By Summer Mengarelli
When I was seven, I would finish all my coursework for the day before my parents woke up, so I was moved from the second grade and bumped up into third. Throughout elementary school, I took the usual classes in math, literature, penmanship, and social studies; but my lessons were recorded videos that I watched on the family computer, or collaborative work with my siblings at the dining room table. I spent the fifth and sixth grades studying Latin and taking taekwondo lessons. In eighth grade, I was often found on the roof of our mountaintop house in northern Georgia, reading classic novels and collections of short stories. I took two weeks during my freshman year to study nothing but American art history, following a curriculum I had designed. My sophomore year, I took classes in photography and American Sign Language hosted at a local church.
I don’t talk about it a lot, but I was homeschooled until my junior year of high school. I think my hesitancy to talk about my education stems from the misconceptions a lot of people have about homeschooling. I have been asked in seriousness if I ever left the house or had friends who weren’t my siblings, if I always did schoolwork in my pajamas or if I was only taught to cook and keep house. People tell me they’re surprised to learn that I was homeschooled because I don’t “act like it,” or because I dress how I want and wear makeup, and startle my Twitter followers with my leftist political views.
To be fair, some of the negative associations people have expressed are true for my experience. I used to own more ankle-length skirts than I did jeans (although it’s worth clarifying that my sisters and I just liked to dress like this; it wasn’t necessarily enforced by our parents). I can still crochet a mean dish towel, although I never figured out how to make anything that wasn’t a rectangle. I grew up in fairly conservative environments, and I was taught by curriculums that espoused beliefs like a literal seven-day creation. It wasn’t until college that my political ideologies and religious beliefs began to change.
There are plenty of aspects of my homeschooling education with which I no longer agree. Nonetheless, I am endlessly grateful that my parents chose this path for my siblings and me. I believe that being homeschooled allowed me autonomy and freedom in my education. It gave me a sense of responsibility for my learning that has shaped my experience in college, as well. I spent my years as a homeschooler studying the same topics my public- and private-school peers studied, but the difference was that I could study them however I liked, or however my mom understood worked best for me.
For a few years, I took my math classes through an interactive computer program, because that’s what worked well for me, even while one sister took lessons with my mom and another took lessons through a co-op. I flew through my literature curriculum every year because I spent most of my time reading. An old journal, in which I wrote down every book I read for several years, indicates that I was often reading at a pace of two or three books a week. My siblings and I all read voraciously, but those who enjoyed it less took the curriculum at a slower pace. It’s the classic homeschooling tagline, but I genuinely believe that my siblings and I enjoyed an education that was tailored to our needs and talents.
One of the most prevalent misconceptions I have noticed is the idea that homeschoolers don’t have friends outside of their family. I understand why people might think that. I had plenty of neighborhood friends, or friends from church or homeschool co-ops, but my siblings were my best friends. Unlike many traditionally-educated kids, we spent all day together, just about every day. We were our first classmates — but not our only classmates. Throughout my education, we were constantly attending co-ops with other homeschooled families, taking classes from other homeschooling parents who were maybe more qualified in a particular field than my parents were. At various points, like in fifth and sixth grade, once a week we attended private schools that were designed for homeschooling families and that assigned homework weekly instead of daily. We were always involved in clubs, just like our peers in public school, and held positions on student councils through our co-ops. We took lessons in gymnastics and taekwondo, participated in statewide speech and debate competitions, and played on city league soccer and softball teams.
All this is to say that rather than keeping us cloistered away, homeschooling gave my siblings and me the freedom to engage in whatever activities we wanted, and to meet and become friends with not only fellow homeschoolers, but also people from all other educational paths. And we had the time and ability to do this because we had a say in our education. Our parents could trust us to participate in extracurriculars, or spend the day at work with our dad on one of his construction sites, or take two weeks to study American realism because we were as invested in our education as they were. We wanted to learn, and thanks to our parents we were allowed to learn unconventionally.
I wouldn’t say that everyone should be homeschooled. For my final two years of high school, I attended private school, and I learned and grew there in ways I couldn’t have in the homeschooling environment. Homeschooling is often implicated in all the harmful trimmings of conservative Christianity, like purity culture, sexism, homophobia, and a resistance to science, as many families who choose to homeschool do so to protect their children from the secular world. Although these values do not always accompany a homeschooled education, they often do, and I cannot have a conversation about my own education without discussing its negative aspects. However, even while I am critical of the values espoused by many homeschoolers, I am thankful for my educational path. Being homeschooled allowed me to recognize both the privilege and the responsibility inherent in being a student.