That morning, the door of the testing room was propped open, allowing for sunlight and a line of students and parents to snake inside from out on the sidewalk. We were waiting for the results of the math placement test that would let us know how our child’s high school career would begin. It felt as if so much was riding on it.
Would my daughter be at the bottom of the pile, or at top in Advanced Placement classes that could confer college credit, reducing future college workloads, allowing for jobs while in school, internships, or a shorter time in college?
I had home-schooled her for the past two years, so the test also felt like a final exam for me: Her score was also my teaching evaluation.
Like the other kids in line, my daughter seemed nervous, her eyes wide and pupils small and fixed in the distance as we moved an inch at a time toward the front. “Are you O.K.?” I asked. “You look sick. Take my sweater,” I said, and I untied it from my waist. She didn’t want it. She didn’t feel positive about how she’d done on the exam. As if in some automated response, I told her not to worry, she was smart as a whip and she’d nailed it. I didn’t know.
I said this even though we’d gotten through only about half of the high school algebra assignments. I figured she knew enough to unravel the rest of the exam. So I requested that the proctor give her the most advanced test, and not the grade-appropriate one. Math was always easy for her in home school.
When the proctor read her score aloud my heart sank. I was embarrassed. We both were, we later told each other, and I wondered if the other parents could hear.
As the proctor wrote her score on a sheet of paper, my baby stood next to me, unmoving, her eyes now drowning and brimming with tears. But she didn’t blink. When he held out the paper to her, I took it from his hand and said thank you. As we walked away, I said, “Baby Girl, you scored 100 percent on the math I taught you. And I’m sorry we only got about half the way through.”
A few years earlier, a placement test given to elementary school graduates showed my daughter was off track. Based on her scores, she would have been placed in classes that wouldn’t challenge her, and I feared she’d be stuck in that stream for the rest of her school career.
I am a college professor who has taught around the world. When my daughter was failing just down the street from where I was, I was receiving high marks in teaching. I felt guilty. If I could teach other people’s children, how much more did my daughter deserve from me?
So I pulled her out and started home schooling her. I didn’t want her sitting in front of a computer to use a prepared home school curriculum. So I created a curriculum as I would for any class I taught. I applied teaching techniques that I used with students at the college level.
In home school, we covered everything from law to politics, the presidency, Supreme Court judges, constitutional law and criminal law. I wondered how public school districts were navigating current events that read like pornography. And rape. Would they talk about the moral implications of allowing a person to move on from past indiscretions, mistakes and indefensible crimes? Should they be able to? Does it matter how long ago the wrong happened? Is time passing a cure?
So, during our home school class on the issue, I asked my daughter what her hope was for the future of our country’s laws and then paused and asked if this would change the way she’d navigate the world as she grew into a woman. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know who I’ll have to be.”
“Yourself,” I said. “And there’s more. Let’s start again.”
At 4 years old, she could count to 1,000, but by the end of traditional kindergarten, at 5, she was struggling to count to 20 without losing interest. She could say the alphabet forward and backward at 3, she knew colors and sight words, some Spanish and German, and soon it all fell away too. She wasn’t behind for her age group, but we knew she was behind for her abilities. Disinterested.
My husband and I had weighed the options then and considered home schooling, but we also felt that she needed the social aspect of traditional school.
Who can make it in the world without being socialized properly? We kept sending her to school.
Later, when we made the plunge to start home schooling, people would often ask, How does she socialize with other children? And we’d explain that she was in Girl Scouts and activities with other home-schooled children.
The thing about home school is you don’t have to wait till the end of the semester and take a final exam to find deficiencies that need to be corrected, areas that can be shaped. Often in public school, you move on at the end and the holes are never filled. I thought that in home schooling, I was filling holes as they came up.
At a cafe later that morning after the exam, my baby and I commiserated over the placement test, and reflected on the last two years. I asked her what she would remember most of our time together. Physics, I hoped she’d say, since we got to go to the amusement park and figure out what type of energy every roller coaster required before we rode it. Or, the plays and musicals. But it was none of those things. “I remember you teaching me that I shouldn’t crack my knuckles,” she said. We both laughed like old friends.
She said she enjoyed meeting the writers I knew, waking up late, creating her own graphic novel subtitled in Japanese, dissecting the human eye model and speed-assembling Brenda, our transgender non-anatomical anatomy doll, for whom my daughter made a purple wig.
Then I asked her, “What do you miss most about being in public school?”
She said, “Having friends.”
I can’t fill all the holes.
The two years we spent in home schooling let my daughter work at an accelerated pace. She not only filled those below-average academic holes but advanced to honors and college A.P. classes. She gained the confidence, the tools and a holistic foundation to succeed in traditional school as a creative and critical thinker, and also an ethical one.
I want all my students, including my daughter, to have the best education I can give them while they are in front of me. There are many ways to home school and I was lucky to be able to do it this way. In the end I could appreciate advantages of traditional school and I am confident that my daughter’s education has prepared her to succeed in the larger world. A valuable aspect of being in a community of your peers is the opportunity to see how your knowledge and worldview stack up against others.
I truly had expected her to sail triumphantly back into the traditional system. When she did poorly on that math entrance exam, we both felt like failures. Of all the students to fail, I’d failed her. But now, well into her first semester of high school, she’s an all-A student. She’s taking geometry, honors and A.P. classes and is a student athlete. And already, she has friends.
But the day of that entrance exam last spring, everything felt up in the air and I was full of regret. The placement test is an amusing memory to us, but only because we are now on the other side of it and she’s living her comeback story.
Natashia Deón is an NAACP Image Award nominee and the author of the novel “Grace.”