22 July, 2021

Homeschool May Have Saved My Life

My parents encouraged me to be honest about everything... except one. They said that if I was ever approached by an adult and asked why I wasn't in school on a weekday morning, while we browsed through the public library or shopped for groceries, I should definitely always lie.

Telling the bald-faced truth came pretty easy to a tactless little boy on the autism spectrum. Doing otherwise took some coaching. The response to strangers' inquiries that my parents concocted for me was, "I had a doctor's appointment, but I'm feeling better now." After that, Mum and Pops would fend off further interrogation by what I assumed were more sophisticated means.

In 1983, the year I started kindergarten, most Americans could still be taken to jail for homeschooling their kids. The state of Kansas, where I grew up, required state certification in order for anyone to teach. This requirement was only rolled back a few years later. Sad old Michigan didn't legalize homeschooling until 1993. Considered in this light, my parents' decision to keep me out of the public school system represented quite a little rebellion, hardly a minor risk to the well-being of our little family.

Most families choose to homeschool their children for religious reasons. Statistically, the majority of them are white Christian conservatives. We were of another sort: progressives whose closest involvement with organized religion involved frolicking in our own lush backyard Garden of Eden. Although we steered clear of dogmas, my parents' most impious acts involved occasionally name-dropping Mother Nature and referring to the Schmutz on people's faces on Ash Wednesday. I'm saying, amoral heathens we were not. Their reason for keeping me out of public school was to avoid what they considered the spirit-deadening effects of institutionalized learning.

My parents paid what must've been a handsome sum for the privilege. Every August, UPS delivered the secular curriculum to our front porch, heavy on ancient history and multiculturalism. I used to love opening those boxes. After prying three big copper staples out of their top flaps with a butter knife, each box opened to reveal stacks of brand new textbooks. The books all but bulged with knowledge, and it thrilled me to think that I'd be assimilating their contents over the coming months. I sniffed their aroma of glue and paper, and hefted their weight in my little hands. I riffled pages to peruse the illustrations. I didn't want to set them down.

Mum was my first teacher, as any mother should be to her child. She and my father ran a business out of our home, but his work involved full-time bustling around the city. In the evenings, he offered more help than she did at math, but staying home to run the office during the day meant she handled the biggest part of my instruction.

I couldn't have asked for a better teacher. Her patience brought us through the most frustrating lessons untraumatized, and the boundless enthusiasm she turned to my classwork helped me power through even my times tables. She also took me on mini adventures several times a week – to the health food co-op, to the auto mechanic's, to the bank, to pet stores, and wherever else the day took us. Sure, we took trips to local parks, museums, art galleries, and the zoo, but she taught me that even errands could become field trips, if one applied a smidgen of creativity.

Neither of my parents knew that I had a neurological condition. (In all fairness, they couldn't have; diagnostic criteria for Asperger's syndrome was still almost two decades away.) My enthusiasm for discovering even the most tedious minutiae about subjects that interested me awed adults. Rather than a child on the autism spectrum, they considered me a brilliant little professor. And my parents felt lucky to have a son so well-behaved, who didn't run wildly around the house or demand twenty-four-seven attention; I just read books, wrote my little stories, or drew quietly in my room. That I had to sleep on my back, with my hands folded together, was peculiarly sensitive to sounds, and had no filter in social settings didn't seem like a big deal. What did it matter if the smell of baby powder made their son angry – he started reading before age three. Sometimes weaknesses look like strengths.

My homeschool career ended after my parents’ divorce, when I enrolled at my first public institution, in Windsor, New South Wales, Australia. At first, being a foreigner seemed to afford me carte blanche. Anything unusual that I did was waved away as "just an American thing." But there are only so many personal tics that can be blamed on nationality before people realize that, no, you're just a weirdo.

After I found pariah status with my so-called peers, teachers started worrying that I spent too much time away from others, reading on the far edge of the schoolyard. One of my greatest strengths, my preference for being alone, looked to them like sadness at being cast out. Sometimes strengths look like weaknesses.

Had the other students just left me alone, public school wouldn't have been so bad. Early IQ tests showed that I had exceptionally high intelligence, so it's not like I couldn't do the work. Subjected to the cruelty of classmates and the tyrannies of abusive teachers, however, I started to circle the drain. Depression was just the start. Everyone who knows me knows what happened next: I washed down.

Dropping out of high school meant being seen by some as a loser or a failure, but public school was killing me. My parents had been right about its deadening effects all along – more so than they even knew. If we'd have been rich, I might've gone to the Montessori school they talked about, where my intellect could flourish in unhindered learning. "We aren't rich," Pops told me once, "but we're rich in culture." A fat lot of good culture did for my social standing with a bunch of ninth graders.

The argument my parents always heard was that, by homeschooling me, they deprived me of socialization skills crucial for my psychological growth. I might not be a pillar of social standing today, but I call bullshit. In light of my atypical neurology, the negative experiences I had in public school would've simply arisen earlier, probably at an age when I was less resilient. Delaying my entry to the public school system probably prevented years' worth of behavioral, emotional, and health problems, a few of which might've led to irreversible trauma.

