Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Of Homeschool and Surrender


Photo by Darcie Whelan Kortan

Photo by Darcie Whelan Kortan

I am in my third year homeschooling my son James. Ten years ago, I was an overtired mom of twins, wrung dry of my energies with not a moment to myself. As much as I loved my children, as a stay-at-home mom, I dreamed of plopping my kids on that yellow bus. I needed a daily break.

And I did. I sent my twins to school at the age of three (preschool was funded for James by the school district). I wanted it to be easy—for the school district to fill my kids' heads with whatever knowledge they were supposed to learn, while I brought home a much-needed paycheck as  a contractor in marketing and corporate training. My daughter still attends public school, but I pulled my son out when he was nine.

All James's disabilities are physical; he has no cognitive disabilities. But by fourth grade, James had been in public school for five years, and he was still reading at a first-grade level. According to him, at that time, one plus one did equal three. He could spell very few words and, over a typical school year, the teachers would only have him write two or three pages total.

James requires a massive amount of help from people and technology to succeed in school. He is legally blind, so he needs words magnified to about one inch high (48-point font) to read them. When we pulled him out of school, he was reading picture books, as was appropriate for his reading ability. At school, the aide would move a book around for him under a device that magnifies (a closed-circuit TV, or CCTV). But the clarity was lacking so he wasn't seeing it well and, worst of all, he couldn't read the book by himself.

All of the accommodations James needed were codified in his individualized education plan (IEP), a legal document that mandates how he is educated. But many of the accommodations were not made. For example, the public school was supposed to convert the content of the books to a digital file for clarity, but they rarely did so.

It was deeply painful to realize that we had to give up on our expectation that the public school would educate our child. I have a master's degree in English and writing and my husband is a first-grade teacher. I have taught literature, writing, and even management at prestigious colleges. Still, I wasn't sure if I could successfully teach and accommodate James on my own and maintain my sanity. But I had to try. In the end, it was liberating to stop tracking the failures of an institution, and instead direct my energies toward the positive enterprise I assumed—a mission much larger than I had ever imagined for myself—the lofty purpose of being a great teacher to James.

We began homeschooling James. My husband would scan whole books that James picked out at the library. I would spend nights running the files through special optical-character recognition (OCR) software that can pull out the text and place it in a much less fuzzy Microsoft Word document that James could navigate with just the "page down" button. Because of motor impairment, he cannot use a mouse. We needed to get the books into a program that was simple enough for him to control with one key. In addition, on the recommendation of an assistive technology evaluation we had done, I bought James a 27-inch touch-screen monitor. While he might hit on the screen four or five times before the screen registers his touch, the monitor is good enough to replace a mouse. He now uses this screen to read the books that Daniel scans and, most of the time, James can move back and forth with the touch-screen, making my late-night text extraction unnecessary. When I began homeschooling him, he would struggle through Curious George. He is now so proud to be reading the well-known Humphrey the hamster series—chapter books, "just like Charlotte!" (his twin sister).

In homeschool, James writes every day. He can operate MS Word using the one "page down" or "page up" button to get around in the document. He uses word prediction software to speed up his writing, but, even with word prediction, he can only produce about two sentences in a half hour. He loves to write simple short stories about his fictitious character Bell. Bell Goes to the Library, Bell Has a Birthday Party, and Bell Gets a Cold will all eventually be published and available in our local library, if he has his way. Most of the time, he dictates his stories to me or to one of the college students I hire to assist me with homeschooling. We make him spell one challenging word per sentence, so the fluidity of his writing is not diminished, but his spelling is close to perfect in most pieces. It is inspiring to see him using his super-large keyboard with bright yellow keys and large-font letters, covered with a metal "keyguard" which allows him to lean on the keyboard while pushing the letter he wants. He has become adept with keyboard shortcuts to toggle between applications as he slowly pecks out poems, like his latest about our outdoor cat Houston, Black Cat in Snow.

Math has been the hardest subject in which to make progress. Math equations—actually, even numbers themselves—are abstract concepts that refer to something in the real world, but it is hard for James to picture all of this in his head. To "picture the problem" is second nature for most people, but if you are visually impaired from birth, and you have a motor-impairment that makes it hard or impractical to explore your world with your hands, it is much harder to grasp these concepts. But he does better than "one plus one" now; he can perform triple digit addition and subtraction.

