Sunday, July 4, 2010


I've uploaded all of Simon's pictures. Aren't they great?

I intend to write one more essay about this endeavor, something about what this year was about for Simon, for me. But I'm not happy with what I've written thus far, so I will not press PUBLISH. I'm off on vacation tomorrow--a road trip all the way up the East Coast to visit family and friends--and Gettysburg. When I return, I will hopefully have an essay.

My best to you all,


Thursday, June 3, 2010

About the FPEA Convention

I talked my husband into going. We would make a weekend out of it, I said. We wouldn't go for the whole two-day thing, just for the last day, I said. It would be good for Simon to see how many families homeschool. The hall of exhibits had in years past contained various vendors of Usborne books and fabulous educational toys--I had saved a little money and would love to spend it there. The hotel was cheap enough and had three pools. Moreover, there is a Vietnamese restaurant in Orlando that George has raved about--he would finally be able to take me.

So we went. The FPEA (Florida Parent Educators Association) Homeschool Convention is one of the largest in the country: a hall of exhibits the size of a football field, over 200 vendors, 120 lectures delivered in groups of nine, six times a day, in lecture halls the size of ballrooms. I attended the convention with a friend two years ago and was flabbergasted by the enormity of it all. So many people. Sometimes, turning a corner, I would find myself looking down a hall and up an escalator and be confronted with an ocean of humanity that extended as far as the eye could see. Airports are usually less congested. I thought of all the times I have been told that nobody homeschools.

We arrived midday on Saturday. George would spend the afternoon with Simon. I would attend a lecture and spend money. I had three bags with me and was intending to fill them.

Before I speak of my impressions, I should relate that Simon had a great time. He bought a Jim Weiss audio book about Heroes in Mythology and then sat down at a table at the chess booth and played against various kids and won--he wants to go back next year and play in the FPEA sponsored tournament. In Simon's book--a fabulous afternoon.

Later, Simon and George found a table in the hotel lobby and played some more chess on a travel set. Seeing me walk towards them with empty bags, George lifted his eyebrows.

"You didn't buy anything," he said.

"There was nothing to buy."

Here are my impressions of the conference:

--Most of the great vendors of two years ago were gone, the ones that sold critically acclaimed readers for all ages and reading levels, readers about history, science and literature. Usborne readers had been ubiquitous two years ago, as were vendors of the Who Was...? series, or the Landmark series of historical readers. I remember huge booths with swiveling displays--and me furiously writing down titles once I'd run out of money. Where were those vendors? I couldn't find them. Instead, what book racks and display cases I could find were full of workbooks of every flavor, and readers that had primarily an evangelical bent. Similarly, I couldn't find the educational toys that I regretted not buying two years ago. Many of the purveyors of great children's literature and toys had decided not to attend. Homeschoolers in Florida were not buying enough of their products.

--The flavor of most of the materials sold was evangelical. You could buy CD-roms, DVDs, CDs, workbooks, and books on subjects your children could study: history, geography, creationist science, Latin, the Bible, grammar, spelling, writing. You could also buy how to materials for parents with titles such as How to Teach the Classics.

--Many of the educational products sold were not written by experts. They were written by homeschooling parents. Homeschooling your child for a number of years was enough know-how to write a book on history or Latin and sell it at homeschooling convention. As the sell was hard at many booths, I kept my irritation is check by asking: "Where did the author get his/her degree?" The lack of a clear cut reply to this question left me with the impression that a significant number of homeschooling products sold at the FPEA convention are produced by people who do not have a college degree.

--At a homeschooling conference in Florida, the vendor is the expert. Of the 120 lectures, more than 95% are given by vendors. They call them lectures, but they are actually nothing but a sale's pitch. I found myself thinking that going to the FPEA Homeschooling Convention to hone your skills as the educator of your children is a lot like going to a pharmaceutical company rep. for medical care.

--At the conference the air was thick with anxiety. Vendors kept talking of SATs, of getting your children into college. If you buy my product, your child will do well. Implied was that if you didn't, all your hard work would be in vain, the long educational journey of your child would lead to a door, and beyond that door there would be a dark abyss. Many of the moms at the conference seemed to have been bitten by fear. They bustled frenetically between the booths, dragging a cart full of educational materials behind them, busily taking notes, spending money.

--The absence of great teaching materials was a palpable presence. Where were the classics? Where were the books that add up to a great education? Where were the books that have to be mastered to pass Advanced Placement tests?

What I will remember most about this weekend in Orlando--other than the Vietnamese food--is the audiobook we listened to in the car driving there and back: A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich. I had heard of this book years ago from a homeschooling parent who it was rumored had a detailed home-made historical timeline running along all the hallways of her large Coral Gables home.

