One of my favorite bloggers recently posted that she pulled her son from school. She wrote, “I’m just trying really hard to keep my boy’s spirit and curiosity intact (or at least not diminishing before my very eyes).”
This statement rings true for me because it is how I would define most of my schooling experience, but in particular junior high school. In the weeks before junior high school I went shopping with my mom. I was completely pop culture ignorant; I watched A&E all summer, not MTV, and never listened to the radio on my own. I read books, and I don’t know why I had no initiative to seek out other media on my own. (Oh wait, I do know, school! I believed so much in school that I thought cool=bad and basically did not look for things or ask for things unless my parents or teachers told me they were beneficial. I think of this now as massive insecurity–I would follow ALL the rules and therefore go to college and be successful and be secure forever. More on that later. (Double parentheses update: now I’m thinking that all this might have as much to do with being autistic as it does with school, those things working together to narrow my view.)) The result was that a bought a wardrobe fit for a stylish office assistant just like mom: knee-length woven skirts and button-up blouses, wispy pajama-style flowered pants with color-coordinated shirts. I was about to enter a junior high school where, on the first day, several teachers asked us to get to know each other by introducing yourself as either a “rocker” or a “rapper” (a weirdly racialized and class-divisive ice-breaker in a school consisting of upper-middle-class mostly white and Asian kids carpooled in for the honors program, and lower-middle-class or working-class mostly white but some Black locals from the apartment buildings that bordered the nearby interstate.) I had no idea what a rocker or a rapper was; I didn’t know that what my parents listened to was “rock” and “oldies” and “blues,” and I certainly didn’t know that all my friends listened to “alternative” and that it was cool to be “grunge.” I didn’t know anything, I’m still a little bit bitter about it, and I got teased for my wardrobe and for not shaving my legs for the first three months solid. I got teased until I was able to get my mom to teach me to shave my legs and until I could go buy a pair of jeans so long and baggy they could wrap under and around my shoes.
Despite the pain of all that, I still wish I had (in larger sizes) some of the clothes from that wardrobe. Those pants were so comfortable, and the red shirt brought out the small red flowers dotting them! That skirt was so sexy in a nature-loving-teacher kind of way! I aspire to the wardrobe I bought that one summer when my mom took me shopping and spent what was probably a good amount of money to prepare me for the tough experience of junior high school.
I think I was prepared enough to make it through. But there are things that make it too tough, things that make some parents pull their kids out, that make some kids hurt themselves. I was part of the upper middle class and secure in my status as a top student, even if people teased me.
Still, I had to lose track of who I was, just a bit, in order to make it through school.
There were only a few times that my spirit was diminishing day-by-day, but I certainly didn’t have a chance to explore who I wanted to be for myself. I didn’t get to explore my desires until junior year in high school, when I realized I didn’t even know what I liked and sat down and made a list in my diary. Now, about a year into unschooling, I am learning all the time about who I am and what I like–my longing for the tiny preppy wardrobe, my love for edible plants, my passion for good food and the joy I find making it.
As a sometimes ranting, intense, critical feminist–someone who only has two friends who I think are not feminist and I tolerate for sentimental reasons–I have found it very hard to transition to being a stay-at-home mom. It seems to confirm the assumption that this is what all (white) women should be doing or wanting to do. I have to be dependent on my husband’s income primarily because our society does not pay for housework. If I’m taken as a representative of my gender–which men are not–I could be read as confirming that women should not be educated. Staying at home in order to unschool makes me responsible for the bulk of housework, feminized labor that in fact I’m not very good at.
My grandmother was very, very good at housework, and very good at being a stay-at-home mom. But then her husband left her for another woman, leaving her devastated, depressed, and without career prospects. My mother is quite good at housework, and lamented after my grandmother died that she didn’t teach us more. But I know she didn’t teach us housework on purpose; I know that instead she told me after fights with my father–and I think now after talking with my grandmother about her dependence–that I must have my own job and income and be independent. Have kids if you want, but be independent. Go to school, get a job, then you can leave your husband and live on your own whenever you want. Growing up I believed I could be anything; I didn’t consciously realize that “being anything” meant any paid, socially recognized career, and that being a housewife was one of the unspoken exclusions.
My grandmother was also very good at helping people, and at bringing people together. She used her house as a domestic violence shelter after her divorce. After remarrying a man with four children, she organized family events throughout the year that made all of her grandchildren feel united as a family, even as our parents felt friction. In my floating cloud of upper-middle-class privilege, I didn’t think homelessness was an issue that needed to be addressed because homeless people could just choose to live at their grandparents’ house if they wanted; I knew I could always live there (and everyone in my family owned a house). Not only was I economically and racially privileged, I also had my grandmother (and the privilege and homeownership she accessed through marriage). My grandmother did respectable, hard work all her life, and made significant contributions to society. It’s only in recent years that I’ve realized I’m proud to be like her.