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.