Sean used to go to school, but he stopped more than two and a half years ago, toward the end of the fifth grade. Since then, for the most part, he hasn’t done anything that resembles going to school. He has no formal tutor; he takes no correspondence courses; he reads no math or science or history texts. Instead he busies himself with a variety of hobbies.
“Don’t you get bored?” I ask. “Sure, I get bored at times,” he admits with a shrug. Does he find himself getting bored more often now than he did in school? He answers instantly. “I got bored much more often when I was in school.”
Yet it wasn't boredom that drove Sean from the classroom, but persistent unhappiness. Sean’s grades were only mediocre (C’s in most subjects), but Sean’s father, John Boston, says, “All the time he was in school, we kept telling his teachers that we didn’t care if he learned a damned thing. We just wanted him to be happy.”
Boston is a burly, ruddy-complexioned man with wavy ginger hair, dressed in denim overalls. These days he grows six acres of Hass avocados and smaller quantities of other varieties on his eighteen acres of land, but he used to be a public school teacher, a fact he divulges reluctantly. He says it makes people mistakenly think he’s better qualified than the average person to keep his child at home. He maintains that his teaching experience only gave him an insight into what a warped, irrelevant, and even harmful environment school — public or private — can be.
Boston says he began to question classroom education back in the early 1960s when he learned about the works of William Glasser, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and author of the controversial book Schools Without Failure. Boston agreed with many of Glasser’s assertions, such as the charge that schools — by design — instill children with the experience of failure by means of such things as the grading system and the encouragement of competition between learners. By 1969, when Boston began a new job teaching agriculture at Costa Mesa High School, he was ready to break with traditional teaching approaches.
Boston developed a program for about 200 students in which the students individually chose to learn specific agricultural skills — for example, tractor driving. In addition to tailoring each student’s program personally, Boston also refused to give anything but A, B, or C grades. “You didn’t fail in my course. It might just take you a little longer to get where you were going. Or if you decided you simply couldn’t get there, you would have to choose a different goal.”
Although his agriculture classes sought somewhat to remedy the specter of failing, Boston found himself spending hour upon hour justifying to the school administrators every small detail of his innovations. “What I was moving toward was a system where they [the studentsj didn’t need me. After all, it doesn’t take four years of college to show someone what they need to know to drive a tractor, or to show someone what they need to know to read a book.” The result was six years of gradually intensifying friction between Boston and his bosses, at the end of which time he resigned from the teaching post.
At that time his wife, Stella O’Carroll, wasn’t working. When Sean was born (in April of 1969), she had resigned from a job as a personnel manager for Sears, but by the time Boston left the high school, she had begun hankering to return to work. So about 1974 the family moved to their present home, where Boston started the avocado ranch and O’Carroll found a job in Escondido. (Today she works as an interviewer for the state employment office.)
Sean was a preschooler at the time of their move, and Boston says he and his wife never dreamed of doing anything other than sending their son to the public schools. Despite Boston’s quarrels with contemporary education, he and his wife still saw schools and education as being of paramount importance. “In fact, I have a sister who’s a Jehovah’s Witness who would have her kids out of school a lot, and I thought that was absolutely terrible,” the father says.
Furthermore, when the little boy entered kindergarten at the Conway School in Escondido, “he loved it,” Boston says. “He loved being with the other kids.” However, within three weeks the kindergarten teacher was complaining that Sean wouldn’t sit still and couldn’t seem to concentrate; she concluded that he was “hyperactive.” Boston recalls, “We said, ‘Oh yeah? What’s that?’ We ran to the library to find out whatever we could about it. Finally we took Sean to a neurologist — who said he wasn’t hyperactive at all.” The neurologist also gave the lad an intelligence test, on which Sean scored 129, well above average. Nonetheless, as that first year wore on, Sean’s initial enthusiasm faded, and by the time he reached third grade he had already begun receiving frequent reprimands. “He was always being sent out of the classroom and told he was bad,” Boston says.
