I started homeschooling because I lost my job. My husband said, “Well now you can homeschool,” but I did not want to. I fought kicking and screaming.
Jessica did not start off as a homeschooling mom or even a stay at home mom. It was not what she expected or wanted. She has had a varied and interesting job life, and her most recent job, prior to homeschooling, was on the North Shore where she worked as a police officer. Her duties were varied and she worked shifts as a patrol officer for many years, working days, evenings, or even midnight shifts. She also worked as a community relations officer and had a desk job working days. She went into schools and taught crime prevention and drug prevention. She went to parent groups and talked about how to keep their children safe, offered workshops, the works.
All the kids were in school and various programs. Jessica had toyed with home schooling, but was not ready. Kids were 10, 7, 5, and 3 years old when Jessica was blindsided to lose her job. Her husband said well now you can homeschool, but she choked and could not even imagine. She didn’t know legally what she could and could not do, and of course, there was the question of how do you even teach? Also, she found that her confidence took a nosedive after the layoff. Looking back she realized she had fallen into a bit of a depression at that point. She would take her kids to school and drop them off, then go home and take a nap – which lasted until it was time to pick them up. All her life she had worked and brought in a check, and for the first time she was not able to do that. She had a home and four children to take care of, and she felt ill equipped to know how to manage. She wishes she could say she spent that first year cleaning up the house and getting things together, but she just did not know what to do or where to start. So finally one day, Jessica called her aunt and asked her if it is normal to need this much sleep. Her aunt cut to the quick and said, “Jessica, it sounds like you are depressed. You need to pull yourself together, get a purpose, and get moving.” Giving it some thought, Jessica decided she would make her kids’ school her purpose. She decided to go to the school every day and volunteer in any capacity. She volunteered in the library, planning to be that mom who backed up the teachers and help make it happen. However, her idyllic picture of how it would be did not end up reflecting reality. She discovered that she did not like what she saw over there at their school. She was there every day, and she and her little one would work their hours in the library. She began to peek into the classrooms, and saw the inner workings of how the school operated. One thing that was particularly distressing was her son’s teacher. Jessica’s son was now in 5th grade, and ten years old. The teacher seemed to have a problem with boys in general, and African American boys in particular. The boys were always in trouble. School would start at 8:15, and by 8:30 there would be trouble. There were only seven boys in the class, and they were often sitting on the bench at the principal’s office. And then, to add to Jessica’s dismay, she noticed her son began to dread getting up, dread going to school. It was as though he had brakes on his feet. More concerning, he began to have a depressed affect. He began to drag himself around and she heard him groaning, “Oh God, I just want to die.”
Enough is Enough
Words like that will unravel the fabric of any mom’s heart. So Jessica started advocating. She began to speak to the teacher, and to the principal. She did not like anything the principal had to say in response. She spoke with other moms, she wrote letters. She felt all it accomplished was stir up more dirt in the messy pot, and finally she realized the school could not and would not meet their needs. Her son was getting beaten down – the teacher told him he had nothing between his ears, and kids believe what their teachers say. He thought he couldn’t learn, so of course he stopped trying. Jessica’s heart could take it no more. She threw in the towel of changing the school, changing the system that allowed such a teacher to knock children down, year after year. The system that allowed a man to whisper into innocent ears that they could not amount to anything, that they were a burden and caused trouble by their very existence. Instead Jessica decided to change what she did have the power to change – the life of her own child who God had given her to bring up. So she pulled all three of the kids out of school to join Baby Sister.
Here We Come
That was when she embarked on her homeschool journey. It was a good journey Jessica states emphatically, but those first few years were hard. The oldest son had to relearn, or learn, that he could in fact, learn. He needed to rebuild his crumpled self confidence, and find wonder in learning and discovering. At the time Jessica began homeschooling, the kids were in 6th, 4th and 1st, and adding the 3-year old made it crazy a thousand times over. The two who had spent several years in school had to learn that education at home was not going to be the same. Her fourth grader also had run into some problems in school of a different nature which Jessica found herself trying to undo and work through. Her teacher had said she had trouble transitioning – when they were working on spelling she did not want to switch gears to math. But Jessica noticed another problem. Her daughter made up words all the time. She had developed a system of guessing based off of pictures and context. She is a very artistic girl so she was able to roll with it. But the problem remained: she did not know how to read. Jessica needed to take her back to the beginning with phonics and teach her the basics – all while teaching the first grader the same thing. So on Jessica’s first go-round with homeschooling she has two kids she’s going through intensive reading challenges, a toddler, and a child who was essentially broken down. That is a lot for one momma trying to find her way. Every day she would cry into her pillow and her husband would remind her that her purpose right now is not to teach them, but to win their hearts for God, to have a good time, to get the kids back. If you get some school done, great, but remember that is not the purpose right now. The reminder was so important because her instinct was to dwell on all the things they did not know and listen to the voice that said she had to teach them all those things today.
