The first time Mary was suspended off of the bus this year, we told her that we thought she needed a different learning environment. It wasn’t just because of the suspension. That was only a validation (the first of many to come) of what we already knew: she wasn’t thriving. Her grades fell dramatically, with as much velocity as her social life soared. The phone would wring incessantly for her, from 3:00 in the afternoon until well after dinner. She loved school, but only because she could - and did - come home everyday bragging about what it’s like to be the most popular girl there.
Twice, Mary had dentist appointments in the beginning of the school day, after which I offered to let her stay home, figuring we could take advantage of an opportunity for quality time together. I even offered to take her out with me for pizza if she did. Both times she politely assured me she’d rather just go back to school to be with her friends. The suggestion to switch her from the school she’s at now to a new one was met with ardent hostility. She could NOT be without her friends, she said, and we respected how she felt. Almost immediately after that first conversation, the school scheduled a parent teacher conference to discuss slipping grades and worsening behavior. The discussion to move schools was officially back on the table. This time, if she wanted to stay in the school she was at, she was going to have to prove to us that she could thrive there.
The hardest part has always been feeling detached from what goes on there. I love her teachers, councilor and administrator. But I can count on one hand the number of times she’s even been assigned homework or a project that could be worked on at home. I asked the teachers for ways that I could help her study or to otherwise be involved, and their answers were that unfortunately, most of the materials had to stay at school. There was a website that she could access from home which would help to aid her in preparing for the state test, but nothing that even gave me the chance to be involved. I was used to getting a monthly newsletter in the mail from her last school, detailing everything the kids in her grade were learning about and how. I was used to signing an agenda book every evening which had a daily list of all assignments to be completed and returned to school the next day. I was able to look over her homework with her and help to correct mistakes. I knew exactly what she was struggling with, where and generally even why. I knew that middle school would break that trend to encourage accountability and self-motivation in transitioning students, but it didn’t. It just cut me off from having any involvement at all in her crumbling education. I was rendered helpless to stop her grades from spiraling out of control. It was going to be up to her to bring her grades up all alone, when most days it’s all she can do to make it out of there without getting into a fist-fight.
Cutting to the chase: I want to home school Mary, at least for a year to see how it goes. I’ve scoured the internet. I’ve finished two books from the library. I’ve all but photographically memorized all of the pros, cons and statistics available in an effort to compare switching her to a different public school. Home schooling is something I never thought I’d “do to my kids” but nothing about it feels even remotely questionable to me anymore; nothing about it feels like it wouldn’t be everything she needs, exactly the way that she needs it, to succeed where she’s struggled for so long. Whenever I’m making an important decision, I get as familiar as I can with both sides of the coin, not just the side I’m leaning toward. And I’ve found that hands down, the biggest bone nay-sayers have to pick with a home schooling situation is socialization. I wonder, looking at my daughter, what it is exactly they picture when they think of the socialization a middle schooler gets in public school today.
I feel like I have a lot to offer someone in regard to perspective on this because my daughter is about as typically socialized within the public school system as a kid can get. Everyone knows who she is and she’s pretty universally adored, which is why she loves school as much as she does. But being socialized at eleven isn’t what it used to be. I couldn’t tell you what it was like to be the most popular girl in middle school fifteen years ago, but I can tell you what I see and hear from my daughter’s perspective today, and I’m willing to bet: it isn’t what the typical nay-sayer is thinking. Here’s a little insight as to what it’s like to be an extremely popular girl in an east coast, suburban middle school, today.
- You are not exempt from bullying. You are targeted incessantly, by your “friends” as much as anyone else. Everything about your clothes, your body and the income of your parents will be picked apart on a daily basis. (Not so different than back in our day, really.) The only difference is that people are willing to beat other people up on your behalf. Which, of course, comes back on you when their friends find out.
- Everyone, popular or not, is measured by how well they can fight.
- The more popular you are, the more you’re challenged. Three girls walked to our neighborhood once in the very beginning of the school year and literally knocked on my door just to [try to] beat up my daughter because she had so many friends.
- If someone is beat up, there’s a monumental amount of pressure for them to redeem themselves by beating up someone else.
- If you win in a fight, you are a hero. If you lose in a fight, everyone will hate you. Not tease you, they will hate you. When Mary was beat up the other day, sitting in the office with a bloody nose, her best friend… let me repeat that: her BEST FRIEND… came into the office just to inform her that everyone hates her now. Everyone. And then walked away.
- The girl who beat her up, by the way, was a good friend, too.
