All the way.
The only in-person class I ever took was drivers’ ed. That was fun. I got to sit at a desk.
This was not an easy article to write. It’s why I haven’t published any other content on this blog for months. I’ve been on a full writing hiatus/freeze, emotionally trying to untangle the web of my entire upbringing, my life, my youth, to distill into coherent linear form for one single article. I think – I hope – the storm is finally ready to break. Every time I try to write this article, I end up adding new paragraphs to the jumble of ones already there, when what I want more than anything is to produce something simple and hard-hitting. This evening, at a cozy London pub with a live Christmas tree in front of me and some liquid courage in me, I am determined to release some version of this or bust. Honestly, it’s hard not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have so very much to say.
I sat on this one a long time. I know how to explain this life to people outside of the subculture, how to laugh about it with new acquaintances. I travelled the world a bit and found that everyone – including children who are my own students – are shocked and disapproving of the idea of never going to school. What I’m wondering right now is what words to use when addressing the insiders. The relatives who read this blog.
This one is for the home team, and you guys aren’t all going to like it. At first I thought I had to walk a line of moderation, jumping through hoops of assuring everyone that I was grateful for the enormous privileges and advantages that came with being spared so many damaging influences and getting a stellar education (in my case, and in many cases, but definitely not all homeschoolers, not by a long shot.)
I don’t. I don’t have to do that. None of us do. Those things are true but they’re not the whole truth, and we will speak out and complete the story, amending the narrative with our own experience whether you like it or not. Those involved are invested in maintaining the company line here, but the entire rest of the world knows that an overprotective reclusive subculture is just ridiculous. A storm has been slowly brewing inside of me, a storm of confusion and processing and grief, and then anger, as the full extent of my past sheltered-ness became clear to me. I found I didn’t have any easy or concise answers to the question “How do you feel about being homeschooled?”
So instead of getting into all the details of the good, the bad, and the ugly, of explaining how my parents ordered a rigorous curriculum and our reading levels were so much higher than our peers’, of taking aim at the cult-y families we all knew and the educational (and other!) neglect and even abuse that go unreported, of blowing the whistle on the suspicion of social workers, extremely limited media consumption, oppressive outdated gender roles, and raising one’s children to live in a bygone century; instead of sharing fond memories of reading about Charlemange on an overstuffed chair, having plenty of free time after finishing schoolwork mid-afternoon, eating a picnic lunch with mom on the driveway, and checking my answers only after the test with the teacher’s manual myself; instead of sharing cringy memories of Christian nationalist curriculum and written tirades by evangelical leaders against gender equality and multiculturalism, of missing out on my teen and even young adult years thanks to that thief of healthy development called purity culture, I want to tell you a story.
It’s the story of the movie The Village, 2004, by M. Night Shyamalan, starring a young Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix. It’s really better that you watch it; I cannot recommend it highly enough. Those who don’t want plot spoilers, please skip ahead several paragraphs now, because these twists really do deserve to be seen and not heard (or read), but they tell the story I’m trying to tell.
A England Puritan village lives in constant fear of attack from deadly monsters in the woods, and they obey the rules of the elders to be indoors before dark and not stray into the woods, ever, in order to save lives. But when a young man is injured, someone must go to seek medicine from the outside world, and a blind girl ends up being the only one free. Her father takes her into a shed and shows her none other than a monster costume. He lets her in on the secret: it’s been people of the village dressed up the whole time. But she does end up encountering – and slaying – a monster on her journey. Was it real or imaginary? We can see, unlike her, and of course the real monsters are always people. When she finally makes it to a road, she meets none other than a state trooper.
It’s the 21st century. That’s right, these people set up a utopian alternative lifestyle community in a national park with a fence around it. Why? What is the common denominator that would cause these adults to abandon the outside world and raise their children strictly, old-fashioned-ly, with no knowledge of its existence?
Trauma. They’ve been victims of assault and crime, watched loved ones die, and come to the conclusion that this world isn’t for them. They ran from it. And so did all of you.
The separatist nature of fundamentalism open champions raising children in a bubble and showing them a carefully curated sampling of the world instead of preparing them to live in the real one. This extended to withholding basic facts about sex and science. I’ve read all your prim justifications of how you really are teaching critical thinking and you really do believe in being in the world but not of the world. You’re not teaching your children how to make decisions if your version of exposing them to other ideas is explaining in a neat set of talking points “Here’s why everything else is wrong”. (Looking at you, so-called worldview training.)
