When my girls were young, I paid close attention to their interests. With home education, you spend a lot of time in the same space and pick up on where your kid’s curiosity lies. In my experience of going through the public school system, there was little room for free thinking. We were given our work and sat at a desk, slugging our way through material we had little interest in. It was a requirement to get somewhere in life.
How many apples are in the basket? That one was to help with grocery shopping because we all go to the store with wicker baskets over our arms.
Count the chickens because we all had them in our backyards roaming free range against city ordinances.
Circle the letter F. That had nothing to do with curse words. It was simply learning the alphabet so one could identify a fudgesicle from a frankfurter which we always said hot dog, anyway, so what was the point?
“Class, pass your paper to your neighbor so they can grade it.”
Words of dread because I always sat by someone who seemed to have it in for me. With their fat crayon wedged between their fingers, poised and ready to strike, I kept one eye on my work and one on the sheet in front of me. When I had to mark something wrong, I always felt a wave of guilt.
I see now how this took the pressure off the instructor. They didn’t have to be the bad bearer of news. It was peer against peer, which may be why the aggression at recess happened later. Some child was subjected to a thrashing on their spelling sheet, which built up anger all day.
Like caged animals, we were given a few short gulps of fresh air, and for somebody who had been wronged, this was the perfect time to act and release those hostile feelings in a way the teacher might not notice.
I have often wondered why Mary bit me in the arm that day. We were sitting under some trees talking when suddenly, she sunk her teeth into my right bicep. I don’t recall if I checked over her work and she was carrying a grudge, but when I got home and told my mom, she immediately disinfected my entire body, even though it had happened right after lunch, and it was now late afternoon.
Not to speak badly, but her teeth were dirty and some a bit ragged like fangs. My mom knew that the family often struggled with keeping up appearances, like combed hair and a drop of Crest now and again. So her response was to protect her young one from having a medical malady.
If rabies had settled in, I was past the point of no return by the time she got her hands on me. However, she relished having an emergency on hand that she could stop.
I made it without a single sniffle or infection, enough so that I had to, unfortunately, return to the classroom the next day.
I bypassed the public school system’s way of educating and opted to home school before it was popular. I was met with many questions about the well being of my children.
“So she won’t get to ride on the bus?”
This was one of many inquiries I had to answer as if that were a significant milestone. I harkened back mentally to when I had to ride the bus to high school. It wasn’t like a limo picked me up by the end of the driveway. I had to walk three blocks through ice and snow and sometimes run to ensure I got on in time or face the wrath of a mom who didn’t want to drive me.
My brother, six and a half years older than me, would often follow me in his car and sing obnoxious songs while I tried to ignore him. He never offered to give me a ride but practiced his opera skills, much to my horror.
At the start of my day, I was subjected to humanity that had no manners, no volume control on their voices, and some forgot all about the personal hygiene habits we learned in health class.
She was missing out on nothing.
The only drawback about teaching them at home was that I saw every activity as a school experience. I had to learn early on that making a tray of ice cubes didn’t have to turn into a science experiment. It was just ice cubes.
One day, while I was out in a garden I used to have in the backyard, and both of them were with me, I had a moment of clarity. Most caretakers only get to spend so much time with their kids. It struck me as a blessing while digging around in the dirt and depositing seeds into the soil. My oldest daughter and I discussed a subject from her school work like it was a regular conversation.
How many times had I crossed the threshold of my parent’s home to be asked:
What did you learn today?
I wanted to reply, how to hate school, that is what I learned. How to avoid detention, how to sleep with your eyes open, and how not to lash out at the child next to you who was clicking their pen repeatedly. Valuable life skills to be applied if a person was incarcerated at any time.
But, in my home, speaking about what was being learned was a natural part of our days, and it also gave me insight into what the two of them might want to participate in. I discovered early that the older one preferred something other than contact sports.
She tried her hand at soccer at one of the home school events. She had the ball all to herself and could have easily taken it down the field for a shot at the goal. But then, out of nowhere, a boy came along to challenge her. She stopped dead in her tracks, looked at him, and said,
“You can have it.”
