Dialogue, Privilege, and the Homeschool Debate

by Heather Doney cross posted from her blog Becoming Worldly

Events of late have got me thinking about a lot of things, including sex ed, my relationship to popular culture and society, and how advocacy groups work, among other things. It made me think in a broader sense about my life as well, where I came from and where I am going. I’ve traversed a lot of ground. Enough to make my head spin, really, and like Lana Hope saying there is no pure narrative, I know I don’t have answers to all that stuff and I find myself growing more comfortable with not knowing, with moving forward based on sense and feel, not proscriptive mandates on how to live life. It is freeing.

I am happy to be learning and growing, figuring out how to live in a way that isn’t emergency mode. Still, sometimes fun is hard for me, as are certain simple daily responsibilities. The big stuff comes easier. It’s the little daily things that don’t. There are so many areas where I still feel like I’m playing catch-up, where I feel I don’t have the space or the organizational skills or the habits, where I feel I’m still scrambling. I have to tell myself that having fun and practicing new things that I am not sure I will be good at are forms of self-care, and I think it is true.

As it is, I had a pretty fun weekend and it involved doing some things that are new and that made me feel happy. For example, as a former homeschool girl, immodestly shaking my butt in a group setting still doesn’t come easy, but I went in there and took a Zumba class a friend of mine is teaching at the local Y. I wasn’t very good at it, but I completed the workout, got in my cardio, and am going back again next time. I didn’t let shame or fear of looking stupid hold me back, but it was hard not to. I was nervous. I judge myself. I am still trying to teach myself the opposite of what was drilled into me growing up, and that is that there is room for mistakes. There is room to be vulnerable, room to look stupid, room to make errors, room to screw up and try again. There is also room to trust, but this last one is also often hard for me. It may seem that because I am open I am trusting, but that isn’t quite it and fact is I still struggle a lot with trust and discerning what is safe and what isn’t. I worry about getting screwed over, about having a comfortable space suddenly feel unwelcoming or downright hostile and I can sometimes be hypervigilent about it. I don’t think I am the only one from my background with this issue. After all, many of us came from homes that were more like boxing rings.

To do advocacy work at the same time as healing and confronting these realities with my own body and heart and mind can feel a bit like standing naked in front of a crowd. In fact, standing naked in front of a crowd might be easier, because after all, everybody has bodies. Not everybody has a story of where they grew up in a Quiverfull family and all the odd problems it caused. Telling my story is kind of like coming out of the closet (at least a closet) I guess. You let people know something intimate and personal about you in order to further a cause and live more free, hoping they will understand and that you can still belong, maybe belong even more than you did when you were pretending to be just like them. Lots of times they don’t understand though, and that space in between you opening your mouth and them responding in which you have to steel yourself for a negative outcome is pretty gut-wrenching. Really, it’s no wonder most people keep quiet about it. The stakes are high, the possibilities of misunderstanding and loss, distinct.

So I faced that gut-wrenching, waiting-for-the-verdict phase after the “Homeschool Apostates” story came out, briefly freaked out after I’d read it the first time, and I can now definitively say that it was worth it and something cool is happening – the fostering of dialogue. It is amazing to think that telling parts of my story, being vulnerable, can help set a good example for others to do so too, or at least get the issue on the radar in places where it previously didn’t exist.

So yeah, it’s a unique situation to realize you have people like Richard Dawkins, Dan Savage, and the creator of VeggieTales all talking about an article you were interviewed in, but that’s what happened last week. I had to smile because the first one would have gotten me serious street cred with my Grandad (he thoroughly enjoyed the writings of polemical atheists and being a man didn’t have to address the prevalent sexism in the movement) and it made me wish he was still alive so I could tell him about it. I joked with my roommate, who has done academic research on rape culture in abstinence-only sex ed, that now Dan Savage knows I mistook oral sex for French kissing and how weirdly hilarious that is to me, and she talked about how she loved his podcast. My Mom didn’t know who either of the first two men were but I expect she’ll be thrilled at the one about VeggieTales when I tell her. After all, my Momma looooooves her some VeggieTales and I know for a fact that Silly Songs with Larry has brightened many an overwhelming day for her.

