For most of my childhood — from kindergarten until tenth grade — I did not attend school. Homeschooled is the term I used as a kid, the term I still use today for expediency, though it has always seemed misleading, since schooling is what my mother meant to spare us from by keeping us at home. We lived during those years on a farm in Vermont that sat thirty miles outside the nearest functional town and was, in a lot of ways, autonomous. We ate eggs from our own chickens, heated the house with a wood-burning stove, and got our water from a local spring, which was just a PVC pipe extending from the side of a mountain next to a sign warning that the county could not guarantee the quality of the water. I spent most mornings doing the chores I shared with my brothers: feeding the chickens, stocking the woodbin, hauling hay bales out to the sheep pasture. After that, the day was my own. Sometimes I read alone in my room, or sat at the kitchen table drawing comics in my sketchbook. As the oldest, I was often responsible for the younger kids, but like most children in large families they were easy — hungry for attention, game for whatever task I invented. We made baroque concoctions of flour and spices in the mixer and played with the bottle-fed lambs that slept in the kitchen in a baby hamper and wobbled freely around the house all day. We were always trying to teach them to sit or roll over, as if they were dogs.
My mom was usually outdoors, tinkering with something in the barn or traipsing around the pasture, examining the sheep for hoof rot. It was just her and us. Our dad left when I was 8 — first for inpatient treatment for what in those days was called “manic depression,” then the following year for good, when he returned to the small Oregon town where he’d grown up. At the time my mom was pregnant with her fourth child. Even though we lived in a remote area, with no other adult in the house, she insisted on giving birth naturally, at home. The night her labor started, I was the one who called the midwife, who instructed me to fetch a heating pad and rubbing alcohol; she’d be there in forty minutes. When she arrived, I helped ferry towels back and forth from the bathroom, and was allowed to stay in the room for the birth.
This was, according to my mom, “an experience” — one of many things I would never have learned at school. The sole purpose of schools, she often said, was to teach children to stand in lines. They were places people sent their children to do “busy work” — one of her favorite phrases, a catchall for all manner of scholastic activity, from the pointless tasks contrived to habituate children to following rules (worksheets, self-assessments) to the required subjects she considered vehicles for the state’s ideological agenda (sex education, evolutionary biology). My mom had been sent as a teenager to a boarding school in the South, a missionary reform academy that liberally practiced corporal punishment and from which she fled, sneaking out at night and hitchhiking back home to Michigan. Her animosity toward institutions must have stemmed from that experience, but she rarely mentioned it — and anyway, she rejected all forms of schooling: public and private, religious and secular.
Learning was something else. It was happening all the time, whether we were conscious of it or not, like breathing. In a letter to the state department of education, she referred to her pedagogy as “delight-directed integrated study,” a term I believe she made up. She was required to write these letters every year, one for each child, detailing how she would teach the core subjects. I read them for the first time a couple years ago and was awed by their expansive, often creative notion of what qualifies as education. On the topic of Comprehensive Health, she wrote: “Meghan had a great introduction to the health care system this past spring when she spent four days in the hospital having her appendix out.” On Citizenship, History, and Government: “We hope to have contact with a family of Russian immigrants through friends of ours who will be sponsoring them. This should help make real to Meghan some of the freedoms we enjoy in this country.” All the letters were written in the same shrugging, breezy tone that was her primary mode of defense, and barely concealed her hostility toward state intervention. On sex education: “Presently she is gaining a good base of information by being involved with the life cycles in our barn, and some sheep we will breed this fall.”