Homeschooling: The Ugly

More awkward prom photos here.

I was homeschooled through high school. If I had been able to leave fundamentalism as a teenager, I believe I could have caught up on anything I missed within a year or two of going to public high school, perhaps more easily than I did in college. High school, in my opinion, is where academics begin to really matter and the need for belonging becomes really acute. As a result, I think I did miss out on some things that would have made my life fuller. Not necessarily better, but more wide-ranging. I’d have entered college with a bit more maturity. I’d feel like I’d passed through milestones others could relate to. I might still have friends from that time if I’d gone to school. What follows are the academic, cultural and developmental things I feel I missed out on:

Academically, I had very little chance to explore career options. Just being in school acquaints you with a variety of professions: teachers, principals, administrators, counselors, nurses, etc. I was aware, of course, that these professions existed, but I rarely got to see them in action. I never got to ask people in their positions what they liked about their jobs, what other jobs you could get with their degrees, and what kind of lifestyle you could lead with a certain job. Homeschooling parents frequently argue that parents can cover academic material that they don’t have a degree in. They can, sure. All they need to do is read and work through the book with you, becoming your senior study partner. What they can’t do is give you perspective on how the subject you’re studying translates into real-world work. I knew, for instance, that you could go to college, get an English degree and become a teacher. But I had no idea what happened in college that gave you those skills. I’d never heard of “student teaching,” knew only vaguely that teacher’s unions existed to siphon money out of hapless parents’ wallets, and knew, paradoxically, that teachers got paid poorly. Not only did I miss out on actual, formal career counseling, I missed out on the informal conversations and observations that could have given me a better understanding of what the world of work actually looks like away from the time clock, cash register and ugly store apron.

Culturally, I missed out on shared experiences (prom, dating, movies, popular music, trendy clothes, pierced ears, driving to the beach, etc.) and on a sense of individuation. I know now that prom isn’t all that great for many people. The thing is, I’d like to have had the chance to be disappointed with it! American culture revolves around high school: think about all the TV shows set there (Buffy, Veronica Mars, The Vampire Diaries, etc.). No matter how you actually felt about high school, you at least felt something that other people can relate to. You can probably find an audience for your hilariously bad prom story or embarrassing first date. You can definitely bond over stupid clothes you picked out when you were 15. You can wonder aloud at what you ever saw in that narcissistic jock or condescending lab partner you dated. Bad memories forge identities just as much as good ones. I don’t just wish I’d gone to high school to have a fabulous time and be popular; I wish I had something to contribute to the “war stories” nostalgia, too.

High school also prepares you to figure out your place in a group and your sense of personal identity and style. I was able to do this to some extent with my friends online, and to a much lesser degree with my friends at church. But it’s really hard to “place” yourself in the world when your options for self-expression are limited by rules or lack of exposure. For instance, I was able to forge a bit of identity by getting into anime and talking with my friends online about it. On the other hand, I had very little to work with in terms of wardrobe choices. I was a tomboy stuck in a prairie skirt.

It was not until my senior year of college that I felt like I had a coherent sense of self. If I were able to be a teenager again right now, I’d be into Katy Perry, wearing jeans and cargo pants, dyeing my hair blue and playing with makeup. I’d go to concerts and the beach. I’d have a boyfriend. I’d go to the mall. I’d play basketball and be saving up my money for a car. But I’d also still read all the time, play around in the woods, and bike for fun. I do all these things now (except play basketball or dye my hair blue – although I wish I could!). But doing them back then could have given me a much more grounded sense of identity and probably would have kept me mentally healthier. It’s a real (bad) trip constantly scrutinizing everything you like or want to see if it meshes with the Bible. Since the Bible doesn’t really make definitive statements about Katy Perry or blue hair, I would be stuck comparing my desires to the “modest” girls around me and coming up short. I used to take endless quizzes on the internet to figure out my own personality. It would have been easier to buy a pair of jeans.

As a side note, I gained a bunch of weight during puberty. If I had gone to school, I could have worked that off playing sports. As it was, my mother would tell me to “run up and down the stairs” or “pick up sticks” in the backyard. She was convinced that housework was all the exercise a woman really needed, and that paying for a gym membership was stupid. As a result, I was physically inactive much longer than I wanted to be (although I did bike nearly every day, skirt or no skirt). A school would have given me a place to exercise my body as well as my mind.

Lastly, not having gone to high school cuts me off from a sense of regional identity. If I’d been in the same school district for high school, I’d have a cultural bank filled with stories about my local town, driving to the Jersey Shore, eating at greasy spoons, hanging out at parks, going to the same movie theater with my friends, etc. I would have that ironic sense of school pride where you’re openly humiliated by your team mascot but enjoy exercising your right to make fun of it.

