Homeschool stereotypes vs. public school realities

This whole exploration of my personal educational history started with a satire piece written over at the Winston-Salem Journal by one Mike Koivisto.  Who won the Write Scott Hollifield’s Column While He is On Vacation or Performing His Court-Ordered Community Service Contest with his indictment of homeschooling through an overdone stereotype.  I began it the only way such a thing can be answered–with a bit of satire of my own.

But it just wouldn’t happen.  The difficulty is that Mr. Koivisto has the benefit of not knowing what he is talking about as he criticizes homeschooling through fictional examples of his own fictional homeschooled childhood.  I really did attend public school, and I really did learn each of these lessons.  And had to unlearn each of them, as well.

My earliest memory of school was making gingerbread men in Kindergarten.  I remember somewhat sullenly pressing candies into icing, knowing my cookie I was so enthusiastically encouraged to embellish was about to be kidnapped.  See, we had just heard the story of The Gingerbread Man, and I had a foreboding sense of impending doom about the future of my particular gingerbread man.  When we were done, we walked together in single file down the hall to the kitchen where we watched a cook place our cookies in the oven.  Surprise, surprise.  When we returned, the cookies were missing.

I couldn’t figure out why the teacher was putting on such a show of surprise, and I think I might have burst into tears.  I learned an important lesson that year, I think.  Something about not trusting adults and literature being responsible for the theft of cookies.

At the beginning of first grade, Mrs. A. passed out plain sheets of paper and instructed us to color a house.  I made mine with a high peaked roof, two upstairs windows and a door.  It occurred to me that my house looked rather sad.  I know I was a strange kid, but I have always seen faces in houses…still do in fact…and some look like they’ve been bopped in the eye, most look rather bored but a few appear to be grinning from chimney to garage.  The house I lived in smiled, although most of its smile was hidden behind a tree.  I wanted a happy house, so I added a few extra windows in the shape of a bright smile and colored happily until Mrs. A. came and looked over my shoulder.

My house was much happier than she looked.  She scolded,

Houses do not smile.

If I remember correctly, I responded something to the effect of “Mine does.”  Which she took as the height of insolence, though that was the furthest thing from my mind.  So she took my paper and gave me another, demanding I “do it right.”  I somewhat reluctantly restarted my assignment, turned in a miserable, haggard-looking and every-day sort of house which she smiled at and praised.  The praise stung, and I think I burst into tears.  I never did see my happy house again.  I learned another important lesson that day.  Something about creativity and expression being acceptable only under tightly prescribed rules.

By the end of first grade, I had read all of the books in the lower elementary students’ section of the library.  I asked the librarian if I could check one out from the other section, the great big inviting section which looked so much like a small version of the public library rather than a reading corner for little kids.  She smiled kindly and said,

When you are in third grade.

I looked disconsolately at the books while years of re-reading the same baby stories stretched out before me.  And I learned another important lesson about grade level expectations trumping individual abilities and interests.

For second grade, I had Mrs. J. and Anthony, an annoying boy who kicked me under my desk and would immediately raise his hand and tell the teacher I kicked him.  At first, I protested.  I had done no such thing.  He, in fact, had just kicked me.  But she always believed him, always defended him, always said, “But my Anthony would never do a thing like that!”  And I always thought the mere evidence of the case stood overwhelmingly in my favor.  His legs were so long they were literally wrapped under his desk and though I was not exactly short, I couldn’t have reached his desk with my foot if I had tried.  After some time of this, the trouble-maker–that would be me–was moved.  I learned a lot then about justice, fairness and partiality.  And began to develop stomach aches and head aches on a regular basis.  I had a vague suspicion that it was because they were both black, but that would be nothing compared to my first real lesson on the playground.

One winter day, I was playing on the snow drifts with the other children when this little black boy ran up, punched me in the lip and ran off without saying a word.  I told the recess monitor who rounded up every black child on the playground and stood them in a circle around me, demanding I identify the one who hit me.  I looked at them and, surrounded as I was, I’m still no sure whether my tears were from the pain in my lip or from my growing sense of fear.  They stared me down, the group of them, and I had a distinct sense I was going to be jumped by the whole lot at some unsuspecting moment.  I finally pointed out the boy who had hit me, and Ms. V. exclaimed,

Dinky!  I should have known!

