Mixing Oil and Water



Our son Tim dropped his high school textbooks on the dining room table and announced, “Mom, Dad, I want to be home schooled.”

Ever since second grade, Tim had fumed about school. Our other children were happy in public school, but our oldest child complained that his assignments there kept him busy yet taught few new concepts. Even in the program for gifted students, Tim felt bored. “Mom, we waste so much time each day on rules, hall passes, and parent permission slips.”

Now in ninth grade, Tim had just compared his general science homework assignment with that of his sister. Prisca was covering the same material in her fifth grade science class. And Tim’s second-year Spanish class was not much better. In the Spring term the students were still reviewing first-year concepts.

Tim’s complaints were not new. Every year we had offered him alternatives to public school, but he always turned down the suggestion. This time he initiated the discussion.

“Tim,” I asked, “on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 represents no interest and 10 represents total commitment to home schooling, where would you put yourself?”

“I’d say I’m about a 9.5.”

So there it was. After seven years of toying with the idea, Tim was finally voting for home schooling. We asked Tim to create a list of reasons why he wanted to learn at home. His reasons ranged from academic (“Class time is flexible…we can finish a discussion without worrying about a bell ringing”) to whimsical (“I can come to class barefoot”). That summer, we took the legal steps to start educating him in our home.

Most home schooling families begin with preschool or elementary curriculum. By starting at the high school level, we jumped into the process at a stage when many other families were winding down their at-home programs. While their children were shifting to the traditional classroom, we were just learning about county regulations, log books and portfolios. Home education is popular in our area, but we soon discovered that Tim would be the only high school student being taught at home in our district.

We faced an additional challenge. Most families we knew either sent all their children to public school or taught all their children at home. In our case, however, our other children had no desire to be taught at home. Prisca played the violin and wanted to continue performing with her school orchestra. She participated in school track meets and was on the volleyball team. John wanted to see his friends every day in the classroom. Tim would be the only one of our children to study at home.

Having a family where some children are in the public school setting and others are taught at home was like mixing oil and water. They didn’t always blend. The combination presented special challenges.

When bad weather canceled school for his sister and brother, Tim found that home school continued. During that first year, a blizzard released John and Prisca from a whole week of school. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday passed. My oldest son continued studying each day. On Thursday, however, when I went down to wake Tim, I found a carefully arranged pile of white cotton balls outside his bedroom door. A sign taped to the door announced, “Home school canceled due to snow!” I laughed and he spent the morning outside building snow forts and sledding with his sister and brother.

On the other hand, Prisca and John resented Tim having only three or four hours of formal class each day. As a high school student, he did the rest of his work independently. Prisca and John left the house before 8:00 and didn’t return until after 3:00. Prisca asked, “How come we have seven hours of school and Tim only has half a day? It’s not fair.”

But when I offered her the same option of staying home, she quickly affirmed her desire to continue in orchestra and sports.

We learned some lessons the hard way. That first year, Tim skipped classes occasionally when other activities seemed more interesting. Those days were not logged as school days. When summer arrived, Prisca and John enjoyed vacation but Tim still had ten days of school to complete. Studying those last two weeks when Prisca and John were outside playing was agony for my teenager. The next year, Tim finished his required 180 days just before public school released his brother and sister for the summer.

Tim graduated with a Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Association diploma. Because he finished a semester early, he opted to spend six months in Costa Rica as the first home schooler going abroad with the AFS student exchange program. When Tim applied for college, the college asked him to write an essay describing a time when he had to make a big decision. He wrote about his choice to be educated at home.

Prisca and John continued in public school. She and John both starred on their school’s volleyball team. They too graduated and moved on to college.

Sometimes I wondered if my husband and I were right to allow each child to make such major decisions about their education, but our trust was validated as we observed the thoughtful process by which each one considered his or her needs. As a result, each child developed confidence in their ability to make good decisions in the future. They learned to weigh personal needs and the benefits and liabilities of each option. John and Prisca respected Tim’s decision to learn at home; he recognized that their choice was different but not wrong. Those were not bad lessons to learn from mixing oil and water!


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