Picture yourself as a gorilla who weighs 800 pounds. (Yes, usually gorillas weigh half of that, but this metaphor is funnier with a fatter gorilla.) Now picture you and your 800-pound body trying to squeeze yourself into a human-toddler-sized bikini. There’s nothing wrong with the bikini — there are ruffles on the butt, and there are probably some polka dots involved. And there’s nothing wrong with you — you are a handsome gorilla who has exceeded everyone’s expectations in both charm and handsomeness. But social norms and the United States government require you to try on that bathing suit every day, for 13-17 years.
Now pretend that 800-pound gorilla is your 14-year-old child, and the bikini is the traditional school system. This child has never gotten the hang of sitting in desks for six hours a day, nor embraced the hours of homework that come home with her every week. She questions everything — “When am I going to use this in the real world?” “Why do I have to do this again when we already did it last week?” “Why do I have to get up at 6:30 when research says teenagers should get more sleep?” “Why are you stalking my grades online everyday like a maniac, Mom?” “Can I have all of your jeans except for the bootcut ones?”
I gave you my genes, isn’t that enough?
Now picture your gorilla-child hybrid sitting at a desk alone, with no other students in the room, while her teacher politely tells you and your husband that your daughter is distracted, that she’s smart but doesn’t apply herself (translation: she’s lazy), that she’s sleepy, that her desk is a mess, that she’s disorganized, that she talks too much, that everybody loves her but they’d probably love her more if she worked harder.
Now picture your child hearing that speech two to three times a year, every year, for 13 years.
This year, a switch flipped in my brain. My husband and I realized that not only have we been forcing our gorilla daughter to try on a toddler-sized bikini every day, but also that we’d taken the bikini salesmen’s side when she couldn’t get it on. We were the wrong ones.
I’m so sorry, honey.
In August of 2015, I pulled my ninth-grader out of school. I didn’t have a plan. I work full-time. All I knew was that my kid wasn’t going to go another four years and into the adult world thinking she is a problem that needs to be fixed. Now, before you begin pulling out the fountain pens and stationery and unlock the stamp collection to begin a thoughtful series of outraged letters, I should clarify three things:
— I work from home. My husband also works from home. We have the flexibility of a Soviet-era gymnast in terms of how we are able to manage our time and our daughter’s education.
— This is not my first time at the homeschool rodeo. From 2005-2010, I homeschooled all three of my kids with varying degrees of success. In fact, that was what I was doing before I started working for Cracked.
— I have three kids (that I know of.) Only one of them is homeschooled. The other two are missing. Call me if you see them.
Their most recent picture. Please spread the word.
So why would a family whose current religious affiliation is “Be nice” and which is still firmly in love with the concept of capitalism opt out of the standard school model for only one of their three (that they know of) children? The short answer is that the stakes were too high not to. The long answer is in the rest of this article.
One of the first things you might be asking yourself is, “Why didn’t you get your daughter tested for ADHD?” My answer to that question is, “Maybe later, but for now I don’t want to.”
For one thing, over the years, all of my kids have been called distracted, unfocused, and disorganized. Harrison kids stare out the window and live in their own heads for good chunks of the day. In fact, that’s exactly why we started homeschooling the first time. In 2004, my obedient, compliant, almost-literate son went to kindergarten next door to me. “Next door” as in I taught kindergarten one room over from his classroom. All of his life, we’d heard that he was a good kid, that he was very easy to get along with, and that his peaceful demeanor probably meant he was the Buddha.
So he had that going him, which was nice.
The first day of school was only hours in before my mentor (his teacher) had concerns. My son wasn’t cooperating. After I woke up from my faint, I found out he wasn’t into coloring, cutting, pasting, listening, tracing things, standing in line, walking as fast as everyone else in line, lines in general, worksheets, or pretending to care when she or any other adult spoke to him. Every day, he’d come home with homework packets that I helped design and we’d fight for hours over getting them done.
“Wait a minute,” those of you without school-aged children might be saying. “Did you say ‘homework packets’? In kindergarten?” Yes I did! Because even back in 2004, kindergarten was really first grade, complete with multiple standardized tests, full days, no naps, and parents who expected their kids to come home with homework. When my son wouldn’t do his packets, thus bringing shame on the whole family, my husband showed him a picture of a child coal miner and warned that might be his job if he didn’t do his homework.
