A year ago when I first wrote about our homeschool days for the day-in-the-life linkup at Jamie Martin’s Simple Homeschool, we were less than a year into the journey. With trepidation, we inched forward to test the ground beneath us, ready to abandon efforts should the foundations crack and give way. I struggled with the transition from hospital to home, and feared that the decision to exchange a surgeon’s scalpel for dry erase markers was foolhardy, even irresponsible. I obsessed about curricula, about “doing it right.” We struggled to discern God’s will in the whole tangled, beautiful muddle.
Over the past year, challenges with our 5-year old, twice-exceptional son Pip have wrenched focus away from conjecture about the “right” way to homeschool, and instead have confirmed in stark relief for our family that in this season, for our kids, homeschooling is right. Anxiety has ceded to gratitude to the Lord for guiding us this way, down a path we never anticipated. As we’ve struggled to manage life through meltdowns over crowds and haircuts, homeschooling has provided an anchor. It has blossomed from a method, to a lifestyle that evolves as we evolve, that adapts to the contours of our days as molten metal, gleaming, yields to a forge’s fire.
The journey is not always blissful. This winter in particular, as we discovered our son Pip needs to swing and climb to think, the steady blanket of snow heaped atop houses and playgrounds seemed more suffocating than magical. We have had weathered screaming meltdowns, and tears, and despair that we will never shepherd our kids as God intends. Tensions have run so high indoors that in desperation I’ve lured the kids to playgrounds encased in ice, just for the refreshment of open air and the calming pressure of heavy work on Pip’s limbs, and have prayed all the while that no one fractures a long bone (or worse) in our slippery escapades.
But from a view above treeline, the messiness unfolds into majesty. As in one of Monet’s landscapes, the dirty strokes and the blotchiness, the pastels and the muddy browns, converge into something lovely, unique, and somehow. . . whole. This path, in all its complexities and trials, compels us to embrace our need for a savior. It demonstrates the grace encountered only in weakness (2 Cor 12:19), and our need to lean into Him as we nurture the children He has entrusted to us. It reveals inklings, luminescent as a clutch of pearls, of the mercy God provides even when we don’t notice, even amid the crooked bits and the uncertainty.
Even on a morning that begins with the cat jumping on my head.
Samuel Whiskers secures his crash landing at 5 am, prematurely rousing both my husband and me from sleep. His acrobatics won’t end until he’s fed, and my husband Scottie has to drive out-of-state in an hour, so Scottie rolls out of bed. I want to nestle under the covers and sleep more, but the hour before dawn is my only guaranteed sliver of time to complete work for my medical editing job, or to write. I force myself up and blink into the glare of my laptop.
At 6 am, Scottie hugs me and leaves. I pray for him as I listen to the garage door rumble closed. We won’t see him for three days. I worry about his stamina and safety as he drives during these trips.
I rub my eyes and return to my computer, but barely complete a thought before I hear Pip’s talking microscope blaring in his room. I throw off the covers and bolt down the hallway. As delighted as I am that he’s learning about red blood cells, 6 am, when his not-yet-3-year-old sister is still asleep, is not the right time.
“Pip!” I urge as I throw open the door. I’m trying to whisper, but in my franticness it sounds more like a hiss. “Please turn it off!”
He looks at me quizzically, as if I’m the one having a conversation with an optical instrument (he’s named her “Indiana,” by the way). “I’ll do it quietly, Mum,” he counters.
“No. The sun’s not even up yet. Bean is asleep. Turn it off.”
“No Mum, it’s okay, I’ll do it quietly.”
I draw a deep breath. His tone conveys more compromise than confrontation. . . which is huge progress for him.
“Pip. I know you’re excited, but please put it away. It’s still too loud, and Bean needs sleep. So do you.”
He holds up an index finger. “Just one more slide Mum. I want to do the facts on the cat flea.”
“When the sun is up! Not now!”
