My son was five years old. His two little brothers and I ran, breathless, to keep up with his endless quests for knowledge. I provided endless strewing and modeling. Anything I threw at him, he'd absorb. He split light, built a telegraph, raised a butterfly, read chapter books silently, and memorized nature encyclopedias for pleasure. At night, we'd lie in bed and read E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan. This was his kindergarten year, though I never told him that.
Our homeschooling success hinged upon two things: a rich, authentic learning environment, and my silence. He seemed born knowing how to drive his own education, and my early attempts to require any sort of script-following in the name of standards or learning outcomes were unnecessary at best and damaging at worst.
I hadn’t planned on homeschooling, but the nearer he got to school age, the stronger and stronger became my instinct not to send him. It was undeniable and slightly terrifying, and I had to dig deep to figure out why. I had to define for myself what school and learning really were and examine their relationship. (If you haven’t done this for yourself yet, I recommend you start now.)
The main reason I chose to homeschool him was to protect and nourish his holy curiosity. I had to come to terms with the unsettling irony that sending him to school would sabotage his learning and his identity as a learner. I do not think this is the case for all children, but it is unmistakably true for him.
Although my conviction of this was clear and solid, it took some time and some work before I would learn to release my self-imposed restrictions and root out the limiting public-school-absorbed beliefs I still held of what a school could look like. And of course, I had to face my fears.
The times I am least effective as a parent and educator are when I react to the fear of being different or trying to please somebody else. My mama-bear instincts and experience are strong enough to now to keep such fears in their cages. But I was a new, fiercely dedicated homeschooler who was determined to get it right, and every time I hit a bump in the road, I came face to face with those fears.
When his progress wasn't steady in a particular area, or if we hit a wall, I worried I was doing it wrong. Trying to push him up and over a hurtle did nothing but frustrate and distance us. Even my offers to let him sit on my shoulders to get a better view were rebuffed. I laugh now to think that steady progress and no obstacles should be either possible or desirable hallmarks of a quality education—homeschool or otherwise. But at the time it felt like the goal, and while I may not have reached it, I had to at least outdo the public school system.
I know now that there must be walls to climb for growth to happen, and growth is the real education. My son showed me time and time again that he had to climb over the walls himself. I learned that my job was to provide him with the tools he’d need and get out of the way. He’d build and climb the ladder.
We had been reading about animals and food chains, and I thought it would be fun to create a mural and hang it on the low wall in our foyer. (Yes, we had a foyer where we lived. That is a story for another time.) I cut a long piece of paper from our easel and handed my son a roll of teal, patterned washi tape to secure it to the wall. I envisioned the hanging of the paper to be a quick, efficient process, which would be followed by hours of enjoyable, collaborative mural-making.
My son had other ideas.
He was taking much too long. Instead of just taping each corner of the paper as I had expected (but not instructed), he seemed to be intending to tape the entire perimeter of the ten-foot-long banner. His face fell and the light in his eyes dimmed as I lectured him about wastefulness, took the roll of tape and walked away.
It took me maybe sixty seconds to come to my senses. I was no poster child when it came to efficiency or thrift. I radiated hypocrisy, and stung with shame. I wondered how I had missed the mark with my vision of this learning project. And then I realized it had been my project, not his.
I approached my crestfallen child, still kneeling on the ground beside the unfinished work I'd snatched from him. I crouched down, looked him in the eyes, and said, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. Tape is meant to be used. Use all you want."
He seemed to re-inflate the moment my respect for his work returned. "Thank you, Mommy," he said, and resumed his process.
The mural hung there for months, with only a few sparse pencil sketches my son made at my request. (I suppose if it had been that important to fill the paper with the colorful animals and habitats of my imagination, I would have drawn them myself.) But they were surrounded by a vibrant, painstakingly-applied border—the real masterpiece. My project had fizzled, but his was complete. Authentic, hard-earned, and beautiful.