Getting to Know the Kids
So as she started to ease into being home with her kids each day, she realized they had not enjoyed relaxed outings together. They had not visited the museums, conservatories, parks, and so many attractions available to her in Chicago. They began to do fun things, always trying to learn as they went. It was eye-opening and exhilarating to just be together and discover the world around them. It got to the point where her son began to ask if they could please just stay home sometimes. Jessica was getting into it and having a great time, and kept finding more and more places to visit. It wasn’t long before a new concern crept up – she began to gain weight as they continued to pursue all the things they had not had time for in the past. In her mind families should go out for ice cream, so they did that – all the time. She joked she gained weight being a cookie mom – you know, one that loves her kids through baking cookies and making food. She would bake a cake and put a map on top of it – all for their education!
Connecting With Other Moms
Eventually things settled down for Jessica and they pursued a more academic avenue as the kids got older, and she began to meet other families who were doing what they were doing. She recalls meeting a mom whose child had dyslexia. She was a homeschooling mom and also a licensed school teacher, and she shared with Jessica how she taught phonics using colored blocks with letters on them. Jessica says she would never have thought of such a thing, and her friend helped her make some blocks for her girls, and they began to use them and play with them. This led to another friend sharing that she liked to use scrabble pieces. So off Jessica went to thrift stores to find old Scrabble games to gather plenty of tiles to put to use. She realized there is truly a wealth of information and knowledge out there, and she began to branch out and meet more people and engage in activities. This was useful for the kids to make friends and enjoy group activities, but also very useful for Jessica to learn from others and see how they were doing things. She recalls one mom in particular who had something like seven kids. Being a fly on her wall would be ideal, Jessica thought, because there has to be a great way to do it that isn’t so hard. Homeschooling her four seemed so hard, but here this other mom was doing it with seven. So she mentioned it to her seven-child friend, and the woman said her house is for sure going to be different from Jessica’s. And Jessica’s kids are different from her kids. There is no catch-all system because there are so many different personalities and abilities. Jessica thought about this for a while and agreed that is probably right.
One of Jessica’s favorite things about homeschooling is that she and her kids learned together. History is one of the funnest subjects for the Black family. They enjoyed many hours of reading out loud together, and it gives Jessica such pleasure when they correct her on the sequence of events or the factors surrounding an event in history. She says she never learned as much as during those busy homeschooling years. She recalls a conversation with a woman at the library who wanted to homeschool but had misgivings about her own knowledge base – both in pedagogy as far as how to teach children and how do they learn, and also when it comes to subject matter she was not familiar with. That’s when Jessica realized you actually don’t need to be an expert to help your children learn. She had her children studying Latin in a small in-home co-op for a few years. They really took to it and excelled, whereas she fell off the wagon early on. And that is ok – Jessica knows she does not have use or need of Latin at this point in life. In fact, it thrilled her heart to see them grown knowledge in an area she was not up to speed.
Fast forward now eight years into homeschooling. There is no normal for Jessica’s days with the kids. Her husband is also a police officer and has spent years working nights. When he arrives home early in the morning, sometimes everyone stays in bed for a while to extend quiet for him to get some sleep. And when they do get up they need to be quiet so he can rest, and she has a school room which happens to be directly above his head. Trying to keep the door closed can lead to slamming doors, and who can sleep through slamming doors? Probably nobody, but definitely not Jessica’s husband who is in the 95th percentile worldwide in light sleeping.
In general, a normal day would start about mid-morning for the Black family, and they hit the ground running, getting themselves ready and doing chores. After everything is straightened, Jessica likes to sit them down for breakfast/brunch while she has a devotion time and a family meeting where they discuss what is happening that day and days immediately following. After the meeting they generally do math. Her high schooler is very independent and just does what is on her schedule. Jessica does history and English with the two little ones at some point in the day. She keeps a very open hand on her day as she always factors in her husband’s sleep schedule. When he wakes up he generally brings school to a halt. They might fix lunch and eat it together, or just spend time with the kids. She smiles, “We just roll with it.”
