Paris Was My Middle-School Classroom

What I learned from two years of homeschooling in Europe

Charles Platiau / Reuters

When it comes to homeschooling, public perception is largely limited to a few, all-pervasive tropes. The first is that of the religious homeschooler–those who, like David d'Escoto of Christian website, see public schools as the “biggest morality corrupters and worldview warpers” in America. Less common, but still prevalent, is that of the self-proclaimed “hippie homeschooler,” inspired by texts like Grace Llewellyn's The Teenage Liberation handbook to practice an extreme version of free-range parenting, in which children are encouraged to determine their own curriculum in accordance with their passions. Yet, even as a full three percent of the school-age population in America embraces homeschooling, according to a 2012 New York Magazine article by Lisa Miller, homeschooling is all too often treated as a monolith: Homeschoolers are either fundamentalists or anarchists, religious extremists or hippies. Rarely, if ever, is it explored as a potential educational setting for so-called “gifted” children–those looking for an academic challenge beyond that which their local educational facilities can provide.

Yet, during the two years I spent on-and-off as a homeschooled middle-schooler (spanning what would have been the seventh and eighth grades), the opportunity to work at my own pace and largely develop my own curriculum provided me with a level of academic intensity and emotional as well as intellectual independence unavailable (and, indeed, unaffordable) through more traditional means. Part of the decision to homeschool was pragmatic—my mother's work took us to France, then Italy, in quick succession. Yet no less influential was my—and my mother's—desire to offer me a degree of challenge beyond that which the schools I had attended could provide.

My experience was not quite “unschooling”—a philosophy of homeschooling that allows the student complete autonomy in the development of her curriculum. My mother made sure I had a certain degree of structure. I took math, along with a basic essay-writing program, as a series of online courses through Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth, which allowed me to move as quickly or as slowly through the material as I chose. I had a private Latin tutor once a week. I followed part of an AP physics course through a Stanford University program. My mother encouraged me to go chapter-by-chapter through an AP World History textbook, to write up my answers to questions and discuss them with her. The freedom to work at my own pace allowed me to work above grade level, as well as to explore subjects in a less conventional way. After a few weeks of translating Cicero's speeches, my Latin teacher had me print out and go through George Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address for examples of the rhetorical devices I had learned: combining the traditional, textbook-led Oxford Latin syllabus with a more nuanced, interdisciplinary approach.

Yet the majority of my learning took place outside the bounds of the curriculum. Language learning happened by default—we were living in Paris, then Rome. I was encouraged to spend as much time as possible outside on my bicycle, visiting the historical sites that interested me most, teaching myself to communicate out of sheer necessity. I was given free rein to explore the household bookshelves—to craft a humanities course according to my own interests. Textbooks and popular history books were readily available; my mother encouraged me to “read them like novels”—in other words, to visualize the vast panorama of human history not as a series of facts to be memorized, but as the stories: vivid and gripping, of real people, people I could care about and remember.

For me, novels—and the freedom to spend my days reading as many as I liked—formed the backbone of my education. My mother had filled my bookshelves with classics. I read them all—missing nuance, no doubt, but internalizing from early on the possibilities of the form. I developed my own, curious, not always age-appropriate obsessions—the poetry and novels of fin de siecle Paris, the scandals of Ancient Rome—and allowed them to guide me ever deeper down the educational rabbit hole. In Paris, I spent hours walking through Montmartre with a marked-up copy of the “late nineteenth century” chapter of Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris and the entire macabre output of Dedalus European Classics, visiting the streets where my literary idols had lived. In Rome, I read Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance—a cultural history of Russia—and promptly taught myself a serviceable amount of Russian and started on Anna Karenina in translation. I learned about romanticism from Goethe and modern Egyptian history from the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. Sex education came courtesy of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and the diaries of Anais Nin.

Most importantly of all, I learned to trust my own instincts. It's all too easy, as a child raised in the hothousing-heavy environment of New York City, to associate self-worth with grades, external standards, whether or not a teacher approved of my stance, whether or not my sixth-grade geography test would get me into Harvard six years later. As Dr. Carlo Ricci, unschooling advocate and professor of alternative learning at Nipissing University, put it in a telephone interview: “Even students who are successful, getting straight A's, the highest accolades, by being students in school have fear and anxiety about maintaining these types of grades. You don't really get a sense of who you are, what your interests are, what your passions are [but are] being filled by other people's idea of what it means to be a human being.” As a typically neurotic straight-A student at a New York private school, I'd internalized the idea of education as a means to an end. As a homeschooled teenager, without grades or teachers, I learned to love knowledge for its own sake, and, just as importantly to trust in my ability to attain it.

Far from destroying my ability to function within a traditional setting, however, my time homeschooling only enhanced it. When I returned to traditional education as a high-school freshman at a New England boarding school known for its rigor and expectations of independence, I found myself surprisingly well-prepared for its demands. I knew how to manage my time effectively, how to approach the hours of homework as an opportunity to learn rather than a chore to be cleared away. I knew, too, how to defend my academic arguments, to not back down simply because another student disagreed with me about the causes of the American Civil War. In the absence of external signifiers of success, I had learned how to measure my own.

My experience was certainly anomalous even among homeschoolers. The time I spent living outside my home country provided me with a set of advantages and was a privilege, one that goes beyond the bounds of what most homeschooling models can typically offer. (Though some homeschooling parents, like the itinerant family behind the blog SoulTravelers3, take the nomadic lifestyle to the extreme). Still, I'm far from the only homeschooled student to find that the experience helped, rather than hindered,my education as a whole.

Alice Ensor, now a graduate student at the University of Vienna, recalls her own experience re-integrating into the collegiate system after spending middle and high school “unschooled” according to the Teenage Liberation Guide model, “follow[ing] wherever my intellectual fancy led me,” from “examining protozoa” in the local creek to devouring books about the Ancient Phoenicians. “Even though it may seem counter-intuitive considering how laid back and unstructured my homeschooling experience was,” writes Alice of her transition to Missouri Southern State University, “because I had spent the previous three years managing and taking responsibility for my own education, I had developed a certain amount of self-motivation and maturity that better prepared me for the rigors of academia than any traditional education could ever have.” Certainly, the numbers seem to bear out the notion that homeschooled students can, if they desire, succeed according to more traditional metrics. According to reports by the Home School Legal Defense Association, homeschoolers consistently score above the national average on both the SAT and ACT college entrance examinations.

There remains, of course, the stereotype that homeschoolers suffer socially. That certainly wasn't the case for me. When I came to Exeter, I was, I suppose, reasonably socially awkward, but after a few weeks being gently teased for being “the girl who sounds like Shakespeare,” I ended up no less well-adjusted than any other teenager (which is to say, passably so). If anything, the independence and confidence I'd fostered as a homeschooler made my experience of high school easier. If I was sick of cliquey drama—not an uncommon occurrence in the 11th grade—it felt entirely natural to get on the local bus to visit a nearby town, spending a day quite happily in a local bookstore, without ever feeling that my life began and ended in a school dining hall.

As a current doctoral student (studying the theology of fin de siecle French literature—I've come full-circle back to my preteen obsessions), I find myself frequently working on texts on which there exists minimal scholarship, forced to come to my own conclusions about their importance. My supervisors provide guidance, but for my DPhil to succeed as a work of scholarship, the work I do—and the conclusions I draw—must necessarily be independent and self-motivated. Once again, I control my own schedule; once again, I choose the books I read; once again, I come to my own conclusions. I can think of no better preparation for such work than the path I choose.