Homeschooling. The word brings to mind images of colorful books piled on a table, a well-used collection of pencils and paper and scissors and glue, the waxy-sweet smell of a freshly-opened box of crayons, an assortment of kitchen-science ingredients in boxes and bottles of different shapes and sizes. Fall days collecting leaves, spring mornings examining pond life, long lazy summer days at the beach learning about everything – and nothing at all. Homeschooling is a warm and cozy word, evoking images of parent and child engaged in sharing, exploring, learning about life.
Homeschooling is not often associated with prescription drugs and hypodermic needles. We don’t often equate it with learning medical terminology and care-giving procedures, or learning how to administer life-saving techniques or determining when to call 911. We don’t often think of hospital visits or figuring out the intricacies of insurance paperwork as educational. But if homeschooling is about learning what we need to know to get along in life, then the lessons awaiting us at the other end of the spectrum, when our parents grow old and we who were once children become learners all over again, are as important as those we teach and learn at the beginning.
Somehow, somewhere in the development of our present-day social structure, it was decided that separating and specializing the stages and phases of life would be beneficial. And to a certain extent, I suppose it is. Young children often have a kind of energy and sheer unbridled enthusiasm that would tax the patience of an elderly person, and the mellow interests of an octogenarian would scarcely keep a toddler entertained for long. There are obvious benefits to having particular spaces and special times for each, and yet so much is lost in the process of keeping them separate, distinct, apart. As homeschooling families have relearned how to live with various ages of development, and so too have many of us relearned how to live with various stages of ability and disability.
There was a popular saying many years ago, which advised something along the lines of: “If you institutionalize your children when they’re young, they’ll institutionalize you when they’re your age.” An entire generation turned away from institutionalizing their children, and now that generation is facing the “other end” of homeschooling, and some of life’s most difficult lessons. What we learned by homeschooling our children – patience, acceptance, how to learn what we needed to know – is being brought into play as we face the challenges of our aging parents.
In Internet chat rooms and on email discussion lists the conversation often turns from helping our toddlers learn to helping our parents survive. One typical exchange highlights the similarities: A long-time list member explained that she hadn’t been active on the list for several weeks because she’d been helping her parents after her father suffered a debilitating stroke: “I never imagined that there would be so much to learn about how to deal with this situation; I feel like I’m a little kid again trying to understand confusing concepts that are just beyond my grasp. Is this what it was like when my eight-year-old was trying to learn to read? Just a jumble of nonsensical words and strange symbols and even when someone patiently explained what they all meant I’d just stare at the papers in my hand and nothing would come together for me and make sense? That’s such a helpless feeling!”
A message board member described her mother’s passing away: “Even while we were getting her things ready for the funeral home I kept thinking this couldn’t be happening, this wasn’t true, there’s been some kind of mistake, because it wasn’t long enough ago that she and I were snuggled on the couch reading Each Peach Pear Plum and Where the Wild Things Are. And now I feel like a wild thing myself, and I want to stomp off to my room and have an imaginary adventure and when I get back I want to find a nice warm plate of something she’s fixed just for me. I want to be a little kid again, and I want her to be my mom again.”
It’s so much easier dealing with the younger generation. The snuggly babies, the cute toddlers, the inquisitive youngsters and even the teenagers who are blossoming into young men and women and struggling to figure out their place in the world. Their perspective is endless, unbounded, unencumbered by the finite realities of life. It’s joyous and inspiring to be in their company, to share in their plans and dreams and schemes and limitless expectations.
It’s harder when we come up against the realization that there are indeed limits, that there are plans which won’t be achieved, dreams which won’t be fulfilled. We learn to deal with disappointment, frustration, heartache and heartbreak. And yet what we’re really seeing, what we’re becoming a part of, is just the full circle of life. This is how it’s meant to be. If we can hold onto perspective, if we can accept the bad as just part of the larger good, these difficult lessons can do for us what the less complex lessons in reading and writing can do for our children: make us stronger, wiser, more capable, and more prepared for whatever lies ahead.
© 2004 Helen Hegener