THERE’S NO EASY WAY TO DESCRIBE HOW A HOMESCHOOLING CHILD LEARNS, OR HOW HIS PARENTS TEACH. More than methods and techniques – and certainly more than a set curriculum – it is a mindset, driven by an inner conviction that children are natural learners, that they will learn if you let them. Continuing Part 6 of our homeschooling story, our oldest son Ethan offers a backward glance at a journey that ended when he graduated (and got married) last December, 2013.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING WHAT YOU DON’T LOVE
Homeschooling allowed me the freedom to pursue my interests. It taught me that learning was done best when there was passion. Passion, or interest, became the guiding light in my life. And that made me an awful student.
Consider the two wasted years my parents sent my brother and me to Mandarin classes. We spoke English at home, at church, with our friends, and all our learning was in English. I suspect we went anyway because society expected Chinese to speak Chinese, and homeschoolers are prone to peer pressure too.
I remember our beleaguered Mandarin tutor, a college student making some extra money, who tried to motivate clearly unmotivated students with every trick in the book: affirmation, scolding, little treats and little breaks (my brother and I shattered one of his lamps during one of our little breaks). However, what impressed me the most by far were his earnest attempts to convince us that we needed to learn Mandarin because it would help us do business with China, a growing economic powerhouse.The ten year-old me had no intention of doing business with China.
When I was eleven, there was a ballet school in town that began offering free ballet lessons to boys for the first year – due to a complete lack of male enrollment. It seemed like good fun at the time. My brother and I began our lessons along with three other boys: two homeschoolers and one non-homeschooler, united in the understanding that the best things in life were free. When we strapped on our form-fitting dance pants, ballet shoes, white t-shirts, and pranced about the dance studio for the first time, and all the girls stood by and giggled, blushed, pointed at us, something glowed within our tiny chests.
The ballet instructors greeted our prancing about with joy, and all that positive reinforcement worked. We were hooked. So once a week, our mothers shuttled us to the ballet school. As the weeks became months, it became evident our benevolent ballet instructors were not content to allow us to have much more fun. When my brother and I revealed we weren’t interested in doing the exam, much less continuing ballet the next year, our ballet instructor’s face was one of unsurprised disappointment.
Another soul unfortunate enough to have me as a student was my piano teacher, who drilled into my head the importance of playing three pieces every year to pass a music exam. I didn’t start learning the piano with such curiosity and enthusiasm because I wanted to pass music exams. Why continue learning the piano if that was all there was to it, then? Waning interest made my fingers stiff, cold, and the thin, stern line that was her mouth sometimes parted to announce I was lazy. The lessons became this inexplicable hole in the space-time continuum where time took forever to pass. I’m sure my piano teacher felt the same way. I quit after barely passing the grade five exam. To this day I have an irrational dislike for classical music.
I had imbibed, perhaps too much, the philosophy of pursuing my interests. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t want to learn. What was worthwhile was what I was interested in. Discipline as it was known to my peers – schedules, homework, tuition – didn’t work for me. The time tables we drew up never stuck because, for one, I never knew when I’d wake up in the morning. And because our days were largely unpredictable. I did what schoolwork we had whenever I would. People used to tell my parents, or me if they felt like being honest, that I’d have a hard time in college (at least the nice ones assumed I was going to go to college).
When I think now about what I learned, and how I learned what I learned, I feel amazingly lucky that I learned anything at all. When my brother and I were really young, seems like six or seven, my dad imposed a year-long ban on computer games and television because we hadn’t finished our dinner one night. We were young enough to not know to be outraged. And we were young enough to not know to cheat. So, being homeschoolers, we were stuck at home every day without the privilege of computer games or television.
In a desperate attempt to get through the day, we picked up the books about the house. We read. And read and read. We read so much that by the end of the year, we didn’t feel like we’d been deprived of anything. That was when I began reading, and nothing has been the same since. Over the years, what was important wasn’t just that my parents bought books. It was that they read those books with us. It was that we read widely, voraciously. We could talk about books, the ideas within the books, the characters within the books, and often without meaning to, we were learning.
I remember writing in my journal, putting down my thoughts about the day, for years thinking I could be as great a journalist as Anne Frank, simply because mom and dad had given me the book when I was six and told me I ought to write something every day. I loved writing, recording, thinking, forming sentences, playing with words. I needed no prompting to continue. I blogged furiously, ridiculously so in retrospect, when I was a teenager. I wrote about books, movies, music, politics, theology – it became a digital journal that other people could read. Writing became a way of processing my own thoughts in the presence of others. And so I learned to write.
With the drums, my parents gave me an incredible amount of support to pursue that earsplitting passion. I took lessons. I practiced on pillows, the floor, my knees. My mom diligently drove me to church at least twice a week: once or twice for practice, and once for the lesson. She did that for a couple of years until my parents made the ultimate sacrifice and brought the harbinger of noise – a drum set – to my room. My family loved me. And so did our neighbors. We didn’t get a single complaint.
One day several years later, my drum teacher told me I was the first student, in all his years teaching, to have made it this far, to have learned everything he could impart. He wanted to prepare me for the final drum exam. I prepared for it, but not for long, not before I thought I didn’t need an exam to tell me I was a drummer. I pulled out of the final exam, and with that, with a warm, final handshake, my drum lessons came to an end. Now, I wish I had taken that exam. The exam might not have told me I was a drummer, but it might have told me what I was made of. The teenage me didn’t want to find out.
So how did that teenager cope when he got to college? This being a liberal arts college, there were a bunch of classes I had to take whether I cared to or not, classes like Life Science, Wellness for Life, and College Algebra. In that sense, yes, I did have a hard time in college. I struggled every night to do simple algebra homework. I pulled all-nighters to get research done. I got busy with busywork (this is not to say I didn’t enjoy plenty of other classes, especially the English and Political Science ones). I was motivated by a powerful fear of failure, responsibility, knowing my parents had forked over a small fortune to get me through college. In short, college taught me to do what I didn’t love.
Now that I have graduated from college, it all feels like much ado about nothing. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA from Hardin-Simmons University, with degrees in English and Political Science. I was never late to class, and the only time I missed a class was when I was stranded in Washington, D.C., during a Model U.N. conference when Hurricane Sandy struck. I wasn’t merely a goody-two-shoes within the classroom, though. I was also an editor for the school paper, the vice president of the International Student Fellowship, had a student worker job in the university’s Media Relations office, and played percussion with the Cowboy Band.
My senior year, I dropped by a theology professor’s office to pick up my final paper, and he asked me to sit down and talk for a bit. He wanted to know more about who I was, where I came from, and what I thought it was that had prepared me to do well in college. I said, with little hesitation, without irony, that I felt it was homeschooling that had prepared me the best – it had prepared me to learn on my own, to not trust anyone else with anything as important as my education. He smiled thoughtfully and remarked: yes, it’s usually the homeschoolers. It’s just as well he didn’t press me for more specifics like “what did you do to prepare yourself?” or “but how did you learn that?” because I wouldn’t have known how to answer.
I still don’t.
25-year old Ethan’s parents are founders of HOMEFRONTIER David and Sook Ching Tan. Ethan graduated with degrees in Political Science and English at Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, last December 14, and married Katie on the same day.