Friday, March 27, 2015

I am not crazy

I am not crazy. I am not talking to myself. I am a homeschooling mom, and I'm having a parent-teacher interview.

A blast from the past: here's one of the first articles I ever published about homeschooling. It first appeared in Nazareth: A Catholic Family Journal, oh, I'm going to guess 1998. I've had the odd request for this one, and since the now defunct NJ magazine is not archived online, here it is.

A School of Love
 “I hate you!” Celeste’s shrill voice rings out. A moment later she storms out of the bedroom.  “Mom, Geneva has all the blue blocks and she won’t give me any.” I tell Geneva she has to share, and Celeste, that she must not hate anyone.

“Mom...I just don’t get this.” moans Christine, her forehead banging despondently on the table. We have started a new unit in math, and the concept still hasn’t clicked. I glance at the clock: 11:30--time to make lunch, and we haven’t even begun working on Language Arts. I was hoping we’d be finished school by noon today. Another shriek comes from the girls’ room. This time it’s Geneva.

“Katherine’s wrecking my house!” I fetch my toddler, who in turn begins to scream because she’s being banished from Lego Land. The blue block dispute, still unresolved, comes to blows. Now three children are crying, and the fourth is asking plaintively who invented school anyway. We still haven’t started Language Arts. Maybe we’ll do it this afternoon when Katherine goes down for a nap. If Katherine goes down for a nap.

After lunch, we finish school and Katherine sleeps. Needing some time alone, I allow the girls to go downstairs and watch a movie.  I brew some tea and collapse into a chair, burying my nose in the latest issue of Nazareth Journal. But the un-swept floor, dirty dishes, and baskets of unfolded laundry are burning a hole in the cover of my magazine. Suddenly I feel so I getting a sore throat? (Sigh...this is only Monday).

Is this a typical homeschooling day? Well, yes and no. No two days are alike at our house—that’s part of the fun. And there are days when everything runs smoothly: the house stays tidy, meals are planned in advance (and served on time), the girls get along swimmingly, they do their chores without complaint, and the schoolwork is completed with something approaching joy. Those are the resurrection days, but they never  come without the crucifixion days. You pray that the former will outnumber the latter, but you’ve no guarantee that it will be so.  

People often ask why we decided to homeschool (it's a fair question: sometimes I ask myself the same thing!).  Although Dan and I had concerns about some issues in the schools, I wouldn’t say that we were reacting to anything in particular. (We didn’t withdraw children from school, but “started from scratch.”) What drew us to homeschooling was (primarily) witnessing the many positive fruits, both academic and spiritual, in the lives of homeschooling families we knew. We also read books on education, and studied Scripture and pertinent Church documents, which convinced us that this family-centred educational experience is at the very heart of the life of the Church. We prayed for discernment and felt  that God was asking us to incorporate homeschooling into the living out of our family spirituality and mission.

A seminal issue for us was 'time', and how little of it families seem to share these days. Jobs, school, sports, hobbies, meetings and committee work can easily swallow up the best hours, days and years of a family’s life. How can a family stay/pray together if they are never all under the same roof during their waking hours? We feel that the restoration of the family and society depend on altering the hectic pace of our lifestyle and refocusing on hearth and home. Chesterton often wrote that a man's home and family contain all the adventure he will ever need. Homeschooling is one way that allows parents and children to spend good quantities of  'quality' time together, and it provides no shortage of adventure.

We began homeschooling in 1995 (which makes us mere novices), and we’ve had our share of challenges. Pregnancy, a new baby, and part-time farming (a three hours’ drive from where we live) have tested our endurance and resourcefulness.  We’ve also dealt with student/teacher personality conflicts, passive resistance (“Why do I have to do more schoolwork than Celeste does?”), and anxiety over teaching methods and curriculum choices. (It can be frustrating when you think you’ve found the perfect approach or program, and it doesn’t work for your child.)

