July 7, 2013 by Julia
Recently in the car I recounted the story of my grade school years to Dennis. We’ve been together since we were eighteen years old, and yet my education was so convoluted that even he didn’t have it all straight. In fact I don’t think anyone but myself (and possibly my mother) could remember everything correctly.
I was home-schooled through most of grade school for religious reasons. My parents were members of a large, non-denominational Christian church that we would probably all now describe as radical, evangelical, and controlling, although there were positive aspects, too. The music and sense of fellowship were beautiful at times, and my family has held onto the faith and love and Jesus part, while shedding as many of the negative, judgmental trappings that interfere with those core values as we can along the way. (My spiritual journey into a liberal hippie Christian, Anne Lamott-style, is probably another post for another time.) But in my adult opinion, the church community I was born into was slightly crazy; it must be said. On a sort-of related note, one of the pervasive beliefs was that parents should educate at home. Everyone home-schooled.
I have nothing against home schooling itself. But why did we do it? My childhood perception was that we had no other option. The children had to be brought up in the way they should go, and the rest of the world would probably screw with that. Public school teachers might instruct us on un-Christian things like evolution or abortion, or other kids might become bad influences on us. And the Bible was integral to every aspect of our lives, so it made sense to integrate Scripture into our schooling. Christian private schools were okay, but I sensed that they were still a little iffy, because when you get groups of kids together like that, away from the watchful eyes of their parents, they’ll eventually find a way to rebel. In order to help facilitate these beliefs, our church founded an academy for home-schooling members, and it was through this academy that we ordered curriculum and underwent tests each year to ensure we were passing state education standards.
But I wasn’t upset about being home-schooled. I loved learning to read, and my parents (mostly my mom, who stayed home) were good, conscientious teachers. My home-schooled peers and I often sailed far above our grade levels, presumably because of the amount of individual attention we got in our “classrooms” at home. Our academy also organized field trips and art contests and graduation ceremonies for the end of each school year.
I had friends from church, and we started our own Girl Scout troop, and had sleepovers. I didn’t feel socially deprived, maybe in part because I was a homebody who liked to read much of the time, and I had three younger siblings to keep me company and fill our house with noise and play. An added bonus was that we could finish our daily schooling at home in about half the time it would take in public school. The extra free time was nice: there was no rushing through breakfast to catch the bus, we could take family vacations in the fall. We made our own schedules to suit our own needs.
But by the time I finished fourth grade, my parents suggested to me that I skip the fifth grade and try out sixth grade public middle school. I don’t quite remember our reasoning for the change, although I did feel consulted on the matter – not forced into it, by any means. Our decision may have been influenced by the changes in our church, which was evolving into two separate factions – one more traditionally conservative and one more focused on the “grace” part of Christianity (we were leaning towards the latter, and went with those leaders when the split became official). Maybe within the more relaxed atmosphere my parents were able to consider the benefits of trained teachers, or they thought I needed to experience a little more pressure – socially and academically.
Socially, the timing seems odd to me now, though. Sixth grade girls are…(how should I put this?) like a bunch of disoriented wolves, yapping and howling and sharpening their fangs for the hunt. And I was a lamb, a year younger than them, no comparable experience under my belt, quiet, with oversized glasses. At least high school girls have some semblance of empathy and self-awareness. Middle school-ers have lost their innocence, but have yet to gain maturity. It’s scary. And awkward!
I didn’t hate that year, but I didn’t much like it, either. I had one good friend whom I already knew through church, and we stuck together as much as possible. There were a handful of students I exchanged words with, but I was afraid a lot. The memories that stick out:
-Getting sick and vomiting in the hallway before I could make it to the bathroom
-A popular girl on the bus saying to me, “What happened to your hair?” in a Heathers-ish voice and the subsequent feeling of near-death
-Getting an “A+++!!!” on a fictional essay written from the perspective of a girl dying in an environmental apocalypse
-The school photographer calling my one friend “beautiful” but saying nothing to me
-Making a huge pyramid out of sugar cubes for history class
-Dreading gym and thinking it was weird how we had to change clothes
-Getting my only C in art (still not sure why; the irony of it!), and coming home crying with my report card to my mom
-My first exposure to “secular” music – Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” lots of Phil Collins, Mariah Carey bursting onto the scene. It was ‘89-‘90.
When the year was up my parents asked if I wanted to go back to home-schooling, and I didn’t think twice; public school seemed like more trouble than it was worth. My real friends were from church, anyway. I returned to what felt comfortable.
