Learning All The Time

I am occasionally asked to explain my reasons for homeschooling my son. I am sometimes asked to explain how it works. I am often accosted by well meaning individuals who want to know why I am warping my child socially by not sending him to school. And every now and then, I meet people who are amazed by my patience and commitment to something “they could never do”. Somehow, I never seem to get asked the question which is most important to me, which is “What have you learned by homeschooling your son?”

My son is at the time of this writing, nine years old. He has never been to school. When he was a baby, we thought that perhaps we would send him to a private school, something with an “alternative” pedagogy, such as Waldorf or Montessori. Then he turned five, and we still couldn’t afford it. Honestly, that’s what it was. And I was most adamantly opposed to sending him to public school.

In addressing my reasoning for refusing public schooling for my son, I can also address the most common concern I hear from people regarding that decision: what about socialization?

Socialization refers to the concept of learning to get along in our society. It refers to learning the rules we are expected to understand by the time we are adults (“Food fights are very bad manners”) and the ways and means of “how to get along” (calling someone an ignorant ass will anger them and render them insensible to any of your legitimate complaints). Given the environment in which he can be expected to live as an adult, why on earth would I choose public school as the environment in which to teach him these things?

A little story about me and public school should illustrate my point nicely (and reveal my inherent weaknesses and prejudices for those who wish to rip my argument to shreds). When I was in the fifth grade, I was the most unpopular kid in school. This is not an exaggeration, I promise you. When everyone gave out Valentine’s on Valentine’s Day, I took home an empty box. At lunch time, when I was forced to set my tray down at a previously occupied table, everyone already seated would get up and leave. Every day was one long nightmare of insults, desirion, and occasional physical attacks. What did I do to merit such universal disgust? I had an argument with my friend who was in the same grade. She decided she hated me, and told the other kids I had tried to kiss her. Ergo, I was “gay”, ergo I was a pariah. That was it. But children being what they are, it was enough. Everyone loves to hate someone.

Did I learn social skills from it? You bet. I learned that when people are insulting you, the best thing you can do is laugh. I learned that when someone socks you in the stomach, the best thing you can do is laugh in their face. I learned how to play on their fears until they were too frightened of me to insult me. I learned how to ignore people, and lose myself in a book. I learned to not be afraid of being alone…and that was almost worth the price I had to pay.

The price for all that learning, however, was a deep fear of people in general. At this point in my life, after many years of conscious work, most folks who know me casually would be amazed to hear that I am socially phobic. My closer friends often forget, until they have the misfortune to thrust me into social situations with people I do not know and whom they expect me to dazzle with my wit, insight, and kindness. To resort to a cliche, I am a deer in the headlights, afraid to move, afraid to speak, I simply sit there and stare. I will go to remarkable lengths to avoid these situations. I do have a saving throw, though…as long as there are pets or children, I am o.k. I will go talk to them, instead.

My kid has no such phobias. To him, everyone is a potential friend. When we go into large stores, looking for something in particular, he always asks me why we don’t just ask one of the employees. I mumble something about how I’m sure we’ll find it if we keep looking…and he just marches off and asks someone. After watching him a few dozen times, I have even managed to do it myself, once or twice.

After years of struggling to be taken seriously, I have finally reached an age and level of personal confidence where I think I am as good as anyone else. My son, at nine, already understands this wisdom. Whether a person is 3 or 80, rich or poor, dark- or light-skinned, he has no fear. They’re all people to him. He will talk to anyone. There are not arbitrary lines drawn in his subconscious as to what his peer group is. Everyone is his peer group, everyone has something interesting to say and (he assumes) will be interested in his point of view.

Through homeschooling my son, I have had to look long and hard at my own fears and assumptions, and get past them. If I don’t have a good, rational reason for a limit, I must let it go. Many of the prejudices I had accumulated over the years have disappeared as a result. Many of my fears have been shuffled into the category of “fake it ’till you make it” as I put on a blithe face to confront all the many varied situations into which he has led me. “Why doesn’t that man have any legs, Mommy?” he pipes, and I say “I don’t know, honey…why don’t you ask him?” The man heard the question, already. Should I sush my child and cart him away, as if there were something wrong with one or the other of them? I think not. “Do dark skinned people get sun burns?” he wants to know, staring at the black man behind us in the grocery store check out line. “Why are you asking me?” I respond, “Ask him.” It is always amazing to me, as I take these leaps of faith, how open and willing people are to answer the honest questions of a child. And in turn, my son has learned that all people are just that: people. Good caring people.

“Can you spare some change,” the woman on mainstreet asks our small group as we wander past. I dig regretfully in my pockets, and my husband hands her fifty cents. We are starting to turn away, when my son turns back. “Here,” he says, pulling out two dollars from his pocket and handing her one. She hesitates for a moment, and then takes the money, looking a little ashamed. I am both sympathetic to how she must be feeling, and terribly proud of my son, who has been hanging on to that little bit of cash for a while. And then, just as we are about to walk away, he turns back again. He walks up to the woman, and hands her his other dollar. There is a long, quiet moment, while the two of them look each other in the eye. And then she says, “No, honey…you keep your other dollar. I will be all right. Thank you.” He holds the money in his hand, unsure how to react. The woman looks like she is about to cry. And then she turns and walks away. My son looks to me.

I hold him close for a moment, and then we walk on down the street. He will want to talk about it later, and I will be ready to try to explain. But right now all I can think is that he is growing up just fine. He is not afraid, he is not callous, he is a complete human being. And just like all of us that day, he is constantly learning the meaning of what that is.