Everyone has an origin story, and those of us seasoned homeschoolers with 2e children are often asked what event or series of events led us to choose homeschooling for our families. And then, like old soldiers, we talk about the battles that shaped us and the cataclysms that we have survived. So, here is our story.
My sister gave birth to one of her sons nearly 9 months before I gave birth to mine, so I had 9 months to see how a baby should develop before my own was born. Her son slept, fed regularly, liked a swing and bouncer, didn’t mind being put down. My son . . . not so much. He was, in a word, difficult. More than that, he was voracious for words, for movement, for play, for contact, for milk. He was tripoding at 2 months, sitting on his own by 3 months. He said his first word (meeeeeeek for milk) when he was 3 months old. And he was fussy, high strung and needy. My sister, politely, tried to suggest that I needed better parenting skills. She came over one day to watch him while I slept, since sleep had become one of those nostalgic memories. She woke me before 30 minutes had gone by. My son, she said, was difficult, inconsolable, exhausting, high-strung. That was the hard part, but at the same time, he was fascinating, exhilarating, fun. He never stopped learning, as though he was in a race with himself. No one believed me. They all though I was bragging or inflating my observations. No child, they said, learned that quickly. Both my child and I were suspect. We were difficult.
I eventually settled into my new mommy role and just rolled with all of the challenges and joys. Sir Talks A Lot wasn’t like any of his peers, but I found books about spirited imps, and the knowledge that there were other children, other parents like us reassured me somewhat. Still the differences as he grew older became more and more apparent. He couldn’t tolerate the sound of plastic bags crinkling or be around people who sneezed without melting down. He still needed almost every moment of the day to be filled with movement or learning or talking while other children seemed to be able to just be comfortable in their own skins. By the time he was 2, he was actively trying to share his observations with the world. I was shocked when the pediatrician asked if he spoke simple phrases yet. I said, “He speaks in paragraphs. Doesn’t every child?” Unfortunately, Sir had difficulty articulating his ideas to other people. He would try and share a story or a joke, and his inability to move his tongue effectively made people ignore or discount what he was saying. He became angry and violent, punching strangers when they tuned him out. I sought out speech therapy and battled for a year trying to convince the powers that be that a child so far ahead of the curve needed help. Finally, after he turned 3, we were approved, and he was thrust into the public school system. I wasn't allowed to go in with him, and they sent him home with homework, expecting my 3 year old to be able to explain the directionless activities. I researched on my own and we sang songs, played games, blew bubbles. Sometimes I used their materials, but most of the time I found materials to go with the sounds they were teaching him. We were warned that Sir would likely be in speech therapy for years. It took 6 weeks before they dismissed him. The whole episode left me with a niggling bit of worry and hope. I thought to myself, "What if school is not the right place for my son? What if there were something else?"
Like my mother before me, I spent a lot of time feeding Sir Talks A Lot's brain. We didn’t call it homeschooling; it was just something that we did because it was the only way he felt whole. By the time he was 16 months old, it was clear that he needed a bigger learning environment. My nephew was attending a cooperative preschool, and I got permission to bring my son. We lived in Delaware, and the school was in Maryland, but I drove 3 days a week because he needed the other children. He spent one day in the toddler room, and then was moved into the preschool room with the bigger kids. To be honest, I loved that preschool. Since the drive was so long, I volunteered my time and worked in his classroom. I got to help the children learn and thrive, and I still got to spend time with my son. It was ideal! Of course, all good things come to an end. DH finished his PhD, and we became nomads in search of the holy grail tenure track job. We tried another cooperative preschool, this one in Michigan, and I was far less enamored. I wasn’t as welcome in the classroom, and Sir Talks A Lot was treated as though he was odd. Unlike the open, exploration-based preschool that he had come from, this one had rigid schedules and rigid expectations. One of his preschool teachers confessed to me that she had no idea what to do with him. He was difficult, she said, because he learned too quickly. He was difficult because he was too sensitive. He was difficult because he didn’t join the other children in their games and seemed to miss social cues. He was difficult because he was too literal and used language that his peers couldn’t understand. School was difficult.
