The New York Times Style Magazine piece about the trendy Brooklyn homeschoolers, "School's In," both did and didn't remind me of my own pre-college education. My family called it unschooling, because we didn't have any classes. We were living in one of the parts of New Jersey that has a surprising number of farms, and our neo-Nazi neighbors harassed our black neighbors. We had "group," which met every week or so--not for French lessons, but for random fun. The kids from group, local homeschoolers of different ages, went ice skating in the winter. We were the only ones on the rink, except for a foul-tempered skate guard with a bristling mustache. We went to parks in the summer. We built a raft out of recycling buckets and plywood and floated on the pond. We were not cool. Some of us ate processed cheese. No one had very much money.
My mother leaned a little more in the direction of the Brooklynites described in the article. She liked kale. We weren't allowed to watch television, and she grew a giant garden in the yard. But my best friend Emily, also homeschooled, ate sugary cereal and was allowed to watch TV. When I slept over her house, I was mesmerized by her depraved, thrilling lifestyle. Her Barbies had really big breasts. Mine weren't really Barbies, and they were proportioned like real women.
Of course we ran into the Christian homeschoolers. They were always trying to save me. They always told me that until I stopped being so Jewish, I would go to hell. It was clear to me from a very young age that I couldn't possibly represent "the movement." The homeschooling movement, I mean. It was too diverse. But I tried. I was extra friendly to the adults who wanted to ask me lots of questions about whether or not I was learning anything, and whether or not I had any social skills at all.
The Brooklyn homeschoolers sound a little like my family and some of the homeschoolers I knew growing up. They emphasize art. My family did that. We emphasized music, mostly. But they also, ironically, remind me of the Waldorf schools, which they are apparently supposed to contrast with. The reporter describes the children's fashionable outfits. They sport progressive first names like "Fiona" and "Theo." They are in a class. Not a big class. But a class. With a paid teacher. My unschooling senses prickle. Paid?! A teacher?! When I was twelve or so, I liked to make fun of the Waldorf kids. By then we'd moved to the Princeton area, and Emily had gone to the Waldorf school down the street for what would turn out to be a brief stint. I said, "Now it's time for our bread baking class! And after that we're all going to draw a rose!" I thought this was hilarious. Silly hippies.
Even now (I'm 24), people ask me what my days were like, as an unschooler. What did I do? How did I learn? And the truth is--I'm not exactly sure. Because they were almost never the same. There were some textbooks along the way. Maybe two. I was supposed to complete a certain amount of lessons a week from them. I did a lot of them on Fridays, when I remembered. I remember reading all the time. And writing all the time. And painting. And playing music. I did these things because I loved them. I loved them in a way that I sometimes think people have forgotten they can be loved by children and young adults. Because these activities weren't school, or work, or homework, or a requirement. They were me. And when you love something enough to do it constantly, it will always lead to other things, and you will always get better at it. It sounds so simple. People want more of an answer. They want to know who my tutors were. What kind of education my mother had. Neither of my parents went to college. They started a business together as teenagers.
Both of my parents are very, very smart. They are both good at networking. They are both creative. But most importantly, in terms of my education, they both somehow were able to agree that I would turn out fine, even if I never sat in a classroom. They somehow trusted that children will always learn, as long as they are encouraged.
The Brooklyn homeschoolers' world, as described, sounds so delicate to me. Which is funny, because people have always imagined my world to be constructed out of fragile materials and a rare brand of naïve idealism. This is a narrative about homeschooling that people repeat. It's not "real." It's sort of a fantasy. It's not gritty and down to earth and diverse. Maybe this is always at least partly true, but maybe it also just depends a lot on who is doing the homeschooling, or the unschooling. Because the truth is, school and home are never really perfectly balanced alternatives to one another. They aren't opposites. School is controllable and uniform to an extent that unschool can't possibly be.
The Brooklyn homeschoolers have very young children now. It's only just begun. Brooklyn is a complex, fascinating, and diverse place. When those kids are teenagers, and they still aren't in school, then we'll see what happens.