A recent thread on the 4Real Boards has prompted me to think about "simplicity" and "simple" homeschooling. Not "easy" homeschooling, but homeschooling that is simple, rich, and beautiful. I sat down on Saturday and started to write.
Here I am on a Saturday morning. It's after 9 AM and I am just now sitting down with breakfast: 2 fried eggs (fresh from the hen yesterday), a piece of toast, coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but I have had a cold all week, compounded by allergies and asthma, and Chipmunk woke up at 6:30 this morning and needed to be held. So I held him and caught up on some blogs and boards (since the twins were still asleep), except I didn't have my glasses on and was apparently too lazy to go get them, so then my eyes started to hurt. I'm hoping the extra dose of caffeine will help. Really, though, I am a coffee weenie, and what I am drinking is half coffee, half light cream, with a generous amount of sugar. I don't normally like to start off my day with so much sugar, but when I came out with Chipmunk this morning and "had my hands full", as people like to say, there was a box of Fig Newtons on top of the microwave, so I ate two of them. Do Fig Newtons count as First Breakfast?
Anyway, I meant to get up earlier because Andy and Gareth got up around 5:30 to go camping with Scouts. Andy was in New York City yesterday, for the second time this week, and to spend a little time with him I decided that we would go pick up all the last minute camping stuff at Wal-Mart and then meet him in town for dinner on his way home from the train station. He got to Wal-Mart before we were done, and we split up to pick up supplies. I took the cart full of small children -- Chipmunk in the front seat, Pip and Pop in the cart's bucket. (What do you call that part of the cart? The "cart" part? The buggy? The bucket? A dilemma.) I then proceeded to whisk down the aisles picking up granola bars, juice, Cheddar Bunnies, bread, and bananas, trying to squeeze all this stuff in around two three year olds playing STRONG MAN! GRR! AND THE X-MEN in the bucket (or buggy) or whatever of the cart. You should know that what STRONG MAN AND THE X-MEN really means is LET'S PUNCH EACH OTHER AND YELL REALLY LOUD. It wasn't until we got home that I noticed I'd picked up 2 bottles of "Cherry Burst" juice instead of White Grape Cherry. Cherry Burst proudly proclaims that it is "20% juice!" The other 80% is water, high fructose corn syrup, and Red #40. This is not exactly what I want STRONG MAN AND THE X-MEN to drink.
In the interval between buying Cherry Burst and discovering that it was, in fact, Cherry Burst, we went to eat at Arby's. We also dropped sandwiches on the floor at Arby's, screamed and stole our brother's sandwich at Arby's, yelled loudly whenever a truck passed by Arby's, and spilled a full cup of rootbeer all over the booth at Arby's. "Have a nice night!" the cashier yelled as we walked out the door, and I'm glad I had my hands full of toddler and couldn't turn around because I'm pretty sure he was smirking when he said it.
So today, Saturday. After starting this post this morning, I took a long break before picking it up again. I broke up a squabble about a snorkel that Farmerboy lifted from his sister's room, and which he wanted to wear as part of his Digimon gear.
I took care of my seedlings, which are mostly holding up, although the watermelons are dying off one by one. I was surprised to see Andy back home, but he said he came to help me out and Gareth was fine, so we spent a couple of hours attempting to make the house look less like it had been ransacked by a pack of thieves, and while we worked we had a discussion about how we were both aggravated by our inability to pare down various obligations so that the life we actually want to live -- chickens, garden, animals, and all -- wouldn't be so incredibly hard. Andy mopped all the floors with a tea-tree spray I made yesterday; I cleared some clutter; Katydid did Gareth's kitchen chores; and the boys threw dirt at each other outside.
We decided to order a pizza for lunch and call it a cleaning expense. Andy went to pick it up, and I went outside with the boys, who were by now finding Eastern tent caterpillars and dropping them into my freezer containers. Farmerboy directed the twins to find crabapple and oak leaves for them to eat. We walked over to the crabapple tree, which was loosing its petals like rain in every gust of wind. "Winter!" Pip called out happily. "Butterflies!" The ground was pink with blossoms. We stepped on them like a carpet and breathed in their perfume.
