A Creeping Sense of Distance: Nastia’s Story

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Nastia” is a pseudonym.

I knew from a very young age what I wanted to do with my life. “I want to be on obstetrician,” I would tell anyone who would listen. At three years old, it was baffling to me that at least half the adults I met had no idea what that was. “It’s a doctor who delivers babies!” I would tell them, “Like Daddy!” The profession runs in my family. My grandfather and great-grandfather were both OB/GYNs, and my great-grandmother was a midwife. And yet, I have never felt pressured by others to take up the “family business.” It is purely my decision to pursue this path.

I had a rather unusual upbringing in this way. I come from a conservative evangelical family, but my parents are well-educated and open-minded, and they wanted nothing more than for me to be happy and successful.

While for many, “homeschooling” has an emphasis on the “home,” my parents put the emphasis on “school.”

That I was going to college was not up for debate; every step we took was made with the goal of stretching my mind, teaching me how to reason, preparing me for a lifetime of learning and a professional career. At the same time, they pushed me to pursue my own passions and dreams. I had a say in my own curriculum and was allowed to explore any subject I found interesting. While this may sound like an undisciplined teaching style, it kept me at least two grades ahead of my age in every subject and taught me to be self-motivated and proactive about my education.

That mindset was the best thing that I could have learned in preparation for higher education. At age sixteen, I entered community college through an early-entrance program in my state. This program allows students to complete their junior and senior years of high school through the college for free. My parents were hugely relieved that I would be able to earn my high school diploma and get real transcripts before applying to university.

I loved college. My transition was the easiest it could possibly have been. I excelled in my classes and quickly accumulated a diverse and quirky group of friends. Sure, college was a lot of work. I was taking twenty-one credits every quarter in order to finish all the pre-med requirements and earn an Associate’s Degree in Chemistry. There were ups and downs, sleepless nights, and failed experiments. But I had expected that, and my time management skills, self-discipline, and eagerness to learn benefited me enormously. Through diligence, the entire endeavor was highly successful. My confidence and enthusiasm soared.

But I soon found that going to school wasn’t the hardest part.

That came when I had to deal with the backlash of my (and my parents’) academic choices from a variety of different people.

The first came from my aunt, with whom I’ve never gotten along. A vehement socialist (and incidentally, a community college English teacher), she is viciously anti-homeschool, and it was clear from the beginning that she wanted me to fail in college to prove a point to my parents. When it was obvious that I was succeeding, she tried to tear me down emotionally, telling me that I was going to get sick because I was working too hard, that I had a mental disorder causing me to be a workaholic, and that success in school wasn’t worth my time because there was no way I could be successful in the real world.

That hurt, but as my relationship with her had always been a bit antagonistic, I turned it into a motivating factor. My goal became proving her wrong.

The pushback I received from homeschooled families in my church was much less motivating and much more painful. This didn’t really start until I applied and was accepted into a highly-ranked university, directly into the competitive Bio-engineering program.

In the view of many mothers especially, that was the point where I sold out, where I gave up my soul.

Going to community college, where I was living at home and going to school in a smaller, more job-like environment was acceptable. Entering university, where I would be in a co-ed dormitory with non-Christian students and exposing my mind to science and philosophy, was the equivalent of surrendering the battle for my soul. And it was difficult and depressing to deal with that because I was and still am very much a Christian.

The strange thing about it was that the criticism was never overt – it was a vague sum of micro-agressions, a creeping feeling of distance and disapproval that built up over time and poisoned my (albeit not-close) friendships with many homeschoolers in my church. I have a hard time pointing to clear examples, because the gradual alienation was caused by attitudes more than words or actions. I’m not even sure why I felt so hurt by it; I had never felt like I was a part of the “Christian Homeschool Culture.” My closest friends were actually homeschooled kids I met through music, not through my church. I never went to co-ops or conventions, never used A Beka or Bob Jones; I was always an outsider looking in on a culture that was as foreign to me as was the culture of public school. All the same, I had never felt so isolated as I did when I went to university.

I guess I had expected those I had always considered “my people” to be more accepting of me, even proud of me. That was the myth I had told myself growing up – that the homeschooling families in my church were “my people,” even though I was always outside their cliques, and that the reason I was always ahead of them academically was because I was simply smarter or my parents were better teachers. I was naïve; I thought we had similar lifestyles and values. And now here I was, succeeding in the world, spreading my light in the darkness. Isn’t that what those same families had taught me in Sunday School? That I didn’t even have to necessarily talk about Christ all the time – I just had to let my actions speak for themselves? I thought my honest and hard-won success, my healthy friendships, and my clean lifestyle made me a godly example. Instead, I was dismissed. People didn’t talk to me, or would abruptly end conversations when they heard what university I was at or what I was studying.