And grabbed him by the collar and marched him off to the principal’s office, dismissing me to see the nurse about my lip.  My great lesson in socialization and learning about people different from myself was that blacks were THEM, a group, a haunting group, a dangerous group.  A group to be feared.

Fourth grade, I had Mr. T, by far my favorite elementary school teacher.  He taught with enthusiasm, always had anecdotes and tangents to share about the subjects he obviously knew more about than all our textbooks combined, and he never answered our questions immediately, turning most of them back on us to consider a little more.  He made me think.  I loved being in his class and had more respect for him than I had ever had for any other teacher.  He also noticed that I had a difficult time making friends and took me out in the hallway one afternoon to talk to me about it.

Why don’t you try to be more like the other kids?

I fought back tears…feel them stinging my eyes even now at thirty four as I remember how devastated I was.  As if I wouldn’t have chosen to be “more like the other kids” if I had even known how.

Fifth grade taught me perhaps my second most important lesson.  My best friend (and my only friend at school) stopped playing with me that year with no real explanation.  One day in gym–we were on the same baseball team for class–she sat down next to me on the bench and started to talk to me.  For a few moments, it was like things always were.  The previous few weeks had hung over me like a dark storm cloud as I battled boredom and loneliness, having no one to talk to on the playground.  But for a few moments, the sun shone.  Until Leslie came over and sneered,

I thought I told you I would only play with you if you didn’t talk to Dana, anymore.

The storm broke, and I sought shelter.  Shelter somewhere deep within myself.  My fifth grade year, I learned how to become invisible.  To remain under the radar.  To attract no one’s attention and no one’s scorn.

It was a lesson that would haunt me for years.  I had set an interesting trap for myself.  Everything about how I handled myself told people to stay away, not to notice me, not to engage with me.  And for the most part, they didn’t.  In a crowded classroom, I was alone.  In a busy hallway, I was alone.  Sitting in a noisy cafeteria, I was alone.  And because everyone treated me as if I weren’t there, I felt as if I weren’t.

That all might surprise some of my more regular readers.  I have always said I had a positive school experience.  And I did.

Fifth grade may have taught me my second most important lesson in life, but my most important lesson I did not learn at school or as a result of school.  The summer between eighth and ninth grade, I really began noticing for the first time how differently I was received in my neighborhood than at school…even by the very same people.  Take that back.  I had always known that, but I had always viewed “them” at school as a sort of singular entity, separate from any of the individuals in that group.  In a group, people were very different than they were individually.  But over that summer, I began to really realize that they were not different.  I was.  I was the one who changed according to the social environment.  I was the one who walked confidently around my neighborhood, striking up conversations and rounding up kids for a softball game.  At school, I never made eye contact, rarely spoke and walked quietly along the edge of the hallway, trying to stay out of everyone’s way.

That summer, I had a conversion of sorts.  Not to Christ…that wouldn’t be for another five years…but from a victim to a survivor.  I made a choice not to play the part of the victim, and ninth grade was a very different year for me.  My high school years were some of the best years of my life.  And I never did become quite like other kids.  I accidentally rooted for the wrong team at the only Homecoming game I ever went to, never went to a school dance…not even prom…and found the whole social scene somewhat baffling.  But I had finally found myself and navigated through it all somewhat amused rather than offended.  I loved high school.  I relished not having to fit in. I was no longer being educated by the public education system, but in it.  And I felt free.

0 thoughts on “Homeschool stereotypes vs. public school realities

  1. I can so relate to your public school experiences. For me elementary school was a horror. Loved High School though, even though I never went to homecoming or the prom.

    And college was great.

    Today my baby is headed off to take a college course for dual credit.

  2. I learned alot in school- just not much of it had to do with academics. I learned how to defend myself, and I put two boys in the hospital in elementary school. I learned that if you can get your hands on an undated hall pass you can spend your afternoons at the mall going to movies. I learned that certain creeps hide in janitor’s closets so that they can drag unsuspecting girls in and try to have their way with them. I learned why the yearbook darkroom had a couch in it. I learned that many friendships are based on whether or not you will allow them to copy your homework or sit next to you on test day so they can cheat. I learned to keep a novel with me at all times so I wouldn’t be bored in class. I learned Chemistry because I often taught it, since the basketball coach/science teacher seldom showed up for class.

    I also developed a strong sense of self, realizing that I had no interest in relationships based on irrelevant factors such as how many Jessica McClintock dresses I owned or whether or not I got my hair done at Your Father’s Mustache.

