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What About Socialization? How I Tried To Answer Everyone's Big Concern About Homeschooling

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Shortly before we began homeschooling, Alice hinted, then asked and finally begged to be allowed to quit gymnastics. She'd spent five of her first eight years dusting rosin on her hands and she was understandably burned out, but she was also a child accustomed to at least two hours of physical exertion every day, so unless I was prepared to convert the couch into a pommel horse, we needed a new activity. Ideally, it would be a team sport, so that when strangers asked after her socialization I could sing out brightly, "She's on a team sport!"

After a little online poking around, I discovered that water polo was the fourth most physically taxing group activity -- and since the state no longer allowed children to dig mines, harvest cotton or build canals, my daughter was going to be a water-poloista. She'd have practice with all those lovely teammates every weekday so it would be perfect for her physical health. She'd be too exhausted at night to bounce on my couch so it was perfect for my mental health, not to mention our couch's longevity.

Another benefit of water polo was that I knew absolutely nothing about it. Being homeschooled meant Alice had very few activities in which I wasn't at least somewhat implicated. Her schoolhouse was our house. Her schedule was our schedule. Her hobbies were our hobbies -- if for no other reason than they were spread all over our kitchen. We listened to the same music as we sat in the same room and ate the same pretzels. Alice deserved some activity in her life where my only participation was driving the car and writing the checks. She deserved Alice time. On a somewhat related note, I deserved icy drinks, possibly with salt encrusting the rim. This would be my reward for having to sit around a swimming pool five nights a week, rain or shine.

The first week was glorious. I was ignorant and she was exhausted. The minute we walked through the front door, she'd stagger into her room and collapse on her bed. I'd switch off her light, walk into the living room and have a legitimately adult conversation with Daniel. One of those nights I even had an icy drink with salt encrusting the rim. By the second week, she'd built up enough stamina to stay awake for an hour or so after getting home, during which time she wanted to discuss the nuances of water polo in great detail. Her new teammates were great! Funny! Wonderful! Except for the ones who were silly! Rude! Slow! I can't say it was compelling conversation, but no one could claim that my daughter wasn't socializing. But there went the hour of adult conversation. On the third week, everything went to hell. I, along with every other parent of an under-ten player, received an email from the team mother. She was moving back East. Who'd like to take over as team parent?

Whatever the email version of crickets is, she heard it. Her next email had a panicked tone. It wasn't really that bad, being team parent. Virtually no work at all. Lots of opportunities to bond with the other parents. Just a hint of paperwork followed by the lifelong admiration of children, peers and community. Oh, wouldn't someone become team parent? Please?

You see this one coming, right?

Actually, I was one of three suckers -- uh, parents -- who eventually stepped up, so the job was split into thirds. My specific assignment was deceptively simple. All I had to do was get people to pay the swimming pool fee, the athletic association fee and the "we-just-felt-like-adding-another-fee" fee. Each had to be paid to a different organization. One was collected monthly, one was semiannual and one followed the Phoenician lunar calendar. Someone was always in arrears. My public demeanor changed from blissful indifference -- sitting idly in the stands flipping through a magazine -- to behaving like the poolside button man for the water polo Mafia. I'd lurk up behind a late-paying parent and murmur in a flat, ominous tone, "Jackson seems to love water polo. Be a pity if we had to pull him out of the pool because his fees aren't paid." And not only was I now the pool mobster, I was also the pool FBI. I was getting dirt on every player because, as I soon discovered, there's nothing like being a week behind on pool fees to make a parent nervously start spilling the beans about another family's athletic indiscretions. Gavin kicked his teammates. Leila tried to kiss the under-twelve boys. Branford was a crybaby.

Against my will, I began paying closer attention to Alice's dissertations during the drive home from the pool. Like Alice, I was now analyzing her teammates' behavior for useful social context. Unlike Alice, I wasn't actually enjoying it. Each time she'd relate some infraction committed against her during practice, my mouth would spew the appropriate lecture about learning to work within a team while my brain hissed, Of course it would be Dalton and Jemma ganging up on her. Everyone says their mother's been checked out since her husband's affair. And the next night, there I'd be poolside, my previous apathy jettisoned like so many spent limes.

Months passed. Alice continued to attend practice five nights a week, but was less captivated by water polo than I had hoped. Trips home were spent musing aloud about how nice it would be to not get kicked in the ribs so often or how it would feel to not have scorched hair and smell like chlorine all the time. But, I'd remind her, she was learning how to be a team player. Being a team player means working together with someone whose head you would like to push under the water and could push under the water but don't push under the water. It also means learning how to take an occasional kick to the ribs. Of course, I wasn't a team player. I was becoming resentful. The fee collections never ended and someone was always ignoring my emails, phone messages and frantic waving. At one point, I toyed with simply shouting across the pool how much a certain parent owed. My voice carries beautifully and if I spotlighted one scofflaw parent, the others would probably snap right into line. I didn't think I was the kind of person who would do such a thing, but I could no longer remember what I was like before I sat at a pool five nights a week. I also really wanted to kick somebody in the ribs.

I also couldn't remember the last weeknight I had eaten dinner outside of my car -- a car that, it should be noted, now smelled like chlorine and cheese burritos. Science has yet to provide a rearview-mirror dangle-thing to get rid of that particular miasma. But I believed this was a positive learning experience for Alice and no one could say she wasn't socializing.

On one especially chilly night, the kids were divided in half for a practice scrimmage. One of the older boys -- the beefy kid who always hogged the ball--was hogging the ball. For five months I had watched him hog the ball, I'd watched the coach scream at him about hogging the ball and then I'd watched him hog the ball some more. Tonight he was modifying his game. Mostly, he hogged the ball, but on the few occasions he did pass it, he'd only pass it to his buddy. Alice and several girls were bobbing and waving directly in front of the goal, but he'd throw it to his friend who'd invariably muff the pass or miss the shot. I seethed. I'd spent months of increasingly cold and dark evenings standing out here trying to teach my daughter the value of teamwork, while this boy was teaching her the other side of the lesson -- sometimes your teammates are flaming jerks. Then I'd go home, too tired and grumpy to have an icy drink encrusted with salt, and instead spend the evening scraping refried beans from the nooks and crannies of my steering wheel. I worked all day homeschooling my kid and I worked all evening muscling deadbeat fee payers. Alice's positive learning experience was making me very negative. And once again, the ball hogger passed the ball to his pal with the oven mitts for hands.

All of a sudden someone bellowed, "That is some seriously sexist shit!"

From the number of parents suddenly staring in my direction, I was led to understand the bellower was me. "Sorry," I whispered to no one in particular and attempted to shrink under a towel. Alice continued with water polo for another month, but that night marked the beginning of the end. The next time she asked to quit, I let her.

Which again circles back to the question, "What about socialization?" I guess the most accurate answer would have to be: Alice is doing quite well. I could use some work.

Reprinted from The Year of Learning Dangerously by Quinn Cummings by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2012 by Quinn Cummings.