Early on, I received a piece of advice from a veteran homeschooler: "Most homeschoolers I know who use a curriculum end up sending their kids back to school." The kids' needs veered away from the program and, if the parents couldn't be flexible, they lost faith in their ability to teach. More than anything, I have had to be flexible and creative and let go of my illusion that I control this journey. I may know he is starting this year at a third-grade reading level, but I don't demand that he make it to a fourth-grade level by June. I have a spin on a quote from John Lennon that captures it for me: "Homeschool is what happens while you're busy making other (lesson) plans."

My homeschooler friend Jacqueline and I were doing a lesson on the atom the other day. I had spent the morning at the crafts store frantically finding metal rings and Model Magic (special molding clay that dries quickly) so the kids could make models of the atom. We peered at spinning electron shells on YouTube and the periodic table on Google, trying to recall how to calculate the number of neutrons, then things got chaotic as the fishing line broke and half our molded orbs rolled underfoot. I was stressed. I had to pack up to get Charlotte from school. I felt vaguely inadequate in teaching this challenging lesson. Jacqueline walked up to me and calmly gave me a hug. I thought it was so kind of her. She sees how stressed I am and is trying to calm me down, I thought. It worked. I returned her embrace and stayed motionless for that moment.

"Bernice had a stroke," Jacqueline said, incongruously.

My mind did a sudden flip-flop, along with my heart. My brow furrowed mid-embrace and the energy between us seemed to reverse. I realized this hug was not for me—it was Jacqueline who needed comforting. Her mother-in-law Bernice, in a chair by the fire in the living room, had just had a stroke. Her speech was impaired; she was disoriented.

"Do we need to call 911?" I asked her.

"No," she said, tearing up. "This happens. She's 94."

The lesson of the day may not have had anything to do with neutrons, but with life and the preciousness of the bodies that spin with atoms and nuclei but, mostly, that spin with empty space. We set out with a goal, a purpose for the day, for the school year, for a lifetime. But that purpose may be supplanted by something grander. Indeed, homeschooling allows the larger lesson, that our souls fill out the empty space in our miraculous bodies in a way that science has yet to quantify.

"Whosoever surrendereth his purpose to Allah while doing good, he verily hath grasped the firm handhold. Unto Allah belongs the sequel of all things."  -- The Koran

My initial purpose may have been quite narrow in homeschooling—to be the great teacher that the schools didn't give James. But there are moments when I grasp the firm handhold, the firm embrace of a beautiful human in pain, and I know that I am doing better than great. I am doing good, and I surrender control over the outcome. May "the sequel of all things," the painful and wonderful lessons that follow, unfold assisted by my faithful hand.

Darcie Whelan Kortan has an MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She has taught writing and communications at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Marist College, and IBM. She wrote the blog Raising James: Low Vision, Multiply Disabled, Adorable for three years for the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI) website. She titled and wrote the first issue of Watermark magazine for the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries and has been published in Comet Magazine, The Poughkeepsie Journal, Wild Plum Anthology and the family memoir, The Book of Whelan. She has also completed a collection of short stories and a book of poetry. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.

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Darcie--this is just beautiful. I can so relate to wanting the school to handle it, to realizing that it can't, to accepting, to struggling, to letting go. Since my son, with learning disabilities, is older, I can also add that the kind of self knowledge he has gained from learning who he is and what he is capable of on his own, not comparing himself daily to others, is another tremendous gift. This is a journey unlike any other.
I just call the things my son does or does differently Vinnie-isms. He is who he is. He would never have achieved in public school what he has at home. Now we are pursuing Perkins School as a possible HS option. I am a special education teacher and my husband a music ed. major and now retired pastor. We strive to allow each child to be who they were born to be. No boxes. I love to hear what you are doing! I admire your courage.
Wow! Yes! Brilliant! Thanks.
Very beautiful! I cried over the the curricula descriptions of all things! I know so well those late nights and weekends of trying to create materials that are well suited to a special learner. And then, getting into the lesson itself and finding it take on a life of its own. Often I've been led by my sons to a place I never expected and realized I am not so much a teacher as a facilitator and participant in the journey of learning and discovery. Beyond the qualitative progress a child can make in this kind of environment, are those experiential moments which are precious, irreplaceable that only occur when you are there, present to embrace them. Beautiful - thank you for writing and sharing!
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