(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?

10 thoughts on “Homeschooled

  1. In my opinion, there is no line there. If that student had said she was from a small country school district, with 10 others in her class, it would have been appropriate to comment on the quality of her education. If she had said her dad was a Nobel Prize winner, and principal of her 10000 student school, it would have been appropriate to comment on the quality of her education. After all, she was well educated primarily because she worked at being well educated. That is deserving of comment.

  2. What hoppy said, and I think it’s the difference between making a generalization and complimenting someone specifically. “You kick ass at school” is a personal statement no matter where she went.
    Also, you know, most people can tell the difference between someone sincerely if awkwardly trying to be nice, and some blowhole using them as an opportunity to comment on an entire race or gender or what have you.
    I work with lots of older folks (9 times out of 10 I’m the youngest person in a given meeting) and all of them, at one time or another, have referred to “your generation” while gesturing in my direction. 9 times out of 10, I’m not offended because they’re sincerely trying to reflect some understanding of generational attitudes towards technology or communication. Pointing out a difference is not making an insult.
    Then there’s the one time somebody is clearly saying, “Well, I’m not saying you are stupid or shallow, but by and large, everybody your age is, so screw what you have to say.” It doesn’t take a trained ear to hear it, it’s usually pretty obvious.

  3. Next time when someone that good mentions that they were homeschooled, all you have to say is “My compliments to your instructors”.
    And you’re forgetting that as in general education, not all homeschooled kids go on to college. The difference in my opinion, based on homeschoolers I have known (there was a strong pocket in my area for awhile) is that many homeschooled children are not given the choice, particularly females. Your study would have to find a way to work around that.

  4. Home-schooling kids arises out of a number of causes.
    If her instructors did a really good job, or if she’s a quick study, or both, she deserves to hear you say you’re impressed with her work and her background. It’s just true, right?

  5. I think it’s perfectly normal to ask, when running across a really bright student: “where did you go to school?” And whether the answer is, “I went to boarding school in Switzerland,” or “I was homeschooled,” the appropriate answer is, “well you’re doing really well in my class. Keep up the good work.”
    A word on educational stereotypes: My freshman year in college (small liberal arts school in Southern California) I had an American history class taught by a new teacher; PhD candidate, East Coaster. I guess everyone did really poorly on the first exam because he reamed us a new one. He basically told the entire class we were a bunch of illiterates, we couldn’t string three words together in a complete sentence, he was appalled that this was the freshman class of a rather hoity toity liberal arts college. Only three of us in the entire class did better than a C. He didn’t know how we tied our shoelaces in the morning.
    Then he really insulted us by asking: “How many of you are the product of public school?” Well, about 10 of us in a group of 40 or so raised our hands — me among them. He looked at who raised their hands, then he shut up. I was curious until I got my exam and saw he had given me an A. Clearly he had assumed that most of the class were uneducated public school kids and the few A’s and B’s were private school kids. Apparently he found himself very, very wrong.
    There are a lot of different kinds of homeschooling models. Not everyone who is homeschooled is the stereotypical Fundie Christian taught that Adam and Eve rode around Eden on their pet dinosaurs. I know a lot of good liberal kids homeschooled for a variety of reasons, including: their parents traveled many months out of the year and wanted the kids to come along so the world could be their classroom. I know some amazing kids who were “homeschooled” with a group of about 10-12 other kids in a kind of makeshift school the parents started.
    Anyway, just thought I’d throw that in there.

  6. I have to agree with Sue, up above, “homeschooling” is too broad a category–hell, even Buffy remarked to her mother “homeschooling: its not just for scary religious people any more.” The vast majority of homeschooled kids who were homsechooled for religious reasons are not going to go on to a secular College or, if they do, are as prepared (at least in the basics) as any highschool kid–if their parents kept them home in order to prevent them from learning about science, other religions, real history, or art, of course, they are going to be able to diagram a sentence and do math but will simply be ignorant of those scary areas of modernity. Which is to say that any homeschooled kids you get in a writing class are probably going to do as well or better than ordinary freshmen. Its only on subject matter that their home instructors couldn’t handle that they will be behind.

  7. And you’re forgetting that as in general education, not all homeschooled kids go on to college. The difference in my opinion, based on homeschoolers I have known (there was a strong pocket in my area for awhile) is that many homeschooled children are not given the choice, particularly females. Your study would have to find a way to work around that.
    I think that’s it in a nutshell. In her case, it sounds like her parents prepared her to succeed in the “outside” world. I’d bet that, in many cases, the opposite is true. If for some reason my parents had decided to homeschool me, I still would have learned a lot. I would have been a social misfit (or at least more of one than I already was) but, since they were both smart, very well informed, and they knew how to think, my intellectual abilities would certainly not have suffered.

  8. One of my cousins was homeschooled until his junior year of high school; he graduated as valedictorian of his class, with a full scholarship to the college of his choice. This past spring he was valedictorian of his graduating class in college – a genuinely smart kid. One wonders how he would have turned out had he been pressed through the sausage factory that is public school. He likely would have become so preoccupied with following the latest fads that his studies would have taken a back seat – as with the majority of kids in public schools these days.
    My cousin’s family is comprised of fundamentalist Protestant Christians, and his homeschooling probably reflected this. However, his mother was intellectually honest enough to teach him critical thinking skills, which have now resulted in him being a genuine rarity in the world: a green, vegan Christian.
    Anyway, the point is to agree with much of what has been said above: homeschooling is a broad term and varies widely depending on the quality of the instructors. And as my cousin proves, even religious-oriented homeschooling can result in relatively positive outcomes.
    If any “line” exists, it would be in grouping all homeschooled people together. For instance, saying something along the lines of, “Man, you homeschooled kids can really diagram a sentence!” would be quite offensive. But complimenting her on her education is not offensive, and is not even close to being the equivalent of, “You black guys can really run fast!”
    But I think I’m preaching to the choir here.

  9. As an educator, I believe that the comments so far in this thread are accurate. Don’t make a big deal out if it or attempt to generalize it. Congratulate the student on the quality of his or her education, as you would any other excellent student, and move on.

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