I was homeschooled.
I also have two degrees, a career, and friends. I haven’t killed anybody. I’m an intersectional feminist and an atheist. I only have mild phone anxiety.
By the way, did I mention that I’ve never killed anybody?
Homeschooling has a bad rap. It’s not completely unfounded, but it is a generalization.
Tara Westover, who recently published a memoir about her survivalist childhood, grew up in a rural area and was homeschooled — the Westovers’ version of this was “if you wanted to read a book you could, but you certainly weren’t going to be made to do that.” This isn’t a picture of homeschooling at all, as it describes no actual education. “Homeschooling” often acts as a catch-all label slapped onto to anything other than a traditional, brick-and-mortar education.
Horror stories include Robert and Michael Bever and the notorious Pearl family. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education conducts research, advocates for children, and catalogs testimonials from those who have lived these horror stories. Their catalog is extensive.
Let me be very clear: I am not arguing the existence of irresponsible homeschooling and abuse. I am trying to balance the narrative with my story — an honest, not unordinary story.
I did not set foot in a public school until I was 15-years-old. Besides my older sister’s brief stint in kindergarten, my siblings and I started our education at home.
You’re probably wondering why. That’s usually the first question.
There’s no succinct answer. My parents had many different reasons for making the decision to educate us themselves. You would have to sit down with them over a lengthy dinner to get the whole story. And that’s their story, not mine.
I can’t speak to every reason they had and I won’t try, but I do know they weren’t impressed with what they saw in the public school system: little flexibility and strained resources, one-size-fits-all approach to learning, overly harsh measurements of progress.
To quote my mother, “I wanted to raise lifelong learners — people who loved learning for more than just grades and degrees. Learning should be like breathing, natural and happening wherever you are. Curiosity should be a fire burning within us. Dumping facts does not equal learning. I want you to always be learning, to be curious, to question, question, question.”
So my mom left the workplace to raise up curious little humans into lifelong learners. As an adult who finds much of her identity in her career, I recognize the major sacrifice she made. We became a family of seven living on a single, middle-class income, one that paid not only for our basic necessities, but learning resources as well. That’s the other thing you should know: homeschooling costs money. We had to be frugal but ultimately it was a privilege for my family to be able to make that choice.
Besides providing the income, my dad supported our learning and taught us in his own way. The summer I raised goats, my dad was my biggest advocate. He attended a class on goat packing with me, imparted his knowledge of livestock, and together we put up fencing to keep the goats out of the garden.
For us, learning happened outside of regular school hours.
Our curriculum changed yearly. This is one of the benefits of home education. Much like an iterative development cycle, we saw what worked, what didn’t, and made changes accordingly, sometimes in the middle of the school year (I use the term “school year” loosely. Homeschoolers tend to make their own schedule, rebels that we are). If every math session ended in tears — and some of them did — then we started exploring other programs.
As the student, I also had a say. Decisions about school were made during family discussions, with input from both parent and child. I remember spending hours poring over catalogs with my mom and sisters, marking the books we wanted to order with a pen (so many books). Planning was an ongoing activity, during which I told my mom what I wanted to learn about. If I was really interested in ancient Egyptians or the Titanic, she provided the resources and I studied that topic until I had fulfilled my curiosity.
Some years we enrolled in different flavors of virtual charter schools. One was internet-based. It came with pre-developed lessons plans and all necessary books and supplies. Another allowed room for us to create our own approach but provided funding for supplies and extracurricular activities. In both cases, we provided work samples, were subject to standardized testing, and had assigned “teachers” we could reach out to for help.
We also went on field trips, attended events, and participated in family organized co-ops where parents collaborated to teach certain subjects while the students collaborated to do the work.
“School” took many different forms. Mine looked different than my sisters, because our learning styles were not always the same. School might be a combination of independent and group study. Some subjects my mother would lead, and others were self-guided. It was a customized experience, which is something I was lucky to have. I can’t help but wonder— how successful would every student be if their learning was tailored just for them?