    Everything truly valuable I learned I received via my parents, who constantly challenged me and provided me with every opportunity to learn character, courage, and compassion, something the schools could not provide.

  3. How many kids never learn how to navigate? or be themselves?

    My 20th reunion was this year. I didn’t go. Why bother? The meanest jock was the host. I know, we’re all grown ups now, whatever. But I have been talking to a lot of them on Facebook. I have had more than one conversation that went, “Where were you in school? You’re cool, I would have hung out with you.” No, you wouldn’t have, I wore all black and combat boots, your friends never would have allowed it.

    I learned that there was a price to being myself. And I paid it.

  4. Good article, Dana. I was surprised to read this account and had to double check that you weren’t quoting someone else.

    I had some of those same types of experiences in grade school.

    In high school, I took a bit different route. I wanted to stand out, so I decided I didn’t want to have Guess jeans. (Which was good, since I couldn’t afford them anyway.) My weird wardrobe came from the second-hand store.

    I didn’t attend prom either, even though the gossipy home economics teacher made a list of everyone without dates. She thought I would be like Molly Ringwald in whatever movie that was. I was disgusted by her attempt to find me a date. I used my anger to propel my escape from what was cool.

    College was a different story. No one cared what you wore or what car your drove. I was liberated and considered brave for my weird outfits and asymmetrical black hair.

    It was a bit of a challenge, so I wasn’t bored in class. And I meet my husband. We bought a Volkswagen van and drove off into the sunset. Ha!

    We’re still counter-cultural, and homeschooling fits right in. Who knew that rebelling against the norm as a young lady would prepare me to teach my kids at home? God can use everything.

  5. I was in several different elementary schools as a child and so didn’t form many friendships there. In Junior High (which they call Middle School now) I was bullied, but in High School I had finally came into my own. It was quite a journey.

  6. That’s always the question, Christy. Who didn’t find themselves?

    Your teacher trying to hook you up with a date, Renae? One of my closest friends in high school was a bit rebellious. She never wore anything trendy, and would get upset if something she liked became popular. I remember telling her that she may as well join every trend–she was still making her decisions based on what everyone else was doing. It is kind of strange just how much that whole environment affects everybody.

    Sunniemom, I think what you say is really the key. The more active the parent is in the child’s life, the more likely the child is to get through the school years…childhood in general…without losing themselves. Rare is the case where a teacher can really impact a child when the home life is a mess (although those who do are heroes in their own right.)

    HSAMM–that moving around can be tough. We didn’t move a lot, but I did move in the middle of my kindergarten year and again at the end of fifth grade. Going to a new school where everyone already knows everyone else was a bit tough.

  7. Alasandra, a lot of kids had those kinds of experiences. I remember them, but never really talked to them, either. Interesting how the whole situation can sort of silence everyone on the wrong end of it.

  8. Oh, and Renae, when I talk about how much I loved school, I am generally thinking mostly about high school. But odd little me actually liked school from the beginning. I liked my teachers, liked studying and loved writing which got lots of brownie points with my teachers, who liked to read my work in front of the class.

    Maybe I just didn’t know any better. 🙂 And I’m rather forgiving by nature, which I think helped me from being bitter at everyone and everything. And of course I had good parents, so I didn’t exactly feel completely alone in the world. 🙂

  9. I wonder how many Mike Koivistos there are in Winston-Salem, because one of them works for the city-

    Mike Koivisto,
    Special Projects Coordinator
    Mike oversees the department’s budget,
    Capital Plan, Fiscal Management &
    special projects.
    href=””>City of Winston-Salem website

  10. For me, I was Christian school educated for elementary school– with some of the same experiences, but I went into high school believing it to be a battlefield.

    I can sympathize with the loneliness, and I had heaps of scorn, but it also turned around in my 10th grade year when the fact that I was different made me interesting to others– or maybe it was about the time I started drama…

    In either case, thanks for this great/inspiring post.

  11. It was the opposite for me. I had a pretty godo experience up until junior high and then everything seemed to dissolve. It was a new school with none of the kids I’d grown up with. I was impossible when it came to sorting out social signals. That was fine when I was with kids who had known me for ages but in a new school it was the kiss of death. Junior high was so miserable my memories of it are dim. High was marginally better but I still wish I’d have the courage my brothers did and simply dropped out and gotten on with life.