And the homeschooling world got much more exciting in the summer before ninth grade, when my mom and the mother of my best friend Sarah decided to produce and direct a musical through our home schooling academy. The play was a huge hit within the academy, and it was the beginning of a new era – one in which we saw our peers at least once a week. I loved being in that first play with all of my heart.
But here’s where it gets especially confusing, in retrospect. I went to public high school for tenth grade, where I forged my way into the drama crowd, and had a good time with my new group of friends. But I missed my old home-schooled friends, and I desperately wanted to be part of the academy’s plays again, so I went back to homeschooling for eleventh grade. When that year was over, however, my parents felt it had not been the most beneficial year academically, especially because junior year is so important, and we decided I should repeat eleventh grade in public school to make sure I’d covered all my bases. (A decision made in part because I’d skipped fifth grade, and wouldn’t technically be “behind.”)
My public school friends tried to welcome me back after my year away, but I got so depressed and weird that they slowly gave up on me. My parents decided to pull me out halfway through the school year, once severe depression had me failing a few of my classes. My depression was manageable by the end of the following summer, and I was capable of handling things academically again. But when I entered my senior year of public high school, my social life was done. It was a wasteland. I felt like a pariah among both my home-schooled friends and my public school friends.
It’s a little hard not to write about my senior year without a tone of self-pity, maybe because senior year is supposed to be when you’re finally on top, finally comfortable in your social circle, finally getting the lead in the school play, going to Prom, etc. My senior year was the worst year for me, socially, and I felt that it was my own fault. I’d tried to play both sides – to have two sets of friends. I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. But they couldn’t continue to save my space for me every time I left. I’d tried to have it all, and ended up with nothing.
To make matters more awkward, people just didn’t know what had been going on with me the year of my depression. They weren’t sure how to approach me when I returned to life. I don’t blame anyone. But it hurt badly. I hid in the bathroom during lunch. I just wanted to get through the year as invisibly as possible. If anyone saw me, they’d see that I had no friends left, that I was an anxious nobody still figuring out how to cope with the lingering traces of depression. Of course I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. But there was no one to talk to at my school about it, so I just focused on getting through. My previous high school years were intense roller coasters of emotional highs and heartbreak and inside jokes and humiliation; my senior year was cleanly empty. Just get through.
When I talk about being home-schooled now to my adult friends who didn’t know me back then, I mention that I did public school, too, and when I try to explain the going back-and-forth in high school, it gets confusing. It’s still confusing to me. On paper, it looks like insanity. (And writing this has been a bitch. Congratulations if you’ve made it this far!)
But the way I remember it, my parents and I made these choices together, and we respected each other’s opinion on the matter. They couldn’t “lay down the law” and order me to stick with one school – we were already halfway through, and they were navigating these tricky waters of home schooling for the first time right alongside me, their firstborn. It goes without saying that they always had my best interests at heart. I think maybe we just couldn’t figure out a singular way to meet both my social and academic needs by the time I hit high school. My roots with home schooling ran too deep to give up that world or those friends entirely. And yet, as a home-schooler, I did long for the great big world, and my parents wanted to give me that, too, once their religious views on education had changed.
So, yeah. That last part sucked. But I survived, and let me tell you…having been a person who ate lunch in the bathroom, I feel like I want to befriend just about everyone these days. There is no one too socially awkward for me, no one too dorky or too strange or too normal. I don’t feel the need to play competitive social games; if I want to hang out with a group of people I’ll approach them with no shame, and if I need to be alone, I can do that, too. (I might be a little paranoid about accidentally leaving someone out and hurting their feelings, though. I think I text about arranging playdates as much as teens text about…whatever they constantly text about.)
I don’t regret my experiences, or wish any of it away. Looking back, I realize that my education was unusual, at times messy, but I learned what I needed to. I had the opportunity to do many things I loved (so much theater and art and reading and writing!), and had the opportunity to struggle through the things that were hard, and it was intense and the contrasting experiences of both schools still inform my choices to this day. Also, I’m glad I got to go to high school with both sets of friends; I still treasure the memories of the good times, and over the years I’ve reconnected with many of them (most notably Sarah, who I still count as my best friend, and whom often shows up here on the blog.) The painful ending of high school doesn’t make me want to trade in all of the other amazing experiences along with it. You have to take the good with the bad. I’m sure that goes for most everyone’s school experience.
Will I home-school my kids? HA! First of all, I am not the Energizer bunny, like my mother. I don’t think I could do it, even if I wanted to. Second of all, I am excited that my daughter and son get to experience public elementary school – this will be my first experience with it, too. Beyond the initial nerves, I am not apprehensive about sending them out into that world. I want them to feel secure at home with me. But I also can’t wait for them to experience the world away from me, in all of its glory. As long as they promise to always come back.