Guardians of Youth

“Adolescence is not the age of hatred or vengeance; it is the age of pity, mercy, and generosity. Yes, I maintain…a youth of good birth, one who has preserved his innocence up to the age of twenty, is at that age the best, most generous, the most loving, and the most lovable of men. … [Yet] I can well believe that philosophers such as you, brought up among the corruption of public schools, are unaware of it.” –Jean Jacque Rousseau (Emile, Book IV)

Every human endeavor is surrounded with pitfalls to avoid. While many of us today can see potential drawbacks to homeschooling, some parents are hesitant today to question their methods’ potential shortcomings. But why shouldn’t homeschooling families benefit from reading stories of common pitfalls?

The level of freedom in many states is cavernous. Like philosophers, modern homeschooling parents are free to question countless educational assumptions, asking questions like: Are tests really necessary, or all subjects necessary? But unlike the philosophers, the questioning is not purely theoretical: their ideas shape their children’s learning, development, and adjustment to the world. Without an eye to the potential pitfalls, how can they succeed?

The lives of the homeschooled are perhaps like a little like the lives of the rich and famous: there is a façade of success and having-it-all together that some fear breaking. And because of the overwhelming success of some homeschoolers, others consider themselves above scrutiny. Also criticism-resistant is homeschooling’s religious rhetoric of calling: as in, it’s a calling to guard and teach young minds. There is also a fear that asking for help might call a parent’s abilities, or freedom to educate their children, into question.

A Higher Calling

Parents are recruited in a highly affirming, “Anyone can do this!, or do-it-yourself language. Many have also been recruited via religious rhetoric. Yet there is also a clear thread of denial. Denial speaks in terms of “We don’t want to know,” as bad experiences are discredited as isolated and overblown. The comparison of public versus home school exists to tear down complaint: no bullies, better curriculum, etc, etc. And the disadvantages are minimized, made small and insignificant.

There is also a common thread among some homeschoolers of resistance to authority–the perception that the government cannot know best, so children are pulled from public school and parents school them themselves. While in many cases of incompetence, this might be warranted, but homeschooling, too, is vulnerable to abuses that can occur apart from the village–the accountability and checks-and-balances of others.

A Look at the Dark Side

Apart from government oversight, there is yet another alternative, and that is awareness of the common areas of problems, and as opting into increased accountability, groups that will help both parents and children. We must recognize that human beings need each other if we are to overcome the blind-spots that are easy to fall into. If we relegate experiences of those in the shadows to unknown, then we deny the problem. We must instead admit that problems can easily form in our own homeschooling groups, and even in our own houses.

The needs of a growing mind are complex. Like a natural scientist, we must look at the whole ecosystem to determine the needs of the plant. We must not allow roots to bind, too tightly, around short-sighted methods; we must see the shadows and the light, and place ourselves within the narrative of the larger potential for humanity.

A Curious Habitat

At some time in your youth, usually quite young, you learn that under a rock, life is crawling. It might not be the most colorful or loudest exhibition of life, but again and again, expectation nudges you to see if the dirt underneath is darker than the dirt that surrounds, and whether that dirt is crawling with worms and beetles and turreted pill bugs. Later you learn about something called a natural habitat. A place that encourages a uniquely adapted life. A home.

It’s within the nature of living things to seek out that which feels right. For the very small human, curiosity drives them to lift the rock—that’s what feels right. For the bug, what feels right is that cool underside of rock, moistened dirt, the protection from the sun. It’s natural to seek shelter—healthy, vital. But for darker parts of human nature, it’s also natural to hide; natural to want to maintain what is sick, to keep it hidden and not let it be discovered. And aware of it or not, this tendency places some in danger, and some permanently in the dark.

For those hidden away from scrutiny, away from critique, darkness might be the norm. Sunshine may be avoided, and in the shadows, away from the help of others, we grow sick. But there is hope–we might shine a light. It’s not impossible to be open to light where we are, by simply reading, by listening, to stories of darkness, of what to avoid. Mistakes are easy to make, and we all need outside guidance. Even if we think we’re alright.

