Last night after Nick did some soccer training at Ukrop Park in Richmond, we went in the Martin’s grocery store. There, next to the sugar free gum in the checkout line, was a stack of TIME magazines, the April 2, 2012 issue.
The issue we’re in.
It is sort of a surreal experience to be standing in the checkout line with the kid in worn out cleats and know they are the same worn out cleats in the unbelievably large, unbelievably good, two-page photo (with a full bleed, for those of you who know what that means) of the kid in the magazine.
We make a couple jokes about it, and I touch the magazine, but I don’t open it. Part of me wants to open a copy up and hold it next to Nick for comparison right there next to the candy bars and O Magazine, and part of me is embarrassed at the publicity and wonders if I can hide every issue. And a big part of me is waiting for the proverbial potential other shoe to fall – people to begin weighing in on this issue, presuming things about our family because we’re homeschoolers, or because Nick is an athlete, or because we did decide to do the interview and allow ourselves to be put in the spotlight.
My regular readers will remember how disappointed I was that so much media coverage had incorrect information about the homeschool sports access bill. Over and over again, we read articles that simply misstated facts, including misstating what the bill, if passed, could or would do. The media frequently made it seem as if hundreds of homeschoolers would expect to be placed on school athletic teams around the state, without regard to their academic standing, their athletic ability, their self-discipline, their place of residence, or the desires of their local school board. In fact, the bill would have allowed homeschoolers who have met the state’s academic requirements for homeschoolers for two previous years try out for teams in their school assignment area only in school divisions who made local decisions to allow them to do so. The bill would have done this by requiring that schools not be a member of any organization that prohibits participation by homeschoolers, as the private Virginia High School League governing high school athletics does. Homeschoolers and legislators have attempted to meet with the Virginia High School League to resolve this issue for years, but they have continued to ban homeschoolers from participating in their communities’ high school sports, while schools must be members of the organization in order to participate in high school athletics.
And of course, homeschooling itself was once again stereotyped during the debate. Commenters at so many media websites and blogs dragged out tired anecdotes about how the only homeschooler they knew was behind academically and awkward socially. (I am so glad that I don’t let the few students at public schools who are behind academically or awkward socially represent all public school students in my mind).
There were also ugly comments about homeschoolers’ presumed religious beliefs, scientific understandings, and economic levels (curiously – the stereotype about income has two extremes: homeschoolers are either all affluent, allowing a parent to forgo “working,” or they are all in ignorant poverty, unappreciative of educational opportunities and living in dire conditions). Trolls working overtime also declared homeschoolers racist, lazy, and isolationist. Oh, and the commenters opined, homeschoolers could not possibly learn chemistry or Shakespeare or computer technology or Spanish from just any ol’ mom!
(The truth is, homeschoolers are a cross-section of the population from all walks of life. I count among my homeschooling friends Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Quakers, Mormons, Baptists, atheists, Methodists, Jews, Muslims, Presbyterians, agnostics, humanists, school teachers, mechanics, college professors, writers, artists, manufacturing managers, restaurant owners, and bartenders – and homeschoolers of all skin tones. And among these, lots of the parents–some well off, some middle class, and some really struggling to make ends meet–really do teach chemistry, Shakespeare, technology and foreign language, but they might also teach one and trade one with another homeschooling parent, or send a kid to the community college for a class, or hire a tutor, or take part in a co-op, or use some other resource for learning. Homeschooling parents don’t have to do it all; they just have to facilitate it all).
After much internal debate and family discussion, and a small amount of arm twisting from a VaHomeschoolers board member, I allowed our name to be advanced to Andy Rotherham, the writer for TIME. With much trepidation, I participated in phone interviews, we met at a soccer game, we emailed back and forth, and with ground rules in place, Rick and I let the writer talk to Nick.
It became clear they were really going to use our family in this story–TIME wanted to do photos, which left us with more decisions about the exposure. Having worked in media all my life (including editing VaHomeschoolers Voice and editing articles for Home Education Magazine), albeit for a lot of that time as a work-from-home mom focused on nurturing my brood, I understand the importance of having good photos to go with a story. We plunged in, again, with ground rules well established.
We met with professional photographer Reed Young, just off the plane from a shoot in China and just before his shoot for Popular Mechanics, and spent hours with him as he took photos in a public library, where I was so pleased that Reed had instinctively set up in front of Fiction, Ma-Ny. My bookish friends will understand the comfort I took from this.
