By Lucie Smoker
“Oh yeah,” my son Brad said when asked if we had received any mail. “I got a letter from National Merit. It’s no big deal but I’m officially a contender.”
My heart stopped for a moment and I hugged him, crying. The National Merit Scholarship is awarded for top-notch performance on the PSAT.
Before age 13, Brad had never taken a test.
Our relaxed homeschool took its framework from Waldorf, unschooling, and multiple intelligence theory. “School time” consisted of about an hour of active learning each day with free learning and homeschool group activities filling the rest. For us, the true goals of education were to ignite a love of learning and to establish a strong base of practical skills. In other words, to build up the passion and tools to help pursue dreams.
My two boys thrived, but even after what I thought were fantastic afternoons learning together, I often received phone calls from relatives concerned that I was ruining my kids’ futures. They loved our boys and didn’t understand how I could endanger their chances for rewarding careers. While I felt confident overall, a small part of me agreed with the naysayers. Who was I to experiment with the boys’ education?
Our eldest, Brad, expressed an early interest in science, which we fed through home experiments, science clubs, telescopes and kits. When he reached the middle grades, I organized homeschool chemistry classes and spent my budget on things like microscopes and lab equipment.
As he prepared to begin high school at home, his enthusiasm to become a physicist or engineer blossomed. If he truly wanted to become a scientist, he would need to strengthen his hated math. Together we chose a very difficult math curriculum to challenge him. The homework sometimes took hours to complete. He went from missing most problems to getting most right. Brad also worked harder on his English and writing, knowing scientists have to write reports and express their ideas for grant money requests and professional presentations.
Part of me was terrified. What if I missed something important? What if he couldn’t get into college? While my research and my heart told me we were on the right track, I couldn’t stop replaying those family concerns in my mind: Who was I to experiment with his future?
Then, our finances hit a breaking point. I needed to work full time. Simultaneously, Brad hit a social problem. Between bullies in scouting and his best friends moving away, he was becoming more and more isolated. Our small town provided very few social opportunities for teens outside the school framework.
After much heartbreak, we made the decision to put Brad in the local public high school. I could homeschool his younger brother in the mornings; work the afternoons/evenings, and spend a little time helping Brad each night. It was the best solution we could manage, but I was concerned for Brad.
At a 2000-student high school in a state ranked 49th for education, my husband and I worried about low standards and a lack of enthusiasm for learning. My son was afraid he couldn’t keep up with the work. Since he was a quiet child, my relatives were convinced that he could not cope socially. And the school counselors warned that he might not be able to compete on standardized tests.
In my heart, a nagging little voice kept telling me I had crippled my son. He couldn’t possibly adapt from such a relaxed environment to a six-hour school day. And while my mind refuted that idea, my soul cried over it every night.
But we were all wrong. Brad excelled in his classes. And many teachers impressed us with their dedication. At every stage, Brad read beyond the planned assignments and helped to tutor his peers.
While some labeled Brad’s shyness a result of homeschooling, I knew it was really his nature. His brother was the opposite, an extrovert. To be certain we weren’t pressuring him to be someone he wasn’t, together we set a few simple goals:
1) Hold up your head and walk with confidence.
2) Reach out to one child in each class. That person doesn’t need to become a best friend, only an acquaintance. Greet that person every day.
3) Sit with someone, anyone, for lunch. Bullies are drawn to kids sitting alone.
4) Join one club, just one to start.
Brad didn’t want to feel fake, but we worked on the difference between phoney and friendly. He joined the quiz bowl team that first year and added the debate team the next. He met a few brainy-kid friends.
During his junior year, Brad’s mostly AP classes posed a challenge. Because he still loved learning, because he wasn’t burned out, he dug in his heels to study harder. When he didn’t have after-school activities, he came home, went to his room and did homework.
While my part was very minor, I sat down with him regularly to talk about school and about his dreams. When obstacles got him down, I helped to keep his focus on his goals. We even talked about … gulp … girls.
Despite his strong GPA, Brad feared he could never compete for entrance to a science research university. His laboratory skills would not meet the standards set by better schools. His chemistry class, for example, was in a temporary shack with makeshift labs. After suggestions from me and from a counselor, he joined a national science competition to work on his skills and applied for a summer laboratory camp at a top university.
His biggest concern, however, was that so many of his peers had been taking standardized tests for a decade. We bought him a prep book and helped with some strategy–but he could never compete, he thought.
When the test results finally arrived, Brad had out-performed most of his peers. The same counselors who had doubted now talked about his possible scholarship qualification.
“I’m so proud of you,” I finally choked out the words.
“It’s no big deal, Mom. I’ll find out in September whether I got the scholarship–or even made finalist.”
While we hope he gets it, the scholarship is not that important. No day passes without his receiving recruitment letters from universities like MIT, Columbia, Harvard and Rice. There’s no doubt that he will gain acceptance to at least one university. We’ll find some way to pay for it.
What matters is that our choices and imperfect journey have empowered him to reach for his dreams. Brad’s future is up to him. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.
An Oklahoma mom, Lucie homeschools by day, works nights and writes in her spare time. Her first mystery Distortion, was published in 2012 by Buzz Books USA, Its sequel is in the works. You can find her at luciesmoker.wordpress.com
Illustration by Christine Juneau