A Great Day
What are some memories of some really great days? Jessica chuckles, confessing she does have some wonderful memories, but she is suspicious they are different from the days her kids might say are the best ones. They would say they loved the days Mom wasn’t feeling well or was super tired and would rest her head on the table while reading to them. Once they were certain she had crossed the bridge to Lala Land, they would sneak away, leaving her to snooze and enjoy an afternoon of their own mischief. She, on the other hand, treasures the days they did things together as a family, when everyone was involved and invested. She recalls the day they were doing what was supposed to be one hour of science. They were investigating different liquids and how well or if they mixed with water, whether things floated. There was liquid in jars, and there were different colors. One of the curious minds began to wonder if they could make hair a certain different color, and they began to talk about pigments, and one thing led to another and soon they were in the Kool Aid dying hair. They all have black hair of course, so they had to dye the dog’s hair because it was a lighter color, because he did not have Melanin so he picked up color. Their hair, with the Melanin, did not pick up the color, and Jessica was so happy to have a day where they had a question and learned by exploring and figuring it out. She knows the kids remember that day, learned a lot, and were able to later build on that information.
A Hard Day
On the flip side, we have awful days all the time, Jessica admits. One awful day was when the kitten died. Yes, that was a very bad day. They had just gotten some three week-old kittens which they were learning to take care of as part of their school. Every day they took care of them, bottle feeding them and keeping them in a guinea pig cage – the works. They bottle fed them for a few weeks and then they began to think about how to transition the little kitties to solid food. J’s eldest daughter uncovered the information that they need a mother to show them so of course without hesitation, she got down on her hands and knees to teach the kittens how to eat. She kept on coaxing them and one by one they got the hang of it and came out to sample the solid victuals. But one day one of the kittens collapsed onto the kitchen floor and just died right there! It was truly a tragic day. Apparently all kinds of chaos and mayhem ensued. The girls began to cry hysterically, while the oldest, Jessica’s son, capitalized on the sorrow and wondered out loud whether cat stew might be on the menu for the evening, increasing the agony and wails from the girls. Jessica fought despair as this crisis occurred early in the day, and she could see the plans she had carefully laid for the day slipping through her fingers. Then she remembered that one of her friends, another homeschooling mom, had experience working at an animal shelter before she had kids – maybe she could offer some help! It wasn’t long before the friend arrived with her daughter and assessed the situation. The kitten was not quite dead yet – still had a faint heartbeat, but was on her way out. She calmly explained that sometimes that happens. Sometimes kittens have a genetic condition and they just can’t make it. She looked at Jessica and told her today must be a day of mourning. “You have to let the kids grieve. They need to process this and cry and talk about how much they loved the kitten. Oh, and you know this kitten has fleas,” she added. At this point Jessica was in despair. What does that even mean? She showed Jessica the fleas, and there was a cloud of them. She picked up another other kitten, and, wouldn’t you know, it had fleas, too! A quick investigation of the house revealed Jessica’s entire house had the little guys, and the friend said, “You are going to have to get this house fumigated.” A mourning session and fleas in the house. How are the kids going to do any kind of learning? Jessica felt at a total loss. The friend took the kitten so they did not have to deal with that, and the kids wept for hours. They could not stop crying and talking about the kitten, while Jessica is thinking, “We only had it for six weeks; where is all this emotion coming from?”
Picking Up the Pieces
The day disappeared like dew on a summer morning, and Dad walked through the door wondering what was going on. They explained the kitten died, and the sorrow and distress they were feeling. Dad listened and patiently let them weep for about twenty minutes. Then he announced, “That is enough. We have cried for this kitten enough, and there will be no more crying.” Much to Jessica’s surprise, they stopped. Everyone wiped their tears and pulled themselves together, ready to move on. Poor Jessica still had to break the news that the house was infested with fleas, and she recalls that saying he was unhappy was an understatement. He had never been thrilled with the kittens anyway, and this was not helping. That all happened on a Wednesday. They did no academic work that day. Or on Thursday, or even Friday. Instead they had to fumigate the house and evacuate. And they had to convince Dad to allow them to keep the other kittens. It was a bad homeschooling experience at the time, but looking back, Jessica chuckles and sees the very real humor and lessons learned.
What a ride. Be sure to check back in a few more years after Baby Sister graduates. You can bet your money Jessica will say it was an exhilarating and wondrous journey, one she would never trade. Homeschooling journeys always are.