Published on October 24th, 2014 | by Christie


My classes encompass the world

Today, my calculus class was held on a hammock.

My whole class could fit on the hammock because in my school, the classes are very small–only one student in each: me. Incidentally, I also teach most of my classes. And my classroom’s location keeps changing.  One day I’ll study calculus in the hammock, another day sitting at my computer as I visit a calculus web site. No, my school isn’t in the middle of construction work or a teacher’s union strike.  Let me say this more directly: I’m homeschooled!

As I lay there on the hammock, drifting back and forth, with my eyes drifting away from “Integration by Parts” up to the infinitely blue sky, I began to recognize the unique freedom that homeschooling has given me.  I thought about how last year I hadn’t even meant to study calculus–I had planned to study pre-calculus.  But then, in October, I became fascinated by the simplicity and logic of calculus. My mother and I decided that I’d quickly review any pre-calculus topics that I hadn’t studied, and move on to calculus. Yet I was careful to study calculus slowly. When I reached the chapter in my calculus text about integrating trigonometric functions, I sat in that hammock working through all of the text’s examples until I understood why dy/dx of cosecant x was -(ctn x csc u).  Since my grades aren’t determined by tests, dumbly memorizing formulas would have done me no good. The only reason for me to study anything is to understand it deeply, not to be able to regurgitate information.

Another gift of homeschooling’s freedom is that I’ve always been able to learn from what my brothers and sister are learning, in what I call “trickle-down” education. Long before I could say much in French beyond the ubiquitous “bonjour”, for example, I watched the videos in my oldest brother’s French course. The subtleties of the French subjunctive were lost on me, but when I seriously began to study high school French at age eleven, I’d already gained a sense for the rhythm and idiom of the French language.

When I was three, I learned to read by looking over my mother’s shoulder as she worked on phonics with my older brother.   I proudly stumbled through “see Spot run”, sensing a lust to experience more of the “big person” world of literature.  Back then, literature meant anything from Arnold Lobel to Shel Silverstine, but even so–whenever I look back on those salad days of mine, I see the roots of my enduring loves.  I cried, when as a five-year-old I read Charlotte’s Web, and even today I relish books that make me think, and touch me uniquely. A few months later I composed a pensive poem from the point of view of a robin whose wife is “in laber whith an egg,” ending with “A boy, or a girl, / Polly or Jon, / I dow not know.”  I still love to manipulate words, and yes, my writing is still tinged with melodrama. When I was six, I wrote tearfully about the time when my father chopped up a beloved apple tree, beloved all the more because it was leaning precariously.  I still turn to writing to express my deepest feelings. Writing transforms my world into something distinct, something somehow more tangible when it is defined by these little symbols.  Recently, I’ve needed this clarity badly as I’ve been trying to decide what college to attend. For once, I’ve been faced with a decision worthy of my melodrama, because it will mold the rest of my life.  And after pages of scrawled diary entries, I’ve realized that Pitt will be the best college to give me the freedom that I need to explore my many dreams, and to decide which of my many loves I want to ultimately pursue.

All through my life, my older brothers have helped me learn.  In my turn, I’ve been able to help teach my sister.  When I was ten, Hannah and I loved to play school together.  Sister School was a peek into an unknown world for us, but we tried our darndest to make everything perfectly official. I was known as Miss Richman, a little bell on my teacher’s desk called school to order, and I would carefully grade Hannah’s work–with an eternally positive A++. Yet our “school” went more deeply than make-believe. Somewhere in the midst of our game, I actually taught my sister to read, introduced her to division, and guided her through joyfully messy art projects. Yet I wonder which of us gained more from “Sister School”, because although it gave my sister an enriched preschool, but it made me realize that I love to teach.

This summer, my dream of becoming a teacher became concrete.   At the Pennsylvania Governor’s School of Excellence for Teaching, I found myself in a world where deadlines were firmly established and rigorous.  Where I was once again known as “Miss Richman”, now by the kids I taught in School-Within-A-School. Where I had to keep track of papers, room keys and meal cards, and where I had to budget my time because nobody else would do it for me.  I was frightened and thrilled by this new kind of freedom.  Then I bought myself folders at the campus store, and wrote to-do lists on my dry-erase board, and bit by bit I began to be able to easily cope with life outside my nurturing home.  Ironically, the last week of PGST was the hardest of all, since not only did I have to keep up with PGST’s workload, but I had to learn the 8-page piano accompaniment to the song that all 64 “govies ” would sing at the closing ceremony.  But when I left PGST I understood not only education jargon, but how to survive and stay organized on my own.  Now, the freedom that I love in homeschooling is balanced by a deepened self-discipline.

For me, the separation between school and pleasure has never existed, and this I think is homeschooling’s greatest gift.  In my free time this morning I read Socrates’ “Apology,” because its image of a man sacrificing himself for an elusive ideal intrigues and inspires me.  Then I tried to play through Debussy’s haunting “Claire de la Lune” on my piano.  Next, of course, I went out to my hammock where I could breathe the liquid fall air as I tried to envision the relation between integration and area beneath curves.  Then I immersed myself in the complex symbolism of Moby Dick.  I don’t know whether to call these things leisure or “schoolwork”.   My school’s boundary between fun and education is as absent as its walls.

I said that I’m the teacher for most of my “classes”, but that’s untrue. My mother has taught me, my teacher for online AP English Literature has taught me, Mireille and Robert in the French in Action video series have taught me, my little sister has taught me, Plato, Jane Austen, my 130-acre farm, my eternally optimistic grandfather, and the thirteen-year-old girl I tutor have all taught me.  So my school’s classes aren’t small; they’re enormous.  For they aren’t confined to a classroom.

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