Previously-friendly parents would look at me critically and tell me things like, “Well, that’s not what God has in store for my daughter.”

That I was in STEM made it even worse, it seemed.

My parents were not immune to this stigma, and I think one of the most telling instances was when my mother was asked to speak at a monthly “Homeschool Moms’ Night,” when the subject of discussion was “Homeschooling Through High School and What Comes Next.” It was run by a sweet lady who has a very different homeschooling approach than my family does. Still, she wanted to showcase the range of options available to parents of younger kids.

Each of five women gave a speech, and then other moms were told to strike up a conversation with whoever seemed to match their own philosophy. Out of forty people, my mom had one person who wanted to talk to her, a woman from Hong Kong who didn’t like the state of American schools and was relieved that homeschooling could provide a more rigorous and comprehensive path. The other moms completely ignored her. I remember the rejection in her voice as she recounted the story to me. These were people she considered friends, but they completely dismissed her when she spoke passionately about helping her children make the most of their talents and aspirations.

After this, a small piece of a baffling puzzle fell into place for me.

Maybe my mother’s goal was not shared by others the way I had always assumed. Maybe the reason that nearly all the homeschooled girls my age were not going to college was something more than the fact that they just weren’t “ready” or weren’t “book-smart people.” Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the few who were pursuing higher education were going to community colleges or the tiny local Christian university aligned with our denomination; nobody was going to a secular university or anywhere out of state. It wasn’t an isolated instance that a girl decided to take up babysitting instead of going to college – it was widespread. It became normal to see friends drop out of college before taking a single class, or decide to live at home rather than stay in the dormitory; “she’s scared,” was always the chuckled explanation. It was commonplace to hear about another girl whose main goal of going to a barely-accredited Christian school was to find a husband and become a homeschooling mother.

This is an institutional problem, I realized.

It is still not clear to me whether parents are actively discouraging college for their daughters in particular, or whether the daughters are internalizing the idea that education would corrupt their hearts and minds and distract them from their duty of being wives and mothers. It had never occurred to me that this type of pressuring was occurring, as this is not the mindset of the majority of (non-homeschooling) people in my church. It is certainly not the doctrine that my well-educated and highly-rational pastor holds to. Yet, as I learn more about fundamentalism and about the situations of particular families, I am starting to put the pieces together. Talking with my mom now, there’s a reason that I was never put into co-ops and never used typical homeschooling resources. She realized what this sect was about long ago and tried to shield me from it.

For this reason – strangely – going to university broadened my perspective in yet another way; by putting me firmly on the outside, it gave me a clearer picture of the culture that surrounded me growing up, and an appreciation for how masterfully my parents handled my education. I will be eternally grateful for the unique opportunity they created for me and the generous support they constantly offered (and still offer) in continuing my education.

As for improving the cultural environment for college-bound homeschoolers, I’m not entirely sure what needs to be done, nor what one individual can possibly do. I realize that not everyone is cut out for higher education, and respect the right of families to pursue their own homeschooling path. However, the fact that I am an anomaly in my engineering school (because I was homeschooled) and an anomaly in my homeschool cohort (because I am an engineer) is very telling about the dichotomy that has grown between the academic and Christian communities.

It’s not a healthy divide, as the mistrust between the two groups makes understanding and progress extraordinarily difficult.

I’ve also grown to see that despite the opinions of many in the Christian homeschooling community, gender equality has not been achieved.

“Equal but different” is not good enough; there is still much work that needs to be done in providing the same education and career opportunities to women as are provided to men.

This by nature cannot be a policy issue, but a cultural reform. Parents must be honest with themselves when examining their daughters’ goals, and provide the necessary mental and emotional support for whatever path they are drawn to. It’s not logical to assume that a woman’s only contribution should be in the home, nor is it Biblical.

I’m not sure yet what it will take to bridge that chasm between Christians and academia, or the division between girls’ aspirations and their parents’ ideals. I’m not sure yet what it will take to change homeschoolers’ minds about science, higher education, and a woman’s place in both.

However, as a problem-solver by nature, rest assured that I will be trying, and I hope that some of you may join me.

9 comments

  • Nastia: That you entering a field where you will possibly have such close experience with parents, encourages me so much. You have been loved in a very special way by your parents and allowed to follow your own interests with support and encouragement. It is clearly a huge mystery to you why others could not be as free in love as your parents. Put children first in all things: first, do no harm. Second, let the child lead.
    My very best wishes to you. You are a much-needed light, shining.

