The story of this death began when I was 17 years old. I was smart and driven, but without any other notable talents that would’ve distinguished me from any other smart, driven teenager searching for college scholarships at that time. I had started working at a young enough age, delivering newspapers on my bike (or out of Dad’s van for those early Sunday mornings) before moving up to selling shaved ice at local festivals and then beginning my “real” jobs in retail. But there was only enough money to pay for my car, insurance, gas, and trivialities. Not college. My family ethic and understanding at the time was that if I wanted to be educated beyond high school, I had to make that happen for myself. And I wanted to go to college more than anything. I wanted to teach… but in some unconventional way.
As a senior in high school, we were required to formulate a year-long project that was supposed to be a sort of capstone to our studies. Despite being an outstanding student and winning some academic awards, my senior project was on the failure of public education itself. Mildly precocious, I must say. Still, I did some community service tutoring an underprivileged kid or two and then presented my thesis which damned the school system in front of a panel of 3-4 teachers and the school principal. I received the highest grades possible and promises of a job down the road if I kept up my passion. Uncanny. But academia itself was still my goal.
My scholarship efforts weren’t yielding a lot so I started flirting with the Air Force. I walked into the recruiter’s office— less than a mile from where I now live— and introduced myself: “I want to go to college and I want to travel.” No problem. I took the ASVAB and scored high enough that the recruiter squashed my “errant” interest in photography and steered me towards linguistics. My subsequent scores on the DLAB settled it: I was going to be a linguist. Exhilarating! I stayed awake at night dreaming of learning Russian or Farsi and parachuting into dangerous territories to translate important, intercepted communications. Which countries could I sneak into? What kind of weapons would I get? How awesome am I anyway?!?! I mean… what else could a girl (ahem… like me) want? This career step would all serve me very well with my ultimate life goal. And what was this goal? To find a man, get married and have a happy, suburban life? Hardly. It was to get multiple degrees and then travel somewhere foreign and exotic where I’d teach the local bush children how to read. So I signed into the Delayed Entry Program, began processing at MEPS, and encountered a medical speedbump when I mentioned something about hypoglycemia. They wanted documentation. I left intending to resolve this.
Very shortly after this, one of my guy friends I had been hanging around with kissed me. Shock. Thrill. New feelings. And it was at this point that my life pivoted with such force as to cause my dream to nearly vanish in the fog. I never went back to MEPS. I got wrapped up in someone else instead.
Fast forward a couple years and I’m now 19 years old, in Port Hueneme, California staring at two pink lines with my brand new husband by my side: “Wow, I guess I’m a mom now.” God was inviting me to vanquish my pride. I needed it.
Becoming pregnant was exhilarating in an entirely unexpected way. I never planned on being a mother. (Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that I never even planned on getting married!) But life is a mysterious thing and there I was. And happy to be there. Most of all, I felt genuinely excited to raise this little human (“Please God, let this be a boy.” It was.) Before he was even born, I welcomed new, domestic dreams to replace the Hollywood Spy Fantasy I had put to rest. My young husband deployed to Guam shortly after our wedding and I grew swollen with cold, fried chicken, salt and vinegar chips, and this child. I planned for the days to come. I knew I wanted to homeschool. I began envisioning what that would be like…
In those early years before kids, I did some things to fill this teaching itch. I volunteered at the Oxnard Public Library as an Adult Literacy Tutor, where I taught ESL adults how to read. It was very meaningful. Then I became a budget counselor with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and taught little workshops to servicemembers on how to create a budget and Plan for Baby. I remember bringing a teddy bear and cloth diapers to one class and showing the group how easy it was to do cloth diapering and excitedly creating graphs that showed how much money they could save. (Most yawned and just waited impatiently for me to finish so they could get their free swag bag of gear.) Then I taught first grade catechesis at the tiny chapel on base (St. Joseph the Worker, ora pro nobis!). After my son was born and doing some volunteer work, I decided to work on finishing my bachelor’s degree. Then Baby #2 was announced (“Please God, let it be a boy.” It was.) Towards the end of this pregnancy, I traveled down to Malibu for several days at a time to do some training on Infant Massage. Got certified. Taught that to a couple small mother’s groups. I began my early learning exposure with my first son at this time, walking around the corner to the tiny library and making sure we were at the bilingual story hours. He used to know a smattering of Spanish. I was intentional about teaching it to him… once upon a time.
