Finding Hope: Being Normal Isn’t For Everyone

When Aidan was just a baby, I considered homeschooling.  I didn’t have any particular reason, I just remember talking about it.  It seemed like the right thing to do.   But then I poo-pooed that idea.  I mean, only religious people homeschool.  Isn’t that right?  And we’ve established that I don’t fit that mold.

So when he reached Kindergarten age, the idea had been pushed aside.  I was working full time, and J was doing the stay-at-home-dad thing.  We happily enrolled Aidan and decided to embark on 13 years of public school bliss.  Only, school didn’t go so well.

He had no trouble with spelling or math.  He wasn’t loud in class or a disturbance.  But coloring and cutting papers?  Not his thing.  He just sat there when he should have been working.  He listened intently during reading time, but then couldn’t adequately summarize the stories.  When asked to sort blocks, he just stared at the teacher.  That’s not enough guidance for him.  But it took months of confusion to understand that.  It took months to understand that it had nothing to do with what they wanted from him, it had everything to do with how they communicated it to him.

He can retell you just about any story he’s read or watched or heard.  But he wants to tell you about it on his own terms.  He wants to go through every detail because he’s not exactly sure what you’re looking for.  Summarizing was something he didn’t understand, and unfortunately, the testing process didn’t allow that to be discovered.  He was simply labeled as “unable to retell a familiar story.”

Sorting was another stumbling block. (No pun intended.)  He was given a pile of wooden pieces – different shapes, colors and sizes – and told to sort them.  No direction.  Just “sort”.  And while many kids could take that directive and complete the task, Aidan isn’t like many kids.  He would either stare off, or he would begin to build something with the pieces.  It wasn’t even until we received the test results a few different times that we understood the lack of direction being given.  We initially assumed he was just having a little stage fright.  He could sort at home just fine by color, shape or size.

Those two issues were fairly easily resolved.  We have been able to (slowly) teach him about the importance of summarizing and the process by which you determine what parts of a story are important and what parts are not.  And now, when sorting, he understands you need to compare the pieces and determine how they are different.  You may not always have explicit instructions, and if your categorization is incorrect, it’s totally fine.  No one is perfect.

But once we reached the end of that school year, we knew something had to change.  Aidan never missed a spelling word on the pre-tests (meaning he didn’t even have to take the actual tests), and he flew through math worksheets with ease.  So who cares if he didn’t like to color?  And who says these standards of explaining tests to kids is the correct way?  It clearly isn’t universal.  My kid is smart as hell, and they made him feel like a total idiot.  That’s not okay.

So we decided to keep him home for a year.  He was advanced enough on the core subjects that I wasn’t worried about him falling behind.  He was already struggling with the way public school worked, so it felt likely that he’d have to have special help regardless.  But the idea of keeping him at home was scary.  It’s nerve-wracking telling your family that you are deciding to homeschool.  That’s not “normal”.  And because we all think we know best, I was prepared for the onslaught of criticism.  But you know what’s funny?  It never came.

J and I were so secure in our decision to keep him home (for at least that one year), that we left no room for others to share their opinions.  He is our kid, and we knew something had to be different.  And by being able to clearly and effectively share our reasoning, there was nothing left for our family members to say.  That was my first moment of clarity.  These are our children.  No one else’s.  And I’ve never met anyone who had parenting down to a science, so why was it wrong to assume we could forge a different (albeit just as successful) path for our children?  And that gave me confidence.

Admittedly, we sort of unschooled that first year without even knowing what to call it.  I just needed Aidan to have a year where he didn’t feel out of place.  We did worksheets here and there, but I found myself just letting it go for a year.  When I tell you my kid is smart, I’m not just being a bragging mom.  So even without structured learning, he was advancing daily.

When it came time for second grade, I was starting to get a little nervous about things.  I still wasn’t sure how this homeschool thing worked exactly, and I didn’t want to screw things up.  Audra was getting ready to start Kindergarten, and I needed to make sure both were going to be on some sort of constructive path.

