We’re All Homeschoolers Now

How the pandemic revealed the value of lessons learned outside the classroom.

homeschooling illustration, catherine womack
James Ransome

Early one afternoon last December, as I stitched the outline of a cheery yellow flowerpot onto cheap white fabric pulled taut inside a flimsy wooden hoop, a childhood memory invaded my adult psyche with unexpected force, fueled by emotion and aided by the element of surprise.

It had been a dark time in Los Angeles County: the numbers of reported daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were skyrocketing. Shorter winter days had reduced available hours of sunlight for hikes and socially distanced picnics in Griffith Park. Physically, I was safe inside my one-bedroom apartment. But mentally, I needed a new hobby to distract myself from the pandemic’s grim reality. I ordered some embroidery starter kits and set to work sewing tiny fuchsia flower petals and smooth hunter-green succulent leaves.

So there I was, 37 years old, sitting in my living room in Los Angeles in the threadbare gray sweatpants I’d worn like a second skin for months, stitching flowers, when suddenly I was 7, sitting in my living room in Erwin, Tennessee, in an oversize threadbare T-shirt that doubled as pajamas, doing needlework because I was a homeschooler and my mom had assigned the task.

Despite the passage of three decades, and having moved more than 2,000 miles away, shed the religion of my youth, and reinvented myself multiple times, here I was in the exact same situation I had run from: I was stuck in my house when I didn’t want to be, doing needlework in the middle of a weekday like a Little House on the Prairie cosplayer.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

In the spring of 2020, with public and private schools shuttered owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, some 55 million U.S. schoolchildren participated in some version of at-home learning. Globally, nearly 1.4 billion children—those under the age of 18—were confined to their homes, unable to attend school or day care in person with their peers for fear of spreading the virus.

Prior to the pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that as of 2016 nearly 1.7 million, or 3.3 percent, of the United States’ schoolchildren participated in homeschooling. When I was a kid, in the 1980s, that number was much smaller—by half. In 1999, the first year NCES data on homeschooling was collected, around 850,000 U.S. schoolchildren, or 1.7 percent, were homeschooled.

My homeschool journey began in 1987, when I was four. For nine years, from kindergarten through eighth grade, I went to school in my family’s bonus room turned classroom, steps away from our kitchen and living room.

On a typical weekday, my sister, our mom, and I would get up and eat breakfast at around eight o’clock. Over Pop-Tarts or Eggo waffles and often still wearing our comfy pajamas, we’d start the day’s assignments—math worksheets, reading, spelling tests. Like other kids my age, I learned from science, history, and English textbooks. Unlike other kids my age, I was taught by my mom and had a school day that regularly included Bible lessons, walks in the woods, piano practice, and learning how to do things like cross-stitch and sew, churn butter, and cultivate a vegetable garden.

School for me was usually over by around one. According to my mom, in the 1980s, Tennessee required homeschoolers to complete at least four hours of educational work five days a week. We followed the rules, but nobody was checking. The state mandated that students like me complete standardized testing every couple of years, but other than that, there was no real oversight.

Every family and home, happy or not, is unique, and by definition so is every homeschool experience. Today I can look back objectively and, for the most part, appreciate the hands-on, Montessori-esque approach my mom took to my education. But there were days, growing up, when I absolutely hated homeschooling, and there have been many days since when I’ve resented it.

Unsurprisingly, my angst reached its peak when I was a teenager. I hated being homeschooled because I hated being different. I disliked the fact that my friends were all together at school, that they got to pass notes with cute boys and gossip on the playground. That they had a playground. I daydreamed about having a locker just like on the early-’90s sitcom Saved by the Bell, a show that glamorized life at a fictional Los Angeles high school. I hated that my mom made me a fresh lunch at home every day and that my only companion was my younger sister. What I wouldn’t have given to eat pizza in a public school cafeteria with friends my own age.

I grew up deep in the Appalachian Mountains in rural northeast Tennessee, and in my experience as the daughter of an evangelical Southern Baptist pastor, homeschooling was primarily a right-wing endeavor. In reality, however, the practice as I knew it arose on both the far right and the far left, and much of the educational philosophy that influenced my parents’ decision to teach me themselves was born right here in Southern California, where I live today.

According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit founded by homeschool alumni to advocate for the interests of homeschooled children, the modern homeschool movement originated in the 1970s, fueled in large part by the ideas and writings of educational theorists John Holt and Raymond Moore.

Holt, a product of the East Coast, arrived at his advocacy for homeschooling from a left-leaning perspective. In his influential newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, which he started in 1977, he argued that formal public schooling acted as a tool of capitalist oppression. In U.S. classrooms, he believed, children were molded into tiny compliant students incapable of thinking for themselves. Compliant students grew up to be compliant adult employees, necessary cogs in the machinery of U.S. capitalism.

