Embrace the embarrassing.
Last week, an article by a doctor who homeschools her children began making the rounds through homeschooling social media circles. I enjoyed the article, for the most part, and agreed completely with the points the mom made about homeschooling. Homeschooling is awesome for all the reasons she listed, and more! Welcome to the club. The more the merrier!
However, I couldn’t help but notice (kinda like I can’t help but notice a jabbing finger suddenly imposing itself upon my unsuspecting eyeball) that the first point the homeschooling mommy doctor made, before even getting to her main point, was “Oh, don’t worry. We’re not like those homeschoolers.”
These were not the stay-at-home-moms in long skirts that I expected. The face of homeschooling is changing. We are not all religious extremists or farmers, and our kids are not all overachieving academic nerds without social skills.
Word to the wise: If you’re going to join a movement, throwing elbows at the people who are already in it is probably not the most constructive way to make your presence known.
Me? I’m not one of those other, other homeschoolers. You know, the ones with medical or law degrees and secular reasons for homeschooling. Of course, I will never feel the need to distance myself from those kinds of homeschoolers, now will I? In fact, that was why the article gained so much traction. Here’s a normal, even desirable, kind of homeschooler! Not like the less respectable, skirt-wearing, chicken-raising types.
When I read the article, I posted this on my Facebook page.
Chances are, even if you’re not much like me, there is some box into which others might more or less accurately put you. If so, then you know that stereotypes really do apply to at least some of people to whom they are ascribed. If you don’t exactly fit the stereotype by which others identify you, then I’ll bet you have a cousin who does! These things aren’t made up out of whole cloth, after all. For many, “homeschooler” just happens to mean all those things in the above quote. That is because the stereotype is accurate often enough to be meaningful.
It’s not the stereotyping that bothers me, even when it doesn’t fit me personally. I don’t wear skirts every day or run a farm, but if that’s how you want to think of me, then I gladly invite you to do so, because there is nothing wrong with those things! It’s the distancing from the stereotypes (by people who ought to have each others’ backs) that drives me nuts.
We’re not like those people.
I happen to have a son who fits the stereotype of the awkward, nerdy homeschooler. He’s introverted, and easily over-stimulated by the kinds of entertainments our culture foists on children as educational and fun. He would often rather curl up with some books or Legos than attend a party. It would be really easy for someone to point to him and say “See? That’s a typical homeschooler.”
I have other children, though, who are not like that at all, but who thrive in social situations and love noise and excitement. Would it be proper for me to push them into the spotlight and say “No, look! They’re not all like that! These are perfectly normal!”
Maybe I would succeed in pushing the negative stereotype to the background for a bit, but what would I be saying about my child who does fit that label? I’d be saying that there’s something wrong with him. I’d be distancing him from his siblings in order to make the rest of them, every bit as much homeschooled as he, more acceptable.
I’ve witnessed the same kind of behavior from people who are my friends, and who truly don’t mean anything by it. I suspect the writer of this “doctors and lawyers” article didn’t mean anything much by it, either. She was just trying to break down walls between homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers, but this way of doing it is counter-productive. Instead of breaking down the wall, she just moved it to a more convenient (for her) location.
“Not all homeschoolers have a dozen kids. See? I only have two!” ‘
Congratulations. You just made yourself look surface-normal to people who probably don’t even care one way or the other. But the stereotype stands untouched, and what did you just do to your homeschooling friend who does have ten kids? You pushed her out of the “normal” range in order to normalize your own reputation. Now she’s wearing a scarlet H for being one of those homeschoolers, while you’re just a regular person who happens to homeschool. You just made things worse, not better.
Some stereotypes really are damaging. For instance, hillbillies do not really sleep with their siblings in any greater numbers than other populations do. It is not part of our culture, but that reputation has been pinned on us anyway. Incest is as deviant a behavior amongst us as it is in any other people group. Mountain folks should give that myth all the respect it deserves.