This all got me thinking a lot about stuff that policy nerds like me think about in our spare time. You know, issue silos and social capital and power dynamics and dialogue and funding for underserved populations and bridging information gaps and I may have even thought for a few minutes about the polity-centered approach. Then I had a conversation on Twitter with Chris Jeub, Quiverfull father of 16 and homeschool debate coach. He had responded to the “Homeschool Apostates” story with a blog post saying that he thought Kathryn Joyce had hastily mischaracterized things, that he would like more data to back up her assertions, and he thinks homeschooling is a good thing that she was trying to sensationalize for the media with extreme stories.

A couple ex-homeschoolers got mad at him and told him to shut up. Others did their best to set him right as to why we don’t currently have the data he is looking for and how we’d all love to get our hands on it too – have some solid numerical answers. I told him that in my experience the story Kathryn told was true and well-researched. I also didn’t tell him to shut up. I asked him what he thought could be done to improve homeschooling. I wanted to hear what he had to say. So we had a conversation, a good conversation. Here it is, if you’d like to read it.

Now, you might think that my approach and Lana Hope’s approach and Sarah Jones’ approach and Chris Jeub’s approach to dialogue are all very different and may not be compatible and that some people’s agendas overlap a lot more than others, and in a way you’d be right, but in another way I think we all do agree on something fundamental. We all want talk and situational change to be respectful, believing that there is inherent value in it. I think we might even all agree on what a respectful debate looks like if we sat at the same table. Where we differ is in how to get it and who gets to send the invitations and who gets to hold the mic and direct the traffic. As usual, the devil is in the details and commonalities are buried beneath differences.

I firmly believe that if people like Dawkins and Savage and the VeggieTales guy are all talking about this homeschooling issue that ordinary people can talk too. Christian patriarchs can talk. Moms and Dads of 16 kids can talk and each and every one of their 16 kids can talk. You can talk and write about this stuff all you want. You have my permission (not that you needed it, or were sitting around waiting to be asked), but go ahead, knock yourself out. Say what you want.

However, I will also say that my fellow advocates and I are right to be wary and you are right to be careful (and wrong if you aren’t being careful). How you talk and what you say impacts us, so keep that in mind. There is risk to those of us who are working so hard to bring our previously untold stories to the forefront, and we often think about being stigmatized or co-opted against our will, perhaps both. So please be cognizant of the risk we face and recognize that we have worked hard and sacrificed for this and at this defining moment please take care not to label us as something we are not, or associate us with something that we aren’t, and if you do so, don’t be surprised if we push back.

Also, a friendly but firm reminder to anyone who feels an impulse to pull the homeschool version of Kanye West taking the mic from Taylor Swift to talk about Beyoncé and how it really is or should have been: Don’t do it. It is an understandable impulse, but acting upon it is bad form.

Meantime, I can definitively say that we are not a movement of atheists, or advocates of liberal sexual ethics, or united by our hatred of the denim jumper and the large family van, or easily pinpointed by our childhood fandom of Christian bible stories as told by talking animated cucumbers. We are not even former homeschool debate champions out to make a difference in unexpected ways. We are a movement that has people who are all of the above and none of the above and much more and many other things, all at the same time. It’s a pretty big and diverse group.

Well… actually, if you want to get down to it, the core of the homeschool reform movement so far has been mostly young white women with some form of higher education who like to blog and read blogs – but fact is we are inclusive, we are growing, there are more guys and homeschool parents and friends of ours joining every day, and even within the QFSOS group, a bunch of homeschooled white girls, there is a lot of diversity. I haven’t met one “average” person in the bunch. We are all individuals, as unique as our own thumbprints, but joined together because the homeschooling movement has had an impact, left a mark on all of us, and that is why we feel pulled to be here, talking about it today.

