Bigotry is a drag

So a few years ago, my kids and some others founded the Boston Area Homeschoolers Gay-Straight Alliance, currently known as the Boston Area Homeschoolers Queer-Straight Alliance, or BAHS QSA.

Right from the get go, they dealt with people feeling uncomfortable in their midst. Since then, they’ve hosted a couple of proms, several drop-in nights for queer youth, and presented workshops at the annual GLSEN conference.

Here they go again. A local church, intending to be welcoming and supportive of local LGBTQ youth, offered their building for a dance. The teens, knowing full well that themed events are a lot more fun, decided to go with a Drag Extravaganza. Come on down, they said. Dress in drag, or not. Those who do, and who want to strut their stuff, will be invited to do so on a makeshift runway.

Five days before the fully chaperoned event, the QSA advisor got a phone call.

Sorry, said the church. That theme is not appropriate.

Unfortunately, the church didn’t ask to vet anything about the event further in advance, although their opposition would have been just as problematic whether or not it necessitated a last-minute cancellation.

Now the QSA members go forth and talk about whether to respond, how to respond, and how to process this. I wish these kids didn’t have to face this kind of a learning experience. I wish they lived in a world where acceptance was universal, and people took their discomfort as a signal to open, rather than close, their hearts.

These kids have learned, firsthand and more than once, that their work is important. I’m proud of them, impressed by their courage, and grateful for what they continually teach me. To quote a lyric from Ysaye Barnwell’s song Hope: teach on, kids. Teach on.

Satire on a snowy day

Here in New England, we’re in the midst of a blizzard, and I’m going through old files, where I found the following. About a dozen years ago, I was teaching a literature and writing class for homeschoolers, and we read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” The students were invited to try their hand at satire and write modest proposals of their own. I wrote one, too, poking fun at many of the trends and issues I was seeing in the homeschooling movement at the time. Reading it all these years later, and with a few tweaks, it still feels relevant. Here it is, dear readers, in hopes that it provides food for thought, and maybe even a few laughs.

A MODEST PROPOSAL TO GET THE EVER-GROWING NUMBERS OF HOMESCHOOLERS BACK WITH THE PROGRAM

     It is a wonderful thing to see the citizens of our great nation exercising their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is heartening to see them partake of the freedoms upon which our United States were founded.  Every so often, however, people go too far. There is no better example of this than homeschooling. To see families eschew one of the most generous offers granted to our citizenry, that of a free, equal education for all, is both fascinating and astonishing. Today, at the start of the 21st century, we do not know exactly how many of these misguided adventurers exist. Some estimate upwards of a million. Others believe there are closer to three million.

     What we know for certain is that the number of homeschoolers is growing exponentially. The clip at which idealistic parents are jumping onto this bandwagon is staggering. As precious as it is to let freedom ring, it is quite clear we can no longer allow these people free rein. Most of our citizens have evolved into the docile, accepting folk needed to maintain America’s status. It remains only for these lucky souls to graze continually in an ever-predictable existence with no decision-making burdens beyond what to buy. We have filled their pastures with plenty, and truly, they are blessed. Natural human qualities such as curiosity, ingenuity, and the desire for independence have been subdued. To the extent that they still exist, they are used productively, directed toward television, social media, football, and above all, consumerism.

     That a few people would insanely choose a lifestyle different from the norm was inevitable. That these few be allowed to create a backlash which has the potential to pull otherwise sensible people into their hare-brained scheme is unacceptable. Undoubtedly, homeschoolers will never succeed in toppling the compulsory education system, the genius of which lies in the fact that it will perpetuate itself and fulfill its mission indefinitely. But as benevolent rulers interested in the welfare of our population it is our responsibility to eradicate this trend. We must not allow these anarchists to lure others onto their fruitless path.

