Our Homeschooler Goes to School
by Emmy Rainwalker, Spring 1987
I could tell my son Tokeem had something on his mind when he asked me to take a long walk one day last fall. Tokeem, ten years old at the time, has been homeschooled since birth. The following is a conversation he initiated with me on that walk:
"What do you think about the idea of me going to school?"
"Hmmm. I'm not sure. What have you been thinking?"
"I'm thinking maybe I would like to go."
"I'd like to be with more kids my age."
"Well, school is the place for that. Every other kid your age is there."
"But I might not like it and then I would be stuck going. And I don't want to spend all day there. That's the biggest problem. I wish I could just go for part of the day. What do you think I should do?"
"Well, I'm not sure. I went to school for a long time. Would you like to hear some of my ideas?"
"There were some great things, some terrible things, and some things in between. What I loved was all the kids you could play games with in the schoolyard. There are some resources in school, like the library, that we don't have at home. And I learned some neat things, like algebra and sewing. I made new friends all the time. What I didn't like was that I couldn't decide what I would learn and I had to get up early every morning. Usually teachers didn't allow us to talk to each other except at recess. A lot depended on how nice the teacher was and what kind of mood she or he was in each day."
"What do you think I should do?"
"I won't decide for you, but I would be happy to help you work towards a decision yourself. Let's keep thinking about it. Would you like me to talk to the school board that approves your homeschooling program and see if they would let you go for part of the day on an experimental basis?"
"Sure would. Why don't you talk to more people in the family about what school was like. You could talk to neighborhood people who are going to school now about it, too."
This was the first of many conversations. Tokeem is the oldest of four children living in our intentional community in southern New Hampshire. He spoke to each of the ten adults in the community about their personal experiences of school. Then he talked to some neighborhood friends who attend local public schools and got the "inside scoop." (One youngster told him that the toughest part of school is the school bus and gave him some tips for handling this social phenomenon.)
I, meanwhile, called the "Special Education Consultant", Russ, who is our liaison with the local school board. Russ was very excited about the possibility of Tokeem attending school and was willing to represent our point of view to the board.
Armed with this information, Tokeem and I talked again. He said he wanted to try school, full time for a month so he could get a real idea of what it is like and then he would decide whether or not to continue and if so, under what conditions. I suggested a shorter amount of time, like a week or two. He was firm and clear. One month. He pointed out that in making new friends, it takes a week or two just to get over being shy with each other. I assured him that I would protect his right to quit after a month if he didn't like it and he assured me that he would "stick it out" for the whole month even if he didn't like it.
We began meeting with russ, who had been supportive of our homeschooling efforts all along. His excitement was partly due to the fact that this could be a chance for him to demonstrate the value of his support of homeschooling. Although out school board has never been hostile, some of the key people have been nervous about homeschooling and our situation has never been totally secure. Russ's open mindedness and willingness to take risks has been a big factor in our winning approval for our program in the past years. His intervention, as well as our diligence in writing and filing required proposal forms, our obvious enthusiasm and love of learning with the children, and our constant willingness to cooperate with the board on all reasonable matters combined to help us protect what we believe to be our right to homeschool our children.
After all the appropriate meetings with involved parties (principal, teacher), we got the green light. Tokeem would attend from after Thanksgiving vacation to Christmas vacation. This would give him almost a full month and then a long break to decide and renegotioate. We were all excited. Tokeem was nervous. What if he couldn't understand the work? We assured him that there was nothing being taught in the 5th grade and he couldn't handle and we pledged our support after school with homework help and tutoring. What if he didn't fit in socially? A mini shopping spree to update his wardrobe helped in this area. What if the bus driver forgot to stop for him? We called her at home and made sure she understood where he would be picked up.
At 3 pm on the first day of school, all 13 of us waited for the bus to deliver Tokeem home. When he walked in, we almost knocked him over with questions. He was quiet and introspective. There were a lot of school customs he had not been prepared for. He did not know, for example, to write his name at the top of his papers before handing them in. There were "holes" in his education by school curriculum standards. The quick changes from one subject to the next were confusing to him. The experience was intensely consuming of his attention. We all backed off and relaxed with him. Over the next few days, he began to open up more as he sorted out his feelings and adjusted to the school customs. We arranged a meeting with his teacher at the end of the first week to talk informally. The situation had been disorienting for her as it had for Tokeem. She had never had a studedn who had not attended a single day of school by the age of ten and was not sure of his needs. We urged her to use us as a resource when she needed help.