Stories of Youth

When I think of my childhood, I think of motion, my brothers and I in the backseat of the car; if on foot, we were following closely by my mother’s side. In the big city-suburbia of Dallas, we somehow got by without really knowing anyone, without anyone knowing us to well; a string of loose connections, acquaintances at the business we regularly visited, my mother’s friends far off on the telephone in California and Louisiana. But nobody knew what schooling we really did. And I got used to being unknown, not being asked by my mom, or anybody, of my progress. And I got used to that, used to hiding, keeping what I learned, what I didn’t, to myself. I thought it would always be that way. But as Mark 4:22 quotes Jesus, Everything hidden will be revealed, and everything secret will come out into the open.”

We write our stories in in attempt to reveal these landscapes, these hidden places which have some strikingly similar pitfalls, in hopes that light might shine more completely. In the shadowy land with immense areas of of self-accountability, guardian-teachers need to see from not only their own angle, but from the light in their children’s eyes. Let the experiences of those who have been on this path before inform you. Learning how to overcome the limitation of parent’s eye-view, seeing from other angles may not feel natural at first, but it could make a huge difference in finding out what works best for the students in your care.

Stripping off the Paint

At a meeting with my therapist, she observed of my husband and me, “You really are quite different.” It’s something which I might not acknowledge often enough, because ever since she said it, I’ve been rolling it over in my mind again, realizing the implications.
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“You really are quite different.” I realize that I’ve been in denial about that.
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I want him to be more like me–more open-minded, gentler, more active, and helpful. But he’s not. And he tries to change, but he is who he is. He’s opinionated, sometimes abrasive, he likes to laugh. And that’s that.
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Just one thing that a therapist is skilled at doing is to help us notice patterns in our lives that we might not notice ourselves. I have a pattern of accommodating others at the expense of myself. Stepping carefully around the feelings of others, allowing them to be who they are without my interruption.
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I’m accepting to the point of being someone else’s canvas, their paint splashing across me at oblique angles. I didn’t speak much growing up, but tried very hard to accept what my mother said and to not upset her. And my mom’s paint has splashed across, in passionate, bright colors and I did my best to keep still, my best to not appear bothered by her loudness, or her silencing my opinions.
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Although I’ve stripped most of the paint from my past, and there’s more colors in my world now, and I know how to get alone and hear myself, it’s hard to be myself around others who are loud.
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I’m introspective; I’m open and intuitive I want to study psychology, philosophy, and be a writer. I want more education. My husband is accepting of this–only to a point. But he talks bad about the impracticality of those who major in art or philosophy. He feels that my college loan debt is already capped. I’m done. Which I understand his perspective, I can’t call it my own. I want to invest myself, to live my life, and not be afraid.
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Seems like little decisions can pull us apart. Andy and I like most churches that I’ve visited in this town. He’s unhappy, angry even, at a couple. I’m fine with looking elsewhere just because I’m open to go wherever the Spirit of God is. Yet, I say this, and I end up… wishing we were at the last church, even more than the others, because of their outreach to the lost, the rock-style worship music, and because they have a diverse crowd. Because the outcast is welcome there. I feel welcome there. But I don’t love going with Andy because he doesn’t enjoy it. He makes little spiteful comments about things he disagrees with.
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This weekend my husband and daughter went on a trip to my husband’s cousin’s wedding in another state. It was just me. I’m thankful that we’ve been visiting around and found a new church home with a terrific pastor; I went to two churches on Sunday, and both were great. On the way to pick Andy up from the airport, I felt peaceful. Yet as soon as he is in the car and talking I can feel the negative energy. Like little bubbles piercing, little bubbles of sadness. My stomach started to feel heavy. And I started feeling tense. Maybe I’m just noticing this now because of the therapy? He has an affect on me. And it’s not always good.
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Maybe all relationships, all labors, take a toll on our bubbles of happiness?  Or maybe not. I couldn’t help but feeling that generally, friendships should uplift each other. Share commonalities. Depth. Disagree in healthy ways. I can’t help but feel that maybe we’re more different than I realized, more different than I can safely settle into.
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Who am I really? What do I look like? And if I showed my full colors, would the world run away? Would they not like it that I was no longer blank before them, so they could no longer drench the space that felt so urgently their own?