We drove back to Miami along the Florida Turnpike through reams of rain listening to Gombrich speak of the Greeks, of Alexander the Great, of Hannibal, of the library in Alexandria. Simon knows the history from having read Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World, but Gombrich veers away intermittently from simply chronicling events to give his opinion, to make comparisons, to get carried away by his own delight in and admiration for particular characters and historical periods, and his abhorrence of others. He seemed to be saying history matters, learning matters, the classics matter, the Greeks matter.

It seemed appropriate to return from the FPEA listening to the words of one of the best known art historians of the last century, a Jew from Vienna who survived the Holocaust and spoke of history with a certain urgency.

In this country, A Little History of the World is put out by Yale University Press. It was not available at the conference.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Whenever the subject of socialization comes up--and the pesky issue always comes up whenever you talk to someone who does not homeschool, homeschooling parents tie their underwear in knots, or whatever the American expression is. Gruffly they argue: Our children socialize all the time in park groups and field trips. They say: Unlike schooled children with their endless hours of homework, our children have time for play dates with their friends. They point out: Socialization does not only take place with peers, but within the family. The more ambitious suggest: You cannot have it both ways--you cannot commit to giving your children a comprehensive education and squander precious hours socializing. If you want to learn Latin and advanced chemistry, it takes time. Others say: Not everything that children learn from each other is worth learning.

All valid points. Our Simon, for example, sees other kids four days a week. He has handful of friends in Miami who rotate through for play dates on the weekend. Between field trips, park groups, science fairs, Historically Speaking events, and enrichment classes offered by my local inclusive homeschooling groups, there are so many social activities that many weeks Saturday comes and we still have schoolwork to finish. And yet, after years of running enrichment classes for homeschoolers, I have to take a heretical position: Many homeschoolers are poorly socialized.

My son is a good example. He and his friends can play for hours on end through a Sunday without conflict or boredom. Simon is a very imaginative kid with a room full of Legos which he's shaped into castles, dungeons, and space stations. There are stories that go with each of these scenarios, as well as little Lego figures: a good king called King Pie Five, a bad guy called Six Man Six, a princess called Heia. Simon always bamboozles kids into pretend play involving his Legos. Hours pass. If his friend Heather is over, all the female characters from Simon's Lego pantheon are foregrounded. With Adam the play turns invariably around King Pie Five and the castles. Simon knows his friends, knows their interests, and knows how to fashion a fun afternoon for himself and whoever is visiting. If there are disputes, he usually suggests that they get resolved by some kind of deal. Simon seems better than most at handling himself socially among peers in unstructured play situations. He brings his imagination and delight in others to the table, and a grand time is had by all.

The problems arise when Simon is in a classroom setting, or any other social milieu that is highly structured, a milieu that has tight behavioral expectations that demand that he control his impulses and his emotions, while he engages in an activity and with people he might not really want to at that moment. Most grown-ups will acknowledge that a lot of our day is passed in these type of settings and situations--yes? Every day, we find ourselves in places and with people we don't necessarily delight in, doing something which we don't necessarily want to at that moment. And yet, we do what we have to do, as they say. We give it our best. Platitudes, I know--but we need to give it our best--yes? This is a skill Simon has only recently began to develop.

As I write this I'm preparing a class on the American Revolution which I will teach to Simon and to a group of homeschoolers and their moms. It's a review session of Chapter 22 and 23 on
The Story of the World, Vol. III. I find myself trying hard to make the class as hands-on and focused on the details of the story as possible: we will make a time-line and then play a game. I cannot let the class drift for too long into the realm of ideas, such as a discussion of how the American Revolution inspired other countries, changing the history of the world. I must stick to the facts.

I have to do this because the last time I taught a class, I utterly lost Simon. He sat in a corner, not listening but drawing. The class was about Daedalus and Icarus. As all the kids would come to class having done the reading, I chose to focus on why this story had inspired paintings and poems. We looked at a Bruegel and read some W. H. Auden. I felt I had all the other kids with me--but not Simon. He told me later he was "super bored." Somewhat agitated, he said he thought we would talk about Perseus and King Minos, and how Daedalus had built the maze for the minotaur. He wanted me to position the story of Daedalus within the larger context of the Greek myths--all much loved by him. "Why didn't you do that, Mom? The Breugel picture you showed is just a happy sunny landscape with Icarus drowning--who cares?"

