Saturday, May 30, 2009

Connecting with others

Last week, Logan and I went to a homeschool outing to historic Cold Spring Village and met some other homeschoolers in the area. We even met some other unschoolers! My plan is to start an unschooling group based here in South Jersey, and so far I've corresponded with about six other parents who expressed an interest. I'm still mulling over my vision for the group, but I know I'd like to include regular support gatherings, casual playdates or park days for the kids, a Yahoogroups discussion list, a lending library, and information for newbies (when I'm no longer a newbie myself!). I was a La Leche League leader for several years, and that's a support model I like and with which I'm familar. I'm also going to look into Unschooling United, founded by Dayna Martin. It's a network of local unschooling support groups led by facilitators, which sounds very similar to LLL in concept, although I would imagine facilitators would need more than a month-and-a-half of experience! She has a Yahoogroup for people who are interested in facilitating, so the first step is becoming a member and joining that group. I really do believe that, just as with breastfeeding, good information and a support network are key to sticking with unschooling for the long haul.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Okay, now they pissed me off

I just spent a glorious Memorial day afternoon typing a letter to our local superintendent (Hamilton Twp. school district in Atlantic County, NJ so local homeschoolers, beware). The letter speaks for itself so I'll just post the whole thing in its entirety (names changed to protect the guilty):

"Dear Ms. Superintendent:
As a courtesy, I am writing to inform you that my son Logan R., who attended XXXX School through April 14, 2009, has been homeschooled since that date and will continue to be educated at home unless we inform the district otherwise, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25.

I received two calls and a letter from Mr. Principal (including one on my cell on Memorial Day weekend), as well as a call from Hamilton Twp. Attendance Officer, all expressing the dire need for me to send this letter. Ms. Officer threatened us with legal action. In fact, the letter we received from Mr. Principal contained the erroneous information that I needed to “request permission” from the superintendent in order to homeschool my son, which, as I am sure you are aware, is simply not true in the state of N.J.

According to the N.J. Dept. of Education's “Homeschooling Frequently Asked Questions” parents are not even required to notify the school district of their intent to homeschool. They do encourage homeschooling parents to send one if there is a possibility that the child might be suspected of truancy, which clearly was not an issue in our case. Logan's teacher was informed in writing a week before we pulled him out, the entire staff of Kid's Korner knew in advance, and Mr. Principal himself knew shortly thereafter. When I spoke to Mr. Principal on the phone, I assured him that I would send this letter. I always had every intention of doing so before the end of the school year, as a courtesy. I shouldn't have had to hear from him or anybody else again (especially not on a holiday weekend).

I appreciate the school district's desire to dot all its i's and cross all its t's, but we all know that the same thing could have been accomplished by simply slapping a Post-it on Logan's file that says “homeschooled.” It serves no purpose to alienate conscientious parents by making them feel like criminals. I've enclosed a copy of the Dept. of Education's FAQs in the hopes that the school district will stay within the bounds of the law and stop insisting that new homeschoolers “request permission” and/or send letters of notification they are not legally obligated to send unless the school suspects that their child is truant. Again, that was not an issue in our case.

So here's your letter, and presumably you now have all your ducks in a row. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me in writing at the above address. Thank you.
Denise R.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What Goes Up....

What a week! On Wednesday we went on a terrific homeschool outing to a historic village with our local homeschooling group. There were 169 of us there! That's pretty amazing for a group that didn't even exist the first time I homeschooled. I took lots of pictures, but have yet to upload them so that'll have to wait until my next post. The weather was gorgeous, and Logan was really into it. At the living history exhibits, he asked lots of good questions. We met some new people and had a really good time.

But later that evening, he and his friend Damien were playing out front--supposedly kicking a soccer ball around--when I heard a loud thunk, and then Damien say, "Ohmygosh, are you all right?" I looked out the window, to see Logan holding the top of his head and say uncertainly, "I think so..."

