Finding Homeschoolers In All 50 States: 1989 & Now

A while back I shared a pen-pal letter that my older sister and I sent out to other homeschooling children in 1989. We used the directory in the back of the Growing Without Schooling Magazine to gather names and addresses, and sent a letter to one homeschooling family in all 50 United States. We heard back from 19 families, and were fascinated by each of the responses.

After we began this blog, my mom and I found those old letters that were exchanged and thought it would be fun locate the now adult homeschoolers we had pen-palled with in 1989.

In the age of Facebook, I figured it would be easy to find most everyone! In fact, it turned out to be somewhat challenging. So far I have only been successful at finding a handful of people, and I have only heard back from one!

That person is named Amara, and she was living in Washington state with her parents back in ’89. Her letter was one of the more memorable that we received. I’m really glad I was able to locate her as an adult, and exchange notes on where our lives have taken us since the original letters were exchanged.

As a refresher, here’s the gist of the letter my sister and I sent out to homeschooling families across the US:

Hello!

We are homeschoolers: our names are Mindy (almost 7 years old) and Lindsey (almost 5) […]

Our best friend is a homeschooler too. She comes to our house once a week, and we go to her house once a week. We are traveling — in our imagination — to all 50 of the US states […]

On Fridays we go to Rainbow Kids, which is a group of homeschoolers. There are about 30 kids when EVERYBODY comes, but usually only 10 to 20 kids come each week. […]

We live near Los Angeles, California, about an hour from the beach. […] We live in a little town in the middle of big cities that surround LA. We live close to Disneyland […]

We are sending letters to one family from each state as part of our US unit. Please write us back and tell us about the place you live and how you homeschool. Thank you!

pen-pal letter, 1989, page 3 of 3

pen-pal letter, 1989, page 3 of 3

A girl named Amara wrote us back from Washington State. Here is the letter she sent:

pen-pal letter, 1989, from Washington state

pen-pal letter, 1989, from Washington state

Dear Lindsey & Mindy,

We have three rabits. Their names are Pluto, Dino and Dino. We ate Playdee. And anther Dino is already in the freezer. Santa gave me the two white bunnies and I named them Pluto and Playdee.

I go on the gleaning run with my father. I have an apron that says ‘Amara The Gleaner’ and ‘The Family Kitchen.’ We get food for people who don’t have enough to eat. I do the sorting through the garbage to get the good food to cook at ‘The Family Kitchen’.

The ocean here is very cold.

Day after tomorrow Hannah (Grandma) comes from Pennsylvania. She is coming to see the new baby. The baby will be born soon. The due date is the same as my birthday: 22 April.*

We live with Erin (8), Larry & Kay (Erin’s parents), Tief & Ty & Lis (Kay’s young adult children), Connie (a nurse recently moved in) and my mommy (Barbara) and daddy (David).

I want to print out now, but maybe we’ll say more later. 

Amara (Monkey) Lissa

*Our baby will be born at home in the same bed that I was born in.

When I contacted Amara, I sent her copies of the letters. Amara and I were not yet five years old when we pen palled, so she was very surprised to hear from me and had not remembered the exchange!

She was surprised (and a little embarrassed) at the details her family had chosen to include in the letter — she suspected that the inclusion of eating the pet rabbits must have been her dad’s idea!  In 1989, Amara lived with her parents in a co-op in Seattle, WA, and she described her family’s approach to homeschooling as very alternative and unique.

Of course, my sister and I were delighted by Amara’s letter back in the day (although my mom remembers we were pretty surprised by the part about eating bunnies!). Her letter represented an exotic experience in homeschooling, compared to our own LA suburban lives of mini-vans and palm trees and strip malls. And now that I’ve exchanged a few letters with a grown-up Amara, I see that her life and education continued to unfold on a unique path.

Amara and her family homeschooled until she was 10 years old, when they moved to the Netherlands, and she and her younger sister began attending the local Dutch school. Two years later, they returned to the US, and she attended public schools in America from 6th grade on.

I asked Amara what differences she had observed between the US and Dutch schools. She said the experiences were very different — and there were several factors that stuck out as contributing to those differences. For one thing, she attended a very small Dutch school that she could walk to in the neighborhood. Her class size was about 20 kids of mixed grades, and there were only about 100-150 students in the whole school. All instruction was in Dutch, of course, but there was a teacher who worked individually with her and a few Turkish immigrants, helping them learn Dutch. There were no after-school sports, and the teachers all smoked in the teachers lounge, which she found notable as a child. Amara remembered that there was no cafeteria (everyone brought lunch from home), and once a week there was a half-day.

By contrast, when she returned to the US, Amara attended a large middle school. About 1,000 students was her estimate, with three elementary schools feeding into the middle school. It was structured like a high school, with different subjects every 50 minutes, and a different teacher for each subject. She took the bus to school, and she participated in track and field after school.

“I have to say, in both schools, the teachers really made the experience for me. I was more fortunate than my little sister at De Bello (the Dutch School), my teacher was really fantastic. He also spoke more English than my sister’s teacher so that was helpful for me. Then, in middle school and into high school, with the exception of a few, of course, I had really great teachers as well.”

Amara went to a small liberal arts college in Maryland and is currently working on a PhD in Language Education at Indiana University.

I had asked her what her reflections are, as an adult, on her family’s experience of homeschooling. Here’s her response:

“Although I was only homeschooled until I was 10, it has had a huge impact on me and how I view education. My education after homeschooling was also not quite typical, since my parents did the ‘sink or swim’ method of learning to speak Dutch in the local school in the Netherlands. In college I actually wanted to be a teacher, and I went through most of the elementary teacher certification program in grad school. After two semesters of student teaching, I decided there was no way I could be a public school teacher, mainly for the same reasons my parents kept my sister and me out of school in elementary school. I love children and teaching, but I just could not see myself staying in a classroom with 25 or 30 kids all day being forced to learn specific things. My parents allowed us to choose our own topics to research and never forced anything on us. Most of my early education was spent playing in the garden with my mom and at the public library, picking books out that I wanted to read. Luckily, this type of freedom worked well for my sister and me, and we both were honor students once we entered public school. I’m sure this way of teaching could really backfire with some kids, though. Even so, I decided not to pursue teaching in the classroom and am instead teaching at the college level and hoping to work in a university.”

Thanks to Amara for taking the time to correspond with me, and for sharing her story. And, I continue to look forward to connecting to other homeschoolers from the pen pal project. My mom’s old journal and scrapbooks and these old pen pal letters represent a humble and very personal snapshot of a movement in education, and it’s a history I’m excited to contribute to and share.