Simon felt that I had sacrificed the great story of Daedalus to a dull discussion of its implications. I made sure I told him I was proud that he could tell me all of that; however, his behavior during the class left a lot to be desired. Bored, he chose to turn away from the class and draw. And his response--drawing--was head and shoulders above what he did when younger.

Back then he would have just declared: "This is boring. I'm going home now." If he could walk away, he walked. If there was anything in the area he could give his attention to, he was off reading books, playing with sticks, toys, bugs, etc. If there was a table, he put his head on it. Moreover, he continually challenged authority. If an art teacher asked the kids to paint the background beige, Simon insisted it should be black and could not be dissuaded. If the teacher wanted them to draw a scene from the Bayeux tapestry, Simon placed the scene on a screen at a movie and then gave all his attention to drawing the "space people" and "aliens" who were watching the movie. If the teacher asked the students to pay attention while she spoke about the Battle of Hastings, Simon sat there drawing. When she asked him to stop drawing and listen, he said without ever looking up: "But I know already about the Battle of Hastings, and I have to finish drawing the weapons of this alien." This sort of thing happened every class.

Oh, you will say, but he's so smart. Give the kid a break. He's a kid. Moreover, he processes language with difficulty--obviously, a discussion about the implications of this or that will not come easily to him. And it's all the fault of the teacher. She must be rigid. What's wrong with making the background black?

There are two kinds of socialization: primary and secondary. Primary socialization refers to when a child learns the values, attitudes, and appropriate actions of the culture at large. Secondary socialization refers to the process of learning what is appropriate behavior for members of a small group. It is secondary socialization that Simon lacks.

Why does it matter? First and foremost, a child who is poorly socialized in a classroom setting, who hasn't internalized that it is his or her duty to sit and attend and cooperate, emerges from the classroom not having learned what everyone else learned. When the class is over, that child is behind. The child might be learning lots in other settings, but he just missed out on an opportunity. I was able to take Simon home and get him to look closely at the Bruegel painting, getting him to see what Bruegel was trying to say about human suffering, but I will not always be around to do that. Second, most of our grown-up life is spent in these small groups. Our children need to master handling themselves in those settings. Period.

I speak of Simon, but in my estimation over 50% of the boys--it's mostly boys--that are homeschooled by parents who are not evangelical were pulled out of school because they were neither handling themselves well in a classroom, nor learning what they needed to learn, and I applaud every parent for doing so from the bottom of my heart. Their kids might have developmental, sensory, or learning issues, which they might or might not grow out of, but which will definitely be poorly addressed by a public school. Their kids will learn so much more at home--hands down. However, most of these kids exhibit poor secondary socialization which shoudn't be denied, or go unaddressed and remediated. The poorly socialized child misses out and is left behind.

Personally, I think the problem is so rampant that I'm no longer willing to teach enrichment classes to homeschooled kids whom I've not hand-picked. When I tell friends that I intend to move into a classroom when I'm done teaching Simon, they say: "But why would you want to do that?--managing behavioral issues, trying to teach kids that cannot, or will not, learn."

I always answer: "I've taught homeschooled kids. Simon is my son. A classroom full of public school kids--no problem."

What can we do in our homes and within our homeschooling communities to help our poorly socialized kids? We can offer and attend enrichment classes. We can enroll our children in classes that they might enjoy so they get to practice and master secondary socialization. The fact that they might not do well in such settings is not a reason to pull them out. Once or twice a week, for an hour or two--they need to make it work, and we need to let them fail and try again.

Talk to them about what is expected as often as you have to, as well as five minutes before they set foot in the class. Explain why they need to learn how to be good students. The most effective thing I've said to Simon has been: "If you are not listening to the teacher, you don't become smarter. All the other kids become smarter--but you don't." None of this gets fixed in a day, or a year. Give it five, six, seven.

Finally, sit down for meals with your family every night, every day, every meal, if possible. I think of this as a balm for all wounds. Structure up the meals. Have your children set the table. Have them make the salad. Have them serve the water. Let one of them call everyone to the table. Let meals in your home have the feel of a small group that is focused on a task--like a classroom. Once you sit down, have a set of basic expectations as to table manners. Expect compliance. Foster conversation. Ask questions. Tell stories. Listen. Praise. Socialize.
Here is a link to the Bruegel painting: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Here is the poem by W.H. Auden. He wrote it after seeing the painting above. In case you missed him, Icarus can be seen flailing in the water south of the boat.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Public Service

This year, the subject of Simon's future has come up repeatedly. Simon is the one bringing it up, not us. My husband George, who's a pretty smart fellow, has this unshakable certainty: any kid who can beat him at chess will be all right. This last year, Simon checkmates George, or corners him into a draw, almost every time they play.

