I forget that I was homeschooled the way I forget my age—gently and in passing. I’ll go a week, a month, not thinking of it. Then someone says, “Remember playing Red Rover in elementary school?” I do not, but the absent memory jogs real ones and I’m cast back: The chair I hid behind while reading about the solar system or ancient Egyptian burial practices. The workbooks I huddled over with their perforated lines to guide my handwriting. The colored blocks that stacked like Legos and were supposed to teach me early algebra. The SATs we took each summer, a hodgepodge of homeschoolers gathered in empty classrooms to be sure we weren’t falling behind. How I’d finish the day’s work early so I could ride my bike.
This all returned recently when I was texting my brother about quarantine and how I'd taken to it better than most, I think. “Sorta like homeschooling,” I wrote. Until age 13, I was hardly in the world. My siblings and I left the house a few times a week, usually for church. Otherwise we consorted mostly with each other, TV, books, the 10 acres of woods around our house in Maple Valley. Now, with schools closed for the rest of the academic year, every child in the state is homeschooled. It is a troubling way to grow up: As you learn about the world, you’re cut off from it. It is also full of pleasures—even if they aren’t immediately apparent.
My parents put me into public school in ninth grade. I became quickly aware of the stereotypes—the high-waters, the social illiteracy, the distrust of mainstream curriculum, the religious zealotry. These tracked for my family. I grew up in churches of hard-boiled conservatism and my parents kept me from school because of its worldliness (they teach evolution there). I'd less "made" friends than absorbed them at church. I wore pleated khakis that didn’t touch my shoes’ tongues. As I acclimated to public school, it seemed an irrational hardship to raise a kid this way. I came into public an alien, troubling over the very concept of making a friend. I had a few bullies, none too sensational, and spent some lunches in the library. For some time, I resented my parents’ choice. I still might.
This is the vision of homeschooling everyone knows: the tragically hermetic children. The other side gets less exposure, but it’s what parents and kids might try to embrace while stuck at home. In that solitude is freedom. Sure, create a schedule (or roll with the one a teacher provides—quarantine schooling varies widely). But if you can, let that structure bend—something especially important as many parents try to work from home and, somehow, educate. My mom asked that I finish my work each day, not that I spend seven sustained hours with my ass in a chair. Need a break? Sure. If I blew through two days of work in one day, I got to spend the extra time studying whatever I wanted.
I don’t think my mom ever demanded that I study ancient Egyptian burial practices. It was just history. But I encountered the facts with the force of discovery. They were my own: the stone scarab beetles added to coffins, the way hearts were weighed against a feather, how brains were pulled out through nostrils of the dead with an iron hook. And they’ve stayed with me longer and more vividly than so many facts gleaned from classes.
It was a productive way to learn, moving at an individual pace instead of a collective one. It also fomented an intense curiosity that’s still with me. This isn’t very psychologically surprising. As soon as something is imposed, it becomes less pleasurable. That’s why, say, the sanctioned fun of work events rarely delivers the way seeing friends does. You don’t have to, you get to. It's the jargon of "self-directed learning" in action. This is the sort of thing parents try to tell kids—learning is a privilege and should be treasured as such. But it rarely feels that way in a structured school day, with bells and security guards and due-dated assignments handed down from on high. That day feels like it's about duty and fear. Homeschooling's upside is a rejoinder. The most valuable thing kids might learn right now may not have anything to do with division, or who wrote The Jungle, but something to do with the pleasure of learning anything.