It's been a big week here at the MaryP home. I don't talk much about my home life, nor my family much, so a bit of background is probably in order. I have three children: Haley is soon to turn 21, and will receive her BA next May; Adam, 17, is in his final year of high school; and Emma is 13 and in grade 8. Until each of them was 10ish, they were homeschooled. (My reasons were pedagogical and social/developmental.) The older two had a virtually wrinkle-free transition to school.
But Emma, poor Emma, my most social child, who was chomping at the bit to get out there and follow her siblings into the wider world... Whereas Haley and Adam got wonderful teachers for their first year of institutional school, Emma got a raving maniac whose tumultuous, and reputedly very nasty divorce proceedings, had her having tantrums in the class on a near-daily basis. The teacher gradually calmed down over the school year, and by the end of the year, Emma was willing to try another year. Phew. The next three grades passed uneventfully, though unlike my older two children, Emma still occasionally considered returning to homeschooling. These periods didn't generally last long, and she seemed to be enjoying her school experience overall.
This year, though, Emma has had enough. She doesn't want to go to school. We have had several long conversations since the beginning of September, which have become increasingly focussed. Homeschooling through high school intimidates me somewhat, but not enough to rule out the possibility, and it's always been my principle that the children have the right to choose the venue for their education.
She has a bunch of issues:
Restrictions of time and place: "Sometimes when I'm trying to work something out in my head, I like to be able to move around. Even if the teacher lets you, and mostly they don't, the other kids would so mock you."
Social restrictions: not the ones placed on the kids by the teachers, but the ones the kids place on each other. "They try to tell you who you can and can't be friends with. There are so many stupid rules to follow if you want to be cool and popular, and when you're popular, you're almost always mean to other kids who aren't cool."
Sartorial restrictions: "I really get tired of having to defend what I want to wear! Whose business is it but mine?" (Again, it's generally her peers that she's resisting, not the school authorities'. Though she does enjoy mocking the school's dress policy. "SPAGHETTI STRAPS!?!?! You total slut!!!")
Sexual issues: "You can only talk to a boy or hang out with him if you're going out with him. How do I know if I want to get romantic with a boy if I never have boys who are just friends? "
Attitudes to education: "If you let anyone know you really like what you're learning, you're a geek. I have to pretend I'm not really interested, even when I am." How sad is that?
Attitudes to family: She likes spending time at home, she likes being with family. "You can't admit that you like your mother. That's totally dorky."
And hers is a nice school, in a nice neighbourhood, with (apart from the 4th-grade lunatic) nice teachers. Having been home-schooled, she knows she has alternatives.
Meantime, and entirely coincidentally, mother has been reading Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher. According to Ms. Pipher, Emma is doing remarkably well at her age, but that the storms are only going to get worse for the next few years. Preadolescent girls are generally strong, confident, interested, full of the zest of life. Early adolescence changes these girls.
"Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves...In early adolescence, studies show that girls' IQ scores drop and their math and science scores plummet. They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and 'tomboyish' personalities and become more deferential, self-critical, and depressed. They report great unhappiness with their own bodies."
Why does this happen? In essence, it happens because of all the pressures which Emma finds so chafing, pressures which, because adolescence comes earlier these days than ever before, hits these girls when they are too young, too unformed to handle it. Pressures to look and act a certain way, to conform to a certain body and behaviour pattern, to be pretty, to appease, to be malleable and non-demanding in relationships and in life. Some girls - and I suspect Emma will be one of them - withstand the pressure and emerge strong and whole at the end of this. Many others don't, and we have grown women who lose themselves in relationships that are damaging them, women who obssess about their appearance, who are never satisfied with their physical body, women who hesitate to be assertive lest they be labelled 'bitch', women whose sexual identity rests solely on the approval of a lover.
I am impressed that Emma is able to articulate her dissatisfactions so clearly. I am impressed that her dissatisfactions go beyond "school is boring and I'm sick of teachers telling me what to do all day". I am impressed that what is really bothering Emma is her understanding (which she only partially comprehends) that school requires her to sacrifice valuable portions of her true self. Since she is justifiably reluctant to do that, school has become a continual struggle, a constant abrasion, a non-stop defence of who and what she is against forces that would turn her into something she is not.
We still haven't made a decision, but I am so proud of her.