On the other hand, Simon, at eleven, thinks about his future a lot.

"What kind of jobs can you do in a bank?" he asks after finding out that President McKinley fell in love with a woman who was a teller in her father's bank. "Mom, if I worked in a bank, I would have money, right?" Simon wants to know.

It's been a year of explaining basic economic principles, the relentless traffic of goods and services that drives history: how we all participate by buying and selling labor as well as mountains of stuff, how having a job means you do a service for a company, or the government, or a school, and they then pay you for it.

All of this had been explained before, but it has only begun to sink in now, now that he finds himself exploring (and worrying about) how he will keep himself in Legos, fettucine, and audio books when he grows up.

When I explained all the jobs available in a bank, his eyes glazed over and his face looked disappointed, so I said: "Simon, when you think about what kind of job you might want to do when you grow up, think about all the things you like to do, all the things you are good at."

"Building Legos."

"Building. Correct. You are great at building things. Maybe you want to build stuff: houses, hospitals, bridges, roads, airports. Think about it. What else are you good at?"


"You are terrific at chess. When playing chess, what do you have to know how to do?"

After a minute he said: "Figure out consequences. Strategy."

"Maybe you could get a job with the army, helping with military strategy."

"I don't want to be a soldier, Mom," he said after a minute. My son--definitely my son.

"Simon, if not the military, then a company, or the government, or a school. You are good at thinking through the consequences of any given action. Most people have a very hard time doing that. It seems like an easy thing for you, but for others it is not. Many people do a lot of stupid things, things they should know are stupid, things that will have bad consequences. They do them anyway because they believe in magic, or luck, or that God watches out for them and will help them. Someone like you will always find work."

"Mom, maybe I can do something with history."

"History! Of course! You can write books, or you can teach. I bet your students would think you are the coolest history teacher ever. You would bring Lego structures and figures to class and show them the Siege of Jerusalem or the Battle of Hastings, right?"

Simon looked up and smiled from ear to ear: "I'm never giving away my Legos!"

These last weeks, I've found myself again and again returning to the subject of public service. I'm not completely sure why this has become a compulsion I cannot stop. I punctuate the day, the week, lunch, with little stories that are always about the same thing: I point out people who gave not only generously but recklessly of themselves, people who helped this country through difficult times, people who taught us all how to be a better people, a better nation, a more perfect union: Rosa Parks, Dr. Jonas Salk, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Kennedy, Martin Luther King. I find myself pointing out all the volunteering done by people we know right here in Miami, people who have careers and professions I forget to mention. And I point out everyone who gives above and beyond, working with the poor in Bolivia or Africa, going to Haiti to help out.

I should be pushing dentistry, or medicine, or law, or engineering; instead, I've told Simon all about the volunteering my mother did in the slums of South America during the years we lived there. Simon knows about open sewers, cardboard houses, and feeding slum children with sandwiches spread with a paste of peanut butter, ground up sardines, and powdered milk. He knows almost nothing about how my father traded metals, and because he was successful, Mother could volunteer in the slums, and I had endless opportunities.

So why am I doing this?

I worry a lot about the future, more than my mostly sunny disposition gives away. Picking up Simon from his sailing lesson yesterday, I gazed down at all the trash snagged in the bushes growing at the edge of Biscayne Bay. The oil slick in the Gulf is coming our way. So much has been coming at us for years now: environmental problems that are irreversible and apocalyptic, socio-economic-educational problems that are so hard to understand, never mind fix. I find myself hoping Simon will be part of solving some of these problems. I find myself wanting to offer him to the world.

Here's another reason: I'm getting older. Some days I'm restless and wish I could do more than hang up my laundry to dry, turn off the air-conditioner, eat less meat, and make sure I recycle. Recently I met an unforgettable twenty-one year old who just graduated from Bard and is flying off to Haiti within a few weeks to help them build a coral reef out of all the rubble they are dumping into the ocean. I wanted to pack up my bags and go with her. I asked her if she'd had a hard time finding work since graduating. Because of her studies and internships in all things "green," she'd had more offers than she could handle. The banks aren't hiring, but coral reef projects in Haiti are. I went home and told Simon all about Haiti, the earthquake, and coral reefs made of concrete debris, and how this young woman was going to live in a tent.

Finally, I feel very grateful these last many months. Gratitude is a scary wild feeling when you're not a religious person. Believers and practitioners have gestures and prayers that can tame what is in their hearts. They hold their hands together, they kneel, they bow their heads, they have words, lots and lots of words they can direct at someone, something. Agnostics like me--I just struggle through my day with a chest full of jagged emotions, feeling like an ax broke through the ice within.