He finally acquiesces, and I stumble back to my laptop. I sigh with relief that however exasperating the interaction, and however concerned I am that his lack of sleep will lead to difficulties later on, he did not become irritable. Another point of progress.
I clatter on the keyboard a while longer, until 6:30, when Bean shuffles into my bedroom. She is in footed pajamas, with the hair at the back of her head frizzled into a bird’s nest. In her toddler arms she clutches half a dozen Winnie-the-Pooh Thinking Spot books. Her first words of the day are, “Can you please read to me, Mum Mum?”
She’s up half an hour early, and I’ve barely made a dent in my work, but at the sight of her my heart melts. She clambers onto my bed, and we snuggle under the covers to read about gravity and evaporation through the eyes of a bear with very little brain. Soon Pip joins us in the Hundred-Acre Wood. The kids press their cheeks against me, and as I hear a mourning dove cooing outside, I thank God for such a beautiful start to the morning.
After I shower, the idyllic atmosphere dissolves when I hear Pip shouting and laughing like a maniac. I run downstairs to find him jumping on the couch, crashing into furniture, throwing stuffed animals, reeling out of control. I realize why — I’d put Vivaldi on the stereo, which is usually soothing and was Pip’s request, but the volume is too loud. Pip has severe sensory processing disorder. The noise is too much for him, and overstimulated, he’s spiraling into a frenzy.
I redirect him upstairs, and we narrowly escape a meltdown from sensory overload. We deep breathe, we gently hug (with him facing away from me — face-to-face hugs are also too much), and he spends some time in his “clubhouse,” a closet we’ve converted into a nook with blankets, library books, a reading light, and headphones connected to an MP3 player. Anxious about the prospect of changing into clothes with seams and scratchiness, he asks to stay in his pajamas. I worry about what this will mean for expediently leaving the house later for occupational therapy (OT), but he’s struggling. “Sure,” I say.
Once he’s calm, we begin our first sensory diet activity for the day. I set up an obstacle course of chairs and scooter boards throughout the house, and he pretends to be He-Man saving Eternia through an elaborate scheme of wheelbarrow walks, bear crawls, and crab walks. He does push ups in a chair, pretends to be starfish, and then I “brush” him and administer joint compressions. It seems like a bizarre routine, but we’ve already seen progress. Although we have a long way to go, he’s recently tolerated visits from family and friends, and a birthday trip to a restaurant, without a meltdown.
We finally start our school day with Breakfast and Books. Breakfast is cereal, which Pip eats dry, a lesson we’ve learned after wasting bowel upon heaping bowl of “too soggy” cereal. He also gets scrambled eggs in addition, because with all his textural issues with food, keeping up his calories is a challenge.
Our homeschool hinges upon living books that we read together, usually over meals or snacks, and then lots of time for free play, creativity, and exploration outdoors. Over breakfast, we do our devotions, cover math, and read from a children’s literature anthology or chapter book. Today we pray, then read the Jesus Storybook Bible, supplemented with readings from the NIrV Discoverer’s Bible. They’ve practically memorized the stories in the JSB, and so the conversation is delightful, with each reiteration of a chapter drawing us toward deeper engagement with God’s Word.
For math we read a chapter from Life of Fred, which works well for us because while the content is appropriate for Pip’s level, the quirky stories stave off Bean’s restlessness. The process of learning math is a bit atypical for us, because Pip understands advanced concepts like multiplication, yet has dysgraphia and so struggles to write. All of our math work is done mentally and through narrative, rather than pencil and paper. We also exclusively read math books connected with stories or otherwise written in fun, engaging text (Life of Fred, Beast Academy, the Sir Cumference series, Bedtime Math, Usborne’s Lift-the-Flap books), never standard textbooks or worksheets. While he craves advanced content, Pip is still five, and at the first sign of drudgery he’ll rebel (as well he should). Today he resists doing the handful of practice questions at the end of the chapter, until I conceal all the text on the page except for the problem of interest with a piece of paper. With the visual stimuli mainstreamed, he figures out a multiple-digit addition equation without difficulty. His sudden smile of confidence lights up the morning.