“What would you do to provoke that?” I asked Sean. His answer was measured, analytical. “I'd goof off a lot. For example, we would spit on our hands and rub our hands in our hair. We would spit on the floor. ... I would talk to my friends. I wouldn’t finish my work.”
The damage began in kindergarten, Boston asserts. Even though the neurologist had reported his dissenting opinion to the school, Boston says, “One teacher talks to another, and then the student lives up to their expectations.” In fact, although Sean’s parents had asked the school to delete the “hyperactive” reference from their son’s file, Boston says when he went in for a conference with the school nurse one time when Sean was in the fifth grade, she mentioned that kindergarten diagnosis.
Boston offers another insight into his son’s travails. During his own teaching years, Boston had always appreciated the help offered by parent volunteers, so when Sean entered kindergarten, Boston began volunteering one day a week in his son’s classrooms, a practice he continued every year (except one) that Sean remained in school. “Some teachers had me mimeographing. Others actually had me help teach the kids. And throughout that whole time, I saw him (SeanJ and I saw what was going on around him.” In the reading groups, Boston claims he could see that the children “didn’t give a damn about Dick and Jane running down the street. And yet that’s what they had to read. ... I thought, ‘How boring! Boring for me as a teacher and boring for these kids. ’ But what can you say about that?” Another time, while testing the youngsters on the difference between vowels and consonants, “I thought, ‘What the hell are these?’ I didn’t know them myself.” Yet he never voiced his doubts to the teachers. As a former teacher, Boston felt that his interference would only provoke resentment; besides, he says, “I was still kind of awed at the time. I would think, elementary teachers have gone through this whole program and they must know something I don’t know . . .’ ” At the memory, he explodes with a burst of laughter.
In fourth grade, Sean’s school life deteriorated still further. The boy says, "From the very beginning I just got the feeling it wasn’t going to go well. I her [his teacher], ‘I’m not going to : your class,’ and she gave me this smile [mimicking a sickly sweet expression] and said, ‘Oh, I’m very good with children.’ ” Apparently, she wasn’t very good with Sean; his father remembers how one day later that year boy said he would rather be dead than go to school. In response, Boston and O’Carroll let their son stay home about a week, "just to make him I better.” Sean’s misery increasing perturbed them. They say they didn’t worry about his performance because they felt that if he failed to fractions in the third grade, he would acquire that knowledge later, if anyone would just look at their experience and how they learn, they would see that this is the way learning works,” Boston asserts today.
‘‘I’m an example. Seven years ago I’d never raised an avocado in my life. I learned how strictly by myself. I didn’t go to classes on avocado raising. I didn’t have to go back and get a degree in it. . . . You can learn anything you want whenever you want it.”
Still, it wasn’t until the next year that the parents’ patience with the school system finally wore out. By the middle of Sean’s fifth-grade year, testing revealed the boy to be two and a half years behind his age group in reading. That qualified him for entry in a ‘‘special education” class, a last resort which the family embraced with hope and relief. Sean dutifully boarded a special bus each morning for the half-hour ride between his home and the Glenview Elementary School in Escondido (farther away than his first school had been). However, his parents’ hope that their child would now get individualized instruction quickly died. ‘‘It didn’t take long to realize that their idea of individualized instruction is having one teacher and a helper with fifteen students, instead of thirty students,” Boston says. Part of each day, Sean sat in a semiprivate cubicle, grinding away at the same mimeographed reading exercises he had failed at in his previous school. “They figured a more rigid structure would make learning happen,” Boston says. ‘‘Of course it didn’t.”
And why didn’t it happen? Boston says when he went in to discuss that question with Sean’s teacher and the director of special education, they told him that Sean wasn’t applying himself. ‘‘That’s the moment when I thought, ‘Lady, you’re all wet.’ ” Boston reached home seething, and ready for revolt. ‘‘I said to Stella, ‘I’m ready to teach him here at home. What can they do to us? What’s the worst thing that can happen to us? Can we take it?’ ”
He says he and his wife knew next to nothing about the growing numbers of parents nationwide who had reached a similar conclusion. Instead, they took it for granted that absence from school was illegal. With the debacle of the special education class, however, Boston says he and his wife figured ‘‘we didn’t give a damn about what the law said.”