     I do not suggest we withdraw freedoms. That would be blasphemy, and entirely in contradiction with the good, true, and right principles we consistently practice. I also do not suggest that our current methods of control are ineffective. Surely, monitoring and regulations serve quite well to prevent total chaos, and assure that these children do not become complete pariahs. Indeed, this is our responsibility, and my proposal does not involve abandoning any of our current tactics, although I do not advocate the intimidation and harassment embraced by foolhardy public school officials in love with their own utopian vision and fantasies of power and authority (see my other modest proposal for uppity bureaucrats).

     Rather, I suggest we guide these puppets to embrace an alternate view, one that applauds the knuckle-headed decision of homeschoolers to do it themselves. We must admire their courage. We must praise their independence. We must invite them to use our schools whenever they would like. This proposal presents no danger of them spreading their disease to the institutionalized masses. Quite the opposite. With their noses in our strategically created educational materials, they will instead be cured, and the beauty is one which we know well: they will not even realize it has happened. Homeschoolers will happily take the bait of my proposal and be fully compliant citizens, as well schooled as those public schoolers they disdain, while maintaining the inner illusion that they have broken free of the system.

     Our appointed officials must be encouraged to provide homeschoolers with resources, and know that helping homeschoolers is an honorable goal they are duty bound to pursue. Any amount of time homeschooled children can be pulled into the system, either by using our materials or attending classes or receiving public monies, is a chance for indoctrination. All children deserve to have that chance. The more resources we can provide to homeschoolers, the less self-sufficiency they will develop, and the greater their opportunities for growing into dutiful, dependent Americans.

     Challenges? Not many. We face meager opposition from annoying organizations such as teachers unions, who see homeschoolers as a threat to their livelihood and would rather harass than help them. Their narrow view does not allow them to see the big picture, but then again, the big picture is only ours to see.

     One delightful aspect of this problem is that homeschoolers themselves are coming to our aid. The divisiveness within their ranks is severe, and unsurprising given their propensity toward free thinking. Fortunately, the majority has been trained well enough to remain complacent and smug and for the most part in the dark about larger machinations. More and more of them greedily take the bait we offer, snapping it up like dogs to a bone. Some have even given in to their better capitalistic instincts by creating learning and resource centers, which they actively market to fellow homeschoolers, especially new ones, depriving them of the opportunity to create their own learning experiences. These newfangled institutions market unorthodox methods, but their offerings are nothing we haven’t seen and dealt with in prior decades, and at least they serve to keep their patrons’ cash circulating in the market economy. It is heartening to see that while these individuals have strayed from their better judgment in some ways, at the core they have absorbed the important lessons, and still understand the flexibility and choice which succumbing to consumerism offers.

     Even more impressive are the numbers of homeschoolers the Christian right has brought on board, particularly in the area of legal matters. Clever people they are, dispensing propaganda that plays directly into homeschoolers’ natural fear of our authority. These enterprising folks have managed to breed a hysterical paranoia, convincing homeschoolers who don’t even subscribe to their religious philosophies that we are after them with a vengeance, and that a small financial investment offers the security they crave. Homeschoolers can’t seem to fork it over quickly enough, contributing blissfully, substantially, and obliviously to their own disempowerment. Which, of course, leaves them ripe for grabbing the carrots we dangle before them, and now, my friends, I come to the crux of my proposal.

     It is time to go beyond friendly support as bait to return homeschoolers to the system. Technological advances allow us to employ far more effective means. We can let them stay at home and enroll them in the system all at the same time. We offer them free curriculum, free supplies, free computers, and free experts to keep an eye on them. They continue to be “homeschoolers” while absorbing all the important lessons about following directions, knowing their place, looking to authorities to tell them what to think, and the like.

      I am sure that by now you see the brilliance of my proposal, which allows us to brainwash those who foolishly choose to homeschool. We must not doubt that renegade individuals such as homeschoolers are brainwashable. Geniuses such as George Orwell and B.F. Skinner have clearly shown us otherwise. Orwell’s failing was his inability to see the kindness this extends to the human race, and the imperative of conditioning for the greater good. This is our mandate, our responsibility, and our most noble and moral purpose.

