My Contrarian–Non-Ideological–View of Homeschooling

I’ve written a two-part post on homeschooling for the new–and very good–Convergent blog.

I find myself in a weird sort of place when it comes to my thoughts and experiences about schooling, because while in principle I believe firmly that it is society’s duty to provide equal access to education of the highest quality to every student–and I am not enamored of the ideology that suggests that public schools–often forebodingly called “government schools” as if government in this country were not for and by the American people–do it all wrong and should be dismantled. I am happy to pay taxes so that kids can go to school, and my regrets have to do with the relatively low wages teachers earn in comparison with, oh, say, executives, and that cutting sports and music and art seem to always be on the table before cutting, oh, just about anything else.

I also support strong (and stronger) oversight of homeschooling families and their curricula. The Home School Legal Defense Association frankly frightens me with their rhetoric, which very often hedges on defending parents’ rights above the rights of a child to not be abused and to receive an adequate education. No child should suffer educational neglect. I am proud that my mom complied 100% with New York State regulations for homeschoolers, and that I took the same standardized tests as everyone else.

So when I hear stories about homeschoolers being abused and educationally neglected, I am horrified. There is definitely a seamy underbelly to homeschooling that, frankly, scares the crap out of me and is antithetical to everything I hold as a Christian value and as an American value.

All that being said, I don’t appreciate the prejudice and assumptions about homeschooling and homeschoolers, especially because, for the moment, I’m teaching my own kids at home, and because, for a time, my parents taught me at home, as did my husband’s parents. (Did I mention my husband’s Ph.D. from a top British university?) We are not all cut from the same cloth. We have different and valid reasons for what we do. Nor does homeschooling my kids mean that I am somehow not committed to the common good.

Anyway, here’s a taste of the first part of my homeschooling post, centered on my experience BEING homeschooled. The second deals with my reluctant and conflicted decision to school my kids at home–for now.

My parents were (and are) conservative Christians, but their decision to teach me at home was less ideological than practical. They took action when I was in fourth grade to ensure my well-being. It turned out that my tenured teacher at a public school was abusive. He flew into rages over the slightest infractions, overturned a student’s desk because the kid was taking too long at his spelling test, and once jacked that same kid up against the wall. I wasn’t allowed to read silently at my desk when I was finished with my assignments. Instead, I had to sit quietly, doing nothing, until the other students had finished theirs. Before long I grew to hate school. I told my parents all that was going on in the classroom.

When they confronted the teacher along with a member of the administration, he countered that I was a troublemaker. My parents pointed out that the third-quarter report cards had come out several weeks earlier, and that the teacher had written something along the lines of “Rachel is bright and a pleasure to have in class.” He had written a similar assessment on my other report cards from the same school year.

My parents and I agreed that I would endure the rest of the year in his class; it wouldn’t be all that long. But then we discovered that he would be one of the two fifth-grade teachers in our small school. To make matters worse, the administration refused to guarantee that I would not be in his class.

Enrolling in the nearest parochial school would mean I would spend at least ninety minutes on a bus every day, not to mention paying tuition that my parents didn’t have. Going back for another year of Mr. McAllister was not an option. So my mom, who was working part-time at a bank, pushed aside her assumption that homeschooling was for do-it-yourself weirdos who lived in the woods, shot deer, and tapped trees for maple syrup. She ordered textbooks and managed to arrange her work hours so she’d be home four out of five weekdays. My dad, who was pastor of a small church, would arrange his schedule so that he’d supervise me when she couldn’t.

I finished out the year in public school, but fifth grade, sixth grade, and seventh grade I learned at home.

{Continue reading at Convergent.}

The Thought-Terminating Cliche that “Born Again” Has Become: Devouring Addie Zierman’s ‘When We Were On Fire.’

I’ve been reading devouring Addie Zierman’s just-released memoir, When We Were On Fire.

There’s so much to say about this book–anyone who was raised evangelical (like me) will find themselves alternately cringing and laughing at Addie’s vivid evocations of 90s evangelical Christian [ahem, consumer] culture and all the heady highs–let’s pray for revival!–and crushing blows–Jesus is telling me not to date you anymore–that it dealt.

But though there was much in this book that had me alternately groaning, snorting, and weeping, I have to say that I particularly loved the close attention Addie gives to language–her book was originally titled, like her blog, How to Talk Evangelical. Being a fan of George Orwell’s wonderful essay “Politics and the English Language” and a writer who dreads lapsing into cliche (though I do it all the time and try to edit it out later, I love Addie’s gentle –never pedantic–way of narrating the process by which life drains out of cliches, which begin as powerful metaphors.

And because I’m currently fairly obsessed with birth metaphors–especially as they’re used in the Bible as well as in Christianese, I was particularly moved and inspired by Addie’s reflections on the phrase “born again” in relation to the birth of her first child:

You can imagine that this new metaphor was staggering in those first few moments after it was spoken. The marriage of the most natural and messy of human processes with the spiritual. With God. This idea that everything before This Moment was dark and muffled, and now you have emerged into brightness. Clarity. Joy and understanding and light.

Addie then explains how this metaphor turned into a cliche, and

began to characterize a certain kind of person with a certain political identity and a certain taste in music and a certain way of moving through the world.

“Born again,” Addie argues, has become what psychologist Robert Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliche,” the kind in which

“the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.”

And for Addie–and for many evangelicals–“thought-terminating cliches” are the substance of faith and belief. They are the things upon which we base major life-decisions. They are things we say when we simply want to maintain the illusion that we have everything together, thank you very much.

The book of Ecclesiastes remarks, rather dourly, that “the day of death is better than the day of birth.” (Somehow, that’s not a concept that has ever been reduced to a Christian cliche.) But I thought of it nonetheless on the day I left the hospital with my first son. I had gone through great pain. He had gone through the most astonishing transition of his life. Who could not see a powerful metaphor in all of that?

And yet, though I was overjoyed, I wept. I thought of how innocent and content he was, and how brief that time of innocent and contentment would be before the first tears from vaccinations and from falling down or being startled would disturb his blissful infant contentment. Addie is so right that the “born again” metaphor is not quite right. For in a sense, even if and when we are “born again” in the evangelical-speak sense, we are always also either  groaning in labor pains or taking a much-needed break between contractions. We are all still in a process of being born, waiting for God to deliver us something completely new.

Which is why it is worth considering Addie’s challenge, which is a linguistic one as much as a spiritual one:

faith has nothing to do with saying the right words. It has to do with redefining them, chipping away at the calcified outer crust until you find the simple truth at the heart of it all. Jesus.

Addie’s is thoughtful, gentle invitation to watch our language, and to open our lives to the grace and the light and, yes, even the pains that begin–rather than end–on the day we’re born, or born again.

It’s not a light switch that you can flick on. It’s slow, hard work.


The sun filters through the trees, and every time you look, the pattern of light and leaf is a little bit different. A little bit new.

It’s something better than fire. It gives warmth and clarity without burning. It is is grace. It is, as Addie says, love.

Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}