But then he took his hand away and saw the blood. I bolted to the front door to let him in, and by that time his face and his shirt were already covered in blood. I pressed my hand onto what I thought was the general location of the wound and began banging on the bathroom door where my husband Ely was getting ready to take a shower. He heard Logan's shrieking, and opened the door. By this time my hand was covered in blood and it was dripping onto the floor. There was SO. MUCH. BLOOD. I grabbed the nearest towel, wet it, and pressed it onto his head. Believe it or not, Ely and I were completely calm. We've already lived through this scenario several times with the older kids, and we are both emergency room veterans.

Poor Damien was hanging back by the door not sure what to do. "What hit him, Damien?" I asked.

"A rock," he answered miserably. God. So that was the sound I heard--a rock connecting with my son's skull. "We were throwing rocks up into the tree. Is he okay?"

"Well, he's bleeding a lot, but he'll be fine," I said, over Logan's hysterical screaming. "You should probably go home."

In the middle of all this, Logan had to pee, I was still trying to staunch the bleeding with the towel, and Ely went out to the yard to try and find the offending rock. It was huge--a big hunk of granite. What were they thinking?? "We--we were trying to hit the branches and it bounced off and hit me," Logan managed to get out.

Well, four hours in the ER and four stitches later, Logan's inch-long head gash was finally closed up and we came home at midnight to learn that Adam Lambert had lost American Idol. So, a crappy evening all around!

Monday, May 11, 2009

All Grown Up

My beautiful Chelsea with her BFFs Rachael, Erica, and Ashley, and her "he's not my boyfriend" Mike, all ready for her first prom. Yes, she's public schooled, and very happy about it--particularly at times like this. Me? I'm just in awe of the amazing young woman she has become. She has grown into my best friend, and I can't imagine life without her.

Friday, May 8, 2009

7 Blocks

This morning, I wanted a newspaper. Normally I just hop in the van and drive the 7 blocks to Wawa (a ubiquitous South Jersey convenience store, for those not from around here), but today finally the sun was out and the day was scrubbed clean and gorgeous. "Hey, why don't we walk?" I said to Logan.

The first interesting thing we came upon was a squashed frog in the road. Of course Logan wanted to take an up-close and personal look so we did. Then we noticed we were walking through a drift of pink flower petals and I pointed out to Logan that the tree above us was losing its flowers and growing new spring leaves. We took a good look at the nearest branch and then I caught the unmistakeable aroma of lilac. Sure enough, behind the tree was a flowering lilac bush. We both buried our faces in the blooms and inhaled deeply. "It smells kind of like vanilla," Logan said.

We went to take our usual detour down a dirt road that leads to a lake, but saw that there was a newly strung chain across the way, and a very definitive sign warning us to Keep Out! All righty then. So we kept going down the street and--omigod--I almost stepped on a snake! It was right at the edge of somebody's lawn, about a foot into the road. I recognized it as a cousin of the garter snake that almost gave me a heart attack in my backyard last year. It was perfectly still, except for its little tongue darting in and out. We squatted down to take a closer look (Logan closer than I). We noticed that the lawn's owners had just mowed, and surmised that the snake was probably trying to escape the mower. "Yeah, but what if it gets hit by a car?" Logan asked. I wished that I was brave enough to pick it up and throw it back into the grass, but alas, I was not. I asked Logan if he wanted to pick it up and throw it back, and he also declined. So we kept going, crossing our fingers that the snake would make it to safety.

Less than a block away, what should we find in the road, but damn! A smushed snake! We gave this one a wide berth since it had flies all over it, and then suddenly noticed that we were walking through a swirling storm of floating white fuzzies. "What the heck...?" There were hundreds of them! They looked like dandelion fluff, but they seemed to be coming from way high up in the trees. We shielded our eyes and peered into the sky but we couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Laughing, we snatched at the air, trying to catch some, but they were elusive little buggers. As we walked, the cloud thinned out and disappeared and then reappeared about a block later. This time, it was obvious where they were coming from--the ground. Logan said, "It was dandelion fluff."

