Monday, August 08, 2005

Our Journey to Homeschooling Part 2: Insurance

Continued from Part 1

We never doubted our ability to teach or worried about socialization. As children my husband and I had tested out as extremely gifted. We were usually the smartest student in the class. In practical terms this meant we were isolated and had no one to talk to. We got along great with adults, older children, younger children, handicapped children -- everyone except the age-mates we were forced to spend eight hours a day with and with whom we shared no interests. It was imperitive that we save our own children from the corrosive effects of such "socialization". It also meant that we were very used to acting without the approval of the people around us. Our only concern was finding out what the legal impediments were and meeting them, exceeding them, stomping those suckers into the ground so flat they couldn't even whimper.

The newspaper article that introduced us to homeschooling mentioned that a local homeschooling group was hosting a lecture by a homeschooling author. We showed up. Most of the crowd were white Conservative Christians, but this was back before groups required a "statement of faith" in order to come to meetings so no one gave us any trouble. Some people seemed skeptical when we said we were newlyweds who didn't have any children yet, as if they didn't believe young people could think that far ahead and suspected us of being undercover agents of some sort. After the talk we struck up a conversation with a Pentecostal couple who loaned us a videotape Mike Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Fund had made on how to homeschool without getting into legal trouble.

The video was full of practical legal advice, and of course a pitch for the HSLDA'a $100/year (then) insurance policy. In 1989 there were still a few places where you could get into legal trouble homeschooling, so the insurance seemed like a prudent move. However we didn't even have children at that point, so we had no need of homeschooling insurance and by the time we had kids we might not need it anyway.

Still, the concept of "insurance" was a good one. What could we do to "insure" that we wouldn't encounter legal or financial pitfalls while homeschooling?

For starters, one of us was going to have to stay home. For practical reasons that looked like me. Doing that meant we needed to be able to get by comfortably on one income, which meant we needed to have our major expenses already taken care of. Since neither of us was going to inherit gobs of money or showed any natural talent for making gobs of money, this meant we were going to have to be frugal. Not that we weren't stone broke anyway, but we were going to have to learn to live comfortably on very little so we could save as much as possible. Eventually we found the book Your Money or Your Life put out by the New Road Map Foundation which helped fill in vital gaps in our understanding of effective money management.

In some ways learning frugality was hard. In other ways, it was one of the most joyous and liberating things we have ever done in our lives. Most of it meant saying "no" to things we didn't really want in the first place, but which were pushed on us by the popular culture. No, we didn't really need a new car; new furniture that wasn't as well made as the battered stuff we already had; expensive clothes that didn't fit right or look good on us; movies, books or music we "had" to get just because everyone else was getting them. It's easier to learn to say "no" when you have an excuse, and saving money for homeschooling became a big part of our excuse.

Learning frugality was a financial thing we could do to "insure" a trouble-free homeschooling, what could we do on the legal end? We could make sure that we didn't move to a state that had strict laws about homeschooling for starters, and we could make sure my husband got his Ph.D. No state was going to question if a parent with a Ph.D could teach. That was all right with him, he was trying to jump straight from a double B.A. to a Ph.D anyway. But not all of his advisers approved of him skipping the Masters degree, and wanting the Ph.D to "insure" our homeschooling tightened his resolve in the face of their disapproval.

We started researching homeschooling and other child-rearing strategies. The homeschool support group we found didn't have many resources and still weren't comfortable with a childless couple hanging around, but the University library had a collection of old _Mother Earth News_ issues that included interviews with homeschooling advocates John Holt and Nancy Wallace We ordered their books from the company listed, Growing Without Schooling Other back issues in the University archives yielded information on frugality, breastfeeding, organic gardening and sustainable living. We didn't have access to a good magazine stand in that town, but one day the local magazine dump got in an issue of Mothering I ordered a subscription immediately and added it to our arsenal of information on homeschooling, attachment parenting, co-sleeping et al.

In hindsight, we were learning how to be the kind of people our grandparents and great-grandparents would have admired.

In sifting through the issues Mike Ferris and the HSLDA video had raised, one other matter came to the forefront. The HSLDA application required a statement of religious faith for their records. In those days they said they took everyone regardless of what religion you belonged to, but they wanted a statement in your own words for their files, should it come up in a legal suit. This question is always interesting. There was no doubt my husband and I were theists, but what kind of theists were we?

