The First Year of Homeschooling:
It’s All Greek To Me!

The First Year of Homeschooling:
It’s All Greek To Me!

Back in 1993, when I first begin to investigate the idea of homeschooling, I remember feeling lost and very overwhelmed. It was as if I had finally made the decision to pull my kids out of public school, only to be handed an airline ticket to some weirdo foreign country I’d only vaguely heard about on the news. The idea of homeschooling was exciting. The reality of traveling there was scary.

The Unschooling UnmanualThe Unschooling Unmanual

School is out! Unschool is in!
Featuring 11 essays by 8 inspiring authors including Daniel Quinn, John Holt and Earl Stevens. Edited by Jan Hunt and her unschooled son Jason.

As I begin to pack and prepare for this trip to Homeschool Land, I asked one of the longtime residents where I might pick up a map, some sort of guidebook, so that I’d know where to start. I wanted to know when to turn left, and when to turn right, how to read the road markers. She smiled and said she could offer some general guidebooks, but there were no actual maps.

I was floored. “No maps?” She couldn’t be serious. “But I’ll get lost! How will I know where I’m going? How will I recognize it when I get there?”

She smiled reassuringly. “Think of it as designing a piece of custom jewelry. Or a dress. Or better yet, your dream house. I know you’ve seen lots of houses; designer homes on TV, expansive ones with pools in the back yard, older ones with lots of character, and rustic, homey cabins. Have you ever found one that’s just perfect? One that doesn’t have one or two, or even ten little things you’d change?” Obligingly, I thought about it for a minute, although I couldn’t see how this related to my question. Finally I shook my head. I couldn’t think of one ‘perfect’ house I’d seen anywhere.

She nodded, “Homechooling is like that, too. Sure, there are lots of blueprints and guidebooks and other folks who’ve made their own maps and are so delighted with the results, they’ll excitedly exclaim, “This is it! This is The One!” Truth is, the homeschool countryside is different for every traveler; it won’t look the same to you as it does to me. It won’t look the same to your best friend as it does to you. This homeschool journey you’re undertaking is personal, tailored to your family, and uniquely yours. Sure, you could try using someone else’s map — provided you could understand the legend, the key, the mileage markers, and whatever Private Family Language it’s written in — but it’d just confuse you. You weren’t along for their journey; you don’t know what all that stuff means. You need to draw your own, sketching where all your mountains and valleys are, the streams, the cliffs, where all your roads lead.”

This wasn’t calming me. It was freaking me out. I kept sputtering “but-but-but” What did I know about map-making? I’d never made a map in my life. What if I didn’t possess the skills to make one? Then what? We’d all get lost?

She handed me a pencil. Still calm, still smiling gently, she said, “You’ll be fine. Really. Everything will work itself out. Just take the first step, and then draw what it looks like.”

Bridge over calm river

Bridge over calm river

I sat down. I hestitated for a long time. Was she crazy, or was I? What kind of place was this Homeschool Land? My mind clouded with uncertainly. Should I go? Or should I stay?

Staying put certainly seemed the safest, most logical option. It was familiar territory. I understood the public school language. I knew where all the public school roads led. Sure, there were a few boulders and other assorted obstacles that often blocked the educational terrain my kids and I traveled. It was frustrating, it was why I was contemplating this journey. But it was known terrain, already mapped out.

On the other hand, it was entirely possible that more chunks of rock could break off, and come tumbling down the hillside. Do I take the chance that some new public school debris would block another road some night while we’re sleeping? Or that an unexpected landslide of boulders might come barreling down the hillside at warp speed one day, headed straight for me and mine?

Scared as I was, I took a deep breath. I told myself there was nothing to lose by just taking a look, was there? It wasn’t a one-way ticket. I could always retreat to the familiar public school region if I didn’t like it.

So I boarded the plane and took off. When I arrived, I was surprised to find so many other newcomers already there. Some were wandering around, looking completely lost (hooray, it’s not just me!). Others were starting to draw their maps, using everything from pencils to chalk, crayons to watercolor paints, to permanant magic markers. Apparently, those latter folks knew exactly where they were going. A few people were intently reading their guidebooks, frowning a little, making studious notes. Small knots of newbies were gathered in clusters, animatedly discussing their own public school boulders and landslides. Others were debating how much to spend to find the best compasses, the most exact maps.

Several homeschool natives (those who had never sent their kids to public school) and longtime residents strolled into the room. They beckoned us newcomers over with waves and welcoming smiles. I gave a huge sigh of relief. Whew! Finally! Somebody with instructions!