"Mystery solved," I said. "The wind must have carried it up above the trees, and then they floated back down. Now you know why there are dandelions all over the place."


"Those are seeds. The wind carries them away and wherever they land--presto! More dandelions."

"I didn't see any seeds," said Logan. So we picked a dandelion puffball, and pulled out a few fuzzies so he could see the seeds attached to the ends.

By now we had almost gotten to Wawa, and Logan noticed muddy tire tracks on the newly paved road. He spent a few minutes speculating as to what type of vehicle might have made the tracks, and decided that that it must have been some kind of truck. We spent our last few minutes before going into the store reading the names some kids had written in the concrete. We bought our newspapers and some munchies and headed back home.

As we passed the spot where our friendly neighborhood garter snake had been, we were very relieved to see he was nowhere in sight, and so had clearly made it across the street unscathed. We resolved to be braver in the future and pick up and move any imperiled snakes to safety.

As we turned back onto our street, I said, "I'm sure glad we didn't take the van."

Logan smiled up at me, clutching his dandelions. "Me too."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Golden Ticket?

There are lots of homeschool-related things percolating in my head today--Park Days; connecting with others; what our "typical day" is starting to look like; unschooling; the call I received today from Logan's former principal. I'm sure I'll write about all of that soon. But what's foremost in my mind is my oldest son Zach--the one child of mine who sailed through public school with nary a glitch. Zach was one of those kids for whom everything came easily: I never had to help him with homework, his teachers all loved him, he effortlessly maintained straight A's throughout his school career. By the time he graduated high school, he was a multi-sport athlete and was a member of the National Honor Society, a happy, confident young man. He applied and was accepted to Drexel University as a Finance major. We hadn't ever pushed him to attend college; we didn't have to. It was simply a natural assumption. Of course, he was going to college. He was so bright! He had been on a college track since first grade, and none of us had ever even thought to question it. After all, a college degree was the golden ticket to happiness, security and success, right? If he had doubts back then, he never shared them with me. Then again, I never asked.

But shortly after he went away to Drexel (he wasn't even 18 yet), problems began to crop up. For the first time his grades began to suffer. He flunked his first class ever. He began to question his choice of major. He became very active in his fraternity to the exclusion of almost everything else. By the end of his freshman year, his grades were abysmal, he was miserable, and he no longer wanted to continue at Drexel. So he came home to live with his dad (my ex) and attended our local community college for a year to bring his grades up and figure out what he wanted to do. Community college was a piece of cake for him--his grades shot back up to almost a 4.0--but living with his dad most definitely was not. At this time he was working with me at Chili's (where I've worked as a waitress for 13 years) and we talked a lot about his "future plans". He was feeling increasingly anxious and pressured because he really just didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, and now I'm forced to admit that a lot of that pressure probably came from me and his dad. He finally decided to transfer to another college about 45 minutes away from home, a college where a lot of his friends attended. He rented an apartment just off campus with three other guys, and has spent the last three years plugging away at his Finance degree, working almost full-time as a waiter, interning part-time at Smith-Barney, and getting deeper and deeper into debt with student loans (close to $40,000 at last count). Most of his friends graduated last year, but because Zach changed schools twice some of his credits didn't transfer, so he's still looking at another half- to full year before he will have that degree.

We rarely see him anymore because he's been working so hard. Several months ago, I tried to pin him down just long enough to have dinner together, and he said, "Mom, I just can't. I have no free time. I have no time when I'm not at school, or one of the jobs." He sounded so exhausted and resigned to the drudgery that was his life! My heart was breaking for him.

He finally came by around Easter, when we had just pulled his little brother Logan out of school. Logan asked him, "So what are you learning about in college, Zach?"

Zach replied, "Absolutely nothing, kid." Then, "No, scratch that. I'm learning how to be a very good little worker bee." Logan's only 7, but even he knew very well that meant. Later on, Zach told me privately, "You now, Mom, when you homeschooled Cody and Chelsea I thought you were nuts." (He was just entering high school at the time.) "But now I get completely why you're doing it, and I'm behind you 100%. Get that poor kid out now before they eat him up and spit him out."

