Saturday, August 15, 2009

It's Over and I'm Still Learning

Over the Weekend, I am sharing with you an article of mine that recently appeared in the summer/fall issue of the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Magazine. I wrote it in May, but I think it still speaks with relevance in August.


We have pictures of our youngest son's graduation in Harrisburg. In them, I look nearly delirious. That's because I was. I don't think my feet ever touched the ground that weekend. We had done it. Done what all the naysayers had predicted impossible. We had homeschooled our children for excellence. No one and nothing could ever take that from us. It was ours, and ours forever -- the experiences, the memories, the accomplishments, the exhilaration of this one thing, this moment when we all crossed the finish line together. And I was free, free at last, from the burdens of love and passion which had shaped my life and weighed down my soul. The world was mine again. I was eighteen once more and gazing out upon a great unknown, where marvelous things could, and most certainly would, happen.

In the beginning, none of this had seemed certain. When our oldest son was five, we moved to my husband's hometown in the mountains of the southwestern Pennsylvania and began school at home. We learned how to comply with the state law and how to handle the usual stresses that most families endure -- concerned relatives, winter weather, the holiday season, extracurricular activities, achievement tests. It wasn't easy. I suffered from what I can only call a lack of natural aptitude for my role of homeschooling teacher. It was a daily effort to do a job that I had never envisioned for myself, one for which I had no prior training and lacked the essential qualities and skills. I had to learn how to do the job while doing it, an agony to anyone who cares about the quality of the work. I had bouts of despair, especially during the low times. Our life together seemed very stressful and strenuous to me. The needs of our sons and our community led me to establish three different homeschool support groups. In the midst of those commitments, we moved into a Victorian home that needed rigorous renovations. For several years after our move, I struggled with illnesses that were disabling, with periods of hospitalization, with misdiagnoses, with double surgery -- it seemed that the health problems would never end. Additionally, we experienced several significant and unexpected deaths, and the grief was overwhelming for me. Sometimes I felt sorry for my children, especially during times when it appeared that I had taken on a commitment that I could not adequately complete.

In spite of these difficulties, we had a vision -- a vision for learning, for excellence, for a life well-lived. There were real reasons why we felt compelled to teach our kids at home. That pushed us forward to each new year. Just when we needed them, there were inspiring moments that fed our souls and urged us to continue. When our oldest son was in third grade, we took a trip to Philadelphia and stayed at a hotel overlooking the Liberty Bell. It was an exhilarating experience to see together so many of the things we had been reading about and imagining in American history. Our joy, our mutual delight, was a revelation to me. I had been an A student, but it had always just been work.

More learning adventures followed, tumbling one after another into our lives like lithe acrobats eager to excite and intrigue us. Soon, we developed a hobby of bird watching. Each year we participated in Cornell University's Project Feederwatch by counting and recording birds at our feeders. We would often slip out of the schoolroom for birding and nature walks. This led us to spend a week in Cape May, New Jersey, where we explored one of the best natural habits for birds on the North American Continent. We developed a passion for science and history and began indulging our curiosity for hours every day in extended unit studies. In our imaginations we became time travelers to exotic lands, we were explorers and archeologists, we were brave scientists on the brink of shattering discoveries. We fell in love with books and filled the house with them. They overflowed the shelves, were set in piles in corners, stacked by chairs and couches, scattered across desks and tables. We lived in our books, and our books lived in us. As we interacted with what we read, we learned that school could be a fascinating laboratory and a playground for our minds.

Our persistence brought rewards we'd never dared to presume were possible. In the eleventh grade, our oldest son Josh was selected for the Pennsylvania Governor's School, and, the following year, he became a National Merit Scholar. Then he was awarded a prestigious four-year scholarship to Ursinus College. Everyone was amazed at this. To celebrate, and for his eighteenth birthday, we took a month-long trip that he planned for birdwatching. He had been building a life-long list of all the birds he had seen, and he wanted to travel to observe species unavailable in the Appalachian mountains. We hit the road that summer and saw great American beauties, one after another: the Rockies, Snake River, Crater Lake, the Redwoods, the Pacific Coast, Columbia River Gorge, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore. It was one long goodbye, so beautiful my throat aches every time I think of it.

