|The kind of thing I photograph: Here is my child, cooperating with a plot to teach classification using LEGOS.|
Two weeks ago, my fifteen year-old was in my kitchen dry-heaving into a garbage can. Eyes watering, between retches he shot questions at me about what his coach would say when he missed track practice, the details of a math test, and the history assignment he needed to turn in.
"Go lie down," I told him. "You cannot go to class if you're throwing up. They won't want you there." I placed a bowl next to him on the couch, smoothed back his darkening blond hair and again directed his homeschooled youngest brother, who was spinning in circles with a bow, to continue practicing his violin. My seven year-old's eyes, now dark with something like evil, fixed on me, and a harumph escaped his tiny chest. He collected his instrument with all the enthusiasm of a person holding a now-familiar dead rat.
"Nice bow grip," I told him. "Check your foot position."
This is the sort of comment I am supposed to make.
"My feet are in position," he told me, imperiously, and turned to play as if drawing a crossbow, ninety degrees from the music stand—like Hawkeye at Carnegie.
Trapped between the rapidly approaching walls of pleasant indifference on one side and firm and loving commitment on the other, I chose the latter and was crushed between them like a bug.
"Fine," he wailed. "I'll do it your way! I can't even see my music!"
Obstinately, he thrust his violin into an unnatural position, his waist twisted, shoulders thrust and lifted, and, standing uncomfortably, abutted the scroll into his stand. "See?!"
"OK. I'm not going to argue with you," I explained, impersonating Ghandi, as passive and loving as a gently swaying shrub. I would let his anger complete itself without my participation. I was a master of non-violent communication. I was modeling patience. I let myself fill with inner peace.
In the new and ridiculous position, my youngest applied his bow and let out several tortured sounds: "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" played as the unsettling interlude to a Megadeth song.
"See?" he continued to demonstrate.
"I don't want to argue," I explained, from my happy place, as peaceful as a dove.
Moans sounded from the couch, and again I stroked my oldest's hair.
The argument, with or without me, continued, the pitch of violin and voice reaching a sustained staccato whine.
"Put it away then," came a voice from my lips, sounding a bit more cross than Ghandi's would have, "If you can't do it without getting angry, put it away and do your grammar then."
The tone was somewhat grumpy, I reasoned, but this is more or less exactly what the great man told Britain, if I remember correctly. "If you can't stop acting like an asshole, just take your crap and leave," he said. "I'm setting boundaries here."
Having failed to embody non-violent communication, I now attempted to channel Gloria Steinem: rational refusal to be stepped upon, firm boundaries, an unflappable sense of self.
"I don't think," I said, firmly, "that I told you to pet the dog." My youngest was stooped by the couch, midway between violin and grammar book, and, for two full minutes, had now been gently stroking our family pet. "The choices are: continue playing violin but without whining or stop, and come and do your grammar pages."
I was glad that, from my years of work at an elementary school, I have retained my teacher voice.
He put the violin away and stomped over to the open grammar book where, subsequently he decorated several lines of grammar with wavy patterns, like verbal Easter eggs. I erased the lines. He aggressively misread directions. I corrected. He scrawled in cuneiform. He was told to sit on the stairs, was talked to, agreed to behave, then came back and started up again. Gloria Steinem began to stew.
For several more minutes, I had strong boundaries and an unflappable sense of self. Following the tenth act of grammatical sabotage, I was broken. I became June Cleaver and turned, pleadingly to my half-dead teenager on my couch, a look of constrained panic in my eyes. Let the oldest male in the house save me, the look said. I am clearly dying here, and it is only 9 AM.
"Stop being so difficult," he told his brother, firmly, in his deepening male voice. "You could have had this done by now."
There. See? From Ghandi to June Cleaver in so many minutes and we've not even finished one page of work. I blamed my child for this transformation. Even Ghandi couldn't have stood up to this kind of bull crap. My eldest slumped back into the couch cushions, disintegrating into nausea, as his brother, now chastened, did some work.
Things went on from there, haltingly, in fits and starts. Handwriting was aggressively looped and scrawled, subjects insulted verbs. We were on thin ice the entire morning period until I mentioned the hero's cycle to him. Then, suddenly, pencil racing, the rebel, now a writer, put down the beginnings of the heroic tale of Silly Dog and Super Kitty Paws, his unexplained rage forgotten. Watching him with gratitude and relief, I turned into Sigmund Freud.
