Homeschool: Standards are Good. Flexibility is Key.

Chronic illness. Professional obligations. Faith. Safety. These are just a few reasons parents homeschool their children. Some families travel or move a lot, so homeschool

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makes more sense than irregular attendance or constantly changing schools. Many students don’t thrive in a traditional school setting. Other children are prodigiously talented and need unusual amounts of time to steward their gifts.

Whatever the reason for their school choice, all homeschooling parents enjoy one common benefit — flexibility. And it’s not just a perk. It’s key to maximizing the potential of homeschool. We structure our days, weeks, and months in a way that works best for our entire family and for individual members.

The teen who needs two years to complete Algebra can work at a slower pace. A child who devours mathematics like candy can finish a complete grade level of math in one semester and happily move on instead of dragging it out over an entire year.

Last week, my eight year-old began and completed her cursive writing work book in two days. The workbook that was supposed to take her a couple of months of daily practices to finish. The next day she neatly wrote a letter to her aunt. In cursive. On college-ruled notebook paper.

Then there’s my fourteen year-old son who just this past week finally managed to write (in print) a legible letter to his grandfather in one try. And for the first time, reading his letter did not require a magnifying glass. In fact, the only thing he had to rewrite this time was the word “readable”. (Because it wasn’t.)

Goals help keep us on track, but sometimes we adjust expectations to accommodate our individual children.

When I first taught him handwriting, I assumed he’d stroll through the practices like his older sister. Patient. Meticulous. Neat. But he struggled with handwriting from the beginning, even as he leapt ahead two grades  in math. So I scrapped the plans that had worked for one child and simply required that he learn to sign his name in cursive and that his print be legible. Good enough.

Every school year we alter our plans multiple times: we slow down; speed up; double back; skip; rearrange schedules. Goals help keep us on track, but sometimes we adjust expectations to accommodate our individual children. Plans and standards are important. Flexibility is crucial.

Last month one of my children told me that Pakistan is in South America. (Not the same child who once told me that Toronto was her favorite U.S. city.) A younger child continues to refer to Africa as a country.

No problem. We’ll make time for reteaching in geography. I know at least one child has space available in her schedule.

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Wasps and Leaves

All Quentin wants to do this morning is rake leaves.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

“Will you get up really, really early in the morning with me so I can finish raking leaves in the pile and jump into it?”

He asked me this last night, his words tripping over each other. His little hand tightened on my forearm as he waited for my answer. It’s been deliciously cool lately–a presentiment of fall in the early days of July–and the mornings are especially fine.  I said yes.

So this morning we slip outside while the house still sleeps. First, I go to the backyard and kill a wasp that lies on our deck, stunned by the unseasonably cool temperature. Last night six–six!–wasps invaded our home, darting about the kitchen, ricocheting off cabinets and thumping against light fixtures. My husband and I followed their droning, armed with shoes and brooms. The younger children fled to an upstairs bedroom.

In the kitchen, my husband was relentless. He smashed two at a time above the sink. He climbed on a bar stool and crushed one on top of the cabinet. One he swatted out through through the open door. The last two died between a shoe and the wall.

My husband shook out the broom and returned it to the laundry room. Our  daughter put away the shoes. The two youngest flung open the door to their shelfter, and stuck their heads out, looking about with more caution than they use to cross the street.

Later, my  husband discovered the front door ajar. The eight year-old was careless when she went out the door to the playground earlier. That’s how the wasps got in–less than one inch of unnoticed space between the door and the doorjamb.

I was relieved. There was no nest in the house, no torn screen, no need to worry about wasps buzzing into my children’s rooms at night. Just shut the door.

My husband didn’t share my relief. An open door while we went about our business in the illusion of safety worried him. A wasp is a pest. An open door could destroy his world.

This morning, when I stand in the kitchen looking out over the deck, I see the fat wasp lying on the wood planks just on the other side of the sliding door. I know he’s just sluggish from the cold; the rising sun will revive the little menace. After a bash from the same broom that killed his brothers the night before, his crushed body slips between the slats. One less threat to my children’s tender skin.