My life isn’t crippled by the absence of these memories, especially since I have been able to transplant most of them onto my college experience (where I did go to a hilariously bad dance, have an awkward first date, and despair over our pathetic football team). Thing is, this all could have really helped me during that confusing period of trying to figure out who the heck I was, when everybody but me seemed to have a personality. I recognize this now as typical teenage angst and individuation, and know that I’m not at all alone in having felt that way. But it would have been so much easier if all these tools had been within my reach.

Homeschooling: The Good
Evangelical Christian Textbooks, Indoctrination and Non-Learning
Libby Anne: Raised Quiverfull Project
Homeschooling: The Bad
  • Latebloomer

    Great post!! I cannot believe how much of it I relate to O_O. I absolutely LOVE your imagination of yourself as a teenager….what an interesting idea to project back like that now that you have a sense of identity! And, just like you mentioned, I also completely lack a sense of regional identity. My family considered it a hardship to travel more than 15 minutes from home, and as a result I don’t even recognize the names of towns that are within 30 min to an hour of where I grew up. It still comes back to haunt me even today, when people who have visited my hometown are more familiar with it than me :(.

  • shadowspring (@shadowspring1)

    I did go to public school, and no one ever talked to me about going to college. No one ever talked to me about planning a career. No one gave a tinker’s damn what happened to me, because school administrators only get involved in kid’s live whose parents are involved in those kids lives. In spite of being high almost all the time, I had a decent GPA and was set to graduate on time. I was very smart, and anyone who cared to invest in my life would have found a lot to work with, but I was also emotionally abused, neglected and actively persecuted by my mom. My older sister recently told me that everyone “knew” I was the smartest in the family, but no one once, not one time, suggested a bright future to me or college. Guidance counselors help students whose parents have them on the college track, not throw-away children like me.

    Prom? None of my peers went. Again, that’s for kids whose parents have money and care enough to invest in their teen’s lives. Mine is the Cinderella story in many ways: my older and younger sisters went to prom and college, with mom’s support and the school administrators responding. My twin and sister and I were always outcasts and treated like shit by mom, so the administrators followed that cue and labelled us losers.

    I am, OTOH, proud to be in touch again with friends from high school. I did HAVE friends, and that made the abuse and neglect less painful. The kindness and respect my friends offered me kept me going until through my school years. Abused/neglected home schooled kids don’t even have that, and that sucks.

    I am so proud of you and your college career, Sierra, and a bit envious. But I don’t envy you any of the rest. My teen years were better than yours, even in all my drug use and promiscuity. Both of those excesses dropped out of my life within a year of leaving home, which says a lot to me about the purpose they played in my life. As a fundamentalist, I used to lament those years. Now I see they kept me alive and gave me hope for the future through my darkest hours.

  • Lily

    I’ve never been a fundamentalist and I wasn’t homeschooled. I went to public school and public high school. I went to the prom. Still, while reading this blog post, I found myself wanting the same high school experience you fantasized about. The thing is I don’t remember high school that way. It was pretty difficult to get through. I don’t think my identity was fully formed until I graduated from college either. I have many of the same regrets and feelings that you do about my teenage years. I don’t know why, but I just wanted to share that with you. We have very different backgrounds, but still many things in common. I wish I dyed my hair blue too. I’m actually thinking about homeschooling my daughter, but not for religious reasons. I plan to have her very involved in the community and to have lots of contact with the outside world. I want her to have friends and teenage experiences. I am just wondering if homeschooling would have been better for you without the fundamentalism, the rules and the lack of exposure to outside people and influences? Can you imagine being homeschooled and allowed to go to the movies, buy jeans, spend the day at the beach with your friends, and meet interesting people with careers you wanted to explore? Is it possible that the way you were homeschooled is more the issue than homeschooling in general? I’m curious because I am still on the fence about sending my daughter to school. I found public school to be boring and to take all the joy out of learning. Most of the day was spent waiting in line. Then there is the bullying, the pressure to conform and lose your own identity, and all of the rules that must be followed. There are a lot of really dumb rules! Anyway, I enjoy reading your blog. You are an excellent writer with an interesting story to tell. I’ve learned quite a bit from your experiences and I think you do a terrific job.

    • Lori

      I would repeat many of the things Lily says here. It is the fundamentalism that is the issue more than the homeschooling. My high school life sucked. I didn’t know who I was until I was at least 25 years old. I think that is normal for everyone. I also hated trying to conform to the group. Nice post btw.

