Anna Dusseau | 30th September 2020
The socially distanced doorstep chat has to be one of the most depressing outcomes of the pandemic so far. Where once, you might have invited the nosy neighbour in for a cuppa, or actually helped the delivery person with a heavy crate and a warm “thank you”, those days are decidedly gone. Nobody wants your spittle of gratitude now. Nobody is closing the gap for a hug, or an affectionate hair-ruffle. We even open the door differently, drawing back instinctively to a safe distance where both parties can feel comfortable. It’s like a new dance and everybody knows the steps. Living on the edge of a village, we get this all the time. Our house is the last one before the footpath breaks out into crop fields and woodland, meaning of course that this is dog-walking territory. Since the start of September, mornings are punctuated by post-schoolrun parents in workout gear rather frequently “dropping by” to say hello, swinging brightly-coloured leashes and absently calling over their shoulders to errant Spaniels who’ve already long disappeared into the fields beyond. Monday’s exchange with the lady down the road went like this. “How are you doing?” she wanted to know. “Fine,” I replied. “How about you?” At this, there was practically a tangible glow of satisfaction. “Oh, much better, thanks. So much better now that the kids are back to the routine of school. They needed that. They were…you know…becoming feral at home.” At this, her gaze fell momentarily to the Marmite-faced toddler peering out from behind my legs, wearing a tiara and wielding a Rubik’s Cube like a weapon. I nodded, finding answers forming and dissolving like popping candy on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes, the right words don’t seem to surface.
Language Shapes Reality. Contrary to what you might think if you read my posts regularly, I am actually rather careful with what I say, especially in person to people I have no desire to be at war with. Words, after all, have the power not only to describe and navigate the worlds we live in, but actively to shape and define those realities. More and more, when someone asks me how we are doing with homeschooling, I tend to pause for a moment before replying. “Great,” is the first word that springs to mind. “Fantastic,” even. And it does feel that way. But I am keen to avoid packaging my life – our lives – in the gift wrapping that I would like others to see. The question is an important one, after all, and one which I feel is best met with sensitivity and consideration, rather than a verbal “push-back” which, over time, has the potential to blur the distinction of truth for everyone, ourselves included. I was not so cautious two years ago outside the school gates. My daughter was “a handful”, my middle son was “a monkey”, the baby was “a nightmare”, and my husband was “useless.” Cue the peals of laughter, and immediate sense of solidarity that complaining about your own family inevitably provokes in others. And, although these descriptors are neither universally true or untrue of my private life, they are nevertheless common features of playground discourse; a space in which parents’ attempt to homogenise their tremendous diversity and all “get along” ends up in a race to the bottom, one in which we define ourselves based on the lowest common denominator. How knackered we all are is easy to bond over. An interesting book we read at the weekend is not.
Talking Our Kids Down. What I am touching on here, is the way in which many of us do ourselves – and our families – a disservice, by falling into the trap of talking ourselves down, in an attempt to “blend”. Try it for a week, and you’ll find that actively combating this human tendency is no easy matter. When I was pregnant with my third child, I looked and felt like a goddess. It was by far the easiest pregnancy, my hair was supernaturally shiny, and I felt most days like I could pick up and throw a small hatchback. In response to the “how do you feel?” question, though, I found that “shattered” generally went down better than “radiant”, so I left it at that. The problem came when we began homeschooling, and I found myself answering a lot more questions of this nature. This rapidly becomes difficult territory though, as you are invariably balancing your own perception of family dynamics, with the feelings and receptivity of your audience. Put bluntly, it’s not going to be a popular move to tell the village mum in her Fabletics leggings that home education has radically and beautifully transformed your family; that you feel like everyone has collectively “woken up” and that you know your children – and yourself – in a way that you were previously blind to. That’s going to be a tough pill for Jane and her Spaniel to swallow, but it’s worth weighing up your options here. Home education is a bold choice. Embrace it, and it’s empowering. Apologise for it, and it wrecks the emotional and intellectual security you are establishing.
“Home education is a bold choice. Embrace it, and it’s empowering. Apologise for it, and it wrecks the emotional and intellectual security you are establishing.”
The Language of School. Attending a school setting inevitably immerses you in a discourse of its own, a discourse which we do not realise binds our mindset as firmly as a snake wraps its coils around a victim. We do not notice the words we are using, because they are disguised in a cloak of ideology – the benevolent school system must be good for us, just as the omniscient god must have a plan for our lives. And so, in one of the strangest back-to-school Septembers for many decades, we passively accept the new term “Recovery Teaching” to describe the task ahead for school educators; undoing the “damage” undoubtedly inflicted on children by spending 6 months at home with their families. This is an extreme, but not unique, perspective. Even the most caring parent will often regurgitate the line that children “need” school, a scientifically unfounded social assumption which, as Harriet Pattison methodically unpicks in the latest issue of CPE, is based in established mainstream discourses relating to inflated assumptions of the significance of risk, routine, and parental incompetence. The fact that we can feel in our bones that school is an unnatural environment doesn’t shake us from the conviction of the language that we use to describe it. We tend not to worry about what actually “happens” in school, so long as our actions (sending our children to school) fit in with the beliefs held by popular discourse (that school is beneficial). As John Holt said: “We make a lot of nice noises in school about respect for the child and individual differences…But our acts, as opposed to our talk, say to the child, ‘Your experience, your concerns, your curiosities…count for nothing.'” Herd mentality is incredible, when you come to think of it. Only a century ago, parents were dutifully giving their children radium-infused tonics for the same reason.