That’s when I found an online public charter school.  And it felt like the answer to all of my problems.  The kids could still stay on track according to the state’s standards, but they could learn at their own pace. And I could explain everything to Aidan.

I’ll just skip ahead here – we did that for two years – Austin even joined in for Kindergarten the second year.  And it was good for us.  Aidan really struggled the first year, and that’s when I realized that the kid does not need someone micromanaging him.  Give him his assignments and back.the hell.away.  He achieved straight A’s in third grade, and I barely had any involvement at all.  Audra and Austin also did great – and we basically all sailed through the second year.

But when it came down to it, I still felt like all three were just learning enough to satisfy the school.  I don’t believe they were retaining any more than the basics.  And I simply don’t understand that.  I’m sort of confused about the reasoning behind our current school system’s process.  I got good grades, I was a member of the National Honor Society, and all of my core classes were of the advanced placement variety.

But I only remember the things I enjoyed.  I learned exactly enough to pass tests, and I did the bare minimum on my projects.  I still don’t understand Shakespeare, and I nearly failed Physics.  But algebra?  Still love and use that constantly.  Yes, seriously.  Grammar?  Spelling?  Absolutely something I remember.  And I even use it correctly.  Sometimes. 😉

My point though is that in my head, our job is to educate our children on how to effectively communicate and work out problems that arise.  And beyond that, school is a means to introduce different subjects so that our kids can discover what interests them.  And the results of that will help determine what they’d like to do with their future.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the system works.  We make kids feel like they need to have a certain level of skill in all subjects, and they are tested on it.  And that works perfectly well for people like me.  I can do okay in all areas.  I have a basic level of knowledge on many subjects.  But for some people, they can rock art but math sends them into an emotional tailspin.  However, the system is such that we treat these kids as if they are deficient for 13 years.  As if their talents aren’t important.  Because you can’t make a living off of art.

Who says?

Maybe it’s not your kind of living, but that doesn’t mean an artist can’t be happy.

But I got way off track there.

While working with my children in each of their subjects for school, I realized that the process has nothing to do with actual learning.  It’s about reading from a textbook, temporarily retaining the information, and then regurgitating it for a test.  And the charter school threw in some projects and field trips for good measure.

That’s not what I want for my children.  I want life experiences for them.  Yes, they need to know how to read, write, and execute math equations appropriately.  And I want them to learn about history, culture, geography, science, and religion.  But it doesn’t mean we have to go about it the “normal way”.

When I first started homeschooling, I thought we had to do schooling at home.  I mean, right?  That’s how it works. You buy textbooks and you learn at home the same way you would at school – just at your pace and with more flexibility.  But I’ve finally realized that society’s idea of how my children should learn does not have to match my own.  Because they are my children.  And I get to determine how they are taught.  I haven’t seen any proof that our nation’s school system is working with 100% accuracy.  What I personally see is a few generations of (mostly) unhappy people.  So it’s my job to change that for my own children.  Maybe then they won’t have to figure this stuff out when they’re 30.

That’s how I’ve determined how to raise our children.  It’s a personal choice for J and me – one that we don’t take lightly.  We have the opportunity to do it this way, and we are taking it.  We are happy to move around and let our children explore the country and learn along the way.  We are happy to step outside of society’s norms and let our children figure out the things that interest them.  And maybe one day, we’ll discover that this isn’t working for us.  And we’ll start on a new path.  And that’s  absolutely okay.

We don’t judge anyone else for their schooling choices.  How could we when we don’t want to be judged?  Not everyone has the opportunity or desire to keep their children at home with them daily, and I would never give the stink eye for that.  My whole point for this post (although I got so far off track that I’m in a different country now) is that one of the paths to happiness is letting go of how things should be.  Choosing this life for my children is scary and uncertain, but I’m comforted by the fact that there is no right way to raise kids.  Success comes in many forms, and all I can do is make decisions based on my own experiences.

