a blueprint for courage

ed. note – I receive no compensation in any form for links provided here or at my journal, kelly.hogaboom.org.

Phoenix +  Harris = Lurve

We are only a few days away from moving from our two bedroom rental into a larger one. The new home features lower rent, a reduced utilities bill, and sits next door to my mother’s house. My husband, children and I are happily painting, cleaning, and preparing for our new circumstances. That said, I have a fondness for the house we are leaving. I am enjoying its relatively serene space all the more as I come home after an evening painting, scrubbing, and trying not to over-think, over-plan, or over-worry.

It was in my early days in this current home I first found the motherlode of support for raising children in the autodidactic tradition (or as I shall shorthand the practice here, “unschooling” or “life learning”). And as we pack up the place, those memories are exhilarating in the recall – but now comfort-worn by my years’ experience, and my gratitude to the many individuals who’ve helped, and continue to help, along the way.

My husband and I started our children early in the tradition of institutional education. We’d taken part in playschools since the kids were nine months and two weeks, respectively. We were one of those, “give your kids every advantage” families – like most parents or carers are, regardless of what particular strategies they employ –  so we continued in the tradition I was raised in, believing academic success and so-called “socialization” to be the two brass rings of Good Parenting. We also believed it was our civic duty to participate in public schooling. After all, I’d had a pleasant enough experience in school, and I had the straight-As and the engineering degree to support my “success” story.

Playschool was fun for most everyone in the family, but by the time I was volunteering twice-weekly in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom (as it happened, I was the only parent who did) my views on institutionalized and compulsory education were changing. I perceived many hazards and shortfalls and, increasingly, I intuited fewer advantages. As for tangible, culturally-supported motivations – such as a second income to say, pay our bills and/or have running cars, let alone provide me with Social Security – even these did not outweigh my increasing desire for a different life for our little family. It would actually be an overlong article were I to list the many things I found lacking in (first) the public school, and then, as I investigated further, any compulsory schooling model within our reach (let alone the lifestyle required, which I could write pages on). Ultimately I came to a mindset of, YOU make your case to ME as to why I should require my kids to school. So far I’ve not heard a compelling answer nor experience an unmet need, and I’ve listened intently to many arguments over the years.

So in 2008 we stepped out of the relatively comfortable, and culturally-supported, public school experience. At first it was a bit harrowing as, since I’m the Mommy, I was tasked with TEACHING MY OWN CHILDREN, horrors. I had binders full of lesson plans and a Google Calendar set up with subjects we’d cover. Most people left me alone about the venture or even praised me, figuring I was, basically, smart enough to go about it (I only footnote here my culturally-afforded privilege as a white, working-class, college-educated cisgender married woman with a university degree, a home, and no visible disability). With my husband’s enthusiastic support and participation we dove into the “brave” world of homeschooling.

At this point I’d been exposed to the concept of “unschooling”, but it still sounded like a craven mess to my ignorant yet somehow biased thought-life. However as the kids and I did our thing, I became less and less satisfied with the very school-y model I knew how to employ to instruct my children. As I see it, the model I knew is typical and two-fold. First, we tell our children what to think, believe, and parrot (within a narrow range of “acceptable” beliefs and thoughts, all the while giving lipservice to freedom and “critical thinking”). Second, we motivate them using praise and its counterpart, emotional pain – in other words, “you can’t eat your pudding if you don’t have your meat!” (it’s true, if you look deep enough into what is really happening). Initially as a homeschooler I wasn’t doing much different than the enterprise I’d removed our children from, even if the environs were a lot healthier in most ways.

It was at this time I found, somehow, Wendy Priesntiz’s publications Life Learning Magazine and Natural Life Magazine* and began reading there – as well as many authors and blogs referenced, and the books, articles and blogs tangentially-linked to those. At the time, specifically with regards to Priesnitz’s pieces, I found validation of truths I’d felt deep inside since I was a child. To wit: that “absorb, regurgitate, & be graded” methods of education were superficial and ineffective. To wit, that children shouldn’t be treated as cattle nor capitalist fodder for the United States’ edifices of consumerism and consumption (forces I like to jokingly reference as Jack Handey’s monster: “trampling and eating everything it sees”). To wit, my suspicion that what  many adults wanted a great deal from children was to be able to control their movements and especially their behaviors and especially their thoughts and beliefs. Deep-down I knew it wasn’t possible nor intelligent to demand “respectful” behavior from children while we robbed them of their agency and basic human rights (these demands for “respect” yield spoiled fruit; I’m reflecting on last year’s bullycides and the many angry and frightening responses from grownups; also the recent public cheers when a father publicly destroyed his “disrespectful” daughter’s laptop with a firearm). The fact adults scream – and hit – for “respect” from children is something I occasionally feel a sense of deep embarrassment-by-proxy about.

All of these things – things I “knew in my knowing place” – were given voice by someone thousands of miles away, with decades more experience. I can’t fully express the excitement and possibility that began to open up for me those few days. Those experiences were a cornerstone as I continued to read and relate with other authors, professionals, parents, carers, teachers, and adults with an avocation and passion for our children.

