Our decision to educate our children at home grew out of circumstance as much as ideology. We lived a long way from the school, and the bus wandered many miles to pick up all the rural children. Getting to school, going to class, and getting home again would have taken our children twelve hours. We weren’t willing to commit them to that long a day.
When we talked to school officials, we kept our argument simple: Oregon law says if we live this far away, the mandatory school attendance law doesn’t apply. The superintendent of the school district threatened us with sheriffs, lawyers, and courts, but I told him to read the statute, and we proceeded with our plans.
Home schooling was a natural outgrowth of our family life, anyway. Laura and I had started reading to our daughters when they were just babies, and they had taken to it eagerly. The winter Juniper was six and Amanda was four, Juniper said she wanted to learn to read. Laura worked with her every day at the kitchen table, and by Christmas, Juniper was reading anything she wanted.
While Juniper was absorbed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Amanda surprised us by reading simpler books aloud. “I can read,” Amanda said. “I listened when Mama was teaching Juniper. I want to read chapter books, but they’re too hard for me.”
I told her that if she wanted to read more complex books, I’d help her. We worked together on her reading vocabulary, and she started learning to write.
When the snow in Whitney Valley melted, I went to work irrigating the meadows, repairing fences, and planting our garden. Winters are long here; the work season is short, and I’m busy from daylight until dark most days. But Amanda and I continued her lessons. She sat by me and read while I spaded the garden.
“C-o-u-g-h,” Amanda spelled out loud.
“Cough,” I said. “That would be a hard one to sound out, because it’s spelled oddly.”
“It should be spelled k-o-f.”
I raked the ground and planted seeds. Amanda moved closer to me and sat down in the grass on the ditch bank. I didn’t care what theories were current in the schools. I saw what worked well for Amanda, and that’s what we did.
Radishes and lettuce sprouted. Peas blossomed. I brought water down the ditch into the garden. I weeded the carrots while the water spread through the peas. Amanda sat on a rock beside me, reading her book and spelling aloud a word when she got stuck: “R-e-c-o-g-n-i-z-e-d.”
By the next winter, Amanda could read almost anything she wanted. She started keeping a diary with pictures and short sentences. Juniper was writing and illustrating her own books, and even binding them herself.
The severe winters here keep our daughters inside much of the time, so we don’t discourage strenuous activity indoors, nor the noise that goes with it. We have no television; for entertainment, our daughters use their imagination for projects and play.
Amanda and Juniper have classes at the kitchen table in the morning. Afterward, they draw, paint, write, read, sculpt, take care of their daily chores, explore the country around us, play with their toys, and make more toys. My daughters have made me a snake, several cats, and a groundhog out of baked flour, salt, and water.
Some of their favorite toys are plastic and factory-made. A two-inch-high red cowboy named Bob Olink cost a penny at the Salvation Army store. He doesn’t have a right arm or left hand, nor any legs below the knees, but that doesn’t keep him from being an active, obstreperous, horse-owning, horse-training, marrying cowboy, who will tell you he is in charge of the stables even though he isn’t. None of us approves of the fact that Bob has seven wives, but our disapproval doesn’t influence him at all. Marilyn, a plastic woman about Bob’s size, became concerned about all the orphan baby toys and started an orphanage. The orphanage and the stables are interacting communities, and both are chronically short of money. Marilyn charges a five-dollar adoption fee, and that helps. Rabbit-Eared Girlie opened a store and will sell anything that is not essential to the community. Though they don’t like to do it, sometimes they have to sell horses to keep the operating money coming in.
Some adults disapprove of our encouragement of our daughters’ wide and sometimes wild range of imagination, as if it were in some way dangerous. I ignore the criticism. Imagination is a powerful, positive force, essential to education and to the world.
Amanda has more than a hundred dolls, some three-dimensional, some two-dimensional. Yesterday, she showed me a full-page, color picture of a well-dressed, glamorous doll advertised in a magazine as a collector’s item. She said, “This is the most expensive one yet, almost three hundred dollars.”