  12. Yes, I had a few really close friends and a good relationship with my mom. I never would have spoken about my faith or tried to be different without those relationships (even though, as you pointed out, I was still involved in the trends).

    I would have continued to try to fly under the radar which wouldn’t have been nearly as fun or as controversial, come to think of it. 😉

  13. Wow, what an incredibly moving post. I guess I was blessed, I’m from a small country and a small school and always had a good experience with school and my classmates. I graduated with only 50 people and we were pretty much 50 best friends. I knew that stories like this existed but have never seen so personally. My husband and I are now living in Canada and I would never enroll my child in public school. The main reason is because I want to raise him in the Lord but this post is another great reason why I would never enroll him in public school.

  14. When I went to school I was third last of ten kids. My family were poor, as most families were but for some reason our rich relatives started to call us names and I ended up being called puke… It wasn’t until third class (grade) that I made friends.

    When I was about thirteen I went to a disco and a boy was there who hadn’t seen me in years and he said, Hello Puke. I almost died on the spot. He was beaming at me and genuinely glad to see me, I suppose he never thought about what the name meant.

    Anyway, the point I would like to make is that I carried this kind of stuff around deep within me until I got saved.

    Now I know that it is all behind me and I look to my current life and my future life and my relationship with God and it’s all ok!

    Great post!

  15. School was basically okay for me except for middle school, which was *AWFUL*. Particularly bad were the even middle grades (4, 6, & 8). 4th and 6th were complete wastes of time academically. 6th and 8th were low points in terms of social nastiness.

    A big problem for me was that I had a January birthday so I was the oldest girl in the grade except for one who’d repeated kindergarten and on top of that, I hit puberty early. So I wound up wearing a size 36C bra at a time when all the other girls were at most in 28AA’s. As a result, I had to endure *HORRENDOUS* sexual harassment from the boys and vicious name-calling from the girls. These days, schools are so scared of lawsuits that they’d at least try to put a stop to it but back then, the administration’s attitude was “boys will be boys”, ugh!

    My family looked into sending me to the day program at Andover, but the cost was so much that it would’ve taken all the money they’d saved for my college tuition. So they gave me the choice of private high school and then commuting to the local state university or continuing on at the government-run high school and having significantly more options financially for college. I decided on the latter course, and fortunately for me things improved beginning in 9th grade. My classmates finally matured and found better things to do than pick on me.

    I was not particularly getting along with my parents during early adolescence, so I’m not certain that traditional homeschooling would’ve been the best option for me. I think that had it been available at the time, an online school that I could’ve attended while sitting in the library or a computer lab would’ve been perfect. It would’ve solved the issues of academic boredom and the bullying.

  16. Well, thank you for saying that. 🙂

    It is interesting when you talk to people about school. The negative aspects of “socialization” are known to just about everyone. The struggles of fitting in, particularly in junior high, is almost a mark of our culture. Yet it is the homeschooled child who people worry about. And the bullying that is rationalized and defended…not directly, but as “part of growing up.”

  17. I found your post so moving and very relatable. I too had the hardest time “being like the other kids” because I just didn’t get it. And I remember vivdly bursting into tears many, many times…no maybe about it.

    Isn’t it amazing how these seemingly small, inconsequential to adults, experiences can shape how children see themselves and the world around them.

    You should be proud that you were able to overcome those previous experiences and manage through and even enjoy High School. For a lot of us, we end up carry them with us.

  18. Thanks, Zayna. Those are tough things to go through as a child, and it doesn’t just go away so easily. I can still get nervous if there are many people around, and still feel like I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to do or supposed to say. I’ve never been very good at or very interested in “small talk” and that can be tough when it makes up such a large percentage of your daily interactions. 🙂

  19. Wow. Your early memories reminded me of the poem Flowers are Red, that Harry Chapin turned into a song.

    I had my hardest years in elementary, but because I was home sick a lot, I tend to think of myself as half-homeschooled. In fact, most of my early memories of school involve those days when I stayed home and had one-on-one time with my mom, drew pictures and typed stories.

    Thanks for sharing your memories. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, eh? 😉

    Peace and Laughter!

  20. I always find it odd when people with little to no home school experience writes satire about it. Just seems stretching it a bit.

    You’re post is great. I had nothing but bad experiences in school, only a small handful of good ones. It’s hard for me to see good socialization stuck in a classroom.

