Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My Parents Were Home-Schooling Anarchists

A long NYT Magazine article about the author's experience with home schooling:

Home schooling was also a cause they both believed in, and so despite the financial strain, they kept at it. It was especially important to my mother that we have a creative outlet. She devoted an hour each day to art, considered a "frill" by most public-school systems, because, she wrote, "this is where the children can allow their imagination to roam free." It is not surprising then that art — and travel — is what stands out most in our minds when we think back on those years. John, who was especially fond of the time the family spent in Mexico, recalls "third-class bus trips to see the mummies of Guanajuato" and "taking tinware classes at the Bellas Artes." James remembers the tea breaks and exploring medieval English ruins in thick, warm sweaters. "You know what it's like to be a kid and go into a ruined castle?" James says. "England was the best field trip ever." My sister's most vivid memories are also of England. "I remember a moment that has always stayed with me because it was so beautiful — sitting in a field where sheep were grazing and sketching an old gray stone church. Parishioners were inside singing, while outside the bells were ringing."

But these far-flung field trips had downsides. Mary vividly remembers the 10-day drive to Mexico — seven people crammed into a used station wagon with no air-conditioning. "We mostly ate Heinz beans warmed up on a hot plate in motel rooms," she recalled. And moving around so often could be lonely. We had only one another for company. Mary read so much that, in my memory, her face is obscured by a Nancy Drew mystery. John and James, only 18 months apart, were each other's constant companions. As a little sister, I spent many friendless hours adrift.

Fueled by repeated readings of the four siblings' exploits in "The Chronicles of Narnia," we imagined that occasional loneliness and displacement was the price of adventure.

I have often wondered how the home-schooled fared compared with their classbound peers. While advocates make glowing claims — that the home-schooled do better on their college boards and vote more often — there is little hard data on achievement. Not that statistics would have influenced my parents' choice. To evaluate home schooling based on quantitative measures of success would go against everything that drew my mother to the idea. A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill, believed that a child should live his or her own life, "not the life that his anxious parents think he should live." And this was how my parents continued to approach our education once my siblings and I were in school. A failed test? No big deal. And if we wanted to stay home for a day, instead of pretending to be sick like other kids, we could every so often simply slip a note under their door that read, "Please don't wake me up tomorrow." Eventually we all settled in. Even my dad. He went on to publish several books, one of which was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, and later became executive editor of The Week. The "counter, original, spare, strange" experiment had come to an end. "But it was one that I wouldn't have traded for anything," my dad says. "At least we had given you an adventure. I don't think any damage was done."

Despite the prophecy of a doomed future, none of us turned out to be a social misfit or an underachiever. Three of us graduated from good colleges. -------------------

Magazine Preview

My Parents Were Home-Schooling Anarchists

Margaret Heidenry

Studying Abroad | The Heidenry family's trip to Mexico in the '70s was part of their curriculum.

Published: November 8, 2011 

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