Even though homeschooling has come a long way in recent years, homeschooling families face many obstacles daily. Too often, these obstacles come in the form of those who disagree with homeschooling or who can't understand why we do it. Those who criticize may be the very same people we hoped would support us in this great and all-encompassing endeavor; family and close friends often are our worst critics. We know that this criticism is usually out of concern for us, and that time will prove us right, but it is difficult to stand strong when those who are supposed to love us most criticize so harshly.
Many of the questions and comments homeschoolers know by heart come from family and friends. Relatives want to know about socialization. Friends compare our kids negatively to theirs. Grandparents can be the staunchest opponents of homeschooling, repeatedly asking why we would punish their grandchildren by making them weird. Often, when homeschoolers need support the most, we receive it the least. Otherwise, we would not need so many homeschool support groups!
Sometimes, however, the best support we can receive comes from one person close to us, and if we are fortunate, that person is a relative - or better yet, a grandparent. This person is a real find - a gem.
Our "gem" was Gordon, aka "Papa" to the grandkids. He was unusual in that he actively supported our homeschool from the beginning. As a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he attended the last one-room schoolhouse in southwest Michigan. He fought in Vietnam and taught himself electronics so he could get a job in the "real world." Since he was self-taught and a product of "alternative" education, he easily saw the value in homeschooling.
After Papa read that American kids came in last out of 15 countries in math ability, he commented to my husband and me that it was a good thing we were homeschooling. If he knew what we were studying, he would try to supplement it in some way. Our son's passion for cars led to an Amazon.com delivery of two books on car racing, courtesy of Papa. When we studied butterflies, Papa bought a beautiful Lois Ehlert book, Waiting for Butterflies, and a nursery rhyme book for our daughter.
One of the favorite pastimes for my son and his Papa was trains. Papa's basement setup was complete with Astroturf, a good length of track, and several electric trains. Our son and Papa would spend hours with those trains, and Papa listened to every comment and patiently answered every question. We even have a picture of Papa, still in his pajamas, "playing" trains. When our son would make a statement or observation about trains (or cars, or water rockets), we would ask where he learned it. It was pure joy to hear him respond, "From Papa."
Most importantly, Papa asked the good questions: "What are you studying? What have you learned so far? What does that tell you about these other things? Want to go shoot water rockets?"
We often hear or read about grandparents who abandon families that homeschool; who turn their own children in to school districts or social services; or who loudly comment at family gatherings on how well the traditionally schooled students are doing. Knowing that someone is backing us up, willing to support us, and acknowledging that homeschooling works, can help lift the weight of the world off our shoulders. When this person does appear, he or she is more valuable than gold; he is a real gem.
In memory of Gordon Dalrymple, who died May 31, 2005.