For to be free is not to merely cast off one's chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
- Nelson Mandela -

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Autonomous Maths

When I was thirteen years old, my maths teacher begged me to drop maths, and all other beta subjects. He even promised to up my marks so I would pass that year, on the condition that I swore an oath never to enter a maths class again. I was only too happy to oblige.
It wasn’t that I hated maths, maths just didn’t like me. It refused to enter into my brain. Sometimes it even refused to enter my ears. I can remember making an effort to listen to the teacher, try and read what he’d written on the blackboard, but my attempts invariably ended in me switching off and falling asleep.
Strangely enough I’ve never had the feeling that something essential was missing from my life. I got by, survived school, had lots of fun, saw a bit of the world, met loads of wonderful people, found a husband and a job and even made quite a career. I never had a problem earning enough money to live on and I never had a problem spending it.
Maybe, if I’d had maths, I’d have learned the perfect formula to quickly overcome or even avoid grief and obstacles and lead a happy, troublefree life. Maybe it would have taken me less time to work out that I’d be a happier mother working from home instead of away from home. Or maybe I’d have been able to calculate that my children would end up unhappy in school. I don’t know. Somehow, looking around me and seeing quite a few people who have had maths - some of them even excelled at it! - and are still struggling with their lives, I doubt it.
Having said that, Ken’s always told me how he enjoyed maths, physics and science. And something that can be enjoyed has a definite right to exist, wouldn’t you agree?
So, when I ended up home educating my children I realised that maths should be part of their lives and I should give them a chance to find out whether they enjoyed it or not. But how to present it to them?
I acquired loads of books. I love books and I know a zillion ways to acquire books without spending too much money. Also - bearing in mind Einstein’s wise words ‘Play is the highest form of research’ - I obtained, designed and made an equivalent amount of games. That alone was very educational as well as fun, not in the least for myself.
Then there was of course our every day life. If you think about it, not an hour in the day goes by without maths. We give and take, we buy and sell, we cook and bake, we divide and share, we multiply :0).
I had to learn to bite my lips every time one of the children asked a question starting with ‘how much...’ and encourage or help them to work it out for themselves. They had pocket money from a young age, they are actively involved in managing the household budget and I let them calculate, weigh and measure things when and wherever possible. Or I do it myself in a very exhibiting kind of way with a running commentary.
All three children seem to cope with maths in their own sweet way.
AL - having had traumatising experiences in school as well as having dyslectia - has picked up as little books as she could get away with. But she’s never had any trouble with adapting recipes to suit the amount of people, she shops and cooks for herself and manages to do that very well on her weekly allowance, and even has money left to buy cheap things in the sales, and for everything else she has a very good calculator.
When Owen was six his teacher in school told me that sadly, Owen didn’t even understand the basics of maths. Because when she’d shown him a matchbox with four beans in it and asked him how many beans were left after she’d taken two out, he hadn’t been able to come up with the answer. When I asked him later: “How much is four minus two?” he looked at me as if I was daft. “Two, of course.” “Well, why didn’t you say that when teacher asked you about the beans?”
“Mum! Then everybody would have known that teacher can’t do the simplest of sums!”
He too is a one for practical maths, although at times he likes to do the odd workbook. Because he says he wants to do some GCSE’s to be able to go to college, Ken’s been doing some proper sitting down and teaching maths with him. Fifteen minutes a day is the maximum time they can manage without ending up arguing. But on a Kielder day, working in the Birds of Prey Centre, Owen knows exactly how much each individual bird needs to be fed to be on an ideal flying weight (and that’s working with imperial measures, which is fairly new to Owen) and he can work the till without a problem. Ken had been trying to do percentages and fractions with him for nearly two weeks and it just seemed that Owen couldn’t be bothered. But then there was a sales on in the Games Workshop and guess what, Owen saw the percentages and knew exactly what the reduced prices were. How fractions work fell into place when we incorporated in into baking and sharing. And don’t underestimate the amount and the level of maths involved in a game of Lord of the Rings, another of Owens favourite passtimes.
Myrna - who’s never ever gone to school - has inherited Kens love for maths and science, I think. To my great relief the books I bought get used by her, her favourite ones being the workbooks with nothing but sums, where she can do her own correction. And she never cheats. She can also do all kinds of sums in her head. And she thinks about the logic of things. In a very lateral way. The other day I was taking her to singing lessons when she told me she’d discovered that if you take an odd number away from an even number, you always end up with an odd number. And when you add up two odd numbers you always get an even number. But if you add up two even numbers you also get an even number. And so on, and so on.
I stared at her, totally amazed. I’d never thought of that, but I realised it was true. When I asked her where she got that from, she answered: “From my head, of course.” And then it turned out she’d been listening to Ken and Owen working on fractions, because she continued to explain how they worked...
If we carry on like this we might actually get to the stage where maths and I start liking each other.
I mean, nobody said home education is for children only!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Love and Understanding

