Since there was recent talk of homeschooling in the comment thread of Rodney's recent post, I thought I'd re-post the experience our family had when Youngest was homeschooled. Not sure we had a common experience, not sure there is a common experience with homeschooling, it's so individual, but it's the experience we had...
the completed ship
When I saw the ship’s prow sticking out of the top of the garbage can, my heart gave a lurch. My mind protested, “No!” yet I could see it was too late. My son had thrown out his 3' x 4' popsicle stick English Galleon — and not only thrown it out, he had smashed it to smithereens.
The ship’s pieces were strewn about not only in the garbage can but around it, tiny pieces of splintered wood everywhere as if it had been dashed and broken against hidden rocks in a dark and stormy sea. Okay…more like dashed and broken by the rising from the deep of teen-hood, the Kraken that acts with vengeance toward once treasured belongings now considered childish.
I loved that ship — and for years so had he. It was not only impressively built and quite large for an English Galleon handmade by a fourth grader, but for me, that ship symbolized one of my favorite phases of parenting my third, and youngest, son.
I never planned on homeschooling that child for years — I hadn’t homeschooled his older brothers — but the situation at his school had grown untenable. There were fearful sobbing sessions every single morning just outside the first grade door, these lasted for months. There were anxiety-filled nightmares, eventually followed by hives — full body hives — blooming like clockwork on most Sunday evenings.
Eventually, we, youngest son and I, decided to give homeschooling a try.
Within weeks I knew this was the answer — the answer for my son, anyway. I went along. He loved learning, when safely far away from thirty loud and chaotic children all in one room. For the next four years we homeschooled, half the time he led the way in his curriculum.
“I’d like to memorize the Periodic Table this week.” he would say, or “Did you know that rattlesnakes (mumble mumble mumble)?? I learned that in my nature book, can we go to the zoo and see one?”
My son rarely cried anymore, the hives had disappeared, his brain was absorbing knowledge like a sponge. He had become a happy child.
Then came the day when we walked past a store window downtown and my now 9 year-old son stopped in his tracks. “Look!” he said, pointing excitedly. It was a small replica of the ship USS Constitution. From that day on, he was obsessed, reading anything he could find about ships, begging for repeated walk-bys of the replica in the window. Once he realized the original USS Constitution was still around to be viewed in person, he endlessly fantasized a trip to go see it.
“Mmmm, someday,” was as far as I was willing to commit. Boston was very far away from Oregon for a family of five on a tight budget.
Then a fortuitous moment for my son: my sister called to tell us she was getting married. A trip to Boston was in the works. As far as Youngest was concerned, we were taking the trip to see the USS Constitution; the not-very-fun-sounding wedding was an afterthought to this child.
the USS Constitution, docked in Boston
Youngest in center, with cousins — at the helm of the USS Constitution
(The wedding was fun. That nine year-old in suit and top hat, dancing at the reception with his early 20-something girl cousins was the talk of our family for months.)
Touring the USS Constitution was also a highlight, of course. We came home from our trip with many photos, many memories. Unbeknownst to me, my son also came home with a plan. He was going to build a replica of a ship.
He’d been impressed touring the oldest commissioned warship still afloat, but had also been reading about galleons. When he learned that the English Galleons had had a decisive win over the Spanish Armada, that was the deciding factor for him. Skip the frigate, a galleon would be built. A budding shipwright was born.
Building that English Galleon took weeks. We’d gone to the library and found the perfect book, one with illustrations of an old ship being built, step-by step. The hardest part for him was how to begin putting together this ship made of popsicle sticks (his choice of building material), so I assisted in making the skeleton of the hull — the keel and ribs — where the planks, or strakes, were attached. That was the extent of my design help.
My focused fourth grader built the rest of the hull himself, figuring out how to shape the squared-off stern and the captain’s quarters (that back end of a galleon that rises higher than the rest of the hull) by looking closely at illustrations of galleons online. He carefully layered popsicle stick after popsicle stick across the ship’s ribs with a hot glue gun, the glue oozing between each ‘strake.’ For the stern I helped cut each popsicle stick to the size he had marked while he controlled the placing and glueing.
By the time he had placed the masts and long bowsprit, then laid down the upper deck planks around them, he had been working for three weeks straight. I couldn’t believe he had stayed so focused, yet he just kept going. The ship was getting so big it took over the dining room table. A simple ship stand had been made by Dad: two 10" 2 x 4s on end with keel-shaped notches cut in them. The ship was almost done.
the ship’s stern with rear anchor and captain’s quarters
As soon as the very last tiny piece of the ship’s railing had been placed and there was no more ‘wood’ to work with, my son’s interest in completing the ship waned. And all that was left were the sails!
With a small amount of coaxing, the only coaxing in the entire building experience, he drew out the shapes of the sails on an old white sheet, but could not manage to cut them to look how he wanted, so he re-drew and I cut out the sails. Once he glued the sails onto the ‘yards,’ the horizontal and diagonal beams across the top of each sail on these old ships, the building of the ship was done.
My son stood back and looked. “It’s cool.” he said, nonchalantly, while my husband and I gaped. The ship was beautiful — amazing, really.
“It needs flags,” the young shipwright added, soon cutting and placing little waving paper flags on top of the fore, main, mizzen, and jigger masts.
flags waving merrily
For the next couple years, that popsicle stick ship voyaged through much of his imaginative play, whether it was pirates, sharks, Odysseus and the Sirens, or giant squid, denizens of the deep. Eventually, though, the bow got damaged and son beached the ship. Around the same time, homeschooling was beached as well.
The ship sat, listing, on my son’s dresser for another couple years, now surrounded by video games and his mountain bike helmet, sometimes holding a stray shirt aloft.
I’d walk by and feel myself foundering, too. My youngest was growing up.
Soon the Kraken would arrive.
Youngest is now twenty and paying his way through college.
Once he returned to public school, he was internally ready for it, excelled and became quite social in high school, although he still preferred the company of his teachers. He had originally chosen foreign service as his goal until the current political climate and practical dismantling of entrance to and mentorship within diplomatic service had son re-think his future. He is now studying to be an accountant, speaks French fluently, is also learning German.
He listens to Serge Gainsbourg and Charles Mingus, my elegant throwback child, and when last here for the weekend, we book swapped our latest books (we're both the readers of the family). He took away a couple mentioned in my Book Clubs post, Good Morning, Midnight, by Lilly Brooks-Dalton, and Euphoria, by Lily King, and left me Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I didn't have the heart to say I'd last read it at his age and had decided that was enough Dostoyevsky for me!
(...and yes, homeschooling cost us - a huge financial sacrifice we still shudder to think about - and still wouldn't change a thing.)