I figure fellow advocates of mine are absolutely right to be having discussions about legitimacy and how not to be pigeonholed or appropriated, and are correct to be careful about who is allowed to speak for us and with us and who should take some additional time to listen and learn before declaring themselves an ally. Maybe there are some people who we will need to ask to just shut up altogether, but meantime I have a confession to make: Sometimes I still wonder if I should shut up. In fact, it is when I am being visibly heard (like right now) that I often wonder that the most.

I am pretty wary of telling others that they need to be quiet because I don’t want to be told to be quiet. I still believe in the golden rule. I also don’t want to stifle debate. I love debate. I love hearing people’s stories and discovering what they hope and fear and what they find beautiful and what work brings them meaning. However, recognizing power dynamics and unexamined privilege – the things we typically take for granted – are key to establishing what is the most respectful and healing course of action in this situation, and I figure we will need to spend a bit more time on that in the coming days.

Those of us who are publicly telling our stories are giving up our privacy and anonymity in hopes of improving things for others. We are using the time and skills we have. It might look like fun (and indeed I have never done more deeply meaningful work in my life), but there is opportunity cost, no doubt about it. I could be doing a lot of other things with my life, but here I am, using the resources I have, and part of that currency is my personal story. So while it might seem easy for me and like I like to share, fact is I chose to do this for a particular reason and it isn’t always easy. I am making a gamble here that the benefits of speaking out outweigh the risks, but it doesn’t mean I am ignorant of the risks or that it doesn’t get in the way of other things I want to do, other ways I might want to live and be.

Sometimes I feel like I have become the queen of oversharing. Any future employer will be able to google me and learn I was diagnosed with PTSD. Family friends can read my blog and interviews and piece together stories that my siblings may not be interested in divulging to them. There are real life impacts. I listen to the “The Dog Days Are Over” by Florence & the Machine and it somehow captures how I feel so well – a story of giving up something you have in order to realize a dream, letting go of the bird in the hand and holding out crumbs for the two in the bush.

The day after the “Homeschool Apostates” piece came out online I had a second date with a guy who said he had read it and some of my blog, said he was impressed and also that he felt like he’d gotten to know me pretty well already through my writing. But having people feel like they know you when you don’t know them all that well is such a vulnerable thing. I then spent some time asking him a bunch of personal questions, so we could be even. I know him a bit better now, but we are still not even. I am still more exposed. I am still trying to get used to having what used to be my deepest secrets out there for everyone to see.

Also, while readers of the “Homeschool Apostates” story probably just accepted at face value the one-sentence story about me being a sheltered homeschool girl who thought that oral sex was another name for French kissing, it felt different on my end. I got to temporarily relive all the semi-forgotten blow job jokes that were lobbed in my direction, initially over my head, back in 9th grade during my tumultuous transition to public school.

When high school classmates had discovered I didn’t know what oral sex was and I had then blushed when it was explained to me, people thought it was funny. It could have been cute, innocent, but it wasn’t. It left me at a disadvantage. Back then I thought it was somehow my fault that the jokes at my expense continued after I had learned the facts, but it got so bad that I had several high school boys outright proposition me, ask me if I would like to “practice” doing that for them. It was highly offensive to hear these things, but fact is they were in a relative position of power compared to me and were at the same time wholly unaware of it. My dysfunctional upbringing had left me vulnerable, alone, and without the social capital or skills to do much of anything about the situation. I was so unpopular, so socially marginalized (picked last in gym, enduring balls of paper thrown at my head in class), that these boys correctly surmised that the odds of me getting mad about it and them then getting in trouble for their comments were lower than the long odds of me saying yes. So they took the risk and asked away. This isn’t just about homeschooling. Being a teenage girl is inherently a vulnerable time and I know too many other girls got the same treatment from boys in public school, but fact is that my homeschooling experience did nothing to protect me from such bullying or harassment. It painted a bulls eye on me instead.