Our younger son Ben tended to be more athletic and sociable, and less academic, but he too found his own delights. He developed a penchant for jazz and took guitar lessons, eventually playing for a local band. He loved to build things -- robots, rockets, gadgets, machines, three-dimensional models, even a hot air balloon. We let him do this for long hours, despite my anxieties over what he might do with a soldering iron. In high school, he became a skilled and very disciplined athlete and developed an ability to think critically about any topic and write well. He hosted high school classes to discuss literature and history and reveled in the shared joy of learning with others. Eventually, he took five Advanced Placement courses and became an AP scholar when he made high scores on three of his tests. His hard work was rewarded by a four-year scholarship to the University of South Carolina where he is a member of the Honors College. He also planned his graduation trip, for his own private passion, outdoor photography. That summer we went to Olympic National Park where we saw steep mountains, lush rain forests, rugged beaches, and the city of Seattle in two weeks. Ben's pictures speak eloquently to me of the rich experience we had together.

Through it all I can see now that we learned how to learn, how to love, and how to love learning. This was the hidden curriculum, one we never planned, one I never considered. It's a wonderful story, how that happened in the midst of daily life with it's mundane concerns and frustrations, one that is better than any fiction I could have written. There was a plan, after all, a crucial agenda that was not the one I had scribbled in my lesson books, but one that was better, deeper, more enduring. Walking through it has been a gift. I have only begun to understand this after it was all over. From my vantage point here, nearly two years later, I am finding the treasures bequeathed to me in the struggles of a great learning adventure. No one was sure we could do it. I wasn't even sure myself. And yet the doing of it, like a crazy wilderness survival course, taught us old-fashioned values like courage, integrity, humility, and honest hard work. I find that the idea of not having these for my children now is like trying not to breathe. I am grateful for our challenging path through the wilderness and the self-reliance and grace that comes to those who fight hard battles for good reasons.

Homeschoolers often ask me for advice. They want to talk to a mom with the perspective of experience. This has made me think of writing to you. Perhaps one day, you, in turn, will tell your story. It's important that these stories are told, that they become part of a collective memory.

As you read this, the end of another school year sits on your horizon. I remember the heady sense of relief I always felt in May. We had worked our way through another year. My nerves were stretched. I was short and irritable with the children because we were all tired. We were stir-crazy like school kids often are in the spring. But bliss was waiting around the next bend on my path. I knew I just had to hang on for a few more days and finish the portfolios. Really we were just hours away from that place where summer beckoned like a vast, golden vista stretched out before us, just as it does now for you.

So go, go into that loveliness called summer and breath the perfumed air of freedom for a while. Sleep in. Rest your weary head. Sink into that book or hobby or beach chair waiting for you. You've earned it. After a few weeks, you will feel like yourself again.

When the end of summer arrives, the battle will resume, your battle to educate and train your children in a world that would prefer you didn't or doesn't care. Know that your battle matters. Strength will come to you, just when it looks like you have run out of it. The love you have for your children will endure, and you will, by proximity and by the very act of struggling together, transmit to them the very precious and essential character qualities they will need. Hard things, along with glad ones, are waiting in the wings of their adult lives. Severe challenges. No one is exempt from these. They will know how to walk through them because they have already practiced by walking through this with you. The bad days are a gift, as much as the good ones. Take heart. No one in a hard, long battle ever feels all the time that it is worthwhile.

This one is.


  1. Thank you. You spoke right to my heart today with this post.
    I will link to it on my blog. I have found such encouragment from your words.

  2. Thank you for your honest joy and straighforwardness - for telling us that it is not all rosy posy pudding and pie! It's a race that must be run with endurance. We have to rest now and then, always pray for wisdom, but keep our eyes on the goal.

    Like you, I've found the joy of learning in books and travel (I often wonder what I did growing up because I didn't enjoy books like I do now!). Right now we are studying the Civil War and have Kennesaw Mtn National Battlefield Park almost in our backyards.

    And the freedom and time to birdwatch is a pure delight.
    Thanks again for helping my perspective as we start another homeschooling week!

  3. Oh what great encouragement! Thanks so much! Sorry I haven't been by this past week. I've certainly missed reading your posts and can't wait to read the ones I've missed. I've been really busy with working with my web designer on my blog and ministry site, along with homeschooling, a very active toddler, household chores, etc.

    Hope you've had a great week!

    If you happen to come by my blog and it won't come up, it's just down temporarily. It will be back up.

  4. Thanks, Karen. Glad to have you back with us.


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