My son is happy the wasp is destroyed. He flourishes the rake, a bacchanalian flavor to his excitement. I settle in a chair and watch.  This morning the energy seems to tangle and punch beneath his skin. He bounces around the yard, up on on his toes–I should tell him to stop, put your feet down and walk properly–but I can’t bear to interrupt. His joy delights me.

He has a vision: a pile of crisp leaves and a flying leap into a soft, crackling landing. He springs around the yard, stroking, pulling the rake across the grass over and over.

He doesn’t stop to ask why only this tree is dropping leaves in the middle of summer, or to wonder why the leaves are so riddled with tiny holes they look like rounds of delicate lace when held up to the soft morning light. He doesn’t notice the strips of bark dangling from the trunk, exposing tender tree flesh.

He just sees providence: shower of leaves; crisp pile; soft landing.  

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Life With Five Kids

It’s like herding cats into the shower, then feeding them caviar from gold-plated bowls monogrammed with diamonds. (Okay, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that it’s sometimes crazy and expensive.) Thankfully, there’s a lot of joy and laughter as well. And most of the time, it’s just plain fun. Way more fun than anything to do with cats, who, let’s face it, are best viewed from a distance.

It’s also an experience that garners a lot of unsolicited comments and questions from strangers, observations like:

Boy, do you have your hands full! I heard this a lot six years ago when I shopped with all five kids–an infant, toddler, and preschooler in the basket, the two eldest trailing behind. As observations go, it’s not brilliant, but it’s accurate. This declaration often contains a hint of incredulity, not unlike:

Are they all yours? This is usually asked with some hesitancy and a bit of awe, as if the speaker can’t quite fathom the idea of one person having so many children. It’s often blurted out, the first thing that comes to mind, apparently, when they see our little circus-in-a-shopping-cart make its way through the aisles of the bargain department store. The best response is a perky smile and an equally perky, “Yes, they are!” before bolting. Because the next question is likely to be:

Have you and your husband figured out what causes this yet? So funny. No, it’s not, actually. It’s staler than the snack-bar popcorn we leave in our wake when we flee in our bright red shopping cart. It’s so bad, it’s not even a contender for Worst Dad Joke of the Year. (Not a real contest. I googled it.)

In my fantasies, I respond with wide eyes, and an eager tone, “No, we haven’t, actually. Would you take this pen and paper and draw some diagrams or something? We’re not real smart people. Pictures help.”

In reality, I grit my teeth behind something resembling a smile and remind myself that we all need a little grace sometimes, bless our hearts. Speaking of grace, here’s another favorite:

I could never do that! This exclamation comes from one of two very different perspectives. The first is typically a fellow mom with one or two young children. One neighbor, the mother of a two-year-old girl and an infant boy, was nearly speechless when she saw the kids and me leaving for doctor appointments one morning. We were perfectly groomed and appropriately attired, a glowing testimony to calm, competent motherhood.

“How do you do that?” she asked. “I can’t believe how hard it is with two kids. How do you manage five?”

While I longed to modestly accept the implied compliment and pretend for a moment that our outer appearance told the full story, I had to fess up: the hour or two before we made it out the door was not the prettiest moments in our family’s history, and we would  return home to rooms in a condition usually seen on The Weather Channel’s post-tornado coverage.

“Besides,” I told her, “I don’t care if you have one child or five, it’s always one more than you had before, and that takes some getting used to. Give yourself a break.”

The second sort of person who says, “I could never do that!” when they see me with my five kids, usually has a tone altogether different from the first. This is the person who sits near us in a restaurant and sees my toddler cover the floor with food, watches me knock a glass of ice water off the table and all over my infant’s carrier seat, and listens to my baby shriek his need for a nap while we wait for our check. The only thing this person doesn’t see is the forty percent tip I scribble onto the receipt before I hustle everyone out of the restaurant.

I’m one of five kids! Strangers don’t typically volunteer information about their family and childhood, but when they’re from a family of seven and see us out in public, they go out of their way to talk to us and even swap a few stories with my kids about growing up in a large family. This remark is related to:

We have five kids! This always comes from empty-nesters and is always said with joyful nostalgia. We’ve encountered them at a performance of The Pirates of Penzance in Tennessee, in a Manhattan restaurant, and in our Virginia neighborhood. These people are a tonic. In the midst of wrangling five young children, I see on their faces and hear in their words the sum of their parenting years: challenging, yes; also sweet, and gone in a flash.