Simon is doing well. He's reading, writing, doing long division, asking bigger questions every day. George and I still like each other. We have a handful of much loved friends. I spend many hours of my days reading history with my son in this country that allows me to do that. Life is good.

Over lunch today, this boy of ours who we were once told would always need "assistance," looked up from his burrito and said: "You know Mom, FDR was much better at ending the depression than Hitler. You know why?"


"Both FDR and Hitler ended the depression in their countries, but FDR created jobs with the New Deal--Hitler just invaded countries and killed Jews."

I was going to say something about keeping his lips shut while chewing. But I didn't. I couldn't. I knew that if I opened my mouth I would lose it.

He's going to be fine.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Jim Weiss' audio books can be bought from his website, Greathall Productions, among other vendors. The library also tends to have copies.

The audio books of Bible stories referred to in this piece are called Living Adventures from the Bible. They can be purchased from, among other vendors.

Some months ago, Simon and I started to drive to Miami Beach for his weekly piano lesson. It's a long drive, so I plug in an audio book and off we go. For the last few weeks, we've been working our way through stories from the Bible. Simon had noticed an advertisement for this particular series of Cd's and had asked for them.

Few audio books have given him as much pleasure. The mix of history and grand story-telling, the looming catastrophes, the booming voice of God, the focus on obedience and its opposite, the faithful loyalty of the converted--Simon loves it all. He loves it so much that recently, while driving by a evangelical church promoting its Summer Bible Camp, Simon asked it he could go--we're secular Jews. Not since he was eight and discovered Greek mythology have I seen him so hooked on a particular cycle of stories. Every time we have to take a long car ride, he dashes back into the house to get his Cd's.

"I'm torturing you with Bible stories, Mom," he says, giving me a sly smile as he shoves the story of Queen Esther, or Jonas and the Whale into the player.

He's torturing me with these stories not because I object to them, but because he makes me listen to them over and over and over. I've allowed him to move into the front passenger seat--he's grown four inches this last year--and from that position he controls the sound. Once a story has played all the way through, he says: "It's a really good story, Mom. We have to listen to it again," and quickly presses the necessary button before I object.

Watching him do this, I'm reminded again of the degree to which our Simon is teaching himself, is healing himself, is his own best therapist. I've never hesitated to buy audio books because since we put a CD player in his room four years ago, there's been an audio book playing in the background most of the time. He plays them over and over, decoding every nuance of meaning, of plot, of intention, even of intonation. I've noticed that when he reads to me from Vol. III of Susan Wise Bauer's The Story of the World, a book he has heard many times as an audio book, he aims to recreate Jim Weiss' (the reader) intonations and exaggerations.

Moreover, Simon knows the content of his audio book library so well, he can find something in it in no time. If we watch a movie about the crusades or Cromwell, I invariably find him in his room the next day listening to those sections of The Story of the World. Our Simon, this child with auditory processing issues, doggedly spends most of his free time decoding auditory stimuli, making the effort to overcome his deficits. And his overall increased listening, comprehension, vocabulary and expressive skills, are in part the result of the delight he takes in the dramatic fireworks that Jim Weiss imparts to pretty ordinary historical exposition.

* * *

I've been thinking this week about how lucky we've been, how strangers--people who were marginal in our lives or not in them at all, have provided the most important advice-- the keys to comprehending our son, the therapeutic tools, the hopeful long-term perspective.

Many years ago, while we lived in Washington, D.C., I cold-called most of the speech therapists in the city. We'd been very unhappy with Simon's individual speech therapy sessions, so I left messages on endless machines stating that I was looking for group sessions that focused on play, games, and craft activities.

A week or two passed and one morning the phone rang. It was someone who had received my message. She wasn't offering a group sessions, nor was she taking any new patients; however, she was curious as to why I was looking for such a group—she just had to call and find out.

I explained that the therapist we had been working with had focused on teaching Simon new words. My sense was that Simon knew lots of words, he just didn't use them when interacting with others. Maybe a group of kids and a therapeutic game would be a more powerful modality than one-on-one therapy.

She kept me on the phone. She asked me endless questions about Simon. She wanted to know what I and my husband thought was amiss with Simon.

I told her we didn't think all the disorders that fall under the autism spectrum explained Simon—he was too smart, too attached, too connected, too funny a kid. Very high-functioning Asperger's maybe, but even for that he was too attached, too empathic, too charming. To us, he just seemed like a child who heard much too much and couldn't function in loud environments, couldn't decode sentences coming at him because he couldn't filter out all the other sounds in the room. And we could see him having trouble smoothly mastering basic social and academic skills because he wasn't picking up on all of the instructions or social cues.

