Have Faith In The Silent E

If you go to Google and start typing in, “Homeschool: am I” it will, in all likelihood, autofill to “am I doing enough”.  This is, apparently, the grave concern amongst homeschoolers.  And it’s one that I was absolutely sure wouldn’t plague me.  Me with my steadfast rule that children be allowed to play, that the work of children is best done in trees, with muddy knees, unsupervised.  No way would I ever think I wasn’t doing enough.  If anything, I’d presumed, I thought I’d be all, “Sigh.  Too much routine.  Let’s tear some shit up.”

And here we are, a week and a half in, and I’m kind of stressed out that I’m not doing enough.  The first few days were great.  Everything they did, I was all, “ZOMG, THE LEARNING.”  And now I’m all, “Omg, his handwriting is shit.  Why, for the love of god, does she not grasp the concept of the silent E?  I know it doesn’t make sense; life doesn’t.  Just freaking learn it.  Snac is not snake, and it never will be.”

Mind you, this is all happening in my head.  To the kids, I’m still all, “It’s cool.  Just sound it out.  Your ideas are more important than that pesky E.”

But I kinda would prefer both, you know?  Brilliant children with amazing ideas AND who get the concept of the damn E.

Here’s the issue: homeschoolers can pull off in a few hours what it takes traditional school eight hours to do.  Fewer interruptions, fewer questions, way less time spent sorting out problems all mean that if we start school by 9, honestly, we’re done by 11.

I was thinking that was awesome.

And then I saw a friend at the playground, and she was all, “Oh, is it break time?”  And I was all, “Hell naw.  We’ve been done for 2 hours now.  I mean, the boy will read another chapter of Harry Potter later, and I’ll con the girl into writing a letter to Grandma, but the bulk of it is long, long over.”

And she was all, “Oh.”

I should be strong enough to stand up to that oh.  Or to at least not interpret it in the most hostile way possible.  But if I’m honest, that ‘oh’ kind of scares the piss out of me.

Homeschooling is, at the end of the day, a risk that I’m assuming for my kids, and lordy be, that’s hard to sit with.  If I stick them in traditional school, I guess I’m still taking a risk, but it’s not much of one, given that everyone else in the community is taking the same one.  I mean, if they wind up stupid, they’ll be no more or less stupid than the kid next door.  But I’ve taken on the task of educating them.  If they wind up stupid, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

That’s scary.

Our curriculum doesn’t teach handwriting.  I have to do that on my own.  And it doesn’t teach phonics.  And although I know my daughter can read, to be honest, I’m not sure how well.  She’s stubborn as hell and refuses to read aloud.  Soooo, I mean, what does she know?  How do I tell?  Why is it my job to figure this shit out?

And then we have the quirks.  The idiosyncrasies.  The things that, if they were public schooled, wouldn’t even get noticed, but because they essentially have one-on-one tutoring, I can’t possibly miss.  Like how my son is physically unable to copy from book to paper.  Unable.  I mean, something got wired incorrectly.  So okay, great, we’re dealing with it.  And then there’s the girl who won’t read out loud.  She loves to write.  She’ll fill up page after page, writing about lord knows what.  And really lord knows–because her spelling is so awful that I sure as hell can’t decipher it.

They say it takes a full year or two to stop comparing what you’re doing in homeschool to what you did in traditional school, to stop trying to make a direct correlation.  I guess I’m at the beginning of that process.

Home Is Where The School Is

I keep in touch with a lot of people.  Like, a lot.  I’ve moved every couple of years, all around the world, and I drag the coolest people I met in one place on to the next place via text, email, really expensive packages and Skype.  I’m lucky (and obsessive) like that.

This really fantastic group of people has my best interests in mind and has front row seats to the trainwreck, and they chime in often, asking the burning question of the day, “Have you started homeschooling yet?”  I’m pretty sure it’s Spanish for, “Oh my god, how long until you break and buy them school uniforms and standard issue knee socks and ship them off?”  They love me and support me and want me to succeed.  But they also know me really well.

It’s hard to count days since we’ve done a bit here and there, squeezing school in around playdates until the first day of traditional school starts, but we’re more or less several days in.  And so far?  I really like it.  I’m shocked at how much I do like it.  I’m shocked at how not obnoxious I’m finding my kids.  I’m shocked at how enthusiastic I am about their learning. I’m the girl who fantasizes about cigarettes and dirty bars immediately upon waking.  To see me jumping up and down because my kid learned how to spell ‘consequences’ is a sight to behold.

