The decision to homeschool was fraught. I remember feeling as if the floor were dropping from beneath my feet. What was I doing? Would my daughter metamorphose into some kind of freak, falling behind academically and losing the ability to relate to other children? At a Mensa function, I met a university student who had been homeschooled. He was sixteen or so and in his second year of physics. Wide tie, brown suit, awkward. Brilliant, too, but that was beside the point. This was clearly a person with social difficulties. I knew of another, who spoke in a wheedly voice and made peculiar hand gestures. Did I want Bethesda to be a strange, hothoused flower? And how would I cope? Could I bear rehashing the bilge I was taught at school?
This last question in particular got me thinking. Maybe the problem isn’t the material we’re taught, but the way in which it’s taught. Since starting school, Bethesda’s manners and her enthusiasm for learning had deteriorated. On her return from school the first week, she shocked me. I had never seen her look sad before. Angered, yes; annoyed, yes; but never sad.
It broke my heart. Friends told me that I would have to develop a thicker skin, that her sadness was temporary. It would make her strong, they said.
They were wrong.
Over two and a half years, my ebulliently happy, sweet and gifted little girl gradually withdrew into herself. The child I walked home from school was newly surly, exhausted, cynical. Her expressions and behaviour changed. The pride she took in herself slowly eroded.
Should I homeschool? I asked. “No,” I was told. Homeschooled children become nerds.
Bethesda’s teacher at school, a prim, well-presented woman in her fifties, appeared responsible. And yet Bethesda would tell me that – despite having being evaluated by a developmental psychologist as being in the 99th percentile – she had been placed in the lowest reading group and that learning had become “boring”. Her handwriting was a mess – inverted Zs and so on – and her drawings reflected her dejection: rushed, executed without pleasure.
She was always sick, always unhappy.
I was quick – “Quick as a crocodile!” as Bethesda said – to respond to her reports of being bullied, and there were many. The school was not the problem; I was hearing the same reports from every parent. Her godmother’s daughter, a beautiful, slender girl and dux of the most exclusive girls’ school in the country, had been removed from her tony college after being singled out by a group of girls who taunted her – not about her looks or her achievements, but about the shape of her sex. Their language was unbelievable. The bullies in question were fourteen years old, white-cotton-glove- and straw-hat-wearing young ladies.
Similarly, a friend told of his experiences at one of the country’s most exclusive boys’ schools – being regularly spat upon and punched in the canteen queue, having things stolen, covering up for a paedophiliac classmate who had molested his five-year-old female cousin because he was “one of us” (the molester is now an enthusiatic life saver at our beaches).
The current level of bullying is almost incomprehensible. And yet we accept it. Bullying is the norm, “part of life”. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Problem is, bullying can and does kill.
Why? Because bullying teaches weakness, not strength. It teaches children to understand themselves as victims, and teaches them that terror is not only a part of education, but essentially ratified: a rite of passage. “But it prepares them for the workplace!” one mother argued. This, too, is wrong. Adults bullied in the workplace have options. They can quit, ask to be transferred or sue. But children have no options. They can’t leave the school or request a transfer to another class. A child can’t sue. Their only options? Endurance, internalisation or collapse.
Bethesda complained about the outrageous language – among six- and seven-year-olds! – and the casual violence. I wrote to her teacher again and again. Bethesda begged to be homeschooled but I resisted, convinced by others to persevere “for her own good”. And then, in her second year, Bethesda was targeted by a tall, strong girl and the bullying began in earnest. She no longer played with the other children, but spent her lunchtimes in the library emailing me. “When I’m at school,” she whispered, “I sit and wish I had a wooden plane so I could fly home to you.”
She began suffering agonising stomach pains at night, to the point where she would sob. We ended up in Emergency twice. She had ultrasounds. Physically, she was fine.
“It’s psychosomatic,” the doctor said. “Is she having trouble at school?”
I didn’t know what to do. The chorus around me kept repeating that it would pass, that she would adjust, but it didn’t and she didn’t. The stress became intolerable. I snapped the day the bully walked up to my seven-year-old daughter and said, “Fuck you.”
Having announced that I would be homeschooling Bethesda, I was approached by a teacher in the playground one afternoon. “I am so happy that you’ve decided to homeschool,” she confided. “I worked with Bethesda’s teacher. When I pointed out that Bethesda was in the wrong reading group – her reading is exceptional – the teacher ignored me. ‘They’re all idiots,’ she said. She ignored Bethesda’s needs. When she finished her work early, the teacher would tell her to rub it out and start again so she’d have something to do! It was unbelievable! And she read every one of your emails out to the staffroom – she read all the parents’ emails out to the staffroom! Her contempt for the children was disgusting. It made me wonder why I bother teaching.”
The following day, I withdrew Bethesda from school, on the grounds that I no longer felt that she was physically or psychologically safe. Having picked up her exercise books, I was shocked not only by the disastrous quality of the teaching, but by the dozens of worksheets. Teaching in 2013, it seemed, consisted primarily of printing worksheets from the internet.
I filed a complaint with the Department of Education, gave Bethesda a month off to recover, an inspector from the Board of Studies visited to ensure that we had an appropriate environment and resources, and then we began homeschooling in earnest. Initially, it was terrifying. And then, bit by bit, it all began to come together. I spent the first term establishing her level in every subject and then began to teach. Initially, not so easy. The behavioural aftermath of school was a challenge. Every morning, she would start an argument, throw a tantrum. I was bewildered. And then I noticed that the rage would always take place around the same time. I confronted her. That time. she said, was when the bully would target her. Every single day, her drink bottle would be knocked over, she would be called names, her schoolwork would be defaced. And then she wept: a catharsis. Bethesda was never difficult at that time of morning again.
This month marks our one-year homeschooling anniversary. 1200 hours of intimacy, joy and learning Bethesda would otherwise have wasted being taught the uninspiring by the indifferent. Her progress in every area has been astonishing. She anticipates her lessons, and revels in their difficulty. We watch documentaries about mythology, set up weather stations and halite crystal experiments, and she clamours for spelling tests. Her behaviour has improved immeasurably, as has her mood. And every afternoon, she plays with her friends. She is, at long last, happy.
And then this week, her exam results were delivered (all exams are undertaken with teacher supervision at the local school). This was her Naplan score …
… and these were her ICAS results:
Homeschooling. It’s the future of education.