Much of my learning happened organically.
I wasn’t bound to arbitrary rules regarding schedules and physical locations. Instead, there were general goals, and ample flexibility in how to meet those goals.
I completed school work from bed, the couch, or the backyard. We often gathered at the kitchen table for tea and poetry hour. Or we lounged in the living room and listened to my mom read or have a “class” discussion. As soon as the Idaho winter melted away, we were anxious to get outside — there were no rules against relocating with a book to a picnic blanket under a tree or soaking up sunshine from the orchard.
Some days called for an impromptu road trip to the hot springs or the museum in Baker City, Oregon. No problem! We’d pack a couple books and adjust our schedules accordingly.
As I got older, I studied in the evening hours. I felt more productive at night and avoided the stress of trying to fit in my work before 3 p.m.
I worked through subjects at my own speed, which meant that I rarely experienced anxiety about learning. For example, while I might work on my math book through the summer (slow and steady), I could power through entire grade levels of grammar, spelling, reading comprehension in a matter of weeks.
The basic premise was this: if I was ready to move on and learn more, I could do so. If I needed more time, I wasn’t forced into a more difficult level before I felt comfortable with the basic concepts.
In this manner, I knew when I was ready to advance. Eventually, I wanted to see the other side, and so I enrolled as a sophomore at public school.
I spent just over one semester in public high school and concluded that it was not the most productive place for me. In fact, I felt like I was wasting time. I had plenty of friends and enjoyed photography and speech classes, but academically I felt stagnant. The work wasn’t challenging and I hated the idea that in this system, I would be almost 19 before starting college.
With my parents blessing, I dropped out. I spent a few weeks studying, tested for a state-issued high school equivalency diploma, took the ACT, and applied at my local state university.
By the following August, I was a full-time college freshman balancing homework and two part-time jobs.
I was 16.
When people ask me how I liked homeschooling, I say that I wouldn’t change a thing.
I say that it was the best (and most selfless) thing that my parents could have done for me.
I say that really, I had a magical childhood.
When I think about the most valuable things I gained from my experience, I think of the bond I have with my family. I consider my parents to be two of my best friends. My four sisters and I are extremely close. We all really like spending time together. I am so grateful that I was able to spend my early, vulnerable years surrounded by people who loved me.
I think of the freedom and respect that I experienced from an early age. My parents treated their children like humans — like individuals with valid thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I had autonomy and agency. Whether they knew it at the time or not, my mom and dad were pioneers of child advocacy. Through their example, I learned to treat others with respect, to value independence and individuality.
And then I think of the space and time I had to just be a child. To run outside, climb trees, write stories, imagine, and play. What a wonderful gift to give your child, isn’t it? Freedom from the pressures and stress that adults are accustomed to and sometimes, unintentionally, pass on to the younger generation. Childhood is fleeting. My parents protected that time fiercely.
It wasn’t all perfect. Sometimes every one would wake up on the wrong side of the bed, I would be a brat, my mom would get mad, fights would ensue. Sometimes I was a moody teenager that thought life was unfair and blamed my parents and was generally a crummy monster to them. Sometimes I wanted space and envied my public school friends who had cell phones and played soccer (I have no idea why, but I was obsessed with soccer — like it was the one thing missing from my life that would bring me complete and ultimate satisfaction).
I haven’t been a perfect specimen in my life after homeschooling, either. That first semester of college, I failed a class. Not because the subject matter was difficult, but because I missed class more than I attended. At 18, I took a break from school for a couple years and returned as a non-traditional student. I’m not one of those homeschooling super-geniuses that you hear about. I just like to learn.
But in general, and despite those bad days, despite the mistakes I have made, yes. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
You might be thinking, “okay, Rachael. Cool story. But why does it matter?”
I’ll be honest, it’s personal. It matters because people have said terrible things to and about me because I was homeschooled.