Just a few thoughts I want to share.
I came across several situations this week that left me wondering why some people have such strong - and strongly outspoken - opinions about matters or people that they actually know very little about.
A very dear friend of mine told me about her former lover with whom she met to try and discuss why things didn’t work out between them. He spent most of the time filling her ears with his opinions, judgments if you like, about her.
A cyberfriend spoke about meeting a childhood friend who clearly disapproved of her home educating and her maybe not so tidy, but oh so lively lifestyle.
People in government seem to think that home educated children need monitoring because heaven knows what would happen to them without big brother watching them.
All too often I hear people express opinions about other people, and you’d think they’ve done extensive research to be able to speak with such authority about people who they think are different from them, because of a different religion, colour, cultural background, income, lifestyle... whatever...

I was trying to work out when and why I myself am judgmental. Hardly ever, of course ;)), but still... every now and then even I show signs of imperfection.
I was thinking it maybe has to do with an inability or unwillingness to understand, and when you don’t understand something, the easiest way of getting on top of it is to classify and disapprove. Anything, as long as you don’t have to admit that you don’t understand.
And then my sister gave me this quote from Leo Tolstoy. I wrote it down, read it over and over again and slowly but surely it sank in. I’m sharing it, hoping that I’m also sharing the feeling of relief and insight that came over me:
All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Silence is golden

I spent today in total silence.
Ken took the children to French, swimming and badminton and I had the house to myself.
I didn’t speak to anybody until they came back just before 7 pm.
Gosh, did I need that!
Yesterday, I was so tired after taking Mum to the airport - and Myrna to choir - that when I eventually got home I had just enough energy to make myself a sandwich. I thought it tasted a bit funny, but I was too tired to be bothered and after eating it I literally collapsed into bed.
Two hours later I woke up from a dreadful nightmare. All the lights were still on and I didn’t know where I was, what day or time it was. All I knew was that I felt terribly ill and I only just made it to the toilet. The mayonaise on my sandwich must have been off, I think.
Ken had still been at his computer and only when he came to help me my sense of reality came back, bit by bit. The rest of the night was restless and I managed to fall into a deep sleep just before the alarm went off.
I was still very shaky, so after Ken and the kids had left I went back to bed to catch up on sleep. When I finally woke up again it was nearly midday and I decided to abandon all original plans of working and tidying up and just do the most essential shopping before taking the dogs for a long walk.
Walking the dogs is as close as I get to meditating nowadays. It was bitterly cold, but with the bright sunshine and a clear sky the view was magnificent and in the distance I could even see the snowy peaks of the Lake District.

I found myself reflecting on the seven days I spent with Mum, processing all the talking we’ve been doing.
When we first took the children out of school Mum wasn’t happy at all. She worried herself sick about what would happen to these poor children, being denied a proper education. How would they cope? How could they possibly make friends? Of course she worried about the court cases and about the threats that were made about the Child Protection taking the children away from us if we didn’t send them to school.
But after a while and lots of talking she started seeing the reasons and the determination behind our decision. She saw how much good it did the children to be out of school and eventhough she still had her doubts, she started to accept it.
When we decided to move to England she was devastated. We broke the news very carefully, but we still broke her heart. Luckily for her it took nearly two years before we’d sold the house and the business. By the time we eventually left she’d more or less come to peace with the idea and even obtained a computer and learned to use it, so she could send and receive emails and photo’s.