We moved back to our home state while Baby #3 was growing inside me (“Well God, I got my way twice so I will accept very happily now, a boy or a girl.” Another boy. Cool!) I began homeschooling in earnest up on Whidbey Island and my husband allowed me free reign on deciding how to go about doing this. I researched and researched. I devoured curricula guides and gorged myself on books about the philosophy of education. Utterly fascinating! I was influenced by all the greats: Charlotte Mason, Dorothy Sayers, John Holt, Ruth Beechik, Maria Montessori, and on and on… I began to formulate ideas on what kind of teaching I wanted to do. I felt so alive and right when I was in this mode of thinking. I knew I was gifted with the mind and opportunity to do this well. And it provided such purpose to my life as a mama.
After I got my BA, my own children were still quite young, so I took on a temporary side job with a particular homeschooling company teaching 11th grade World History, which could be done from my home; papers were sent to me and I graded them. I had phone calls with students on a regular basis. It was fun. During this time, my father began homeschooling my youngest brother in his middle school years. And Dad consulted with me on how how to go about doing this well. This was Ellie’s jam. So, I designed a 7th grade curriculum for him with delight.
But my own children?
That was where I was very eager to begin in earnest.
After my first daughter was born and we moved a bit south, I began to focus in and formalize my free-spirited kindergarten efforts. I joined and eventually led the homeschool group at my parish. I designed a unique curriculum for each of my children every year, carefully noting their needs and styles of learning. I attended conferences and workshops on education. I read books and more books and more books. I scoured internet forums. I grew bleary-eyed reading about pedagogy and reviewing literature. And I was abundantly happy to do this. I was fully alive and fully me during this period. I could teach my children the gentle glory of nature walks and journaling, introduce composers and teach careful copywork, while simultaneously weaving in logic and grammar. I designed entire lesson plans around community events or liturgical feasts and once created an entire tour of the world, using the alphabet and picture books. For a while, I helped the boys produce and publish their own family newsletter. We played games where logical fallacies were identified. I had people send postcards from every state in the nation to my boys. Piano lessons were on schedule for a while. It was brilliant. We allowed the quotidian rhythm to rock us gently. E.g: daily Mass (where a couple of my boys were probably altar serving), coffee, oatmeal, nurse the baby, Morning Basket (mythology, Latin, music, art, or poetry), Math, Writing, Reading, Lunch. Quiet Time…
And my children had the best books. I mean that. I had learned to develop a sharp eye for quality literature (“living books”) and was able to devote lots of time to thrifting around and filling our shelves with beautiful, wholesome books, which as some of you may know, was the whole catalyst for me to start my children’s book blog “BiblioZealous”—which morphed into what you see here today. It was all very good. It was all very right.
Make no mistake, I’m not romanticizing these days. My children rebelled and resisted as any do. I was tired a lot. Second-guessed some of my decisions. Agonized over not doing enough. Dinner was sometimes rushed, behavior issues were a struggle, and the housework suffered. I wasn’t a Pinterest mom. But I was one woman showing up, every day to something noble, meaningful, and true. While my marriage may have been difficult, my identity was very rooted and secure in the virtue of this endeavor.
Many parents choose homeschooling because they want to protect their children from the immorality found in public school. Some do it because they feel obligated to do so for faith reasons. Some want to do it to enjoy an unstructured lifestyle where you can vacation in October and not have it be a problem. None of these were my primary goal exactly, even though all factored in. I wanted to homeschool because I wanted to bring the world to my children and I wanted nothing but the best for them. I wanted to set fires in their minds and hearts wherein they would love learning as much as I did and and I figured that I was the best person to provide this for them. It was as simple as that. Despite the foibles and flaws in my domestic environment and in my own self, I was good at homeschooling. And it was good for my kids.
I struggled a lot during these years… psychologically and spiritually. There were some really dark days with some really clear causes, but that’s not the story here. The story here is about what gave me structure, purpose and meaning through it all: raising and educating my children.
* * *
As my marriage began its most rapid nosedive in 2016, the strain became too much for stable homeschooling. We enrolled the kids in brick and mortar schools (the details of this are another tragedy for another time, but suffice it say that it involves emergency court hearings, splitting of babies, and many tears spilt at initial parent-teacher conferences from pain and jealousy that someone else was teaching my children how to read) and I started working as a restaurant hostess while my baby was forced through weaning at an earlier age than he was ready.
Homeschooling was definitively over; And I was helpless in watching this iteration of my identity breathe its last while other professionals took over in the academic formation of my children.
