Anna Dusseau | 1st July 2020
“As can happen when you stop doing something, you wonder why you ever did it.”Tobias Jones, School’s Out, The Guardian, April 2020
For most homeschooling families, Mondays are no longer a downer. Sorry, Garfield! This morning, like every morning, begins for us with pop music and marmalade, spread thickly on wholegrain bread, as we pour over the morning papers. My kids love this time and, when I think back to the watch-tapping, cereal-bolting, Cbeebies-sponsored stress test that we used to go through every day, it seems like another lifetime, another family; not us. This is what most parents, at least initially, are seeking when they choose home education. A return to normality. A sense of calm. Stability and purpose for their children. And parents are rarely disappointed on this front. My six year old now reads the front page of The Guardian with the confidence of an average twelve-year-old, pausing on words like ‘constitutional’ because she doesn’t understand the meaning. My wired little boy has become less aggressive, less emotional, and now hugs his baby brother and teaches him things like (mostly rude) French words and how to use the remote control for his car. I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and certainty when I look at my children now, which I can’t say I felt when I was dragging them back and forth between school and nursery. But beneath all that, I am churning with difficult emotions. It is because I am working on myself.
Addresing Our Own Intelligence. When we remove our children from the school system – or choose never to participate in it – we view childhood from a new perspective. Most of us went to school ourselves and it is only now, when we view the ease with which our children conduct themselves in their quest for knoweldge, that we feel a pang or, more specifically, the sharp acknowledgement that something fundamental was – and still is – missing for us. It’s a hard lesson to emerge from the school system with a fistful of well-earned grades, only to discover years later, that the sum total of this experience doesn’t amount to much. That, in fact, you have no instinct. That you are starting from scratch with your real education. That, in short, you don’t know how to learn. Oh, you know the theory, and you are growing and blossoming with your children every day, but there can be a pain in the process, too. Why, after all, are we only beginning to test our own capacity now, after years of doing what we thought was the ‘right thing’? Our jobs, our lifestyles, even our choices – it turns out – are not truly our own, but rather a by-product of the all-rounder mediocrity that school generates. We don’t like to see ourselves that way. It’s a kick in the teeth.
Coming to Terms with Freedom. There is a world of difference between having a ‘schooled’ – or we could even say ‘institutionalised’ – mindset and being free. I should point out that some adults who attended mainstream school have a ‘free’ mindset and such people are lucky…they are also fairly rare. Many more people go on to live their entire lives following the rules indoctrinated by school. Respect your elders. Do as the teacher says. Don’t interrupt. Work hard. Sit up straight. Follow the herd and don’t mess up. And you do all these things, never really questioning why. I was always told it was important to go to university, to get a steady job, to settle down. Why? I didn’t question it, because I wasn’t actually taught to question things; not like this. ‘Why does Shakespeare use religious imagery to depict Othello’s distress?’ is a good question. ‘Why am I being forced to take this dumb class, and who cares about Shakespeare anyway?’ is not. Reviewing your life so far in the fresh light that home education brings can be both raw and revealing.
Dealing with Major Trauma. School scars run very deep indeed for some people. For a significant proportion of those experiencing depression and anxiety in adult life, initial trauma can be traced back to school and the experiences that took place. Severe bullying is, of course, rife in all schools and can vary from physical assault or theft of belongings, to emotional and psychological abuse, online trolling, or simple social exclusion. When a child becomes ‘marked’ in school, it is a hard place to be. Teachers exercise a very limited power here and few peers will have the strength of character to stand up to injustice. So the child becomes an ‘easy target’. But there are other major traumas, beyond bullying. The effect of constant assessment – and, with it, the inherent ‘risk’ of failure – can be agonising, especially where a Special Educational Need is at play. Children with special needs ranging from Autism through to Dyslexia may find the school environment challenging for various reasons and consequently, as an adult, find school a trigger for deep-rooted feelings of shame, fear, or panic. In the 80s and 90s, when I was at school, one of my classmates had dyslexia and I remember her spending lunchtimes taking ‘extra lessons’ with the Head of English. What harsh punishment for a different way of processing! We know better now, or at least we think we do.
Forgiving Your Parents. A friend of mine is taking a course in deschooling and apparently this was one of the first topics that came up. I suppose there is a logical connection to be made. When we make the choice to home educate, it means taking a bold and deliberate step away from the ‘norm’ in order to protect – or do the best thing for – your child. And if you are prepared to do this without blinking for your own children, why didn’t it occur to your parents to do the same thing for you? The majority of us go through the system and ‘normalise’ everything that goes with it; tearful dropoffs, strict teachers, bullying, piles of homework, and that sinking feeling every Sunday afternoon through to about midday on Monday. In fact, we don’t question any of it, until we decide that we want our children to grow up without all that; that’s when we start to take stock. I have lost track of the people I have met along the way with issues ranging from high anxiety and eating disorders to attachment problems and damagingly low expectations. Scrape the surface and you’ll find they often mention school. And it does cause a rift sometimes, between grandparents and the adults their children have become. We can’t be coerced anymore and, significantly, we don’t believe in coercion.
Let’s move on. Where does this bring us? I suspect we all prefer to leave our school days firmly behind us, but they are reflected back every day when we homeschool our children in peace and freedom and security. When I was nine, I was made to write a double-sided letter of apology to the Music teacher for being a ‘silly girl’ and the memory has never left me; the rage and humiliation. J.K. Rowling’s Umbridge is a caricature of a teacher-type we’ve all met before. My children, sprawled on the grass with their toys and card games and dreams, wouldn’t know an apology letter if it hit them in the face. I’m glad. They are just children and they mean no harm. And I am sorry if your experience of homeschooling through Lockdown hasn’t been a positive one. I can almost guarantee though that if you haven’t enjoyed this time, then you probably haven’t really been homeschooling at all. Because real home education is something you fall in love with, straight away. So instinctive that you know in your bones it’s the best way to learn. So liberating that it makes you look back on your own golden childhood and wonder whether it was, in fact, a golden cage.