Benign neglect

I was chatting with a fellow homeschooling mom the other day, one who regularly talks to newbies looking for support. Midway into one of those conversations, she realized the suggestions she was offering might seem — well, a little neglectful.

I laughed, knowing just what she meant. I sometimes find myself casually announcing that I did zilch to teach my kids to read, and that I don’t bother monitoring their writing. When I see the surprised looks, or hear the silence on the other end of the phone, I am reminded that the way I homeschool runs counter to the conventional wisdom about how to educate children.

That doesn’t change the fact that letting kids freely play, explore, question, and experience life works.

However loosey goosey this may sound, it is not hands-off parenting. Just the opposite. It entails close involvement with your kids, and keen and caring observation. We watch to see what our kids care about, what they’re curious about, and what they do. We help them find materials, make suggestions for activities we think would be a good fit, answer their questions, and talk to them about things we think are important.

When kids enter the teen years, the particulars may change, but the song remains the same. Kids transitioning toward adulthood still need freedom to learn and grow, and they still need our guidance.

We can give them the independence to find volunteer positions or jobs, choose community college courses (and get to them on their own), launch independent projects, attend cultural and social events, and research options for college and work. My husband and I trust our teenage daughters’ innate intelligence and abilities as much as ever, but we continue to guide them by offering choices, talking, negotiating, and acting as models.

So no, I’m not being neglectful when I say I haven’t seen anything my kids have written in a while, or mention that I’m not sure what they’re reading right now, or remark that I have no idea what they’ve been quietly working on all morning.

My eyes are on the big picture, not the small potatoes. I’m aiming for intangibles like critical thinking, love of learning, and involvement in the world rather than a folder full of schoolwork. I’m watching, with awe, fascination, and love, the miraculous process of my kids growing up.

Peace + park day

What is it about park day?

The other night a homeschooling mom was telling me about her first time attending a local park day for young children. Several older kids came, and the play turned rough.

As the new kid on the block, she thought staying quiet was best. But as a mom, she decided to broach the subject. She told me that her questions were met with lectures and dismissal. She left feeling judged, and she hasn’t gone back.

As she related her experience, I nodded my head in recognition. Over more than two decades of homeschooling, I’ve seen way too many rifts over park days. Seriously? Fights over going to the playground?

It may sound ridiculous, but park day can be sacred. For many support groups, it serves as the glue that holds the community together. It’s the place where families go regularly to gather, play, socialize, and forge connections. It’s also where new homeschoolers go, often enthusiastically, but sometimes tentatively, as an entry point to the brave new world they’ve decided to inhabit.

I don’t mean to imply that park days create more problems than they’re worth. They don’t. Park days are a beautiful thing, and many of my fondest memories involve sunny days laughing around picnic tables, dipping toes in the brook, watching games of ultimate frisbee and kickball, and engaging in spirited discussion with other adults.

But like every situation where people gather in groups, agreement is not always a given. I wasn’t present at the above scenario, but maybe the parents whose kids were playing so rambunctiously felt they had to defend their choices, or their certainty about the value of their children’s play obscured their ability to hear another’s concerns. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that they didn’t intend to make anyone feel unheard or unsafe, but unfortunately, that is what happened. “All I wanted was to talk about it,” the mom who shared her story said.

Simple, and yet so, so difficult.

The story put me in mind of something I heard at a neighborhood event I recently attended. “Community,” someone said, “is where the person you least want to be there, is.”

We like to think about community through rose-colored glasses, as some idyllic, utopian existence where everyone gets along every minute of every day. The truth is, being in relationship with others is messy. When we venture into groups, it’s inevitable that we’ll encounter people we don’t agree with. Maybe we don’t like their views, or their parenting styles, or the clothes they wear, or the way they talk. When this happens, learning to peacefully coexist can be a challenge, especially in homeschooling support groups where there’s often no clear leader or defined decision-making process. Throw in the fact that homeschoolers, by nature, tend to be strong-willed folk with strong opinions, and it can make navigating a support group feel a bit like stepping into the wild west.