Girl in a Pool

Growing up, it was just me and two of my three brothers all the time, isolated while homeschooling. The rare interaction with children outside of my home were magnified in significance and re-projected in my mind; however mundane, these moments were played again and again, hoarded in my memory.

I was 9 or 10, my family lived in a nice neighborhood with a pool. I was swimming along, minding my own business when a boy laughed at me and said, “You have boogers!”

In that moment I felt terrible.

I felt terrible because I was being laughed at because there was something apparently wrong with me. And I felt terrible because I didn’t even know what boogers were. And not knowing a word that another child would use (or, so confidently hurl at me) felt shameful.

I turned and floated away, I checked myself while in the water, pushed my hair back, squeezed water out of my nose, etc. A moment later, swimming around again, the boy looked at me and exclaimed, “She picked it, she picked it!”
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That’s when I figured out he was talking about my nose. I hadn’t “picked it” but I was nonetheless gross. The grossest. For having a “booger.”
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It seems sort of silly now: he was just a boy who felt a need to alert the world to boogers and what one might uncouthly do with them. But at the time, it wasn’t water off my back. At the time, cruelty gripped me, and embarrassment held me under.
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I was sensitive child, and contrary to my mom’s intention, I wasn’t “guarded” by my isolation; it just made those moments stand out more, made me feel worse for having no idea of how to respond.
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Without practice of social interactions, I had no self-confidence. I was unable to brush comments off. If someone said something to me, it pierced me: I was automatically afraid that I might not know how to respond, or what they were talking about.
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So I tried to keep myself hidden–and succeeded sometimes–in hiding the tears, the insecurities, and areas of ignorance.
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I know a lot more now, but I’m still anxious and sensitive. That didn’t change overnight–perhaps it never will. But I realize now that many people feel nervous, and we’re in this together. Writing my thoughts makes me stronger.
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Expressing what’s hidden can make us stronger. It’s okay to be hurt or afraid. We don’t have to carry our burdens on our own; we can share them. While they may become momentarily heavier while speaking up, some of that weight lets go when we share our troubles with a trusted friend.

Brain, Interrupted

Every night, the brain conjures up visions of places and faces and creatures. We are carried away, perhaps taking flight in the narrative produced by our minds. It’s no small production, a dream. When we break away from that vision, sometimes we grasp for it, feel its loss like a fall to the earth. Sometimes those first rays of light pierce through our awakening eyes to our bodies, and we recoil, cover our heads.

Everyday our brains conjures our surroundings, and we must navigate many distractions and interruptions, and attempt to maintain a coherent narrative, accomplish our goals. It’s taxing, isn’t it? Yet we forge ahead. We keep our faces straight and our bodies tall. No outward recoiling from the interruptions and little falls.

But what if the world is even more of an interruption than you can stomach? What if noise reaches in beneath your skin, so that the click-click-click of the clock is prick-prick-prick upon your nerves. What if intensity of the light increases to piercing like a hangover, though you weren’t out drinking the night before.

We say reality is subjective. We say the world is observed with our individual senses, but how often to we claim that people should be able to modulate their experiences of it? Play it cool? Someone can be too sensitive, as though sensitivity is a personal problem–not a human one. If the world is too hard, too loud, too bright, too crunch-and-munching (eating-you-alive), you just need to toughen up.

There’s a terrible habit among the not-as-sensitive to correct those who are sensitive, thinking that bearing with it will make us stronger. But it doesn’t happen. We don’t get tougher. Instead we lose a part of ourselves in trying to pretend we are fine. We lose touch with humanity by trying to pretend that we’re not bothered by elements of it.

Whoever unsympathetically reminds us to “ignore it” needs to be reminded about that incredible work of the brain. Whether dreaming or wide awake, conjuring the world before you (the noises, the sights, the smells) is not a simple task. Sometimes that noise is more than we can bear.