After much discussion, they presented Sean with the choice of dropping out, and after thinking it over for about two days, Sean decided to do so. Conspiratorially, Boston instructed the boy to bring home from the school his pencils, sharpeners, completed workbooks — everything that belonged to him. ‘‘We told the school nothing!” Boston says. He and his wife had figured that the worst that could happen would be for the authorities to insist upon Sean’s return. “But I felt I knew enough about how the system works to allow us to bluff our way through for at least a year. And then we could figure something else out.” As things turned out, it took only about a week for the special education director to telephone and inquire about Sean’s absence.
‘‘I told her, ‘I’m working with him at home,’ ” Boston says, at which she suggested that he obtain and fill out something called an R-4 form. It was the first Boston had heard about the document. When he received it in the mail from the county department of education, however, he could hardly believe what it seemed to promise. Boston realized that by answering the form’s few basic questions, he in effect would be establishing a private school — with only one pupil. He soon learned that California law doesn’t require private-school teachers to hold any special credentials. Instead, they must merely be ‘‘persons capable of teaching.” Gleefully, Boston called out a local health inspector for a perfunctory look at the “school facility” (i.e., the Boston/O’Carroll residence). The fire department didn’t even send out a representative but only asked over the phone if the home was equipped with a fire extinguisher and doors that opened outward.
That hurdle cleared, the family settled down to what Boston had assumed would be easy: getting his newly emancipated son to learn. The task didn’t daunt the father. He figured he could spare enough time from his farm work to launch his son on a course of study, and “from there he could go pretty much on his own.” So the two began by sitting down at the family’s dining table first thing every morning to work on such subjects as spelling, mathematics, and reading. At first they used some of the same textbooks Sean had been using in school. “Sean took one math activity workbook that he had really enjoyed, and he did the problems all over again,” Boston recalls.
Boston even enrolled himself in a spelling seminar in Anaheim and found that “it helped me spell a whole lot better.” But his son’s orthography remained poor. He had thought the secret of enticing Sean into reading would be simple: he would give Sean books that weren’t boring. From the bookstore he brought home piles of Hardy Boys and other adventure stories; at the library he searched for entertaining reading material pertaining to flying, one of Sean’s interests. But he was soon forced to ask himself, “What if Sean dislikes the act of reading itself?” As the weeks rolled by, Boston watched his son more and more reluctantly sit down to the table, and then stare out the window, his attention wandering. When Boston tried to review material he had covered with Sean only days before, he found “it was as if he had never seen it in the first place.” Gradually he and Sean began shortening or skipping the sessions altogether.
Yet Boston wasn’t dismayed; his thinking had already taken another turn. He says when he and his wife made the decision to allow Sean to stay home, they had once again hurried to the library and there they had discovered books written by kindred spirits such as John Holt. A former elementary school teacher and the author of an educational manifesto called How Children Fail, Holt argues that failures occur because the nature of schools makes most children afraid (by constantly putting them in situations where they risk painful, shameful failure), bored (by filling their days with mindless tasks), and confused. Holt contends that schools have no interest in seeing children think their way through problems, but instead only want the children to produce “right answers.” The children thus devise elaborate, often dishonest strategies for meeting and dodging that demand.
After years of calling for school reform, Holt threw up his hands and began encouraging parents to teach their own children. Today he’s something of a guru of the home-school movement, and is the publisher of a Massachusetts-based newsletter called Growing Without Schooling. The newsletter chiefly consists of letters from home-schooling parents. A wildly heterogeneous group, some of them use correspondence courses or follow similarly formal curricula. However, many others espouse a different philosophy, of which John Boston soon became one of the most radical proponents.
