The COVID-19 crisis has pulled homeschooling into the forefront of the news. As shuttered schools transfer curriculum online, families are left to administer virtual education while many deal with grief, job loss, income reduction, spikes in anxiety and depression, and other challenges. Established homeschooling families know that homeschooling by choice bears little resemblance to the “crisis schooling” families are facing now, but it seems clear that come fall, the number of families choosing not to re-enroll their children is going to rise dramatically.
In the middle of this unexpected and unwelcome pandemic, on the cusp of a massive surge in homeschooling, I celebrate the graduations of my oldest kid and my youngest kid, both receiving degrees from the University of Massachusetts.
Our family embraced slow homeschooling, or as I used to call it and many still do, unschooling. This was a philosophy I came to in my early days of homeschooling, back in the 1990s. Finding my way to it was an organic process that grew from reading books by John Holt and others, interactions with the larger community, and most of all, day to day life with my children. The simultaneous college graduations of my bookend kids are reflective of the winding, unconventional, responsive-to-the-world approach to life our slow homeschooling nurtured.
My oldest was the only one to go to public high school, from which she graduated in the top ten of her class then didn’t bother with college. She worked as a massage therapist with hospice patients, then waitressed for a while, then took a job at a day program for adults with intellectual disabilities, a population she’s been working with for about a decade, as a case manager, behavior specialist, and now in a supervisory capacity. Along the way she got married, had two children, and enrolled at UMass Amherst. She’s now the holder of a BA in Psychology Summa Cum Laude. Coming in her mid-thirties, after almost two adult decades of life experience and exploration, the degree is no more or less of an accomplishment than it is for younger folks, but it arrives with perhaps a bit more perspective. Her story, along with the many stories of adults who go back to university or enroll in grad school to follow new or old pursuits and passions, is a reminder that college is available at any age, and diverging from the cookie cutter scenario of college straight out of high school is just fine.
My youngest went the opposite route, enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Boston at 18 with a full scholarship to the Honors College and several credits already earned. She was slated to get her degree last year at the age of 20 but decided to change her major and stick around until 2020 to get her Bachelor’s in Women and Gender Studies with honors and a Theatre Arts minor. She chose UMass for several reasons, including the diverse student body, but the scholarship was also a big factor, and it has allowed her to graduate debt-free, something that, given the current economic outlook for the foreseeable future, is a pretty good thing.
In between my oldest and my youngest, I have one kid who dropped out of college and one who graduated in 2019. The former was enrolled in music school but quit to pursue being a full-time folk musician, a rewarding career that has just been turned topsy turvy by the need for social distancing. The latter earned her BA in Psychology cum laude, with a secondary in music, from Harvard College. The spring before she enrolled I was interviewed for an article on homeschooling for Boston Magazine. When they learned that I had a kid going to Harvard in the fall, they put her on the cover of the magazine with a sensationalistic headline, turning her quite literally into a poster child for homeschooling.
Of course, there is no such thing as a poster child for homeschooling. I have always said that one of the best things about homeschooling is that it provides the ultimate individualized education. Our style of slow homeschooling leaned toward honoring each kid’s choices about what they wanted to do and learn, so the diverse paths they took make perfect sense. Every human being’s trajectory is unique, a combination of their genes, personality, family, history, community, environment, and experiences. Across the broad range of individual people are common human drives — curiosity, creativity, connection, love.
In the midst of the tragedy of hundreds of thousands dead and climbing, and a national outcry against systemic racism and police brutality, as so many parents hold their children tighter and try to determine what they can do to keep them safe, whole, and learning, it’s important to remember that a person’s education goes way beyond whether or where they go to school. Our children bless us immeasurably, but they are their own people, something homeschooling helped me to see and appreciate early and clearly.
Now that I’m looking in the rear view mirror of raising four kids, I can’t tell parents not to worry at all — that’s something I haven’t been able to live up to 100 percent myself — but I can say, don’t worry so much. Not only does it make your life harder, it also gets in the way of trusting, believing in, and really seeing your kids, and being seen is one of the quintessential human longings.
When it comes to education and life, the path is not unfailingly straight ahead, reliably forward, or dependably certain. The current pandemic is both a grim reminder of that, and an important one. Like all the other parents of graduates, I’m disappointed that I can’t go to a ceremony and throw a big party, but in the bigger scheme of things, I know that’s really okay. Another important component of slow homeschooling was flexibility, something that has served all of us well. As my graduates and non-graduates find ways to navigate their upended lives, I can feel confident in a few things. As they acted on their chosen pursuits throughout their childhoods and beyond, they learned firsthand that things don’t always turn out the way they’d like. When that happens, they know that while limits exist, charting a new or different course is in their power.
To all the 2020 graduates, and to all the parents who may be about to chart a new course and embark on officially homeschooling for the fall, congratulations, may you find satisfaction in every moment even while you look to the future. And special congratulations to my own 2020 graduates. I couldn’t be prouder.