Look at that picture of that baby coal miner. Details are foggy, but I’m picturing myself sitting in tears with my son while I begged him to do his simple season-appropriate busywork. Let’s say it was February, so he was supposed to color some hearts or something. I picture him with his head down, trying not to cry, and a three-year-old and a toddler running around screaming like lunatics in the background. One of them might have had a diaper on her head, I don’t know. I’m picturing my husband walking in on this scene and realizing that this was our future, every day for the next 20 years. So he used the one scare tactic he thought his previously-obedient son would respond to: a picture of a dirty child performing hard labor.
In August 2005, we moved to Idaho, got the boy signed up for school, and started the process over again. Same concerns from his teacher, same tears over homework. I was homeschooling him by Halloween.
I believe in ADHD. I know it’s a real thing. I believe in medications — almost too much, if you know what I mean. (*Winks, points at Ambien, Zoloft and ibuprofen in the bathroom.*) And no one explicitly said, “Hey, maybe your son has attention issues,” followed by air quotes, because that would have been weird and also illegal.
Saying it, not the quotes thing. Though they should be.
All I knew in that moment was that my kid didn’t thrive in the classroom and we had the resources to give homeschooling a try. For the next five years, we covered the exact same subjects as a traditional school, plus crazy stuff like Latin (stupid), French (double stupid), and Shakespeare (9/10, will try again.) One year, we did this thing where the kids could spend Fridays studying whatever they wanted, so my son studied the Battle of Midway for a month. We still incorporated the fine motor stuff that you see in elementary school — coloring, cutting, and glue eating — because I wasn’t a total idiot and I knew these were skills a kid is supposed to learn. The only thing that changed in his education was the pacing and amount of attention he got. We connected with homeschool groups and had playdates and used actual guns to shoot people who questioned whether or not my kids were socialized.
The previous sentence was an untruth. They were play guns. I’m going to come back to the socialization question in a moment.
You’ll pry our Nerf from our dead, awesome hands.
The point is that our first round of homeschooling was liberating. There were hours of instruction followed by hours of no homework. We did school at the beach like a bunch of freaking hippies. I joined a local homeschooling group that administered standardized tests every year so I knew the kids were on track. Some parents and teachers might read this part of our story and think I coddled my kid by removing him from a place where he was uncomfortable and created a personalized education utopia for him instead. Yes, that’s true! That’s exactly what I did! You nailed it! No regrets!
So why did we quit? When sixth grade came, I panicked. I never found a great secular science curriculum, and his science test scores were slipping. My fourth-grader (now ninth-grader) was struggling, and I didn’t know how to fix her. My second-grader begged to go to school like a regular human. So we shipped them out and I got a job. The end.
You really should be asking me another question right now: “Kristi, that coal miner picture was harsh. Is psychological torture still a thing you guys do with your kids or what?” It’s not still a thing we do. But it wasn’t unreasonable for us at the time. Here’s why:
And that single path option is now (*blows kiss and peace sign up to Jesus*) obsolete.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at the youthful stock image avatar I’ve chosen for all of my social media outlets, but I’m going to turn 40 this year. Which means I lived the first half of my life in the pre-Internet olden days and the second half after the digital revolution. Picture me straddling a horse, with typewriters and phones with curly cords on one side, and tablets and my way-overdue 400-freaking-dollar Verizon bill on the other. Or don’t. That was a stupid visual.
Here’s how straddling two economic eras played out in my life: When I was in high school, my only “career” goal was to not be poor. I did OK on my SATs and took out a buttload of student loans to go to college, because every conceivable path to a middle-class lifestyle at that point involved a college degree. While there, I met my husband, we got married, he knocked me up, he dropped out of college to work full-time, and I graduated. That’s where our professional paths diverged.
“Forget the less-traveled. Show us the more-moneyed. Diapers aren’t cheap.”
After getting that first job at age 20 sans degree, he got another. And another. And then another. There might have been some firings in there in the meantime, but the big picture is that at each job, he was developing very specific skill sets that made him marketable in his field. And his field, believe it or not, wasn’t being a mechanic or welding or lumberjacking. He was building software for multi-million-dollar retailers. One of those companies eventually went bankrupt, but I’m 95 percent sure that had nothing to do with him not having a Bachelor’s degree.