In this view, as Boston expresses it, freedom is essential to true learning. “We don’t learn by compulsion; we learn voluntarily,’’ he asserts. “No teacher can teach anyone anything unless the pupil wants to learn.’’ Some students can be forced to memorize material and feed it back to a teacher (before promptly forgetting it) but Boston says this isn’t really learning.
When his own dinner-table attempts to cram his son with reading and mathematics failed, Boston changed tactics. Even as a preschooler, Sean’s obvious forte was mechanics. “He was interested in machinery and bulldozers and windshield wipers and anything you can name. Machines and I don’t get along at all,” says the father, “but with Sean it’s different. He makes machines talk.” Since school hadn’t destroyed that interest, Boston decided to let Sean turn his full attention to machines and to anything else that interested the lad. If the father no longer was taking an active role teaching, he saw a new role for himself in constantly being alert for things and people with which Sean might want to be in contact in order to learn.
Today Boston says, “I have to be a good listener, because he might not know what he wants in verbal terms. This is something I have to be able to pick up on.” Thus he says when Sean acquired a small Honda motorcycle and began tinkering with it, he asked if the boy would like a service manual for it, to which Sean eagerly assented. At another point, when Sean found himself frequently running down to his bank either to deposit or withdraw a few dollars at a time from his savings account, his father asked if he wanted instead to open a checking account, and then helped him do so. (Three or four banks turned him down, but the North County Bank finally gave him an account as long as Boston and O’Carroll agreed to co-sign for it.)
Since then Sean has balanced his bank statements every month, a task which has impressed upon him the value of at least basic arithmetic. When he began to work on the Japanese motorcycle, necessity also prompted him to learn the metric system. And he has become a regular reader of a few magazines such as Model Aviation and Bicycling, which are devoted to some of his hobbies. In fact, his father says this year he administered to Sean a “quick assessment” reading test Boston obtained from a San Diego reading specialist. Boston says it indicated that Sean has improved to where he’s now reading at roughly a seventh-grade level, about the same as other children his age.
“But does he ever simply read for pleasure?” I asked Boston the first time we talked.
“Not really. They really turned him off and I don’t know how to turn him back on again,” Boston replied sadly. But then he remembered something that had momentarily slipped his mind. A few weeks before, Sean had discovered an adventure story series in which the reader has a choice of reading a number of different endings for the various dramas. “That was the first time in two and a half years he ever asked me to buy him something to read,” Boston amended himself. Later, when I asked Sean himself if he thought that he would ever return to reading, I didn’t tell him what his father had told me about the book, and the boy answered my question with a note of pride. “I already do read.” He went and pulled out the volume. The Curse of the Sunken Treasure by R. G. Austin, and explained how the stories work. ‘‘It’s a series,” he told me. ‘‘I’d like to get all of them.”
Nonetheless, it is obvious that reading consumes only a small fraction of his time, as does television watching. Sean says he likes to settle down to watch M*ASH or Saturday Night Live reruns in the evenings, when he is tired and it’s too dark outside to work on his many mechanical projects. But during the days, he’d rather be working on his machines than doing anything else. One afternoon we talked outside his house, which offers a panoramic view of Mount Palomar to the east and the mountains of San Bernardino to the north. Nearby was a shed full of bicycle skeletons and parts. ‘‘I sorta build bikes,” Sean explained. That started almost six years ago when he got a five-speed Schwinn, tore it apart, and added improvements to it. ‘‘Now I’m building motocross bikes and ten-speeds. I’m working on about six at once.” When he finishes the chrome motocross bike with metal hubs, he hopes to sell it for about seventy-five dollars; he expects to ask about twenty-five for one of the old ten-speeds. ‘‘Money’s a problem for me. As soon as I get some, I have a list of different parts I need to buy.”
