A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 3)

The Weird World of Homeschool Debate

When I was in eighth grade, my mother thought a speech and debate club would be the solution to my entrenched shyness.

I remember feeling gripped by panic and nausea, sitting in the parking lot before the first meeting. I refused to even enter the building. But she made me go in, and I am thankful that she did. Against my will, speech and debate turned me into a confident young person and a passable public speaker. Team policy debate eventually became the consuming feature of my high school life.

There is a nationwide league of homeschool debate, and I think it still exists today. It has the word “Christian” in its name, so it’s for the wide swath of the homeschool population, which just so happens to be middle-class, conservative evangelicals. There were tournaments held around the country, culminating in Nationals, which generally met at whatever Christian college could be coerced to take us for a week. It was a convention of very high-level dorks. So many dorks. Of which I was definitely one.

One of my favorite realizations is that my first debate partner and I ran a very liberal case, despite the overwhelming right-wing leanings of our league. We wanted to return the Black Hills to the Sioux tribe, a proposition that was backed by Sen. Bill Bradley and, as you can imagine, was not popular at all with our extremely conservative judges. We lost a lot. We ourselves self-identified as young Republicans, and yet we never even considered how liberal our case was. It simply appealed to us because it was right and just.

Being in the debate world was the first time I got attention from older boys. I’m not sure why, because I had braces, a triangle of frizzy hair, and weighed all of 80 pounds. But they’d invite me to sit at their table between rounds and ask me what I had been researching and whether I’d read any good books lately. I just muttered and mumbled, sitting there in a perfect shade of crimson, wondering what interesting thing I could possibly say to them.

I went to Nationals once, at Liberty University, and it was a mostly miserable experience (except that I got to meet Lauren, which was a highlight). I was too nervous to eat and too appalled by all of the Liberty paraphernalia (e.g., Falwell’s clothes in glass cases) to enjoy myself. I was so sick of all of these homeschoolers that, on the third day, I moaned to my mother and grandparents, who had come to cheer me on, “I just want to get OUT of here and hang out with some heathen public-schoolers!” They laughed kindly at me, but they didn’t grasp the depth of my misery. Mom wanted to fix me up with this adorable, very short boy with brilliant blue eyes, but his younger brother and I became friends instead. My debate partner and I only won half of our rounds, and I was just happy to come home.

I “coached” younger debaters for a few years, which made me feel proud and maternal, even if the kids didn’t really learn anything. I was very organized, though. I always had very neatly printed handouts. But the kids were all pretty miserable public speakers.

During my last year, my sister and I teamed up. My mother encouraged me to partner with her, for which I had to decline the offer of the cutest homeschooled boy in the entire southeast (I think literally), which made me bitter for a while, but Kelsey and I became a rather excellent team. We always wore heels (which made us approach 6 feet) and pantsuits. We won Regionals, against a male team. People told me later that the only reason we won was because the five-judge panel had three men on it, who had all voted for us. Thanks for your vote of confidence in our reasoning abilities! Clearly, we only won because we had boobs.

I quit debate after that tournament, with a bad taste in my mouth, and even though I missed the nerdy thrill of a perfectly executed cross-examination, I was happy to be done. I was ready to enter the “real world,” e.g., a public university, and leave it all behind.



A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 2)

After our glorious, innocent, hands-on childhood, we were thrown into another sphere of homeschooling: the new, larger co-op.

A “co-op” is another one of those homeschool phrases that mimics hippie culture; in homeschooling, a co-op refers to this learning-share community, in which different moms teach different subjects to a class of children (rather than having the kids at home all the time). We’d meet once or twice a week for classes on various subjects, generally in the basement of whichever Baptist church we could coerce to let us use their space for a minimal sum.

This was a different batch of children, and we were often surprised by them. But we adapted. Because when you’re homeschooled, you have an extremely high level of tolerance for weirdness. Because you’re all weird. And you don’t really know how weird you are.

Because I am still marginally acquainted with some of these people, here is a heavily truncated list of things I remember:

  • There was this high-strung sibling pair who were loud and pious and avid fans of WWF wrestling. They made biblical stop-action movies with Legos in their basement. They might still.
  • Being told by a boy that the gates of heaven were closed to me because I didn’t read the KJV, the only inspired Word of God.
  • A girl whose mother claimed she was a mathematical genius, although we saw no evidence of this genius in other areas.
  • A sister who piously covered her brother’s eyes any time someone kissed on TV. This same brother would spy on us while we were having sleepovers and tattle on his mother about my licentious attire (e.g., a tank top).
  • The electricity went out during class one afternoon, and a girl claimed it was the work of the devil, who didn’t want us to be educated. I thought it was a pretty clever ploy to get us out of taking a test.
  • At a restaurant, a saintly girl once took the plate of this boy, who presumed himself to be the melancholy priest of our social circle. He looked at me and said, “You should do that for me more often.” My seething rage knew no bounds. (I mean, really. Is it any surprise that I became such an unapologetic feminist?)
  • A boy who talked a big game about his athletic ability, even though we girls could outclass him on the frisbee field every time.
  • A girl who was not permitted to learn how to drive or attend college, because those things were for men. She was supposed to wait at home for a husband. But… she was homeschooled… and they all went to a home church. I guess they just assumed she would marry one of her brothers?
  • A friend who was put under house arrest for 40 days on a diet of rice and water by her father, who heard about her hugging her boyfriend in a parking lot. I was enraged and wrote a blog post decrying her unjust treatment (yes, I was an angry little blogger, even back then), which her father and some other fathers read. They denounced me as a harlot and a sinner in the comments section. My parents heard about this pettiness and instead of disciplining me, they called these fathers idiots and cowards. I wrote my friend a letter every day for those 40 days, encouraging her to be strong. I don’t know if her father ever let her read them.
  • A group of cute and obedient sisters who wore ankle-length dresses to run the mile and practice calisthenics. They were a scene straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. We felt bad for them, but they never complained. Our mothers held them up to us as examples of chastity and purity. But we still got to wear shorts.