As we finish breakfast, we read a chapter of Little House in the Big Woods, a book we’ve already finished, but which the kids adore so much that they’ve begged to read it again. During the most recent snow, they asked to make candy from molasses and sugar, just like Laura and Mary. Pip and Bean loved the mess and excitement of it all, but upon tasting, they declared their preference for sweets from the 21st century.
Additional literature books we’ve relished this year, include the original Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and The Jungle Book, as well as a hand-me-down anthology from the 1980s that includes Rikki Tikki Tavi (a favorite), Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, and excerpts from Swiss Family Robinson.
After breakfast, the kids have some free time to play. This is usually my chance to cram household chores, but today Pip pleads with me to play “Chutes and Ladders — DINO BATTLE,” a Pip-patented variation of the Hasbro classic. The game proceeds as usual, but if you land on a tile inhabited by a dinosaur, you have to fight for survival. Who could decline an invitation to such an adventure?
With the dinosaurs soundly vanquished at the bottom of their slides, I pry myself away to stuff a load of laundry into the washer, only to hear Pip working himself up again. He’s spinning this time, which if left unchecked, will pitch him out of control and into a meltdown. I intervene, and direct him to crawl with his scooter board across the kitchen instead. As he sprawls onto the board belly-down, his wild laughter silenced, I bite my lip. Yet again, I struggle with tension between my instinct to let him be a kid, and my knowledge that he’s different, and that at this point, such wild activities hurt more than help him. It’s a strange angle from which to parent.
Around mid-morning, it’s Snack and School time, which proceeds according to the kids’ interests. Every month Pip and Bean frame four questions they want to answer over the ensuing weeks:
Over the course of the month, we then dig into a pile of books and activities centered around these four questions. In the preceding days, we wrapped up February with an exploration of simple machines:
When Pip spontaneously exclaimed he’d identified gears in our pepper grinder, built a motorized bridge without my help, and announced that he could lift Bean higher into the air on a see-saw with the fulcrum farther from him, I considered this dabbling a success.
As we’ve wrapped up our inquiry-based explorations for the month, today I’m in strewing mode. Since our questions usually focus on science, I strew books on history, foreign language, or the arts to provide a balance. Today, as the kids munch peanut butter crackers, I invite them to select from Ordinary People Change the World biographies, Katie Art Adventure books, and Anholt’s Artist Books for Children. Bean jumps — literally — with excitement at the sight of the stacks, and grabs the entire pile of Katie books. Pip picks biographies on Jackie Robinson and Sacagawea. We read them all, then finish our meanderings with a page from Basher States and Capitals ; Pip races to the map on our wall to point out Kentucky, with Bean hot on his tail.
It’s time to brush Pip again and to do more joint compressions. Thankfully, he cooperates. Then we transition to Creative Time — an umbrella term for drawing, writing, building, crafts, clay, painting, science experiments. . . whatever the kids fancy for the day. Pip has asked to do “crafts,” which in our house share nothing in common with the flawless, quaint projects advertised on Pinterest. Rather, it implies a big bucket of JUNK through which the kids rifle and tinker. They dive into glitter glue. Pip builds a tower with plastic cups. Bean creates a pattern of puff balls. They discover a decrepit piece of raw bowtie pasta at the bottom of the bucket, and Pip asks for more, and to dye it with food coloring. I ask him to think more about the idea, and he reasons that as the pasta will become mushy in water, paints may work better. Bean and Pip are soon covered in paint, as is the floor and half a box of rotelle pasta. I can’t help but smirk when Pip announces, “Look, I’m painting with mixed media!” Eventually he tires of the Jackson Pollock approach, and as I scoop up glitter tubes and marbled pasta, they settle into a quiet rhythm of painting on paper.