“I want you to get a pen and paper and write down the following: semantic pragmatic disorder and auditory processing disorder. Those terms might help you. Take good care of your little boy. Whatever you do, make sure you soak him in language. Bye, bye.”


I often think about this woman who so generously gave of her time and know-how.

The other stranger in our lives who gave us invaluable advice was the mother of a friend of ours. Because his mom had a PhD in Speech Pathology and had orchestrated special services for children in all of southern Illinois, our friend offered her to us. She would be visiting him in Miami and could come over and spend a day with Simon and me and watch me homeschool. Maybe she would have some advice to give.

I didn't want her to come, but I couldn't say no—the offer was so generous, and this friend of ours is much loved by everyone in our family.

I remember that when she walked through the door I had a small panic attack. She was wearing a pink pant suit, not the kind Hillary wears but one made of something synthetic with stretchy pants and a loose fitting top with buttons down the middle. How was someone from a parallel universe going to understand our choices?

Simon was eight at the time. He read out loud for her and did some math. I came up with a treasure hunt that involved written clues. I made lunch. She looked over my curriculum and made warm, supportive noises. And then she said something that was invaluable.

“They used to say that if your child wasn't functioning smoothly at age level by seven, you were probably looking at a child with significant disabilities. But the research shows that boys can take until age twelve to master all the basic skills.”

It was a throw away sentence, an off the cuff comment that made all the difference. We had a few years more years. Overcome by emotion, I kissed her.

* * *
Simon is turning twelve this summer. A few weeks ago he won a chess tournament in his division. In math this year, he's gone from limping behind to being ahead. I've a new problem—I often have the feeling that he's not listening to my comments or observations because I bore him. I know, Mom. I know that all already, he says. His handwriting continues to be atrocious but the sentences are beginning to have some meat to them. At dinner, he turns to George and says: Dad, how was your day? His social skills have been hard won, but he's beginning to not only know about them, but also use them.

* * *

This feels like a draft of something longer. But it's all I've time for this week.

* * *

As for Simon's interest in the Bible, I've explained to him that next year he will read his way through the Torah, and then he'll read the Bible, even the New Testament.

“You know, Mom," Simon said, "I'm a lot like Abraham Lincoln. I also like the Bible. You know that was one of the only books he owned? He read it over and over.”

“The things you remember.”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Intellectual Passions

We're coming to the end of the school year and there is still so much to do. I'd hoped that we'd be way ahead, but we aren't, so a few weeks ago we began to double up here and there to get it all done.

To my surprise, Simon hasn't complained. As a matter of fact, he's welcomed it. The presidential biographies are now devoured in one or two sittings. He has taken over reading the tales in
The American Story, even though they are at an 8.1 reading level and full of figurative speech. What was impossible in the fall is now doable. I still have to stop him to make sure he understands what it means to "view life in black and white," or that Elvis moved as if "he'd swallowed a jackhammer." But mostly Simon just reads and I listen, interrupting here and there simply to posit a question or make an observation.

Simon is older, of course. Almost a year has passed. He and his skills have matured. But he's also happily galloping through the readings because as he puts it, he's “really into” American history, the presidents in particular.

Yesterday he insisted that we go through the Netflix catalog, hunting for documentaries. And can I find him more audiobooks about American history? Furthermore, we're planning a trip to Washington, D.C. in the fall, and he's disappointed we can't go to New York as well, and Campobello Island in Maine, to track down all things FDR and Eleanor.

I sense in Simon the fetishism of the impassioned lover. He wants to see the presidential portraits, wander through the presidents' homes, and get as close as possible to the documents Dolly Madison saved when Washington was attacked in the War of 1812. He wants to gaze upon and caress (and hopefully one day read) everything that has anything to do with the objects of his affections

And nothing makes me happier. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing the right thing, committing to tight reading schedules and ambitious curricula. “Are we reading our way through this mountain of texts for him--or for me?” I ask myself. A friend of mine once said, laughing, that my curricula for Simon bordered "child abuse."

So often it's breezy and sunny down here in Miami, especially during the school year months—we could be at the beach or traipsing through the Everglades. Instead we are indoors, on the couch, talking about the Great Depression late into the afternoon, how the opossum was imported into this country to serve as food, how people ate dogs and cats and lived under cardboard in the cesspool that became Central Park.

And then it happens. Somewhere along the year, he's hooked. So hooked I feel him drifting away from me, off in his own world, sensing what it will be like to live with him in the years to come as he slowly becomes a man full of interests, affections, and obsessions of his very own. Around this time last year it happened with world history. Every spare minute of every day was devoted to listening to the audiobook of
The Story of the World. This year it's the story of this country.

