Grade school. A time of innocence, that captures the magical essence of childhood. A time of wonder, excitement, and joy; unadulterated by social concerns and pressures of adolescence. My grade school years were different.
Most homeschool mothers are proponents of making learning enjoyable, easy, and memorable for their students, using “real-life” experiences and hands-on activities to reinforce concepts. My mother was no exception. Using a combination approach, she adored and followed Charlotte Mason and loosely implemented Konos unit studies. In her mind, and in her heart, she believed that she was teaching my younger brother and myself. She had read the books by Charlotte Mason, and had underlined nearly every page in For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer McCaulley. Better Late Than Early by Raymond and Dorothy Moore and Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt were books she recommended relentlessly to new homeschool moms in years to come. She swore by these methods.
Practically speaking however these concepts took root in a very different form. My mother had no formal training in education and had no idea what a child needed socially, physically, or mentally, apart from what these select authors were telling her. Practically, what she took away from these methods was “Don’t push your kids. They will pick up on what they need to know academically if you allow them to play and read.” Teach them to read is all they need, is a main tenet of the homeschool religion.
And so, my brother and I did nothing. We did one unit study on Jewish feasts and Old Testament history while I was in grade school. We did another when I was in seventh grade on Medieval history that Beautiful Feet books had published. My math was shameful. Between kindergarten and twelfth grade I completed A Beka’s 3, 5, 7, Algebra ½ curriculum. My younger brother completed half as many as I did. The thesis behind this was, “Don’t push your kids. If you teach them to read, they will be able to teach themselves anything. Workbooks are boring and not the way to foster a love of learning. They are tedious. Your children do not need repetition. As the parent you know whether your child has gotten the concept or not.”
Our schooling was mostly comprised of being taught the Holy Bible in legalistic forms daily and reading an astronomical amount of historical fiction. We were fed a constant diet of Revisionist History, homeschooler fashion. We grew up believing that our Founding Fathers were something akin to the modern day prophets of the FLDS (this is strictly a comparison, not a judgment). My brother did not learn to read until he was eight or nine; had no formal handwriting training, which he still struggles with; he and I barely learned our multiplication tables; and yet, we thought we were getting the best education possible. This was the will of God for all of mankind, and my mom was simply being faithful to her calling. Parents were called “to train up a child in the way he should go.”
Through all of this, there was a social aspect to our schooling that was rooted deeply in fear and mistrust of other people who were different than us. Deep down, my mother knew that she was incapable of giving us what we needed, and I believe feared being turned in for neglect. Though I was once allowed to associate with my cousins and grandparents, this changed by the time I was nine. Neighborhood children were out of the question. The few that we were allowed to play with soon stopped coming over as the poison of self-righteousness and judgementalism began to seep into our playtime.
My mother had begun to immerse herself in The Movement’s leadership, becoming best friends with the leader of our state’s largest homeschooling group and statewide organization. Because of this relationship, our families grew incredibly close. I have never known another bond as intense as this one was. Their oldest daughter was my age, and we became kindred spirits. Unknowing to me, I had become isolated, because Heather was my only friend.
Through this relationship between my mother and hers, things started to change in my life. One tangible way my life changed was in my toys and personal belongings. Once allowed to have Barbie dolls, Rainbow Brite, My Little Ponies, and other toys popular among girls in the 1980’s, suddenly they began to disappear. Everything I owned went through my mom’s personal filter of godliness. Barbies were immodest and immoral and she would even go to lengths to tell me about the origin of Barbie as being a doll made for men to lust after. Rainbow Brite, Care Bears, and My Little Ponies were full of magic and demonic spirits. Our family was poor, and by the time my room was ransacked, I was left with very few toys that were never replaced.
Fashion trends were forbidden as it was seen as a form of great worldliness (and yes, that would mean I never owned a pair of leg-warmers). Literature as well was perused thoroughly through the same filter. Nancy Drew mystery stories, which I had just begun to read and love, were disallowed. So were Babysitters Club and any other form of modern day literature popular among the younger set. My life became reflective of my mother’s form of godliness. To have my treasured toys stripped away left me with a feeling of betrayal: this was the first seed of distrust that I started to feel towards my mom, as though she really didn’t have my best interest at heart, but rather her own. I knew then, as I know now, that my childhood was being robbed from me.
Our life as a family had become all about The Movement, bringing families into it, and maintaining an image. We lived and breathed The Movement and it consumed us. Maintaining the image of the perfect family and being a model for other homeschooling families to follow, became our sole purpose. I felt an incredible amount of pressure, much similar to the way that the older Duggar kids feel, I am quite certain.
I had to portray the perfect image of the perfect homeschool girl: Quiet, submissive, reserved, gentle, respectful, docile, and meek to every homeschooler and outsider I had contact with. The world’s idea of a Christian woman becoming a “doormat” adequately describes how girls and women are to act in The Movement. I was never allowed to voice anything other than positive feelings towards my life as a homeschooled child. Because of this dedication, we had rose quickly to statewide prominence as a family, being seen as “second in command” to our friends John and Candi.
It would become increasingly impossible for me to meet the standards of behavior that were expected of me as I aged and my personality became more pronounced. As an expressive, extraverted, intensely creative junior high girl my fights with my mother became a daily thing that would leave me in tears at the end of every night and hating her most intensely.
Heather had been my only friend, and up until seventh grade, I didn’t realize what I was missing. I felt things deeply and as I watched the world around me; I observed my neighbor and my cousins who had friends who provided a social circle of acceptance, fellowship, and friendship. I lacked this and I felt it most acutely. “Why can’t I have friends?” was my nightly plea to my mother that would leave me drifting off to sleep on a pillow dampened with tears. Heather had begun to ignore and publicly shun me. The other acquaintances that I had in The Movement were through Heather as well, and they began to openly ignore me, walking in the opposite direction when we would cross paths at an event. This went on for two long years…being ignored by all around me, abandoned by my best friend, no longer invited to get-togethers or birthday parties and often being excluded from these events to my face.
My mother watched silently from the sidelines. She would tell me to correct my laugh, it was too loud; I needed to be quieter, I talked to much; I needed to be respectful, she told me multiple times daily I was not; I needed to pray for a “quiet and gentle spirit.” I began to feel as though there was something terribly and irrevocably wrong and deeply flawed with me. I felt worthless, ugly, downtrodden, stricken down and depressed. I felt that God was deeply displeased with me, and I felt that the success of failure of The Movement was directly linked to my behavior.
I was fourteen when the weight of the world was dropped on my shoulders, when my world came to a crashing halt as the evidence began to surface as to why I was being shunned. The dark and ugly night that I discovered the truth is one I would prefer to erase from my memory. That night is the reason why, years later, I write.
Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Chandra blogs at Dispelled: One Girl’s Journey in a Homeschool Cult
Chandra Hawkins-Bernat, was homeschooled K-12 (1986-1999), and is currently enrolled to get her Bachelor’s Degrees in Secondary and Art Education. She is also authoring her autobiography, Dispelled: One Girl’s Journey in a Home School Cult and is seeking to have it published in the near future. She is happily married to her best friend and is also the proud mother of three sons, two of which have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.