I had just turned 22 when my first child was born. I was just a baby, and my husband was even younger in years though he was older and, in some ways, wiser because of his many years on the road as a runaway. We had decided early on that, because of the cost of childcare at the time and other factors, one of us should be a stay-at-home parent, and he quickly admitted that he would be no good at it. I, on the other hand, thought I would be very good at it and jumped at the chance to be a full-time parent. My own parents parented with a mix of abuse and total involvement.
It was amazing that even though I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, both my mom and my dad raised my brother and me equally, playing with us, teaching us and including us in most things. We played board games and card games which taught us strategy and a healthy dose of competition. They played outdoor games with us that they remembered from their own childhoods, all of us laughing often stumbling or making mistakes but learning to recover and learning survival skills along the way. We learned history and social studies by going on family vacations to places like Sturbridge Village and the Boston area, including Plymouth Rock and Pennsylvania Dutch Country, including Gettysburg in the trip. We gardened, did science experiments, did minor medical things like applying butterflies to deep cuts. We went on nature walks, and we always had a dog.
We were included in dinner table discussions even when there was company. My parents’ friends were writers, politicians, lawyers, and other businessmen. Only a few of the women worked, but they were all educated, and they very smart and savvy. Most of those who did work were nurses. The conversations were timely and exciting. My comments in these larger groups, although not always agreed with, were always welcome. And … there was always music. Every one of our family of friends loved and followed music, mostly Big Band and Jazz. Some of them were living room musicians themselves, played quite well and loved it, but decided to go down a different path. I often say that I feel as though I learned more at home than I ever learned in school. Granted, I was not a good student and hated being there at all, but the richness of my home experience far outweighs any richness I felt at school. It makes me feel sad when I think about that. I wish I had loved school.
School is a child’s opportunity to go out on their own and discover a world away from their parents. That is such a valuable thing. We are born helpless and in need of constant care in order to survive. Over time we start to do more and more for ourselves until finally, we’re ready. It’s time to find ourselves as individuals. As parents, we’ve been so wrapped up in caring for our child, it’s very hard to let go and even harder to know when it’s the right time. But there isn’t really a “right time.” Letting go is a very gradual process. The first time I left my baby in a room alone, I had to let go. When I let them explore outside of my reaches, I was letting go. Sending them off to school or daycare was just part of the long process of sending them out to live their lives. That said, not all children are suited for school and not all parents are ready to let them go, where they will stumble around on their own and even trip and fall.
I was a child not suited to school and my mother was not willing to let me live my own life, though she did send me to school. Because my mother tried to control my every thought and deed, I was very shy and afraid when I went out in public. My school experience was fraught with peril. I didn’t participate in classroom discussions, had very few, if any, friends and was a target for bullies. However, my test scores and writing assignments, when I did them, were always stellar. I was very smart and very bored in school. I was already reading books far ahead of my grade level and understood things way beyond what was expected of me by my teachers. This was because of my upbringing which was a curse and a blessing. Even now, I get bored easily and lose interest in mundane things very quickly. It never ceases to amaze me that I ended up being an educator.
If my family were not so dysfunctional and abusive, I would have thrived in a homeschooling situation. I think I would have thrived in a performing arts school, even a boarding school may have been an improvement. As it was, I struggled throughout my school career, working with tutors, retaking classes and mostly trying to make myself invisible. My family thought that sending me to a college prep school would be much better than public school, where I had finally made a couple of friends, but that was the final disaster. It’s a miracle that I made it through those four years alive. Not everyone did. My savior was music.
There were no music or art classes in my high school until my senior year. However, I had been taking private piano lessons for quite a few years and started classical voice training. I went home from school every day and sat at the piano playing a little to unwind, launching into my required hour of practice then just playing for the rest of the afternoon. It soothed away all of the turmoil inside of me and washed away all of the abuses of the day. Mom used to say that she could tell what kind of a day I’d had by the way I played when I got home.
There was also a very cool Jesuit priest teaching in this Catholic high school. I wish I could remember his name, but I retained very little from those days. He taught yoga after school and started an afterschool guitar class/jam. My dad let me use his old no name steel string guitar that he had bought for $5.00 from the Red Cross when he was in the navy. The strings were like steel cables and the action was very high. I could barely press the strings down at all, but this was the only music in the school, so I was in. I worked very hard learning to play a few chords, my fingers bleeding sometimes from the old rusted strings, until finally my dad decided to buy me a classical guitar. In my senior year, the school hired a music teacher, and I excelled, tutoring some of the less able kids and making friends in this school for the first time during my four-year tenure.
School is a necessity and should be a time of discovery, a time to discover new ideas and discover ourselves. I am a firm believer in children going to school and, although I have homeschooled my children from time to time, they have spent most of their time in schools. However, it takes the team work of students, encouraging parents who listen to their children and address any problems, helping them figure out how to solve issues but not doing it for them, and caring teachers who are not restrained by unreasonable rules and expectations. There are so many wonderful teachers in our schools trying to navigate a changing world and do their best for their students. I think we should let them do their jobs.
But I don’t think that school should be the only place where we learn such valuable things as social studies, current events, science, health, art and music? I grew up during the Cold War and the Viet Nam war. We understood the tenuousness of peace and the realities of life. I don’t remember growing up terrified that the world would end because world events were talked about in school and at home. When disasters happened, we were aware of them. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, we were told what happened and were sent home from school early. We talked about it as a family, and we talked about it in school. When the Cuba Crisis was going on, we all shared the apprehension and survived. My daughter vividly remembers when the Challenger exploded. It was a traumatic event for many school kids watching the first teacher go into space. They got through it. It seems as though now, we try so hard to protect our children from the things that happen around them. We keep them indoors for fear of abduction, we keep secrets about the state of the world. We are failing to teach them the survival skills they will need as adults.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t protect our children. Of course, we need to do that. I’m suggesting that we not overprotect them. They will only know how to use their instincts about safety if they have practice. I can tell you from my own experience that I have drawn on the skills I learned at home, more times than I can count, to ensure my own survival. My daughter once said to me, “How can I make new friends if I’m not allowed to talk to strangers?” I would take it a step further. How will you be able to determine if a potential new friend is a threat if you don’t have the experience of listening to your instincts?