Yikes! It’s the End-Times. Again!

This is an excerpt from “Funny You Should Ask”, Book 1 in the Life without a Field Guide Series which is available at Amazon for $4.99 

Somehow, without me even noticing, it’s time for our end-of-year review once again. This is where I tell our reviewer, a fellow homeschooler who holds a teaching certificate, what the kids have learned this year and how they’ve made progress, which is all that’s necessary in the state of Maine, thank goodness. This is also where I suddenly realize that they haven’t learned anything or made any progress since the last review, because all they’ve done for a solid year is play computer and video games, argue and goof off.

Of course, I could always call that becoming skilled at applied technology, rhetoric and creative time-management. It’s true, but I’d like to think that I don’t have to fudge to satisfy the “making progress” requirement and I’d also like to reassure myself that this unschooling wheeze is working. So, I cast my mind back over the year and look for instances of learning experiences, but it’s really hard to pin them down and isolate them.

The trouble with trying to assess unschooling is that it’s such an organic process. Because we’ve gone to the extremely relaxed (practically boneless) end of the unschooling spectrum, I don’t assess the kids’ progress, except in the holistic way of being aware that they’re maturing and changing and gaining knowledge. Where some of my more “schooly” friends can tell you what reading or math level their kids are at, I have no idea if mine are ahead, behind or level with other same-age kids. All I know is that they read a heck of a lot.

I can, however, tell you that they can figure out what they need and want to figure out when it comes to math. Sit my daughter down in front of a Beanie Baby page and she can instantly tell you how much the one she wants costs, complete with shipping and how long it will take for her to save up for it at $2/wk, how much more quickly she could get it if we increased that by fifty cents and how many months, weeks, days and minutes it is until her birthday if she has to wait until then because we won’t loan her what she needs to get it now.

Son uses math of all sorts in his drawing and has been responsible for several of my longer after-lunch naps, when he’s explained the Golden Mean of Art or some such and exactly which ratio he’s used for each of the ten drawings of heads and shoulders he’s working on at the moment. As my chin hits my sprouted rye with ham and Swiss sandwich, I see that there’s absolutely no reason to worry about his grasp of fractions and I also realize that after-lunch math is still putting me to sleep, just as it did back in 8th grade algebra.

Unfortunately, or probably fortunately in some cases where sanity is something the people value, none of the folks who evince concern about my kids’ academic prowess live with us, so they don’t experience the day-to-day evidence that unschooling is working on all levels for Daughter and Son. For some reason, almost every time we run into any of these doubters, my kids seem to come all over witless.

We’ll be at the park, having a good old time, when Daughter gets a piece of grass in her eye. As another mother, who’s a former science teacher, holds her, I try to get the grass out, whereupon Daughter shrieks that it’s going inside her head and will get into her brain, thereby showing a complete lack of knowledge vis a vis the structure of the eye, which all the other kids there learned when they were toddlers, and which Daughter knows, but forgets in times of trauma.

Or Son, who is trying to be more independent, with my blessing, tells the woman at the pharmacy that his birthdate is March 29th and she asks him, “what year is it?” and he looks at me in terrified appeal. It’s only after we leave the poor woman, who is valiantly trying not to laugh, that Son explains that he didn’t know whether she meant “what year is your birthday” or “what year is this” or something completely different involving prescriptions and pharmacies that he didn’t understand. It doesn’t help that we’ve chatted to that particular clerk about how wonderful unschooling is, nor would it help to explain that it was a lack of confidence in successfully completing a new interaction, rather than a lack of IQ that was in play there.

Just to make myself feel better, I sat down the other night and made a stream-of-consciousness list of what I’m aware of that the kids learned this year. I know I didn’t catch everything, because half the time I don’t know that they’ve learned something until they surprise me with it by telling me something I don’t know. Like the time Daughter told me that Killer Whales aren’t whales; they’re Dolphins. Good thing I didn’t put money on it, because she’s right. (I still maintain that they should rename them Killer Dolphins, just to make things clearer.)