Around 11:00 each day we head out on an excursion, rotating between jaunts to a nearby playground or farm, visits with friends, the library, and the supermarket. Today, we have to take Pip to OT. In a scramble, I scoop up the art supplies and urge the kids to change. As I’d worried, I regret letting them stay in pajamas. One child roams about his room half-naked with Legos in hand. His 2.5-year old sister howls that she cannot pull her sweatshirt over her head. Someone demands goldfish crackers not once, but three times. Someone else is still wandering about in underpants. I feel my face flush. I start to bark orders, rather than guide.
Finally into the car after mishaps over boots and arguments over coats, we head first to their godmother’s house, where Bean will stay during OT. I’m gritting my teeth, and I’m forcing myself to breathe, just as I constantly remind Pip. My foot is too heavy on the accelerator.
Yet, I cannot ignore the sunlight. On this particular day, the February clouds, usually bleak with dishwater, have yawned open. The first hints of springtime have chased away the slush and ice once fringing the road. Troubles seem lighter.
We drop off Bean, and race to OT, barely arriving on time. For 45 minutes, Pip climbs, hangs, writes, and works on reflexes with his therapist. I relish the quiet of the waiting room, a rare respite, and race to complete the work I neglected in the morning. When Pip appears in the waiting room again, his therapist gushes, “He’s doing so well.” Her words tear open a wound, one still raw from so many moments of panic, of screaming, of exhaustion. Tears mist my eyes. When I see Pip’s face, shy yet beaming, I nearly burst with love.
We pick up Bean, and Pip races into his godmother’s house to hug her, and then to introduce himself to her guest, an elderly friend who’s stopped by to complete a jigsaw puzzle. I know from prior meetings that she is deaf, but reads lips. Pip doesn’t even notice; he’s just delighted to meet a friend with an exciting jigsaw puzzle, and happily chatters with her. We then stop by a store to get both kids superhero juice bottles as a treat, and both Pip and Bean strike up a conversation with the teenager behind the register. I consider the dreaded “socialization” question, and can’t fathom that either of these kids — the 5-year old who falls apart in crowds, or the 2.5-year old who falls silent in crowds — would thrive in a traditional school environment, where the clamor and quantity of interactions drown out intimacy.
The early spring light has continued to warm the earth, and after we arrive home we have lunch on the front porch for the first time in months. Pip shelters beneath an umbrella, I suspect because he’s feeling a bit overloaded.
They ask to read the Sacagawea biography again, and also request one on Jim Henson. Then they don shoes and dart about the yard, feel the sopping ground suck at their shoes, smell the damp earth, dirty their hands with mud. They pretend to be pirates, then Winnie-the-Pooh characters, then Greek heros, before transforming back into pirates again. I escape into the house to clean up, listening all the while to Pip’s sounds should he reel out control. I hate this constant vigilance, this ever-present wariness, which seems so contrary to the instinct to let him roam, and explore, and immerse himself in the wild frivolity of childhood. While I’m ruminating, I glimpse Bean outside the window, making “birthday soup” in our bird bath. The sight brings me to tears.
I’m crying a lot today. The warmth and the light sharpen things, and the tides of emotions roll on.
After an hour of antics, they stumble into the house with flushed cheeks and mud to their knees. I clean them off, and they head upstairs to change their wet clothes “by ourselves,” but I know that I’ll be intervening for both of them shortly. Sure enough, Bean soon marches downstairs naked from the waist down. She ignores me, her arms swinging on a mission, and she disappears into the living room. She returns “dressed,” her pants on backwards, her underpants only half pulled up. Upstairs, I’m impressed that Pip has changed his pants without a problem. And it’s time for brushing and compressions yet again.