“Maybe at the library they have audiobooks about the presidents for grown-ups, Mom, and I might like them?”

"Let's find out."

As I said, nothing makes me happier. My most passionate and uncomplicated love affairs have been with books, and with some of their authors, whom I've never met, many of them female, or gay, or long dead. I count Virginia Woolf, Michel Montaigne and Roland Barthes among my dearest friends. They're always nothing but a source of pleasure, comfort, and companionship. I can come to them again and again and they never disappoint or break my heart.

I grew up in Peru with a pop-up TV the size of my hand which carried very little worthwhile programming. My parents were and are omnivorous readers, consuming 2-3 books a week. I began reading books on my own when I was eleven. I can't claim my reading was erudite—at thirteen I had read every Agatha Christie available in revolutionary Peru. Books took me away from school, from home, from my changing body, from the uncertainty that the revolution unleashed in our home, from parents who were loving but mercurial. Books provided a welcoming world that was all mine just by reading.

One of my greatest wishes for Simon is that he have intellectual passions, especially now, here, today, every day. We live in a culture governed by stuff, surrounded by people who work day and night so they can afford more stuff, who then spend their free time buying stuff, and once they have it, tending to it, perpetually tethered to it. This problem is not unique to this country. It's the complicated pleasure and the exorbitant price of affluence. It's a kind of slavery with no obvious chains, a slavery where no blood is spilled, but a slavery nonetheless.

I'm not a therapist, but I'm certain that the struggles of so many with depression, weight, and addictions have a lot to do with an abundance of stuff and an emptiness at the core of their beings. I'm always most content--and I'm not always content--when my mind is eagerly chasing down this or that idea, this or that author, recipe, painter, poet, film-maker. I feel most alive, most grateful to be here, when I'm teaching myself something new, and I don't need any stuff for that, or people for that matter. A library card will do.

Now it turns out Simon has been bitten by the same bug. I don't know exactly what I did right, other than choosing great books and making certain they were read. We have maxims in this home, one more trite than the next, but they seem to have worked their magic: Franklins don't give up; Franklins do what they say they are going to do; Franklins give their best. Simon stepped into those books, sometimes reluctantly, and doggedly week-in-week-out he read, and before he knew it fell in love, consumed by curiosity and an unrequited passion for men and women he will never meet, men and women he can only hope to bring alive, bring closer to his lips and fingertips, by reading, by learning.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

That War

Cologne, 1945
These past weeks my son has been reading me stories about that war. The book we are using, Jennifer Armstrong's The American Story, only has two: one on the Manhattan Project, and a second story on the Navajo code talkers.

"Only two stories on World War II?" said Simon, browsing through the index. "But, Mom, it lasted a long time." He knows a lot about that war from Susan Wise Bauer's The Story of the World, Vol. IV.

And he knows about it from me. Every so often, I walk by his room and hear him telling a friend of his: "My mom doesn't like war." Sometimes he adds: "My grandma and grandpa were in a war--a real war." These words are meant to explain his foreign mom's odd behavior: why she doesn't allow violent video games, why she asks that all play involving war sounds--the tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck-tuck of submachine gunfire, the whistling of bombs dropping, the kah-boom of them hitting the ground, the barking commands of officers--be kept to a minimum, or be relegated to the garden or rooms with doors.

Like Simon, I was for a moment surprised by how tangentially Armstrong treats that war. But then I remembered that she is writing for middle schoolers--kids. Furthermore, the war was not fought here, on this continent, in American cities. It was fought across at least one ocean. Too many American soldiers gave their lives, and too many families suffered the loss of fathers, sons, brothers, even sisters and daughters. But civilians, the rest of the American population, the vast majority that was not fighting, they were here, safely on the American continent. Events other than World War II are more central to the story of this country than its brief but defining engagement in stopping Hitler, and Armstrong is right in devoting the bulk of her book to them.

* * *
My first sustained contact with Americans happened when I came to college in this country. It was a good school into which I was accepted because I spoke a handful of foreign languages and had the AP scores to prove it--neither my grades nor my SATs were anything but average.

I arrived at college feeling a bit like an impostor. The other students were not eccentric but deeply accomplished; furthermore, so many seemed to come from happy-go-lucky American families that skied and played tennis. The fathers wore golf jackets or polo shirts and shook your hand with vigor, flashing teeth: "And where are you from, young lady?" The mothers were athletic and friendly and seemingly uncomplicated: "Must be hard to be so far from home." For most of them home had been one place for decades, centuries. Everything about them said that all was well with the world, that they knew deep in their hearts that all would always be just fine.

