Mary Harrell, a mother of four, is a producer and host for Mater Dei Radio and writes from Sacramento, California.
The first book I ever threw across the room was Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child.
It’s not that it’s a bad book — it’s a GREAT book, and arguably one of the very best in terms of safeguarding your home against cultural junk that corrupts young minds. Esolen is a national treasure, and to call him a gifted writer and educator is a desperate understatement. The beauty contained in The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, his magnum opus of poetry based upon the life of Christ, brought me to tears.
No, I threw Ten Ways in frustration. I had already let too much junk in, a good life was unrecoverable, I had failed as a mother, etc. Those weren’t Esolen’s words to me, of course — those were my own insecurities speaking. So across the room it flew.
Last week, in an equal bout of personal despair and frustration, I chucked my second-ever book a good five yards: Sarah Mackenzie’s Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace.
Mackenzie is a revered authority on her subject, and she writes with a grace, holiness and patience that I (obviously) lack. She also writes about home schooling from a positive place — the place of a mother who has chosen home schooling out of a bevy of educational options for her children — and has selected home schooling with great fervor, enthusiasm, and diligence.
There’s her, and then there’s me. I’m still reeling from a COVID-corrupted school year. Just five months ago, we had three out of our four young kids enrolled at a diocesan grade school we adore. We chaired fundraisers, stuffed our faces at crab feeds and bid too high on auction items. If it was “for the school,” we were for it. Packed classrooms, dedicated teachers. Life was sweet.
Now, boxes of intense-looking Seton Home Study School books arrive daily by mail. I spend my nights crying over curriculum plans and Latin workbooks. I obsess over which alphabet poster to buy for the walls of our “schoolroom” — aka, the walls around my family room table.
Plus, of course, I throw well-intentioned books across the room.
Did I mention I’m due in eight weeks with our fifth baby?
I’m one of the many mothers who is reluctantly, for the first time ever, putting a toe in the waters of home schooling this fall. We’re an astonished bunch, moderately frightened and all more or less dreading the advent of the dumpster fire we’re sure will be the 2020-2021 academic school year.
We never planned on being home-schoolers. I mean, maybe we entertained romantic ideas of it at one point or another, usually while sitting in the school carpool pickup line with the baby screaming in her car seat and the toddler demanding another fruit snack.
But it wasn’t ever a reality. Until now.
Has our school closed? No. They’ll be opening with distance learning this fall, with the hope of returning to classrooms again in September — though, as our diocesan executive director for schools keeps telling us, “that’s not a promise.”
Whenever students are allowed back into classrooms in our diocese, they’ll be required to wear masks all day, if they’re in third grade and above. Face shields or masks are strongly recommended for second grade and under. Lunch must be eaten at the child’s desk. Temperature checks, live-streamed Mass and assemblies, and something called “calisthenics” for P.E. will be the new normal.
I don’t know if “calisthenics” includes the cutthroat, kid-reffed blacktop games of knockout basketball and two-touch football my sons played daily last year, but I doubt it. Pretty sure one- and two-touch anything is verboten now.
My husband and I looked at the state and diocesan regulations, looked at each other, then looked up Seton. We looked at the myriad of articles that show children rarely transmit COVID-19, that children do not appear to be at a higher risk for COVID-19 than adults, that kids are actually less likely to get infected and spread it to others. We asked each other: In what world does any of this make sense?
And then we made the heartbreaking decision to educate at home, for one year.
A smattering of secular and religious options came next. We polled friends who are already home-schoolers, then turned our research online. Catholic home-school groups on Facebook are a particular blessing and curse of information. Think people have strong opinions on wearing masks? Ha! Wait until you hear their opinions on phonics programs.
In the end, we decided on Seton. I hear that we’re supposed to give a name to our little home school. I’m leaning toward Harrell Elementary Learning Program of Mary, Exalted (or HELPME for short).
Don’t get me wrong — there will be perks to this mode of living. I’ll enjoy the sabbatical from the drudgery of nightly lunch packing. Not getting up at 6:00 a.m. (to subsequently drag sleepy kids out of bed by 6:30 a.m.) will be a big plus, especially with the new baby arriving this fall. My field trip forms will all be turned in on-time this year. To myself.
But I’ll worry about my kids not seeing their friends as much. I’ll worry about our school being shuttered due to low enrollment. I’ll make worrying a subject for our home-school day. Pretty sure I’m an expert in it.
But that’s okay. I’m not alone in this wild ride. There’s a whole host of newbie home-schooling moms across the country, most of whom will be hard-pressed to be “teaching from rest” this year, as much as we’re going to try.
We’ve got resolve. We’ve got academic counselors on speed dial. We’ve got brand-new cubby shelving systems, as-yet unmarred from unauthorized placement of dollar-store stickers by toddlers.
And we’ve each got approximately 80 pounds of deeply-Catholic workbooks in every subject. By mid-August, we’ve got to figure out how to teach what’s in them.
Pray for us.