“My goodness. Three hundred dollars for a doll is almost unimaginable to me.”
“I know. May I have this one?”
“Sure,” I said, “go ahead.”
She skipped into the kitchen but came back soon, looking for cardboard. I gave her some from typing paper boxes and followed her into the kitchen to watch. She cut the entire page from the magazine and glued it onto the cardboard. “I used to cut the dolls out and then glue them, but that was much harder to do. Now I glue the whole page and then cut.” She smoothed the picture onto the cardboard and set it aside to dry for a few minutes.
This afternoon Juniper is drawing while Amanda builds a magazine at the other end of the kitchen table. It would be hard to shift the magazine materials without upsetting the careful order of Amanda’s work, so we eat where we can find a spot, or from plates on our laps.
To some people, our house looks disorderly. But in our view, if a work area in the house is progressing toward order — meaning that the projects scattered there will achieve a desired goal — then that work area is orderly, regardless of its appearance.
Our definition of education continues to evolve, too. “School” is the structured part of the girls’ education, the work that takes place at the kitchen table according to a schedule. In school, for about three hours a day, the girls study history, geography, science, and mathematics in a manner roughly parallel to that in public schools. But education also includes all that happens outside of school. In fact, had the decision been mine alone, I would have skipped the school part of their education almost entirely, but now, several years later, I have no regrets about the way it has gone.
Some people who hear about our approach to our daughters’ education express their concern. Aren’t our children missing opportunities that children in public schools have? I’m sure they are. Amanda would like to have singing and dance lessons. Juniper is interested in sports. They both want to learn at least one foreign language. But they have many opportunities most other children miss. After lunch one day, we drove down to the sawmill field, east of the abandoned mill. “See the cranes down on the field?” I said. “Down to the right of the mill? They’re gray, and the logs behind them are gray, so they’re hard to see, but they’re there.”
Eventually they both saw the cranes. “Are they sandhill cranes?”
“How close can we get to them?”
“We’ll find out, because I have to work on a ditch near where they are.”
We crawled under the fence and walked through sagebrush to the place where Dry Creek flows into several ditches. We started down the ditch toward the old spring house, walking slowly. Behind me, Juniper said, “They’re already getting nervous about us.” We stopped and stood still, but the cranes ran and jumped into the air and flew across the river.
We walked down the field toward the mill pond, headed for a ditch that needed some work. I said, “There are geese on the pond. They’re behind the bank closest to us. Their dark heads are against a dark background, so they’re hard to see, but you can see the chin straps. Look for the moving white spot just above the bank.”
I opened the ditch with my shovel to get water onto the field south of the pond. Amanda found a tightly curled orange caterpillar floating in the water. We tried to determine if it was dead or just dormant, but we didn’t reach a conclusion. She put it carefully into a willow bush. Then she helped me clean dead grass from the ditch. Juniper walked along the bank of the pond, exploring.
When the water was running right, we headed back up the ditch. “Are the cranes shyer than the geese?”
“Yes. You were much closer to those two geese than we were to the cranes today, weren’t you, Juniper? Do you see those two geese ahead of us? Look. See that tallest willow bush at the edge of the field? They’re right in front of that, but closer to us.”
“Oh. One of them just raised its head. There must be something wrong with my eyes. I didn’t see them until one of them moved.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. When they’re down flat like that, they blend well with their background. They don’t want you to see them. Look away from them and then find them again. The more you see animals that hide from you, the easier it is to do.”
That evening, Juniper and Amanda washed dishes while I cooked supper. Laura had been particularly busy that morning, so the girls hadn’t had their usual morning classes. But that afternoon they’d had a class in wildlife observation and identification, in analytic vision, in deportment in other species’ territory. Our class continued over supper, as we talked about scientific names of species, cranes’ nests, how some birds let us get close to them and others don’t.