My husband's formal religious education had been the victim of a feud between his father and his father's parents. I had been brought up in a liberal, intellectually stimulating Christian denomination, but by 1989 the church of my childhood no longer existed. It had been replaced by the new-fangled "Fundamentalism", a colder, edgier interpretation of the Scriptures that had a mean streak I didn't care for. It wasn't an isolated event; music, movies, literature and fashion all went from the warm fuzzies of the '70s to colder, edgier styles in the '80s. But a trend that was merely interesting or annoying when it happened in music or fashion was completely unacceptable when it happened in religion. No matter that my beliefs were little changed from what I had learned in Sunday School, there was no way I was a contemporary Southern Baptist.

Answering that question eventually led us to the UUA and then to Paganism. That journey is another story, but if I ever meet him I must thank Mike Ferris for his part in helping us find the Goddess.

With all these things to do, one cold hard fact stared us in the face. If we were going to homeschool, we needed to wait until we had a home of our own where I could stay with the children before we had babies. No matter how we juggled the numbers, every other option came out so far below that one that they really weren't on the same playing field. Okay, we could wait a couple of years. It shouldn't take much longer than that for my husband to finish his degree. He was in an up-and-coming field and should be able to find a really good paying job when he got out. In the meantime I would work and compensate for not having babies by boning up on baby-rearing and homeschool techniques.

A couple of years went by, and then another year, and another, and another.... We changed Universities. Some of my husband's advisors weren't happy with the speed with which he pursued his Ph.D. When he completed most of the requirements at 28, they put up one bureaucratic delay after another for two years because, we found out later, a key person simply refused to grant a Ph.D to anyone under 30. At one point he began having anxiety attacks, and I had to call his people and get them to stop playing around. Finally he got through the degree process and got a job lined up developing safer ways to clean up toxic waste at military sites. Then six months before he graduated the government culled 90% of their research contracts. Suddenly all contracts were dead in the water and the field was awash in lay-offs. He spent another year looking for a job at his degree level before moving into teaching high school. All told it would be nine and a half years between our wedding and the birth of our first child.

It was hard. There were days when I would pull into a parking lot on the way home from work and cry my eyes out from wanting a baby. But at the time, it didn't seem there was any other way to do things. I hope things have changed enough since then that no one else has to go through that.

Something happened in the culture during that time though. In the early '90s people still believed in public schools. We originally kept our decision to homeschool secret because we didn't want our families hassling us. My husband's grandmother would have been all for the idea; she was a former one-room schoolhouse teacher who considered sending her own son to an age-segregated public school the very worst decision of her life. The rest of our families would have given us major grief though. But by the mid-'90s it seemed like people stopped believing in the public schools. Some schools started sporting the label "attendance centers" in big bold letters on the buildings themselves. My husband's fellow grad students began pulling their own children out of class whenever they had a free afternoon, just to spend time with them. And the schoolwork! By that time we had bought a trailer and were living in a trailer park helping the local children with their homework. Some of it could not have been worse if the designers were consciously trying to make the children hate the subject! I'm convinced that was the case in at least one instance.

People, including our own families, starting asking us out of the blue, "Are you going to homeschool?"

But not everything changed for the better. HSLDA went from being a useful organization that helped homeschoolers in legal trouble to being a fairly useless organization after homeschooling became legal in all 50 states. In looking for a new reason to live, they abandoned the "big tent" and began pushing a Far Right agenda that excluded a significant proportion of people interested in homeschooling, including us. I'll always be grateful for their historic role in helping to legalize homeschooling, but I'm dismayed and appalled at their present divisive tactics.

Eventually we got through the dry spell and started having babies. Then we learned the difference between good advice and real life. But that's another story.

Continued in Part 3: The Unschooling Experiment.


Valerie said...

I'd say go over to
and leave a link to your post, but dim-bulbs left bad homeschool P.R. on the blog, and he closed the comments section. It's a nice little history you've got going.

Stephanie in TX said...

Goddess bless Mike Farris! I have tears in my eyes from laughing so hard!

COD said...

Not to go totally off topic, but there is no evidence that homeschoolers did anything negative at all on that blog. Given the misinformation he was spewing after allegedly researching home education, I think its far more likely he shut it down to avoid dealing with competing opinions.

And yes, the Farris comment was comedy gold :)