The exercised right to raise one’s children without putting them in an institution continues to draw fire, myriad subtle or blatant slings and arrows. Most of these arguments, primarily, reduce down to our culturally-indoctrinated reflexive desire to control children’s lives, emotions, thoughts and expressions, and physical movements. The latest anti-homeschooling piece referenced in my tweetstream comes from Slate (“Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids”, February 16, 2012), trotting out the “if you’re progressive you owe it to society to put your kids in the public school system” argument. And you know, this was a view I once held myself not so long ago, so I relate. In my case, Eva Swidler’s piece in 2010 was seminal in articulating the fallacies inherent in the argument that participating in the system with your child’s fulltime lived reality is the only ethical thing to do (after all, there are many ways to support schooled kids, even if you do not have children or your children do not attend school – and Swidler’s eloquence, I might add, addresses this beautifully). Other good refutions have emerged recently, specifically challenging the popular concept that compulsory state-run schooling is a major ameliorating force fighting socioeconomic disparities and systemic oppressions.

The expectation of, and massive mainstream pressure to, institutionalize children is a new experiment in terms of humanity. But from the beginning I’ll bet you’d find this argument of civic duty: “You owe it to _____ agenda to participate [in this exact way]!” Personally I think many who frame forced school attendance for children as the only way to be civic-minded and ethical are merely, if they were to examine their root feelings, scared. Arguing that home educating parents are cloistering their children and telling their children who exactly to trust is not only a logic fail in one way (as if sending them to school without right of veto isn’t telling them who to trust), but also fails on an even deeper level – because children actually decide who to trust, as much as some people don’t want to admit this (I trusted School, by the way… the problems I later had are the subject of another article). Many won’t entertain the concept children have the capacity and the right to have a regarded and significant voice in their own daily lives. And dare I say, those most fearful are likely those of us with a series of gold stars attached to our name by virtue of the educational system.

My children’s forty hours a week times thirteen+ years is pretty important to me – and to them. When I find the institutional proponent who speaks of children as anything other than chattel (or cattle), subhumans (check out popular language describing teenagers if you’ve the stomach for it), requisite products and/or extensions of our own values, or capitalist investments, I’ll listen all the more intently. Most proponents operate from the perspective children are second-class citizens, that we know what’s best for them, and they couldn’t possibly learn if we stopped relying on desks, tests, and doled-out potty-breaks.

I provide my children, and the schooled children who frequent my home, with safety, emotional and physical nourishment, and a great deal of autonomy. And the practice grows up some pretty good kids.

Look, my theories that articles such as the latest on Slate, or examples like the vitriolic and lengthy tirade “HOMESCHOOLING IS CHILD ABUSE” (actual title from a self-identified college professor), are primarily fear-based? I could be incorrect. What I can say with confidence is I was a school-achiever and school-believer – and I was fearful at first. I was scared to commit to the supposed “huge” responsibility of educating my children. Scared of relinquishing (the illusion of) control by exploring, by merely entertaining the idea of, autodidactic family life. I was scared of not playing the “more income=more happiness” game, even though my logical mind told me we had a roof over our head and enough coal to burn. I was scared of doing something different than the herd and having my family life interfered with by the State (that’s a founded fear, by the way). I was scared of being told I wasn’t doing what “everyone else” thought I should (again, a founded fear, also reinforced by school, incidentally).

Mostly I was scared of giving up (the illusion of and) the practice of Control.

I look as deeply as I can into articles regarding children’s education and parenting, and those are the fears I see.

I live in gratitude for those who went before me and mapped out a blueprint for courage. As we pack up this home to move to another, the memories are pretty sweet.

***

“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde

A Free Service
Coffee Date w/Emily

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* both helmed by Wendy and Rolf Priesnitz, with over thirty years’ experience in the fields of life learning, writing, social activism, and publishing. Full disclosure; I’ve written a few pieces for these publications, including one published here – “the conversation t hat never happens”.

the limitations of “color-blind and fancy-free”, an 80′s music video treatise

Get Out Of My Dreams, and Into My Car

So, Sophie, should you get into that guy's car outside the club? Absolutely! Wait! No. Uh... Do what you feel.

I love what my mom brings in assisting my husband and I in parenting our kids.  What she’s bringing mostly lately is Billy Ocean. In the last week whenever I go over to pick up my children after a playdate, she and the kids are singing to or watching the video of his hit single “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”.

I’m a fan of several of Billy Ocean’s songs (okay, especially “Loverboy”, and although I love belting that one out I feel compelled to point out that is a bad 80′s video decision in an era of very bad videos).  “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” makes me laugh a little, though, because it’s a perfect example of my now-and-then mixtapes containing deliciously and unintentionally creepy pop music*  – you know, a seemingly cheerful or romantic tune that, if you listen closely, actually features chillingly stalker-like lyrics.  Other songs of Mr. Ocean’s qualify, by the way (see below).  And tangentially: my current favorite and recently-discovered honoree in this fake genre is Dusty Springfield’s “I’ll Try Anything” (“I want you so much inside / I’m throwin’ away all my conscience and pride!“).**

Back to the aforementioned song: last night in my mother’s living room my seven year old daughter, after about the eighth consecutive listen to this catchy tune, approached my mother and asked, “Grandma? How come in this video there’s a white woman, and she gets into a black man’s car?”  My mom responded, “Well, why not?” and Sophie stalled.  Then I said, “Sophie, if I’m correct in what I hear you’ve observed, I will say it’s true that many people date within their race, but that doesn’t mean everyone does, or that you have to.” My daughter nodded, watching me. “Besides,” I added, “I don’t think that woman was a ‘white woman’, she looked like a light-skinned black woman to me.”  At this my daughter said, “Ooohhhh…” in that whole, I’m-getting-the-picture way she has.