Learning to read was not difficult for Juniper and Amanda. I wanted the rest of their education to come to them as easily, their interests sparked by what they encountered. They would study what they wanted to learn. Laura was more conservative. She thought it was better to duplicate what the schools were doing than to risk leaving gaps in their education. I thought it was better to leave gaps in their education, since it seemed to me that the schools were only turning out a mass-produced, job-oriented education to fit the needs of the industrial society. I wanted to encourage creative imagination, analytic ability, and a broad understanding of everything around them, and let concern for earning a living come later.
We compromised. Laura used standard notebooks and exercises, but only for as long as they were helpful or entertaining. If they got too repetitive or didn’t provide some challenge, Amanda and Juniper wouldn’t do them, and the workbooks were discarded.
These school-based materials supplemented the broad education we devised. Teaching our children how to read and having a constant supply of good reading material was the first step. Showing them how to use a library so they could find what they needed was second. The third was for us to be available when help was asked for, to supply all the needed materials, and, beyond that, to stay out of their way.
In some ways, Juniper and Amanda are outsiders in American culture now. After playing with other children, they have commented that the kids seem to lack imagination. “They just play TV. They don’t make up their own games.”
A friend, commenting on our daughters and other home-schooled children he had met, said they act “too much like adults.” He was talking about their ability to communicate with people, regardless of age, a trait he found disturbing. But I took the criticism as a compliment. I know some people are nonplussed by our children’s willingness to join in “adult” conversations. Should a fourteen-year-old have such well-defined opinions about the Gulf War, about the morality of nations? Decidedly not, according to them. They are probably relieved when they return to the world of “normal” children.
Our daughters’ reading leads them far and wide. After reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Juniper recruited Amanda and Laura to act out the play. Then she turned to biographies of Julius Caesar, Nero, and other Romans at the library. Both girls were absorbed in Roman and Greek mythology and related it to their knowledge of myths and legends from all over the world.
There has been one subject I tried to shelter them from — war and nuclear proliferation. I tried to avoid putting the whole story in their laps at once. Instead, they have become aware of these gradually, primarily through their reading.
When Amanda and Juniper were eleven and thirteen, we moved to a less isolated home. We discussed the possibility of sending them to public schools, where they could make more friends and play group sports. Eventually, however, we decided to continue with their education at home, for Juniper and Amanda have pursuits — writing, drawing, reading, music lessons, and outdoor adventures and explorations — with which public schooling would interfere. They had also had enough contact with friends and relatives to see that peer pressure can be a destructive force.
Oregon law has changed. Now anyone can educate their own children if they test them every second year with standardized tests. If they score above certain percentiles, the public schools will not interfere. When our daughters took the tests, their overall scores were far above the required levels; their math scores, however, were very low. That didn’t alarm me, but it motivated them to start their math education. We found some good math books and the math program took off and is going well.
Self-instruction doesn’t always work. When Juniper bought a violin and Amanda bought a piano, they wanted music teachers, so we took them for lessons. But their discipline for practice is all their own; we push them very little. In music, as in all areas, how far they go will be decided by the intensity of their interest.
Valuing time together and a thorough approach to education has not made us an affluent family. Finances are tight, and we get tense when car trouble or a need for new glasses or the desire for a longer vacation cuts into our small financial reserve. But it’s worth it. Our children are well-informed about the world around them, from current events to how one should react when meeting a black bear on the trail. They are concerned, curious, caring people. I don’t think they will ever be troubled by a lack of strong values or direction.
We aren’t sure we will be able to help our daughters financially with college. We aren’t sure we will have what we need when we can no longer work. The house we have now is provided as part of our job, but there will come a time when we have to retire. We don’t know that we will have a house to live in when I’m sixty-five.
What we do know is that today we have time to be together as a family. We have time to talk together, walk together, listen to each other’s music, poetry, stories, dreams, and concerns. We have time to pursue our education at home, which means all of us learning together. Most of all, we have time to live.