The “Homeschool Apostates” piece has just one sentence on this experience of mine, but I have my memories of quietly saying no, flashing a dirty look, my face beet red, and switching seats to avoid what to these boys probably seemed like good fun and to me awful bullying that left me ashamed and humiliated. I’m pretty sure that if those boys had taken even a moment and thought about it, realized what they were doing with their privilege and power, that they in fact had privilege and power (it is an invisible thing to people who have it, most of the time), most of them would have been horrified and deeply ashamed at what they were doing, but they didn’t think too deeply about the impact of their actions. Fact is they didn’t have to. They could think it was a joke. Power dynamics in this situation were theirs to ignore, but I couldn’t ignore them.

So I just want to note that the general rule of thumb is if the unintended consequences of your behavior are most likely inconsequential to you but not to others, that is a sign that it isyou who have the power and privilege.

I soon came to understand these power dynamics and took them very seriously, carefully building my social standing, my academics, my world knowledge, and my understanding of how people tick, largely through trial and error, tenacity, and more than a little luck. I didn’t go walking this steep learning curve in hopes to someday help lead a homeschool reform movement (indeed at that time I loathed the very word “homeschooling,” figuring it had forced this grueling game of sink or swim catch-up upon me) but rather because I hoped that it would insulate me from having to endure the sort of ostracism and embarrassment I lived with on a daily basis for most of my formative years.

I tell this story to illustrate how when people like Chris Jeub (and I am not singling him out here, just using him as an example) write about the homeschool movement, talk about the aspects they are familiar with and take joy in, such as homeschool debate, they don’t immediately see the depths of the shame or hurt or loneliness, or what I and others had to do and go through to claw our way out, so their writing can come off as tone deaf, cavalier or dismissive or reductive to us, even though they don’t mean for it to.

I suppose it is easy to get angry, figure that they should get a clue, and I felt like that for a while, when I first started working on this issue. Since then I have realized that lived experience is a funny thing and what us homeschool kids faced as guinea pigs in this social experiment is filled with unknown unknowns to people on the outside, including homeschooling parents, who, despite what they think, are on the outside when it comes to this experience too. To add to that, people like me also get pretty good at hiding the weirder stuff, since it is generally a necessity in order to succeed in the outside world.

Today I play respectability politics. I look put together and well-adjusted, maybe even better-adjusted than your average girl on the street, since I dress well and use big words and have polite southern manners, and I suppose they just see me standing here, a capable writer, an educated person, a pretty smiling face with a good haircut, and assume we are on the same racetrack. They get confused when I seem tired or like I’m struggling because they don’t see the miles I have had to run just to be here or the ones I still have left to run to get where I want to be. They don’t know that I still deal with insomnia or that I am currently worrying about paying the rent.

So when my friend Sarah Jones talks about power dynamics and uses strong words to say people like Chris Jeub need to hush it and listen for a change, in her blog post “This Is Not A Discussion,” I don’t think she is meaning to snap at people or stifle debate, or insult Chris Jeub, but is rather saying that maybe if you knew how hard it was for so many of us, how hard it still is, despite how put-together we can sometimes be, that maybe you would be less cavalier, less quippy, less prone to make generalizations and false equivalencies of the positive and negative experiences, more likely to temper fascination with the Homeschoolers Anonymous project existing with some sorrow that it needs to exist in the first place. I think that Sarah is saying that you can’t properly explain without knowing, and in order to know, you have to listen, and that in order to listen you have to first decide that there is a story worth hearing and that the mic for describing this stuff doesn’t belong to you.