The whole thing is helped by my laissez faire attitude towards education.  Honestly, I think that the traditional classroom is an outdated thing, and I wonder how much longer it’s going to last.  When God created Google, He did away with the need to memorize the distance between Saturn and Uranus.  We don’t need to jam our kids’ heads full of facts anymore.  We need to raise good human beings who have a thirst for knowledge and a desire to leave the world better than they found it.

Which is why our homeschool day yesterday involved a good hour of researching what it takes to become a marine biologist and a vet (my kids’ future professions du jour) and at least three hours of running and sweating outside.  It’s been rainy, so the massive snails are out in full force.  My kids have decided to collect them all into one place, so that they can be friends.  And then they had to build them a house.  And provide a source of water.  And then when they outgrew that house, obvs, they needed an annex.  At one point, my daughter yelled over at me, “HEY MA?  YOU GOT YOUR PHONE?  CAN YOU GOOGLE ‘WHAT DO SNAILS EAT’?”  Why yes I can, daughter.  Just let me set down my martini.

I’ve signed up for the new Kindle Unlimited thingie, where you can read as many books as you want for 10 bucks a month. That program is going to lose money on me, because now that I’m home overseeing snail construction, I’m plowing through books at a crazy rate.  So are my kids.

The jury is still out.  I could be stark raving madder by September, but so far, so good.

Love Me Some Adversity

I didn’t exactly handle my kids’ preschool years with grace (read: I went batshit crazy, drank too much, and wrote long soliloquies about death), so I’m looking at homeschooling as a chance to redo that period in our lives.  Mommy’s on meds for her soul-sucking chronic depression, kiddos.  Let’s hope this round goes better than last.

Back when my kids were younger and I’d moan about how hard I was finding life (in general) and kids (more specifically), people would tell me, “It’s hard.  People don’t talk about how hard it is.  Keep on keeping on.”  And even though that is all very true and pretty good advice, it never soothed me the way it was meant to.  I still felt like something wasn’t clicking.  And I’m not pretending to know too much more now than I did three years ago, but little pieces are definitely falling in place.  The whole thing is starting to make a bit more sense.  Am I ready to try again?  I’m not sure, but we’re about to find out.

My mother is 63 years old, and works full time at a very physically demanding job.  She breaks her back daily for not a ton of money, and she comes home every day complaining about her job.  Nobody ever suggests she quit, because we all know how much she loves her job.  I don’t know all of why she complains so much about it (and this is my blog, not hers, so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate to share it even if I did know) but I think I’ve got a clue, because I know I do it too.

I’ve got a little clarity these days, a bit more objectivity than I’ve had in the past.  And so it was that every time I listened to her doing her thing, I thought about when my kids were babies and my husband would call from work to see how we were doing.  I don’t think, in seven years, I ever listed less than fifteen thousand complaints per phone call. I probably used the word ‘stifle’ thirteen hundred times a day.  ‘Oppressive’, too.

I think I complained so much partly because my situation honestly blew complete balls at the time but also because I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to see the positives.  I think a negative attitude is something that is passed down from generation to generation, and lord knows, I’ve got two parents with the dominant trait.  But I also think that positivity takes a lot of courage and a lot of self-confidence.  If I say a situation sucks, but then you see me doing pretty well in it, you might be more likely to think I’m a freaking badass warrior woman.  Conversely, if I tell you how great my life is, and then you see me being incredibly human and flawed in it, you may very well think I’m a loser.

But even more powerful than what you might think about me is what I might think about myself.

Maybe I’m an adversity magnet.  Maybe I unintentionally make my situation difficult just so I can be human in it and not worry about not being perfect.  Maybe this explains my love affair with India and Kenya, with Ethiopia and swatting mosquitoes in Thai jungles.  Maybe I enjoy throwing myself in the muck, where nothing is even supposed to be okay.  Maybe I don’t need to work on adapting to a difficult situation.  Maybe I need to learn to accept that I’m enough even in perfect conditions.

How’s that for deep?

I don’t know how to change it, really.  I suspect it’s a gradual process, lots of really small steps.  So I’ll start by telling you this: This morning I did a really great job being a mom.  The kids played peacefully for a long while, and then they cleaned the house willingly.  When we were ready, we took a bus (which we caught on time) and got off at the right stop (extra points for speaking Cantonese to the driver).  We walked a bit to their friends’ house, and on the walk we saw some really, really cool (read: fucking enormous) spiders.  Right now the kids are really into the idea of building their own house and village.  They talk endlessly about the materials they’ll need, and how they’ll adapt to their environments.  It’s weird and awesome.  And timely–our first homeschool unit is on community.  The final project asks them to create a brochure advertising a fictional community.  They don’t even know we’re ‘doing school’.  They think they’re playing, and they think I’m being helpful when I interject a little fact here and there.  They’re teaching themselves.

