Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling...random thoughts (and believe me, they went far afield)...

The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling by Quinn Cummings.

I wasn't going to write an entire post on this book; I was going to just write a short blurb about it on my "September reads" post. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn't keep it brief. I guess I just loved this book too much. Because well, it hit so close to home.

Most of the time I read about experiences, both in fiction and non-fiction, that are different from my own because, well, I'm nosy--I want to know about other people's lives and experiences. But every once in a while it's nice to read a book where you feel understood. Especially in an area that so many people seem to misunderstand. There are in the neighborhood of 2 million homeschooled kids in the U.S. now, and there are literally thousands of different reasons why various families have chosen that route. FACT: All homeschooling families are not the same! And yet stereotypes persist. But Quinn Cummings, oh my, how I can relate to her story. You know that feeling you occasionally get about a character in a book, the "I wish that person could be my friend" feeling? Well, I've got it bad with the author of this book!

Quinn Cummings is hilarious. No way I ever could have kept track of how many times I laughed out loud. Some of the time, it might have been the "oh, how I can relate" factor, but mostly it's just that she's pretty dang funny. Btw, though the title is probably pretty self-explanatory, this book is a memoir about their family's decision to bring their daughter home from public school and their adventures in their first homeschooling year. (She does include a brief history of homeschooling in the U.S., a bit about how different the regulations are from state to state, etc. as well, but mostly this is a personal story.)

Probably my favorite chapter (though I loved it all!) was the one titled "Tribes." It's about the most oft asked question any homeschooling parent will hear. If you're a homeschooling parent I don't even have to tell you what it is, do I? The "But what about socialization?" question. I seriously want to have copies made of this chapter and just hand them out every time someone asks that question! That question is asked by family, by friends, by mere acquaintances and by complete strangers who discover you're homeschooling. Often it's asked in a straight-forward manner, but other times it's "snuck" in there in comments such as "But all homeschooled kids turn out so weird!" Yes, that was actually said to me by my sister-in-law back when we were agonizing over our decision about pulling Annie out of public school. Of course, when I asked, she admitted that she didn't actually know any homeschooled kids. And she was the same woman who once asked me if we were coming home for Thanksgiving, that she thought it was "on a Thursday this year." You think I made that up--I didn't. Further vindication--she now homeschools one of her kids.

But really, you have only to look at my kids to answer that question (a.k.a. accusation). Anyone who knows Annie can testify to the fact that she gets along quite well in society. She's loved by young kids (heck, they argue over who gets to sit on her lap during story hour when she volunteers at the library), she has a variety of friends her own age, she has always gotten along just fine with the students in the college classes she takes despite the fact that they're older than she is, and she is in general quite adored by adults. Yes, her natural inclination is to be a bit on the shy side but there is no crime in that, and I ask anyone who knows her if they think she is not "properly socialized"? And then there is Gray, who was literally the *happiest* baby/toddler/preschooler I've ever known. (We used to take pictures of him every time he cried because it happened so rarely.) Kindergarten went okay, but after that things started going downhill in public school. To the point that by fourth grade, this once cheerful child had become sad beyond words. He developed selective mutism and social anxiety. He literally couldn't talk in situations outside his places of refuge (home or with his best friend). It boils down to the fact that he's different, he's quirky, he's creative as opposed to athletic, he's clumsy in part because he has sensory integration disorder, he marches to the beat of his own drummer. And well kids like this aren't always well-received. Bullying can start awfully young. So is this the socialization being so highly-touted in schools? A quote from the book that just struck home:

Homeschooling will certainly produce some socially awkward adults, but the odds are good they would have been just as quirky had they spent twelve years raising their hand for permission to go to the bathroom. In fact, quite a few kids are being homeschooled precisely because an offbeat personality tends to attract hostility... At home you can be eccentric and survive lunch.

And then to the argument, "how will these kids learn to deal with bullies and jerks?":

As luck would have it, there are bullies at the Scout meeting, in the mall, on the playground and even at family reunions. There are jerks everywhere you look. Children who homeschool do get to negotiate with socially toxic people. What they don't get to do is grimly endure an entire year sitting two feet away from a person who makes their lives miserable on a regular and predictable basis.

Gray's now been homeschooled for a year. Has he now become a social butterfly? Hell no. And I don't suspect he ever will be. But he is again able to speak to people, he can now give his own food order to a waitress, he can answer someone when they ask him what game he's playing or what the book is that he's drawing, etc.