By the second week, things were smooth. Tokeem was quickly getting used to what was expected of him. His confidence in himself was gaining him the respect of his teacher, who was enjoying the challenge the situation presented, and of his peers who accepted him readily.
At the end of the month, winter vacation began. The first few days Tokeem did not want to talk about school. He was not sure what he wanted to do. He loved being able to sleep late in the morning and stay up late watching TV or playing. Halfway through the week he began to talk about it. There were a lot of things he didn't like. We made a list. Clearly, though, he was getting something important at school that he wanted.
Prepared with a paper called "My Ideal School Scene," written by Tokeem, we went to still another meeting with Russ and Tokeem's teacher, Judy. Tokeem had outlined an ideal system where there were many more adults available to students as resource people, computers available any time, lots of free time in a relatively unstructured day for students to pursue their interests or just socialize. The school day would be shorter with less homework and more sports and craft opportunities.
We all understood that we would not be able to accomplish these sweeping reforms overnight. We held out for less homework, shorter days, and access to the local high school pottery studio with supervision. The first two were readily accepted by his teacher who helped us work out a schedule whereby Tokeem could skip part of the day if he chose. His math teacher agreed that the people at home helping him with homework could excuse him from any exercises we considered redundant to his learning. Access to the pottery studio by a non-high school student had never occurred to him before and Russ was not sure he could get permission. We urged him to try his best since Tokeem has shown a great interest and ready skill in pottery and since this is the best equipped studio in the neighborhood. He succeeded and Tokeem began spending three hours a week at the high school.
Tokeems first report card showed that he had mastered the process. He commented that most of what is called "learning" in school is really just reading comprehension and involves short term memory. This is a disappointment to him as he would like to use his time in school to experience the deep learning he loves so much, especially in science and history. His home life is conducive to more in depth exploration of subjects which interest him. For example, he is learning algebra at home while he continues with his math class in school, a class in which most of the concepts taught he has already mastered.
Tokeem's experience at school has been very positive. We, in his family, are proud that we have helped Tokeem become the confident, curious, and excited about life boy that he is. Our belief that children can take the lead in their own education has proven correct to us and our collective way of living has provided Tokeem with a great and solid support system.
Tokeem is learning that he can function well in a new system and influence that system to change to meet his needs. He has made several new friends and is spending lots of time after school with them. His confidence and thoughtfulness of others makes him popular (he won best dressed boy in his class by a vote of ten to two, with him not voting for himself.) He has been able to demonstrate a low-key leadership in his class which shows his sensitivity. He has chosen to "play down" his special status because he understands it is not available to other students whose parents are not in a position to homeschool their children.
Tokeem's fifth grade classmates have had someone new and unusual in their midst which has helped them expand their points of view. Tokeem took his personal computer into class for a week and helped other students learn to operate it. As a result of him handing in homework composed and printed on a computer, several students have urged their parents to teach them computer skills at home. We had his entire class come out to our recording studio for a storytelling session. They ask him lots of questions about himself and his family. His teacher is a very flexible woman who treats the students with respect and enthusiasm. She likes them and lets them know it, a wonderful quality in a teacher! She has told us many times that she is enriched by having someone with so much enthusiasm in her class.
The school board has grown in its understanding of homeschooling as a viable option for some families. Although we have no idea what will happen in the future, we know that the records of Tokeem's academic and social success in school will be noticed and will be helpful to us in defending our homeschooling programs for our other community children. We have offered ourselves as resource for other families in the district who are considering homeschooling and hope our experience will help them.
For Tokeem, school is an option, not a requirement. Knowing this, he does not get very upset when things don't go ideally in school. He is confident in himself and the support that he gets from home. He finds some of the arbitrary rules in school amusingly ridiculous. He appreciates his peers and his teachers as people who are doing their best in a less than perfect system. All in all, our homeschooler going to school has been a successful adventure.
To paraphrase Mark Twain: We won't let schooling interfere with his education.