When Jean and I were expecting our first baby, in 1966, there was very little literature about natural birth. We had read enough to know that we wanted an undrugged birth, but we took for granted the “necessity” of birth in a hospital. All we asked was permission for me to be present during the delivery.
“Oh, no,” the doctor said, “we have enough problems without having fainting husbands all over the floor.”
So Jean and I decided, tentatively, to have the baby at home. (For the complete story see “Our Way” in “Birthing, Babies, and Parenting” in The Lifetime Learning Companion.) We studied everything we could find on the subject. Consequently, all four children were born at home. Cathy was born in a little log cabin in northern Vermont, forty miles from the nearest hospital. Karen was born in 1968, in our home, with six feet of snow drifted outside the windows. Susan was born in 1970 and Derek in 1972, both in a log cabin in the mountainous Central Interior of British Columbia, also forty miles from the nearest hospital.
Active fatherhood — that is, participating as a full partner in parenting — has many rewards, but one of the greatest is hearing that first little cry of “Hello” and cradling the new son or daughter even before he or she is fully born.
Jean nursed each of the babies for at least a year. For the first six weeks or more, we never put the babies down or left them alone; we always held them, carried them, and cuddled them. They never woke up crying, wondering where they — or we — were.
“It’s good for them to cry,” several neighbors and relatives told us. “It develops their lungs.” Others told us, “You give them too much attention. It isn’t good for them. They’ll become too dependent on you.”
We thought about these comments, but not in the way others may have wished. Babies are born dependent on their parents. They coo and gurgle when they are happy. They cry for attention when something is not right from their perspective. We always felt our babies cried for a reason, and although we may not have understood why, their unhappiness was sufficient reason to do what we could to remedy the situation. Our convenience was not an issue.
The babies slept with us, despite the many warnings (from people who had never tried it) that “You’ll roll on the baby in your sleep!” It never happened, of course.
When Cathy became hungry during the night, Jean had only to turn over, still half-asleep, help the baby find the nipple, and doze off again. No fumbling for the light switch, no grumbling at being awakened, no crying, no frustration.
There was only one instance when it didn’t quite work — that is, not right away. I woke up enough to hear Cathy’s murmur of hunger change to a cry of indignation, and I turned on the bedside light to see why Jean wasn’t feeding her. Jean, still asleep, was trying with great determination to put her nipple into Cathy’s ear. (A reader of Nurturing Magazine, in which part of this story appeared, wrote me, “Ah, the old nipple-in-the-ear trick — I’ve done it myself many times!”)
The objections and fears many people have about home-birth are not greatly different from their feelings about home school: “Something will go wrong,” “You need the experts,” “You’re sheltering them too much,” and so on.
Our main reason for having home-birth was that we loved our children (yes, even before they were born), and we wanted them to have the best start in life. We began teaching them at home for the same reason.
In education, as with birth, it was the narrow-mindedness and insensitivity of the “experts” and “trained professionals” that led us to realize we could probably do much better without their help.
We are confirmed do-it-yourselfers in many areas of life — childbirth, house-building, food production, etc. — and so we thought about teaching our children at home, but didn’t have any definite reason for doing so, and assumed that contact with other children would be enjoyable and beneficial.
We had read some of John Holt’s books (How Children Fail, How Children Learn, etc.) and various other books about education, but we thought that small rural schools might somehow have escaped the negative attitudes and academic failings most of the books described.
We were wrong. In nearly every instance, our children returned from school much poorer than they had been when they left home. The girls had learned to read and to enjoy books at least a year before entering school. They soon learned, in the public schools, that reading is a very serious chore; they not only lost interest in reading, but actually lost a great deal of reading ability. They became ill-mannered and bigoted. Far from being “broadened” by social contacts, they were coerced into becoming very narrow and intolerant.
Cathy had always enjoyed books, from the time she was old enough to look at them. Before she was two, she spent hours with her favorites, studying minute details in the pictures and asking us about the letters. By the time she was six, she was entirely familiar with the alphabet, basic phonics, shapes, and colors, and seemed to have an intuitive grasp of elementary psychology (but without knowing any of its jargon). She enjoyed working with us in the garden, the barn, and the kitchen. We talked about school, and decided to give it a try.
Each morning, we drove to the corner, where Cathy boarded the school bus and rode to the two-room schoolhouse twenty miles away. In the afternoon, we met her at the corner to bring her home.
Cathy liked school, she told us. She had many friends and she liked the teacher. Each day, she was eager to meet the bus, and came home with excited stories of new games and new friends.
In October she began sucking and chewing her lower lip, until it was always red and swollen. She stopped reading, and had no interest in books. She became bossy and whiny. The redness of her lower lip spread down toward her chin.
Cathy’s teacher told us she hadn’t noticed any problems. Cathy insisted there was nothing wrong; she got along with the other children, she still liked her teacher, and the work was very easy, even if a little boring. She continued to chew her lower lip, and often screamed at us and gave us belligerent orders. The other children no longer looked forward to the time she came home from school.