And that was a window of opportunity, out of the blue, to talk a bit about the complexities of race in today’s America.  After our handful of sentences Sophie’s curiosity was sated while for a few additional moments my mind raced over several subjects: the differences in portrayals of light-skinned vs. dark-skinned black women in television and film, Paper Bag Parties, colorism, the Jezebel stereotype, and “brightening creams” among a handful of other less-formed thoughts. But it was 11:30 at night, we were coming off a party, and the kid had already ran into the kitchen to grab up a slice of pound cake.

Of course, discussions on race, sex, gender, homophobia, and social justice take place regularly in my household (as well as discussions on cooking, cleaning, eating, trees, fish, polygons, scotch-tape under a microscope, iPod holders built out of Legos, you get the idea); but the “big issues” discussions are mostly conversations between my husband and I.  The kids overhear most of this, if they decide to listen in, and partake when they feel they have a point to make. They sometimes look over my shoulder at what I’m reading (or writing), and not a movie viewing goes by (we don’t own a television) that Ralph and I aren’t either off-handedly or seriously discussing, say, the White Savior elements in a storyline, or the mansplaining Arrogant Scientist in our beloved old B-movies, or the tropes of mincing silly gay man and the menacing lesbian (no really, these things are still alive and well in so many films!)

So it’s not that I’m saying social subjects only come up this handful of precious times, like last night.  What I will say is, it’s a rare and lovely opportunity when the kid herself discovers something about the world – something seemingly understated and normative to our peer group even – and asks about it.  Her mind is open in that moment and she is ready for a piece of the puzzle; such a gift, considering how much else she absorbs without being fully conscious of it (and some of these socially atmospheric messages are decidedly not-so-great).  My mother’s response (“Why shouldn’t white and black people date one another?”) was a correct one; however, what I know my daughter had perceived was that the world is often not a Sesame Street-esque mix of people all getting along and mixing their crayon sets together; so I think, in that light, my response was a correct one as well – especially given previous and pending family choices deliberately seeking anti-racist goals.

I’m impressed by my seven year old daughter, who notices all sorts of things about the behavior of people in the world.  As any reader of my blog or personal friend of the family will know, she is very intuitive and perceives subtleties, which will serve her well in her life.  Because maybe a thing I fear greatly is to accidentally pass on a “colorblind” ideology – like that espoused by so many others I know and, to some extent, my own family of origin (Oh my gosh! I could talk about the liberal and “colorblind” white family so much! Like how they will repeatedly say the same little things like, “You know, these are called ‘Brazil nuts’ – people USED to call them n**-toes, but we don’t do that any more” and “So-and-so, our black friend“, with that special way they’d say the phrase that is eerily like that special way they say “homosexual”.  As in, “I am pointing out the race/sexuality of this person in a way that tells you I’m such a Special Progressive Person for being okay with their race/sexuality”).  So anyway, the “colorblind” upbringing, you know, “the world is full of people of all colors of the rainbow, and we all live together happily, wheeee!”  I find this sort of thing profoundly lacking (although well-intentioned and partially valid, blah blah), especially when raising a child who has a mind and a heart, and can see deeply – but not always interpret what she sees.

As someone she seeks for guidelines – sometimes quite directly – I don’t want to mess up, but neither do I want to worry too much about being the Perfect Parent in any of these surprise child-initiated conversations – because I have to believe I influence her every day, even when we’re not directly discussing a social issue. But if she asks, I’m not going to piss on her leg and tell her it’s raining, either.

I owe her better than that.

- KH

Mentioned / Further Reading:

“Stalkin’ Rockin’”, a compilation

Billy Ocean: “Caribbean Queencheck out the perfect descending-stairs snap/pelvic-trust at 0:58! I emulate this on a regular basis!, “Loverboy”

I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield

Paper Bag Parties, from Wikipedia

“Love Isn’t Enough”, a site for the parent considering an anti-racist household

From the above site, a nine minute film interviewing children about race and racism; the brief discussion in the L.I.E. post is also good

Not all discussions on race are productive (from Racialicious)

Tim Wise has a handful of essays on the “color-blind” mentality, if you’re up for some dry (but great!) reading

“Know Your LGBT History” at Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters (good film reviews)

The Jim Crow Museum’s essay on “The Jezebel Sterotype” – and most all of Dr. Pilgrim’s writings – are fabulous

Everywhere I look I seem to see skin “brighteners” (whiteners), here’s one example of an ad campaign that lacked subtlety

Mansplaining scientists and the Hogaboom viewing audience, at my blog