(Note: I’m filing early and then going dark, as The Missus and I will be going out looking for a new car. It will be the first time we’ve done this since we almost got divorced trying to buy a car with our wedding money, so pray for us. We seem to be on the same page, which means this has all the makings of an I Love Lucy skit. Onward…)
When you teach an intro writing class like I do, you often find yourself muddling through some exceptionally tortured prose. You also find that kids can’t find a noun-verb-object structure if you gave them a search light and a posse. That’s what made this kid I found last week so extraordinary. It also had me wondering if I was complimenting her or insulting her.
The class had just been taught how to write in the inverted pyramid style: put the facts in descending order of importance, use paraphrases to set up direct quotes and attribute everything that’s not a fact. Her classmates looked like kids who had lost their moms at Kmart. She, on the other hand, pounded out the piece in about ten minutes flat. I immediately stole her for the student newspaper.
Her first story was amazingly clean. Her second was even better. Having never written a feature before, she interviewed a woman who was living with HIV, used a narrative open and wrote a perfect nut graph. It took me years to get to that point. She had it before she finished her first college journalism writing class.
I had to know who got her to be this good at this task. Usually, it’s a teacher at a top-notch high school in the area. I can tell the kids who came through a certain journalism program or who worked with that adviser.
“Where did you go to school,” I asked. “Did you got to North?”
“No,” she said. “I was homeschooled.”
The look on her face told me that something strange must have happened to the look on mine. She hardened up a bit and seemed ready to defend herself. I started trying to back her down from the defensive position. I started talking about my experience with other homeschooled kids and how they did well in the class. I also noted how impressed I was with the structure of her writing and how she and another homeschooled girl were the only two people I knew who could diagram a complex sentence. Her mom was smart but not a journalist and she didn’t tell me much more than that. We seemed to move past the issue and she continued to write the paper.
However, I found myself replaying the incident in my head.
The homeschooling phenomenon has been around for generations, but in this country, it took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That means that the generation of students for whom this became a viable option is now hitting college. I’ve yet to find concrete data on how well or how poorly they do, but my own experience has been interesting. They’re smart, clear, focused and good in the classroom. They don’t have the “mockable” social skills that the radio DJs tend to poke at around the time one of them winds up winning the national spelling bee.
The few that opened up about it noted that they were kept home for a variety of reasons: lived in a bad school district, parents felt strongly about specific forms of education, family issues with illness and such. I’ve yet to run into a kid who said that mom kept him or her home to discuss the ways Jesus rode a dinosaur.
The problem I had was this, and perhaps it’s a question you can answer for me: Is it socially acceptable to compliment their education? When she mentioned homeschooling and seemed to be ready for fight, I slipped into a mode of my own. It was like she had just come out to me and I did the “It’s cool! I’ve got a gay cousin” thing.
Certain things are verboten and with good reason. It’s not socially acceptable or smart to say, “You black guys can really run fast!” or “Man, you bigger gals really know how to cook!” Those things create vast stereotypes and unpleasant situations. In complimenting her education, I felt like I might be doing that. “Man, you homeschooled kids can really diagram a sentence!” Then again, had she told me she went to North or West, I would have been equally impressed. “I can usually tell a kid who works with the paper at North.”
Where’s the line and am I on the wrong side of it?