We were also under paintings of Jefferson and Madison, who don’t show in Reed Young’s photo, but from which I took heart. They were homeschooled, after all.
Among the many surreal aspects of the experience was that during the photo shoot in the library, Nick and I spent hours with books open, where we were supposed to be looking studious. Or, I guess he was supposed to be looking studious, and I was supposed to be looking teacher-ish, even though the truth of our homeschooling is closer to collaboration. The funny thing was, he started doing math in the book we had open, and so ensued real life math lessons that felt to me at times might threaten the peace of the photography session. The good news is, he finished several chapters of math, and Reed managed to catch us between grimaces over unknowns.
From the library, we went to the soccer field, where Reed put Nick through his paces, having him do soccer tricks with the ball, which any soccer kid loves to do. That was all fun and games, and then the sun began to drift downward, and Reed started saying that thing photographers say about the light getting right, and he moved Nick to the sidelines, where Nick posed for still shot after still shot in his soccer shorts, as the temperature dropped to February 40’s, the chill wind started coming off the Virginia mountains, and the adults around Nick donned their jackets – with hoods and hats.
You can see better images from the photo shoot and the full text of the article at Reed Young’s blog.
After the photo shoot, we waited. The story was preempted by coverage of the school shooting, the tornadoes.
In the meantime, the Homeschool Sports Access Bill passed the House of Delegates and crossed over to Virginia’s Senate Education and Health Committee. While the TIME story was pending due to the breaking news on other fronts, the bill was voted down in committee by one vote.
One of my reasons for doing the story, the slim hope that it might impact the outcome of the bill in the 2012 General Assembly if people could just understand more clearly and get actual facts about homeschooling and sports, had just become moot.
TIME still wanted to run the story, only now it would be tweaked and made more national. More emails. More days of worry about how I would really be quoted and whether Nick would be portrayed sensitively. More delay for breaking news: Libya. The shooting of civilians by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.
And then, while I was at my kitchen counter doing the last preparation for the sessions I’d be presenting at The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers 2012 Conference and Resource Fair last weekend, I heard the story had been published online and would hit the newsstands the next day.
I gulped the story down online, hurrying to see if my worries had been justified (“okay, that’s not too bad. Yikes, I wouldn’t have put it that way. Yes! He nailed that part.”) It wasn’t until the Friday night of the conference when my husband managed to run down a couple of print copies, that we could appreciate the prominence of the story – a two-page spread of Nick with his soccer ball, against winter’s stark trees in the fading Virginia sunlight, followed by two pages of text and the library photo: us, doing math amidst the novels.
It’s mostly okay so far. Andy Rotherham shed light on homeschoolers who aren’t looking to separate from society but who are simply choosing to homeschool for academic reasons and the close family lifestyle homeschooling affords. He made it clear that homeschool sports teams really aren’t available in many corners of the state, and they aren’t an option for many families, who would have to drive hours to access them.
Here I’d like to take a moment to point out something that isn’t in the article: my family literally helped build the only soccer facility in our South Hill community. I was a founding board member of that soccer association, and I spent hours working to promote that cause, and with the work of others who did more than I, a fine soccer field came into existence, where, by the way, yes, the high school plays its soccer games, since the school does not have a soccer field.
During “the debate,” people tried to tell me that we couldn’t really be a part of a school community since our kid didn’t attend school. I find this to be a really rich misunderstanding of community, given what our family had helped provide for the school and the community. If Nick ever successfully tried out and played for a team there, he would literally be playing with the same kids and one of the same coaches he had played with for many years. Because that is the way community looks in a rural, southern Virginia town.
I find it interesting that even while criticizing homeschoolers for “not being part of the community,” some of those administrators and legislators whose responsibility it is to provide for the education and development of the children in the community actually advocate to keep certain kids out. To be fair, some don’t. Numerous teachers and coaches have told me and other homechoolers privately that they do support homeschooling and access to high school sports, but they fear saying so in public.
The article is not yet available in full-text version at the TIME website, unless you are a paid subscriber. I suspect when and if the full article becomes available at TIME, the comments section will include some of the usual mean stereotyping and simple misunderstanding about homeschooling and a presumption that homeschoolers are looking for some kind of special treatment.
But I hope that those who take the time to read the article will get a clear picture of homeschoolers who are not extremist, who are community leaders, and many of whom, frankly, are also leaders in education.