I used to be scared of what others would think.  I used to worry that stepping out of the typical suburban life meant we’d be weird or seen as giving our children less than they deserved.  Because it’s different than how I was raised.  But you know what?  I didn’t grow up to want that life.  I spent a decade in a deep depression, because my version of a happy life does not include a house in my hometown.  I don’t want Sunday dinners with my extended family and weeks filled with Little League practices and games.  I looked around at what was supposed to make me happy and I felt like crawling out of my own skin.  It doesn’t mean I don’t love my extended family.  Not at all.  It just means that I need something different.  Something more.  I need to experience the world.  I know exactly how that sounds, and I apologize.  But I’m willing to say it loud.  I’m willing to scream it from the mountaintops.  You know why?  Because it is freeing.  I’m not the only one who suffers from this.  My crisis line call shifts are filled with people who are living this “normal life” and they are not fulfilled.  They are not happy.  Why?  Because we are all so stuck on this notion that our happiness lies in the American dream.  We feel selfish when we need more.  We feel it is impossible.  We feel like it’s safer to stay in the comfort zone of our hometown, because we might just fail spectacularly if we try something else.

I’m a sucky stay at home mom, even though that’s supposed to be the ultimate dream, right?  It’s not for everyone.  It isn’t even for me.  Not really.  My ultimate dream would be to somehow have a business with J.  I’d love to have our kids involved in whatever capacity interested them.  But for now, I need to be home with my three so I can raise them the way I want while J earns the money to support us.  And in the meantime, I’m attending college and finding the things that bring me joy.  Because the truth is that I don’t know what I’d rather do than be with my children.  If I knew, I would be doing it.  (And that is my reason for never judging someone else.  If you know what makes you happy, GO. OUT. AND. DO. IT!)

My happiness is my responsibility.  I am going to make choices that will probably land my children in therapy, but that’s okay.  I’m doing my best.  My parents made some choices for their own happiness that led to emotional issues for me, and yours probably did too.  That’s life.  But the beautiful thing is that we get to make different choices for our own children.  And because we are all human, our results will not be perfect.  At least one of our children is bound to resent us for our choices.  I’m preparing myself for that.

I am thrilled for you if you are following society’s version of normal and it gives you joy.  I am seriously thrilled.  But this post isn’t for you.  This post is for the people who feel frustrated because they have a “good life” and it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.  That’s all.  I’m not saying that Sunday dinners and Little League games are bad.  Because they absolutely positively aren’t.  They are a beautiful thing.  But unfortunately, those of us who need something different are considered selfish.  We’re sometimes treated as though we are wrong for needing a different experience.

I’m here to tell you that you aren’t wrong.  You aren’t selfish.  You are human.  And there are a whole lot of us.  Shocking, isn’t it?  I moved all the way to Hawaii, and I learned that this isn’t even the end for us.  It’s amazing here.  Gorgeous and breathtakingly interesting.  But I still want more in the future.  Some of us are like that.  We like the thrill of trying new things.

Take a vacation, you say?  Well, no way.  We’ve been on this island for exactly four months today and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what Hawaii has to offer.  No thank you.  I would prefer to live in new places for a few years at a time.  That’s my idea of a happy life.  Until one day maybe it won’t be.

I want you to take stock of your life.  Consider the choices you make, and consider your reasons for doing so.  Do what brings YOU joy.  Don’t want to go to the potluck dinner?  Then don’t.  None of your children want to play sports?  Then don’t make them.  You want to pull your kids out of school for a weeklong vacation?  Then do it.  Why not?  Your children will probably learn more in that week than they would at school.

Stop worrying about going with the flow.  Stop worrying about what society does.  Society does not have it figured out.  If it did, we wouldn’t all be loaded up on anti-depressants while watching hours of mindless reality TV.  KnowwhatI’msayin’?  Do what makes you happy.