It all started when we were trying to fit in with a new playgroup at their park day. We'd recently decided to homeschool Mikaela, but we hadn't found our niche yet in any of the homeschool groups where most families' kids were older than ours or we'd been rejected because we wouldn't sign the group's statement of faith, publicly declaring our animosity toward Satan and expressing our willingness to enlist the kids in a crusade if given 48 hours advance notice.
This group, though not homeschoolers, seemed ideal because it had an abundance of toddlers along with several five year olds who'd just missed the school district's birthdate cutoff. If it worked out, both of my girls would have plenty of potential playmates and our homeschooling wouldn't even be an issue.
It was a gorgeous 75 degree fall morning, full of buzzing bees, flitting butterflies and birds tweeting their sweet, melodic songs (this was long ago, before they communicated exclusively through twitter - 140 notes at a time).
Then, suddenly, he was upon us. Lawn Mower Tractor Guy. Oblivious to all due to the roar of the engine, his walkman headphones and the thick, dangling earflaps of his woolen winter cap, he was headed straight for the sandbox! Like Odysseus, who had to abandon his insanity act and rescue the infant Telemachus from an oncoming plow, I threw aside my frivolous, inane, getting-to-know-you banter just in time to hurdle the teeter totter and swoop up Katrianna.
The whirling blades just grazed the ironsides of the ship-shaped sandbox, barely causing a stir among the kids inside it who were too preoccupied with shoring up caches of pebbles (resourcefully stored in their pull-ups) for the inevitable battle that brought each and every playdate to a glorious conclusion. Still panting, I glanced around to see that the few moms who had bothered to look up from their cell phones were snickering in my direction. In an ironic twist in our odyssey to find playgroup inclusion, my conspicuous child-rescue action was regarded as egregiously overprotective and confirmed their suspicions that "the homeschooling mom" was indeed out of her mind.
I hung my head in shame. I called to Mikaela that it was time to go when an empathetic mom broke ranks and came over to commiserate about the odd fellow who'd nearly mowed down my daughter. Thinking it a lost cause anyway, I nervously adjusted the buckle on Katrianna's overalls and explained, "I just hadn't realized Ignatius J Reilly had moved to Houston."
She laughed, then added, "Oh, but he hasn't. That was Holden Caulfield!" Right then I knew we'd found our playgroup and I could postpone carpooling the girls to Lil' Missionary Club meetings for at least another year.
[Helpful hint: Undoubtedly, the Confederacy of Dunces allusion litmus test is a good idea, but that Toole's book only came up this one time. For no fail conversational icebreakers, I recommend going with War & Peace or Moby Dick - both are invaluable sources for discovering common ground among parents while watching soccer games in lawn chairs. Nevertheless, this was a refreshing change and I am forever beHolden to the Catcher in the Wry.]
I answered that, like most parents, I strongly believed I was obligated to do the best I could for my kids. A huge part of that had to do with meeting their academic needs. Although I didn't think it would be "bad" for them to attend public or private school, I was in a position that I could stay home with them and we could choose to homeschool instead. They had learned so much already before they were of "school age" and, out of all the options I'd looked into, I felt we could do the best job of providing them a challenging education, letting them progress at their own pace and keeping the learning fun. Plus, I added, it was what Mikaela said she wanted to do & my plan was to go along with it for as long as she wanted...
Charlotte looked incredulous. I guess she sensed I was still holding back. She guilefully goaded me on with "But is being smart really so important?"
That did it, she got me in my Achilles cranium. I went on to explain that I thought God wanted each of us to reach our full potential. We'd all been given gifts and, since my girls so far had not demonstrated any Carl Lewis tendencies or Olympic aspirations (wiped away a tear there), I was focusing on what seemed to be their particular strengths and affinities right now. They were smart, they loved to learn, and they wanted to homeschool. My personal philosophy was that each of us should do our very best with whatever talents God had given us and, through conscientious effort, we would make the world a better place.
My spiritual revelation had the precise effect I always suspected it might. Charlotte immediately remembered a crucial need to replenish their goldfish's food supply, tossed the kids head first into her bicycle's pup tent kid carrier and shifted through all 3 gears of her bike's derail-hers in the fastest getaway I'd ever "witnessed."
Sincerity stinks. Had I learned nothing from Linus and the Great Pumpkin? In a momentary lapse of judgment, I'd forgotten to keep my blanket securely in place o'er this little (jack-o) lantern o' mine. And, I hadn't even told Charlotte the whole story... that the worst period in our pre-school years was when I realized three year old Mikaela was recognizing words and learning to read on her own. On the advice of several teacher friends, who told me that she wouldn't fit in at kindergarten and would have to skip ahead a couple of grades if she kept this up, I rebuffed all of her repeated requests to teach her to read 'real' books. The "rejection" seemed to hurt her emotionally, no matter how I explained it or tried to distract her with 'fun' activities and playdates. But I persisted, determined that she would attend traditional school.
I spent my time touring schools and visiting on parents' night open houses, taking Mikaela to our neighborhood school's Dr Seuss play to show her that indeed - in 2 more years - attending school would be wonderful, and even signing her up for pre-K classes where I was told she asked too many questions, overparticipated and refused to properly print lowercase letters using the "clock system" (because she had mastered upper & lowercase lettering already, but apparently that was not the point). After three months of this, my little scholar was literally at her wit's end. Finally, at home one quiet morning, I pulled out a chapter book and asked her to read it aloud to me. She was ecstatic and that decided it for all of us. What were we waiting around for?
Our families continued to get together after my unconscionable faux pas, but we always kept to safe topics after that: discussing our kids' vegetable preferences, debating the environmental impact of cloth vs. commercial diapers or, always a bonding win-win topic, listing all the things other moms did wrong in raising their kids. By the next fall, her son was accepted into the city's most competitive academic kindergarten program, reputed to produce only National Merit Finalists and Rhodes Scholars. He did very well but, for first grade, she transferred him to a magnet school for music, explaining that she sought a well-rounded education.
Sacrilege! Not that I'm judging... Few parents are comfortable putting all their little eggheads in one basket. Of course, we've been doing this homeschooling for so long now, we just went ahead and invested in a whole basket case... but that's just us. Most likely, her son will graduate from the music academy as a classically trained musician, receive a scholarship to Juilliard and be first chair in any of five instruments.
(That's okay, we play music, too... We adhere strictly to the Chu-ze-key guitar method -- if you don't know the fingering on a note, no need to fret, simply choose to play a different note or skip it altogether. Hey, when they're teenagers, who do you think will be picked to play in a garage band? See, we homeschoolers do consider socialization and the big picture.) As our kids grew, we met on their school holidays and during summer vacations and, eventually, we also found some like-minded families in homeschooling groups.
Certainly, we all got a lot out of that playgroup experience. The kids made many new friends, although -inexplicably- none of them elected to homeschool when it came time to start kindergarten. And, perhaps most significantly, it reaffirmed my promise to myself that I would never again divulge even the slightest hint of religious motivation in our homeschooling decision. Thank God, I've faithfully stuck to that one...
The truth is we're closet religious homeschoolers. But, if asked, I'll deny it. Three times.
Oh, for Pete's sake...