American education has improved a great deal since the days of one-room schoolhouses and corporal punishment. Most of the necessities of modern life continue despite a global pandemic, thanks in part to technology, but mostly to humans' creative drive. Distance learning gave kids and parents a taste of homeschool. If it wasn't to everyone's liking, I'd venture to say that critics' idea of what school should be (in this case, a taxpayer-funded babysitting program) might benefit from revision.

I don't want to tackle the complex economic issues of school vouchers or educational coalitions in this blog post. I hardly claim to have all the answers to the country's ongoing education crisis. I just felt like voicing an opinion about a life-affirming experience that enabled me to excel in the areas of study that interested me most, drew my parents and me closer together, and quite probably diverted me from a path on which I'd have known a lot more pain, a lot earlier in my life.

I loved homeschool. I wish more kids who could benefit from it were in a position to, and that more parents were able to appreciate it as much as mine did.

09 July, 2021

Back to the Lectern

Hands up, who remembers my posts about Speak Easy Gavel Club! A few of you do; that's cool.

For those who don't, here's a brief overview: a few years ago I joined the prison's Toastmasters affiliate to bone up on my public speaking and leadership skills. Gavel Club presented an interesting scene. Members take turns delivering speeches, both prepared and improvised, within the formal structure of meetings. The whole setup is a hell of a lot more fun than it sounds, and was occasionally quite challenging.

But I got kicked out, my rapid ascendance through the club's ranks cut short, after I allegedly overstepped my bounds while performing my duties as a club officer. The Institutional Activities Coordinator gave me a rather unceremonious boot and said I could "maybe" sign up again the following year. (To save time, here's a quick and dirty account of the kerfuffle.) I wasn't happy, but what was there to do except heed the Dragon Lady's decree?

Looked at from that end, a year seemed like an eternity. Will I even still be at this prison then? I wondered. Shortly thereafter came COVID. Following that, the year that never was. Days and weeks and months merged into an even more than usually undifferentiated blur. If it was bad for you out there, restrictive official responses to the pandemic felt significantly worse here. One effect of this was to focus my attention on matters far removed from the revocation of my little speechifying club membership. I buried my "Competent Communications" and "Competent Leadership" handbooks deep in my footlocker and let the matter slip from my mind.

Until this week, when I saw a jumbo flyer posted in my wing. A smartly dressed clip-art man at a lectern appears on it, announcing that the Speak Easy Gavel Club is holding a membership drive. The message got to me. It triggered that old feeling of – what's patriotism called when it's directed at a small group of people with common goals? Yeah, I felt that. I'm so busy these days, but could I carve two hours out of my workweek to rejoin the Gaveleers, Tuesdays at 1:30 PM, in pursuit of personal excellence?

I talked it over with the handful of people who'd be affected by my stepping out; then, with their collective blessing, I dropped my request into the mailbox. I'm already contemplating my welcome-back icebreaker speech.

30 June, 2021


When the invaders came, their approach, from deep in the earth, was utterly silent, and by the time we saw them it was too late.

They came crawling, each of them on six hinged legs, enormous heads brandishing pincers strong enough to lift many times the creatures' own bodyweight, threatening to carry away our precious food. Thick armor covers their triple-sectioned bodies completely. Worst of all, their numbers are incalculable. Everywhere they're seen, they teem.

Our cells might be impenetrable, but they're not impermeable. The creatures find ways in. They're able to winnow through almost any crack, crevice, and hole in the building. As prisoners, so few options exist for shoring up our defenses against the invasion. We use what we can. First was vinegar, swabbed around the doorframe in an attempt to sabotage the trails of formic acid that they leave for each other to follow. That effort failed. Next, quantities of soap were used to seal the fire door through which most of them get inside. Still they came, black trails underfoot like living veins, pumping food crumbs and tiny biological materials.

Watching my cellmate crouch near the sink, crushing the intruders with little wads of toilet tissue, unsettled me. I prefer to leave bugs be if they're not harming or hindering. (I catch spiders and set them gently outside.) But no amount of talk would deter him from his genocidal fixation, which was when I saw that another, more direct tactic was called for. We had to deter, not annihilate.

A neighbor brought over a dish soap bottle filled with watered-down muscle rub. This, he assured me, would keep our floor insect-free. He squirted the milky liquid along the bottom of our doorframe. It left our living quarters smelling like an old taxi driver but would be worth the less-than-ideal olfactory situation if it kept the ants out.

Every morning since then, my cellmate and I check the floor before taking a single step. We periodically do this throughout the day, also, paranoid that the powerfully scented ointment hasn't done the trick. Yet it seems to be working. No tiny black forms have turned up in my cracker box, on my mint candies, or near the trash can – a definite win, for however long it lasts.

Now we know: muscle rub repels ants. If only there were something to be done about the drain flies darkly spotting our porcelain sink. Curse this winged scourge!