When school is at home
For several years now, "back to school" has has a different meaning for our family. It means we stay home.
In the mornings, 8-year-old Carter works on math and reading and computers. The two little boys, 4-year-olds Bennett and Avery, play or color or look at books. In the afternoons, the little boys have quiet time, and Carter and I do science. Then later, we all practice the piano. Carter knows the most notes, but Avery loves it best. Sometimes he bends his head and kisses the keys.
People ask me, "How do you manage?"
Tom and I have a patchwork life, and it seems as if we're constantly juggling: kids, jobs, deadlines, homeschool. I don't see my friends as much as I'd like; I don't often have a tidy house; our laundry finds was of multiplying overnight. And I don't know how long we'll be able to teach our children at home--some day, they may not want to be here.
There are other things I've given up, too. I'll never know what it feels like to take a child to the first day of kindergarten, or to make cupcakes for a class party. The schools post lists of supplies for each grade, items like crayons and rulers and white glue. I'll never fill a cart for my little student, or tuck an apple for the teacher in a lunch sack.
My memories are different: the light in Carter's eyes when all of a sudden, letters arranged themselves into patterns he understood, and he could read. His pride when he "got" multiplication. Avery's first sign (fish) and Bennett's first painting (of a slide). My gift to them is my time; their gift to me is theirs.
People say, "Kids need to be around other kids."
I agree. My kids have each other, most days, and once a week there is a home school P.E. class in town. They also have play dates and go to swim parties and birthday parties and summer bar-b-ques. When their friends return to school in the fall, it's harder to match up schedules. I remind their mothers, "Any in service-day, and half-day, any vacation, give us a call!"
People tell me, "I could never do it."
I understand. I never thought I'd be doing it, either. I was a public school student, and I had crushes on all my teachers, especially Ms. Watanabe, who wrote her name across the blackboard each morning in a delicate cursive that I copied. I can't write a grocery list without thinking of her, and I'd wanted that for my children: the happy memories, the love of school.
But life goes the way it goes, pulling you along like the current of a river. One decision leads to the next--we'd wanted another baby, we got 2 instead. We spent weeks in the NICU and while there, we were told repeatedly that the babies' health was at-risk for the first 2 years, especially for RSV. The nurses would look at Carter peeking at us from the other side of the NICU glass and ask, "Daycare?" No. An approving nod, then, "Kindergarten in the fall?" Maybe, maybe not.
This is how it began. Kindergarten isn't required by law in our state, so we thought we'd try it at home. My premature delivery and Avery's diagnosis, then the summer in the NICU had taken a toll. It felt as if the fabric of our lives had been ripped, and I wanted a chance to mend it before sending Carter off to school.
And too, I wanted the chance to figure out what Down syndrome meant to our family, before we let others tell us. I wanted to give Carter time to get to know his brothers, to get his feelings straight in his heart. I wanted him to feel his own strength, for the battles I knew would someday come. And Bennett is Avery's twin. It's even more important for him to be confident in himself; to believe in the rightness of who he is, and in his love for his brother. Their twin-ship needed time to grow.
Armed with a few homeschooling friends, the phone number of the local home school group, and books by Charlotte Mason and John Holt and Maria Montessori and Rudolph Steiner, we began. I found websites and blogs like The Lilting House, Mommy Life, and SouleMama. I enrolled in an online class in early childhood education. All the while, we spent our days coloring, cutting, pasting. Learning letters and looking at picture books, taking long walks in the woods and naps in the afternoons.
For 1st Grade, we had to make a formal decision. We registered ourselves as a home school and I filed the paperwork with the Superintendent of Schools: Hilltop House, 3 students. My hand trembled as I signed my name--I would be responsible for my children's education. I felt a strange mix of excitement and fear, doubt and hope. It reminded me of giving birth: you don't know what's on the other side of the experience, you only know it will be different.
Like any family, we have our fusses and fights (just now Bennett tugged on my arm and complained, "Avery touched me.") But there's a pot of turkey vegetable soup simmering on the stove for lunch, and Carter is curled up on the couch reading about a pioneer girl traveling across the wide and lonesome prairie, and the little boys are playing with Legos. On mornings like this, when the children wake and we fall into our routine, and I see them healthy, and growing, and learning together, I feel rich. These days are golden, and I collect them like coins.