Monday, September 28, 2015

Middle School, Memories, and More Healing

My son started middle school in August. I knew he would face an adjustment period, what with lockers and classes all over the building and having to make new friends. What I did not expect was how his year would affect me. His sister went through sixth grade two years ago, after all. His teachers' names are familiar, their email addresses in my contacts list. I know his schedule, the pickup routine, the homework expectations. It's old hat by now, right?

But for weeks it's all I can do not to burst into tears when he comes home and begins telling me about the challenges of his day. My throat constricts and I silently pull his head in to my chest, squeezing my eyes tight to keep them from spilling over his hair. Then one day I realize that my tears are not only for him, my brave and sensitive boy who's growing up fast. As I watch him navigate the mysterious and labyrinthine corridors of his new school, my inner child is reliving what should have been my first year of Jr. High at his age--the year we joined ATI and became truly isolated from the influence of the outside world.

Every time we drove by the Jr. High school when I was a kid, I used to imagine what it would be like to attend. To get off the bus and walk those halls, surrounded by other young teenagers in denim jackets. It was a frightening fantasy, but an exciting one. I didn't know that I would be allowed to experience Jr. High, but I pictured it just the same.

And then, the summer before I turned twelve, we moved to the country on the other side of town. Ever since kindergarten, there had been friends next door to play with. Now we could see only one other house from our yard, but no children lived there and the adults were gone all day. We had fields and woods and a barn to play in, but it was just the five of us kids, ages two to eleven, playing together every day. We didn't have television, stayed away from the cinema, and the old radio with a spoon for an antenna was kept tuned to the network from Chicago's Moody Bible Institute.
Dad quit his job after the move and started his own business from our house. No more trips to see his office or stories about the other engineers he worked with through the week. Sundays became our primary social event: though we went to church, the handful of other children were all younger than me, and we didn't have Sunday School. (When we changed churches later, we were only allowed to go to Sunday School or youth group on special occasions.)
Our jovial dentist patted us on the shoulder once a year; we saw our Catholic doctor even more rarely. I never saw a counselor or took a test to assess my educational progress. Our family friends were all other homeschoolers. The most worldly people I knew were my uncle, whom my mother taught me to wary of, and my grandparents, who drank coffee, watched PBS, and accepted evolution as science.We saw them about twice a year and they were always careful not to criticize my parents. 
The summer of 1987 my parents also enrolled in Gothard's ATI program. We had been homeschooling pioneers, and I'd adjusted to that. Mostly I taught myself math and English and science from textbooks and read all the history I could get my hands on. Now, though, everything changed.
Acquiring good character, rather than knowledge, became the educational priority. Gothard's Wisdom Booklets, with their confusing questions and loosely-connected propaganda, took center stage. Dad switched our grading system to adapt to the weekly report forms we had to fill in and mail to Headquarters. I studied Greek vocabulary and Puritan sermons alongside my elementary-age siblings. Washing dishes, vacuuming carpets, and Bible memorization counted as school time.
For the next eight years, my academic progress was neglected, and with neither peers nor professionals who could instruct me better, I lacked long-term achievement goals and any standard to which I could compare my work.

Middle school is a tough place to be almost twelve. My kids have days when they wish they could stay home and study with just me. They've come home and cried when the stress of holding it all together seemed unbearable. But they have already developed social and learning skills that took me decades longer to acquire. In some subjects, they have already surpassed the work I was doing in "high school". And tackling hard assignments and facing their anxieties has made them stronger people than I was at twice their age!

Some days I envy my kids' educational opportunities. Other times I mourn the schooling that was kept from me in the name of my parents' god. I'm constantly grateful for the circumstances and people that led us to schools where our kids can learn and grow so much.

Most mornings I wrap my arms around my son and squeeze him tight before he hoists his backpack. I am supporting and reassuring him, to be sure, but I am also understanding my wistful younger self, telling her that I see her and love her, that her need to explore and understand her world will not be neglected again. That while her story had some sad parts, it turns out okay. And that from here on, she gets to write her story.

It's a choose-your-own-adventure!

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