By Denise Trull
There is something about August. It is a forgotten month in our modern world, really -- somewhat like November and January. We seem in such hot ‘pursuit of happiness’ that we race right through these months desperately chasing Christmas or longing our lives away in January for that elusive spring when Christmas, alas, has come and gone. August seems the same. When the frenetic, insistent call of school activities and sports sign-ups mercilessly descend and suddenly truncate summer and turn our attention away from those silent, early, humid mornings when the geraniums are puffing out their last but gorgeous blooms. When the air is still and filled with every scent of life imaginable. When peaches are juicy, and the sun is that most satisfying surprise of heat on skin as you step out of an air-conditioned house. August is a month for sitting still on a stoop to think. It is a contemplative month. A month of making plans quietly as you dangle your feet over an old stone wall with book in hand listening to insects singing fortissimo all above and around you. I have always loved August because I am a home schooler. My children and I decided early on to always give August a chance. We took full advantage of its empty swimming pools, its hikes, and its slow evenings of watermelon out in the yard. We never started school until September. August was allowed to unfold in its quiet, lovely way without us rushing it along.
Photos curtesy of Denise Trull
Long around the middle, though, I would feel this inner call to start reading and praying about the school year ahead. I would pick up my well worn copies of A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andrea, The Little Oratory by Leila Lawler, or The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers and steep once again in inspiration. I would read and read on the sagging steps of the green back porch, while the kids played in the old silver pool outside in the yard. The whole image of flushed, humid cheeks stained with the glory of red popsicles is forever knit together with the books I have read on that porch. Even their pages have forever taken on the telltale crinkled edges that fell victim to a runaway hose brandished by a giggling 10-year-old. Those were days rich in thought and images, in feelings of comfort and a sense that all was right with the world we lived in. August was good to us.
So rich were those days that even now, after my 25 years of home schooling are over and done, I still feel this inner clock telling me it is time to start planning for the year ahead. I leaf through those books just for fun, and I still meander through the pen and pencil aisle at the Office Store and buy a notebook for old times' sake. I even check when the three ring binders with the clear pockets will go on sale. It is like ghost pains. I feel as though I am getting ready for the year ahead and then I realize with a smile that I am on the other side of all that. Part of me sighs, ‘more’s the pity.’
That is why it was a lovely surprise one day when I happened to be talking to a young mom at the park last August. She discovered that I had home schooled and was eager for advice. She looked earnest and eager standing there so hopeful with her toddler running through and around her legs and a baby kissing her cheek insistently. My first impulse was to look behind me to see if she was talking to someone else. But no. It was I. “Maybe you could just make a list for me of the things I should know?” she said quite brightly. I could hear my husband laughing quietly in the back of my mind, “Lists...hahaha!” I am not a born list maker. I married into lists. I make them now. Sometimes. But I agreed to her list because I love young moms and I love homeschooling. Plus, unknown to her, she had given me back those lovely days of planning and thinking about the ideals of homeschooling. She gave me the old August feelings.
So, I made a list, to the wondering applause of my husband. Mind you, it became less advice than perhaps a "cautionary tale." Some of these things I learned through experiment, most through prayer, and some through hard knocks. They are not set in stone. They are things that have worked for me, or things I wish I had never done, or things I wish I had done.
I ask your indulgence in reading them and in giving me the chance to relive my own questions and travels through the homeschooling experience once again. And may you, dear future homeschoolers, always give August a chance.
1. When I was a young homeschool hopeful, I had this great babysitter named Elizabeth who happened to have been homeschooled. She was completely engaged with the world, fun, sweet, imaginative and, well, flourishing in college with a double major in Chemistry/Microbiology. My children fell in love with her and she was quite at ease with all of them. Homeschooling had clearly worked for her. I had flirted before with the idea of homeschooling, but Elizabeth it was who truly piqued my interest. She offered to have her own mom tell me how she did it. I could not have been more grateful. I still am, as a matter of fact. Her very kind mom, Shirley by name, took a whole afternoon to have me over for coffee and to show me "how she did it." Shirley showed me her books, her schedule, her school room, she gave me names of good Catholic programs that are most doable at home. She most of all gave me confidence through the honest details of her journey as well as the philosophy of homeschooling. The details were key. My first advice then, is to find a homeschool mom who will be willing to invite you in for coffee or tea and show you her day, her books, maybe some of her children’s work and how it is done. There are many moms out there willing to do this, and I say God bless them!