* * *
There has not been time to fully feel this weight of this; there were dragons yet to slay. For the next 4-5 years it seems. Battles. Crises. Trauma. Court. Devastation after Devestation. And a warrior can not properly reckon with her grief until she is finished fighting for survival, shelter, and security. So the grief waited. Seeping through the walls of her soul. Manifesting as disorganization. Irritability. Numbness. Depression. Confusion. Anxiety. Name-what-you-will…. Grief absolutely must complete its cycle and will show up in covert ways until it’s allowed the time and space to be overt.
Today, I am in a grieving season. My dragons seem to be mostly dead… though the ground still trembles here and there and sometimes I see wisps of smoke emitting from unknown caverns. Like a dormant volcano perhaps…
But in the meantime, it is time to do the work. For me, this means doing a proper memorialization of what was lost.
Mothering has not come natural to me the way it seems to for some others. I am mildly awkward around kids who aren’t my own. I don’t feel a natural desire to snuggle up with other people’s babies. And I’m not a particularly fun and bubbly person that children gravitate towards. Still… I know how to educate. And I have loved my children as fiercely as any parent has. Despite my long list of shortcomings, I have given up so much for my kids to be where they are and have what they have. I don’t take a lot of shortcuts and indeed, my life is quite a bit more difficult than it has to be because of my refusal to capitulate on some aspects of my children’s formation.
So being a divorced, working mom whose kids go to ‘real school’ has not been easy. Just the opposite. There is of course, the hampster wheel of all the driving around (so much driving around) and forced attendance, homework (*shudder*) and balancing their needs with my work, our family’s needs and my own needs—all by myself (albeit with a very loving and present support system here, Deo gratias). But it’s been difficult in existential ways too. In this chapter of my story, reclaiming my joy and purpose as a parent has been very challenging. Homeschooling was the heartbeat of my mothering. It was integral to how I even conceptualized being a mom! And there has not been an intuitive way for me to recalibrate in this life I now live, without a husband and separated from half my kids. These youngest four children of mine are fortunate to attend a private school. I recognize this and am grateful for it. (My oldest three have been mucking through the bowels of the public school system hours away from me and I struggle to find ways to stay connected to their learning. Again… this is another agony for another time.) Still. STILL… this experience is something like watching people feed your kids crackers and cheese whiz when you have an entire cornucopia of nourishing foods which could be offered to them instead. Adding insult to the dusty, injured cornucopia: I am expected to cheerlead my children through the (comparatively) impoverished education they do get. Because that’s what good moms do. So it seems.
My books. Requiescat in pace. I gave away most of our school books and have only kept those treasures of literature that are too agonizing for me to surrender. Some of them will absolutely never be read to or by my children. This is a fact. And the books haunt me from the shelf. But I can’t let them go. I allow myself to be haunted because the alternative feels even more painful. Maybe this is okay. There’s not one right way to go through this. And I sense that I’m trying to strike a balance here, which feels healthy…
I swallow my internal frustrations with our school lifestyle a lot, with the rushed mornings and inane busywork they bring home a lot, but I do try to muster up some encouragement and interest when they demonstrate some glimmer of eagerness about sharing a science fact or art lesson. They’ve each been blessed with good teachers. (I suppose if one is eating saltines and Cheese Whiz, at least it is being served with dedication and love.) And I am utterly thrilled when I catch them staying up late to read for fun… not all is lost.
But it is important for me to name what was lost. It’s only by doing this and properly honoring The Good That Was— that will allow healing to ultimately happen. There will be new connections made. I will broaden my experience of what it means to be Mother and I will eventually settle into this life. I will laugh more, get lost in my own head less, delight in my children more frequently, and allow the grace of God to infuse my vocation with new meaning.
Grief, when all is said and done, is a testimony of love. And above all else, I will continue to love my children in the space where I am entrusted to do so.
I see you, Ellie.
I wonder if there are options here. A “stay at home” job of some sort, pulling your kids out of regular school and enrolling them maybe in a stay at home cyber school, where you get to augment the curriculum with everything you love and want to teach them. Never say die.
I went to public school my whole life. At least 50% of my education though came from my dad, who spent the weekend teaching me things, having long talks with me about electricity, or physics, or astronomy, or about history as he lived it. I was always two grades ahead in math because my dad showed me stuff long before I ever saw it in school. Just because kids are in some form of school doesn’t mean homeschooling has to end, either.
If I was the only parent making decisions regarding their education, other options would absolutely be explored in earnest. But I coparent with someone who will not support very much in this way. And the child support I receive is much too low to allow for me to take much time away from working… but I do try to infuse goodness in tiny bits here and there. And I appreciate the challenge to constantly be thinking of ways to make their education meaningful in the confines we currently have…