Being Homeschooled Is An Identity: Sarah’s Story
My first day of school remains a vague and unpleasant memory, shrouded in the protective haze I tend to assign to experiences I’d rather forget.
I was fifteen. I remember not knowing what to wear, what to expect, what to do with my perpetually terrible hair. I remember that I didn’t own a backpack.
The homeschooled person inhabits a unique place in the world.
I say person and not student because being homeschooled is an identity that persists long after graduation, whether one wants it to or not. When I look back at that first day of school—”school” being county college, upon the suggestion of my mother who had run out of material to teach me at home—what I remember most was the loneliness, the fear, the utter confusion. I felt like a traveler in a foreign country, and in a sense, that feeling has never left me.
As a child, I was aware of the existence of Public School (it was always capitalized in my mind) but it wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to. The stories my mother told of racial tension and being bullied in the seventh grade during the 1960’s painted a grim picture for me. I would try to envision her as a seventh grader, tall, skinny, fluorescently blond and constantly afraid for her life. It was not a vision that made Public School sound appealing. My father’s stories of growing up in the parochial school system were even worse—being beaten by the nuns, humiliated in front of the class, harassed daily. Neither of my parents held fond memories of school, which is probably a large part of
the reason they decided not to subject me to it.
So I was homeschooled.
My childhood was dreamlike—long summers spent by the pool with friends, a backyard overflowing with ponies and rabbits and chickens and the children of other homeschooling families, a town in the basement made of cardboard boxes and wool blankets, Christmas, Easter, the 4-H fair. Everything that my parents had wanted as children, but could never have, they acquired as adults and gave to their children. It was a childhood unsullied by the specter of Public School.
Of course I wasn’t un-schooled. My mother taught me to read, taught me basic math, read me novels while I sketched, helped me get my sketches more realistic (the only practical application she ever got out of her illustration degree from Parson School of Design, as she used to imply with amusement). As I got older she gave me the curriculum and I taught myself. I was aware that, technically, most other people went to school, like the cool girls in Sunday school, like the neighbor boys down the road, but most of the people I knew, and all of my closest friends, were homeschooled. I don’t think that my parents ever intended for me to be sheltered; it just kind of happened. Public-schooled parents of homeschooled children tend to be unaware of the level of disconnect that happens between a child and society at large when that child is never sent to school.
Gradually, as I emerged from the bubble of that rosy childhood, I became uncomfortably aware of this disconnect.
My clothes were one of the starkest reminders. I knew, in my frumpy homemade skirts and dresses, that I did not look like other fourteen-year-olds. I knew it bothered me. I did not know what to do about it. At any rate, since I had frizzy hair and braces maybe it was a lost cause, I thought, maybe I could just deal with being unattractive until I magically reached an age where I grew up and figured out answers to these problems.
As it turned out, there was no magic age, only the age of fifteen, when I finally went to school. College, my mother told me, is not like high school, people aren’t cliquey or mean, everyone is more mature. But I was not mature. I was fifteen and homeschooled and scared to death.
I trudged diligently through county college for a long time, leaving behind pieces of my homeschooled heritage each semester like shed skins.
I cut my hair, learned how to dress, stopped correcting professors’ mistakes on math tests, learned words like “douchebag.” I was still scared, still quiet. I found that it was easier to be quiet and invisible than to open my mouth and expose myself for the cultural illiterate that I was. “Maybe you’re autistic,” piped up one of the few college “friends” that I had, when I tried to explain to her how I felt. The comment burned. I couldn’t make anyone understand.
My final year marked a turning point. I was eighteen and wore skinny jeans and converse. No one stared at me like I was an extraterrestrial when I walked down the hall, instead, they came to listen to me practice piano, open-mouthed, telling me I should be at Julliard. My nickname was “Virtuoso.” The hottest guy in the music department wanted to hang out with me. And it felt good, but it was too fast, and there was still so much I didn’t know, and school was over. I was graduating that spring.
The culture and I had formed the beginning of an uneasy truce that continues to this day.
We will never be friends, we will never speak the same language. The experiences that I have had since that confusing time of college graduation—the travels, the education, the friends, the traumas—have, in many ways, grown stranger and stranger, and I continue to feel sometimes like a foreigner in my own country. “I just feel so…odd,” I told my favorite piano teacher once. “Will this feeling ever go away?” He was probably the wrong person to ask, hippie non-conformist guitar collector that he is, but he thought about my question for a moment before replying, “Sarah. You are odd. And that’s okay.” It is okay, this rare lens through which the world appears to me, though I never asked for it, this strange road, with its strange walking companions. It is okay, and it is exquisitely painful, and it is breathtakingly beautiful, all at the same time.