We moved from Michigan to Massachusetts after only one year. At this point, Sir Talks A Lot had spent almost 3 years in preschool, and we knew that it was time for him to move on. I had my suspicions that no school would ever be a good fit for him, but hubby argued that that’s what people did. They sent their kids off to school and everything was fine. After all, what was the alternative? I thought we might give homeschooling a try, but hubby thought that I was too enmeshed and since we were in a new state and Sir would be going into a new grade with a new teacher, all would be well. I have to admit that I was swayed by the "sparkly shiny new" argument, and off to kindergarten went little 4 yr old Sir Talks A Lot. It was an unmitigated disaster. He was bullied not just by the students, but also by the teacher who sneered and snarked at him, belittling his for his lack of fine motor skills and who never once praised him for his proficiencies. He came home with bruises on his body yet the school told me they saw no evidence of bullying. I surprised him once by picking him up from school instead of letting him ride the bus, and I saw two boys punching him in the stomach and knocking him down while the teacher/moderator looked on. That was the last day he rode the bus.
Sir Talks A Lot had trouble managing zippers and buttons, his fingers fumbling and stumbling as he tried to work out the physical mechanics. Nevertheless, the school refused to allow him to wear sweat pants. They had a dress code, they explained, and it just wouldn’t do if one of the students violated it. In addition, the teacher told him that he could only go to the bathroom if he could manage his pants on his own. She was prohibited by the rules from touching him. Besides, she told him, big boys shouldn’t need help going potty. Sir is nothing if not resolute. He hatched a plan. He held his urine from 7 in the morning until he got off the bus at 3 pm. Within a few months, he lost the ability to tell when he had to urinate and became incontinent. It took us almost 2 years to retrain him so that he was in tune with his body.
Sir always loved reading and being read to as a child. He delighted in stories of every kind, and, in particular, enjoyed making up stories of his own. He was already reading early readers when I sent him to school, and would spend hours chuckling to himself over the exploits of one of his favorite characters. Nevertheless, after being in school for a few months, he lost the ability to read. He said that his teacher had told him that he was doing it wrong. He was supposed to sound out the words, not just read them from the books that they had given him. These books only had a single word on them per page, and he was supposed to spend time on each word and use the pictures to discern the story. He was miserable and felt betrayed by books. He never knew that reading could be so horrible. Sir didn’t read again until he was 7 years old. And then there were the constant miscommunications. The class used a picture based schedule, and Sir was supposed to be able to read where he was supposed to be and move efficiently from station to station. Instead, when the other children moved, he would stand politely to one side staring at the incomprehensible graphics. His teacher assumed that he was either being stubborn or stupid, and she would grit her teeth and ridicule him daily for being a “lost puppy.” I met with her first weekly, and then almost daily. I explained that it was a particular quirk of his that he couldn’t read charts or graphs. Instead, I suggested that she might want to give him a verbal prompt to tell him where he was supposed to be next. She explained in chilly tones that such a great effort on her part would require that we petition the school for an IEP.
It was clear that his teacher despised him from the beginning. He was difficult, she said, defiant and noncompliant. I was somewhat surprised at this news since even now my sardonic son is extraordinarily polite. I asked what she was trying to get him to do. She explained, face flaming, mouth downturned, eyes tiny slits, that Sir needed to be able to spell his name, but when she asked him if he would like to fill out a worksheet with his name on it, he replied, “No thank you,” and then sat with his hands folded in his lap waiting for the next activity. Well, I explained, Sir Talks A Lot had been able to write his name since before he was 2. In addition, she gave him a choice by asking if he would like to do something, and he answered honestly. She told me that she saw no evidence that he knew his alphabet at all and she suggested that he repeat kindergarten to catch up to the other children.
The final straw came when my now 5 year old child approached me one day, head cocked to one side, brows knit as though in heavy concentration, and asked me if he was a “mowon.” I was shocked, to say the least, because we had never used that word at home. I pulled him onto my lap and cradled his head against my bosom, breathing in the peanut butter and dirt smell that was his. “No, my love,” I assured him, “you’re quite bright. You are like a star in the sky. You are so far away from where people expect you to be that they think you’re dim and small. Instead, you’re a massive, bright, flaming star full of words and ideas. They just can’t see you well enough to tell.” He snuggled closer, quiet for a while, mulling things over. “Mama,” he asked, “How do you make yourself die?” I called the school the very next day and said that I wanted to take my son out of school immediately. They suggested that, instead, I come in and view the classroom. The class was learning about plants. Sir Talks A Lot had been so interested in the topic that we had been doing work at home on the subject. He had learned that trees and plants had different stems, and he knew how to tell the difference. His teacher had him go over to the window and pick out a plant. It looked like a tiny ficus tree. The teacher asked if he could tell the class what he was holding. He said confidently, “This is a tree.” She looked at the other children in the room, encouraging them to laugh at him. “Children, can we all tell him what this is?” “It’s a plant!” they all chorused gleefully. Sir looked confused. He tried to explain further, sure that she must not have noticed the tell-tale sign that the plant was, indeed, a tree. He told her about its pithy stem and then, warming to his subject, tried to tell her about deciduous trees. She rolled her eyes, frowned, spoke over him and ignored him. The rest of the class proceeded with her displaying raw hostility towards him, and me seething quietly in the back of the room.
