Homeschooling: nerd incubator or the future of education?

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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 …

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… and these were her ICAS results:

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Homeschooling. It’s the future of education.

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The gift of loss

People react differently to loss. Some rail against it, perceiving the deaths of loved ones, missed opportunities and broken relationships as an insult or within a kind of a punitive framework. Others attempt to insulate themselves against loss by refusing to love, shying away from tenderness as if from a vampire, or by working and travelling compulsively.

Stillness in pain: a difficult task.

It is not difficult, however, to be immobilised by bereavement. The loss of a beloved has the impact of an avalanche or mudslide; it hits, and we are buried, lost to the world. A dear friend lost his wife to cancer late last year. I can tell whether he has been talking or thinking about her by the tenor of his voice. When absorbed by the day’s activities, he is characteristically jovial; when she has been present in his thoughts, his voice is low, broken.

Grief can raze the spirit. On hearing that a gentle, merry friend died suddenly of cancer, I burst into tears. This wasn’t the apocalypse of my brother’s suicide, but a fresh pain; I still cry every time I think of him. As a boy, he survived his mother’s suicide; as a man, he did not survive his wife telling him that she had fallen in love with another man. His twenties and thirties were lost in a delirium of cocaine and heroin abuse; in his forties, he fell in love for the first time, with a woman who had the same history of substance abuse but a different sexual history: one of infinitely sad and terrible abuse. Her swings were violent, disorientating. He didn’t care. They married and had a child. He desperately loved them both. His sickness shook his wife from her contempt. He died with her and their child by his bedside.

My gentle, merry friend did not understand that loss can be the greatest of opportunities, allowing for a revision of priorities and choices. The loss of his wife triggered the avalanche of his mother’s loss, a grief that had lain dormant for over fifty years.

In the first three decades of my life, I fought loss as if it were an enemy: tooth and claw. My brother’s death changed me. I now sit with loss and let it change me, let it blow open the windows of my soul to adventure, wisdom, a greater love. The sheer experience of life transforms. I tell my daughter, who is eight, that loss can also entail ecstasy.

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

- Pablo Neruda

August has been an extraordinary month for work. I have been asked to address a major scientific conference in the States next year – more details on that soon – and then this and this. Transformations and adventures. And contemplation of that which washes away.

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Radiohead

At the beginning of my tour for Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love, I did a number of radio interviews I detested. I was half-asleep and very nervous during a drivetime interview with ABC WA, made almost no sense at all during an interview with Adelaide, and was subjected to you-writers-think-you-know-everything-well-let-me-tell-you-I’ve-been-a-father-for-twenty-years-and-my-kids-have-yet-to-be-jailed-for-armed-robbery-even-though-we-didn’t-cosleep by a presenter in Newcastle. Another interview had to be cut short because of a faulty telephone line – this was a disaster; the female presenter was engaging and intelligent – and yet another (with one of those rackety, wrathful presenters) was agonising, both for me and for his listeners. Kelly Devine-Higgins was terrific – tender, incisive – and the generous Natasha Mitchell was wonderful up close (she leans into the microphone and acts each word out, mouth and eyes widening with the sheer animal pleasure of expression). Paradise FM was particularly enjoyable, as was Annie Hastwell’s The Wire. There were others, all lovely, too many to mention. Otherwise? Helen Hawkes’ interview will be running this weekend:

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At least he wasn’t named for Ted Bundy

This is an entirely gratuitous shot of Teddywinkle wearing a Madeline hat.

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Why? Because this week I file the revised manuscript of Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love for international publication and then resume work on The Novel (about which I will say nothing … yet). In between home-schooling and an Everest of post-book-tour admin.

My dear chum Melinda Tankard Reist – who is not only a gentleman and a scholar but a complete pistol – wanted me to write about the Algernon saga (she refers to him as “The Cat Heathcliff”) but it’s all too depressing. I will say only this: Algernon, it turned out, was both microchipped and had an owner. I fed Algernon a last meal of warm milk and sausage as said owner drove over. She fell upon him with great cries of adoration (“Bundy! Bundy!”).