Moore, a native Californian and devout Seventh-day Adventist, came to many of the same conclusions as Holt but arrived at them from a more right-leaning point of view. A former California public school teacher, principal, and superintendent, Moore completed his PhD in education at the University of Southern California in 1947 and went on to work at the U.S. Office of Education. Many of Moore’s professional peers believed in the efficacy and necessity of early childhood education and were advocates of government Head Start programs. Moore rejected that perspective, arguing that children should be educated at home until at least age eight or nine.

It was, in fact, Moore who introduced my parents to the concept of homeschooling, via an early-1980s radio interview with James Dobson, the evangelical Christian founder of Focus on the Family, an enormously influential ministry that produced daily radio and television programs.

“You were probably three, and we were on our way home from Florida,” my mom recalled over the phone recently. “You and your sister were sleeping in the back. We were listening to James Dobson interview [Moore], and we were like, ‘Oh, this makes so much sense.’ ”

It took only a little bit of googling to find an old interview between Moore and Dobson on YouTube. I’m not sure whether it’s the exact conversation my parents listened to in the car that day, but its content mirrors what my mom remembers.

Throughout the recorded conversation, Moore and Dobson—both USC graduates—reveal a shared sense of skepticism about the prevailing educational philosophies and a disdain for compulsory early group education outside the home. In comparison with the heated rhetoric of today’s culture wars, their ideas come across as relatively mild and reasonable. But hints of the fundamentalist Christian perspective that would come to dominate homeschooling in the 1990s are evident: an emphasis on teaching morality as defined by conservative Christianity; a belief that a woman’s place is in the home, not the workforce.

As so many parents came to understand intimately during the pandemic, homeschooling a child—even with the aid of a professional teacher on the other end of a Zoom call—is a demanding full-time job. For a single-parent family or a family with two working parents, it is not a viable option. During so-called remote learning, some kids thrived while many more struggled. Often, and unsurprisingly, the quality of a child’s pandemic homeschool experience directly correlated to the size of their family’s income and the educational backgrounds of their parents. Also unsurprisingly, women worldwide did the bulk of the heavy lifting when it came to homeschooling. A reality that has had devastating consequences for economic gender parity.

Even without a pandemic, homeschooling is inherently inequitable. To be fair, great inequalities also exist between public and private schools and from one public school or school district to another. But at least in a public school classroom there are equalizers: everyone gets a desk and a chair; everyone at a given school theoretically has equal access to computers and the internet and trained teachers, counselors, and nurses; everyone can receive the same meals, tasty or not.

By definition, homeschooling is a privilege. At the very least, a homeschooler has a home, something that around 2.5 million U.S. children—many of whom are enrolled in public schools—do not have. Home education also requires substantial financial resources. In addition to affording the full-time stay-at-home labor of the teaching parent, a homeschooling family must purchase its own books and other curriculum materials. Given that a typical white family has eight times the wealth of a typical Black family, it should shock no one that most homeschoolers are white. In 1999, 75 percent were white, 10 percent were Black, 9 percent were Hispanic, and 6 percent were Asian, Pacific Islander, or another race or ethnicity. As of 2016, 59 percent of homeschoolers were white, 8 percent were Black, 26 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent were Asian, Pacific Islander, or another race or ethnicity.

As a child and as an adult, I’ve met homeschoolers who, like me, benefited academically from a highly personalized, one-on-one education. One homeschooler I grew up with went on to study art history in Chicago and build a career doing research at institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another is a successful photojournalist here on the West Coast. Their fathers—a university professor and a doctor, respectively—provided their families with the financial resources to live off one income. Their mothers willingly opted out of the workplace and devoted themselves to providing their kids with not only a solid academic education but also socialization via artistic and athletic extracurricular activities with other homeschoolers or through religious communities.

I’ve also encountered homeschoolers whose parents neglected their education, leaving them largely on their own to learn how to read and write. I know some who have struggled to integrate into society as adults, people whose parents perhaps didn’t recognize or know how to address learning disabilities, people from families with such extreme religious views or misguided philosophical beliefs that their versions of homeschooling did more harm than good.

In her 2018 memoir, Educated, Tara Westover describes her own harrowing homeschool experience. Raised in rural Idaho by a conspiracy theorist bipolar father, Westover and her siblings were left to fend for themselves (or not) when it came to reading, writing, and arithmetic. In place of anything remotely resembling a traditional academic education, Westover was handed a Bible. Abused and traumatized, she was forced to do dangerous manual labor and practice midwifery and homeopathic medicine throughout her childhood, and her eventual self-education and escape to college were remarkable.

Westover’s story may seem like an outlier, but it is not entirely unique. Statistics and research on homeschooling, which often reveal positive academic results, tend to cover only families who comply with state laws and register with their local superintendent or homeschool umbrella group, as mine did. When I asked my mom about some of the other homeschoolers I remember meeting as a kid, she described their families as “very anti–public school, almost conspiracy theorists, [people who thought] the government would invade your home, take away your freedoms, that kind of thing.”

