The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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I Was Home-schooled But I’m Normal, Really!
Julia Smith

When people first hear that I was home-schooled they think I’m not a fully developed, social individual. What they picture is a modern Little House on the Prairie, where a bunch of siblings all learn in a one-room log cabin, isolated from other kids. Or they picture the opening montage in the movie Mean Girls.

My new friends at Harvest Collegiate High School were fascinated about my past education. If I thought talking to strangers who didn’t understand home schooling was tedious, it was nothing compared to my first few weeks at a public high school. I didn’t realize how much of an alien concept it was to them.

“Did you actually do work?”

“I wish I could be a home-schooler, it must be nice to be able to sleep all day.”

“Don’t you lack social skills?”

“Are your home-schooled friends all super Christian?”

“Why’d you decide to go to a normal school?”

I tried to answer some of my classmates questions with my family’s story. When my oldest sister was ready for kindergarten, my parents visited different schools. At the time, they were friends with a family that home-schooled and my parents were impressed that the children were articulate, excited to learn, and interacted well with adults. My parents decided to give home schooling a try because my mom didn’t work and could commit to being our first teacher.

When we were little, my mom strived to make schoolwork fun. We would go on apple-picking trips in the fall, or color while she read us historical fiction. My sister went through a phase where she was obsessed with birds of prey, so we studied different kinds of birds for a bit. As we got older, my mom taught us most of the time, but we also joined other home school classes around the city that collectively hired professional teachers.

It was fun to have my mom and sisters with me every day. I never knew any different, so it seemed normal.

A Day in the Life of a Home-schooler

Despite the implications of the term, home-schoolers do not stay home all day.

For me, a typical day in 8th grade began with waking up around 8 a.m. and doing a math lesson, or reading a book from my history curriculum. At 11 a.m., I’d head to my friend’s house on the Upper West Side for a science class. Jessie, the science teacher who was hired by the parents of the seven girls in the class, brought whatever equipment we needed for that day. We did labs, watched documentaries, and some days we read from a textbook and had discussions. The class was two hours, once a week. After that I ate lunch and then went to play rehearsal directed by one of my friends. This was in a space on 57th Street rented by a home schooling organization called Different Directions that we had befriended.

Generally, when a class is taught in someone’s home, it is in the living room, or at the dining room table. The subject can be inspired by anything: a textbook curriculum, a TV show, something found in nature, or a student observation about the world. We often play games to demonstrate something we are learning about, or to help us learn vocabulary words. Rarely does the teacher just lecture; the students are usually involved.

I take tests, get grades, and occasionally get homework, but I don’t get report cards. Despite the flexibility, homeschoolers can’t just study one subject, or not study those we don’t like. In New York State, we have to fullfill requirements given to parents by the Department of Education.

Last year, I decided I wanted to attend public high school because most of my home school friends were switching. Also, I have two older sisters who decided to go to public high school where they had more opportunities than home schooling could provide. For example, my 19-year-old sister Casey went to a high school that had an internship program, and she was able to intern at a hospital. She liked it so much that she is now studying nursing at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pros: Flexibility, Choice

After I switched, I realized there are pros and cons to home schooling. I liked that I could eat and do work at the same time, I got to sleep until 8 a.m., and I got to hang out with my mom more than if I was in public school.

I liked that I could take as much or as little time for each subject as I needed. Not having that choice is a problem some public students complain about. Either they say they’re bored because the class moves too slowly or they fall behind and can’t catch up.

image by YC-Art Dept

Having a flexible schedule was also a plus. For instance, I discovered early on that I need to do math first thing in the morning; later on I become too drained to focus. (I don’t like math.) In high school I don’t have the ability to change my schedule to suit my learning strengths and weaknesses. I also don’t like that I have to be in one building all day.

Cons: Lack of Structure

In high school, the pace of the school year is much more structured and if you fall behind, there are consequences. I discovered that’s actually a good thing for me. Because you can go at your own pace in home school, there was more than one year where I would reach the beginning of June and realize that I still had a lot of work to do. One year, I still had 30 math lessons to complete. For the next several weeks, I was finishing this up every night and on weekends. Although I was determined not to make the same mistake the next year, I did. The high school structure helps me time-manage my workload better.

Still, it’s hard to say whether I like home schooling or public school more. They are simply different experiences. If home schooling is fishing for knowledge, public school is like being handed it, fully cooked and well seasoned.

For example, one year I was reading a historical fiction series about WWII, and it really sparked my interest. Over the next couple months, as I read the books, I used much of my spare school time to research the historical figures and significant events I was reading about.

But public school exposes you to things you might not have chosen for yourself. In my freshman year, I was required to take a class called Looking for an Argument, which taught us how to look at sources, form an argument, write an essay, and debate. Every week we were given a different controversial topic, such as stop and frisk, or if buying expensive things makes you happy. I liked it a lot, yet I probably wouldn’t have taken it if I’d had the option.

Learning Slang, Dirty Jokes

I’m glad I went to public school when I did, but there was definitely an adjustment period.

When I first walked through the doors of Harvest Collegiate High School as a freshman, I was probably more nervous than most kids. Not only was this my first day of high school, this was my first day of public school, ever. I had to walk up four flights of stairs and once I walked through the doors, I could hardly breathe when I reached the Commons. I was immediately struck by the noise level. Students were all talking excitedly and greeting their friends and laughing, and also blocking the door. It didn’t seem to occur to them to move. It felt chaotic and overwhelming.

I also felt out of the loop about certain slang words or references I didn’t get because I’d been in a small social circle through home school. For example, a few months into 9th grade, I had to ask my table group in one of my classes what the word deadass meant. They were nice about it. By then, they knew me well enough for it not to surprise them.

Even though I became known as an innocent kid, I made friends easily.

One of my first friends at school would bring a muffin for lunch every day, and other kids often made jokes about it. I didn’t understand what was funny.

“That looks like one tasty muffin,” said our friend Emilia jokingly. “Or would you prefer one of those bananas?”

Eventually, I just asked her what that meant, and that’s how I learned that muffin is common slang for vagina.

Learning About Others, and Myself

So, my transition into a public school is certainly giving me an education in the world of dirty jokes. But—probably to my parents’ relief—it’s also helping me adjust into the wider world. Now, I am more aware of social inequalities and civil rights. I am now a feminist, and a supporter of LGBTQ rights.

It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized there’s hardly any racial or economic diversity in my home schooling community, and I want to be exposed to all different kinds of people.

For instance, in my poetry class last year, one of my classmates shared a poem about witnessing one of his friends being shot while he was playing basketball. This is not the first time an event like this occurred in New York City, but it was the first time it happened to someone I knew.

I think I add to the diversity of my high school as being one of the the only home-schooled kids. Now, my classmates who used to think that all home-schoolers were super Christian and socially awkward realize that, in fact, we’re not all that weird.

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