Home Education Magazine
January-February 1999 - Articles
The Self-Supporting Homeschooler Part II:
Three Years Later How I Almost Joined An Umbrella School
Three years ago I wrote an article for HEM called "The Self-Supporting Homeschooler," of which I was extremely pleased, largely because I felt it was the first time I had expressed our personal homeschooling philosophies and principles so clearly. In this highly idealistic piece, I referred to Henry David Thoreau's conviction - and ours - that we go furthest when we go alone, that it's better to sit on a pumpkin and have it all to ourselves than to have to share a crowded velvet cushion.
And, indeed, we have traveled alone for the better part of our now five years of homeschooling, forging ahead with private evaluations, making up our studies to suit our needs and interests as we go along, indulging ourselves in impromptu side trips and spontaneous explorations, all with great and happy results. Along the way, though, I've also met some other marvelous homeschoolers, each tramping through the woods of self-education in their own ways, some protectively ensconced in private umbrella schools, others bush-whacking their way through with varying degrees of success, all generally having a good time. And we formed a loose-knit association out of ourselves that can be called a support group in its purest sense: no officers, no meetings, no classes, just get-togethers for park visits and field trips and such.
Our days, always filled with conversation, now became filled with activity, as well, divided between art and music classes, sports programs, and volunteer stints at our beloved nature sanctuary, reading in the public schools (an irony not lost on any of us!), and visiting in a nursing home. In the summer, we retreated inside, away from parks and stores and the hoards of public school children celebrating their "freedom." Now there were homeschooling friends to play with on a regular basis, the children had a community of their own, where they - and we - felt safe and comfortable. In the fall, we emerged like butterflies and flitted around the now empty and quiet public gardens.
Now immersed in our new culture, however, I felt a mild sense of resentment when evaluation time rolled around. Our teacher friend, whom I had always felt comfortable with, primarily because she had nothing to do with homeschooling, suddenly smacked of the "system." When she pulled out her fourth grade tests for one of my daughters, I felt insulted. She had looked at and enjoyed my daughter's extensive portfolio, yet she still placed the greater measure of achievement on test results. Where, when the children were younger, she had accepted their experiences as an equal measure of their success, she now shifted her focus to stanines and national percentiles. I felt scornful - and a little surprised at myself. These were feelings I'd never had; indeed, I had long prided myself on refusing to pigeonhole myself and my philosophies into any preconceived notions or set of beliefs and here I was, suddenly feeling I was "us" and she was "them."
And then I started thinking about an umbrella school; nothing with meetings, of course, or statements of faith to sign or "co-op" learning. I hadn't completely lost my "Just do it!" Nike mentality. I just wanted to do it more conveniently. A mid-state umbrella school that some friends were members of seemed made to order: no meetings, nothing to sign or commit to, just a perfectly legal, private school facade to store records, provide transcripts and year-end testing. I didn't particularly agree with their mission statement, which was based on the religious beliefs of the school's owners. And I would have to send in a quarterly "report card." But I didn't have to sign any statements; that was their philosophy, not mine. As for the report cards, I could put what I felt was valuable on it, not anything they prescribed.
The up-side of the whole thing was that for less than $300 a year for all three children, I never had to talk to the school board again. I would never again have to wait patiently while some system educated teacher told me where my children's weaknesses were, or send in a year-end report to a bunch of county bureaucrats who would never even look at it, or wonder how my kids would get into highschool or college. Heck, this place even provided a high school diploma! And it was all perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the school board. The dream was starting to look pretty good and I had just gotten the paperwork from the school when a member of our casual group told me she'd seen and enjoyed a reprint of my "Self-Supporting Homeschooler" article in HEM.
I hadn't thought of the piece in a while, even though "you can do it yourself" had remained my mantra to new homeschoolers and I had even given a well received presentation little more than a year ago at a local bookstore lauding the value of homeschooling on your own. I put the umbrella school documents aside and dug up my old copy of my own words.
It was right there, in the first paragraph, "We went into homeschooling for much the same reasons as Henry David Thoreau went into the woods at Walden, "not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest possible obstacles'"
The umbrella school would certainly help me do that, wouldn't it? Or would it? Further down, the rest of my words chided me: "In taking responsibility for our children's educations, we have taken charge of our lives and our destinies. But just in case'" And then I had gone on to list the irony of all the nets we put out to catch ourselves, like defense associations "just in case," and local and regional support groups and services. "How much easier can it get?" I had asked.
"But," I read on, now disappointed with myself, as the full measure of my treacherousness loomed. "There is, as always, a price for convenience." And I knew exactly what, in this case, that price was: It was the price of going mainstream, as homeschooling was rapidly doing, of becoming acceptable and common and, worst of all, of letting someone else take the credit for our accomplishments merely because it was "convenient." The price was a moral and ethical one; I suddenly longed for my solitary pumpkin.
There was nothing actually terrible about joining that umbrella school and paying them to keep our records and provide our testing. After all, I am also a firm believer in Thoreau's consoling observation that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But was this lapse of consistency wise?
If we joined that school, when the children were done, or if they opted to go to highschool later on, or if their records were needed for anything, those "records" would say they attended "John Doe Academy." Not our kitchen table academy, here at home, where all the most wonderful learning had taken place, where conversations had ranged from responsible living to biology and ecology and religion and politics to what the cardinal in the garden was doing. As far as any strangers would be concerned, the records would say the Willingham children attended a private school in central Florida. And that would be a lie.
For some, the end might justify the means. Who cares, some will ask, if you have to buy some paper trail that says your kids went to some obscure private school as long as it buys them credibility and acceptance and success? It's what you did at home that counts, right? You got to do what you wanted to do and what you believed in, right?
That's all well and true - but what good is doing what you believe in if you can't stand up and freely admit you did it? If you haven't the strength of your convictions, what good are they? If we can't stand by our accomplishments as individual home educators and let our children stand by their own personal, hard won achievements earned at home, what are we really saying about home education? How can we make it credible if we continue to defer the paper trail? Personally, I want the paper trail to come to my house, right to my front door.
If, ultimately, I'm the responsible party, I'm going to make darn sure we do our best, that the children can measure up, that the paper trail is exemplary. It may not be a conventional trail, but it will be an irrefutable one! No one else cares as much about our children as we do; wasn't that the first principal of homeschooling? Shouldn't it also be the last?
I threw away the umbrella school papers. That's a good way to go for some folks; and there will always be cases when it's the only way to go. I certainly don't want to say my way is best for everyone. But it's best for us, and for our children.
I'm proud to be a self-supporting homeschooler and if I ever start longing for "convenience" again, or start identifying myself too closely with any one group of people and forget that I am part of a much bigger and richer human tapestry, I hope someone rolls a pumpkin my way and invites me to sit a spell and enjoy the sweet success of solitude.
(c)1999, Theresa Willingham
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