As Dobytown Kiwanis collects pens and notebooks outside Walmart this weekend to stuff backpacks for the upcoming school year, I wonder if schools actually will open next month. As COVID-19 rages, I assume many kids will simply open their laptops in August and learn virtually from home again.
This concept seems avant-garde, but it is not. Our modern
education systems were unknown to our great-grandparents. I still encounter people in Nebraska who went to “country school,” which I’d never heard of before I moved here from Cleveland in 2012.
Home-schooling is so old it’s new again. I learned this in 2009, when I took a 10-week solo driving jaunt across the country and happened to meet several home-schooled students.
At Zion National Park, I chatted with a 16-year-old San Francisco teen who was gearing up to do the treacherous Angel’s Landing trail with her father. She’s home-schooled, and since she can do her lessons on a laptop from anywhere, the family was enjoying a fall vacation. I was struck by her self-assurance. Some teenagers shrivel up like crumpled paper when an adult begins a conversation, but she did not. She chatted easily and intelligently.
Five weeks later, on that same trip, I met another home-schooled student — five of them, in fact, when I drove into Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico in early November and expected to pitch my tent and go explore the park, but that 48-site campground was empty except for one lonely, locked-up RV. I suddenly was apprehensive.
Let me digress for a moment. Chaco Canyon is a wonder. It was a flourishing center of Native American civilization between 850 and 1200 A.D. The largest structure, Pueblo Bonito, stands four stories and has more than 600 rooms. Around 1250 A.D, the people moved on, leaving 13 great houses and several thousand smaller ruins but no written records.
Chaco has no motel, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores or gift shops. Its campground has no showers, only pit toilets. To get there, it’s a 45-minute drive on a rough road — eight miles unpaved — through the Navajo Nation out to Highway 550, then another hour northwest to Farmington, New Mexico, or two hours southeast to the town of Cuba. By November, most tourists have gone home.
As I stood staring at that lone camper, internal fire alarms blared. Some say spirits haunt the mesas. If I were going to leave, I needed to leave. Sunset was tiptoeing in, and that bumpy dirt road has no lights, and only a lonely Navajo hogan or two far off the road.
But I also was trying my darndest to squeeze every last drop out of this adventure before heading home by Thanksgiving. As I seesawed back and forth, a gaggle of happy children and their parents burst out of that camper. Relieved, I pitched my tent close (but not too close) and headed off to explore.
By 5:30, it was dark. I got back to my campsite, and a little girl wandered over from that RV and invited me over for hot dogs and a marshmallow roast, and, it turned out, a kind of Ted Talk on home-schooling.
This family was from Albuquerque. The parents were home-schooling all five of their daughters and had come to Chaco Canyon on a field trip. The kids were all friendly and talkative. The oldest daughter, 13, told me she’s writing a novel. She loves reading the classics. She chatted as if she were an English major at Harvard.
Her mother told me about their decision to home-school their daughters and finding a curriculum online. Each girl works at her own pace, often excelling far beyond their conventional grade levels. “I’m happy we did it,” she told me.
I have deep admiration for conventional schools. I’d have been a home-schooling flop with my own kids; and I’ve sympathized for parents this spring who had to monitor their kids’ schoolwork while working from home.
Yet 11 years later, those home-schooled kids, their maturity and their ability to talk to adults is glued into my memory. For some students, it works.