  21. Great post! I too, am relieved that my kids will not have to go through some of the horrible experiences I went through in school. The kids at church are a lot nicer and they can work ahead in my school…

  22. Excellent post, Dana. My school years were mostly good, but I fit the “school mold” in that I learned well in that model.

    It was a different story when my boys were in public school. My youngest was in school with many of the same students from kindergarten through 5th grade. He ended his elementary career with not a single friend. Some made fun of him because his writing wasn’t neat. Others because he wasn’t athletic. He isn’t all about “fitting the mold” so he wasn’t popular. Never mind that he’s quite intelligent. Yet not in a nerdy sort of way. He was thrilled to be done with public school and come home with his brother and me. I’m thrilled that he’s home with us, too.

  23. I had to LOL about the gingerbreadman thing…my oldest (now 11) attended 2 years of preschool before we started homeschooling for kindergarten. One of his fondest memories of that time was when they made paper gingerbreadmen who escaped, leaving trails of paper in their wake while they were on the playground. He was so excited and had to tell me about it immediately. The men sent postcards from around the country until they came home after a couple of months. He just brought it up a few weeks ago. Maybe because they were younger (I think 4) and so it was more like magic? Not sure, but it is a fond memory for him.

    But that is really the problem with mass schooling, isn’t it? What is a wonderful thing for one child can be traumatic or stupid for another…

    I actually had a wonderful school experience (but I fit in very easily). One of the things that I really value is the ability to customize what we do based on what my kids need. And to let them develop on their own timetable (says the mom of a perfectly normal “late” reader).

  24. I hated just about every day of school. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t like having to do work I didn’t like. I didn’t like the culture of designer clothes and who-you-know. I can remember pining for the day when I’d be free of school and could live my life. I seriously considered dropping out and getting my GED so as to speed things up.

    When I first met my husband, he had this book called “Homeschooling for Excellence.” I couldn’t believe it. There was an alternative to school! I loved the idea of homeschooling. Well, several years later, we have four kids who have never been to school. But, my husband actually loved school. He got along with everyone, did great academically, and goes to all the reunions. But he loves new ideas and new ways to do things, so he loved the idea of homeschooling right from the beginning.

  25. Oh, Dana, how that took me back to kindergarten! I had started reading when I was three. Like my son, I taught myself. My birthday was only two days inside the cutoff date, so at not quite 5, I was the youngest in the class, and very tiny also.

    But kindergarten was not academic in the fifties, it was all about playing, and napping, and playing, and listening to stories. I can remember not being the least bit tired when we had to nap. I would look up from my mat and look longingly at the library books that were in the Reading Corner, and eventually begin to poke and prod the other kids near me because I was bored. I got into trouble more than once for sneaking over to the Reading Corner when Miss F. was occupied in the supply room, only to discover that they were the same books I had read the week before.

    Just before the end of the year, they realized I could read. Actually, my father got tired of hearing how boring it was for me, and he went to the school and asked them bluntly why they had not figured out I could read. I remember being taken into the teachers’ lounge and asked to read from reading texts for first grade, then second, then third…they stopped at 7th grade.

    In those days, they didn’t know what to do with me. So after mulling it over during the summer, on the first day of first grade, at the ripe old age of 5 1/2, they put me in the second grade. And for the rest of my school years, whatever academic advantage they had given me was overshadowed by the social disadvantage of being eighteen months younger than the other kids.

    Socialization, indeed. I was always “the baby”, and never fit in. As for the academic “advantages” – since I skipped first grade and missed those all-important math facts, I counted on my fingers until I was 25 and working on Wall Street. I didn’t master my math facts until I taught them to my own children.

  26. I’m enjoying reading your blog. Your writing is beautiful and I love your take on things.

    I’m learning a lot about homeschool meeting public school right now. My homeschooled daughter is in 9th grade and trying public school. She’s been in there 2.5 weeks now and says she can “feel the creativity draining” from her. She had an essay graded by a computer and the computer told her she had “loosely related ideas,” “with major gaps in the logical flow of ideas,” and that she had “reasons that merely skimmed the surface.” She was crushed. But how could a computer even know those things? So my son tried the program and found the whole thing to be bogus. Too bad it’s from Holt and used by thousands of kids. I wrote up my “experiment” on my blog.

    I just feel bad for so many kids trapped in the system. Thanks for such a great post.

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