So far it’s awesome.  I will fall.  I will fail.  But sometimes I’m going to be awesome too.

I may even be awesome more often than not.  We’ll see.

Fitting In

I’m sitting here thinking about the things I know for sure, and the whole list can be whittled to just a few things:

  • If I’m going to have coffee, I want it strong.
  • I’m at my best in the morning.
  • I’m not much good at sitting still.

And that’s about all I know. The things I don’t know fill the ocean in between here and there. I don’t know how long we’ll live in Hong Kong. I don’t know how homeschooling is going to work out. I don’t have any idea how to rectify the issue of my simultaneously not wanting to travel back to the States every year but wanting my kids to see their family regularly. The obvious answer is to not live in China. I don’t want to do that either. When I think about American teacher salaries and the hoops we’d have to jump through to have a tenth of the standard of life we enjoy overseas, I shut down.

I’m less of an American than ever before. I can’t believe the girth of the people around me, and I’ll go to hell for saying it, but I think the body acceptance trend is just a coping mechanism. Y’all’s grocery stores are enormously large, and it’s not because more strange fruits and vegetables are available to you guys. It’s because you make all of these fake foods out of chemicals and processes and then you sell them in pretty boxes and bags. And then you pat yourselves on the back for still maintaining a smile even though you’re enormously obese.

That stuff isn’t food. The rest of the world doesn’t live this way.

I know I don’t want my kids raised in a country that allows its citizens to buy a gun from the same store that sells bread and diapers. I’ve been living abroad since I was 24. My whole identity is that of an expat. But when I see the way my children fold themselves into the embraces of their families, I can’t deny the pull. Any Chicken Soup for the Soul book will tell you that family is the most important thing, and I never get tired of watching people love my kids. I think extended family dilutes the presence of the parents. In a good way. They help keep us in the middle a bit more, which is important. Especially for us. Because we swing to a weird left otherwise. With all of our ideology and perusal of the current research, we could use a little dilution.

My kids don’t fit in. Not all the way. They miss all the cultural references, and they’ve been shielded from media in a way that, it seems, most of the American folks we’ve hung out with have not. They do their whining with a British accent. And that’s okay. For me. I don’t know what that’s like for them.

My marriage, though not my relationship, is largely untested by family. We live abroad, on the other side of the world, away from both sets of in-laws. We spent many years together with them closer, but we’ve grown into our own removed from our families. We are each other’s families. I am a person who gives everything she has to one or two people. Everyone else is kept pretty much on the fringe. I don’t let people in, and I don’t let my guard down until years have passed. Over the summer, my husband is no longer strictly mine. He’s not just a husband here. He’s a son and a brother and a cousin. And I love watching him in those roles, because, for the most part, he handles each with grace and love. It’s a thing I could stand to learn. But at the same time, he becomes less mine. And I miss him.

Even while I enjoy our experiences here, I’m craving the mundane of there.

If I were to list the things we’ve done this summer, the list would be impressive. It would rival many people’s lists, I think. Parks and museums and concerts and hotels and sex in the ocean and picnics on the beach. Fireworks and pool parties and boats. Manatees and alligators. Canoeing and swimming. So it makes me quite the spoiled brat to say I’m not having much fun. Context is everything, and this all feels so partitioned, so doled out. It feels so time-sensitive and limited. It feels very much like a ‘cram it all in, it’s got to last a year.’

We keep saying, every year, that we’re not coming home next year. Most long-term expats don’t go home every year. It’s too expensive, for one. My other explanation would be that it feels too rote, too routine. This year is a cookie cutter replica of last year and the year before. Minor changes, yes, but for the most part—it’s the same. We spend thousands and thousands of dollars to do this, and it winds up feeling a lot like work. I wonder what it would feel like if the whole thing were less bipolar. Less here and there. Less then and now. Less vacation and more real life.

What’s our alternative? Not going home. I’m not sure that’s acceptable either.

So instead of chilling out and enjoying this sun on my face, I’m tangling with the big questions. It makes me a real joy to be around, I’m sure. Maybe the problem will solve itself, as I become too bitchy over the summer for anyone to want to share time with us anyway.


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