After an episode of The Berenstain Bears — one of their few screentime allotments, not out of strictness, but because television just isn’t a fixture in our house — it’s Quiet Time for all. Pip retreats into his room to play with Legos or Snap Circuits. After an elaborate ritual that includes a hymn, a goofy song, and some books about horses, Bean “goes down” for nap. . . which ends twenty minutes later, when after bouncing around on her bed for a while she trudges down the stairs and announces she’s done. Normally this would frustrate me, as the afternoon quiet provides a welcome respite and a chance to accomplish some work, but the day is gorgeous, and God has been so gracious to us. We head outside for a walk.
Pip decides to carry a favorite stuffed animal in a hiking backpack, which appears terribly awkward, but for which I’m grateful as it will give him the proprioceptive input he needs. We stroll down the road hand-in-hand, with the late afternoon sun — still chasing down the horizon quickly, as winter suns do — tingeing the edges of things with gold. We see a recently-felled pine tree, and note its sap dripping around its rings, the slow pull of gravity molding droplets into suspended jewels. It reminds us of the maple sap we’d tasted just days earlier, when we toured a sugar shack before gorging on pancakes for Pip’s birthday. We talk about the process, remember the mild sweetness, just a hint, of the fresh sap.
During our walk, I mention to Pip that the woman with the jigsaw puzzle was deaf. At first he doesn’t realize what I mean, but when I remind him of Helen Keller, about whom we’ve read a biography, his eyes widen, and the questions begin. “How could she still speak to me?” “Why is she deaf?” “Did Helen Keller read lips, too?” We talk about diversity, and love for our neighbors, and how we are all image bearers of God.
We round a corner and discover a smattering of puddles, for Bean a slice of heaven descended down. As I watch for cars, she stampedes through the ankle-deep water, repeatedly dousing herself in dingy spray to her waist. She shrieks with glee upon each pass, now shouting that she’s a bird, now declaring herself a horse. Pip smiles, watches, and tentatively dips his toes along the margins. He ventures in further while Bean continues to sprint and splash, and ultimately he gets wet to his ankles. Then the change washes over him, stiffens his bones. I brace myself. He asks to go home — but he does so with calm, without panicking, without a trace of shrillness in his voice. Again, progress. During the quarter mile walk home he half-jogs, urging, “I just need to hurry.” But he doesn’t bark. He doesn’t melt down. He just deep breathes, and jogs, and keeps on going.
My eyes are misty yet again.
Back at home, after another round of peeling off wet and muddy clothes, Pip and I do another obstacle course. Then we sit down to dinner, and review local birds and their calls, a favorite activity last summer that faded away as winter silenced the birdsong. Bean bounces with excitement as she recognizes a titmouse, and insists she heard one on our walk. We finish with more books, this time another reading — by request — of Katie and the Spanish Princess and Katie and the Mona Lisa.
The nightly scramble is arduous, and tedious, as always. There are attempts to stall the steady climb into bed. There are issues over water dripping on Pip’s face, triggering a yell. There is a struggle to clip his toenails (“Pip, we have to, you are starting to look like a velociraptor”), and to comb his hair (“OW! You’re hurting me!”) There are tears from Bean, when she realizes Dad is not home to watch He-Man or Gummi Bears with her before bed (ahem. . . yes, we are children of the 80s). But with the books read, the hymns sung, the prayers recited, and the warm, fleece-thick hugs lingered over, there is peace. A peace that comes when after months of struggle, and darkness, and chill, the sun breaks through the clouds, and reveals a glittering beneath the shadows. A peace that infuses the air when you realize, with the clarity of crystal, the depth to which God loves you (John 3:16), and blesses you richly, even while you’re perseverating over your own myopic view of the world.
The sky closed up again within twenty-four hours. But for a day, a seldom sun lifted mist from puddles and coaxed jackets from limbs. It brushed back winter’s dreary countenance. Across dappled earth it revealed the great mercy God has shown us in guiding us down this path, a path we had never planned, a world of glimmers we would otherwise never have known.