Anna Dusseau | 1st May 2020
It is just after seven o clock and the grey light coming through the curtains tells me it is going to be another chilly morning. This is February, before the world went into isolation, and I am rubbing my sore neck after another rough night with the baby. Teething sucks. Beyond the blinds, I can hear the rumble of tyres on gravel and the thud of doors slamming, as the neighbours bundle into their cars and begin the journey to work and school. We aren’t rushing anywhere, though. I get up, pull on a jumper and make my way to the kitchen, leaving the baby and his big brother sleeping in bed a little longer. They need it. They are both growing like sunflowers; their appetite voracious and their mood grouchy when woken too early. And we have, after all, done our fair share of school runs. I push the button on the coffee machine and close my eyes, listening to the clunk of the boiler kicking in, the splutter of an engine starting across the road. It is Tuesday morning. We have been homeschooling six months.
My daughter is always the first to rise after me. I’m sipping my coffee and flicking through the paper when she comes padding in, den hair alarmingly high this morning and eyes shining as she slaps Tom Fletcher’s The Creakers down on the counter and slides in beside me. She is one of those children who goes around with their nose in a book, to the point that you have to actively remind them that there is a road coming up, or that the food is hot, or that they are looking a bit green in the back of the car and let’s put it down for the last part of the journey, shall we? It’s funny how things have changed. She never used to be a bookworm and, in fact, was rather resistant to reading when we used to have the post-school spelling and phonics book showdown. I’ve read it before, she would complain. Why do I have to read it again? I could never really answer that one. Nor could I find a fun way to engage her with the weekly spelling test. But we don’t bother with any of that now. She is six years old and can breeze through a chapter of Phillip Pullman; I’m pretty sure she can spell okay. Or that she will do, when she’s ready. Down the hallway, the boys are waking up.
Since we started homeschooling, breakfast has become a leisurely affair and today is no exception. We eat healthily because we have the time to and, I suppose, we make food preparation and nutrition an integral part of home education. So, this morning it is dippy eggs and soldiers which my four-year-old son has buttered and cut himself, so they are slightly wonky. What do you call this? I tease him, and he looks up from his comic book. Half a rectangle? A hectangle? I laugh at my own joke. He frowns disapprovingly and goes back to his comic. It’s a quadrangle, he murmurs, shoving two pieces into his mouth at once and chewing slowly. Maths is his thing; a fact I have only discovered since homeschooling began. And we have gone from a rather shy boy who cried and clung to me every morning, hating the school run and hating his nursery school, to this little guy who is so gripped by The Life of Fred maths series, that his mental arithmetic is actually faster than his sister and, at our homeschool forest group, he will muck in climbing trees and making dens without so much as a backward glance. Nobody can believe how confident and articulate he has become, seemingly overnight. I guess he is in the right environment now and I wish I had figured this out a lot sooner. Swallowing my guilt, I pull a face at the baby and hand him another spoonful of peanut butter. Whatever the size of your family, the youngest is always the wild card, right? This one lives on peanut butter and pickles.
No two days are the same in homeschooling and, although today is looking busy – music, choir, library, and friends for dinner – this particular Tuesday ends up, predictably, crafting its own course. It is the day that begins with the tale of the Golden Fleece and ends up with popcorn and pyjamas. And all the moments in between, from my older two pouring over the mythology chapter of our much-loved and battered Cartoon History of the Universe, to the Argonauts puppet show behind the sofa which my husband receives a handmade ticket for when he wakes from his night shift. The look of surprise on the librarian’s face when my four-year-old asks what books they have on the hydra. The sight of them piled on the sofa with their friends that evening, eating pizza and popcorn, having spent the afternoon making monster traps in the woods at the back of our garden; now mesmerised by the 1963 film of Jason and the Argonauts. The point is that this kind of immersive, child-led learning journey is the dream of any teacher worth their salt. It’s just so hard to pull it off in the classroom. In the world of homeschooling, though, this is the extraordinary everyday.
It is difficult to write a book about home education without implicit criticism of the school system. The very fact that we are choosing to reorganise our lives around committing to homeschooling indicates a problem. Why do so many families like us prefer to see their taxes pay for schools which they do not benefit from, rather than participate in that world? The issues are complex and, overwhelmingly, what I want is to give you something that is positive and informative. I was, after all, doing the school run myself only a year ago; I get it. And so, after bath and bedtime on this chilly day February, I find myself sat cross-legged in front of the laptop, chewing my sleeve, not knowing how to begin a book about home education. The living room is still littered with cardboard puppets, six-headed sock hydras, and the smell of buttered popcorn. At least I don’t have to get everyone up and dressed at the crack of dawn anymore, bundling book bags and the baby over one shoulder while fumbling with frozen fingers for the car keys. Okay then, shall we start there? No more alarms, people. Switch off and plug in.