Your sense of safely existing demands a degree of stability. For most, a rollercoaster doesn’t offer enough enough stability, leaving heads spinning, leaving you feeling uneasy to the core. For some, smaller interruptions are too much. No one can get back to the stable, unshaking ground, by pretending that everything is okay.

The same way other people need food and drink, you may need a share of silence. Perhaps that’s why you pull away. Perhaps you’ve told people how you feel, but they just dismiss it. They call you inconvenient. Picky. Controlling. But you’re not any of these things. You’re different, and you’re human, too.

We all have this complicated equipment and cannot demand that it all functions exactly the same. Doing so would be tyrannical. Accommodations aren’t always too much to ask for. After all, each of us hold this narrative of ourselves; each carries forth a beautiful person inside–and in order to be ourselves, we need a safe environment.

Inappropriate Probing

It was hardly the seat where one expects a sermon, cold steel stirrups against my arches, legs propped up, my bare bottom against edge of the table, waiting for the pap-smear to be over. From the doctor, sitting at the open end of my hospital gown, I could expect clinical or politely skirted discussion. Or so I thought.

“How many people have you had sex with?” the doctor asked.

Hadn’t I already checked the boxes and answered the patient questionnaire? “People?” I asked. I drew a breath and answered truthfully: “Just one,” hoping the answer would satisfy (and silence) her. But she kept on: “Do you know that as a result of your just one sexual partner, you have contracted HPV?”

I didn’t know what to say. My decision to have sex wasn’t an overnight mistake I could easily denounce, but I also didn’t feel like I was in a position to argue. The simplest answer was that I was indeed aware of the weight of my decision. “Yes, I know,” I answered.

I knew my choice had resulted in the STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection), HPV. HPV is potentially cancer-causing, but it is also extremely common and the risk of cancer is greatly reduced, should one keep up the proper checkups, as I was.

Yet there I was, in this room, the burden of HVP falling upon me heavily, in the form of the barely-covering gown, the cost of the pap smear kit, wages for the doctor, the time from her schedule, and even the portion of crinkling paper under me. It seemed like I was a part of a national problem, which could have easily been avoided if not for that dirty three-letter word, sex.

As she removed her latex gloves she observed, “You seem a bit dazed.” And so I was. I tried to be more present, but I was still a little shocked, blinking and pausing to understand each further question, of which there were a few. She seemed to blame too high a dosage of Adderall, which I took for Attention Deficit Disorder, for my level of disorientation. Truth is, I’m never good at questions. I can’t count how many times my paper-thin self-confidence has been blown away by much less jarring queries than hers.

Since then I’ve wished that I had some quick comeback to shield myself, beyond the barely-there hospital gown. But the long answer seems more truthful then quick words anyway. My story, as with the stories of many others, doesn’t fit quick judgments. Yes, there was contact between myself and a male of the species. Not just of a sexual nature, though, but of a human nature. It was a close friendship, a first love: messy, imperfect, and largely supportive amidst each other’s faults. In that moment, to that doctor, it was as though that virus was the worst thing to happen to me–a blight to my health and a consequence of folly. But it wasn’t the worst thing to happen to me.

The worst thing to happen to me involved an absence of human contact. Consider a life perfectly controlled, unable to contract a virus, unable to take a risk and know or love another human being outside your own family. That was my life before I moved away from home.  I was literally friendless, home educated and isolated, “protected” from danger. That life was the deadliest form of disease: the kind that steals all your potential, makes you a person with many dreams, but few actualities, little knowledge of your abilities, due to no outside practice, no growth.

The spreading of viruses are evidence of biological entities, or vectors, in proximity to each other. We get sick because we go places where other people are. That virus was evidence of closeness. Opposite of the doctor’s charges, the friendship was life-affirming, important to my whole being, and not destructive. Not perfect, no. But if there was a blight, it was in a world where I made connections with other human beings and was not paralyzed by fear.

My friend was a person who understood me, who took time to listen to me even when I didn’t have much great to say. Every minute I spent with him was a step away from the loneliness, self-doubt, and the educational and social neglect of my youth. A step away from insecurity and fear into acceptance and into a slowly growing confidence.

