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July-August 2005 Selected Content

How I Learned to Balance a Checkbook - Lia Mastropolo

It's the question kids love to ask each other: "Where do you go to school?" When I was eleven, it was the question that could make or break a budding friendship. Northeast, on the nice side of town, was full of preps and smart kids. Chippens Hill, in the low-income district, was for white hommies and hoochies. St. Paul's was for Catholics and Jesus-freaks, and Kingswood Oxford was for the indescribably rich and spoiled. Where did that leave me? "I don't go to school," I'd say, nonchalant, as if it was nothing. "What do you mean you don't go to school?"

In an old Saturday Night Live skit about homeschooling, TV interviewers talk to a precocious young girl in a tucked-in oxford shirt and large geeky glasses about her future career plans. The girl spouts historical facts and political opinions until she is interrupted by her disheveled younger sister, who leaps out of the kitchen cabinet banging pots and pans monkey-style. The interviewers run away as the younger girl throws things at them and collapses in a fit of maniacal giggling.

Having been homeschooled for the first eighteen years of my life puts me in one of the smaller minority groups. For me my first day of college and my first day of public school were the same. Other freshmen were worrying about netting that first college boyfriend or girlfriend, or surviving the college workload, but I was only worried about the basics. Like, which way to turn the lock on my locker in chemistry lab. How to convince my mother that marauding rapists and murderers are not really all that common at UConn. How to not look confused when other girls compared prom stories.

Aside from certain gaps in my knowledge, I made the transition to college life surprisingly well. I remember sitting in my first History 101 class, taking notes and thinking, Yeah, I knew that already. I remember being overwhelmed by the number of attractive guys on campus. (After all, homeschooling isn't the best way to meet boys who don't wear pocket protectors.) But I don't remember much about that first day, and by the second week I was pretty much settled in.

Far more traumatic was what you might call my "first day of homeschool." Being born to radically weird parents has its upsides; for the first ten years of my life I "ran free," as my grandmother, a high school English teacher, once put it. There was a lot of time spent digging mud holes in the woods behind my house, catching frogs and trying to make dandelion wine. In between these activities I read all the horse stories and historical fiction worth reading in the youth section of the library, then moved on to fantasy and sci-fi.

By the time I was ten, my mother was getting worried. Even she, who preferred to use the term "unschooling" rather than "homeschooling," realized that basic math skills would eventually be necessary if I was ever to successfully balance a checkbook. In fact, that seemed like the main goal of my life for a while, as my parents berated me with, "If you don't learn such-and-such, how will you ever be able to balance a checkbook?"

So they bought a math textbook: Addison-Wesley, fifth-grade math. I remember the first day my mother sat me down at the kitchen table with the textbook, cheery as could be and all ready to teach me my multiplication tables. She sang a little song. She made me repeat after her. Then she pointed to a problem set. "I'll be cooking dinner if you need any more help," she told me, confident I would learn math the way I had learned to read: by staring at the book, and thinking.

By the time dinner was ready I had not finished even one problem set. I was paralyzed with confusion, couldn't imagine how I could possibly be so stupid. The numbers made my head hurt, and I could see my little sister outside, frog net in hand. When my mother saw my lack of progress she yelled at me for not concentrating, and then she called my father and cried, "She'll never be able to balance a checkbook!" I heard her wailing from the other room.

That was my first experience with organized education. It was the first time I realized that not all learning is fun. Up to that time I had read and explored with genuine interest, but now I found myself in the rough situation of either memorizing my multiplication tables, which I hated, or disappointing my parents, whom I loved. Around that time it also struck me that I could learn anything or nothing, that whether I would be a screw-up or a genius was totally up to me.

After my first dismal failure with the math book, my parents pretty much left me alone. My mother worried, but there wasn't much she could do. Any time she tried to catch me for another math session, I'd be outside covered in mud, or inside with my nose so deep in a book I wouldn't hear her when she called. I didn't give math much thought till I bombed that portion of the PSATS at the age of fifteen. With SATS and college admissions looming in my future, I spent a year studying algebra and geometry furiously, with the help of my mother's engineer friend. By the time the SATS rolled around I was ready. My score was respectable, and my parents finally dropped the checkbook issue.

People ask me, "If you didn't really study, then what did you do all day?" I did some usual things, like swim team and horseback riding, and I also did some unusual things, like recorder ensemble and 19th century dance. But mostly I read. I read so much I put a deep dent in my favorite side of the couch. I read so much the libraries in all the nearby towns got boring, so when I got my drivers license I'd drive to the "good" library rather than waste my time picking through the stacks.

The "good" libraries were the ones in the rich towns, where extra tax money went to buying fresh hardcovers that were displayed on lace doilies, rather than the greasy old paperbacks my town had to offer. My favorite kinds of books were rare: young adult fiction that didn't come in serial form. Sometimes, in a pinch, I'd read science books, especially the ones with pictures of stars and galaxies, but the hunt was always geared toward fiction, towards heroes and heroines who made me want to squeeze myself in between the printed lines and live each imaginary life as my own.

I sometimes wish I was still sixteen and could spend four hours combing the library shelves for the perfect novel. I might have turned out much the same if I'd gone to school, but I know for certain that I wouldn't have had as much free time to spend reading as I had through homeschooling. I would have been copying out multiplication tables instead of hunting through stacks, and memorizing dates rather than reading historical novels. Impossible to weigh the merit of one against another, but I for one am happy to have learned about the world through novels and outdoor explorations rather than fact lists.

Now that I'm an adult, people ask me, "So will you homeschool your kids?" The answer is: I don't know. I don't know if I'll have any kids at all. I can't decide whether or not I should cut an inch off my hair, how could I know something so important so early? What I can tell you is this: mothers and fathers, teachers and principals, there is another way. I'm not saying it's better, but it's there, and it works as much as other forms of education can be said to work. The road isn't straight and narrow; it diverges not once but many times, and where you end up is your own decision. The important thing is to keep an open mind, and to know your options.

I'm in college now, in a big university that people said would swallow a homeschooled kid whole, but it hasn't yet. I aced chemistry and biology before eventually declaring my English major. I have not yet taken a math class. Once in a while, I balance my checkbook.

© 2005, Lia Mastropolo

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