Babcock Mill, West Virginia

Love in a Time of HomeschoolingLove in a Time of Homeschooling

Prologue

     On a cold October morning my ten-year-old daughter, Julia, sat at our kitchen table and contemplated the earth’s layers. She had been tasked with making a cross-section of the planet’s interior—core, mantle and crust—part of the fifth grade curriculum in Virginia. Now she needed to decide what materials to use for a three-dimensional model.
     From my angle at the stove, I saw Julia’s eyes wander out the window, across our country road, where the neighbors’ horses grazed on a hillside beyond a wooden fence. Another minute and her mind would disappear over that hill, heading north through the Shenandoah Valley.  Before that could happen I sat down beside her and called her thoughts back to the project at hand.            
      “Julia, what do you want to use? Playdough?” I imagined concentric rings of clay, balls within balls, cut in half to reveal the earth’s multi-colored strata. “Or would you like to cut a Styrofoam ball in half? You could paint the earth’s layers onto the flat center.”
            Julia shook her head.
            “Well, what do you want to use?”
            “Fruit,” she said.
            “Fruit?”
            Yes, fruit.
            From the basket in the center of our kitchen table Julia lifted a kiwi, then took a steak knife and cut it in half. She held the green fruit to my eyes, and there was a model of the earth: the white core, surrounded by the squishy green mantle, with black seeds like the rocks that float in the earth’s magma, and on the outside, the thin dry crust, its fuzz like brittle, drought-ridden grass. I felt completely humbled, reminded that all life is connected in repeated patterns, as when one learns that the ratio of water to land on our planet is the same as the ratio of liquid to solid in the human body.
            For five minutes Julia and I took turns cutting tectonic plates into the kiwi’s surface, carving a drippy Ring of Fire. “Look,” she said, “when the plates shift, the mountain ranges form.” She squeezed the kiwi and a ridge of lumpy green flesh emerged on the surface. I couldn’t have been more proud if she had painted the Mona Lisa. My daughter could see the world within a slice of fruit.
            If this had been a typical school project, Julia would have found a way to glue rings of kiwi onto posterboard, adding labels and writing a brief report. The poster might have been soggy and smeared by the end, but she probably would have gotten an A. As it was, we peeled the mutilated fruit and ate it. Julia didn’t need to carry her work into school; she didn’t need to receive a grade, because for that day, that month, that entire year, I was her teacher and our home was her school.
            Julia and I had decided that for her fifth grade year she would take a break from her usual public school routine. We had chosen to stay at home and craft a curriculum that included not only Virginia’s standardized essentials, but plenty of subjects her school never covered—like knitting, and speaking a foreign language, and playing the violin. I called this Julia’s homeschooling sabbatical, because, as an English professor, I understand the need for intellectual rejuvenation. With five years of public education under her belt, and seven more looming in the future, Julia needed time to do her own research and writing, time to explore the world beyond an elementary school classroom, time to wander and travel and think in ways her school couldn’t accommodate.
            My friends found our version of homeschooling a strange curiosity. Why are you doing it, they asked, knowing that my motivations wouldn’t fit the usual home-ed norms. I’m not an overtly religious person, appalled by the lack of moral values in the public schools’ secular swamp. Nor am I a radical bohemian, opposed to the state’s authoritarian, assembly-line approach to education. Those are the chief homeschooling stereotypes—caricatures of the two camps that spearheaded home education as a populist movement in the 1970s. These days, homeschooling has expanded beyond its traditional base, reaching into the lives of millions of American families, and appealing even to moderate Moms like me, who don’t have the religious or philosophical compulsion to become full-time homeschoolers, but who want to give a special child one good year.
            And so, when friends and family asked  “Why are you homeschooling?”, my answers varied according to my mood.
            “Julia was getting really burnt out on her school routine.”
            “We wanted to try something different for a year.”
            “Julia needs a boost before middle school, to renew her interest in learning, and to fill the gaps in her math and English skills.”
            “I’ve always thought the public schools are weak on writing, so Julia’s going to do a year of writing across the curriculum.”
            All of these answers, however, were incomplete. To understand how Julia and I came to be home on a Tuesday morning, carving tectonic plates into the skin of a kiwi, we must go back five months– back to a spring afternoon in southwest Virginia, when, for one nerve-wracking hour, Julia disappeared.