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July-August 2006 Selected Content

Being a Cheerful Rebel - Deborah Markus

Like it or not, as homeschoolers we are rebels. We are members of a minority and we're there by choice. And because we tend to be nonconformists, we can sometimes feel alone even within our community. Finding our own way, making our own path, can put us beyond the pale and well into loneliness.

Even with other homeschoolers, we can feel set apart at times. Though we are still a comparatively tiny percentage of the population, we are a large enough group to encompass a great deal of diversity. Maybe you breastfeed your toddler. Or you breastfeed your toddler and your newborn--often at the same time. Perhaps you unschool in a social circle that considers that to be just short of child abuse. Or you have a family bed and your in-laws don't think it's short of child abuse at all. You're a vegetarian and so are your kids. You're a vegan and so are your kids. You're a vegan and so are your kids except for your nine-month-old, who still nurses exclusively. You don't watch much TV. You don't watch any TV. You don't own a TV. You own a TV, but it's out in the yard with an axe handle sticking out of the screen and you send your kids back there when they say they want to watch. You didn't vaccinate. You didn't vaccinate completely. You are trying to make up your mind about vaccinating or not vaccinating and your friends on either side of the issue think you're nuts to even worry about it. You have a midwife instead of an OB/GYN. You had a homebirth. You had a water-birth, and even your home-birthing buddies are aghast. You have one child, and that's all. You have four children, and that's not all. Your children bear not the slightest physical resemblance to you. You're into attachment parenting and your friends keep giving you tips on "Ferberizing" your two-month-old.

You've chosen your life and wouldn't have it any other way. But the bare fact of being different, the dozens of daily reminders that you aren't part of the crowd--that can get old. It can wear on you. You start lying by omission to avoid some of the surprised questions and comments, knowing that you're only postponing the inevitable confrontations.

Because they are inevitable. No matter how tactful you are, flying in the face of convention leads to confrontation sooner or later. So what's a poor rebel to do?

Keep Smiling

Nothing unnerves a potential sparring partner like a cheerful countenance. As defiant as you may feel by the end of a rebellious day, glaring will not help. It will only convince the glaree that you're mean-spirited as well as kooky. It will also make you feel worse, since our emotions tend to follow our expressions, not just the other way around.

This doesn't mean you should run around grinning like an idiot. Don't go overboard, thinking you have to prove how delighted you are every second of every minute of every blessed day. Just remind yourself as often as you need to why you've made the life choices you have, and how happy you are for doing so. Put that knowledge where your mouth is, and smile.

Don't Apologize

Of course you're probably not literally going to do this. "Good heavens, she's a year old and you're still nursing?" "I'm sorry, yes." (Although this reply, said serenely enough, might stun your questioner into a welcome silence.)

But apologies aren't always made in words. A certain tone, a hunched shoulder, a reluctance to meet the eye--these all come naturally to those who dread confrontations, and to those feeling alone and uncertain in their unpopular choices. And they reek of someone begging forgiveness for existing.

Sure, you thought homeschooling was a great idea when you left the house this morning, but now you're taking a walk with your next-door neighbor the teacher, whose two-year-old is a veteran preschool student. It's not just that your choices are different from your friend's. They disagree with hers, or at least you're worried they'll seem to. And so, when she finally pries it out of you that there's a reason you and your four-year-old still see so much of one another, you fall all over yourself reassuring her that homeschooling is a personal decision, it's something you're doing for reasons specific to you (none of which you can recall at the moment), you know it isn't right for everyone.

She in turn promptly assures you that it isn't right for anyone, and illustrates this point with graphic anecdotes about the innocent children she's seen ruined by the course of action you're contemplating.

Now, it's absolutely true that there are some people who simply love to pass along horror stories, but your friend is actually acting quite understandably in this case. Because...write this on your hand every morning before you leave the house: If you act apologetic, people will assume you have something to apologize for.

So don't do it. Stand strong. If you don't seem firmly convinced of the rightness of your course of action, why should anyone else? Especially someone who's never heard anything but conventional wisdom on the subject, all of which disagrees with you?

Don't Talk if You Don't Feel Like it

Don't let yourself be drawn into conversations you don't feel like having. If this sounds like "Never apologize, never explain," well, you'd be surprised how effective that can be sometimes. As homeschoolers, we often feel like good-will ambassadors. We want people to have a good impression of our group, and since people are often curious about what we do and how we do it (Is it legal? Does it work? Isn't it awfully difficult?), we can find ourselves fielding a host of questions from perfect strangers.

If you're up to answering, great. Sometimes you're not. I recently found it a little trying to be peppered with questions about homeschooling by a nurse who'd poked her head in to see how my husband was doing as he waited for surgery. Remember even real ambassadors, the ones who get paid for it, get to take days off. You do, too. Keep a stock of vague, cheerful answers on hand for those days when you don't feel like chatting, and let, or make, the conversation drift on to other topics.

Give 'em An Earful

Some days you're in fine fettle. You're feeling your oats. You step out that front door hoping someone will have car trouble right in front of you, so you can single-handedly push her to the nearest gas station. Instead, the eight-hundredth person this week marches up and asks you why you're blonde and your daughter's Chinese.

So tell him. Tell him about the way unwanted girl children are treated in China, and how many unwanted girls there are. Tell him about the waiting. Tell him about how you were so nervous about the first home-study visit from the adoption agency that you hired someone to clean your house, including the attic and basement, and then ran out and bought $200 worth of thick, intellectual-looking books to strew casually about the place. Tell him about how scary it was at first when your daughter sneezed or slept or didn't sleep, because she'd had months of life before you got to be her mother and you had no idea what her habits were, and no one to tell you. Tell him what it's like not knowing exactly how old your own daughter is, since no one knows her birthday.

Two things can happen at this point. Your listener will fall asleep, leaving you to make a clean getaway; or your listener will be impressed, awed, interested and a lot better informed about a subject he barely knew existed. You're not always up to being an informational resource to the world (or your little corner of it), and you're certainly not obligated to be one. But some days it can be fun.

Nip it in The Bud

So you're talking to a new mom-friend, and you let it slip that your toddler likes to take a nip at the breast now and then. Before your buddy even has a chance to look surprised, add, "And you wouldn't believe some of the dopey things I've had people say about that!" Implying, of course, that you're confident she's above that sort of foolishness.

It's surprising how eager people are to live up to a high ideal once you present it to them. And how reluctant they can be, no matter how strange they think your habits are, to swell the ranks of people who make dopey remarks.

Find a Community

Go online if you have to. A local support group is better, but take what you can get. You need a safe place to go, whether it's cyberspace or your own living room one Thursday a month. Somewhere you can vent and rag and give advice and take comfort. Be patient, and don't worry. Somewhere there is a haven for you, just waiting to be found or created and filled with fellow rebels. You are never the only one in the whole big scary universe making a particular choice. It just feels like it some days.

Don't let the crowd get you down. All the people we admire and teach our children to admire--the history-makers, the world-changers--have been rebels, and they accepted that sometimes that meant being an outsider. As Susan B. Anthony put it so well, "Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform." So celebrate your separateness, even if the only reform you're interested in bringing about is having your personal brand of weirdness be accepted as just another kind of normal. And urge your children to delight in their uniqueness as well. You never know who might decide to rebel and throw off a too-heavy shackle of convention, thanks to your good influence.

© 2006, Deborah Markus

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