2. Homeschooling is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult, sometimes tedious. It requires perseverance and daily commitment. It requires a thick but patient skin towards nay sayers. It is sometimes quite exhausting, but then, the best things are. You must enter it with an awareness that it is a mountain to be climbed. But a mountain with lots of startling beauty along the way -- a beauty that is specifically its own and will not be found elsewhere. If you are meant to homeschool, you will be captivated by that beauty right down to your toes; but for this beauty to be acquired, courage is necessary. I found my daily courage in going to Mass every single morning, dead tired or not. There were days I was crunching over legos as I made my way to the front door, feeling absolutely certain this would be the day I would give up, but I forced myself to open that door and go. I discovered in those days that wonderful, tangible miracles do happen in Mass. I would arrive not knowing how I would get through a long day of babies, toddlers, and 3rd graders. Somehow, I would leave Mass thinking, OKAY this IS doable. Sure, I can do this. God is faithful. He asks hard things but He fills them with grace. I had some truly inexplicable energy and positivity running through me that was not natural at all. It was grace working in me. Some days I marveled -- it’s all true. When I am weak, then I am strong. Homeschooling taught me that very real truth in concrete reality. A love and awe for the power of daily Mass has remained with me to this day.
3. The key word to homeschooling is HOME when your kids are younger. To reap its benefits you have to stay home. Homeschooling will help to knit you and your children together in many wonderful ways, but you have to let it happen. It can be hard. But you can't keep leaving home to go DO things to avoid the horror of unfilled free time. That free time is when the magic happens. Boredom is not an evil. It is the catalyst of discovery -- finding out what we are made of. It stirs up creativity both in you and in your children. It will be filled with messiness. Steal your soul to it. Messiness is a good thing, in hindsight. Believe this.
Make a schedule and stick to it. Eat lunch together. For errands, drive around and listen to the radio together. Talk a lot. Listen to classical music while you make dinner and let them just hear it as a matter of course. NEVER announce that anything is “educational.” Your kids will avoid it like the plague. Just love what you love -- music, books, the recipes you enjoy making. They will pick up on your joy in two seconds flat. That is what you want them to hold to their heart’s memory. The joy of being home with a mom who loved her life and shared it with them. If you are committed to staying home, you will learn to have confidence in your ability to teach your specific kids. You will learn to observe them in a natural way and guide them towards activities that best work for them. With prayer and perseverance, God will show you how to do what you need to do day-by-day, year-by-year. He will help you become secure in your very specific Mom-ness. This happens slowly and over time when they are little -- a season uninterrupted by the outside distractions of the world. Little children do not need much ‘world’ -- except the world of home. They are still fragile, little sprouts.
4. When they do become of school-age, the inevitable question of homeschool co-ops arises. The co-ops where moms volunteer to teach different subjects for free and all the moms are required to stay and hang out all day. On this point I may differ from other moms, but I hold this stance: they are iffy.
Be aware that when you join a "co-op" you may be diving into a massive pool of insecurity -- yours and all the other moms in the co-op, especially if they are new to homeschooling. There will be many opinions bantered about, especially if you are required to hang out there all day talking with other moms.
You will begin to question yourself. Suddenly you are asking yourself questions like: am I weird for wearing a veil to Mass? Am I really a terrible person if I don't wear a veil to Mass? Am I a bad mom if I can't breast feed and have chosen to bottle feed? Am I wrong to breast feed on demand? Do my kids really need a hair cut? are we wearing the right clothes? will my child really never read if he/she doesn't get it by 2nd grade? Do we not eat healthy enough? Do we really eat "weird" food. Will my child miss out developmentally if he doesn’t sign up for soccer at the age of seven? How come we don't watch that program on TV? Are we crazy because we have chosen not to own a TV?
The questioning is endless. And with the questioning come the doubts. And suddenly you are a terrible mom, a terrible homeschooler, a terrible everything. I have seen this first hand. It's not pretty. Run. Run home and continue in the way that God has guided you through daily Mass and prayer. It will not look like any other family’s journey. It is not supposed to. Your Domestic Church is this unique thing. And children grow hearty in many environments. There is no one size fits all answer to raising children. God has set your children down in your garden to tend for a reason. He trusts you. Trust Him. DO NOT COMPARE.
5. DO, however, take violin lessons, piano lessons, singing lessons, join the parish children's choir, take swimming lessons at the Y, join parish volleyball or basketball if your child has a draw to it -- but do not force them to do it. Sports are NOT a pre-requisite to a well-lived life, contrary to the opinion of the world about you. Play at the park. Challenge that active kid to the highest monkey bars. Hike. Go fishing. But do it together as a family when the kids are younger. You won't regret it.
