Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Homeschooling? For my kids?

Last month I concluded my post on why my kids don’t go to preschool by writing,

“I have five brief years to spend with Pip and Polly before I have to release them into the wilds of institutionalized education. That time is precious to me. I don’t want to waste it on preschool.”

Several of the commentators on this post subsequently pointed out that this idea of a fast approaching limit to my time with Pip and Polly overlooked an obvious possibility. By undertaking their formal education at home, i.e. homeschooling, I could push back that limit and gain more of the time with them that I consider so precious.

After reading these comments, I opened up the comment window to write a reply. “Yes, I know,” I started. Then as I further parsed my thoughts, I realized that I had more to say about this than was reasonable for a comment posting. I closed the comment window and started jotting down some notes instead. The process of articulating my reasons for assuming that I would send my kids off “into the wilds of institutionalized education” had created a cascade of thoughts that merited their own posting.


There are at least three significant reasons why I have always assumed that my children will not be homeschooled. The first is that when Pip was born I viewed the moved to stay home with him as a hiatus. I was taking leave of my own individually defined life for a while in favor of a hybrid collectivity wherein the interests of my children would take full precedence over my own. This sublimation of myself had a definite endpoint: the entrance of out last child into kindergarten. Once all the kids were handed off to the formal education system, I figured I would get back to my life and reclaim something of an identity apart from my children.

The second reason I have always assumed my children would become denizens of institutionalized education is a financial one. When Pip was born, the decision for one of us to become a full-time parent had a financial component. The cost of quality childcare is very high. As neither Ava nor I were headed towards a huge salary in the near term, we concluded that any second line of income would, after taxes, essentially go directly from our pockets to the childcare provider. In our minds, this made the decision to stay home and avoid the cost of childcare a financially acceptable choice.

Once both kids reach kindergarten age, the financial logic changes. If the kids can go to school for free, then other long-term financial questions come to the fore. For example, how do we save enough money to send the kids to college and subsequently retire in the way that we want to? This seems almost impossible for us to do with only one income. Of equal concern is what happens if Ava loses her job or is no longer able to work for some reason? Accidents happen and we no longer live in an economic environment where one can take their job for granted. A second income stream gives us a buffer if some unexpected were ever to happen.

The third reason my kids’ going to school is seemingly a fait accompli is that this is the pattern of life that I know. I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia. My mother was a public school teacher and just about everyone I knew there went through elementary, middle, and high school together. Even the nearest private school was a half-hour drive away so I rarely had contact with anyone who did not attend public school, much less anyone who did not attend school at all. It is difficult for me to imagine that the upper middle class, white, Methodists and Presbyterians who constituted my family’s social community ever discussed or seriously considered homeschooling their children.

Plus, the school system, with its regular events, performances, and athletic competitions, was a central organizing force for much of the town. To homeschool one’s kids and essentially reject the school system was to reject the community itself. It didn’t matter how uneven the educational quality was, such radicalism was not a comfortable proposition.


In many respects all three of these reasons are really symptoms of a general middle class ethos that continues to be a part of my cultural identity. I was not raised to become a full-time father. My role models, both male and female, were upwardly mobile people who went to work each day as businesspeople, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and engineers. They did much of their parenting outside of regular work hours and on the weekends. Even after the birth of Pip, I expected to eventually do the same.

I feel like this expectation was true for most of my peers as well. We came of age in an era where most kids from middle class families anticipated building their lives according to an established checklist: finish high school, finish college, get a job, start a family. The implications of this list, with ‘starting a career’ coming temporally before ‘starting a family,’ certainly were not clear to me when I started down that track, and I think – as evidenced by such things as the “opt out phenomenon” – many others have found it to be a less than perfect ideal as well. All the same, the dictates and assumptions embedded in this list about how one chooses to manage life and work and family are an engrained part of the default knowledge I hold about my world.


In The Agony and The Ecstasy, his novelization of the life of the Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti, Irving Stone describes the work of a sculptor in terms that for me captures something essential about how these questions fit into my ongoing experience as a full-time father. Picturing Michelangelo in his workshop, Stone imagines him approaching a rough hewn block of marble with an idea, an image in his head of what he wants the block to become. Stone then describes him picking up his tools and carefully chipping away at the rock, exploring what it can do and discovering what it is incapable of. With each bit of stone that falls away into dust, Michelangelo must subtly adjust the image in his head to fit what he has learned. In the process, his work becomes a conversation, a series of questions and answers in which the block of marble is an equal, and sometimes the dominant, contributor.

The moment I become a full-time father, I shaved off a piece of the marble that is my life in such a way that the sculpture I am carving no longer cohered with the image that exists in my head. With that chip, some of the fundamental assumptions I held about who I was and who I was going to be became suddenly not quite true. This has left me somewhat in limbo, scraping away at the block and trying to get a handle on what is there, what is possible, exactly where the image I carry of myself meets the evolving trend of choices I make, and how those two entities can become conversant again. It is a frightening and exhilarating position in which to be.

The question of homeschooling brings this sense of limbo between artist and art, identity and practice, right to the fore. Given the sensibility that I laid out in my November post, it seems like I should engage wholeheartedly with the idea of homeschooling. I should test it out and see what it would mean for me and my family. But I’m not there and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It’s a direction and course of life that leads me radically away from what I ever envisioned my final sculpture would be. Before I can even get around to the technical questions of how or why, I have to address this issue of identity. Am I a person who would homeschool his children? I don’t know. I guess I am just going to have to keep chipping to find out.

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