I am supposed to be writing a speech. A short one about homeschooling and what it is, and to introduce myself. It is for a panel on education. I've never been on a panel. All I have to do is remember why we began this journey.
That's easy; it all started in France with "la maternelle," or public school at age 3. It was a good fit for my daughter, the teachers were caring and wise and patient. She learned to say very interesting things like "caca boudin," which roughly translates to "sausage poo," and the whole class waltzed in sweet ball gowns and tuxes made by one of the grandmothers, for the end of the year program. This, despite the fact that the entire class had come down with chicken pox in the last two months of the school year. The teacher/headmistress was desperate; "forget the two-week quarantine, I have to teach them to WALTZ!"
Her little brother, Duncan, came down with the chicken pox and had to be left with a sitter for the first time ever, while we went to the event and I fretted the entire time. He missed her so much during the school day, she was three and he was eighteen months old. My little girl cried each day when I dropped her off. It felt wrong. It felt awful and heart-wrenching. Apparently, when Daddy took her, she was as happy as can be, skipping off with her friends to play. What struck me at the time was that I was divvying up the family only because "school was where a child should be to be properly socialized." I had already fought this battle when my husband and I made the decision for me to stay home with the children when they were young, instead of offering them the opportunity for proper baby socialization in a state-run creche. (As well as giving me the chance to go out and be a productive member of society.) I was in France, holding out until the age of three had taken a lot of going against the tide already. On one hand, the government gave an incentive to women to stay home via a monthly stipend you could collect if you had at least two children. In reality, there were very few women with good jobs who chose to give them up to take advantage of this. I had left work after just one baby. There had been looks and remarks from the family, job offers turned down, and parties where the question and answer of where I worked led to an embarrassed silence from the other person. "I stay home with my children." "Ah." "Not forever of course." "Wow, I don't know how you do it. I would go crazy. Is that Sophie over there? Sophie!" I was out of the loop and it stung sometimes. This odd mix of having chosen to stay home and having to give up my littles to school anyway was, well, odd.
A year later, we moved to the United States. Now Cate was four, Duncan was almost three and I was expecting our next baby. I had become accustomed the the new reality that would have soon been mine; two off to school each morning and time alone with my new baby. It didn't sound that bad. They would both go only half days, so we would all be home together again at noon. (This too, was considered a heresy, but the law allowed it, so they had to go along with it at school. The rest of the kiddies were there until 4:30, or 6 if both parents worked and they used the after-school daycare.) And, after all, in the "maternel," as the 3-6 year old section was named, Cate had learned to write and make macaroni picture frames and could sing a million cute songs in French. I missed her terribly each day, but she had friends at school and it was what everyone else in the town did, so we did too. It's what the entire country did. I had met no exceptions.
But what would happen now? I clearly needed to find a good school to continue this fabulous start! We moved here in May, so I had months ahead of me to search, and months of time with my children and no one else. It was so much fun to plan outings and be the one teaching them the days of the week, how to swim, going to the fabulous libraries together. However, from my hotel each day, I also set off on preschool visits. The gambit of ones I saw ran from basement church Sunday school rooms (and not even my own church) to private homes turned into schools (also in the basement). The one we finally settled on was one that came the closest to emulating the organized, calm atmosphere of a French "maternel" classroom. It was very nice, a place I could see my kids enjoying. In the back of my mind and the bottom of my heart there was a nagging, "wouldn't it be nice to just keep them at home?" However, I was no teacher, I barely had the patience to help get their socks and shoes on and get us all out the door! No, they needed to be in school and be receiving a decent education. But when we returned home and consulted the tuition fees, for two, our jaws dropped. There was no way. It was a Montessori school and out of our budget. By a lot.
We did find a place for them run by two really wonderful teachers, who had once been Catholic school teachers, in a good neighborhood. I had not realized at the time that it was on the other end of town from our new house, but the drive was about ten minutes, so not too bad. My munchkins did well there, but they did not always want to go, especially Duncan. Then it was off to kindergarten for Cate, and it was an all-day school. She was so tired at the end of the day, poor baby, and I was determined to do our French correspondence program and it really was all too much for her.