6. Two to three days a week, learning centers are great; the ones with paid teachers and classroom situations. Sometimes it helps a busy mom to have a teacher for some things to help her stay on track. When your kids are in high school, DO send them to a learning center for those hard things to teach, especially if you cannot stomach the idea of one more frog dissection on the kitchen table. There is someone out there who would be more than happy to do this. Let them! It is also best if the teacher is not a fellow homeschool mom, though that can sometimes work. Hire some teachers. I have had a great science teacher who got all my kids through biology, chemistry, and physical science. She could be objective without being afraid of offending me because she wasn't my friend or fellow mom. This is important. Don't teach other mom's kids if you can help it. Let your high schooler drive himself and his teen brothers and sisters to the center. It will give him/her some independence and responsibility, and will free up some lovely afternoons for you to bond with the littles at home.
7. Make friends with all kinds of people. Don't limit yourself to homeschool families. Just because you have homeschooling in common doesn't mean you have other important things in common. Often you will not find true soul mates among the moms you end up homeschooling with, even if your children become friends. That’s important to realize, and it’s okay.
You will find lovely friends in all sorts of places if you stay open to the possibility. Old people from church are great. An older gentleman named Fran noticed us each morning at 6:30 Mass, and offered to teach my boys to serve Mass at the ages of 6 & 7. He was tremendous help to me. He showed them how to be reverent and confident at the altar. Their attention spans were strengthened by seeing what Father was doing up there, and how much he depended on them to do their duty at the right time.
Make friends with the librarian and the art teacher, the museum curator, soccer coaches, directors of children’s theater groups. Let "outsiders" see how cool homeschooling can be. Often they are suspicious because sometimes homeschoolers shy away from talking to them. Be brave and share your family’s interests with them. They will find you books. They will be excited to cast your child in their play. They will sit for an hour and show an interested child how to draw perspective or shading. They might even come over for dinner when one of your cheeky children invites them. They will grow to like homeschooling if they grow to like you. And you might learn a thing or two from them in return.
8. Be a part of your church as much as you can. Serve, usher, lector. Let you kids be seen by the parish priest and the parishioners. If the pastor has a school, he will understandably not be able to gush over your choice to homeschool, but ten to one he will support you and your decision in quieter ways. Mine always did. Go to donut Sundays, parish Christmas breakfasts, and May Crownings. Don’t be afraid to talk to the teachers from the grade school and answer their inquisitive questions about why you decided to homeschool. Also listen to and respect their own thoughts on education. Catholic grade school teachers are wealths of information and stories. Let them know you support their efforts. Homeschooling is not the only way to go. You will never regret reaching out to them. And they will grow to accept that homeschooling is a really great idea for many families.
9. Make your teenager get his/her license right away when they turn 16. Also, have them get a job. These two things make a kid grow up in really good ways. And they can begin driving their brothers and sisters to activities to help you out. One great advantage of having them work a fast food job is that they realize this isn’t what they will want to do the rest of their lives. Suddenly school will become more important and more serious and they will begin to formulate an idea of what their future contribution to the world will be. They will begin to formulate a plan in their head.
10. Do NOT go to curriculum fairs until you have a plan in place. Always talk to a successful homeschool mom first and find out what she recommends. Curriculum fairs cast magical spells on an unsuspecting young mom and she finds herself buying a lot of things she will never use. I ruefully confess I have bought at least five math programs over the years and never even opened four of them, alas.
11. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray always. Read saints’ lives. Fill your house with little reminders of God’s fidelity. Have pictures of Our Lady smiling down from the walls. Celebrate Advent with a wreath and a Jesse Tree. Revel in Christmas all the way to the twelfth day. Say the rosary together. Watch really wonderful movies. Sing hymns together. Go to Mass all together and don’t be embarrassed if the kneeler bangs or your two-year-old sings at the top of her lungs. Light candles, and let the youngest blow them out. Be happy in your Catholic faith. It is such a happy, hands on faith that appeals to little children. Be thankful for it.
This is where my list ends, though there is so much more I could say. You will discover more on your own, I promise. Please be assured of my prayers for all of you young families who are launching out into the deep of homeschooling. May your journey be fruitful and filled with answers of the best kind. And when you get to the end, may you share with me a heartfelt Deo Gratias that by God’s goodness, we all miraculously persevered in one of the greatest things we could have ever done for our children.