Anyhow, my list ran to several pages for each of them by the time I was done and included books they’ve read, videos and TV shows we’ve watched, radio shows and podcasts we’ve listened to, museum trips, field trips (although every time we leave the house it’s a field trip, I guess), conversations with all kinds of people and the Democratic Caucus for Son, newscasts we watch together and then discuss and probably about a million or so questions that sent one or all of us off to the library, the computer or a friend who might know the answer.

Then there’s the stuff that they’ve learned from their friends, the medieval dances and (in Son’s case) the fighting in armor from the Society for Creative Anachronism we belong to, not to mention the feasts in costume and the other SCA events which include Medieval Arts and Sciences such as fiber arts, painting and crafts. There’s the music they listen to and Son makes with his saxophone, the drawing and (in Daughter’s case) the photography and writing. Their blogs. The housework, cooking, personal care and chores they’ve learned to be responsible for, unlike most of their friends who are told that “school is your job” and who can’t cook a meal or do their own laundry without help.

I guess for people who are used to testing kids against other kids based on what a group of adults thinks they should know at a certain age, assessing my kids’ progress in life would be very difficult. It’s like the different results you get from painting freehand or painting by the numbers. You can get a nice picture either way, but my kids do much better when they create their own picture . They need more control over their lives and education than public school allows.

So, that’s why I’m temporarily flummoxed every spring, trying to put down on paper what I know in my heart. My kids are making progress, although maybe not the progress that they’d make in school where they were miserable. They’re learning all the time and as a friend of mine says, they’re more like human becomings than human beings, just like all of us. That’s progress as far as I’m concerned.

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I Hate/Heart Maine Redux

This is an excerpt from “Humor Me”, Book 2 in the Life without a Field Guide Series which is available on Amazon.  

You know winter has gone on too long when your spouse says “Good morning, Sweets,” and you snap, “Do you have to be so sarcastic?” When your son says, “Mom, we’re getting low on milk” and you snarl, “No problem. I’ll just shovel the driveway and three or four roads and whip right on into town and get some.”

By the end? of a long winter in Maine (and this year’s seems to have gotten an extension from the weather gods and is running into spring), even the sunniest optimist is a little edgy. In my case, by March, the only safe question to ask me is, “Would you like some more Jim Beam to go with that cheesecake?”

By about April 1st, if there’s still snow on the ground, I find myself throwing snowballs at the snow and shrieking, “I am NOT a bipolar bear” at the gray sky. It doesn’t help, but it gets me some exercise to counteract the fifteen pounds I gain from December to March. It’s not so much that Maine winters are snowier or colder than winters elsewhere. It’s just that they go on for way too long.

The first snowfall is beautiful and we all ooh and ahh at the trees covered in snow that glistens like diamonds in the sun. By February, the trees just look stupid covered in snow. The evergreens look like dunce caps and the hardwoods look like firewood piled vertically instead of horizontally. And speaking of firewood, if the price of oil goes up any further, we’ll be burning our furniture in fifty gallon drums to heat the house.

We do have a pellet stove, which we cleverly bought two years ago when pellets were $4.99/bag and plentiful. Now, they’re $6.99/bag if you can find them and getting scarcer. So we go from pellet store to pellet store, like beggars cadging alms. I feel like Oliver Twist holding out his bowl at the orphanage and asking for more, and I get about the same result.

I’ve even thought of trying to chop down some of our trees and turn them into pellets, but I’m having a leetle trouble with the part where you apply massive amounts of pressure and steam to the pellets to create the resin that holds them together. I have a feeling the two quart kettle and pressure cooker just aren’t gonna make it.

We could go solar, except that it costs so much that it’d take about 25 years to recoup our costs, and I’m not sure I can live through 25 more Maine winters. Not to mention that if I did survive to get it, it’d just go to pay for the healthcare I’d need after making it to 90 yrs old in Maine. Of course when the geek retires, we could do what so many other Mainers do and head south for the winter.

But what with global warming, and rising ocean levels, we figure that we might be able to just move to Southern VT or NH year-round, or back to RI where we grew up. Although on second thought, there are worse things than long winters, like RI politics and living in one big parking lot for the malls that ate a state. Guess I’d better get a bigger kettle, a bigger pressure cooker and a bigger cheesecake. (They don’t make a bigger bottle of Jim Beam. I checked.)