Now that the weather is turning cooler, Sean says he has begun to work again on his Jeep. The boy led me over to it, an ornery, full-size Willys 1941 military vehicle his father bought a few years ago to haul bins of avocados up his hillside property. One day the distributor shear-pin broke, and although Sean helped his father install a new distributor, the Jeep has never really run right since. So Boston gave it to Sean. Since then the thirteen-year-old has installed a new electrical system, new gauges, and turn signals, and now he’s working on the brake system. When I asked him how he knows how to do all these things, he reflected. ‘‘The first motor I ever worked on was an old Briggs and Stratton two-horsepower thing. My grandfather is pretty good with mechanical things and he helped me to work on that. That taught me some basics, and I just seem to know what to do. I have the [Jeep service] manual, and that helps.”
He led me inside to show me other projects. In one work room off the front entranceway he has erected a scale-model train system. About fifty different train cars, which Sean has purchased from four or five different manufacturers, stretch out along the Atlas track, rolling past model scenery the boy obtained from yet another supplier. Sean explained how he planned to enlarge and beautify the system. Then we proceeded to his bedroom, a light, clean room which nonetheless has a feeling of a garage, filled with plans and battery clips and wrenches and pliers and spark plugs. Sean counted at least seventeen model airplanes (all of which actually fly, harnessed to a control line) he’s built over the last four years or so and which now have been tucked into various crannies in the bedroom and closet. Occasionally, Sean also builds toy trucks and cars, “but the models are petting too expensive because of the oil [petroleum products] in them,” he commented wryly.
I asked if he systematically apportioned his time among all these projects. “Nah, I just hang around,” he answered. “I just work on my bikes, and then I’ll find a part for my planes and I’ll think, ‘Oh yeah. I’ve got to glue this on.’ Then I'll start working on that until I’ll find another part for my trains and that’ll remind me to do something to them.” On the rare occasions when these become tedious, he has a stamp and a coin collection, “or if I get really bored I can work on a slot car.”
Sean's father points out that a few times since he dropped out of grade school, Sean has returned to school for specialized instruction. He took night courses in karate and “finger math’’ for a while in Escondido Adult School and he joined the Boy Scouts and 4-H organizations, but lost interest in them when he encountered some of the same competitiveness that repulsed him in the school system. One course Sean did complete was a motorcycle safety class, also given by the adult school. At another point he also decided to enroll in a beginning piano class at Palomar College, but was thwarted by an officious bureaucrat who refused to let the young boy enroll alongside his elders.
Sean is ambivalent when asked if he would ever consider going to college full-time. “I’m not too gung-ho about it. But I don’t know what my situation will be,’’ he says. He concedes he might have to acquire some official certification to work as a mechanic, his goal. His parents, like most homeschooling enthusiasts, contend that Sean’s rejection of formal schooling now need not limit his educational choices in the future. “He can get a high school diploma by taking a GED test. He can go to junior college just by turning eighteen. And once he’s in a junior college he can transfer to a fulltime college,” asserts Boston.
Far more troubling to home-school families is the question of providing their unschooled children with sufficient social stimulation. ‘‘Everyone wants to know two things: how we got into this and what about their socialization,” a home-schooling mother told me. In Sean’s case, Boston believes one answer is that although Sean has fewer contacts with children his age than he would have if he were attending school, he has more contact with adults. Sean volunteers for an hour a week at the Escondido Humane Society, cleaning cages and feeding the dogs and cats; and because Sean’s mechanical projects comprise such a big part of his activities, he spends a lot of time talking to adult mechanics, parts-store employees, and so forth.
Furthermore, Sean himself disparages the social benefits of school. ‘‘You don’t get to talk that much in school. If you try, the teacher catches you, and then you don’t have nothin’ to do and you’re bored.” Now that he’s out of school, he still attends religious classes at his local Catholic church and although he lives at the end of an isolated dirt road with only a half dozen houses for neighbors, he plays with a few children his age when they get out of school in the afternoons. ‘‘We all have bicycles pretty much. There’s a place where we meet, where the school buses stop. We’ve even built a bike jump. I can usually find someone down there.”
I asked Sean what his peers think of his not attending school, and he answered that ‘‘maybe half of them say I’m gonna be stupid when I grow up and they say my mind’s all screwed up.” The others think he’s lucky, he states. However they may judge his education, a respect for Sean’s mechanical aptitude seems to have spread among all the youngsters in the neighborhood. One afternoon when I was visiting, a little boy and girl showed up to have Sean install a new set of brakes on their bicycle.