However, having dirt floors and going without shoes and higher education has been, until recently, a more accurate charge, and one that I’ve seen mountain people fight just as vigorously. So what? You have a bathroom, you say, so you don’t appreciate being lumped in with the outhouse users? Was your grandmother who had an outhouse a lesser human being because she had to wipe with corn cobs? The problem isn’t with the label “hillbilly”, but with your concession that there is something wrong with hillbillies who fit that part of the stereotype.
Find the right wire to cut.
One of the many things I’m not (besides a doctor or lawyer or farmer or skirt-wearer) is member of a bomb-squad. I don’t know how bombs are defused in real life, or even if they can be. In the movies, though, bombs are defused by severing the correct wires. There’s always a dummy in the movie bombs, and if you cut the dummy wire, the bomb continues to tick. Or worse, it goes off prematurely. Stop cutting the dummy wire!
Suppose someone says, “Homeschoolers wear denim jumpers.”
The correct answer is not, “I don’t wear denim jumpers.”
The correct answer is, “What of it?”
“Homeschoolers all have a dozen kids.” That’s a dummy wire. Don’t touch it!
“Homeschoolers lock their kids in the basement and beat them with sticks.” Jump on it, baby! That’s the wire that needs cutting!
Homeschoolers, we must hang together, or we will all hang separately.
If you distance yourself from the homeschooler who does so for religious reasons, you delegitimize religious reasons for homeschooling in the minds of non-homeschoolers. If you distance yourself from the socially inept homeschooler, you delegitimize homeschooling for that kind of person. Maybe your convictions and quirks will be next on the chopping block of public opinion.
Imagine me saying “Don’t worry. I’m not a busy doctor, so I have plenty of time to devote to my family’s lessons. Not like that homeschooler.” You’d call me a traitor to our group (homeschoolers), and rightly so, because the freedom for each family to do it in their own way is kinda the whole point of homeschooling.
This sort of eat-them-first distancing has real consequences in a world where governments are constantly trying to regulate families’ educational choices on any thin pretext they can find. All they need is a little disarray to fracture the movement, and you’re giving them one. You’re not defusing the bomb. You’re blowing it up.
Maybe it’s just my contrarian streak showing, but I handle this sort of abuse by leaning into it, not by running from it. I don’t wear skirts every day (though I do wear them more than I used to). If I’m meeting with someone who thinks of homeschoolers as skirt-wearers, though, I’m actually more likely to put on a skirt that day—a nice, long, denim one–not because I want to draw lines between myself and that person, but because they need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with denim skirts. By putting on that skirt, I am refusing to distance myself from that sister who does wear them every day, and for her own reasons that I’m nobody to judge. This is solidarity.
Who I am doesn’t change because I put on that skirt, but it may just convince the person I’m speaking to that “those homeschoolers” are as normal as I am. (This assumes, of course, that I am otherwise inoffensive in my dealings with that person.)
When someone calls me a “Christian” with a sneer, when they really mean all the libelous things the world says about Christians, I wear that label gladly out of love for the body of Christ. When someone searches the web for “hillbilly”, I make sure Google associates my blog with that term by referring to myself that way every chance I get. Why do I purposely draw that kind of fire? Well, mostly because it’s funny. But I also do it because you can’t build bridges by pretending that the chasm doesn’t exist. I really am these things, whether others have a correct idea of what they mean or not.
Any community that has its own subset of weirdos—whether it be Christians, homeschoolers, libertarians, or just plain hillbillies—ought to protect those weirdos zealously, even to the point of identifying with them in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t, lest they be next against the wall for failing to conform to norms in some other, less obvious way.
I’m very easy to stereotype. Running from the inevitable labels won’t make them go away, but entrench them in the minds of others as necessarily bad things. Yes, I am a Christian. Get to know me, and if we hit it off perhaps I can serve as a shield for those Christians (my brothers) you find less desirable. Yes, I am a hillbilly. Get to know me, and perhaps because I talk with an accent and eat a lot of beans and taters, but you find you can relate to me anyway, you’ll no longer think such extremely unflattering things of other hillbillies, but take them all as individuals.
So, yes, homeschoolers are doctors and lawyers. What of it?
Image courtesy of jesihart on flickr