When people learn that I was home-schooled from kindergarten through high school, they often say: “Really? You seem so normal.” I certainly like to think that I am, with my clean criminal record and married-with-cat household. But what most people don’t know is that my path to so-called normalcy was lit by a color TV.
It was my choice to be home-schooled. I was in kindergarten at a public school in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Every day I was coming home angry, depressed and exhausted. I wanted change, and somehow, somewhere, I heard about this strange idea where you could do school at home. I asked my parents if they could do it for me. No playground fights, no connect-the-dot Santa drawings, no bully teachers.
The request took my parents off guard. What 5-year-old asks if he can be home-schooled? After some deliberation, they pulled my two siblings and me out of normal school and dived into homeschooling headfirst. Their move came at the cusp of homeschooling’s policy shift in the early 90s, as the option became legal in all 50 states by 1993. While the non-institutional aspects of homeschooling can be seen as progressive, it was, at the time, an outsider concept. As such, it drew families from all wings of the social fringe: ultra-right religious fundamentalists, ultra-left ex-hippies and counter-culturalists, military and missionary families and idealists like my family, dissatisfied with the status quo.
Once a week we’d join our local home-school co-op at a rented facility for group classes and play. This was a subdued crowd, strict and buttoned-up. Caricatures of Bible-toting farm kids from families 15-large were not far from the truth. I felt a much stronger connection with the kids on my home block, who I rode bikes with nightly. Most of them were in public school, used dirty words and had refrigerators full of soda. But most importantly, they seemed normal.
Though I didn’t have language for it at the time, I knew it wasn’t public school that made the kids on the block normal. Rather, by virtue of being in a populated and social setting, they had easier access to the ordinary, compared to us Midwestern home-schoolers in the ‘90s, who, by our outsider nature, were excluded from that conversation. I realized that TV was a shared ‘ordinary.’ I couldn’t be in class eight hours per day with the kids on the block, but as we patrolled the streets on our BMXs, at least we could talk about which Power Ranger was best. Most of the families at the co-op, on the other hand, were Mennonites, Luddites or allergic to peanuts.
By the late 1990s, homeschooling had grown in popularity. According to the National Centers for Educational Statistics (NCES), there were approximately 850,000 home-schoolers accounting for 1.7% of the total US student population in 1999. These numbers were largely elementary students, as most of my friendships thinned when my home-schooled peers began transitioning to normal high schools. I grew lonely, though I still preferred the five-hour schooldays and sleeping in late. TV eventually became to me what it is for most people: brain-balm for isolation. But at least I wasn’t a caricature with a bowl cut, flannel shirt and three wives.