Our relationship has changed. Although we only see each other a few times a year, it seems that we get to know each other even better than before. If only because she now actually spends time, days in our house. Where in Holland most of the time we would go to her house and on the rare occasions that she did come to ours, she would hardly ever stay for more than an hour. Now, we sometimes spend that much time on the telephone and there’s a vivid email exchange.

This week we’ve talked a lot about the development of the children over the past four years. Because Mum doesn’t see them very often, she sees the change in them so much better. And even after her first visit here she said she couldn't see anything but benefits from the children being home educated and living in this beautiful place. She’s so impressed with how independent and self-confident they are, how well behaved (!?!), how well adapted to the English way of life and how much they seem to have learned without going to school. And she’s impressed with the amount of friends they have and by the quality of those friendships. She’ll challenge anybody who dares to suggest that home educated children lack social development, saying that in actual fact it’s quite the opposite...
She still misses us, but she’s stopped asking whether there’s a chance of us coming back to Holland. Not only has she accepted our choices, she even agrees with them now.

And although in the end it is of course entirely our decision and our life, it does sort of adds a golden edge to it all when you have Maternal Approval.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Mummy's here

My Mum is over from Holland. Being a bit of a singer herself, she’s come over for Myrna’s performances in the Carlisle Music Festival. And of course to see all of us, because she misses us big time. As we miss her.
Because she doesn’t like to travel alone, AL went over to Holland to pick her up and at the same time arrange her six week work placement in the summer, with the natural horsemanship riding school she used to go to. Eventhough she’s decided not to do the second year of her course she still wants to do this. Then, while she’s there in the summer, she’ll look for work. Her mind is made up now that she doesn’t want to do an other course or study, not here in England, nor in Holland. She’s totally fed up with ‘organised learning’ and much rather learns through working. I think it’s a choice that suits her perfectly and I’m sure she’ll be just fine.

When Mum is here she doesn’t want special treatment or any special trips organised, she just wants to go with the family flow. Well, this week it was a bit of a torrent. Apart from picking Mum and AL from the airport, we had two EO group meetings that we really wanted to go to, the usual French and drama classes, badminton, swimming, archery, an afternoon of cat kennel building and gardening at Mr D’s, Owens birds of prey centre day and LOTR sessions, singing lessons and extra rehearsals for Myrna, long and intense discussions with AL about her plans for the immediate future...

Never a dull moment, indeed. I would have liked to see more of the Music Festival, but there just wasn’t enough time. And besides, both Mum and I were absolutely exhausted at the end of each day, if only from all the chatting... So much catching up to do!

Although we’re quite used to having guests in the house, it effects the daily routine at the best of times. This week it seemed to completely disappear. For Myrna that’s not so much of a problem, but for Owen it can be. I made a genuine effort to keep him on track, but he very cleverly made himself invisible a lot of the time and managed to get away with a whole lot more screentime than we usually allow. The worst day was yesterday - Saturday - when Mum, Ken, Myrna and I went off to the Festival and had to leave Owen and AL home alone...

Normally when we go away for more than an hour I make a list of things for Owen to do, but this time I forgot all about it. So by the time we managed to drag ourselves home he’d had so much computer and television that an explosion was inevitable. After listening to singing in various degrees of loveliness, Owens bellowing was quite a change, though not altogether a welcome one. To avoid Mum having a heart attack I took Owen into our room; once he’s going there’s no stopping him until he’s got it all off his chest. He was so annoyed by AL ‘bossing him around all day’, but he's also slightly scared of her, so he hadn't dared to say anything. She’d probably suggested several times that he’d do something else, possibly not in the most kind and considerate way, and both of them were extremely distressed because they were woken up early - 10 a.m. - by barking and howling dogs and mad cats. Poor, poor children.

Just as well we’d had a lovely day, although I probably was at least as nervous as Myrna. Ken’s Mum had also come on the train from Newcastle to Carlisle and Myrna did wonderfully well, obliging her personal fanclub by obtaining a third, a second and a well deserved first prize! Both Grannies and me were crying our eyes out when she passionately sang “Part of Your World” from the Disney Classic “The Little Mermaid” and I’m sure even Ken’s eyes were red...