For football games in the blustery New England fall, many of the parents returned to campus with the trunks of their cars full of wine and food, which they consumed on expensive fold-out chairs in the parking lot of the football field. These were alien rituals for me. Why would you want to picnic in a parking lot in the cold? But these strange creatures, full of joy and self-assurance, wrapped in L.L. Bean, pearls and baseball caps, sat in the chairs on the gravel of the parking lot, swirled wine in plastic cups and talked about their sail-boats.

I envied them. I envied the students, the parents, the whole lot of them. It wasn't their privilege and their fancy fold-out chairs--my parents had done well for themselves, and I never lacked anything money could buy. What I envied was their happiness, their innocence, their self-satisfaction, their fearlessness--the predictability of their lives.

* * *
I'm almost fifty now and from this vantage point it seems like that war has always been with me. It was there when I was a child because it was hardly mentioned, although from time to time, especially when my grandmother came to visit, suddenly nightmarish stories would emerge en masse: air attacks, waiting in the cellar in the dark, people praying, buildings crumbling, blindness, injuries, death of fathers, hunger, more hunger, stealing food and eating rotten potatoes, more bombs, displacement to Bavaria, abuse by other kids, by teachers, by inconsolable mothers, walking to school for three hours through the rubble, soldiers doing terrible things to women, more hunger, playing in the rubble and finding hand-grenades, or the bodies of the dead, burned, or bloated, etc, etc, etc.

My parents were eleven when the war ended. Both of their fathers had died. Two stories always stood out. At eleven my father walked mostly alone from the south of Bavaria back to Berlin through occupied Germany. My mother was trapped in a collapsed building in Cologne at age nine for three days. Afterwards, she was blind for six months..

The tone when these stories were told was always utterly and completely wrong. My mother would insist when pressed as to how she had felt about any of it that it hadn't been a big deal. Nicht so schlimm. Not so bad. Lackadaisical. Tough as nails. She said that because it had been a "communal experience" she hadn't suffered much--my mother who is flooded by her own feelings almost every minute of every day, and the only thing predictable about her is that she lives trapped like a squirrel in a snare, unpredictable from constant pain. As for my father, he was always the hero in the adventures of his own making. That war was just another backdrop for the tale of his life, a grand mixture of luck and cunning. Of course, that was when he was happy. When he was not, he lay in bed and smoked cigarettes by the pack and roamed the house in the middle of the night. When he was neither very happy nor very sad, he worried his children and his wife were stealing his scissors, his ruler, his paper clips, his socks, his money, and that nothing worth while would ever be achieved by any of us. I loved them both fiercely and spent my childhood trying to anticipate their every mood and need.

* * *
I don't like living in Florida, but for Simon this house--not far from where OJ came to live when he ran out of money and moved to Miami--is the center of his universe. I might daydream of moving back to Boston and having a fireplace and neighbors who own books instead of motorcycles and boats, but there are days when I wonder if that will ever happen. I wish for Simon that mythical happy American childhood: an address that does not change, a life that is reliable, full of pleasurable rituals and a family of friends, a life he perceives as safe, a minimum of fear.

For all our reading of history, replete with mass murders and vicious iniquities, the day to day of our lives is peaceful, joyous. It is, I think, my crowning achievement: how hard I work at making every day a day so happy, a day in which we entertain the realities of war but do not live them.

On a more mundane note: we're thinking of building a sailboat. And a folding chair is a brilliant invention.

Reading List

100 True Tales From American History by Jennifer Armstrong.

Getting to Know the U.S. Presidents by Mike Venezia. This is a series. Also check out all of Mike Venezia's other incredible books at his web-site.

Simon loves The Story of the World, Vol. I- IV, by Susan Wise Bauer. He listens to the audiobooks for many hours every day. They play in the background while he fiddles with Legos or does math.

Together with Toni Deveson, Claudia was one of the founding members of , a net-based home-education support group for families teaching a secular curriculum in the Miami area. Claudia remains a very active participant. The group is inclusive, welcoming families of all faiths—or lack thereof, and all life-styles. The Examined Life runs a small enrichment co-op for children in grades 4-6. This year, the co-op is covering biology, art appreciation (nine painters), music appreciation (seven composers), history—the Renaissance and beyond, and Latin. All the portfolio-ready materials that Claudia and Toni have developed themselves are available for free at , including a comprehensive 36-week enrichment curriculum for the above named topics, as well as the American history project covered in this blog. The website also has a bookstore that carries all the books necessary to teach the curriculum.