Life Goes On

BY  Laurie Millsap

Long before I had children, if anyone had asked me about my plans for their education, I would have given a typical answer… high quality public schools for the younger years, and by high school, if our circumstances allowed, maybe even the immensely challenging boarding school that I had the good fortune to attend. The future was blurry, as is its nature, but the concept of homeschooling had never crossed my mind.

My husband and I were both creative types and still are, having made the arts our professions for over 25 years. I knew early on that photography was going to be the path for me, come monetary reward or not. The desire to write came later, but it dove-tailed into my life easily, for I had always been a rather obsessive reader. My husband’s career choice came even earlier. He has been a professional violinist since graduating from music conservatory. From the age of five, the violin became everything to him, and nothing seemed more natural than pursuing it as a living, which says a lot about the kind of person he is.

The arts are extremely competitive and unforgiving, and a decision to make a career out of one’s creative talents cannot be taken lightly. We both knew this, and we both went into our marriage knowing the other had had a distinctive and unique educational path, neither of which would necessarily be models for how we would raise our children.

Then, our children arrived in quick succession, three in three years, and my hands were full. By this time, my husband had realized his dream and was making money doing what he loved, playing music full-time, as concertmaster of a major symphony. His income provided us plenty of comfort and security, a safe realm in which to raise our kids. My photography continued as it always had, providing part time income and full-time joy.

You learn the infinite capacity of the heart when children are born. When the first one arrives, it seems impossible to ever love anything so deeply as this tiny life, and every experience is a first and every moment is magical. Then, as the second comes, you experience the revelation that there are limitless dimensions to the love of a parent for a child. The business of life takes over and the axis of all things becomes the daily needs of these little spirits whose enlightenment and education ultimately rests with you.

Necessity required me to give full attention to my kids when they were young, and the decision came easily to give them 100% of my time and energy. But, humans seem to have a capacity for much more than full throttle mode, and I managed to continue to dedicate a fraction of my time to my art. Having beautiful children made it easy, frankly, and obviously not every talent or career a women has is as compatible with child-rearing as mine, which requires no office, no staff, and no time card.

So, when the first thoughts of schooling rose, we took advice from friends and neighbors and enrolled the children in a preschool program that adhered to everything I subscribe to about childhood. Earthy and heavily rooted in play and creativity, this marvelous school set us on a course that  would ultimately lead us to the decision to homeschool, and the circle of like-minded friends we met along the way have lasted to this very day.

With my own philosophies about education evolving as my children grew, and with the decision of an elementary school choice looming ever closer, my mind began to flit to the concept of homeschooling, something that only a few years earlier had not been in my realm of consideration.  meanwhile, I continued to engage in my artistic occupations, selling fine art prints and taking portraits. The needs of my growing children dominated my horizon, but as with all parents, I found time for my own interests and pursuits.

The time finally came when we had to find a school for the kids, and we opted for a French Immersion school that was part of the public school system. As each child entered the school, I enjoyed the burgeoning freedom to once again commit to my photography and to discover my new  passion, writing.

It was while I was deeply engrossed in my first book, an intense WWII memoir on behalf of my father, that the winds began to turn and the idea of homeschooling the children entered our family conversation in earnest. Admittedly, I was immensely torn. After several years of utter commitment to the upbringing of my kids, I was just getting back some real segments of useful time for my own creativity, time that was being dedicated increasingly to writing.

My feelings toward institutional education were changing, though, just as the system itself seemed to be in a period of great flux, results of diminished funding and shifting philosophies, mostly surrounding testing policies. My husband and I watched as the children spent less time on the  beautiful immersive French language and more time on taking practice tests to prepare for the next year’s practice tests, and so on.

As the children finished their last year in public school (first, third, and fourth grades) I knew that I was inching toward a precipice. The closer I got to the edge, the greater my certainty was that I would have to jump. Below, unseen, was the world of homeschooling, and I didn’t know how soft our family’s landing would be. It helped to have a close friend with children roughly the same age, who was also considering the transition, and we spent a lot of time discussing the implications of the decision, both on our kids and on our own interests.

As with most things, the lead up to the inevitable is often the most stressful. Once we committed to the transition, life took on a calmer and steadier pace. I found that my concerns about my own time were unfounded. Truth be told, we all found our time opening up. Quickly, interests that had been shunted aside due to time constraints were reawakened, and I marveled at the passion for learning my children displayed.

Just as the kids had spent wasted hours standing in lines at school–for the water fountain, the bathroom, or even the tetherball game, I found that our family earned back time that had been wasted on the tedious logistics of the brick-and-mortar school world.

Even more, though, the lights of learning that I witnessed in my children’s eyes returned to my own, as well, and I became as eager for knowledge as they did. Their interests became incorporated into mine, and vice versa. No one had to give up on anything; we all gained from each other’s joys and passions.

As one year led seamlessly into another, the fear of losing myself to the process of homeschooling faded and was replaced with the knowledge that what we had truly found was not really education, per se, but just “life.”

I continued to take photos, and found three willing models when I was in need of practice, and I wrote two books. The joy of completing those projects was heightened when my daughter found her own passion in writing.

Having time to commit to the imaginative world of literature and poetry, she blossomed, and, contrary to giving up on my own pursuits, I found myself exposed to more aspects of writing than I would have had we not homeschooled.

My daughter and I decided to write a book review blog together, and we are still doing it now, three years later. In addition, we approached the local paper with the concept of a mother/daughter book picks column, something that has segued into a regular book review column for myself.

Now, with the oldest in his second year of college at University of Colorado in Boulder and the second planning to attend there as well next fall, the world of homeschooling feels very normal and second-nature. My husband and I even found time to start a non-profit, The Dercum Center for the Arts and Humanities, and the children have had wonderful exposure to the world of altruism and the performing arts, volunteering at concerts and artist presentations.

In hindsight, I have had to give up very little of my own interests. I have learned as much from my kids as they have from me, and doors have opened for all of us. Of course, I can never know what life would have been like had we chosen to have the kids stay in regular school, but, I believe I can say, with some certainty, that I would have had some regrets. Some people believe that homeschooling means putting your children first, at the expense of yourself, but this could not be further from the truth. Not only did they mature and evolve through the experience, but I did, as well. I have learned to place value on the things that really matter and to let go of the things that clutter and confuse our days. Life is richer, and my own fascination with learning has been rekindled.

The children will go forth with the knowledge that they can try new things and challenge conventions. I will go forth knowing that being a parent does not mean a negation of self, but an expansion. I have been schooled as deeply and profoundly as they have.