I asked if he had been named for Ted, but she said he had been named for Bundaberg Rum. Their other cat, who was black, had been pining. “Gone right off her food,” she said.

Said other cat was, of course, named Coke.

(Melinda loves that part of the story.)

Algernon hissed at his owner as she took him in her arms. He battled with her so ferociously that she had to drop him; he promptly returned to his pale pink mohair blankie on the chair. “He’s changed,” she said. (“Clearly,” I wanted to say. “Would you want to live with a person who named you after an alcoholic drink?”) But she was nothing if not persistent. She finally got Algernon in a football grip and jogged to the car as he spat sausage in her hair.

I was bereft. Melinda laughed.

Here she is with my Monkey after a long walk on the beach:

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Teddywinkle, who had never taken to Algernon/Bundy, was extremely happy with all these developments, so happy that he didn’t even object to posing for me in a silly hat.

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Algernon watched the house for weeks. I’d see him sitting at the end of the drive at one in the morning, staring mournfully at the front door. His presence drove Teddywinkle up the wall. He would growl and hiss and pace the window sills, protecting his turf. I tried to reason with Algernon but whenever I would open the door, he would disappear. He waited until Alex was in Sydney working, and then sang to me for the first time. I was washing the dishes, and heard an insistent miaowing from the palms. This song went on for some time; I was reminded of Aslan singing Narnia to into being in The Magician’s Nephew.

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At first, I thought it was a child playing a prank. I walked outside, holding a dish cloth, and there he was, shielded by leaves, calling to me. I dropped to my knees and clicked my tongue. He tentatively approached – bony, dirty, right ear torn, head riddled with fleas. I fed him four bowls of food that night. He wolfed the food, loudly purring as he ate. I couldn’t let him in the house – he was filthy – and so sat outside on the step for a time, just stroking him.

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Over the weeks, I fed and wormed him and gave him flea tablets and washed him in a hot, lavender oil scented bath and towelled him dry and rubbed antiseptic cream on his torn ear and cleaned his ears. I caressed his paws, and he would purr.

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He would sing outside the house after I left him, sometimes until 3am, or paw at the doors, trying to enter. One night, he somehow leapt up onto the roof, where he sang for hours.

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Which is when I realised that it was time to take him in. At first, I locked him in the warm laundry, where he sat on a piece of old green velvet on top of the washing machine. Teddywinkle held a vigil outside the laundry door, hissing under the crack. Algernon slept and slept and slept. After a week, I let him into the rest of the house. He took his place on a pale pink mohair blanket on a chair, where he could keep an eye on Teddy, who, in the way of all Devons, was soon overwhelmed by curiosity. Teddy now spends his days observing him from secret vantage points. When Algernon sees him, he narrows his eyes and softly growls.

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How did he know that I would love him? I’ve never been adopted by a cat before.

How I fell into attachment parenting

I fell into attachment parenting the way some people fall in love. One minute I was wearing 12cm wedges and clambering into limousines to interview some of the world’s most interesting people; the next, I was very slowly walking up a hill in Birkenstocks discussing hyacinths with my toddler. My baby was so fascinating to me that I rejected any work that required me to be away from her. When I turned down a jaunt to LA to interview Clint Eastwood, my husband was incredulous. “Are you crazy?” he exclaimed. “I’ll look after her!”

My reasoning? Wonderful little peanut vs. some guy who directs movies: a no-brainer. Amor vincit omnia. Not even Vladimir Nabokov could have awoken me from this stupor.

I remain in her thrall. She thinks that I’m the one with all the power – the decision-maker, the table-manners fetishist, the stern mama – but let me tell you, she’s the one pulling the strings. One word, and I’m custard. I’ll do anything – combine fulltime homeschooling with fulltime work, build her a library, write her a book. My husband is tougher; he can say no to her and mean it. Whereas with me, she knows – as Gene Simmons once assured me – that no is simply the precursor to yes (unless it involves palm oil, additives, inappropriate content or consumerist excess, if only because such things mar or rent the iridescent weft of the soul).

So this is my story. Or part of it, anyway.