    • Brian, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment – I truly appreciate it. The needs and rights of individuals, especially children, are very important to me, and I will strive to remember that as I enter the medical field.

  • A beautiful, heart-rending essay. Best wishes on achieving all your goals. You are showing what is possible to many young men and women. I can’t wait to see how you help to change the world!

  • Oh man, I know this feeling so well. My story is a little different, in that I actually didn’t have homeschooled friends my own age (save one not-so-close friend). We were always on the edges of movement homeschooling: went to one homeschool convention, one talk from Little Bear Wheeler, one Institute for Creation Research convention, and used some ABeka and Bob Jones, but never got into the movement itself. Looking back now, I can see how movement homeschooling affected most of the other homeschool families we knew, and why we never got close to any of them. The church kids thought we were weird because we homeschooled, the homeschool kids thought we were weird because we weren’t fundamentalists. I think it put a lot of pressure on my mom. She didn’t have many good friends when I was growing up: the homeschool moms thought she was too liberal, and the non-homeschool moms were mostly public school teachers who thought she was crazy.

    For me, the last few years have been a confusing time of identifying and understanding the vague influences that came in through some of the homeschool stuff as well as the church stuff; neither was ever fundamentalist, but both had that influence and it colored everything.

    • Joi, I totally get where you’re coming from. I’ve only really begun to understand all this in the last few months; like you, my church and my homeschooling community were never fundamentalist, but now I can see how some of the ideas and worldviews were influenced by fundamentalism. I’m just thankful that I was able to find friends both inside and outside of homeschooling who shared some of my interests, and that my parents, despite all the various pressures, succeeded in providing me a rich educational experience.

      Thanks for your comment – it’s a relief to know that others have had similar experiences!

  • I think you have started to touch on the root of the problem when you talk about the divide between fundamentalist Christian homeschool culture and mainstream education/academia. This reflects a broader split in American society. Since the end of the cold war, the cultural left and the old school moral majority have drawn the battle lines, and either side will be damned if they yield a single inch to each other, or a third way (the way of the the lemur). The religious/conservative right have have hermetically sealed their epistemic sphere in response to a martial, media driven post-modern liberalism, itself extremely well practiced at navel gazing. There’s a self-reinforcing system of confrontation here, the first casualty of which was rational and objective problem solving. Christian homeschooling, and your socialist Aunt are the antipodean exemplification of the culture war’s shock troops.

    I’ll quote a paragraph here from an excellent article written by ex-NSA analyst and historian John Schindler:

    “There is no tyranny as offensive as a cultural tyranny, of course, and just as affluent, educated post-moderns view their lessers with undisguised contempt, the guns-and-bibles brigade returns that contempt with interest. This goes some way to explaining why American politics has become so bitter in recent years: both sides simply hate each other and bother less and less to mask it.”

    His whole commentary in really worth reading, and the first half is particularly relevant to the issues raised in N’s story.

    http://20committee.com/2015/01/21/the-west-islam-and-the-last-stand-of-the-weird/

    TheLemur

    • Thanks so much for your insightful comment and the interesting article. I think it’s true that this divide between Christian homeschoolers and academia is grounded in the similar, larger divide between the religious right and secular liberalism. In some ways, I feel that I have one foot in each culture, trying to be the voice of reason even though my attempts at objectivity often seem to fall on deaf ears. There are so many problems that could be solved if only we could bridge this gap in understanding between two large segments of the population.

  • Lemur, I believe that the way of the lemur you refer to, uses the rational abilities or at least potential abilities to work through the divide mentioned? You express yourself very much from intellect and I wonder if you would speak to the feelings side a bit more to help me grasp the whole-person in your argument…. or do you state that feelings have no business in all this, that they merely bring hatred and enmity among perspectives?
    I would be grateful for a concise expression of the “the way of the lemur” if you are inclined to share it.
    Thank-you for tolerating my somewhat heavy-handed and strong feeling(s) expressions here and there! It is so important me that we be free to assume a wholeness in our lives, not a programing that keeps us free of conflict; rather a willingness to be as we are and to tolerate much difference among us!
    The gap that Nastia refers to above has been bridged but it is a difficult place, full of troubles. You have men telling women how to dress and blaming them for being raped. You have children being tortured with whippings, corrections and you have religious leaders constantly talking of ultimate peace while encouraging violence among us, while explaining just how to beat a child ‘safely’. Does the way of the lemur address the extremes we live/endure in and out of churches?

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