During the two-week Christmas vacation, she stopped chewing her lip, and the redness almost disappeared from her lip and chin. Toward the end of her vacation, she looked into a few of her favorite books. She became more pleasant to live with, more friendly and agreeable and cooperative — as she had always been before she started school.
When she returned from the first day back at school after vacation, her lower lip was red and swollen. She refused to pick her coat up from the floor, and she was snappy and bossy.
We never returned her to that school. For the rest of that winter and through the following summer, she occasionally looked through her books, but had no interest in reading. We left her alone, and didn’t try to give her any “school” work.
We moved, and in the fall Cathy entered a different school in the second grade. Despite having “missed” half of the first grade, she had no difficulties with second-grade work. Her teacher was pleasant, competent, and understanding. Cathy finished the school year with high marks and still had a pleasant personality. We concluded that the first year must have been an unfortunate exception.
Karen, like Cathy, had learned basic reading and math skills long before she entered formal schooling. Her first-grade teacher was one of the most loving and dedicated teachers our children ever encountered. Karen’s first-grade experience was nearly everything we thought public education should be — a continuation of skills already learned and the introduction of new subjects and new concepts, both academically and socially. We could see Karen growing, rapidly and happily.
Cathy’s third-grade teacher was often hoarse from yelling at her students. One of her favorite punishments for any misbehaving boy was to have him sit on her lap, making him the unhappy object of his classmates’ coarse jokes and teasing.
What happens in the mind of a child for whom a customary act of affection becomes a dreaded punishment and humiliation?
(From Jean Reed) I have vivid memories of visiting Cathy’s class the day the school held Halloween parties. I went to Karen’s class to deliver treats for their party and saw happy, costumed children having a good time. I knew Cathy’s class would be different, but I was still unprepared for what I encountered. Her class was the only one in the whole school not having a party or wearing costumes. This teacher did not celebrate Halloween due to her religious beliefs, and therefore she would not permit her class to join in the festivities. I had no quarrel with this teacher’s religion, or with her right to choose what to celebrate, but I felt that as a public employee, she had no right to force her personal decision on thirty children of varying beliefs. When I knocked on the classroom door, I could see through the window that the teacher was yelling. She beckoned to me to come in and pointed to a desk in the back of the room, all with hardly a pause in her ranting at one of the boys. I was dumbfounded.
The sound of the teacher’s voice made me, even as an adult, cringe and want to disappear. I felt myself tumble emotionally back through time to my school days, gradually getting smaller and smaller. I sat at a child’s desk stunned and intimidated. What was she doing to the minds of the children who spent five days a week with her?
As it happened, Cathy was a good student, academically and socially. She disliked the teacher’s screaming and bullying, but was relieved (as we were) that she was never the object of the teacher’s tirades. We felt it was a very unhealthy environment, whether or not Cathy was learning anything positive or useful. And she wasn’t.
Given a writing assignment, Cathy wrote:
One day I was sweeping the floor. I swept the edge of the counter, and I swept a spray can out. It said Spray broom. I sprayed the broom. The broom said Hi who are you? I’m Cathy I said will you come to the zoo with me? Of course I will I am your friend. So we went to the zoo. We saw a lion and it was loose. We told someone at the zoo. The end.
Not too bad, really. I know many adults who couldn’t do as well. But it was much less than we thought should have been achieved in thirty hours a week, four weeks a month, nine months a year, for over two years.
Even worse, Cathy was bored.
“What did you do in school today, Cathy?”
“Oh, nothing. Just more second-grade work. I did it all last year. When will I start learning something new?”
From asking that question to becoming an eight-year-old dropout, with full parental approval and encouragement, was a very short step.
A dropout. No education? How would she get anywhere in life?
Cathy began “going to school” at home. Not yet free of our own educational conditioning, we eased ourselves into the formal teaching business by subscribing to a correspondence course from Calvert School. Each weekday, from nine in the morning until noon, Jean was Cathy’s teacher. In those three hours, they easily covered more than two daily lessons, including arithmetic, geography, Greek mythology, art, literature, spelling, history, science, and composition.
At the same time, Jean was raising and teaching Susan and Derek. Karen was doing well in first grade in the public school. (I was taking life easy as an edgerman in a sawmill.)
As a hobby, Cathy studied dinosaurs and fossils, and this was only one of many areas in which we found Cathy was often the teacher and we were the pupils.
Ten weeks after leaving the public school, Cathy wrote:
A JOURNEY TO THE PAST
I found a time machine. I am going back to 120 million years ago. Dinosaurs roamed the earth and volcanoes erupted a lot. They liked it warm and wet and it never snowed. I saw a Stegosaurus, like a duck; it ate plants. It didn’t frighten me but it was about 11 feet tall and four feet wide. I rode on a Triceratops, a three-horned dinosaur. I saw a Tyrannosaurus. I ran back to the time machine and I went to another part of the jungle. I saw a Teranodon, a bird without teeth. I had a ride on it. It took me to an Ankylosaurus and I took the Ankylosaurus home with me.