  • Louisa

    I went to public high school, and was also homeschooled. I think your image of high school is very different from the reality. Your image is the ideal, to be sure, but reality is more like. Hours of your day being bored out of your skull, because the classes have to be slow enough for everyone to understand, and not getting to ever be yourself, because you either conform or are seriously bullied and excluded. And as the commenter above said, all the crazy rules. OMG. the rules. Like not being allowed to wear anything in your hair, among other things(in public school) Or all the ridiculous wastes of time, like assemblies and movies in classes.

    In my experience, being both home and public schooled for a portion of high school, I would pick the home schooling every time.

  • Sierra

    I think homeschooling was especially bad for me for two reasons: (1) oppressive religion and (2) poverty. I could have been homeschooled and participated in activities like horseback riding, co-op sports, Model UN, etc. All of those upper-class academic and social opportunities were theoretically open to me, but not only were they way out of our financial league, they were also “worldly.” Homeschoolers can have full schedules and varied experiences, but it takes a lot of money and a parent (or two) who is totally committed to making sure they take advantage of what’s out there.

    I know my fantasy is just a fantasy; part of it also relies on class. I mean, dyeing my hair and buying new clothes all the time would be expensive. So would those beach trips and concerts. What I’m imagining is a totally different life, not just my old life transported to high school. In a better world, I would have got braces as a kid (not in college like I did). I would have had something done about my horrible acne. I would have had a mother who wore makeup and taught me how to dress.

    I get that “normal” people have crappy upbringings too. That realization actually made recovery much easier for me. If you look at my other two posts, you’ll see I’m really not against homeschooling. In my last post, I described it as a frame you can fill in many ways. Mine was only half full.

  • Liberated Liberal

    Honestly, I went to public school my entire life and it failed me miserably. My counselors didn’t know classes to put me in to get my diploma let alone give me career advice. I was third in my class (and only because I missed out on an “honors” course due to illness) and I received no help. They refused and focused all of their attention on their pet foreign student – seeing him as their personal success story. I was lost. I also suffered severe depression in my high school years that left me feeling inadequate. I suffered through high school, desperately grasping for help only to be let down. I was meeting with teachers and counselors my entire senior year and in the end they “forgot” to fill out any of my paperwork. 2 out of 4 teachers also “forgot” to write letters of recommendation. So I did not get into any college or get a single scholarship, and this sunk me into deeper depression and self-hatred. I also didn’t qualify for financial aide because my dad made enough money to support us (barely). I ended up throwing myself completely into community college, earning top grades and graduating in 1 1/2 years, expecting that it would get me somewhere in physics and mathematics, but it didn’t. I wasn’t “special” in any way, I guess, even though I received a 4.0 average and teacher recommendations. I sunk even deeper into depression. I finally went to a school to finish my mathematics degree, but illness prevented me from moving on to graduate school (as well as the need for a job to pay off my $35,000 loans).

    Believe me, my public school failed me. I should have been homeschooled. I would have had so much more confidence; I wouldn’t have had to spend all of my energy just trying to get through my days. My own depression and anxiety was fueled by the lack of care and guidance and it probably would have been better if I could have been at home to deal with it on my own terms.

    I don’t have any friends still from that time of my life, either. I made better friends in college that are still my friends today. One of them was homeschooled and he is currently finishing his PhD in astrophysics. He was totally equipped, emotionally, socially and intellectually for college and doesn’t regret it at all.

  • Melissa @ Permission to Live

    I resonate with this too. For me my teen years were long long days of cleaning up the house, making meals, and helping siblings. I was supposed to self-study, but was incredibly unmotivated and exhausted from depression and working around the house all the time. I never took any formal science, biology, chemistry, geography or history. We didn’t participate in any outside programs with the exception of violin, and I did not get the chance to develope creative endeavors because they were not as important as serving god by working around the house. To this day, I am afraid of schools and have never been to a concert. I was not allowed to wear makeup or experiment with different looks or clothes, I still don’t know what my look/style is. I never had any friends, and I am still socially awkward today. I was taught to doubt my every thought and move. I think homeschooling could be a great experience, but only if the children are allowed more freedom than I had, and even a public school setting would have more freedom than I had.

    • Sierra

      Thank you for sharing, Melissa. I’m still kind of amazed at how long it takes to put together a “look” and to really figure out makeup. (Your hunnie should be able to help you with that soon, based on her new degree!) I didn’t know that there were actual solutions for oily skin making makeup run off my face. I had no idea I could pull off a pair of skinny jeans. And I’m six years out!