On the Outdoors, Trashing my Expectations, the Dreaded S-Word, and the Challenges of Community

A secret that I don’t usually confess in real-life company is that even though I have always adored nature and indeed, crave trees like chocolate, I often tend to function as more of an “inside girl.” When I was a child, you could often find me in my bedroom on a sunny day reading a book or creating elaborate worlds from bits of paper. (This love for quiet activities, by the way, made me a pretty good performer in school.) And this is still truer than I would like it to be. When summer vacation comes, I am more easily drawn to my comfy home office with its ready stack of unread books than to the garden, the park, or even the porch. Perhaps this is partly because I have also always been shy and introverted, frequently preferring my inner world to the world outside.

This, I suspect, is true of many adults who choose to homeschool their children. Perhaps this is why I sometimes think that there is a small kernel of truth hidden within the mostly fallacious socialization argument; some of us, even (especially?) those of us in the city, want to cocoon away from others, at least sometimes. Then again, we are not alone in this. Distance from others is, after all, part of the disease of modern American life—which is why, perhaps counterintuitively, homeschooling offers such a compelling remedy when we’re able to leave our cocoons and venture into the outside.

My five-year-old homeschooled son possesses none of my quietness or shyness, as you will see, but he sometimes goes through phases where the outdoors have little appeal to him compared to the latest Lego sets and I feel compelled to drag him outside to avoid letting him become too much like me (plus, Vitamin N and all). So, I was happy one day about a month ago when he agreed to take a walk around the block with me after dinner. My happiness quickly turned to unease when my son became fascinated not with the birds, which have become my adult loves and which are wonderfully ample in our neighborhood, but with the piles of trash in front of each neighbor’s house, left out for recycling.

I should have known; my son has, almost from birth, been attracted to gadgets and machines (he recently told me that he has an “instinct for building”). Still, I wasn’t sure what to do as he began to climb in the piles and paw through other people’s cast-offs. I was a bit horrified when he demanded (loudly) that we take things home with us. Large things. Things that the neighbors might see us taking. While I love the idea of reusing everything and of living in a place where neighbors all know each other—and see absolutely no shame in curb surfing from a social and intellectual standpoint—none of these are my current reality.

My son, undaunted (unyielding!), convinced me to carry home a giant piece of piping attached to some sort of indiscernible plastic apparatus. I am reminded in hindsight of Shaun Tan’s brilliant children’s book, The Lost Thing. I struggled to hide my embarrassment as we approached another yard where the neighbors were sitting outside. I (barely) managed not to run home with my face in my hands as he greeted them and proceeded to go through their trash with their help, ultimately ending up with a completely usable fold-out lawnchair (like the kind I had as a kid in the 80s) and a pile of old newspapers.

I think I was able to rise above my awkwardness in part because it was giving way to pleasure and pride. Here was my homeschooled son, interacting with other people with ease, building community beyond my abilities and reclaiming materials to use for his art. He was pushing my boundaries, but in a good way. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

The outcome of this adventure is as follows: My son proceeded to build what he called the “Paw Patroller” out of the materials that he collected (the Paw Patrol, my son’s favorite TV show, has been an incredible source of creativity and invention in our family, giving rise to his own original characters, stories, and building projects, not to mention hours of play). Soon after, I got a reminder about an annual uncensored, non-juried community art show, Art All Night, located in another city neighborhood. The show is fairly unique in that it is open to people of all ages and the organizers cultivate an atmosphere of supportiveness and inclusion, built upon a deep respect for the multiple ways of creating art. My son participated last year with the encouragement of a fabulous mentor he worked with for six months in a research study at the wonderful Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh Make Shop. The event itself is very child-friendly, though it literally goes all night and I hear that it gets more raucous in the wee hours.

My son decided to submit the Paw Patroller to the show and to hang a sign on his art inviting children under five to climb inside. He watched with pride from the children’s activity area (a rockin’ cardboard city) as babies, toddlers, and kids played in his creation—and he beamed later when one of the organizers told him that his piece was her favorite among the many submissions, including adult-created, professional works.

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I am by no means a practiced homeschooler. With a five-year-old, I have barely begun. But the more I roll this undertaking around in my mind, the more I come to a vision that this story conveys better than any homeschool “mission statement” (not that my plan-averse husband would let me write one of those anyway!). When I took my son out in “nature,” I thought I was creating the conditions for something good. And I was right. But he knew what it was more than I did. I think this might apply to a lot of the lessons that we parents try to teach. The treasure I was trying to pass to him (some abstract, idyllic idea of nature) was his trash; my trash was his treasure—but in the crucible of real life outside, something meaningful (and educational!) happened for both of us. And possibilities were opened beyond my imagination.

I harbor no illusions that things like this only happen to homeschoolers, but I submit that this unexpected trajectory of mutual learning represents some of the best potentials of an education outside school in

  •  its flexible and respectful approach to humans’ fabulously diverse ways of creating personal and collective meaning from the raw materials of our world (which I managed to foster despite my initial resistance to making meaning from or even acknowledging seeming trash!)
  • its ultimately unstoppable tendency toward human creativity and connection (indeed, its demand that we not lose faith in such, despite our increasing awkwardness at pushing past our comfort zones to speak to and delight in the creations of others in our community)
  • and its small, but powerful, resistance to the unspoken rules of privacy and distance that shape our modern lives (particularly the lives of children, who increasingly occupy the isolated islands of home and school and are seldom unqualifiedly welcome in the parts of our culture zoned as public, especially as active participants and creators).

Such experiences convince me that my homeschool will be a success if my son can transcend my best dreams for him and follow where his best impulses lead him, even if into trash piles.

As we drove away after picking up my son’s piece from the show, my husband commented that our city has a “really great community.” As I tend to do, I was thinking many things when he said this—about what it means to have real community, about what kind of community I want for my son, about how far I still have to go before I feel comfortable talking to my neighbors, about how my son is knowing more community than I ever did in school—but what I said in reply was “yes.” Yes.

~ Anne

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