Did you notice she missed the “p” in “pteranodon”? You wouldn’t miss it, of course; and I just looked in my dictionary for the spelling. (If you missed it, don’t feel bad. MS Word spell-check did too.) But how much can you expect of an eight-year-old kid, only halfway through third grade?
In spite of a few good experiences with the public schools, we were finally beginning to learn our own lesson. For the next three years we taught all four of our children at home. Then Cathy wanted to try public school again, to be able to spend more time with others her age. After much discussion, we reluctantly agreed to let her try. Her teacher proved to be the second of the best teachers our children ever had in public school, and we never regretted Cathy’s year with her.
For the times when the girls did decide to attend public school, we developed the policy that if they started the year in public school they were to stay all the way through the year unless we or they felt they were in harm’s way, physically (which we felt was unlikely at that time), psychologically, or emotionally. We also discussed with the kids the fact that if they were in public school they had to follow their rules even if/when they made no sense.
The next year was quite different. Cathy’s English and history teacher, with a master’s degree in education, couldn’t spell, punctuate, or construct a proper sentence. He taught his students to use colons and semicolons interchangeably. He taught them a punctuation device he called “dot-dot-dot,” and met my objection with the explanation that the word “ellipsis” would be too difficult for eighth-graders to remember. He taught that capitalization of the first letter in a sentence is a matter of personal preference.
I haunted him, two or three times a week, after school hours and occasionally at class time, but wasn’t surprised that it did no good. He wasn’t overly anxious to discuss his methods, although he tried to assure me that his own training had been quite thorough, and that he certainly knew more about English and teaching than anyone without formal training in those subjects.
He did ask if I’d ever been an English teacher.
“No,” I answered and thought to myself, “I may have a lot of skeletons in my closet, but that isn’t one of them.” I did admit I had done some teaching in a related field and even had a piece of paper from a university saying I was qualified to do so. The thought crossed my mind that a lot of certificates are written with more oink than ink, and even thermometers have a lot of degrees.
Cathy and her class were told to find Rio Blanco on a map of Brazil. She spent over an hour searching through her school atlas, our own atlas (which is better), and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Failing to find Rio Blanco anywhere, Cathy was finally convinced that the teacher had made another spelling mistake, and he later admitted it (with a shrug, and not seeming embarrassed). Cathy had learned a lesson, but not the one her teacher had intended. That wasn’t the only hour of her life wasted by a teacher’s careless spelling or sloppy handwriting.
I made a list of words the teacher consistently misspelled on assignment sheets and showed the list to the principal.
“What grade level,” I asked, “should have complete mastery of the spelling of these words?”
He looked the list over and said, “Third grade. A fourth-grader who didn’t know these words would be considered slow.”
I said it seemed to be a great waste of time for the teacher, for his students, and for me — the latter because I often needed to correct the teacher’s assignments before allowing Cathy to work on them.
The principal insisted I must be mistaken about the teacher’s having misspelled the words, and suggested that Cathy had copied them incorrectly. I showed him the teacher’s assignment sheets. He suggested I take my complaints directly to the teacher. I told him I had done so, several times, and was less than satisfied. He said he would have to side with his teachers, on the assumption that they would not be teachers if they didn’t know what they were doing.
A few days later, the principal wrote me a letter (so he could put a carbon copy in his office files), saying that the teacher we had discussed (but whom he didn’t name) was a Trained Professional (his capital letters), and therefore must know what he was doing. The Trained Professional’s qualification to teach, he went on to say, was proven by the fact that he had been hired by the school board.
Mark Twain once remarked that God made a fool for practice, and then made school boards. That’s a harsh judgment, and may be extreme. Was the mistake Twain’s or God’s? As far as I know, neither was a Trained Professional, except that Twain had a license to pilot a riverboat.
Jesus told the sick man to pick up his bed and walk. Henry David Thoreau advised his contemporaries to throw down their beds and run. Anyone who is only a Trained Professional — that is, who has nothing more to offer than his Trained Professionalism — has little chance of doing either.
Since that time, we have taught our children at home and have seen no reason to try the public schools again, although the girls did choose to go for a year now and then.
The kids have all been active, according to their ages and interests, in ball games, 4-H, youth groups, dances, overnight slumber parties, national exchange trips, and jobs in town. They have been concerned about global problems, such as hunger, human rights, and the death penalty.
School at home wasn’t always easy, but whenever problems arose, we tried to treat them not as interruptions of our education, but as parts of it. In facing problems and working with them, we have learned more about ourselves, each other, and the world.
We’re increasingly convinced that education at home has made our children happier, healthier, and stronger — physically, mentally, and spiritually. Our children have remained bright, curious, and creative — and, we hope, have helped us to remain so, too.
About the authors: Jean and Donn Reed homeschooled their four children for a period of twenty five years. Donn wrote the first ever homeschool resource book in 1981 and called it, The First Home School Catalogue. It wasn’t very big and we made copies on the photocopier at the local general store and bound the pages on our kitchen table. The book caught on and Donn wrote The Home School Source Book, to be followed by other editions. Donn died in 1995 and Jean took over and wrote The Home School Source Book, 3rd edition.
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