In my experience, people who weren’t homeschooled — and know very little about it— love to make extreme, sweeping generalizations about the practice. You know, because they are experts, obviously.
I listened to a podcast recently in which the host stated that you should never homeschool your child because they will inevitably grow up to be a sociopath and/or murderer (may I please point you to Exhibit A, in which Rachael is undoubtedly not a murderer).
Strangers on the internet have commented that homeschooled kids never grow up to be functioning members of society.
I have heard that homeschoolers are freaks. That they will never be successful in life. That they can’t make it in college. That they don’t know how to talk to people or make friends. That they will never be able to get a job.
On the less harmful side, there’s the surprise that people express when I tell them about my background. 9 times out of 10, their response is something like, “Wow, really? You’re so well socialized, though.”
Alternatively, “But you seem so normal.”
Let me volunteer a piece of advice real quick: if someone in your life that you love, or at very least respect, tells you that they were homeschooled — do not respond with “Wow, but you seem so normal”. Just don’t do it.
Imagine for a moment that you are telling your friend about this great book you read — let’s say you just finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Your friend stares at you in disbelief. They state, nay, insist that not only did you not read this book, but that the book does not exist. Even as you hold the book in front of their eyes, they shake their head and say, “no way”.
That’s kind of what it feels like to be the product of homeschooling (one without a horror story).
Every where I go, strangers make radical assertions.
“A homeschooler will never be successful in life.” And yet, somehow, here I stand before you having ticked the boxes that our society uses as measures of success: degrees, career, income, house. “Success” individually is a vague and subjective term, however, I can say with great confidence that I have been successful at those things that have I set out to do. So, by my own standards, I am absolutely successful.
“Homeschoolers aren’t socialized; they are socially stunted.” You’re just going to have to trust me on this one, but I promise that I have friends that aren’t imaginary. I have worked with customers and teammates since I was 14. I have interacted with the general public since before I can remember simply because of the fact that I was not locked in a closet as a child. Every time I went to the store, library, youth group, Community Ed classes, field trips, riding lessons, work, karate…every time I left my house, I was socializing. Furthermore, I socialized with all kinds of people and backgrounds, not just a group of kids my own age. I assure you that I make phone calls, write emails, and build relationships. Jeez, I even speak publicly sometimes. Can you believe it?
“Homeschooled kids are freaks.” Well, I don’t know what to tell you. You caught me. I put potato chips inside my sandwiches and my favorite movie is Lonesome Dove (that’s right, the made for TV movie from the late 80’s). There you have it. I am a freak. But you know what? A bunch of my friends that went through the public school system are also pretty weird. We’re in good company.
And I believe that is my point. Just as I am successful in what I do, so are many people that are products of so-called traditional school system. And, as much as I hate to say it, just as there are bad people in homeschooling, there are bad people in public and private schools.
To echo my mother, one of my biggest takeaways from homeschooling was to always question, and to consider other perspectives. I haven’t perfected this, but I’m trying. I would ask you to do the same. Perhaps the idea of being educated at home is totally foreign to you. That’s okay. But something is not inherently bad because it is different. Think about it. Ask questions. And when people tell you their stories, as I have here, take that into consideration.
Luckily, not every opinion I see on homeschooling is so negative or ill-informed. Most of the people I know who have expressed in interest in alternative schooling are educators themselves: college professors, high school teachers. This speaks volumes to the argument that learning can happen in many different ways. One child might learn best in a school, and one might learn best outside of a school. What a concept, right?
There you have it. I’m a homeschooler who not only made it out, but thrived. I’m able to laugh at myself. Yes, I’m a little bit weird. I don’t get every pop culture reference (until recently, I was not aware that Beyoncé was in a band before she was just Beyoncé). But I’m just another human. I learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, just like you. I have a family, just like you. Some things in my life have been good and others bad — just like you.
In the end, the fact that I was homeschooled is not the most notable thing about me. But it is an part of who I am, and what made me the person that I am today.
And I like who I am.