Despite these contacts,'however, Boston was concerned enough about enlarging his son’s circle of young acquaintances that he got together with another Escondido family engaged in teaching their nine-year-old daughter at home. This past spring Boston and the mother in that family resolved to start a newsletter which would link together home-schooling families throughout San Diego County. They called it HomeNet and mailed volume one of it to about one hundred homeschooling families. Boston and the other woman obtained those names from a list of local subscribers to John Holt’s national newsletter, plus they also culled from the California Private School Directory the names of all the San Diego County ‘‘private schools” that listed enrollments of less than a half dozen students.
Seven subsequent issues have gone out, and although Boston has since dropped out of the newsletter production, he and Sean continue to participate in regular group outings to places such as Sea World and the tide pools at La Jolla Cove. Contact with the group has shown Boston the wide spectrum of motivations that prompt parents to take command of their children’s education. Some reject school for religious reasons, while others have children like Sean for whom school simply fails to work and who instead seek educational freedom. Still others want the opposite: more structure and discipline than the children would get in a contemporary classroom.
Boston told me about one such family living in a section of San Diego near the border of Lemon Grove, but he seemed hesitant about having me speak with them; he thought their approach was excessively complicated. ‘‘I have been told I’m too structured,” Virginia Johnson admits with a shrug. ‘‘But I’m not nearly as structured as the school system. . . . They don’t care if the children learn. They only care about following the program.” She and her husband Allen watched their son and two daughters receive C’s and D’s in most of their courses until they removed them from the school district in Santee, where they were living about three and a half years ago.
“Johnson” is not the family’s true last name; the members of the family asked me to disguise their identity. They were fearful that publicity might provoke retaliation from local school officials. In spite of the liberal state law relating to private schools, the Los Angeles City Schools recently asked the L.A. city attorney to charge one home-schooling family with a violation of the state education code, and that case is scheduled to go to court in October. Two additional Los Angeles home-schooling families reportedly are facing attendance review hearings. And this summer rumors flashed throughout the local community that San Diego officials might be preparing to follow suit.
If those are only threats, the Johnson family has experienced some actual small-scale harassment from school authorities. Virginia says when she arid Allen first removed their offspring from the Carlton Hills Elementary School in Santee, “The principal called me three days in a row, saying the children would suffer and I would probably be sorry for doing this because mothers and children were not meant to be together all the time.” She adds that within the week she also received at least five phone calls from women who refused to give their names but threatened that the family would be sorry about its choice of home schooling. About that time the Johnsons heard from a friend who was active in the Santee PTA that the school needed another teacher but had to have a certain number more children before one could be added. “So we assume that’s why they called to pressure us. We Finally changed our phone number,” Virginia says.
She says plenty of deliberation had braced her and Allen to withstand the pressure. Like Sean’s parents, the Johnsons both came from families who respected education, and in fact Allen’s father was a lifelong teacher with a master’s degree in education. After the Johnson children were bom, “We always tried to precondition them for going to school,” Virginia says. But although all the children scored above average on intelligence tests, none of them did well. “They were barely hanging on. . . . Allen and I would come home from work and the phones would be ringing and we’d just know it would be the school. John would be fighting. The girls would refuse to do things.” The family was fascinated when they heard about a friend of a friend living in San Diego who, for religious reasons, had never enrolled her three children in school. After thoroughly researching the state education law, Virginia says, “It took us about six months to decide.” Their decision meant that Virginia had to quit her full-time job as manager of a U-Totem store in Santee.
Like Boston, the mother says that adjustment to the new arrangement was difficult. At first, she says the children were so tense and agitated from the turmoil they had experienced in their classrooms that they were averse to the idea of learning altogether. “So we didn’t do much of anything very structured for about a year. ...” Today, however, both Virginia and Allen firmly believe the children need some structure in their learning experiences. They say the youngsters have been too turned off by the schooling they’ve already had to reach independently for such knowledge. “For us, it’s too late to take a completely unstructured approach,” Allen asserts.
