Illustration by Gome Alon
"To a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid." – John Holt
My brother’s first-grade classroom was a repurposed janitor’s closet. There wasn’t enough room for aisles, so he and his 40 classmates would crawl over the tops of the desks to enter and exit the room. They went on exactly one field trip that year, to one of the actual, honest-to-God classrooms the Cherokee County, Georgia, school system was frantically building to catch up to the massive influx of families moving to suburban Atlanta. “You’d better be on your best behaviour,” his teacher said, “or we’ll never move into this classroom.” They never did.
I reckon that my fourth-grade classroom, on the other end of the school, didn’t suffer from as many health-code violations. There were a half-dozen leaks in the ceiling, but those would have probably helped if the classroom had ever caught on fire. We didn’t really have aisles either; the desks were arranged in a sort of amorphous jumble to avoid the drips from above.
My parents were more concerned with the curriculum than what the classroom looked like. In third grade up North, I was learning long division, and then we moved to Georgia, where I stepped down to single-digit addition and subtraction. Worksheets featured such problems as 6-2, 3+9, even the occasional 1+1. One day, the kid next to me scooted his desk over. I thought he was going to laugh with me about the 1+1. He spoke in a thoroughly Southern drawl I was still getting used to. “You know how to do this? I don’t get it,” he said as he pointed at the first problem on his worksheet. Eight plus zero.
The following summer, I encountered the term homeschool for the first time. It was on a button my mum had brought home from a conference of some sort, and it read:
Sold. For the next four years, my brother and I were homeschooled.
My parents allowed me to decide for myself whether I’d be homeschooled. While I’d always enjoyed going to school, I hated waking up at six in the morning, dragging myself to the curb, and waiting for the bus in the cold. Kids are afforded so few opportunities to game the system. When you’re ten years old, the collective worth of your bargaining assets might amount to a pack of baseball cards or extra half hour before bedtime.
Suddenly, I could escape. I had an out that only one in a thousand kids would ever have. Yes, I said, I would like to go to homeschool. “Go to homeschool.” That’s how I said it. I still couldn’t quite process that I wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Homeschooling surely wouldn’t work for every kid, but it worked for me. The freedom of choice was incredible. “What do you want to learn about?” my mum asked. “Weather,” I said. So she got me some books on meteorology, and I ate them up. I learned how to build a makeshift barometer and charted meteorological data on graphing paper. There weren’t any limits. I was the one who would decide when I was finished learning. I finally tapped out when my parents dug up a college textbook on weather patterns and I found it too dense. “Good work,” my parents said. “What do you want to study next?”
My mum would write up a list of things to read, workbooks to complete, and so on, and the length of my school day was up to me. If I chose to wake up early and hit the books, I was done at noon; if I loafed, I’d be “at school” until dinnertime. It felt so adult, which is an intoxicating feeling for an 11-year-old.
So I’d spend my days learning math, science, literature, and whatever else I decided was interesting, and when my dad came home from work, he’d give my brother and me the occasional history lesson. That was the majority of my homeschooling experience.
The remainder was populated by the strangest people I have ever met.
In my experience, kids were homeschooled for one of two reasons: for my brother and me, it was a means of avoiding an awful public school system without going to private school, which our family couldn’t really afford anyway. For some other kids, though, it was a means of escaping the evil, secularist curriculum of public school. The Earth is 6,000 years old, global warming is a myth, Satan buried dinosaur bones in the ground to trick us, and these children must not be taught otherwise, lest the fiery lakes of hell burn the flesh from their little limbs.
These two sets of kids were rounded up once or twice a week for a day of “cooperative learning,” and it was always easy to tell which group each child was coming from. There were kids like me – kids whose parents played the Beatles in the house, who watched Nickelodeon, who had friends who weren’t homeschooled, who had seen Jurassic Park.
We were in the company of some children who would never, ever experience any of those things. The archetypes were these two brothers, who I’ll call Danny and Denny, who had never stepped foot in a public school in their lives.
Danny and Denny were strictly forbidden from ever watching television; I was shocked upon learning that 12-year-old Danny had never heard of The Simpsons, let alone watched an episode. They read at length about the biblical definition of hell, with the pitch-black darkness and the invisible searing flames and the eternal torture, but weren’t allowed to watch McGee and Me, a Christian cartoon series, because its slapstick humour was deemed unsuitable by their parents.