I can’t. I can’t hold back against this subculture anymore. I have always tried so hard to not scandalize or offend in any way, but I’ve gotten out and there’s no way I’m going back in the box. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet
What frightens me are the ones that never left the nest. Never shook it off.
Picture a plant with roots curled around and around its pot, looking only ever inwards to its own family. Now it’s removed, placed gently in new big outside circumstances with a world full of soil in which to grow. “Here little plant, you’re okay now, run and play, you can grow in any direction you want.” But it sits, frozen, roots curled around itself, shaking its head. Like a proverbial kid making a face, it stuck that way. We missed that wave, didn’t we? Can it come back in the late twenties instead of the teens or college years? Is it ever too late to have a proper teenage phase? Isn’t that shameful, something self-respecting adults should avoid? You know, like a mid-life crisis? Well that’s just another term for a human being waking up and realizing that, if we’re all going to die soon, it’s never too late to act young and start doing what you want and really living. Because if you act like you’ve missed your chance, then you’re just condemning yourself to boredom and misery and less life in your life until you die, and what possible virtue are you going to call that in order to help you sleep at night as you watch that life cruelly drain through your fingers? There is no virtue in it, only tragedy.
That heart needs to find a way outside of that room where the roots have curled around the walls and use some of them to climb down the window. Make a run for it. Resolve to sneak out the window in your heart and run free or bust. Push your way through the maze of inhibitions and preconceived notions and habits and the past and expectations and scramble like mad toward the light and the fresh air, anything new, anything but this, what you’ve had so long. Fight for your freedom, hack away the branches, slip away into the night. Someday you’ll take someone with you, you’re showing so many people the way.
I want very much to leave you with one of my most special memories. I was 27 and had just moved into my own place in Suzhou, China (this economy, go figure). I listened to Bruce Springsteen and absolutely leapt for joy, dancing and spinning around with glee in my work uniform baseball-style jacket and worn khaki pants on the bad faux wood floorboards of my first apartment alone, coming alive and coming of age. I ran through the building complex to to go to work, I was so high on life. The exhilaration naturally led to the sorrow, to the grief of what could have been so much sooner, even though we’re all on our own clock etc. I want you to know that it’s not easy walking around in a world you weren’t raised for, but I love it. I love this world so much. I fell in love with it, with cities, with art and architecture, with coffeeshops and trees. With human faces. With myself and my heart and love and dreams and passion. It happened so fast, in a great flood that knocked down my internal walls, and I fully expect it will keep happening for the rest of my life. And that’s painful but so, so, beautiful.
“Badlands”, Bruce Springsteen
…..Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
You spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well, don’t waste your time waiting
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
Keep pushin’ ’til it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good
For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place
I wanna spit in the face of these
I know why you did it. I know your stories, your family background. I know the shit you dealt with as kids – the abusive/harsh father you fought with, the alcoholic parent you pleaded unsuccessfully with and covered for, the mother who didn’t like or nurture you, the workaholic parent who was never there, the mentally ill parent who wasn’t able to be there for you. I know why you grabbed your kids and ran, throwing up fences around them and swearing to give them the perfect, golden-haloed little upper middle-class suburban Christian family lifestyle you never had. I could weep at the strength of that desire to give your kids the stability, security, and care you never had. I applaud it. We applaud your cycle breaking, and drink to you. Now we will pick up the baton from where you left it, and run with it. We build on your foundation. We will not be defined by the trauma or fear that we either experienced or inherited. We’re breaking free and setting our priorities like you did, only we have leveled up further than your younger self ever had the chance to, ever could have possible dreamed of.
You don’t have to run from this world to be at home. You can be at home amidst it. Out there are horrible people and damaging societal narratives, yes, but also wonder and beauty and good people too. Face your fear, wrestle and conquer it. Your children are asking you to. They need you to. If they can do it, so can you. Don’t be afraid.
We turn you, grown and strong now, and demand, “Get up. Stand and fight.” Get a therapist. Shed your close-mindedness. Once upon a time you stood in the water and held up your arms for us to jump, saying, “Come on in, the water’s fine.” We say that to you now. We former homeschoolers may be many things, but we are not cowards. You raised us on stories of Daniel, Esther, and the three young men in the furnace. Of martyrs and missionaries and heroes. What did you expect? That we would be too cowed to call out anything wrong when we saw it? Not likely. You raised us to laugh at peer pressure and be willing to walk through fire for what we believe. It worked.