It Happened to Me: I Was 16 on My First Day of School

When we visited our county museum, my mom and I were asked if we were “part of the pioneer exhibit.” Long before America gawked at the Duggers’ quaint dresses and dated hair on TLC, I lived in a family freak show.

Mar 13, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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I choose how much of my childhood to reveal. When I do open the past to a new friend, they invariably respond with, “But you’re so normal.” I take it as a compliment, the fact that I’ve learned to adapt to modern American society without a trace of my former self to give me away.

The short version is that my family was, for a time, a part of an ultra-conservative sect, complete with long skirts, headcoverings, homeschooling and zero cultural influence. When we visited our county museum, my mom and I were asked if we were “part of the pioneer exhibit.” My biggest crush of 8th grade was the kid from Disney’s “Old Yeller.” My family had dance parties to the Lion King soundtrack and played “runaway slaves” on a raft of couch pillows. Long before America gawked at the Duggers’ quaint dresses and dated hair on TLC, I lived in a family freak show.

 It started innocently enough. My parents were determined to produce the Best Possible Children, and would stop at nothing to achieve that goal, even if it meant being ridiculed for using cloth diapers or “co-sleeping” in the age when these things were decidedly weird.

Around the time I was scheduled to enter 1st grade, my parents began reading articles on the poor structure of the public school system and the detrimental effects of peer pressure on kids. So, they decided to homeschool, and in pulling us out of the public school system, ended up essentially pulling us out of modern America.

The logic follows this line: If keeping kids safe is good, then keeping them safer is better, and keeping them safest is best. My family is a little extreme. In addition, we were (and still are) Christian. So, what better way to keep the kids away from any faith-weakening influences than to just eliminate ALL outside influences? Hey, the Amish do it!

Homeschooling is now quite a normal and viable option for ever increasing numbers of American families. Not so in 1988. It was bizarre. Modern day homeschooling families often participate in co-ops or sports groups, but there were slim pickings in our area during that time. We had a few friends from our (very tiny) church, but mostly it was just our family (of six kids, of which I am the oldest).

So, we didn’t have a TV. We didn’t listen to current music. There was no Internet, and cell phones were pretty rare. My mom and I wore skirts only, and for a little while we wore headcoverings (It’s a lengthy and tedious doctrinal explanation). I could name exactly one professional athlete – Michael Jordan – but could tell you the names of every book Louisa May Alcott had ever written. I could not sing you one New Kids on the Block song, but I knew the words to all the songs from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and could play many of them on the piano. Free time was not spent watching Saved by the Bell but baking pies, sewing aprons, and making little polymer clay models. I sang my brothers to sleep when we were all much much older than toddler hood, and we would have “frolics” where every single one of us sang and danced around the living room like the freaking VonTrapps. Oral storytelling and physical comedy were prized, and we were positive that we were the coolest.

The whole 11 years between 1988 and 1999, it was as if we had moved to another country, right in the middle of the Midwestern suburbs.

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But when your country is only as big as your house, you have to make frequent forays across the border. And it’s awkward to go the grocery store with a floor length skirt and a doily on your head. But puberty is a force that stops for no man, and as I became an angsty pre-teen I felt more and more like the heroine of a Disney movie, stuck in a quaint little village where no one understood me and I was kept from all the adventures. I told my parents that I “want much more than this provincial life, ” and as a testimony to their awesomeness, they said, “Ok.” And just like that, I was going to school.

In a fabulous make-over frenzy, I cut my hair, got contacts, shopped for jeans, while discovering incredulously that I was a 0. (Homemade corduroy jumpers don’t have sizes.) I looked through the JC Penney and Kohl’s flyers every Sunday for ideas on what to put with what. Choosing which backpack to buy was agony, and I lost weeks of sleep over which shirt I should wear on the first day. (I chose one very similar to Lindsey Lohan’s on Mean Girls, a fact, among others, that has made that movie one of my all-time favorites.)

And then! I stood in front of the high school, a lone ambassador of my tribe into the wilderness. I had to try eight times to get my locker open, and muttered the combination under my breath the rest of the day. The girls in my gym class had bras with architecture the likes of which I had never seen, and guys greeted each other with what sounded to me like, “Fucking shit, you fuckity fuckfucker!”

In my World History class, the leering, pimple-faced boy in front of me asked the girl to my right if it was really true that girls masturbate. A few times, I thought I might actually die.

I felt isolated, a weary immigrant, like I was the only one who didn’t “get” this social thing, the only one truly alone. I measured every word, every movement, trying to anticipate what was acceptable and what would expose me for who I really was. Everyone was fine except me -- they knew the rules of the game, and they were winning.

It was easy to pin this on homeschooling, and pin I did. My parents had no right to do what they did. I had missed out big time. I had been deprived, handicapped, forced to face a world I wasn’t prepared for. I shed a self-indulgent tear for the sad little me trudging around under a bloated backpack, carrying the weight of the world on my lonely shoulders, feeling ignored and condescended all at once, asking fatalistic questions like, “Who am I? What good am I to anyone?” But then, I grew up.

I also, in a burst of irony, became a teacher. And, in a breathless realization, I’ve discovered that I could no longer blame those feelings on my odd childhood. I was arrogant enough to believe that I was the only one who felt that way, but, oh honey, that’s called being a teenager. If anything, I had more years of peace.

While everyone else was being alternately ostracized from lunch tables, giving blow jobs, and puking up their first drink, I was crafting cinnamon Christmas ornaments and constructing elaborate multi-leveled roleplaying games for an assortment of Lego guys and plastic animals. This contrast had previously seemed ludicrous and pitiful, but now that I have worked in the terrifying black pit of MIDDLE SCHOOL, I have a fresh new perspective.

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The strangest thing of all in all this self-reflection is that my little sister, who is now almost 13, was never homeschooled. My parents have since decided that kids have to be in the world sometime, and that enforcing faith with rules isn’t really the point -- it can change behavior, but if it’s not in the heart, it’s not real.

Anyway, my sister is adorable and popular, with ridiculously cute clothes and a little string of equally adorable boyfriends. She listens to Katy Perry and Ke$ha and watches every reality show on TV. The three oldest in our family reminisced at Christmas about how absurd life used to be, describing how we spent days staging and then videotaping a wildly nerdy parody of an educational science documentary. She sat quietly in her sparkly eyeshadow and little Abercrombie skirt until we asked her what was wrong.

She paused and got all teary, and then said, “I missed so much.”