This makes it even more important to listen to each other as best we can, and be open to compromise and change. Sometimes, we’ll reach agreement. Other times, we’ll agree to disagree. Still other times, we’ll part ways. If we’re really lucky, we may see each other clearly, and the person that was the one we least wanted to be there, becomes one we couldn’t imagine living without.

Resources:

Why and How to Get Connected

I Sought, I Found, I Joined; Now What?

Getting the most out of your support group

13 things I want you to know about homeschooling

Last fall there was an article in Reader’s Digest called Why Homeschool? 13 Things Homeschoolers Want You to Know. The author claims to have asked homeschooling parents for these tidbits, but she didn’t ask me. If she had, here’s what I would have said.

1. Anyone can do it.I could never do that’ is a statement homeschooling parents hear all the time, but homeschooling isn’t nearly so hard as many people think.

2. There’s not one right way. Homeschooling is the ultimate individualized education. No how-to manual could begin to cover the myriad styles, approaches, and routines homeschooling families embrace.

3. Homeschooling doesn’t mean sitting at home all day. Don’t take the word ‘homeschooling’ literally. Learning happens at the library, the park, the museum, the nature sanctuary, all over the place.

4. Homeschooling is a lifestyle. It’s not just about how kids learn the three R’s. It’s about building relationships, cuddling up on the couch with a good book, spending lazy days at the beach, hanging at the museum for hours, exploring the community, and living in the moment.

5. Socialization is actually a plus. Because they’re not age-segregated on a daily basis, homeschoolers are more likely to associate with people of varied ages. For a lot of parents, that makes socialization one of the benefits of homeschooling.

6. Homeschooling parents don’t have to teach everything. Yes, we teach our kids a lot, but much of the time, we’re acting as facilitators. We tap into resources on the internet, in the community, and beyond. And let’s not forget the oft-overlooked fact that kids teach themselves quite a lot, too.

7. Homeschoolers are a market. From curriculum companies, to learning centers, to self-employed tutors, somebody’s always trying to sell us something. More often than not, it’s something we don’t need.

8. Homeschoolers are a diverse group. The reasons people come to homeschooling are broad and varied, so don’t make assumptions before getting to know us.

9. Homeschoolers enjoy time, space, and sleep. Our kids have lots of time to laugh, play, ponder, and create. Not getting enough z’s isn’t good for anybody, so the chance to get adequate rest is a boon.

10. Homeschoolers get into college. The Ivy League, private colleges, state schools, trade schools, you name it. They’ve all accepted homeschoolers.

11. Homeschooling is just another way to educate kids. Some kids go to public school, some go to private school, and some are homeschooled. Simple as that.

12. Homeschooling is good for society. Variety is the spice of life, and diversity in education makes our country a more vibrant, option-filled place to be.

13. Homeschoolers are all around you. We’re at the playground, in the supermarket, at the library. We’re in math clubs, on sports teams, in theater productions. Our grown-up kids are teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, carpenters, therapists, engineers, artists, and computer programmers. We’re living our lives in the community, like everyone else.

Into the pot

Do I read blogs? Sometimes. Do I follow any? Not really. Nevertheless, I’ve finally succumbed to creating my own, something my kids have been nudging me to do for awhile, which means I ought to have at least a couple of readers.

The truth is, I’d rather curl up with an old-fashioned book, or something tangible, like a newspaper or magazine. Yes, I am of that generation. Still, I have a Kindle and like it, and I spend plenty of time on the computer. Like everyone else, I pick and choose, constructing my life with what’s available, and for the most part, I feel grateful for the choices.

That doesn’t mean I always appreciate the bombardment of information, commentary, advertising, and propaganda that being connected presents me with on a daily basis. All those ingredients can lead to a veritable stew of confusion.

Sometimes, though, they come together just right. Whether in a slow simmer, an explosive boil, or a quick sear, when we aren’t afraid to throw what we find into the pan, clarity, inspiration, and understanding can come.

Here’s to potluck.