Going out in public with five children, especially when they’re young, is challenging. Everything takes three times as long; it’s often exhausting. Strangers are sometimes exasperating, and frequently delightful. Kind of like my herd of five cats.

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Holy Week: Nature Tells The Truth

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Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

Maybe you’ve shoveled compost into your garden beds, mixing the dark organic matter that some gardeners call “black gold” into your native soil. Or, maybe you’ve walked into the woods and inhaled the moist, verdant fragrance of humus, that soft, springy top layer of the forest floor. What does that fresh, earthy fragrance have in common with compost, or aged animal droppings?

They’re both the product of death and rot. “Homemade” compost is an amalgam of discarded organic material—grass clippings, food waste, manure—that has rotted for months, aided by sun, moisture, insects, micro-organisms, and humans. The result is a dark, rich soil component that smells like the forest floor. We add this compost to our gardens for the same reason humus is vital for the forest soil–decomposing matter is rich with the nutrients plants need to thrive. And just as death is no respecter of persons, decay eventually touches every living thing.

Everything that is vibrant with life dies and decomposes, both things that are beautiful, useful, and loved, and things that are poisonous, rotten, and unwanted. Richly-hued autumn leaves; fallen, unpicked fruit; the maggot-infested carcass of a baby bird fallen from its nest; tattered dragonfly wings; and fragrant pine needles all become a part of the nourishing forest floor.

Everything that is vibrant with life dies and decomposes, both things that are beautiful, useful, and loved, and things that are poisonous, rotten, and unwanted.

As one season gives way to the next we might grieve the loss of beauty, or recoil at signs of decay, but these are necessary for new life.  A wise gardener knows the same truth shouted by a thriving forest. Death is not the end.

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Holy Week: Perfect Love
Holy Week: Hope and Resurrection

In the Company of Trees

cropped-smriver2.jpgSix years ago, when my family moved from a  suburban lot in Texas to the feet of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I felt we had entered Eden. Rivers brimmed with water, the landscape curved voluptuous, and trees covered hills and mountains in the rich, warm shades of autumn.  Soon after our arrival, I wrote the following.

I grew up beneath the outstretched arms of a century-old native pecan tree, its limbs reaching up and over our historic two-story home.   In winter, bare branches were stark sentinels against the cold blue sky.  Then spring brought flush after flush of leaves, softening the severe lines.

There were other trees on our property, too. In memory, my father planted any seed, seedling, and transplant that had a chance of surviving. There were ash, live oak, jujubee, pecan, mesquite and pine trees.  And though the great pecan tree towered over all, the patriarch of our yard, every one of them gave us the dreamy shifting patterns of light and shade that carpeted our play yard.

For the last six years, I have lived without the shadows of trees.  My suburban lot, scraped bare to facilitate quick construction, was bereft of even the tiniest of trees.  Sunlight, at all times during the year, struck our faces unfiltered by leaves, branches, or fruit.  The grass was always warm and bright beneath our feet, neither marked nor cooled by the shadow of overhead beauty. The soft, mysterious light between the shadows of trees was missing.

Now I have it again, almost to excess, an abundance of light and shadow, dark patterns and mellow autumn light moving across my children’s upturned faces as they stretch out their hands to catch the drifting colors.

After three years in the eastern United States, we moved to California and lived on three acres in the central coastal mountains of Santa Cruz County.  It was a whole new world of trees, tenacious, always green despite the drought, and never mindful of seasons.  There, our land was speckled with coastal live oaks, a living playground made for exercising body and imagination.

Redwoods still towered in little pockets here and there outside the great forest parks.  On our neighbor’s land, a beguiling footpath curved past an old farm shed and led us to a fairy ring of the ancient giants. Beneath their evergreen branches, upon the cool, soft carpet they laid for our feet within the masses of pale,  voluminous ferns, we stepped back in time to the fragrance of fecund, unplowed earth.

IMG_0346Now we’re back on the east coast and as we wound our way to our new home through familiar, brightly-hued landscapes, I looked forward to again experiencing the change of seasons with my old friends, while in the pages of my mind are pressed memories of all the trees I have loved.

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