The other announcement? Pinter & Martin UK have just bought World English (excluding Au/NZ) rights to Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love. (More about the book here.)

In short: madly happy.

So if you happen to be near Narrabeen RSL at 3:30pm on May 28, come hear me speak about attachment in our culture (bookings through this beautiful mama). If you’re near Ballina at 10am on June 2, come hear me speak about femininity at the library. If you’re near Lismore at 5pm on June 5, come hear me read from Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love at Noah’s Arc bookstore. And if you’re near Brisbane at 7pm on Friday, June 27, please join me at the wonderful Riverbend Books (bookings essential).

I may not exhume my 12cm wedges for all these events, but I promise I’ll try.

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Working mothers and underpants

The week was a whirlwind. It began with my feature about motherhood and status in Vogue and radio interviews all over the country. And then there was Mornings on Channel 9. David Campbell was lovely. The father of a little boy, he was full of curiosity before the cameras started rolling and then confidently settled back into the interview.


My segment ran between interviews with Kate and Wills impersonators – excellent British imports – and Joss Stone, whom I initially mistook for a friend of mine who worked at Elle.

I hadn’t given my clothes much thought. Clearly, I needed to rethink the hair and bra, right? And maybe hire a personal trainer. For a decade or two. But working motherhood makes vanity impossible. There is no time. I have been known to leave the house without my underpants. Why? I just forgot. If you think it’s impossible to forget to put on underpants before you go out, try having a baby. There are days I go blank when asked my name.

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So there was radio and more radio, and then the launch of Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love, which sold out. Two hundred tickets. Working mothers, SAHMs, attachment mothers and their babies, grandmothers, women who were childless by choice, fathers interested in the interplay between culture and attachment. Steve Biddulph spoke at length about the history of parenthood, a beautiful, funny, moving speech. And then I spoke. I was nervous, and spoke off the cuff. Even now, I’m not exactly certain what I said. But people were moved, and I was moved, and there were many long embraces afterwards.

Here I am with some of the last women to leave, beautiful mothers all of them.

Here I am with some of the last women to leave, beautiful mothers all of them.

I slept for three hours that night.

The alarm went off at five. I staggered upright to make Wake Up on Channel 10. Natarsha Belling and James Mathison were beautiful. James, who is the father of a baby girl and familiar with Gabor Mate (whom I interview at length in Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline of Love), was fantastically talkative before the interview. Natarsha, too, was very kind.

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I then caught a cab to the ABC in Ultimo to record Life Matters.

Dr. John Irvine, the renowned child psychologist, parenting author, patron for Family Day Care, Kidsafe, Homestart, ambassador for Playgroups Australia, author of over 1000 newspaper and magazine articles and veteran of over over 5000 radio segments, had been called in as my antagonist. Host Natasha Mitchell, vice president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, former member of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Advisory Committee, Knight Science Journalism Fellow at Harvard, winner of four Gold World Medals and the overall Grand Prize at the New York Radio Festivals and four Australian and New Zealand Mental Health Broadcast Media Awards, has a reputation for asking “the hard questions”. I was absolutely terrified.

As I walked in, Natasha put her headphones down. She held Mama to her breast and gently said, “I love your book. It’s beautiful.” I stood there stupidly, not knowing what to say.

There is a tremendous sense of vulnerability in speaking up as a mother. I am used to being a writer, a journalist – to interviewing and being interviewed – but never before have I had to front up as the self I am at home. I was being analysed as a woman and a parent. Photographs of my husband and child were being shown onscreen. My deepest feelings were being discussed by strangers. It felt surreal. By the end of the interview, I was struggling to hold back my tears. John Irvine could not have been more gracious or more generous.

More radio followed, and then a talk and signing at one of my favourite bookshops, Sydney CBD Dymocks. I have spent afternoons drifting around their children’s books department. Unexpectedly, I was given one of the spectacular silk Chinese Year of the Horse banners that had graced the streets of Sydney. (The work of the great Australian-Chinese artist Hu Ming is one of my passions.) I then flew home to find that my suitcase wasn’t on the baggage claim. The airline had left it in Sydney. No underpants, it seemed, until morning.

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