At lunch we talked about mushrooms and discovered that Pip's caterpillar was different than the other boys', and possibly a Black Swallowtail caterpillar. After we were done eating, we all headed back outside. While I cleaned up the table, Andy cleaned out the back of the chicken coop while holding Chipmunk. When Chipmunk finally got down, he ran back and forth by the new fence shouting, "Buck! Buck! Buck!" The kids all picked up chickens while I admonished them not to hold them up to thier faces because a chicken pecked Farmerboy in the eye the other day, resulting in a trip to the doctor and eye drops for a scratched conjunctivum. Then I attempted to sneak away to thin radishes, but Chipmunk found me out. We all worked in the garden as best we could, until Farmerboy saw a delivery truck pull into the driveway.
We've been thinking about a piano for a long time. When we were in Tennessee Katydid spent hours playing my mother's piano, and Andy started secretly searching for one in earnest. But everything he could find was too expensive. I gave him the advice I had once heard given by a mother of 10 in our homeschool group: "You decide what you need, and then you pray." Two weeks ago one of Andy's coworkers was driving down a back road near her house and saw a sign for a FREE PIANO. She thought of us, stopped her car, and went in to talk to the owners. It seems that they were trying to clear out the house of their elderly parent. The piano had not been played in three years, and they wanted it to go to a home where it would be played and enjoyed. Well, we fit that bill. We paid for the piano movers, but that was it. And now we have a piano.
After the piano movers left, the kids messed around on the piano for a while (rules will have to be made about how to take turns, do not bang on the keys when your sister is trying to play, do not drop the keyboard cover on your brother's hands, etc., etc.), then I read a few picture books to the little boys (including a Magic School Bus book for Farmerboy), Katydid went back to her room to read, Andy went back outside to mow grass for an hour, and I put the little ones down for a nap. Chipmunk didn't lie down for long, and I was back where I began this post: reading on the computer and holding him while he slept.
So. Do I have a "simple" life? Hmm. Some of the accoutrements are there: the fresh eggs, the garden, the chickens, the crabapple. But you can stop laughing now, because no, I don't think my life is very simple. It's actually pretty darn complicated. But as I was writing all this down and thinking about it, I began to ask myself the question, "Are my kids' lives simple?"
I think the answer is yes. For starters, their parents are still married and enjoy each other's company. For another thing, they do not have to deal with all the weird situations you hear about from people whose kids go to school. (I'm not talking about academics; I'm talking about "socialization". This has been particularly driven home to me lately whenever I hear about what other 12 and 13 year olds have to deal with.) Starting from that base, what about the way we "school"?
To be honest, I just winced when I wrote that word, "school". It's inadequate for the way my kids live their lives. I've written before that my kids only think of the sit down work we do -- math, spelling, diagramming sentences -- as "schoolwork". The rest of it -- reading books, drawing pictures, making volcanoes, collecting caterpillars -- is not "school". It's life. Without time to do those things, their lives would be diminished. And I'm sure they would rebel. In fact, they do rebel -- if "schoolwork" starts to crowd out what to them are the more meaningful pieces of their world.
But they are not the kind of kids who, as a rule, will want to do math problems on their own. And one of my kids would spend a lot of time setting up Lego armies and then wonder where all the time went, because there were other things he wanted to do, too, and now he's frustrated. So I make some requirements. Sometimes it's hard to resist just focusing on the basics. For the sake of "simplicity". But that path only leads to burnout. Because it's the rest of it -- the walks in the crabapple blossoms, the chickens, the garden, the piano, the sitting at a table on a Sunday morning and trying to build a ship out of a milk jug to go along with the Magic School Bus book you heard yesterday -- it's all that stuff that makes learning real. Actually, that's not right. It doesn't "make" learning real, because the learning is real already. It's the way humans are built. We were made to learn.
But it takes work on a parent's part to keep it that way. It takes a certain resistance to what everyone else is doing, in order to figure out what is best for your family. It takes a certain courage, to ignore all the naysayers, and to fight one's own fears of failing one's children in various ways. It takes a certain humility, to realize one's limitations -- and not to obsess over them. And it takes a certain sense of humor, to realize that when your three year olds are playing X-Men in the cart at Wal-Mart and you come home with Cherry Burst instead of juice, it's not the end of the world.
What I have come to believe is that "a simple life" is not really a destination, but a constant road one is always walking. If I can keep my kids from some of the snares along the way in order to keep their childhoods "simple", then I'll be happy.