by Jeanne Faulconer, South Hill
I like a lot of good homeschooling books because they are about homeschooling. They are practical, encouraging, or inspirational, and I envision the books providing answers to homeschoolers’ questions.
Then there’s By Heart, Kathleen Melin’s poignant and literary memoir, which embraces the questions about homeschooling and family life even when there aren’t clear answers. Many of her chapters are like musical pieces that are unafraid to end authentically with an unresolved chord. The listener, the reader, at first awaits resolution but comes to recognize that this family, this story, this homeschooling life does not lead back to Middle C’s perfection.
Melin’s book chronicles the family’s first experiences with school and what seemed to be a gradual, if nearly inevitable, slide toward homeschooling. Son Jack’s first day of school in Alaska opens the book, and we see him and his family become more disaffected with the experience as the weeks go by. Homeschooling is not an option they seriously consider at first, and they find themselves becoming “unusual parents” who volunteer in the school and want to be connected in ways beyond the norm.
“The gap between the rhetoric about parental involvement and the weak expectation of it bothered me,” she writes. Homeschooling readers whose children once attended school will feel themselves beginning to nod their heads.
Melin takes us to a perfunctory school program Jack participates in, and without heavy-handedness, she succeeds with metaphor, writing, “When the last child from the last line exited, the door, metal with a wire reinforced slit of glass, closed ever so softly until the sharp click of the latch.”
The family moves from Alaska to Melin’s ancestral farm in Wisconsin and tries school again, both for Jack and his little brother. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened, if we might have become accustomed to institutionalized learning, its demands on children, and its provision of day care for parents,” writes Melin. But their family experienced two great losses, the death of Melin’s father-in-law and her youngest brother. Reassessment had its place in pushing them over the edge into homeschooling, and readers are given a close-up view of the rewards and imperfections that follow.
The rural Wisconsin setting provides a vibrant backdrop for the family’s life, as they move from watching their own school room clock to something she calls “in the middle: lots of free time, especially outdoors, access to community, raw materials, permission, a little practice every day, responsiveness, and stimulus to learning.”
We see Melin discover homeschool groups, the socialization question, and the legal requirements of homeschooling. Melin and her husband explore the tension and commonalities between evangelical homeschoolers and others, revealed to us by personal conversations and vivid vignettes. Somehow, Melin and some of her evangelical homeschooling companions from a homeschool group find a respectful understanding. Melin writes, “No words connected us but the story of our lives, the movement of our days, us in our house and them in theirs.” She embraces the challenge of finding her place within homeschooling, sometimes divining a non-polarized way that some homeschoolers and many researchers have been unable to travel or see. Melin is not always comfortable, sometimes longing not to be “condemned or pitied for my lack of proper doctrine,” but she shows us that her personal growth has come from working through the issues. And after all, she says, “We are all busy stitching.”
Melin’s story traverses questions of work—women’s work and breadwinner’s work and work-asidentity and nurturing-as-work. Work and working both provide for homeschooling and are shaped by homeschooling, something we explore as Melin and her husband seek balance that is never pronounced perfect or final. We’re privy to her intimate in-bed conversations between her and her husband.
“I am open to what he might say. I am afraid of what he might say,” Melin writes of a talk with her husband about their homeschooling life. “Will he say he wants to put the children in school? It is a sentence I do not want, and yet, I must hear him.”
Many homeschooling books acknowledge that homeschooling has its challenges and does not solve all family problems. But few are willing to show us this reality. Melin gives us raw images of hurtful rages between father and son “circling the table” with words “loud and horrible.” Her distress is mine; the bleed-over into her marriage is inevitable. Her self-doubt and guilt and worry merge with my own, something that can only happen because this book is literature first, a homeschooling book second. Her unsentimental though exquisite look at husband and wife, parent and child, is all the more reassuring despite its gritty scenes. This family, like my family, will persevere past imperfection, will provide boundaries that are pushed but that manage to keep everyone safe, will find a way to accept lapses and impatience and shortcomings. “Maybe it is the best we can do, but maybe we can do better,” writes Melin, putting an unspoken theme of many homeschooling families into as few words as may be possible.
Melin’s rich writing follows the writer’s creed to “show, not tell,” and the poet in me remained grateful through chapter after chapter that she did not ruin her effect by condescending to the reader. Her beautifully rendered essay “Sugar Moths” describes in detail the work of gathering sap for maple syrup and the syrup’s invasion by pests. She has guilt for not having “done more” to protect the syrup, despite the hard work she has done lugging buckets and tending night-time fires to produce it. She resists telling you, as I cannot, that this is a picture of family life. You will not need to be told; you will be transported,recognizing your own night-time fires and tendencies toward “never enough.”
By Heart is somewhat less didactic than David Guterson’s Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, but Melin’s lovely writing about the trials and trust of homeschooling is in a similar tradition—Guterson also wrote Snow Falling on Cedars, and his literary sense was firmly in place in Family Matters. Homeschooling books pile up around my bed and desk and kitchen table, and I pick them up and put them down, thumbing through to see what to review next. By Heartstayed in my fingers, fingers that are satisfied with plunking out an affecting melody that seeks, but does not find, the single key to provide a perfect ending.
About the Reviewer
Jeanne Faulconer and her husband Rick have homeschooled three sons. The two oldest are in college, and the youngest is 11. Jeanne enjoys writing and speaking about homeschooling and family life.
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