But don't get me wrong. I don't say these things because I hate public schools. I most definitely do not! And that is another thing I love so much about Quinn Cummings. She's another homeschooling parent who does not condemn public schools. She seems to have that very same deep respect for public school teachers that I do. And believe me, I do. I don't think every single teacher is wonderful at their job...but find me a profession where that's true. But I do believe that vast majority of teachers are in their profession because they love teaching and they love kids. And the job they have to do is incredibly difficult, so multi-faceted, and so often under-appreciated. I could never do it--I know that. But here's the thing, kids are all different. Why do so many people seem to forget that?

Some people thrive in school; they become the best version of themselves they could possibly be. Other people wither in school; we've all seen that tragedy unfold. Most people land somewhere in the middle.

Annie and Gray were witherers. Max, on the other hand, appears to be a thriver. I find it odd just how many people have judged us, have acted as if we can't make up our minds about whether public schooling or homeschooling is the better choice because we have kids in both. All I can think is, "Do you really not see children as individuals? Do you really think children are one big homogenous entity?" My kids are so incredibly different from one another. So I don't find it surprising that different modes of education seem to be a better fit for each of them.

Another thing I really related to was Ms. Cummings' doubts. Both of us seem to question continually the paths being taken by our families. Nothing is ever set in stone. We both seem aware that we could be screwing up here. But we continue tweaking and learning and adjusting as we go. She, however, has infinitely more courage and daring than I. She visits a handful of homeschooling conventions whose belief systems vary greatly from her own. She goes because she wants to learn, because she wants to see what it is that makes some groups of homeschoolers so very passionate and assured that they are doing everything right. Now obviously, she doesn't come away with a new worldview or anything, but it seems as if she brings something away from every experience. And in case you missed it above, she tells all these stories with massive amounts of humor.

Okay, I suppose I should just shut up already. But first let me add one more thing. As I said, this is Ms. Cummings' story of her family's experiences. And she admits straight out how very lucky she is to be able to make some of the choices she gets to make. And while we don't quite have the money that they do, I think it's important to stress how very lucky our family is in this way as well. Many of the choices we get to make come because of our privilege.

Projects progress:

Unofficial-for-me reading challenges--Memorable Memoirs Challenge and
50x50 (#42-Read 50 memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, etc.)


Jean said...

Cool! It is too bad that there are so many people who don't get that kids are not of the one-size-fits-all variety. And it is so good that there are those, such as yourself, you do get it and, more importantly, practice it. Yes, you are privileged to be able to do that, but some who could just plain don't, often because it's easier not to. I admire you and Rich for how you're doing your best to meet such different needs of such different kids. You guys rock! Now, I have to ask, is your sister-in-law blonde, because that Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday this year really sounded like a blonde joke. And to those out there who don't know me, I am a blonde, so I can ask such questions without putting blondes down.

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

The fact that people see kids as some sort of homogeneous entity instead of as individuals baffles me too, but it seems to happen all the time :\ Love this post, Debi.

DesLily said...

"sock it to 'em.. sock it to 'em".. oh wait, you aren't old enough to remember laugh in hmmm.

well no matter what YOU still do more than any one person I know! and I am glad you found the humor in the book :o)

Snowball said...

As a tutor of 'at risk kids,' I find that there are many different reasons a student would be 'at risk,' but invariably, by the time they get to me the problem is far worse than it needed to be.

If more people would really pay attention to the children, perhaps their needs would be better met.

Brava, for listening to your children and addressing their needs. It can't be easy, but I'm sure it's rewarding.

Ali said...

I've wondered how this book would read for a homeschooler (the only review I've read of it so far was from a mom who said she could never homeschool). I'm glad you found so much to love about it! I am going to have to take a look. We've homeschooled forever and have never had a single regret about the decision (second-guessing ourselves? Of course! But regrets, no).

Vasilly said...

I love this post! Cummings is a very hilarious, kick-ass type of person. I don't think I could have ever gone to any of those conventions but it was nice to know about people I don't often (if ever) think about, you know?

My kids' dad keep talking about socialization over and over again, as if it isn't a process but something that happens immediately and is permanent. My middle kid is a thriver but the oldest and youngest seem to be witherers.