The next day I met with the school counselor. He reviewed Sir Talks A Lot’s case with me, eager to point out all the ways in which Sir had failed to be the child that they expected him to be. I laughed. The counselor was just one more person telling me that my son was difficult. I explained to the man that my son was, indeed, difficult, particularly for people who were too limited by their preconceptions to value and cherish him. Eventually, the conversation turned to my discussing Sir’s unsupported giftedness and his query about making himself die. I needed to be patient, I was told. By second grade they offered special pull out services. Only two more years, I was told. I pointed out that they had managed to transform my happy, eager to learn child into a suicidal mess in a few months and that it was ludicrous for anyone to think that I would let that continue for years. The counselor’s eyes hardened. I was being unreasonable. I was being difficult. I was not respecting his authority. Kids like Sir, I was told, are a lot of trouble. The counselor said that one day I was going to need their school, and let the threat hang in the air. I laughed at the absurdity of the statement and went home to my son.
Homeschool was magnificent. Not all of the time, of course. We bumbled from one teaching style to the next with plenty of conflict and tears along the way until we finally stumbled into our version of unschooling. We found homeschool groups and Sir Talks A Lot thrived as he was allowed to follow his passions and learn as deeply as he desired. Our lives were full of museums and libraries and trips and theater and crafts. Sir almost, nearly made some friends, and then it was time for us to move again.
Up until this point, we had become well aware that Sir was not like most of his peers. We knew that he was gifted, but that didn’t account for his quirks or our quandaries. There was something more going on. It all coalesced for me one day after we had moved to our new home in Denver. Sir Talks A Lot always had a lot of difficulty with transitions and change, but after this move, he had become rigid in his behaviors, and he seemed to worry about everything. Hubby and I both have anxiety, so we knew that was a possibility, but Sir’s behavior didn’t seem to fit into any pattern that I recognized. My normally agreeable child was digging in his heels and acting out even when he knew he would get in trouble. One day, he was standing at the top of the stairs, and was throwing rocks to the bottom of the stairwell. 4 rocks. Pause. Three rocks. Pause. “Stop that!” I yelled. “don’t throw rocks in the house!” A few minutes went by. 4 rocks. Pause. 3 rocks. Pause. I had it. I raced up the stairs and glared down at him. “What in the name of all goodness was he thinking!?” I bellowed. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and explained that he had to throw the rocks from 4 to 1 so that the monsters wouldn’t eat him. I thought about all of the other things he “had” to do like counting and touching each door in the frozen food section of the grocery store, separating his food on his plate precisely, checking over and over to see whether or not his father and I were dead whenever we left the room. It finally clicked. My son's quirks were more than personal idiosyncrasies.
Thus began our period of exploration where we became intrepid researchers slogging through the untamed wilds of the internet to find a language to encapsulate our son. I found Non Verbal Learning Disorder which described perfectly both his and my early language acquisition, excessive verbosity, dysgraphia, difficulty with charts, graphs and other symbolic tools, and our shared difficulty with social skills. My husband, who has OCD himself, named our son with this disorder as well, explaining to me the compulsions and rituals that are anxiety based. Then came the hard part, the seemingly endless slog to professionals while the insurance company argued about whether or not developmental disorders qualify as a medical problem, and the school system dickered over what failure looks like for a child who is several grades ahead of his age-mates. Eventually, we became armchair therapists, learning what kind of therapies worked for Sir and how to implement them. It sounds difficult, but in all honesty it was no more arduous than learning how to love our son the way he needed to be loved.
We've been homeschooling for 10 years now, and during that time, little Lady Chatterly made her way into the world behaving very much like her older brother. This time, though, we knew what to expect and how to best support her. She has never been to a brick and mortar school and, in spite of the bad days where I fantasize about leaving her in the school driveway like a poor foundling child, she likely will be homeschooled until college. Looking back on those dark days, I wouldn't trade any of them. Each miserable moment gave us the confidence to know that we did not have to allow our children to suffer at the hands of an antiquated and often cruel system. It allowed us to grow as a family and truly parent our children without having to sacrifice their individuality to an institution which demands conformity. Most of all, each difficulty afforded me the insight that no matter how outsiders define my children, they are beautifully, wondrously made. And, it's not difficult.