Perhaps the sex itself was not the best thing in the world; perhaps I could have withdrawn from his company when things got a little too serious. Perhaps it was a sin and a mistake, but it was a mistake I made while growing stronger, a mistake made while climbing up a mountain instead of hiding in the dark. So I don’t regret it as much as I might.

I do have regrets. We all do. But it’s not really your place to draw them out. What good are flickers of light and more shadows on the wall, when you live in a cave?

Not Love Perhaps

by Arthur Seymour John Tessimond

This is not Love, perhaps,
Love that lays down its life,
that many waters cannot quench,
nor the floods drown,
But something written in lighter ink,
said in a lower tone, something, perhaps, especially our own.

A need, at times, to be together and talk,
And then the finding we can walk
More firmly through dark narrow places,
And meet more easily nightmare faces;
A need to reach out, sometimes, hand to hand,
And then find Earth less like an alien land;
A need for alliance to defeat
The whisperers at the corner of the street.

A need for inns on roads, islands in seas,
Halts for discoveries to be shared,
Maps checked, notes compared;
A need, at times, of each for each,
Direct as the need of throat and tongue for speech.

And from the song “Easy Does It” by Waterdeep:

Don’t waste your breath
Don’t waste my time
The fire is hot
The walls are limestone
Living in a cave
It’s easy to behave
To think we call this saved
Don’t you miss the sky?

 

The Louse-y Day

It’s not supposed to be this way, is it? You’re not supposed to feel better when met with an upsurgence of stress?

Maybe I crave change, ANY change, but when a setback came, I felt kind of glad. Content. Not saying I’ll feel that way next time, but when my droopy-lidded, sunlight-dreading eyes caught sight of a well-defined mission, I awoke, ready.

It was during the biggest chore of the morning: brushing the hair of my protesting, sensitive-scalped six-year-old that I met the uninvited: the six-legged grain-of-rice-like creature and her friends.

“Oh no.” I said, spotting one, and then another.

“Awww, it’s cute!” my daughter said.

“This is bad,” I said, quickly locating “lice” on the internet.

“So cute,” she said again.

“We must kill it. They are bad bugs–they should not be in your hair.”

“No school today?” she asked.

“Nope, no school today.” I answered as I called in.

“Yeah!” she said.

That day, she sat pretty still while I oiled and combed her hair in the bathtub; nor did she complain on the trip to Walmart to buy the lice-killer shampoo. Not much else mattered anymore. Kill the lice. Sure there was reading and writing and cooking dinner. But killing the lice was job one.

Thankfully, I was geared to handle this little bump in the road.

Someday I’ll have a job outside the home. And hopefully there will be no bugs in sight.

Somewhere Inside

There’s a voice that pervades everything you do, like a shooting pain for every step forward. It says, “Stop everything you’re doing. You are failing. You can’t express yourself. You’re an embarrassment.”

It took time, years, to overcome the oppression. The unnatural capture, the heavy chains that held you down. But you fight it now and grow stronger, because you refuse to remain hopeless. Although you’ve escaped the isolation, a sharp realization of the world around you pervades. In every open space, you sense danger, as your body remembers the shots of criticism of the past: “You can’t do this. You will fail.” Every time you speak, the seconds draw out, like the weight of your words are too much for you, for anyone else, to bear.

You allow a new narrative to call: in the sunshine, friendships bloom, and in bedside, in notebooks, you come upon something like a voice. Inside, there’s a person with feeling, someone who’s often naive, who hasn’t acquainted themselves with all that’s in the world, but a person who you love, a person you forgive, even if no one else will.

It’s not easy to be in the world, to show yourself: the insecurities, the doubts, the vast need for improvement. It’s easier to hide the doubts and hope they go away. But admitting imperfection is better than remaining in fear.

It’s better to let go of the need to maintain appearances and speak your most honest truth. It’s better to feed the wild horse your last meal, not knowing where it will carry you, than to quell your own belly, and stay where forever where you are.

You will make your own path: strange, unplanned, brave, and surprising to the ones who once thought they knew you.