Lillie S.: “I was never once asked if I felt safe at home”

“I was never once asked if I felt safe at home. I was never asked if lessons frequently degenerated into screaming and tears. I wasn’t asked if my sister and I were hit on a semi-daily basis. No one asked if we had a fear of government workers or if my sister and I had been instructed on what to say if a children’s services worker ever approached our door. No one asked if we’d hide when an unfamiliar car pulled up the driveway.”

I was the younger of two sisters, both homeschooled by our mother. I was homeschooled K-6 from around 1994 to 2002 while my sister was homeschooled until attending community college. We were a bit of an anomaly in the fundamentalist homeschool community due to our small family size. We were, in many ways, quite lucky—we didn’t have to raise other siblings, and the family had enough money and time to provide us with opportunities to travel, learn instruments, and pursue our interests.

Unfortunately, like many, our education was being supervised by a young mother with only a high school education who had never received any instruction on how to teach. She dove into her research at homeschool curriculum fairs and in homeschool groups with other like-minded conservative families. She discovered books and methodology such as Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child. She embedded herself in a community that looked at the outside world with fear and paranoia.

My mother had inherited her own parents’ short tempers and tendencies towards violent outbursts. I do believe that she did “the best she could” but that does little to minimize the damage. When a person with a hair-trigger temper places themselves in the position of trying to teach something they aren’t qualified to teach, to a frustrated child who isn’t understanding the lesson, add in the belief that parents need to squelch all signs of “willfulness” in their children, and you have a powderkeg waiting to blow.

Growing up in Ohio, my state is listed as “moderate” in terms of regulation for homeschool families. I have recollections of my mother packaging up a sampling of our school work to take to a woman from church to review. This woman, a certified teacher, would be bartered or paid for her time by my parents, she’d write up a favorable report, and we were then in compliance with the regulations for another year. Many years later I looked back on this exchange thinking that surely we had violated the regulation by paying the woman who evaluated us. After a bit of research I discovered that Ohio, as well as 10 other states, allows parents to pay a licensed teacher of their choice to review their children’s portfolio and write a narrative on their findings.   On other occasions, I recall going into a school to take a state test. I remember how scary it was for me, an isolated kid, to enter the school and be surrounded by so many other children my age. I was hyper attentive to all the instructions to the point where I must have appeared to be a tiny toy soldier sitting rigidly in the desk following all directions to a “T”. After all—this was the dangerous place I’d heard so much about!  I found the tests easy to pass.

For the most part, I received a decent education as a homeschooled child. My sister and I generally worked ahead of our grade levels.  My sister knew how to read by the age of 3 (which was part of the rationale for homeschooling in the first place) and began community college at 14. No matter how far advanced of her age she was working, she was pressured to receive good grades.

By the time I reached 6th grade, my sister (only 3 years older than me) was full time at community college and Mom’s attention and interests were no longer fixed on homeschooling. My sixth grade year I sat at a desk alone drawing pictures of horses and working my way through my books while mom pursued her new hobbies. At the end of the year she made the decision to place me in public school—the place that had been used as a threat against us if we failed to be good homeschooled kids. At first I was horrified at the thought of attending public school, I thought I was being punished. When I realized Mom was being sincere about me enrolling in school, I eventually I gave into the idea—after all I was dreadfully bored and lonely at home.

When I went into public school in 7th grade I was shocked to find that I was smart. I had always felt like the dumb kid with only my brilliant older sister to compare myself to. It is hard to gain an accurate sense of self from a mother who will in-turn parade you like a prize in public and tell you how much better you are then the public school kids, then turn around and scream “what are you stupid?” when you fail to pick up on the subtle differences between spelling “witch” and “which.” Though I struggled socially in public school (I looked and felt like an alien dropped from space with no sense of fashion, social graces, or pop culture knowledge) I did well academically in junior high and high school. My teachers praised and encouraged me and slowly I started to lose the feeling that I was living my life under a microscope where each move I made would be subject for scrutiny. I was at the top of my class and I went on to college where I also received good grades.

I feel fortunate that my state provided some level of academic oversight. Necessity of meeting requirements may have played a role in my mother’s decision to enroll me in public school once her interest waned. However, though there was at least some level of academic review to ensure my sister and I actually received an education, I was never once asked if I felt safe at home. I was never asked if lessons frequently degenerated into screaming and tears. I wasn’t asked if my sister and I were hit on a semi-daily basis. No one asked if we had a fear of government workers or if my sister and I had been instructed on what to say if a children’s services worker ever approached our door. No one asked if we’d hide when an unfamiliar car pulled up the driveway. No one asked if I was a victim of religious or emotional abuse that caused me to spend my childhood feeling like, deep down, I was a very, very, bad person who didn’t deserve good things in life.

I strongly believe that there should be academic oversight and regulations regarding academic attainment of homeschooled children. Every child should have a right to a decent education and there needs to be a system for making sure those rights aren’t thwarted—even by a well intended parent. But academic regulation alone doesn’t illuminate the abuse that often goes unseen in isolated homes or communities. There are so many aspects of a child’s well being which can go neglected if a parent chooses to keep their children in isolated environments.

Ensuring the educational opportunity and safety of children in the homeschool community is not an attack on homeschooling, or on families who are providing a quality life and education for their kids, but rather an effort to ensure that all children are given their fair opportunities in life.  In a community so concerned with family rights it can be shocking sometimes to take a step back and talk about parental responsibility and children’s rights. What rights does a child have? The right to an abuse-free childhood and a decent education? I would say so. And what responsibility does a parent have to ensure those rights? What responsibility does the homeschool community have to ensuring the rights of homeschooled children? If parents are violating a child’s rights, what responsibility does the broader community bear in ensuring that vulnerable children have their rights to education and a safe childhood fulfilled?

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