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.



Why I didn’t like “The Help”

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I just finished reading The Help. So many people read it and raved about it. I was always a little suspicious, but when my boss offered me her copy this past week, I thought I might as well give it a try. I admit that I liked it more than I thought I was going to. There were moments of insight and emotionally riveting sections. The maids especially tug at your heartstrings. Overall, however, I wouldn’t recommend The Help to anyone.

I am tired of reading books where white people are acting as the saviors for black people.

I am tired of reading books in which characters are either 100 percent good or 100 percent evil; people are not that plainly defined in real life. With the exception of a few minor characters, everyone in this book is either a hero or a villain. That gets very tiresome very quickly and it makes for two-dimensional, predictable characters. (Not to mention that Stockett never addresses the fact as to why her hero is close friends with the top villain. Somehow this is rational.)

I am tired of white people appropriating the voices of black people and using bad grammar and slang to do it. This is 2011, Kathryn Stockett. Your chance to be Harriet Beecher Stowe has long passed. There is, of course, the question as to whether the young, rich, white Stockett can tell these stories. She can tell them–she is from Jackson, after all–but should she? I lean toward the fact that she shouldn’t. This is an ethical and theoretical dilemma that could lead to all sorts of philosophical, critical tumbleweeds, but I’ll just say that, for me, I mistrusted Stockett’s representation because of who she was. This, perhaps, is not fair. But what, really, does 42-year-old Stockett know about being a black maid in Mississippi a full decade before she was even born? Her presumption sets a hurdle that is nearly too high for me to climb.

It is a breezy read, but it is not a new or meaningful novel. (And don’t even get me started on that lazy ending.) At the end of the day, The Help is just another book about Southern white people patting themselves on their backs for what they did and didn’t do for black people. It’s high time we stopped repeating variations of that fable.

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?