What was his problem anyway? (The mother. Freud's answer is always the mother.) After several moments of irritated contemplation, I switched psychiatrists, becoming instead an anonymous, empowering female—frumpy but clever, and wearing low beige heels.
Jealous? Could he be jealous that his brother is home, lying moaning on the couch?
At any rate, the cloud of dark rage seemed to have passed. We went on to the subject of history and finished strong with a start on the early Greeks. I wondered only periodically if it would be worthwhile to get him a psychiatric evaluation. (Perhaps, if I had not, at some point, had this thought of all my kids, I might have taken it more seriously.)
The day ended with laughing neighbor children in my backyard, petting our chickens, and with the quiet work of making a green salad and thinking in the kitchen by myself. Again we had made it through.
I follow several home-school blogs. On one of them, the mother—who is a fabulous photographer—splashes the web with images of her gorgeous almond-eyed children dressed like fairies, felting rainbow wool, having tea parties with real china, and studying clouds through the pursuit of art. On another, the mother publishes complicated unit studies she has developed to tackle everything from dinosaurs to natives of the northwest coast. From hers, too, smiling, happy children beam up, engaged in hands-on learning, and absorbed in happy, loving play with their adoring mom.
Searching Google, it would be easy to think that home schooling is the art of taking little children who might, under normal circumstances, drive anyone crazy and making for them a utopian educational dreamscape—a measure I'm sure I could never meet. It's daunting—this idea we have of what education might really be, what we have to make it. I also think it's crap.
Maybe it's because I've worked in public school classrooms and seen the debacle of a kindergarten child who has peed through her pants onto the gym floor—just before the other children race back in her direction during a game of tag. (School: the place you send your child to slide through a puddle of someone else's pee.) I've seen the ever-patient teacher, just like me, lose her patience with the child who refused to do his work. I've seen the worksheets—some clever, some boring—the art projects, the play-dough ground into the floor.
Human beings work at schools, as frail and real as mothers. You would not confuse them with saints, once the parent volunteers leave and shut the door. They are ordinary, like I am. Ordinary in personality and extraordinary in commitment. They are dedicated, kind, wrong-headed, inspired, angelic and destructive, and doing the best they can.
Maybe having seen all that, I realize that it's always easy to assume that if I can send my kid Somewhere Else, that Somewhere Else will do a better job than messy, impatient me. (Which, of course, is fine, as long as it's true in the particular case of my kid. I've decided I have to evaluate the truth of this notion on a case-by-case basis, one child and one year at a time.)
I am guilty of this misrepresentation. I put pictures up on Facebook—show my friends the gorgeous paper fractals (without any pictures of me snapping at my child that he's not gluing fast enough) or the day we were Phoenicians and used blueberries to dye our socks. I show them our ecology with Skittles, our owl pellet dissection—replete with smiling faces and a love of learning glowing in the scene. I leave off the glowers and stomping feet, the jealousy and defiance, my ineffectiveness to the background sound of dry heaving on my couch.
But all of these together are the truth of what it takes to educate my child. Because I worked at his school and was stopped in the hallway in the middle of my workday to discuss the stomping feet and scribbling that happened there, I have no illusion it would go better Somewhere Else.
My point is not that everyone should homeschool. It's not necessary for every child, and most parents don't want to. And that is that. (Most of these pro- and con- conversations about child-raising come down, of course, to what a parent wants to do or not. The rest is largely noise.) My point is that education, like parenting, and like life in general, is kind of messy. It requires talent, commitment, and a sort of stubbornness. It seems to require a lot of toilet paper tubes and white glue and endless pencils and most of it does not make good photographs. Perhaps that's why we respect teachers—because we know they're in the trenches with our children, their hair flecked with glue and scraps of paper, and that they're demonstrating a patience we fear we may not have.
They probably don't have it either, sometimes. Then, they take a breath and just keep being there. That's when they have fortitude and they have no other choice. There is no one else coming to teach this trying child.
Fortitude. In parenting and in life, it can get you to the end of a great many trying days.