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I Hate/Heart Maine

This is an excerpt from “Humor Me”, Book 2 in the Life without a Field Guide Series which is available at Amazon for $4.99. 

In previous essays on the topic, I might have given the impression that I hate Maine winters more than anything. This is definitely not the case, although I must admit that I think they should come with a “best if used before date” sometime in March, and it should be strictly enforced. If we knew that the snow was going to be only up to our knees, the wind was going to be merely a mild gale and the ice was going to be off at least the shallowest part of the lake by, say, March 21st, I’m sure we could all cope a little better with having our ayuhs frozen off every time we go outside.

If, for instance, I could write in red on the calendar on March 21st, First Crocus, or Golf Date with Freddie, I’d be very happy. (And very surprised. I don’t play golf. And I don’t know anyone named Freddie, come to think of it.) Well, anyway, it would be really nice to be able to put some spring things on the calendar before June, but it doesn’t usually work out that way in Maine. April may be the cruelest month, but May is Blackfly Season and please note the capital letters.

We have to crowd all the spring things into the first part of June, because if we didn’t, they’d run into summer, which is so short in Maine, that we can’t fit all the summer things into it without running smack dab into autumn. Since our first frost is usually sometime in August, this results in a good amount of overlap, as you can imagine.

That’s why, around here, you often see people out on their decks, hunched over a grill in a snowstorm, wearing shorts, a winter jacket and a hat with earflaps, with a beer in one hand and a cup of hot coffee in the other. (Grilling tip: If you find flipping your burgers difficult, omit the coffee and substitute hot buttered rum for the beer, thus freeing up a hand.)

In order to deal with this Seasonal Afflictive Disorder, Mainers have become adept at denial. Just today, I was making the bed and got all chuffed up, because I realized it’s time to put on the summer quilt. Summer. Quilt. Two words that don’t even belong in the same sentence. That’s so sad. Worse, I didn’t see anything odd  when my son came in to tell me that he had to stop digging the garden, because six inches down, the soil is frozen. This is in April on a day when it’s 78 degrees out.

This is a cruel joke that Maine pulls on us at least once every spring, when it throws us a really hot day or two, just so we’ll complain, so that Ma Nature can feel justified in giving us another six weeks of winter weather afterwards. (I always think that the hot April days that bring out the beautiful apple blossoms early are a nice contrast to the April blizzards that freeze them solid.)

No, in spite of what I’ve said about Maine winters, I don’t want to give the wrong impression and make you think they’re at the top of my hate list. I can take Maine winters when you balance them out against the many good things that Maine has to offer. Maine has nice, low key people who hardly ever shoot anyone over traffic incidents. There are town offices in people’s trailer homes where you can register your car and get laundry tips or even free kittens at the same time.

Several years ago, I scored a cute little stripey kitten, learned how to remove hard water stains, got some advice on soothing the colicky baby I had with me and registered a minivan, and the town clerk even held the baby while I signed the papers. Try to get that kind of service in a city.

I miss it now that we’ve moved to a town with a real town office, albeit it shares a space with the volunteer fire department and our tiny library. When there’s a fire, the town clerk, her assistant and the two librarians and a janitor take off like bats out of hell, which is a tad unsettling. Not as unsettling as the fire siren, which is on top of the roof of the library part, though.

There are Annual Town Meetings where 34 people decide what to do with the town budget of $600,000 and the other 166 registered voters, who didn’t vote, show up to gripe about it at every Selectman’s meeting for the rest of the year. (Who needs Reality TV when you have Selectman’s Meetings?)

No, I want to make it clear that, while I dislike winter in Maine, I don’t hate it with a vengeance. Long, cold and snowy though it may be, there are worse places to be in winter and I’ve lived in some of them. One of them is Washington State, where I learned that they tell you about the rain, but no one mentions the wind until you’ve moved there.

There’s upstate NY, where it’s so cold and dry that the snow squeaks underfoot and trees explode every once in a while from ice trapped inside them. While we do have the occasional random exploding tree in Maine, our snow hardly ever squeaks and you don’t have to worry about rain in the winter here. Nope, just snow and cold and wind and … Have I ever mentioned how much I hate winter in Maine?

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