For so long our stories were dissuaded or outright suppressed, seen as not worth hearing, but that is changing now. We have built a counter-narrative, and although there is strength in numbers, there is strength in other things too (like money and political power, for instance). We are right to be careful about not having our message co-opted by people who haven’t been down in the trenches with us and many who don’t intend to go there.

If there are people telling you that you are not listening enough, that you did not get it right, then that is a sign that you probably need to do a double take, maybe try something else. At the same time, it is ok to have it be haphazard as you try to get the hang of it. That is the definition of a safe space. Fact is, Chris Jeub needs a safe space in which to try too. He doesn’t want to be told to shut up. Nobody does. None of us like that. I also think the conversation Chris Jeub and I had showed that he is open to doing more listening, more learning, more brainstorming, and I for one appreciate that. He is trying and he cares and I think it is refreshing to see. This is a learning curve for all of us, and for what it’s worth, he wrote a blog post about our conversation and bridging gaps. Because some people like separatism and don’t want to bridge gaps, he has since been having some Quiverfull/Christian patriarchy people be mean to him (what I would describe as passive-aggressive and spiritually abusive) in the comments section on that post, so he is currently catching it from both sides and I think we should be cognizant of that too and cut the man a little slack.

Also, the thing about learning and dialogue is it always goes both ways, so those of us acting like experts (yes, all of us) would do well to remember that. Fact is if I hadn’t had the conversation I did with Chris Jeub I wouldn’t have fleshed out my thoughts on why exactly I think love does not conquer all. But since he and I talked, I did, and I read this myth busting sheet that touches on abuse not being about a lack of love, and this short article about it, which I am now sharing, hoping to foster further dialogue and contribute to more airtight frameworks and best practices.

Things have been bad for many of us, left us “walking wounded,” but I can say that the more I work on this issue the more I really don’t give a damn about the culture wars, or how homeschooling does or doesn’t stack up to the messes of the public schools, or what side of anything I am supposed to be aligning myself with or fighting on. I don’t want to fight. It is not what is important. I don’t want to malign anybody to build anyone else up. I reject that narrative. It is a stupid competition, a race to the bottom, a lose/lose battle, so let’s stop and instead try to all do our part to recognize what is going on here, clean up, and pledge to not waste this perfectly good disaster. Otherwise we may just fix this problem and find we created another monster from our knee-jerk reactions, our triggers, our worries, our overactive threat assessment systems, just like our parents did. Fear is a scary thing.

So what I want is not for anyone to censor their opinions or opt out of the conversation, or keep their personal angle or the lens they see it through to themselves. It’s ok to sometimes use the wrong word. It’s ok to sometimes have an idea that you realize is from the old script rather than the new one. Let’s just be mindful that it takes a lot of work and sacrifice to bring an issue like this to the table and when it is all laid out it is generally pretty overwhelming to sit down at the table and stare at this mess, whether it hurt you badly in your formative years or you come to realize that you accidentally bought into and helped build something that hurt kids.

Human relationships count for so much. Equality and respect and listening and sharing matters. We are at a delicate time and a special time – a groundbreaking time, as fraught as Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family, as cool as new friendships (because there are many new friendships), and as important as surgery (because let’s face it, we are gathered here to remove a malignant tumor). So here’s to fostering respectful dialogue and greater understanding that I hope will lead to improvement of homeschooling communities and through that, improvement of lives. We can do it. We have already come so far, so let’s keep the conversation flowing, y’all, and try to be patient with one another.

Comments open below

Read everything by Heather Doney!

Heather Doney blogs at https://becomingworldly.wordpress.com/

Heather was raised Fundamentalist Evangelical in South Louisiana until she was 13. At that tender age she was introduced to the world at large and starting her journey away from home schooling environment.

Her blog is primarily about Quiverfull lifestyle, homeschooling culture and politics, child welfare, PTSD, education, poverty, big families, gender issues, and maybe a few bits of south Louisiana or New England culture and a recipe or craft project or two thrown in, just for fun.

She is a member of NLQ’s The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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