But there was also a new life to Zach, a sparkle in his eye that hadn't been there for a while. He was excited about something! We knew he had been working on composing and producing music for some time, but he and two of his friends had set up a MySpace page with samples of their music, and the response had been tremendous. They had over 100 "friends" in less than 24 hours, and tons of positive comments. Their music is good--really, really good. (His brother Cody--younger than Zach by four years-- is also a very talented composer, and the two of them were working on very similar things, unbeknownst to each other, for almost a year. They are now collaborating on some projects, and Zach says Cody actually taught him quite a bit. How cool is that!)

So when Zach's call came the other day, I wasn't surprised. I could tell he was apprehensive about telling me, but he quit his internship at Smith-Barney. And he's not taking any summer classes, which means no degree for at least a year--if ever. Everything came to a head when Smith-Barney offered him a permanent job after graduation. He told me, "Mom, I don't think I can do it. I don't think I can spend the rest of my life sitting in a cubicle, calling people who don't want to be called, trying to talk them into handing over their life savings. It's a soul-sucking way to make a living." He kind of laughed, and said, "I just wish I hadn't spent 40 grand and five years of my life figuring this out." Oh my poor baby! What if I had unschooled this child? Could I have saved him from all this?

I took a deep breath and told him I loved him no matter what, and that I'd probably do the exact same thing in his position. I told him that he had clear musical talent and that if his heart and gut are telling him to go for it, then that's what he should do. I told him that following his passion will never steer him wrong, and might lead to interesting places he can't even imagine right now.

I could feel his relief through the phone. I think he was expecting some kind of lecture. Instead, he said, "Wow, mom, thank you so much for supporting me in this!"

I've been doing some self-analysis these past couple days trying to figure out how the all-powerful piece of paper known as the College Degree managed to reach such grail-like status in our house. I don't have a degree. I was expelled from high school in my senior year. My husband doesn't have one. He never made it past the 8th grade. And yet we've reached a certain measurable level of "success" as defined by our society's idea of the American Dream. We own a home, and two cars. We've raised (are still raising) four kids. We pay our bills on time. We have a houseful of "stuff".

But the older I get the more I find I'm redefining my personal idea of success. Now I look at success through the lens of my relationships, how I use my precious time, how I'm growing as a person. Some people might look at me and see: 46-year-old waitress. How could she possibly think of herself as a success? (My family stopped asking me when I was going to get a "real job" a long time ago.) But my job, with its flexible hours and short shifts, has allowed me the freedom to raise my kids with virtually no daycare for almost 23 years. It's allowed me the opportunity to homeschool with very little loss of income. It's given me the time to pursue my own passions--to learn Tarot, to read prodigiously, to hone my writing skills. If that's not success, then what is?

So why the fixation on a college degree? Why did we allow our unexamined expectations railroad our son onto a track he wasn't even sure he wanted? (And are we doing the same thing to 16-year-old Chelsea, who is considering colleges as we speak?) The only college-educated person I'm close to is my dad, who was an English teacher for many years, then a guidance counselor and school administrator. When I was a kid, we lived across from the high school where he taught. I was so proud he was a teacher! For a while, I thought I would probably grow up to be a teacher too. Our house growing up was steeped in school-think, and I guess it took root in me somewhere deep down inside.

Why wouldn't my mom's experience influence me just as much? She didn't finish college (she was pregnant with me), but she has reinvented herself so many times I've lost count: fashion model, retail manager, casino dealer and supervisor, business owner, to name just a few. She's the poster child for the idea that it's never too late to try something new. Not having a degree certainly never held her back.

I may never really know how deeply ingrained schoolish ideas are in me, or how they got there in the first place. It doesn't really matter, I suppose. My job now is to be vigilant and keep tearing them out by the roots every time they threaten to choke the relationships I've built (and am still building, every day) with my kids.
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