- If you are attacked and beat up - even if you never threw a punch, you are just as suspended as the person who decided they were going to fight you that day.
Here’s the best part!
- Boys don’t want to date you. They want to have sex with you. And because they have no idea how to even pretend to be romantic about it, they just come right out and ask you for it. Girls, nowadays, haven’t even matured enough to realize how gross and disrespectful that is. They think it’s normal. They think it’s acceptable. They think it’s flattering. BECAUSE THEY’RE ELEVEN.
- Most of the “friends” my daughter has in public school have either smoked cigarettes, weed or made out with a boy by the age of ten. Who do you think the first person they try to impress with this information is? The most popular kid in school, of course! The other day Mary told a girl who was bragging about some marijuana she had, that smoking weed is disgusting. The girl replied: “Well, I wouldn’t share it with you anyway. Actually, maybe I would. Then we’d probably be cool.”
The friends she had were proving to be more and more toxic everyday, with every story she came home from school, ready and willing to spill. (So much of the time, not even understanding why the stories she told were ‘that big of a deal’ to me anyway, which was the scariest part.) What started as a crush on a cute boy at the beginning of the school year, quickly turned into boyfriend/girlfriend/soul mate status and late night messages on her iPod saying things like, ‘I love you soooo much. I can’t stop thinking about you. I miss you!’. The incessant phone calls she got from friends weren’t conversations I had in school like, what are you wearing to school tomorrow? You should wear that cute, blue hoodie to match mine! They were phone calls starting rumors about who wants to have sex with who and venereal diseases and pregnancy. Fights broke out all the time. I started finding the eleven year olds she went to school with getting high on stolen weed at the park where I take my younger kids to play. A few of her friends are already skipping school.
I couldn’t stand what it was doing to her, that this is what she considers ‘normal’… what she tells me it’ll be like at any school she goes to because she knows other kids who go to those schools too. But we knew not to expect that middle school was going to be a picnic, so we talked to her often and tried hard to prepare her for the difficult years ahead, taking care not to be “too” overprotective. I found myself saying to her after the fight she had the other day, that she was going to have to be above the influence of drugs and violence in her school - which isn’t fair to ask of or even rational to expect of a kid so young. I reminded her that this wasn’t the first time she was faced with a violent situation in middle school and it wouldn’t be the last either. Then I stopped and I just shook my head. I hated that that was even coming out of my mouth. I couldn’t believe that I was just accepting that this is her life. Her everyday life. Her childhood.
People who aren’t comfortable with the idea of home schooling talk about children needing to be exposed to uncomfortable situations in the social world in order to become more capable, emotionally sound people, long run.
I realized though, talking to her that day, that I’ve spent the entirety of this school year shielding her with tooth and claw from having any kind of a social life outside of school at all. I’ve had no choice. Every social situation inside or out of school feels like knowingly and willingly throwing her to a pack of wolves. I couldn’t help that she was around it so much at school. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give up whatever small influence I had the chance to be on her outside of it, too.
Yesterday, I told her what I thought about home schooling.
And believe it or not, as much as she HATED the idea of switching to a different school, she was receptive. We talked for a long time about what would be different, good and bad, without holding back. I promised her that I could do it, because I’m confident that with a lot of dedication I can. And I promised her that she could even keep in touch with the friends she has at her current school, as long as it was mostly under my supervision. She will have more freedom, I promised her that, and I not only meant it, I’m excited by it. I have hated having to shield her so much from experiences a kid her age should be able to have with their friends. I feel much more comfortable letting her do things outside of my supervision after school, knowing I have the opportunity to be a healthy influence on her throughout the eight hours a day I currently can’t. I feel like I'll have adequate time to better equip her to handle toxic influences, should she still be exposed to them outside of school. I’ll buy her a laptop. I’ll let her have a face book to keep in touch with current friends, and she’ll be able to have them over here for sleepovers once a month. She’ll be able to pick classes and clubs - be they sports, music, art, math tutoring, whatever - so that she’ll never feel cut off from other kids her age. We’ll be able to focus on the things she loves learning the most and put a more concentrated, one-on-one effort into helping her through the areas where she struggles. We’ll join a group and go on field trips together. We’ll make sure that she doesn’t feel compromised of anything (healthy) the other kids have. And we’ll be able to give her so much of what they never will.
It isn’t written in stone just yet. All that being said, we’re still exploring the option of enrolling her in a different school in a better area. But I’m sold enough to start browsing curriculums, and insanely excited to have taken the first few steps.
(I don't think this illustration is necessarily without it's flaws, but it was an interesting Pin.)