By this time, I had made friends, and some of them were insane women who homeschooled their children. My reaction; "That sounds really nice. Too bad I am completely unfit for something like that." As the PTA meetings, cupcake baking, driving across town twice a day for preschool and the daily kindergarten pick-up rush accumulated, my joy in the whole "school life" declined. Besides, my friends were having way more fun than we were. They were off to the park for playdates, could let their kids sleep in in the mornings (our school started at 7:50) and they were not preoccupied by dates and deadlines for frozen-food fundraisers. I had to kick them out of our house on weekday afternoons so I could feed everyone before getting them to bed early enough to get up early enough to get to school on time. Ditto for lunch and naptime. Pre-school was from 9-12, and kindergarten let out at 2:30, and one had to be in the parking lot by two if you wanted a spot, or on foot, in the nicer weather, which still meant leaving home at 2. What normal nap time ends at 2:00, when lunch is at 12:30? This rhythm stunk.
I held on, though, and as I volunteered each week to give French lessons to a class of kindergartners, I came to appreciate the wonderful teachers and classroom aids. I also liked the diversity of Cate's particular classroom, there were children in wheelchairs, deaf children, I tried to do all I could to be supportive of the school and staff, which translated to accepting a position with the PTA for the following year. As I attended meeting after meeting, I learned that the position (VP) involved one thing; coordinating a part of the fund-raising for the year. And each other position was to coordinate another sector of the same; frozen food, gift wrap, chocolates, roller-skating nights, book sales, donuts, fall fun day, spring fun day, Christmas bake and jewelry sale, and so on. Was that all? Was there not to be an opportunity to discuss education, at some point? To be a voice for students and address their needs? Was selling wrapping paper my new goal in life? I tend to get a little overly zealous, so I took a deep breath and thought; "well, this was a support role, I would take it, next year would surely bring more opportunity for involvement."
Then I heard it. It was a Friday afternoon in the springtime, before the final Fun Day of the year. The principal came over the loud-speaker, as he did at the end of each day, to do announcements. I was not usually in the building by then, but we had lingered a bit after French to tidy up and this is what he said, the words that sent me careening down the homeschool rabbit hole; "OK, kids, you have all been given raffle tickets for the drawing next week. I want to you get out there after school today and SELL, SELL, SELL!"
Silence followed by a bell, in the classroom and in my mind. A numbing, vibrant silence. That was it? Not a word of encouragement to read a book or have a great, sunny afternoon outdoors? My rebellious inner me was stoked to a hot fire. I returned home, gave the kids a snack, and sat down to write a letter. I sent a copy to the principal and to each member of the PTA. I asked whether there was not any incentive or doubt or action in place to put education over fund-raising. What encouragement were we giving teachers to care properly for the academic and social needs of our children? Did they really need to go to training sessions sponsored by McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut? (See note below). Could we not support them in a more meaningful way? In an earlier meeting with the principal, I was told that he chose not to ever question or disturb the PTA members, they had, after all, raised enough money to replace all of the computers in the library. (This failed to impress; I did not wish for my 5-year-old to be anywhere near a computer.) My big question; in what way is it right to turn our children into little beggar/peddlers every couple of weeks if the whole point of compulsory education is to allow them a chance to be children and have access to education before they have to worry about supporting their families? The role seems simply to have suffered transference and we are asking them to work to support the school instead of their own siblings and parents.
After waiting two weeks for a response from the principal or members of the PTA and wondering about the remote possibility that I too, could make this work, this homeschooling thing, I quit. I sent a copy of the previous letter to the teachers too, so they would know I was not denouncing their work nor that of public education. I announced my intention to homeschool the following year and did not look back for a long, long time.
Of course I cannot say this at the panel today, after all, most of the other members are in public and private education and might be offended. That is not today's exercise or purpose, but it is good to have the opportunity to remember and resolve to give the kids something that can be found nowhere else. A chance to thrive in freedom. A chance to grow up without constantly needing to hurry up. My chance to continue my role as a mother and mold them, for a little while, in a way that suits both our beliefs and their needs.