I maintain a fondness for all of these characters, because they were my childhood friends. We saw each other every week, exchanged letters, threw weird, retro (as in, Revolutionary War-retro) parties. I think of them from time to time and wonder what they are doing. Mercifully, being off Facebook now means I don’t know and can only imagine. My imagination sometimes runs wild.



A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 1)

The early days of our homeschooled life were quiet and idyllic. We spent a large portion of our week with just one other family. We practiced a Montessori-esque curriculum with them that was very hands-on, arts driven, and test free. It was very happy and holistic and hippie.

Our lessons were divided into monthly or semi-monthly “unit studies,” into which all of our learning was channeled. Our first unit study was on horses, because I was 6 and obsessed with them, and so we studied science through horse anatomy, literature through horse books, history through history’s famous horses (O, mighty Bucephalus!), and so on.

There were four kids in the other family and four of us; between us, we had a kid in every grade at one stage (1st through 8th grades). We all paired off and became the deepest of friends.

At lunch time, our mothers would lock us out of the house and tell us to go do something for an hour. We’d disappear into the woods or run off to play in the creek. Rebecca and I, the eldest pair, would scheme about ways to taunt and torment our sisters. We once lured Rachel and Kelsey into a shed and locked them in it for the better part of an hour. At their house, we’d sneak food through the fence to the neglected cocker spaniel who was always grateful for any human contact. We often discussed how we would dog-nap the spaniel and bring him to live with us. At our house, we’d take our lunches out to the walking trails and forbid any of our siblings to follow us. As the eldest pair, our choice of lunch spot took precedence over the younger one’s wishes. We created a code language that we used to communicate with each other in class. Later, we received a handwritten missive from Rachel, who said that our behavior was hurtful and exclusionary, arguing that she and Kelsey found it rude that we’d communicate in a secret language.

Jonathan and Grace, the pair third in line, were rebellious and mismatched. They resented the other one’s sex, for it made a less comfortable pairing, as the rest of us were matched neatly (Rebecca and Abby, Rachel and Kelsey, and Zach and Sam). Grace was either forced into a loner position or constantly vying to earn the affection and attention of the other sister pairs. Jonathan was just a wild child. He once dragged a bar stool over to a pair of French doors leading to my father’s studio, and, having stolen a bottle of shampoo from my parent’s bathroom, poured the entire contents of the bottle down the French doors. Just because he could.

We practiced Irish dancing in their living room, and Rebecca and Rachel always danced the male part, because they were so much bigger and stronger than us waif-like Farsons. Rebecca would pick me up and literally fling me across the room. I learned to always stick my landing.

To teach us about electricity, our mothers had us build functional lighthouses out of papier-mâché and wires, with tiny light bulbs installed in the top of our towers, which rested on salt-plaster bases. Jonathan quickly lost interest and took to frying ant hills with a magnifying glass, in a very archetypal boy-child fashion.

Rebecca and Rachel shared a double bed, which rested on stacks of books, because they didn’t have a bedframe. We had to jump on the bed with the greatest precision and care, lest the mattress collapse and accidentally trap a child. Sometimes, we’d carefully lift a book from the stack and read it to each other. We adored the American Girl series (and our corresponding dolls, our greatest treasures), Jane Austen, and the Brontës.

We put on scores of plays together, which we forced our parents and brothers to watch. Some of them were of our own creation; many were again from the American Girl series. I was always the director and an unbearable dictator about my role. I also took it upon myself to memorize everyone else’s lines and would stage-whisper the cues to everyone during the production, should they falter even for a second. I didn’t remember that I did this until I saw snippets of a home video of one of these productions. There I was in a prairie skirt with my plaited hair, whispering the entire play to my frustrated and confused co-actors.

Then Rebecca went to high school at a private Christian school. It was devastating to me. Gradually, all of her siblings followed her to this school, and we remained homeschooled. An era had ended, and I do not think we ever had such blissfully naive days again.

In these early years, we did not really have many other friends, and we earnestly felt that we did not need them. Our universe was happy and self-contained.