I also want to say a word to both homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers who say “it’s all or nothing”–a common herald that homeschoolers who pick and choose ways to take part in public schools will be either the downfall of homeschooling, the downfall of public schools, or both.
The fact is, in Virginia, over half the state’s school divisions have legally enrolled homeschoolers on a part-time basis for years, with neither increased regulation of homeschooling (in fact, I’d say the opposite) nor relaxing of school standards (in fact, I’d say the opposite) in those divisions – and without animosity. Simply put, we know that interested homeschoolers and caring school folks can and do regularly work together amiably to meet the needs of children and families.
In the context of sports access, regulation of homeschooling is an apt subject. I’d point out under the Virginia High School League’s rules, students can meet academic eligibility for athletic participation by passing five classes with five D minuses, so I was a little put off by the subhead “Gaming the System” in the TIME article. It’s hard to see how if my son meets the state’s academic requirements for homeschoolers for two consecutive years prior to trying out for a high school sports team, this is in some way less than the high school student passing that version of “take five, pass five during the previous semester” we have heard so much about.
I understand a recounting of homeschooling laws, which vary by state, but I could do without Rotherham’s small but powerful editorializing in the use of the word “only,” as in “only 24 states require any kind of testing or evaluation of homeschooled students, and only nine specify any qualifications for parents who seek to teach at home.” It may seem matter of fact to him, but “only” implies a deficit of government regulation, when homeschooling works well because of an abundance of freedom from regulation. While I’ve told him we need to have coffee and discuss the implications of regulation, I’ll say here that there is no evidence that testing and evaluation or teacher qualification improves homeschooling outcomes.
Furthermore, we only have to look at the highly regulated public school setting, which many homeschoolers are purposefully differentiating from with their unique ability to customize academics, for evidence that more regs don’t ensure outcomes. Might some homeschoolers for whom athletics are important be willing to demonstrate academic eligibility within the school’s regulated environment? Yes, in the same way that a homeschooled student enrolled part-time taking physics at a Virginia high school or taking a community college class needs to follow the teacher’s requirements for that course. But without overt commentary, so I can’t complain much, Rotherham slid in a little pro-reg generalizing here, which may still lead anti-homeschool folks to presume that we’re out here running amok. This is common among non-homeschoolers who haven’t thought about the next step to regs, which is that they shape curriculum and approach to education, thus limiting homeschooling’s distinctiveness, with no evidence of any potential benefit.
There is a lovely turn of phrase Rotherham makes, on the other hand, that may help non-homeschoolers understand the learning that goes on in homeschooling families. He makes the excellent point that homeschoolers generally “do not organize their education around classes in the way public schools do.” Yes! But that’s okay. Even without classes in the way school children’s parents, teachers, and administrators think of them, we can still learn about Aristotle and Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou and prime numbers and natural selection – and kick a soccer ball.
Rotherham also alludes to the concern that homeschoolers wanting to game the system can move to different school divisions, noting Tim Tebow’s relocation to a school division in Florida that his parents deemed more advantageous. First of all, the bill as proposed in Virginia would have limited homeschoolers to playing for the school they would otherwise attend. Second of all, it is extremely common for all the parents I know to move into school attendance areas that are advantageous for their kids, academically and athletically. I have no idea why homeschoolers moving to school divisions they think will work well for their kids is any different than any other family selecting their residence based on an area’s “good schools.”
So far, this has been a good enough experience for our family, although Nick has to live with being referred to as “mop-haired” by his friends. (I’m smiling). Rotherham waded into the homeschooling questions with more even-handedness than most writers manage, and he lived up to the ethical standards we had for our participation. He also didn’t go looking for fake journalistic objectivity, and I credit both him and TIME’s editors for avoiding that trap.
As for Nick and soccer, he’s still playing for Richmond Kickers, though unless he were able to move up to elite level and the more demanding U.S. Soccer/Richmond Kickers Academy program (which ironically just went to ten-month/no high school play), next spring, the teams at his level will take a break all spring (2013, if Nick makes the team again) to allow players to play high school ball. I remind others that we never said he would try out for a high school team, only that we think homeschoolers should be able to do so in Virginia, like in a majority of other states.
I hope Rotherham’s words are taken to heart: “. . . despite opponents’ certainty that Tebow laws–the first of which was passed in Colorado in 1988–are a disaster in the offing, they have yet to produce an example of real abuse. In other words, in the states that already have the laws, they’re not a big issue.”