Homeschool Horror Stories

by Deborah Markus, from Secular Homeschooling, Issue #4, Fall 2008

For reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, I ran a contest a while back on my editor's blog ( I wanted people to send in their funniest, worst, most humiliating (in a fun-to-read-about way) homeschooling moments. To loosen up people's tongues a bit, I gave the example of my friend who was teaching her kids all about "Hungaria" until her husband gently asked her what on earth she was talking about.

I love stories like this — partly because I enjoy reading anecdotes, but mostly because it's such a relief to have evidence right there in black and white that no, as a matter of fact I'm not the worst homeschooling parent ever. And I'm certainly not the only one who blows it now and then. (Mostly now.)

I got a few funny stories, and some requests to please make this a column for the magazine. So I'm giving it a shot.

Here are the rules:

Just to prove that I'll do anything for my readers, here's a story from my own arsenal.

My son studies both piano and violin. Please let the record show that he asked to learn these instruments, and will fling his arms around them in protective horror at any talk of his quitting.

Nevertheless, he does have his days of not wanting to practice, just as I have my days of not wanting to actually write, edit, proofread, or mail anything even though you will take the editorship of SHM away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

As I was saying. About a year ago, my son was having a spate of seriously-not-wanting-to-practice days. He would need to go to the bathroom every seventeen seconds. He would need a glass of water. He would need a sustaining bite to eat. He would need to reexamine his vegetarian convictions. He would need to get up and check exactly how much time was left for him to practice. (His teachers recommend half an hour per instrument, by the way, with breaks between — we're not demanding that he play until his fingers bleed.) He would remember an urgent appointment downtown. And then, as an absolute last resort, he would fall into Victorian swoon-type headaches.

I may be evil (really. Ask around), but I can't make someone with a headache practice a musical instrument. Being bitter, overworked, and Irish, I can, however, drop gentle hints along the lines of how conveniently timed some headaches just happen to be. "You never seem to get headaches when you're doing something you like," I snapped one day, after something like the fifteenth practice-interrupting headache in as many days.

Well, we had park day that afternoon; and it happened to be a sunny day at a park on a hill with very little shade. After about an hour of play, my son stalked up to me. He was pink and sweaty, and had a look of grim vindication on his face.

"I'm doing something I like," he announced. "And I have a headache."

(I asked my son for a story from our horrifying homeschooling life to contribute to this column, and this was the only one he was willing to see in print, seeing as how it made me look so awful in so many ways. Such a sweet kid.)

Thankfully, I'm not dependent on my own Hall of Shame for the rest of this column. Although amazingly enough, most people were willing to have at least their first names printed with their stories, I've decided to leave them all anonymous in order to protect the guilty.

Here, then, are the contributions I received from other terrible, terrible homeschoolers.

I had been researching homeschooling for years. Every aspect of it, from the "s" word to curriculum, from unschooling to virtual schooling. My house would have looked like a homeschool library if I had a bookshelf to store everything I had read. I found a local homeschool group even before we moved to the area, over two years before we would even begin homeschooling and, just before our first school year officially began, I gathered up my spawn and headed to our first get-together.

Please keep in mind that my three youngest children were barely five, barely four, and barely born. Okay, the last wasn't even born, but he was already sapping my energy and my brain cells. My now-ten-year-old was still in regular public school, and had been since kindergarten. Still, I fancied myself the future queen of all things homeschool. The libertarian in me was electrified, raring to embrace each fellow homeschooler's unique methods without bias or preconceived notions. I was thrilled to be meeting people who would allow me to peek down their individual paths.

I was all tingly, watching my "unsocialized" little people socialize, as I discussed the freedoms of homeschooling with the veterans. We spoke of learning without labels, working "ahead," working "behind," and not having to think in those terms. It was glorious. Until I completely outed myself as a charlatan.

While I was talking to one mother, her daughter walked over to us. She looked to be about my son's age, so I immediately considered her a "social opportunity" for when I would finally pull him out of school. When asked, she confirmed that she was, indeed, the same age as my son, and that's where I must have gotten too excited.

"Oh, wow! I have a son your age. I'm sure he'd love to meet you. You might have a lot in common. What grade are you studying?"

I saw every word that had come out of my mouth up to that point float up to the ceiling in little dialogue bubbles and pop. The poor girl looked at me, then looked to her mother, confused and insecure. And, as all of my earlier words rained down on me, I desperately tried to catch a few and string them together, making it worse.

"Um, I mean...Well, what grade are you doing in math?" No, that's not right.

"Uh, what kind of books are you reading?" Maybe that's a bit better?

Someone, please save me and this poor child.

"Is that your bunny over there?" Breath. That's a safe question. Right?

Honestly, I have no idea how that conversation ended. I believe the little girl went off to play, and her mom may have said something about never having considered a grade level for her kids. All I remember is feeling like I was walking around my coming-out party with the back of my dress tucked into my pantyhose, and wondering how in the world I could ever show my face at one of these things again.

It did take me a long time to get over my faux pas, but the incident seems to have been forgotten. Or, at least, forgiven. I've learned to keep my ego in check, and I think a bit more before speaking.

We just spent several days with that little girl and her mom, working on a wonderful project with children from five to twelve years old. I'm beginning to understand, and believe in, my own words a bit more.

And I made my six-year-old promise not to tell anyone that she's been working on kindergarten science and social studies, and first grade math and reading. I still have a little ways to go.

My eight-year-old was given a lapel pin he just loved. He thought it was pretty and cool and the potential use as a torture device against his brothers twinkled in his eye. When I asked him if he knew what the graphic on the pin was, he said no. It was an American flag.

Please don't report me.

Once, in hopes the girls would take the easy way out — as I am wont to do on occasion — I offered them the opportunity to sack the day's schoolwork if they would eat a piece of Limburger cheese. This was cheese their dad brought home as a joke; a cheese so foul we couldn't believe edible food could possibly stink that bad and so we'd go back for a second sniff and were more appalled than ever. The girls tried to choke a bit down, gagged it back up, and we went on with our lessons as usual.

My fourteen-year-old girl who was completing a grammar assignment that required her to make up her own sentences says, "I know I should know this, but what are countries and states again?"


A few years ago I came outside and for whatever reason said, "Son of a..."

And my then-nine-year-old daughter said, ever so sweetly, "Bitch?"

I haven't quite figured out my homeschooling style, mostly unschooling until I panic. I have a five-year-old son and a four-year-old (almost five) who we just adopted from Haiti. I have decided to try and teach them to read. Each and every day this week (which is the first week I am doing this), you could have heard me say, "Fine, then I'm not going to teach you how to read. Just your brother. And I'm not going to read to you anymore either!" And of course, the ultimate threat, "Fine, you're going to school, then!"

Please send homeschool horror stories to Our budget is still tight, but I can give you five whole bucks, or a free copy of the issue your story appears in if you're not a subscriber and still managed to hear about this column somehow. Stealing a copy of SHM from your good friend and then acting all innocent when he or she asks if you've seen it around qualifies you as a horrifying homeschooler with impeccable taste in reading material.

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