 We've experienced many benefits as well. It is very rewarding to see the light of understanding go on in our children’s eyes, and to watch their progress as they learn new things and take on greater challenges every year. It is beautiful --and humbling-- to witness their spiritual growth, and to see their childlike love for Jesus and the Church (I had to smile one evening when 4-year-old Geneva’s prayer intention was for the “bissops”).  Since our schedule doesn’t revolve around the typical school day (and Dan is able to take time off work occasionally), we are able to have family outings in the afternoons or take day trips out of town. The girls and I recently set aside Wednesday afternoons for visiting an adopted grandma in a seniors' care home. Outings like this enrich everyone involved.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience to date has been preparing Christine for her First Holy Communion. Initially I felt daunted by the gravity of the task (being chiefly responsible for its undertaking), but we trusted in God and faithfully followed our chosen catechism.  When our  parish priest interviewed Christine prior to her reception of First Penance and Eucharist, he assured us  that we had done a very good job of preparing her. (We use the Faith and Life catechism series, which makes the academic side of teaching the faith relatively easy.)

What I do not find easy is the ‘practical’ side of passing on the faith (modelling Christianity for my children), yet this is the most integral component in any Catholic homeschooling program. Not only must I  ‘juggle’ my many roles and responsibilities (wife, mother, schoolteacher, homemaker, parish volunteer, writer), but I must do it with peace in my soul and a smile on my face.  How do I do it? To continue with my metaphor, I frequently drop  balls on the floor, or try to shove them in my pockets. (Neglecting to plan meals, putting off my own dental checkups, or postponing laundry to the weekend when it should be done on Tuesday are a few examples.)  When I allow my priorities to get shuffled, I’m not as  patient, joyful and loving as I ought to be.

 I’m not proud of my shortcomings, but I think homeschoolers do a disservice when we allow other people to think that we are “supermoms” who have everything under control.  I am not a supermom. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a heart of gold, a will of iron and nerves of steel: I see feet of clay. When people say to me, “Oh I could never homeschool; I don’t have it in me”, I tell them I don’t  have it in me either.  If I ever meet a homeschooling mother who does,  I’m going to ask her if I can move in with her for a few years and take notes.

I can't help feeling annoyed, therefore, when others imply that as a homeschooling mother, I must think pretty highly of myself. I remember one woman asking me why I homeschool, and before I could draw breath to reply, she answered herself without skipping a beat, “Oh, I suppose you think you can do a better job than the teachers at school.”  I assured her that very few homeschoolers start out convinced of their personal superiority to every other living teacher. Our self-confidence (if any) is rooted in our love for our children, and in the conviction that we are doing the right thing for our families. 

I am sure there are teachers out in the world who are much better artists and mathematicians than I. But no one loves my children more than I do; no one has a greater concern for their spiritual life and their eternal salvation (and I won’t apologise for saying so, whatever reaction it might elicit from Hillary Clinton and her village).  Dan and I see homeschooling as an extension of our vocation to parenthood, not as an indicator of our talents and abilities. Our focus is not on ourselves, but on God, our faith and our families. When it comes to teaching, my attitude is not, “I can do a better job than they,” but rather, “I can do all things in Christ who is my strength.”

With the conviction that God’s grace is the single most important  ‘teaching resource’ at our disposal, Dan and I have made cultivating the domestic church our top school priority. That means being less caught up in academic goals (important though they are), and being more focused on prayer and the sacraments. We believe that if we put first things first, the rest will fall into place. It’s a strategy that seems to work: overall, we have had fewer problems in school this year than in the past, and we are satisfied with the girls’ progress thus far. The ongoing struggle, of course, is keeping Christ as the centrepiece and cornerstone of our “school of love.”

Somehow those darn blue Lego blocks keep getting in the way.

Copyright 1998 Mariette Ulrich 


  1. Neat! I got NJ for a year or so. Wonder if I read this story when it first appeared.

    1. I think the mag only lasted a few years. I don't even remember now. :(