Okay, so we didn’t live in any big woods, but about four acres of our seven was in trees.
Number four came along in 1988. I was twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine. We figured Krysta would be our last. She was a beautiful baby, but my only one with colic. I remember sitting up at nights in the rocking chair with her in my arms. She could sleep for a little while in her crib, but then she’d wake up screaming, and would only sleep in a vertical position. I didn’t mind. I had a profound sense of peace. I was exactly where I was meant to be, doing exactly what I was meant to do. If I couldn’t sleep at night, I could certainly catch a nap sometime the next day. I had learned not to sweat the small stuff, and in the grand scheme of things, all of this was small stuff.
I had one peaceful year with Krysta and Annika, but my older two were not doing well in school. (Remember I graduated from college summa cum laude, was in the National Deans’ List, and Who’s who in American Universities, with a degree in Education! How could my kids not be brilliant?) Tamara, who had learned to read by her second birthday, was stuck in the slow-readers group in third grade. She was in remedial math, and seeing the school psychologist twice a week for depression. When I went in to question the school about holding her back (she came home from school to read illustrated children’s novels like Heidi, or Black Beauty, she was NOT a poor reader!), the psychologist told me that I had a below-average child and to stop expecting too much from her.
My son Daniel was in second grade. He hated school. He was on the younger end, short, but stocky. He had bright red curly hair and a face full of freckles. He made friends easily, and tried charming his teachers. But his grades were sporadic. He’d get A, A, F, A, F, A, F, F, F…. I don’t think he ever had a C in his life. It all depended on whether he felt like trying or not. And he didn’t feel like it very often. He was diagnosed as “gifted” and tracked into special “enrichment” classes.
The classroom teachers didn’t feel like teaching while their smarter students were absent, so they would show the class a video, and serve popcorn, while Danny had to go to a closet-sized classroom with a few dorks and get extra homework. He thought he was being punished and tried harder to fail so he could stay behind and eat popcorn.
Annika had to go through kindergarten screening when she was three and a half, to see if she would be ready for school by five. The day was chaotic. There were about two hundred three- and four- year- olds, just as many moms, many of them with younger ones in tow, and a few dozen teachers and nurses who obviously didn’t want to be there. They were cross and impatient. They took Annika by the shoulder and kind of yanked her around. I already suspected Annika didn’t hear well, as she’d had so many ear infections as a baby, and had some scar tissue. So she did a typical three- or four-year-old thing when she was someplace she didn’t want to be. She folded her arms across her chest, lowered her head, and scowled. She refused to cooperate. I wasn’t embarrassed. I felt like kissing her! The nerve of those supposed professionals. They conducted a preschool screening every year, couldn’t they have figured out a less stressful way to do it?
Those professionals got even, though. They labeled my perfectly normal child ‘Emotionally Disturbed’ and recommended enrolling her in special education classes immediately. (Yeah, not a chance!) I had very normal children, but that school district had all of them tracked into some form of specialized education, and I realized that it was all about the dollar. It had nothing to do with the needs of the child.
Annika would turn five in May, 1990. She was a quiet, shy child, and I knew that going to school was going to be hard for her. She must have sensed that I was very dissatisfied with the school already. She became quieter and more withdrawn. I tried to talk it up for her. I made going to kindergarten sound like a privilege. I arranged for her to ride the school bus into town with her big sister, and I would meet her there. Then we’d tour the kindergarten, and eat in the cafeteria, and I’d drive her back home. That day seemed to go well for her. I remember it as a special memory, spending the whole morning with Annika. I don’t remember if Krysta came along or went to a babysitter, but Annika did seem to shine under the attention.
All summer we talked about how exciting it would be to go to school. But as summer wore on, she seemed to get quieter and quieter. She was wilting right before my eyes. She started to wet the bed at night. She started sleepwalking. A lot. I never knew where I’d find her. One morning she was on the couch, but confused and scared, she didn’t remember getting there. One morning she was outside in the sandbox, sound asleep. I was worried, we had a backyard pool, and I’d already fished her out of it once.
Then I met someone who changed my life completely. Julie homeschooled her two children. The boy was Tammy’s age, and the girl was a year younger than Danny. Julie was eager to have me join her, as we might try doing some unit studies together, go on field trips, plan picnics – she didn’t push me into it, she didn’t have to. I felt like everything I had ever learned in my whole life had led me up to that moment. The reason I had dropped out, and gone to that weird alternative high school. The reason I worked dozens of odd jobs and factory shifts to realize that I really had to go back to college. The reason I discovered my passion working in the day care, and the reason I didn’t just get a degree in early childhood, but went ahead and took a double major, getting one in elementary education as well. This was my calling!
My husband wasn’t easy to convince. I didn’t get up the courage to talk to him about it until two days before the start of school. The poor man, I didn’t give him much of a chance to think. We had been talking about our kids and their poor performance in school for some time, but we’d never come up with a good solution. Alan, the former Prom King and football star, didn’t want his kids to miss out on something he had so thoroughly enjoyed. I had hated school, and didn’t understand how anyone would prefer to be in school! We both prayed, and I guess God had a big hand in our final decision, because my husband does not have a reputation for making a quick decision.
The day school was supposed to start, he came down to breakfast and told me we could try homeschooling for a year. Period. And then, bless him again! He stepped back and gave me a year! He didn’t lean over my shoulder, watching me constantly, criticizing me or asking me when I was going to get around to fractions. He gave me complete control, and he trusted me. I can hardly think of a time when I loved him more.
The kids screamed with joy. Annika never wet the bed again; she never walked in her sleep again. Krysta didn’t understand what all the excitement was about, but she surely enjoyed having the older playmates around.
I called the school to give them my decision. The superintendant was NOT happy. There were six or seven other homeschooling families in town, but they were all weird (his opinion, not mine.) They were Pentecostal, and that was something religious people did so they could indoctrinate their children. But he knew I was Catholic because we went to the same parish. That I would chose to homeschool my kids rather than send them to his school was an insult. He gave me a bit of a hard time, including conducting a home inspection that he never did to the other families. But we passed, and when my kids took their standardized tests in the spring and placed THREE GRADES ABOVE where they had been the year before, he realized he had lost the argument.
We loved homeschooling. My children blossomed, just as though they were in a well-tended garden and had been given a boost of fertilizer. (Did I just compare my teaching to a pile of cow dung?) That first year we did Konos, which is a unit study curriculum. One unit was “Obedience”. The children read library books on kings and queens. We studied castles, knights, jousting. My kindergartner memorized “The King of Hearts” nursery rhyme. My oldest wrote a report about Mary Queen of Scots. And the final activity after a month of hard work, we put on a medieval feast. Alan was the lord of the castle, I the lady. My mom happened to be visiting, and she was an honored guest, receiving the “top crust” of the bread bowl. (Now you know where the expression “upper crust” comes from). One child was the court jester and recited poems. Another was a minstrel, playing Suzuki songs on his violin. We had a blast!
And there was never a discussion about sending them back to public school.