Because he dropped out of college to do this very specific thing he knew how to do, I was able to drop out of the workforce for five years to homeschool our children. As for my college degree, I like it. It’s like this cute little $40,000 pet that I’d still buy if given a choice. There was no way the 1994 18-year-old version of me could have predicted a world in which you could edit for a California-based company while living in Idaho, or that my future boss wouldn’t care one lick about my degree in history. That would have been like Queen Victoria predicting that women would cut their hair and flaunt their calf muscles as soon as she kicked the bucket. No one saw it coming.
“In my day, some hot ankle action was all you’d need.”
So when my daughter attended a career fair at her school in sixth grade and brought home a brochure from a hair school called Toni & Guy and sheepishly asked if she could go there instead of college, I naturally said, “Yes! Good job at figuring out something you’re interested in, and of course you can go there, sweet darling!”
Sorry, I’m misremembering that moment. I said, “No, you’re going to college!” before jamming a steak knife into the table and then pulling out a mic hidden just for this occasion and dropping it on her food and walking away.
My point is that even though we were living proof that maybe, just maybe you could hit the workforce running without a college degree or the tens of thousands of dollars of debt associated with said degree, we couldn’t internalize that information for own kids. And this is important, because K-12 is set up explicitly to get kids to college.
OK, that headline is misleading. Every teacher I’ve ever worked with has been encouraging, kind, well-intentioned, and thoughtful toward my children. But remember what I said above? That all three of my kids have been characterized as “distracted”? I’ve only got three of them. Picturing six periods of 22 clones of my kids would give me a heart attack. God bless you, teachers who have taught my children.
What no one tells non-teachers is that there was a time when walking into your own classroom was like walking into a business where you were the CEO. The door is closed and you are “on.” You play the role of grown-up in charge, and you better freaking figure out that piece of the job fast, because your kids will Dangerous Minds you if you don’t.
“Are leather jackets and Coolio CDs allowable tax write-offs?”
The other thing that no one tells non-teachers is that there is a massive creative reward that comes from running a classroom well. It’s an art. There are walls to cover, there are systems to invent, there are routines to implement, there are centers to build from scratch. And when you’re working with little ones, you’re a rock star. They will hug you if they run into you at Walmart. They will clamor to be near you, even if you suck at your job. You’re Mom #2, and sometimes Not Mom But Super Reliable Favorite Person in the World if things are really rough at home. I only taught kindergarten for two years, so I didn’t have enough time to get that good at it. But my students treated me like I was great. They didn’t know better, the poor things. So when I say that teachers are miserable, I make that broad generalization because the system shifted against them, and you’d have to either be in the classroom or working with school-aged children to have noticed it.
While Generation X was hitting the workforce and Millennials were getting bred, No Child Left Behind turned American schools into something our parents and grandparents wouldn’t recognize. The explicit goal of high school has always been to lay a foundation for every child to be intellectually qualified to attend college. That was the plan from day one. That’s great. No problem there. NCLB tried something new: tying school funding to test scores. The logic was that if your school was doing an excellent job of preparing kids for college, the test scores would reflect as much and everyone wins — as in literally wins money. Higher scores = more dollars. Oh, and then each school needed to pull off another trick to get their money: They had to improve their scores every year. Even though NCLB is no longer a thing, the precedent and tone it set is still very much in place in schools across the country.
The only people succeeding are Scantron and No. 2 pencil makers.
According to this 164-page report, the average kid will take about eight standardized tests a year. If you’re thinking that’s not so bad, teachers disagree, for the most part. Most teachers are pissed about how schools look right now. This award-winning teacher quit because “I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ’em and kill ’em’ atmosphere.” She also said, “I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment, if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot, and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”
Another veteran teacher, who has worked with kids for over 40 years and won a million dollars for her teaching skills, which makes her like the Nobel Prize winner of her field, advises aspiring teachers pretty much “Ehhh … maybe don’t?” Her exact words were “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”
Yet if you walk into an average school during a major test week, you’re going to see some bizarre carnival shenanigans. There’s going to be a pep rally to get kids psyched for the test. There will be themed dress-down days to make the week feel more whimsical and less psychotic. The teachers will offer goofy payoffs like shaving their heads or getting dunked in a vat of goat blood if enough students show up and perform well. They have to — their livelihoods are tied to those test scores.