Fast-Foward To The Present

That was the first of many homeschool support group meetings I attended over the years. Did I ever find out what I wanted to know? Yes ... and no. I did get to view lots of other maps, oodles, tons, a plethora of 'em. At first, I copied some and attempted to follow their paths, thinking it's certainly easier to homeschool when you had your course all plotted out for you. Funny, it never worked out that way. No two maps looked the same. One might show a gently sloping valley in the exact same place another had a sheer cliff. A thundering waterfall drawn in vivid detail on one map, turned out to be a burbling stream, or a placid, blue lake on somebody else's. And everybody's map came with instructions, which I followed as best I could, but they might've as well have been written in Greek or Sanskrit for all the sense they made.

Sample MapFor four months the kids and I went in circles, backtracking when we got lost, starting out again, running into a wall, turning back again. Argh! This wasn't fun! It was frustrating. And we certainly weren't making much progress. I'd lay awake at nights, trying to figure out unschooling like it was a math problem with one clear, single answer ... and somewhere in there, that serene veteran homeschooler's face would pop into my head, whispering, "Make your own ... make your own ... make your own." Stomach tight, headache coming on, my answering thought always was, Yeah right lady, easy for YOU to say.

Finally, one morning, out of sheer desperation (and lack of options) I took pencil in hand and tentatively began a sketch of where we'd been, the rough ideas of where we were thinking of going next. A little later, my sons came in to see what mom was up to. Still not quite sure what I was supposed to be drawing, I turned to them and said, " uh . . . help?" The kids had no such hesitations. With delighted giggles they grabbed crayons and markers, plastic legos and sequins and pipe cleaners, and all sorts of whatnots I never thought should go on a map. Their pen strokes were bold and bright; red, squiggly lines meant one thing, green squares and purple sunbursts meant something else entirely. Lego creations stuck out all over the place. Pipe cleaners whirled in funny twists and twirls.

It didn't take me long to catch on (children are such an inspiration) and soon the map filled the house. It overtook the front yard, and spilled out into the streets. Within the first year it ranged from Colorado to Washington state, over to Asia where we learned that the word Judo meant "gentle way" and Bruce Lee's "Jeet Kune Do" meant something else entirely: "way of the intercepting fist."

The map then extended up to Mars because the original War of The Worlds movie happened to be on TV and we got intrigued by the idea of aliens landing, attacking us, and then dying from the common cold ... which spurred us into reading the book by H.G. Wells, which was published in 1898, creating several "huh?" "what?" moments, as the vernacular, not to mention the world itself, has changed so much in 110 years. We moved on to listening to the Original 1938 Radio Broadcast after I'd explained what little I knew about the panic and terror that seized the east coast because listeners thought the broadcast was real. This then let us into several unplanned unit studies: watching a slew of outer space movies, including Plan 9 From Outer Space arguably one of the most unintentionally hilarious bad sci-fi movies ever made, Independence Day, a fun, slam-bang, but incredibly unrealistic wowser from the 90s, and the sarcastic but amusing Mars Attacks!, a parody of every Martians-attack-Earth movie ever made. This inspired my youngest son to begin writing and illustrating a series of books about life on other planets. Meanwhile, none of us could get the idea of 'parodies' out of our heads: we went crazy parodying movies, commercials, the nightly news, music. Music most of all. We discovered Bob Rivers and Weird Al Yankovic -- and just how talented Al was, far beyond the usual ol' Michael Jackson/Madonna send-ups they always play on the radio. We ended up listening to (and then buying) every Weird Al CD ever made. Which then launched the urge to learn to play guitar (both acoustic and electric -- God bless pawn shops), along with a Casio keyboard and some drumsticks, all so we could figure out how to write lyrics, learn to play various instruments so the final sound would be 'fuller' and more 'professional'. We even video-taped some of our performances. (We did write a few songs, parodies and otherwise ... and oh Lordie, were they awful. LOL.) We had the craziest homeschooling/unschooling map in existence. And it was full of adventures I would have never ever thought of if I'd just stuck with my Rand McNally mindset.

These wouldn't be the last things my kids would teach me.

Just the other day I spoke with a new homeschool parent who had that utterly perplexed look I knew so well. She had an armful of maps, but wanted to see what ours looked like. So I pulled it out and showed it to her. She studied it for a long time, turning it this way and that. Finally she shook her head. "But, this doesn't help! It's written in Greek or something!"

I nodded and smiled. I knew just how she felt. I assured her she'd do fine, and handed her a pencil.

© 1999 Cindy Stanley