In her search for that structure, Virginia says she has devoured “every book that has anything to do with children in school and out of schools.” One thing she discovered about a year ago was the work of Georg Lozanov, a Bulgarian educator. One of Loza-nov’s tenets is that people learn best when their minds are relaxed but alert; to foster this state, Lozanov makes liberal use of classical music during instruction periods. Adapting that principle, Virginia began training her three children in relaxation; today she says she begins most morning instructional periods with such a “concert session.”
I asked if I could sit in on one such typical teaching session and the mother welcomed me. But when I showed up in the family’s crowded living room one recent Wednesday morning, it immediately became clear that my very presence had shattered the routine of the session. Allen had taken a day off from his work as an electronics supervisor, something he usually manages to do only about once a month. Jean, the Johnson’s ten-year-old, sat in a small folding lawn chair casting mischievous glances at me and silently giggling. Twelve-year-old Jane and thirteen-year-old John stretched out on the living room rug, their faces buried in their arms. As Pachelbel’s “Kanon in D” began playing on the family stereo, Virginia spoke softly. “While we’re learning all these things, you will be relaxed, and it will be fun,” she urged, then repeated variations on the same basic message.
To the strains of Bach’s “Air on a G String,” she pronounced and quietly spelled words, some new to the children and some of which they had recently misspelled: “diary,” “brake,” “clothes,” “affect,” “capital,” “conscious.” Then she told the youngsters they could sit up and prepare to work with heron multiplication tables. As they bolted to the bathroom and grabbed pillows to prop themselves up, the mother commented on their unnatural stiffness. “Usually they’re relaxed after the first song.” Nonetheless, she had them each silently follow along with her as she read off “six times seven is forty-two, six times six is thirty-six,’’ and so on. After working all the way through “twelves,” she again made a side comment. “I think you can tell by their reactions that they pretty much know them. And I’ve only gone through them six times.” But when she began quizzing them about a subject they had discussed the previous day — the making of soap — an awkward silence filled the room. She yielded the floor to her husband, who read from a book about how butter is made. When he finished the reading and led his three (suddenly boisterous) offspring into the kitchen for a demonstration of the process, Virginia philosophically dismissed the children’s inability to concentrate.
“Sometimes, they’re just like this. Some days I see they just got up on the side of the bed where the wall was. Or they might not feel well. I’ll just see they’re not concentrating. At times like that we might go for a walk. Or I’ll read to them. If there’s an educational program on television, we might watch that. Or sometimes I’ll just go through the entire newpaper with them.” In contrast, ‘‘the school system simply cannot be that flexible” — to the children’s detriment, she contends.
Even on those days when the routine works well, the Johnsons allow the children to sleep as late as they wish, but Virginia says they’re normally ready to begin working by eight or nine. Usually she conducts the group sessions until 11:00 or 11:30. Afternoons the children devote to individual reading and written work, which both parents prepare on weekends. ‘‘We all go to the library together about twice a week. I suggest different books that I think are healthy and wholesome and I think will be a challenge.” One recent favorite has been The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, she says. In addition, Allen says he reviews the kids’ lessons in the evenings, and the family tries to devote one day each weekend to various outings.
Virginia even claims the children play more creatively, since ‘‘at the end of the school day they’re not exhausted from the pressures they ordinarily would encounter in the public system. . . . Sometimes they play school and they read out loud to each other. They play store. Once they made their own checks. They copied the face of them from our checks. They asked me how to fill them out and I showed them. They also made coins and bills out of paper. For a cash register they used a combination of a calculator and an adding machine. They even saved empty food boxes and cartons to use as things to buy in their play ‘store.’ ” The thirty-seven-year-old mother springs to the defensive when the question of the children’s social life arises. “Other parents say, ‘Oh, your kids are missing so many activities.’ Yeah — like smoking and drugs. With home schooling we have much more control over our children’s social contacts. . . . They’re involved with Boy Scouts, with Girl Scouts, with the rec center.’’ The boy and older girl ’hold down regular jobs.