Words, Words, Words. Sometimes, small things count for a lot. I commented on Twitter recently that: “I notice we describe kids’ adjustment to school as ‘going well’ and it seems there’s an implicit acceptance here that school is a challenge. We also describe challenges like marathon training and cancer treatment as ‘going well’. We don’t tend to say childhood is ‘going well.'” The phrase in itself appears trivial but, I strongly believe, it is not. Similarly, when my 4 year-old asks me a question about dinosaurs, or galaxies, or what one hundred and fifty two billion plus a million equals, I must be careful to get my words right. “What do you think?” is usually my standard response, and from there we begin a conversation. But my older two have informed me that that don’t appreciate my method of answering a question with a question. “It makes me not want to ask a question in the first place,” my daughter complained the other day. And so, I will try to check this habit, small though it seems. “What we must remember about words,” said Holt, “is that they are like freight cars; they may carry a cargo of meaning, of associated, nonverbal reality, or they may not.” On this note, I am learning that the terminology we use to describe what we are doing when we are not doing school, are loaded, too. “Home Education” seems to be the generally accepted term in the UK, although in the US this is interchangeable with “Homeschooling” regardless of the individual approach along the structured-unschooling continuum. Others go even further, noting Ivan Ilich’s own distaste for the word “education” in his later years, and would prefer the term “Home-Based Learning”. For relative newbies, like me, the actual labels feel unimportant compared to the radical, liberating process of exploring a world without school: an act of doing, not defining.
“In a world increasingly defined by social media, we run the risk of living life according to the mantra of our own soundbites. We should be cautious in the consumption of our own ideologies.”
Our Mental Horizons. The truth is, negativity sells. Ask any journalist and they’ll tell you the same. Unschooling mother-of-four Tiersa McQueen wrote rather wisely the other day that “nobody wants to hear about happy families.” This is a good point. If we use as a starting point, the fact that we are drawn to negative representations of family life and relationships, then it comes as no surprise that we have developed such a toxic discourse surrounding it. Tabloid newspapers exploit family tragedies and marital breakdowns as “news”, while broadsheets stick to the “facts” and inform us, calmly but persuasively, that the closure of schools during Lockdown has generated a national state of crisis; in short, that nobody can cope with their own children. Our choices here are stark: we can reject the headlines as nonsense, we can imagine ourselves to be superhuman exceptions to the rule, or we can swallow the words we are fed and regurgitate them in our own lives. “Us too,” we say. “Our kids have been climbing the walls! We can’t cope with them at home…we need schools to reopen!” The only problem is that, insidiously, the picture we paint with the hashtags and clapbacks of social media, become the framework for our actual lives. Parenting actually becomes more of a challenge; we lower ourselves once again. In a world increasingly defined by social media, we all run the risk of living life according to the mantra of our own soundbites. We should be cautious in the consumption of our own ideologies.
Back on the doorstep, and I still have no coherent reply for Jane and her “feral” kids. I wrap my cardigan a little more tightly around my shoulders and smile briskly in the orange autumn light, international body language for: “I think we’re done here.” There isn’t an easy way to bridge the river of life that separates us; two unexceptional village mums trying to do the best for our children. If our topic was “Best Songs of the 90s” and our location the corner table of the local pub, we’d probably get along like a house on fire. Jane doesn’t know what to say to “help” me, and it doesn’t improve her view that, at 10am, my kids are running about with pyjamas and paintbrushes, listening to Ray Charles’s “Mess Around” on full blast. Jane’s kids have name tags on their socks are are probably sitting at a desk right now. Equally, I don’t know where to begin – in words – to articulate the way the world unfolds itself like origami when you step away from school. The gulf of experience is too big to cross, the territory too sensitive to tread. How do you tell someone that state school is not a public service when people are forced to use it, even fined for not using it? Just as Illich noted that we don’t have to convince people of the need for tap water and pavements, so a truly beneficial and benevolent school system shouldn’t have to coerce its sheep back into the fold. And maybe that’s the point of this whole “thing” with words, language, and reality. I closed the door and closed my eyes a moment, listening to the house humming with excitement, energy, and purpose. Perhaps, after all, it was okay to say nothing in defense of homeschooling – or whatever you want to call it – and just let my kids romp around in slipper socks, chattering and laughing in their rapid mix of French and English. Maybe sometimes action speaks louder than words.