How Homeschooling Made Our Home

In this excerpt from "One Big Happy Family," Paula Penn-Nabritt discusses the ups and downs of homeschooling.

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Excerpted from One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love by Rebecca Walker. Courtesy of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA).

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Let’s start at the beginning. My husband, C (his name is Charles, but so is our eldest twin, so C is easy, plus that’s what his mother calls him), and I came to homeschooling by default. I wish we could say we planned this, oh so carefully, but that would be a lie. In the same vein, I wish I could say we all loved the process of homeschooling. But unlike many homeschooling families, ours did not love it, at least not while we were doing it. My husband and I were often tired and discouraged, and whether they actually meant it or not, our kids told us they hated being homeschooled—and they told us every day.  

Unlike many new parents, not only did my husband and I not know we would homeschool, I’m not even certain we had heard of homeschooling outside the context of nineteenth-century history. Our in-depth analysis of educational options began in 1983 when the twins were three years old. It was pretty much limited to the traditional triumvirate of public school, parochial school, or private school. Period. Back then, charter schools didn’t exist, nobody was talking about vouchers, online learning happened only inside multinational corporations, and as I said, we thought homeschooling, with the possible exceptions of missionaries, Mennonites, and the Amish, ended with the pioneers and other purveyors of Manifest Destiny. We were not part of the progressive and informed parent party. 

But educational ignorance notwithstanding, there were some things we knew right at the beginning, unequivocally and beyond the shadow of a doubt. We knew we loved Charles, Damon, and Evan abundantly and beyond measure. We knew they were each unique and fascinating children. 

We didn’t concern ourselves with the question of what they would become quantitatively. We weren’t interested in whether they would become doctors or lawyers or engineers. We were interested in the qualitative; we wanted them to become healthy, conscious, and contributing members of the world’s community. We knew we really, truly enjoyed their company. We knew they deserved a holistic and wellbalanced launch into the universe. We knew we were responsible for doing our best to ensure that they received it. And as a corollary to all of the above, we knew we wanted to be a fully functional family, not just a bunch of people who shared some genetic material and a mailing address.  

At first we thought the “problem” was public school. There was the whole slightly larger than you’d like student-to-teacher ratio; the ever-increasing pressure on teachers to do everything, leading too often to less than enthusiastic teaching; and, of course, the abiding guilt many prep school alums have if they send their own kids to public school. After all, if your parents sacrificed to send you to private school, the presumption is that you will make the same sacrifices for your own children. While our parents and grandparents were sympathetic and were always there with a listening ear and solid support, the situation they had faced was so different. C and I attended school in the sixties, when everything was in turmoil. He went to legally segregated schools in Memphis until tenth grade, when his family moved to Toledo. And while I attended integrated schools, it was still a turbulent environment. Our sons entered school in 1984, not 1954 or 1964 or even 1974. But it still seemed that at every turn we were surprised or shocked at yet another of our miscalculations about another teacher at yet another school. Brown v. Board of Education notwithstanding, we quickly learned the depth of truth in the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. (As an aside, there was a certain irony in the fact that C’s uncle, the late James M. Nabrit, actually argued Brown before the United States Supreme Court with the late Thurgood Marshall.) 

C and I initially processed the typical collection of “racial encounters” during the first few years of our kids’ schooling within the matrix of class conflict, namely middle-class white women teachers who seemed uncomfortable with black children who weren’t from dysfunctional families or a lower socioeconomic group. There is something potentially dangerous in the lure of helping “the less fortunate,” something that frames the helper as a savior there to ennoble the less fortunate, and that danger is there for everyone in the helping professions, including teachers. 

The challenge for our sons’ teachers seemed to be the fact that they couldn’t figure out how to “help” our sons and so classified them as arrogant and unmanageable. Example: Charles, who was a chatterbox in kindergarten, was talking during practice for the Hanukkah portion of the holiday program. When his teacher yelled at him for not paying attention and not understanding the importance of Hanukkah, he responded by telling her he knew the Messiah had already come. Like most children brought up in Apostolic, Pentecostal families like ours, Charles and his brothers began learning about Judaism and the Old and New Testaments of the Bible while still young fans of Sesame Street. He just wasn’t yet intellectually mature enough to comfortably balance “competing” religious truths. But his teacher was even less mature. Her response was to slap him in front of the class. This was one of our first “incidents” in public school in Jacksonville, Florida. 

We felt Charles needed to be corrected for talking, for not paying attention, and for thinking his religious beliefs excused him from respecting the beliefs of others. But we felt his teacher’s response was an extremely irrational and totally unacceptable reaction to a four-year-old. And since we provided a clear and written prohibition against all forms of corporal punishment at enrollment, we were stunned and angry. An added complication was the fact that Damon had been telling us for months that “the teacher hates Charles.”