Competition was not her speed. She took up ice skating and was fantastic.
The other one I was not so sure. She approached life a little differently, and when I asked, she would always say she didn’t know.
One day, as I walked through the kitchen, I saw her dancing, similar to a cartoon character she and her sister watched.
I asked her if she liked to dance, and that is when I enrolled her in the first dance studio. She had a natural talent for it, just like her sister did for skating. After her first year, I moved her to a different location that offered more of a modest approach to music and movement.
Because she was coming in a little bit behind the class for her age, she had to dance for the instructor alone. We showed up early one day so she could do so. The woman teaching her was kind and patient as she ran through various moves to see where her strengths and weaknesses were.
“It’s all about muscle memory,” she said at the end of the session. “You are very good at what I asked you to do, but the connection has to be made between your brain and your body. As you practice each week, you will get better and better.”
By the time the recital came in the spring, she had made so much progress that she moved on to the next level. The teacher’s words proved to be true. The repetition had created a neural pathway between her mind and the physical part of her. She now did a technique that had been uncertain and awkward with precision and ease as if it had never been a challenge.
When the report cards came out at the end of her second year, she was asked to repeat where she had been so she could improve. It was stated clearly that it was normal for students to take the same level two years in a row, so most girls stayed together throughout the program.
The other day, she pointed out that I had kept one of her performance skill sheets. I had folded it and put it in a kitchen cupboard. I don’t know why other than it was the year I got divorced, and I kept it as a reminder that I did my best to make things as normal as possible for both of them.
Because money wasn’t as abundant during that time, I offered to clean the studios on the weekends to help offset her tuition so she could keep dancing as usual.
When I looked at the sheet, I realized how gentle the explanations were where she needed improvement.
She was praised as a good dancer, and pointers were given in specific areas needing improvement. It wasn’t meant to rip her down but to have her aspire to a higher point where she could perform more confidently and pay less attention to each step.
This type of report and how it is worded can either contribute to a person’s life or cause damage, especially to a child.
Proverbs 18:21 says,
Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose. (Message)
As I read over what was written, I felt a difference in the approach of it versus what I had been subjected to in my youth. I could feel the love radiating from the paper, like the person who filled it out wanted my daughter to succeed and not get stuck thinking that she wasn’t meant to dance. Her carefully chosen words were meant to be received not as harsh criticism but as a mentor offering encouragement.
That is who God is; as we learn new things, we are given signs and positive thoughts that keep us going. We see the highlights of what we have grasped spiritually and where we have the potential to go.
I read long ago that God doesn’t need to test us. It’s similar to how I viewed parenting my girls. They didn’t have to prove themselves to me. And, often in our homeschool days, when we did school work, I didn’t make tests the end of the world.
I wanted them to learn and retain information, not memorize, to pass an exam. A test can take an hour, but real education is acquiring knowledge that can last for the rest of an individual’s life. The goal was to take away valuable skills they could apply daily.
One subject where we often went against nonconventional schooling was math. If a problem was complex and needed to be solved readily, I would get out my teacher’s manual, and we would look at the solution.
That is cheating. No, that is learning.
If we had the answer, we could go step by step without the pressure and find what we needed by working it out on paper.
Who said there had to be a rough path to finding the answer? More often than not, when we did it this way, the information was retained so that they could recall how to get the correct answer by the time they got to a test.
Timed tests, pressure, and a strict approach did not bring about good results, so I taught them in a way that helped them succeed. A relaxed state was the key to outstanding achievement.
It’s too bad that more of what we are subjected to isn’t fashioned this way because it’s the nature of God that many of us miss. After all, we have been conditioned to perform the world’s way, which is about competition and test taking.
God wants us to use the gifts we have been given to benefit those around us and doesn’t push us toward an invisible finish line where we mentally and physically drain ourselves and others to get there.
When I folded up the paper and put it back in the cupboard where it had been for 15 years, I heard this:
Dancers don’t take tests. They take lessons.
We all could use a little more ‘energy’, couldn’t we?