Like Boston, the Johnsons have participated enthusiastically in activities involving the local home-schooling network. That morning Virginia reminded me of an upcoming picnic at Flinn Springs Park in Lakeside. There I’d be likely to meet other parents from a wide range of backgrounds: lawyers, a custodian, an artist, university professors, clergymen, a California Highway Patrol trainee.
But when I showed up at the picnic grounds, only three families had turned out: the Johnsons, the family from Escondido who helped start the newsletter along with Boston, and some young newcomers from La Jolla. The father from La Jolla commanded attention. A strikingly handsome young man, he ran a highly successful business manufacturing microcomputers. Almost confessionally, he shared some of his thoughts on home schooling, looking a little scared by the boldness of his own unorthodoxy, yet nonetheless resolute.
He said he and his wife only this summer made the final decision to withdraw their eleven-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son from La Jolla Country Day School, which both had attended for two years. “It’s kind of hard, because I went there myself. I was part of the first graduating class [in 1964]. We thought it would be a family tradition . . .” His daughter’s and son’s grades ranged from average to outstanding, yet the father had become convinced that in the years since his own attendance there, the school’s standards had deteriorated. “They’re supposed to be giving the kids a classical education, but they’re not really teaching the classics anymore.’’
He voiced other complaints as well. Homework demands had begun to dominate the entire family, he felt. “I work so much that I don’t have a lot of time with my kids. When I come home at night I want to talk to them. But Natasha was always loaded down with assignments.’’ He also resented what he perceived to be an attitude of “cultural relativism” among the teachers. “They take as almost a given that there’s no way to judge one society against another society.” This led to an avoidance of certain topics, he believed, among them the effect of religious motivations in the history of civilization, and also the value of individual freedom as a guiding moral principle. “For example, why don’t you see Patrick Henry’s statement, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ in history books any more?”
When I asked him what he hoped to achieve for his children, educationally, he said bluntly, “I want ’em to go to Ivy League colleges.” Then he tacked on a thought. “I don’t want ’em to read books I don’t know — at least not before they read the classics first. ... Up to now they’ve never read The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Count of Monte Cristo or anything like that.”
He told how he and his wife were now cheerfully struggling to establish a home curriculum. To get started, they’ve hired a former teacher who has been working with the children from about 8:30 until 12:30 weekdays. She and the mother both have been supervising a reading program heavily loaded with Greek and Roman mythology and more recent literary classics. At the moment, for instance, the seven-year-old boy is reading Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, while the girl is reading The Other Side of the Mountain , a more contemporary work. Both children also are spending an hour a day working through a computerized vocabulary drill, and they’re writing daily entries in personal journals. In addition to the hour a day of math instruction they’re working on at home with the tutor, they’re taking outside classes in art, karate, soccer, and other topics.
The other parents offered gentle suggestions. Expect progress by leaps and bounds, rather than steady increments, they counseled. Don’t worry; within a short time you’ll know you’ve made the right move, they reassured the newcomers. Only later did the talk turn to the school authorities; to the shared relief at the news that San Diego County school officials have apparently decided not to prosecute the renegades. (Contrary to the rumors which had been circulating, the R-4 private-school forms were being mailed out on schedule.)
The group agreed that it was natural for some people to see home schooling as a financial threat to the public school system. But it isn’t much of a threat, Virginia Johnson argued. “There simply are never going to be that many of us,’’ she declared. Heads nodded assent. Home schooling is too radical a choice, everyone seemed to agree. Too many parents want babysitters for their children, or believe that suffering in school builds character. Too few would want to devote as much time and attention to their children’s upbringing as home schooling requires. “Our numbers just won’t grow large enough to really threaten them,’’ Virginia repeated, as if very sure of her words, or at least very eager for someone to find them reassuring. □