Conversations: Looking back

A couple of years ago, while living in Brooklyn, New York, I was at a party, talking with a woman my age who I hadn’t met before. We were talking about dancing; she had studied ballet, and my younger sister Whitney is a dancer.

To be a serious dancer is a tremendous commitment of time — time and blood, sweat and tears — and as the conversation continued, we both began to circle a thing neither of us was quick to actually ask: “Were you homeschooled?”

I don’t remember which one of us finally said the buzz word. But it was great. In that moment, I felt completely kindred with this person I didn’t know!

When I was a kid, the fact that I was outside of “the system” felt defining, or at least important. It felt like an inevitable conversation. That was ok; although I didn’t choose it, I think I was pretty good at that conversation. But as an adult, it wasn’t a focus, it wasn’t a conversation that I pursued. As an adult, there have been times when I knew a friend for years before my unconventional education came up. I no longer see it as defining.

I share so many of the same values and interests, successes and challenges as people who had totally different paths. My husband, for example, went to public school, private school, and boarding school — we had totally opposite experiences.  But we wound up at the same small art school, having so much in common, and sharing our lives over the last 8 years.

So how did my family’s decision to opt-out really shape us? It’s one of the questions I’m reflecting on with this project.

I can say, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like for my mom, in her late twenties, to make the call to raise her kids so differently than how she was raised. That’s a big leap — I know parents make that leap in different ways, all the time. But I have to say, I’ve been thinking about it… and I’m impressed.

Here is a conversation between my mother and I, looking back at the early days:

Lindsey: If you can remember, what would you say you were most concerned about, or intimidated by, in our earliest days of homeschooling?

Cathy: I felt not intimidated by homeschooling at all. Everything that intimidated me was general parenting. Maybe I’m crazy. I learned to read on my own before going to school; my little sister learned to read before going to school, too…everyone credited me with teaching her because I was there and helping her. But I felt like, of course my children will spring from my loins and learn to read when they’re four years old! Actually, that didn’t happen, but I didn’t feel a lack of confidence educationally. I had read so much of John Holt’s philosophy, and it had seeped into everything.

Lindsey: So, looking back, what is something that you didn’t know to worry about, that ended up being a challenge?

Cathy: Um…you know, kids get so much information from everywhere. I was surprised how much you guys would decide something “cultural” like “I don’t like math!” even when you had barely been exposed to it in a formal way that could turn you off. I never wanted that turn-off to happen. I was turned off to math as a kid, myself, having been exposed too early to the wrong kind of ideas in a way that didn’t make sense. I had been made to feel dumb by that structured math instruction, and I had wanted to avoid that. So I was surprised when you guys seemed to pick up on something like “I don’t like math” outside of that structure.

Lindsey: That’s really interesting, I think of myself as a pretty competitive person, especially with myself. I joke as an adult that I don’t like doing things I’m not already good at… That must have been dismaying with your approach!

Cathy: Yeah, well each of you three kids was very different. I wasn’t surprised by having to overcome, let’s say, Whitney wanting to move all the time – she would want to “study” something, but barely be able to sit still to “study” in a traditional way. That didn’t surprise me that much. What surprised me was the attitude you guys would have that there was self-doubt and negativity towards things you found difficult… I was surprised that we had to overcome self-doubt you kids seemed to generate yourselves. I had always thought that was put upon kids by parents and teachers and tests and grades, but since that wasn’t being put upon you guys, I was surprised that you invented the same insecurities.

Lindsey: I guess a lot of that stuff is just human.  

Cathy: Right.

Lindsey: I feel like when I was a kid, saying I was home-schooled was met with a lot of surprise and skepticism from adults. I remember feeling like I had to navigate the question carefully when someone would ask me, “Where do you go to school?” Do you remember ever talking with us about that or coaching us on what to tell people when homeschooling was still pretty uncharted and unfamiliar territory in the mainstream?

Cathy: What I remember is everyone saying to you kids, “Oh, you’re going to LOVE Kindergarten! When are you going to Kindergarten?” Mindy was getting that all the time… you were still too young, probably, to pick up on it. So, Mindy got pretty excited about this thing she was hearing about; it sounded so great. I never really expected that, either. People were making Kindergarten sound fun, but I knew from looking at our local schools that it wasn’t the best place for Mindy. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to just ask…We sat down and talked about it, and I asked her what she thought she would get from school that she wouldn’t get from what we were going to do with homeschooling. One of the things she said was she wanted a name to answer the question of “Where do you go to school?” And that’s when we came up with the name De Colores. I think you guys voted and chose somehow, you and Mindy and Camille. So when people would ask you where you went to school, you could say “De Colores.” People would say, “Oh! I haven’t heard of it.” And I would say, “It’s very small…”

Another thing Mindy wanted, that school kids were talking about, was a lunch box. So we went out, and you guys choose Popple lunch boxes.

Lindsey: That’s funny…  You know, I remember thinking it was strange that school was the only thing some adults could think of to chat about with kids!  Because life has so many things to chat about, I just didn’t realize the proportion of life that school occupied for many kids.  But, you know, I find myself doing that now, asking kids what they’re up to in school just to make conversation.

Cathy: Hmm… Well, as you know, now that I’m done homeschooling you guys, I tutor kids who go to school. When I ask what they’re up to in school, they almost always answer “nothing.” It’s not really good “chat” material.

Lindsey: Yeah, that’s so true…I don’t usually succeed at making conversation that way.

Cathy: At any rate, I don’t remember coaching you guys on what to say… Although I do remember you guys coaching me a little bit! I think you took me aside one time and said, “Don’t tell people that homeschooling is like what other people do on school breaks – because other people don’t do anything like what we do, when they’re out of school.” There was more you coaching me, than me coaching you.

outdoor play

Lindsey: Ok, so, let’s talk about the journal you kept in 1987-1988. Remind us how the journal began.

Cathy: My friend Maria was a school librarian before she had her daughter, Camille. She wanted to continue to work part-time, but she wanted something more family-oriented than just a baby sitter. I was already helping her out with that, and once the girls became school aged, I offered to homeschool her as well on those days.

Maria liked the idea, but she was a little wistful, and felt like she was missing so much. I decided to keep a journal to give her the background on what we did each day! 

That’s where it came from. I wish I had done the journal longer than I did. I only did the notes three days a week for one school year when your sister was five and you were three. 

Lindsey: How did you and Maria first come to be friends?

Cathy: I met Maria and her husband at Lamaze (childbirth) class. Jim and I were the chatter boxes of the class, and Maria and her husband were very quiet – they never said a word. But later on, after Mindy was born—when she was about three months old, maybe—I found a mommy & me class. Because I didn’t know any moms! And I didn’t know anyone who lived in my town, except for my husband. At all. So I needed to make some connections. And there was Maria from Lamaze at the mommy & me class, and that’s how we met.

At the mommy & me class, all the other babies would sleep a lot, but Camille and Mindy were always awake the whole class and never slept! The other moms would say, “Oh, my baby slept through the night,” and our babies never slept through the night. Or they’d say, “Oh, my baby naps this many times a day,” and our babies were very minimal nappers. So the other moms were always trying to help advise us, like there was something wrong with our babies! Privately, Maria and I would slink away and say, “Their babies are so boring! They’re slugs; they do nothing but sleep!” It was a little bit of the us-against-them thing that brought us together as well… 

Lindsey: That’s funny

Cathy: It was funny!