They were completely divorced from popular culture and the society around them, and their playmates were so selectively chosen that they were rarely allowed to interact with other kids at all. It showed. They were socially underdeveloped to a degree that, in retrospect, is legitimately sort of troubling. During lunch on one co-op day, Danny eyed a can of Pringles another family had brought. Snack food, a secular product, was firmly disallowed by his parents. He grabbed the can, ripped it open, and poured the entire contents onto his plate, digging into the chips like a starving woodland creature. An adult spoke up: “Danny, would you like to share those?” He did not acknowledge her.
One day, while I was over at their house, eight-year-old Denny was asked to say grace before lunch. Halfway through, he stuttered just a little, and began to cry. Not just cry. He wailed. Danny became furious with him and reached across the table and smacked Denny in the face as hard as he could. Both ran in opposite directions in fits of tears. “That’s just how they are sometimes,” their mother said matter-of-factly, as my mother, my brother, and I exchanged looks of bewilderment. It was eventually taken as a given: before the end of each co-op day, Danny and Denny would cry, sometimes for no reason at all. Once Danny started sobbing after a kid asked him if he had seen Home Improvement the night before.
One day we brought over a copy of The Incredible Machine, a sort of sandbox computer game in which the player built Rube Goldberg devices with gears and pulleys and light bulbs. It was really neat. They loved it. And then the game’s background music switched from soft classical music to this canned, super generic beach-bum rock tune. Danny and Denny’s mother bolted up from her chair. “No. No! Absolutely not.” She raced over and switched off the speaker as though it were a smoke alarm.
On one occasion, the older kids piled into a van for a field trip. We listened to dc Talk, a Christian band that nonetheless would have mortified Danny’s mother if she knew he had heard it. When “Time Is…”, a song about the importance of sharing Christ with your friends, came on, Danny cocked his ear toward the speaker. His eyes bugged. I looked at him. Oh God, I thought. He hasn’t heard this kind of music in his entire life, not even once.
We climbed out of the van an hour later, and Danny was just standing there, still wide-eyed, trying to reproduce what he’d heard. “Tick-tick-tickin'. Tick-tick-tickin’ away.” His internal circuitry, transistors tenderly knotted by his parents to the silicon with little bits of yarn, had blown and caught fire. He was in another land.
The greatest risk of homeschooling, I reckon, is that your kid won’t be able to properly socialise. I had other homeschooled pals, friends I’d met in public school, and neighbourhood kids, so I was fine. Danny and Denny pretty clearly weren’t, and they weren’t alone.
There was a baseball league set up just for homeschooled kids, and for some kids – those who lived out in the sticks – it was their only real opportunity to be with their peers. One such kid was Jacob. In the bleachers, his mum would fret to mine that she just couldn’t get Jacob off the computer and out of the house. He showed up to play in a Star Wars hat, Star Wars shirt, Star Wars flip-up sunglasses, Tie Fighter shoes, and X-Wing sweatpants. (Sometimes I wonder whether my memory is faulty and I’m just making up the shoes and sweatpants, which couldn’t possibly exist, but I swear to God I saw them.)
His skin was paper white, in Georgia, in August. He hadn’t been out in the sun in months. Not only did he not understand the rules of baseball, he was, at the age of about 12, physically unable to throw an object. This wasn’t a “Smalls in The Sandlot” situation where he had no arm. He just absolutely, completely did not know how to throw a baseball. He’d hold on to it too long, and the ball would just hit the ground a foot in front of him. Loved to talk about Star Wars, though. Loved to talk about that, forever, and absolutely nothing else, ever.
Another kid, who I’ll call Steve, lived far out in the country. His parents adopted lots of children – once, in conversation, his mother forgot that she had seven children instead of six – but all were far too young to be his companions. Steve, in effect, was completely socially isolated.
One day, our mums arranged for him to come over to our house for a day. He acted like a kid who had never had a friend, but had maybe seen how friends interacted on TV. “Let’s go in the woods and kill shit,” he said. I told him we shouldn’t kill anything, and several times I had to talk him out of throwing rocks at birds.
His understanding of friendship was very TV-like, in that he was determined to create some sort of conflict. “You want to go around your neighbourhood and find some kids to beat up?” No, I didn’t, so he punched me. I told him to stop, and when he took another swing at me, I shoved him to the ground.
His eyes welled with tears. “Faggot!” he yelled. I never saw him again after that day.
Generally, the kids I knew through homeschooling were of a very specific, white, evangelical Christian, Southern type. It was an enclave of sameness, and their instructors taught all sorts of things that scared me then and scared me now.
