September 23, 2020

Confessions of a Homeschool Graduate: What Life Was REALLY Like Growing Up

I’m preparing for an upcoming panel discussion by 2nd generation homeschoolers and have been reminiscing a lot lately on what life was like growing up. Not a day goes by where I am not supremely grateful that my parents were led to home educate their six children from Day 1, right through high school, and for some of us (myself and one of my sisters), even our post-secondary schooling was done at home.

I’m often asked what it was like to be homeschooled all the way through. What did I love? What did I hate? What would I do differently? How did my experience shape the way I want to educate my own children? Do I have any regrets? Did we have any trouble getting into College or University? Do I feel like I missed out on anything? Did I ever want to go to school? Did I feel prepared for adulthood?

Consider this Part 1 in a series of undetermined length involving the real-life confessions of a homeschool graduate.

One of the things I am most thankful for about my home education is the time and freedom I had to pursue the things that interested me. I didn’t realize what a gift I had been given until I learned from friends who attended school how much they longed for the same opportunity. They would make comments that revealed just how much their freedom and creativity was suppressed in a classroom.

“You’re so smart.”

The truth is, we weren’t any smarter than anyone else our age. We weren’t born of particularly well-educated stock (my Dad earned his high school diploma and my Mom graduated from college as a nurse); we just learned different things than the neighbor kids did.

In school, everyone the same age learns about the same thing, at the same time, with the same group of people. When they meet someone who has learned something different, at a different time, all by themselves, they assume that person must be a genius.

We weren’t geniuses. Our ability to retain information was not due to an increased IQ level or cranial capacity; it had more to do with the fact that knowledge wasn’t tested out of us. Very rarely did we memorize trivia for the purpose of getting a good grade. We were just kids who drank in deeply any parent-approved material under the sun that fascinated us (mostly through reading piles and piles of books from the library down the road – 50 new ones every week), and we remembered what we learned for that very reason.

“I could never make that.”

A quilt, a crocheted Scrunchie (I can’t possibly be that old), a motorized Lego egg beater, a tree fort, a roast, a charcoal drawing, a quilled greeting card – it didn’t matter what it was, things we made every day for fun drew a sigh of defeat mixed with wonder from our friends. “I could never make that,” they’d lament. “Yes, you could!” we would respond, and they would emphatically reason that no, they couldn’t because they didn’t have someone to show them how.

Most likely, nobody told them they couldn’t do something, but after years of attending an institution where being told what to do and how to do it with little time for personal investigation in the midst of all the other things that had to be covered (thus saith the curriculum), they had come to believe that knowledge is something that must be bestowed by another, not something to pursue by yourself. Even in classes that are reserved for supposed creative expression, a student is still told what to make, how to make it, and given a limited amount of time and a limited number of materials to work with. Art, in its various forms, is still graded by one teacher’s opinion, even though beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s certainly a place for learning how to follow directions and meet deadlines. (I’d sooner live in a house built by a framer who can read a properly engineered blueprint correctly and operate on time and on budget, than in a house built by Joe Schmoe who can make something look nice, but has no knowledge of safety or concept of punctuality.) But, you don’t need to go to school to learn that.

A child who attends school for most of the day is left with very little time to truly discover what they love to do. Growing up on nearly 100 acres of farmland, we were spoiled with countless hours of free, unstructured time to explore, think, create, and exercise our imagination.

For most of our elementary years, our book-work was done well before noon. After house and farm chores, that left us the rest of the day to roam the valley, wade through the culvert down by the creek that flowed under the road, build tee-pees in the bush at the back of property, walk the old rail trail that led to Grandpa’s pond, bike, play with Lego, sew, draw, quill cards, write stories, keep goats, kick a soccer ball around, swing from the rope in the hayloft, dig in the sandbox, build igloos, toboggan down the front hill, and tinker away with any bits of treasure we could find in the scrap metal pile behind the barn. The care-free Summers most children yearn for 10 months of the year was our experience all year long.

We’d use wood scraps from the hay barn to build tree forts and learned by trial and error how important it was to have the right-sized nails, a good saw, and a level. When an addition was built on our house, we were enlisted to sand and stain the trim and closet doors. My great-uncle taught my brother how to carve; sometimes he’d even let us girls borrow his pocket knife to whittle away a stick or board.

A few weeks ago, I built a headboard out of leftover fence material for our bedroom. Geometry isn’t my strength, I’ve never operated a jig or a skill-saw, and I have no clue about woodworking terminology, but our hard and fast family rule (Never say “I can’t.”), being taught how to learn instead of what to learn, and the few carpentry lessons I picked up during our extended hours of play proved  – as it had many times before – to be all that was needed to make a dream fun, achievable, and emboldening.

“Who taught you that?”

My Mom often says, and I’m discovering with our own children, that the hardest, most time-consuming teaching takes place before a child can read. Once they’re reading well on their own, the world is literally at their fingertips. We didn’t have a TV, Netflix hadn’t been invented yet, and our dial-up Internet connection wasn’t installed until I was old enough to remember the joyous day. So we read…and read….and read.

My parents were not financially well off, but one thing they never seemed to mind spending money on was books. We were surrounded by good books. We had bookshelves on almost every wall in our main living area that was filled to capacity. We had books in closets, boxes, double-layered in the pantry and underneath the stairs. We had a check-out limit of 50 library books a week and were usually finished them all in three days. (The rest of the week was torture, more or less.)

Books provided mental stimulation, increased our knowledge, expanded our vocabulary, taught us proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation, improved our memory, focus, concentration, and writing skills, piqued our interest in new things, and kept us entertained for hours on end. We were often asked, “Who taught you that?” and our answer was usually, “I think I read it in a book somewhere.”

It wasn’t always a who that taught us, sometimes it was a what, like a book that led to an investigation, that led to an experience, that led to a project. Very little of our education involved direct lectures and tests from our parents. Instead, they taught us by facilitating our natural curiosity with a rich learning environment. In addition to surrounding us with an innumerable amount of good books, we were gifted with the time and freedom to pursue the things we discovered we had an interest in.

At 10, I desperately wanted my own garden after reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, but first I had to prove I was responsible. I was given charge over all of the other flower beds on our property for a year with the understanding that if I kept everything weeded, pruned, and watered without being told, I would be allowed my own plot of land on the West side of the house the following year.

I wasn’t getting paid with money to maintain the property gardens, but the idea of having my own bed one day had its own value. I spent many a coffee break (what we called “recess”) deadheading and edging. The next Spring, I was given my own piece of soil to beautify as promised.

It was my responsibility to buy the plants or grow them from seed (I used my birthday money to fund the project), to keep the soil healthy, the plants watered, and the bed weeded. If the flowers died, it would be my fault, my birthday money wasted. Thankfully, it was a project I was intensely passionate about and I never considered it a chore to investigate compost, fertilizer, and plant placement.

When I was a young teenager, my Dad found me a Summer job working for a landscaper and for two years, I got to earn while I learned what I loved. Years later, gardening is still one of my favorite hobbies, and I have my parents to thank for letting me pursue what piqued my interest early on.

I love a lot more about our home education and plan to get into more detail another day, but piles of books, time and freedom to pursue what we loved are surely among my fondest memories.

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