The reality is that, even with the plethora of resources available today on the internet, a homeschool experience is only as good as the parent executing it. In a public or private school setting, a student who spends a year with a less-than-stellar teacher might spend the next with a superb educator. Homeschoolers have the same teacher every year. If that parent is mentally ill or ideologically extreme, their child’s entire education might be defined by abuse or neglect.

homeschooling illustration, catherine womack
James Ransome

I was one of the lucky ones. In addition to being a loving and caring parent, my mom is an intelligent, creative, and inspiring educator, something I haven’t always fully appreciated.

While I was provided with an above-average education in many ways, it was also filtered through a religious lens I’ve come to see as extreme. My parents taught me that evolution was “just a theory” and that God created the world a few hundred thousand years ago over the course of just seven 24-hour days. I was taught that homosexuality, drinking alcohol, and sex outside of marriage were sins and that “the wages of sin is death.”

In college and as a young adult, I drifted away from those beliefs, eventually rejecting them completely. In my 20s, as I fled from my upbringing, I lumped it all together. I couldn’t remember the good times I’d experienced as a homeschool kid—the lazy mornings on the couch listening to my mom read classic works of literature to me and my sister, or the freedom of an impromptu midmorning nature walk. All I could remember were the punitive Bible verses and the feelings of isolation, the deep shame and embarrassment I felt because I was a weirdo homeschooled preacher’s kid who wore homemade clothes and wasn’t allowed to watch the same TV shows and movies her neighbor friends did. When other kids at church laughed at inside jokes about their teachers, complained about gym class, or discussed school dances I wasn’t invited to or allowed to attend, I tried to join in where I could but mostly just felt left out and desperate to be part of their world.

To counteract that feeling of otherness, I spent a great deal of my young adult life trying as hard as I could to be as normal as possible, whatever that means. I moved across the country to a big city (Dallas), then farther still to a bigger city (Los Angeles). I went to graduate school. I got drunk and tried drugs and slept around. I campaigned for Obama. I went to therapy. I traveled whenever and wherever I could. And it worked, too. I’m not sure whether I’m “normal” per se, but I’m comfortable in my skin and happy.

Which is why that embroidery-triggered homeschool déjà vu moment last winter was so jarring. I thought I had shed my old homeschool life, but when I examined my activities as a freelance writer living through a pandemic, the similarities were striking.

During my time as a homeschooler, my days were loosely structured. I had to finish my schoolwork, and once I did, I was free. I’d sit at the kitchen table in my pajamas and power through every subject. As soon as I was done, the rest of the day was mine. There was a special thrill in finishing early and having extra hours to play outside with my sister while my traditionally schooled neighbors were confined to their classrooms.

Even before the pandemic, I’d begun to notice that as a full-time freelancer, I was structuring my time similarly. On days when I don’t have appointments, I often work at my kitchen table until two or three in the afternoon. I sit there until I’ve finished my tasks, then I’m free. There’s still that special thrill. Everyone else is stuck at the office until five while I’m off to a museum, lying by the pool, or meandering around a grocery store. It’s a lifestyle that feels a little more “normal” here in Los Angeles, where coffee shops are packed with actors and comedians whose days start at noon and grown-up theater kids working on screenplays before they head to bartending gigs.

During the pandemic, with no outside appointments and no coffee shop to work from, I fell even further into old home-school patterns. When I was a kid, my nontraditional “curriculum” often included things like baking, exploring the outdoors, and doing Jane Fonda exercise videos in the living room. In 2020, so many of us became weirdo homeschoolers, tending to our little sourdough starters, going on long walks in the woods, and doing yoga in our living rooms.

As I stitched my way through the final stretch of the pandemic, I realized I was uniquely prepared for this moment. I know how to stay at home. How to be self-motivated and get my work done without a “real” teacher or a classroom, a “real” boss or an office. Maybe being a homeschooled weirdo isn’t so bad. Who wants to be a compliant cog in a capitalist machine anyway?

In the fall of 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey revealed a dramatic increase in homeschooling rates. The survey made a distinction between participation by public and private school students in virtual learning at home via Zoom and “true homeschooling,” which increased by 5.6 percentage points, “a doubling of U.S. households that were homeschooling at the start of the 2020–2021 school year compared to the prior year.” It also revealed that homeschoolers were becoming more diverse: the proportion of Black homeschoolers increased fivefold from the spring of 2020 to the fall of 2020.

Having exited the pandemic one jab in the arm at a time, many of us are rethinking what school and work can, will, and should look like in the future. Some of us are eager to get back to the office, but some of us have gotten used to midday dog walks and more time with the kids. Perhaps nobody is more surprised to learn this than me, but morning nature walks and afternoon embroidery sessions are wonderful. And sometimes, being stuck at home isn’t so bad. •

L.A.-based pianist turned writer Catherine Womack covers classical music and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Alta Journal, and more.
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