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Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life. Letters to a Young Poet ~ R. M. Rilke
I love Letters to a Young Poet – it sits on my writer’s inspiration shelf and I pull it out every so often. Thumbing through it recently, I was thinking of this quote in the context of homeschooling – don’t we, as parents, consider ourselves in some ways artists painting a canvas of experience for our children? Don’t we, in some ways (hopefully healthy ones) consider our children as our life’s greatest creative work of art? Of course, I don’t think as parents we should, or even get to, manufacture what we think of as perfect child ‘art’ – I think of this as Michelangelo said of his sculpting: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
But I digress. Rilke’s talking about words of criticism and that is what I want to touch on, because I am entering a season of our life when it will drift by like rain clouds every once in a while. And it often results in, as Rilke says, “more or less fortunate misunderstandings.”
Baby’s not going to preschool.
I don’t struggle with the standard set of parental worries that accompany folks starting out on the homeschooling journey. Many of them center around how a child will be able to function in the world and as a homeschooled alum, I seem to be able to do fairly well at this (certainly as well as my public school counter-parts). I know homeschooling does not produce awkward, socially and academically marginalized adults.
One struggle, however, is the same regardless of whether a parent was homeschooled or a complete rookie: the struggle to fit into your own skin as a parent who is choosing to do something outside of the mainstream. It’s developing an exoskeleton that guards against taking criticism of your life choices without shutting out or marginalizing the other person. It is being able to walk the fine line between sharing your heartfelt convictions and holding a finger on the trigger of defensiveness.
The longer I sit with this, the more I realize that it’s not about being an apologist for home education. It’s less about what’s wrong with public education, it’s more about what’s right with the choices we’re making for our family. The more conversations I am involved in, I invest less in proving what’s wrong with another family’s paradigm and simply sharing what works for us. It’s not right-wrong, it’s just discussing differences. We all know that homeschooling is seldom the hot button issue. Judgment, assumption, and criticism is really being aimed at parenting choices. And the conversations that hurl the most inaccurate stereotypes and the harshest criticisms come from two places: 1) insecurity or, 2) genuine (misplaced) concern. I simply don’t invest much in a conversation with people whom I do not have a relationship with (often #1). It’s just not worth it. Adopting the I’m-rubber-your-glue philosophy usually leaves you on the high road. Those coming from #2, a place of genuine concern are often family members whom – of course – you want to have an ongoing dialogue. A third factor that can fuel both is also the fact that home education is completely foreign and unknown; I am thankful for growing up with questions my entire life and that my skin is all the tougher for it.
Here’s Rilke again, so aptly addressing how to take these criticisms:
Read as little as possible of literary criticism – such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. ~ Rilke
If our children are works of art (created ultimately, I think, by God’s brush strokes, not ours), parents create the canvas on which He paints. Home life is where it all starts. Mother Teresa said, “Try to put in the hearts of your children a love for home. Make them long to be with their families. So much sin could be avoided if our people really loved their homes.” We are on a journey that, I think, is so rich with experience it is often unsayable. That’s why I don’t enter into heated discussions or read idealogical attacks on home education. I want to live life now. That’s why I don’t take it personally. That’s why I don’t use incendiary language – like comparing schools to prisons. I’m too busy to disagree with Sally on the Street, or Patti at the Park, or Sandy Syndicated-Columnist, or Storytime Sue, or Academic Andy.
If you are a working mama, I don’t judge you.
If you are a public schooling family, I don’t judge you.
If you are a [insert style of homeschooler here], I don’t judge you.
There is so much in society that rips at the fabric of a family, at our identity and self esteem as parents. If we are on different paths, I respect it if it’s strewn with footsteps of love and intention. I don’t think you want the wrong things for your kids, just perhaps different things. Those who are deeply in relationship with me, who know me down to the bones – yes, you I want to convince, I want to convey. I wish I could tell you it all NOW. But I am content to show you across the span of years. Meanwhile, we, as Rilke says, “live the questions now.” It’s so much harder to walk than talk, though.
People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition.
And guess what? All that difficult work? If you have the courage to do it, to really dive in, discard the canon of shoulds and oughts and never-even-questioned, and asked the tough questions about what’s best for your family? If it doesn’t lead to homeschooling, I don’t think it’s a waste. I don’t think it’s a faulty process. I look forward to meeting you out in the big wide world and sharing the joys of our lives. I applaud you for asking the questions and doing the difficult work.
And for all of my noble intentions, I often fumble answers to simply queries, or fail to convince because of my own ineloquence. There are times I wish I had said more; other times I wish I had said less. Some things, like Rilke said, are unsayable. Others are best left unsaid. Meanwhile, happy living – let’s share the joys of our journeys!