“Look, free pizza for a week. I’m one year away from tenure. I need this.”
And then there’s the homework. One survey estimated that high schoolers should expect about 3.5 hours of homework a night. A night. A night. I don’t know how to make this sound more extreme other than just repeating the phrase over and over again until you start crying with me.
Have I mentioned the fact that our school district has a suicide hotline posted on the front page of their website? Which they need, because the CDC says that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people between ages 10 and 24.
There are millions of American kids out there who are locked in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which is a phrase so ominous that it shouldn’t exist. Here’s how it works: If you, as an adult, get frustrated at your job and cuss out your boss, you’ll get fired. If you get frustrated in this upside-down backwards world and you cuss out your teacher, you’ll get suspended. Depending on the color of your skin and how many times you’ve been suspended before, you might end up in juvie. Miss enough school and you’ll definitely flunk. Do that enough times and you’ll probably drop out altogether. Drop out of school, and prison is much more likely to pop up in your future plans than if you had made it through graduation.
WHAT THE EFF IS GOING ON?
I don’t know, and I don’t have time to find out. I looked at the future, and it was grim for my daughter. Nobody in this system is being malicious. No Child Left Behind wasn’t a bad idea. The Common Core, from what I’ve read so far, is a thing. (I haven’t read it.) Standardized tests are a great way to assess knowledge every now and then. College is a wonderful idea for a lot of people.
We pictured my gorilla daughter holding a scale. One end held a brochure from a hair academy, hours of time to do things she enjoyed, algebra, English, history, theater and choir (her two favorite subjects), and the knowledge that you can always always always change your path later. The other held all of those things plus a bucket filled with four years’ worth of tears. I don’t know how this whole thing will end up, but I’m cool with our choice right now.
Do you remember that weird homeschooling family who wore homemade clothes and didn’t get any of your funny pop culture references because they were socially isolated to the point of abuse? Are you sure you remember them, like, by name? Go ahead and name them in your head. I’ll wait.
If you’re wondering how the Weird Homeschooled Kid stereotype made its way into every reference about homeschooled kids ever, it’s because the homeschooling movement wasn’t pioneered by people like me. I’m not that gutsy. The people who stuck out their necks and pulled their kids out of school first were religious fundamentalists and liberal hippies. It’s like a dog a and a cat made love, and the Baby Dat (Cog?) they birthed was the decriminalization of homeschooling. Who’s going to get mad at that?
… there are people out there who shouldn’t be homeschooling their kids. Those people are the ones we in the education/human world call “bad people.” They’re just bad. They abuse their kids. They don’t do school. Maybe there are mental health issues involved, or maybe they’re just straight-up bad. Which is why there are homeschool alumni out there advocating for states to have a smidgen more oversight in this bizarre world where you don’t necessarily have to have a high school degree to teach your kids high school material and home abuse can go unchecked for a child’s entire life, depending on the state you live in. But are parents who aren’t explicitly abusing their children kind of abusing them by not sending them to a traditional school?
This is a hard no.
You have to do mental gymnastics to convince yourself that a traditional American high school — or better yet, middle school — is a 100 percent healthy social environment. Like, you have to mentally stretch for an hour and then do a lap around the house to get to that point in your brain. High school is not like the real world. It’s an artificial biome invented a little over a 100 years ago. Homes, on the other hand, have been around for at least 200 years. Once you graduate (if you graduate), you’ll never again be grouped by your age or asked to respond robotically to bells.
Actually, that second part isn’t true if you end up working on an assembly line or in prison. Which sounds flippant, but it’s an important point. If you aggressively don’t fit into this artificial biome, there is an excellent chance you’re accidentally getting groomed for prison.
Again, I’ve been sidetracked. You’re not wondering about the kids who are still in the system struggling; you’re wondering about my weirdo kids, and whether they know how to talk to people. The answer is yes, they do. Because for the most part, the same parents who are so intense about their child’s education that they drop everything to handle it themselves are also going to make sure their kids aren’t feral freaks.
School did not teach our kids how to talk to people or how to make new friends or how to plan slumber parties or do lifelike things — life itself took care of that part for us. Of course there are socially awkward homeschooled kids out there, walking among us, trying to blend in. That’s because God had the good grace to invent socially awkward people, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have a job if he hadn’t. No offense, co-workers. You’re the best. And … I love you.
