It was the eighties. Ronald Reagan was U.S. President. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The War on Drugs was declared. Gorbachev and Reagan signed the INF Treaty.
Natural disasters on the increase: droughts, hurricanes, the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s.
The Tiananmen Square protests and blood baths.
NASA Space Shuttle Challenger explosion before our very eyes.
Assassination attempts on Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The rise of home computers, video and arcade games, Nintendo, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers…
The AIDS pandemic; the trend toward political correctness; punk rock and the hip-hop scene; E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Star Wars and more Star Wars episodes; Indiana Jones; Batman; Rain Man; Back to the Future; Crocodile Dundee; Driving Miss Daisy…
Leggings; leg warmers; stonewashed jeans; denim jumpers; shoulder pads; scrunched perms…
This was the eighties, when there were only three legal alternatives: public, private, or parochial schools. My firstborn, Jesse, turned five while the court case Duro v. District Attorney was still underway.
By the time he turned seven in 1985 – the compulsory school age in NC - Delconte v. State became the landmark court case that would officially grant North Carolina parents the right to homeschool their own children.
Soon we were in good company. A French-Canadian family from Montreal moved directly across the street from us into the tan stucco house with the sprawling eucalyptus tree in the front yard. They were all bilinguals; the kids spoke both fluent French and English.
The oldest daughter, Sara, with a head full of raven curls, played with my daughter Hannah and frequented our household.
She always walked in wearing a homemade cotton dress her mother Louise had sewn.
We soon discovered other families in our neighborhood that had abandoned the great Titanic of public education and rowed off to safety in their separate lifeboats. There were the Lamns around the corner on Conner Street with the white pit bull who seemed like one of their own family members. Also among the home school cohorts was the Oates family, two blocks over on Nash Street.
On bright sunny days we gathered at each other’s homes or met for picnics at the Recreation Park and talked shop. We discussed teaching methods we liked or disliked while the kids ran and played together.
This was the first home school support group in town. If someone wanted to organize a field trip, teach French or sign language or art, they were free to do so. Those who wanted to participate did and those who didn't declined.
The movement soon grew and flourished like a rose garden in the heart of spring, and newcomers joined our ranks.
Year by year our homeschool support group increased in number. New faces showed up at park days every month. Our motives, methods, and styles may have been as diverse as church denominations, but we all had in common a desire for autonomy and freedom from the regimented mandates of government education.
And no, we didn’t all wear denim jumpers – though some did. Neither did all of our children dress in camouflage; most blended right in with society.
Some wore ankle-length jean skirts with athletic socks and Nikes, while others showed up in stonewashed jeans and artsy jewel-studded tees knotted on the side.
Then there were the mother-earth types in their Birkenstocks and organic cotton sundresses.
Some registered with the DNPE as religious schools. These families generally used a set curriculum such as Bob Jones or A Beka and fashioned a school room in their home- complete with flag, maps, and desks.
One family I knew began their school day at 6:00 a.m. and finished all six subjects by noon. Their motto was God first, family second, church third, respectively. They were patriots and political conservatives who cheered Senator Jesse Helms on as he fought government waste and obscene, tax-funded art.
Then there were the Charlotte Mason followers, purists in every sense of the word. No curriculum, no dumbed down textbooks, just “living books.”
One family had five girls, all of whom were well-bred and always picture-perfect in their Sundyish dresses that were reminiscent of girls’ attire during Charlotte Mason’s time.
I invited them over one Sunday afternoon to play with my daughter. Apparently they never wore play clothes because they showed up in their Sunday frocks, lace-trimmed socks and polished shoes.
Could they go out and play on the swings? They asked. Sure, but watch out for mud, dirt, or anything that could taint your immaculate appearances. I was a nervous wreck thinking of sending them home all soiled and tattered.
Back inside I offered them a snack. Yes, please, they said, a snack would be lovely. But when I pulled out a liter of coke and a box of Vanilla Wafers, the oldest girl said, “We can’t have any sugar.” Oh, okay; then could they have water and an apple? Yes, thank you.
After the snack I put in a video: The Aristocats, I believe it was. Again the oldest girl spoke up. “We’re boycotting Disney.” I began to wonder if all they were allowed to do was sit around and read classic literature in their sweet dresses.
Still others favored and practiced the philosophy of John Holt, author of ten books, including How Children Fail and How Children Learn. He believed that learning should be a self-directed, purposeful, and meaningful process instead of a coercive and compulsory condition.
Those with a propensity towards deschooling gravitated toward his views. Broken-winged birds like me flocked toward his books for fresh advice as to a birdbath in the stifling heat of summer, for his views offered the more natural and relaxed approach many had been intuitively seeking.
We took the Holt self-directed learning style when the kids were older. Jesse taught himself Japanese when he decided he wanted to create Nintendo games. He walked down to the Barton College library, checked out as many books on the Japanese language as he could find, spread them across the dining room table, and proceeded to study.
Some joined our ranks to free their children from the stigma of failure and labels and to avoid damaging their self esteem for life. John Taylor Gatto, named New York City’s teacher of the year in 1990, and State teacher of the year in 1991, says in his book The Underground History of American Education,
“David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are 13, you can’t tell which one learned first—the five-year spread means nothing at all. But in school I label Rachel "learning disabled" and slow David down a bit, too.
“For a paycheck, I adjust David to depend on me to tell him when to go and stop. He won’t outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, "special education" fodder. She’ll be locked in her place forever…
“In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.”
There was a young boy, Jerry (I’ll call him), who learned in our home for the last six weeks or so of his 7th school year. The public school he’d attended had labeled him as “dyslexic,” and because his handwriting didn’t measure up they tagged him with “dysgraphia.”
We threw away the labels and he began to thrive in the absence of pressure. The following year, and for the duration of his school years, his mother kept him at home with her and allowed him to pursue his interests. Today, Jerry has a Master’s in Marine Biology.
Many parents felt that their children were too immature for institutional life. They weren’t willing to conform to a system that pushes too hard and too fast, and in the process cripples the child’s natural love of learning.
They weren’t ready to compromise their child’s individuality for the sake of the collective. Since no two children are alike and each learns at his or her own pace, homeschooling allowed the freedom to grow and thrive without government limitations.
Families who traveled the path of independence avoided bureaucratic straightjackets and offered their kids a more stress-free environment. Time spent on classroom busywork could be avoided and valuable time invested in more motivating and rewarding activities.
Our kids were permitted a childhood, space to run, play, explore, and physically release the abundance of energy intrinsic in young children.
We knew that to force-feed them too soon was tantamount to overwatering plants in an effort to speed their growth. Drown or overfeed and the plants begin to droop, then wither on the vine and eventually die. But add just the right amount of water to quench their thirst, proper food to nourish, ample sunlight to spur growth, and the plants will flourish.
See how we’ve grown in just the past decade.