While looking at my calendar a few days ago, I realized that we are approaching our twelfth homeschool anniversary. According to hallmark.com, I should expect gifts of silk, linen and pearls. I’ll drop a few hints and register at Saks later. First, I want to share the story of how we became a secular homeschooling family:
Twelve years ago, my oldest daughter was in third grade at the local, public school, and she was struggling, but challenges were nothing new to her. Born weighing less than two pounds, she’d already been through a lot. Doctors were honest and straight-forward about her prognosis from the beginning and predicted that, if she lived through birth and then survived the inevitable preemie complications and infections, she would have significant developmental and learning challenges. We didn’t know how severe or what kind, so every milestone she met was a cause for celebration.
Visits from a hospice nurse and an early intervention specialist began the same week she came home from the hospital. She was monitored closely and diagnosed with mild to moderate learning disabilities and developmental delays before her second birthday. As she got older, she was easily frustrated, often anxious and stubbornly resistant to change. During her first year of kindergarten, she developed an unusual coping mechanism: she completely stopped talking at school.
That may not sound particularly alarming, but this wasn’t shyness. And it wasn’t temporary. The following summer, she was formally diagnosed with social phobia and selective mutism, a response to stress that causes someone to involuntarily become mute in overwhelming social situations. Specialists, therapists and developmental interventionists could not get this child to talk. And she didn’t utter a sound at school from the middle of her first year in kindergarten to the end of third grade.
Some resources describe selective mutism as a disorder. Others approach it as an indirect effect of or coping mechanism for a larger disorder like anxiety. Our search for answers was long, frustrating and fruitless. What eventually became apparent to me was that, regardless of what caused the anxiety in the beginning, it was important to remove my daughter from the situation that caused her the most stress (school) in order to allow her to get a proper education and to learn to cope with and overcome her anxiety.
Home education was the answer for us. Initially, I was reluctant. I knew a few homeschooling families, and I didn’t want to be like them. They were church-going rule-followers with traditional family values. I am not. They used religious resources and Biblical study as a guide. I didn’t want that. And I knew no secular homeschooling families. Nonetheless, with her dad’s support, I took what I thought would be a short break from my career in media and dedicated myself to my little girl’s education and well-being.
It was slow going at first. During instruction, my daughter would shut down and stop speaking to me. Then, she’d resume conversation when “school” was over. Eventually, I learned to take cues from her. When she’d stop talking, I’d stop talking, and we’d write notes back and forth until she’d completed her school work. From there, she graduated to whispering when she was unsure of an answer (she was terrified of being wrong.). Then she began talking all the time. Two years later, she was on a stage in front of a crowd reciting lines from Shakespeare as Helen of Troy.
In retrospect, I know I pushed too hard that first year. My naive goal was to get her caught up with her peers in time to put her back in school. One day, it dawned on me that sending her back would likely undo all the hard work we’d done and plunge her back into a silent existence. At that moment, we became a homeschoolers for life.
Rather than overprotecting or sheltering her from the “World of Stress”, I believed that a homeschool environment based on reason and sound observations would allow us to rebuild her confidence, rekindle her sense of curiosity and then gradually reintroduce her to the “World of Possibilities”. Our hard work has paid off.
She is still awkward and uncomfortable in many social situations, but she has learned how to handle herself, make friends, hold conversations, tell jokes and be happy. At the age of 22, she may not know how to drive (yet) but she is learning computer programming and hopes to create her own games and apps. A few years ago, she returned to her old school to meet with and actually speak to her former teachers. Some of us cried. It was amazing to see her come full circle.
Now, I am homeschooling my younger daughter. Although I hesitate to call her typical or average, she has none of her sister’s challenges. They couldn’t be more different. We started this journey to help a silent little girl find her voice, but I continue to homeschool because I’m convinced that I can give my children a better, more realistic and more useful education based on reason. It has been the best parenting decision we ever made.
Natalie West (Guest Post) is a writer in Mississippi.