The first time I homeschooled, I followed a philosophy known as a classical education. It was perfect for my son and me. It was heavy on history and literature and required tons of rote memorization. I … um … recorded poetry on cassette tapes and made him listen to them during room time. It was rigorous, I tell you, rigorous!
OK, yeah, now I’m seeing where the weird homeschooling cliche comes from now.
While that version of school was awesome for a kid who studied the Battle of Midway in his spare time, it was a hard pass from my daughter, because it was still regular school getting taught in a traditional way. And even when we were blessed (*blows kiss and peace sign up to Jesus*) to find a local charter school that shared many of our values and worked very hard to keep her engaged, this structure is still like putting a tiny bikini on a gorilla. MY DAUGHTER, THE ACTUAL GORILLA, IS NOT THE PROBLEM.
This time, we’re experimenting. We know she’s not interested in college; she’s interested in cosmetology, special effects makeup, and the entertainment industry. Somehow (*blows kiss and peace sign up to Jesus*) the local high school now accepts dual-enrolled kids, so this kid spends part of every other day in excellent arts programs. When she’s not at play rehearsal, she’s at home with me or at a coffee shop with her dad, studying Algebra, Pygmalion, the Industrial Revolution, and that’s it. That’s not the course load she’d have at a regular school, because I think the course load she’d have at regular school is bananas. (See above.) Which means we’ll have to figure some things out this summer. That’s right, Gorilla Daughter: We’re doing school all summer. This is probably not the best place to break the news.
Don’t give me that look.
When we started this whole deal, my first line of reason was, “Well, I won’t be hovering over her for three hours a night while she does her homework, so this will probably be a win in time management for me.” That turned out to be true. I have more time to do my job than I did when keeping her grades out of the 20s range was a part-time job.
And here’s the kicker: She’s a self-learner when things get interesting. Two years ago, she won first place at the Idaho State Invention Convention for a paper mache tree thing that “allegedly” converted polluted air into clean air.
In the time she’s been home, she’s kept a decent pace with her algebra and made a movie trailer about Lewis and Clark (as in she wrote a script, managed a cast, hacked through editing software, did the voiceovers — all of it). This month, she’s writing a children’s story about the Industrial Revolution. I’m not allowed to see it until it’s done, but it sounds high-concept.
I do have a character suggestion …
When she has time, she hangs out with her friends or does makeup tutorials or tries to convince her brother to join the family band. The family band named Team Murder … OK, yeah, I should just stop myself from talking when I want to convey how normal we are. The point of this entry is that I don’t know what the crap I’m doing, but everyone is still alive and happy. And for parents who don’t have the resources or time to opt out of the public school system, hang tight. It’s OK. Here’s what you do:
Let the switch flip in your brain so that you are now your child’s #1 advocate, no matter what happens at school. If getting good grades is important to your child, let them work hard for those good grades. Don’t let them get too down on themselves and make them go to bed at night if the work is unreasonable.
And have their back if someone tries to pull this garbage.
If your child is ambivalent about grades, but has other interests that they care about, do not leverage the source of joy in their lives in order to squeeze better grades from them. In other words, don’t make your musician drop guitar lessons when they flunk math. Don’t threaten to take away the phone and the computer if they flunk English. For one thing, they won’t be able to catch up, so that was a stupid plan, and for another, kids need a world that belongs to them alone. They need private spaces and time to do things that aren’t written out in the Common Core. Just give your kids as much grace as you can manage, and take their side when things get hard. You can care about your kids’ grades without making your kids’ grades your everything.
So if it sounds like we’ve got all of this figured out and everything is totally fine, it’s not. I haven’t figured out how to do transcripts yet. We don’t have a plan for science, and we’ve already abandoned one history book altogether. And that’s perfect, because that’s life. In the same way that I want her to own her own body, her own clothes, her own hair, her personhood, I want my daughter to own her education and kickbox it until it fits her needs, not the other way around. Get back to me in five years, and I’ll let you know how everything turns out.
For more from Kristi Harrison on ways to fix the current education system, check out 5 Tips for Fixing America’s Schools (From a Former Teacher), and see why there are worse places to go for sex education than your parents in 5 Insane Things I Was Taught In Abstinence-Only Sex Ed.
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