Once a week, we would gather at the house of a teacher I’ll call Mrs. Dawson. She taught science, but was also a strict six-day Creationist, so at some point, the science would always stop being science. I once wrote a report that she demanded I redo, because I implied that global warming was real. She also insisted that the rhythm of pop music resonated with human cells at a frequency that caused cancer. She tried to be tactful when she explained why she didn’t like Halloween, though: “Participating in Halloween is a choice that is up to your parents, and I will respect that. I personally feel that it’s a celebration of the devil, and that you dress up in service of him.”
When the media started fixating on sheep cloning in 1996, Mrs. Dawson turned the science class into wildly speculative discussion of the evils it would bring about: “What’s stopping someone from cloning an evil army of Hitlers? I think this will be the issue of your lifetimes when you grow up. You’ll have to fight evil legions of clones.”
A not-terribly-bright girl raised her hand enthusiastically. “Hitler was a madman! I think he was a madman.”
Mrs. Dawson nodded solemnly. “Yes. Yes, he was.”
If you know someone from the South who was raised in that kind of fundamentalist Christian environment, you may be familiar with that dinosaur-bones bit I mentioned earlier. We’re not lying, y’all. It wasn’t taught in my household, but I heard it in others: if the Earth is only 6,000 years old, how do you explain all these dinosaur bones we keep digging up? These days, the Creation Museum opts to show Old Testament personalities riding triceratops, complete with a saddles, but a lot of homeschooled kids I knew were provided a terser explanation: satan buried them in the ground in order to lead us astray and make us believe that the world really was ancient.
And if you’re unfamiliar with this world, the homeschooler’s history of the Civil War ought to terrify you. “You know what they say,” a teacher-mother said. “Winners always write the history books. Up North, they don’t understand what we were fighting for. It wasn’t really about slavery, it was about fighting for our freedom.”
“You know,” she said, “the Bible does instruct slaves to submit to their masters. Slavery does have its foundation in the Bible.” I had watched Ken Burns’s The Civil War when I was six, before I moved to Georgia, and when they talked about slavery and lingered on a photo of a man’s back, his flesh torn open by a whip, I had the same reaction a lot of six-year-olds would probably have: I ran to the other end of the house and cried.
So when I heard this, I knew there was something wrong. Some of the kids around me were absorbing the message, though, and saying things like, “I think the South was right. You know, I probably would’ve fought for the South. To stand up for my freedom.” Upon realising how alone I was, on an issue I never imagined would be up for debate, I kept quiet.
During this co-op unit, each kid was to prepare and perform a monologue as a historical figure from the Civil War era. I chose to be a train conductor from the North, which seemed benign enough. My (white) classmate, though, decided to be a slave. This meant he wore blackface, stood in front of the class, and put on a horrifically offensive slave accent: “I’s a cotton-pickin’ slave! Sho’ is! And we slaves looooove cownbread!”
Later, we performed our monologues a second time, in front of our families. My friend’s mother decided that there was a problem with his monologue: the paint used for his blackface wasn’t black enough. He performed the exact same bit, this time with darker paint on his face, and the parents in the room cheered and applauded. “That was the best one,” one of them said.
Looking back, it seems like something out of 1950. It was 1995.
Homeschool ended for me when I entered high school. I hadn’t been in a classroom since fourth grade, but socially, I adjusted rather quickly; the routine was what really jarred me. I was used to being trusted, to being left alone to get my work done, to being treated, in many ways, like a grown-up.
While I was homeschooled, I treasured that freedom from authority. On one occasion, my mum had taken me to a museum, and I was free to browse wherever I wanted. A class of public school kids on a field trip were shepherded to an exhibit I was looking at, and when I didn’t move with the crowd, a chaperone figure snapped at me. “Get moving!”
I looked at her for a moment and said, simply, “No.” I guess she eventually realised I wasn’t with the group, but until she did, she was too furious for words. I didn’t wait for her to figure it out. I just turned and left the room. I was 12, and I talked back to a teacher with impunity, and the feeling, frankly, was fucking amazing.
And now, after a four-year respite, I was once again in the care of institutional authority. While I loved high school for the most part, I still sometimes resented being told where to sit, where to walk, what to study.
I thought about it a few days ago, and realised that this sentiment was probably a major factor in my decision to drop out of college after a single semester during which I almost never went to any classes. I felt like I did as that ten-year-old who decided he wasn’t going to go to school anymore. It felt like gaming the system all over again. Most kids, after four years of college, would have endured 17 years of real, actual schooling, and I was escaping with only nine.
God, it was a juvenile feeling, and I was an immature kid. But I felt, again, like I’d won. I never returned.
More memories of growing up: