be less restrictive in our reading; less Western in her history lessons and worldview.
Zach, 36, home-schooled until sophomore year, then attended public school
Zach emailed me: “Home-schooling for me at the time was probably the best choice. I of course struggled with pretty much everything, but specifically, reading. If I was heckled and made fun of in school, I would have probably never learned to be a good reader. Looking back, I now realize that being home-schooled allowed me to teach myself on my own terms and in my own way.”
“But home-schooling should have ended in high school. I needed to learn to talk and interact with people and engage with new ideas. And there are huge gaps in my education. Then and even to this day, I will frantically immerse myself into a subject to learn it because I just assume everyone around me is miles and miles ahead of me academically. “
But when I ask him if he would home-school his own kids, he said: “Never.”
I am given no other explanation.
Becky, 34, home-schooled through high school, but did a mix of community college classes, hybrid courses and co-ops through a private school
Becky has prepared answers for each age category — it’s orderly. Pre-K to third grade: Yes, home-school. After that, no. She gets questions about home-schooling a lot, because people are curious: We grew up weird. Becky is also dyslexic and struggled to learn to read. She thinks being home-schooled was perfect up until third grade. After that, she wanted more structure.
Our youngest brother was born then, and his needs took up all our mother’s time. No one resented it, but Becky wrote, “I was independently learning more and more and now felt the lack. I really wanted to play sports during these years.”
In high school, Becky attended co-ops — classes put together by home-schooling parents for other home-schoolers. She also attended community college.
“Going early to college was the best for me and I wish I had started it earlier. Advanced courses are so important at this stage, so if home-schooling is your choice, you really need to ask yourself, why? Learning at home is near impossible independently. Expertise is needed in subjects to teach. So, unless the parent is a high-school teacher, good luck teaching all the necessary classes.”
Becky does believe in nontraditional learning. But she tells me she would not home-school her own children, should she have any.
Cat, 31, home-schooled until middle school, then attended co-ops and community college
Most of us did not have a linear path through the education system, but if you could say that any of us has zigged and zagged through school, it would be Cat.
She went to community college, then college, the Aveda institute, then college again. Now the police academy to be a parole officer, and soon graduate school for criminal justice.
Here is what Cat said about being home-schooled: “I always tell people who ask if I wish I could have gone to public school: I didn’t know any different and don’t think I missed out on much.”
“Now, however, I think if I’d been in a classroom my eyesight issues might have been taken care of earlier. And I’ve always wondered if I had a learning disability. I also wish I’d been around different types of people besides white Evangelicals. I think if I’d been allowed to date in high school it might have helped me form better relationships. And be less weird.But I learned to value education and I know how to teach myself anything.”
“I don’t want kids, but if I had one I’d put them in school simply for the interaction.”
Ruth, 29, home-schooled until middle school, then co-ops and community college
Ruth talks to me on the phone for two hours. We are almost eight years apart and I’m surprised by what her childhood was like — how different it was. Our family lived in Florida by the time I was in college, and there my siblings attended a school that met two days a week, with the rest of the work being done at home. Ruth tells me about going to that hybrid school, which was run out of a church they attended in St. Petersburg. How religious everyone was. “We were too liberal for the home-schoolers, and too conservative for the rest of the world.”
Her education came in between places. Ruth struggled in school; she believes she’s on the Autism spectrum and this year she wanted to get diagnosed to have some clarity. But then the world fell apart.
She thinks she would have done better in public school with help. Her daughter is 7 and is on the spectrum, and gets help through their district in Colorado. Watching her daughter receive all that help has made Ruth feel both sad and inspired. She wishes she had that, but she also thinks maybe she can still continue her education with support.
She didn’t go to college, not yet, but she hopes to.
She said she would never home-school her kids.
Caleb, 27, home-schooled until high school, then went to public high school
I talk to Caleb two weeks after he became a dad. He says his daughter is perfect and he’s not tired, and I believe him. Caleb was in the army, he left school as soon as he could enlist, and he is now a police officer. He says nothing is harder than having five sisters. One baby? That won’t break him.
I tell him to have eight then if he’s so tough. “Don’t be dumb,” he said.
Unlike the rest of us, Caleb has little nostalgia for home-schooling. Whatever golden years us four eldest had in Texas, he didn’t experience that. It’s like he was raised by a different family.
I remember dragging him around in his baby carrier, dressing him up in clothes and rocking him to sleep for his naps. I called him my baby. And my son now looks so much like him, I sometimes call them by the same name.
But Caleb doesn’t remember playing in a creek; what he remembers is his older siblings leaving. He remembers the scream fights in the kitchen with mom as we rebelled against religion and rules. He doesn’t remember learning a lot, he just felt very alone.
Noah is three years younger, and Caleb has always had a special relationship with him. He’s able to communicate with Noah in ways the rest of us can’t. But Noah’s lack of verbal skills and high needs meant Caleb felt that home-schooling was isolating. Plus, he wanted to play sports.
Later in high school, Caleb would play football and then join the cheerleading team. Eventually, he would play semiprofessional rugby, but until then, before he had sports, he had nothing.
I had a moment in April, when keeping up with my daughter’s online school was so hard and I felt I had lost my son to screen time, that I decided I would just home-school in the fall if I had to. I’d do it. After all, it hadn’t broken me, had it? And maybe we’d had fun.
Two weeks ago, my children’s school sent out a tiered plan that included three options: school only, three days at home and two days at school, and online only. Many of my friends are hiring tutors and forming online learning pods; others are just keeping their kids at home.
But despite all my fond memories of home-schooling, I truly don’t have that option. As a working single mom, it would be impossible to coordinate home-schooling with my ex and his new partner and all of our jobs. So, as the virus continues to ravage my state, and now a giant storm devastating our town two weeks before school was scheduled to start, we are at the mercy of whatever the schools decide.