Tomorrow Mum’s going back to Holland. I’ll take her back to the airport and I’m sure we’ll be chatting all the way there. We’ll both happily go back to our much quieter homes and our own routines again. And at the same time we’ll miss each other tremendously.

Time to go to bed now, I’m typing with my eyes closed... Hopefully I’ll have more blogging time and energy next week!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Out of tune

Myrna definitely has a musical talent.
Even when she was only a few weeks old she would move her hands to music and we used to say that one day she’d be a famous conductor. When she was four she’d spend a few hours each week with a friend of ours, who taught several musical instruments. There Myrna would play viola da gamba, harpsichord and any other instrument she could lay her hands on. And she would sing.
Our friend told us Myrna had perfect pitch.
A year after we came to England Myrna started singing and recorder lessons with Mrs Y, who after a few lessons confirmed that Myrna was ‘a natural talent’. Under Mrs Y’s excellent guidance Myrna has developed her talents and has sung in several concerts, festivals and even done her first ever exam last year, coming out with nothing but high marks and distinctions.
After passing her exam she said to me: “Mum, I now believe that I can really sing. I mean, you say I can sing, but you’re my mother and you love me. Same goes for dad, granny and my friends. But now the examinor has said it too, so it must be true.”
The good, and in my eyes most important thing is that she genuinely enjoys singing. Last Friday night she was singing solo in a concert in a church and afterwards people came up to her, saying the inevitable: “I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot of you, you’re going to be a famous singer one day.”
But she’ll answer that she doesn’t want to sing for a living, because she likes it too much. And she wouldn’t want to have to do things and sing songs she doesn’t like and go places she doesn’t want to go, just because she’s a singer (she's been watching X-factor and was horrified by what some of the contestants have to go through).
When she thinks about her future, she can see herself teaching singing, breeding cats or starting an animal rescue home and designing clothes for a living, and singing in her spare time. As a hobby.

It’s amazing that she perseveres her singing in our house. Because eventhough Ken and I encourage her all the time and really enjoy listening to her, Owen most certainly doesn’t.
Owen, among many other talents, has Asperger Syndrome. Which means he has extremely (over)sensitive senses, the most developed one being his hearing. When Myrna sings a high note - she is a very powerful soprano - it almost literally hurts him. He shrinks away and has to cover his ears. That’s on a good day. You don’t want to be around on a bad day.
So consequently Myrna only sings when and where he can’t hear her. She now knows and understands what makes him react the way he does, but still, it’s not very nice for her. When Owen is away to Kielder or anywhere else, Myrna practically sings from the moment he leaves the house till the moment he comes back.

Big sister AL has not got any problems with the singing itself, but finds it - in her own words - difficult that everybody always seems to be on about Myrna’s singing, as if she (AL) and the things she does don’t exist or do not matter. She is, she admits, slightly jealous. She’ll only comment on Myrna’s singing when she hears something go wrong or when she doesn’t like a particular song. Not very encouraging.

And then there’s me, Libra mother, trying to explain everybody to everybody, trying to keep the peace and at the same time give each of them the space they so much need.
I find it really difficult that my childrens’ talents aren’t tuned in to each other.
Friday morning, Myrna was nervous about the upcoming concert. She was in the kitchen with me, drawing, and at the same time going over her songs in her head, because she was afraid she’d forget the words.
At the same time Owen and his friend J were playing a game of Lord of the Rings on the kitchen table. Owen was losing big time. And he doesn’t like losing. He was desperately trying to keep his cool, but it wasn’t easy.
Myrna was not aware of this all going on, being very focused on her own things. And at a certain moment she started humming her songs.
I felt the tension building up, but before I could think of a clever way to interfere, Owen slammed his fist on the table and shouted “Shut up!” to Myrna.
Who got the shock of her life and burst out in tears. And then started screaming at him.
Two totally frustrated children. And I was frustrated too, because I’d felt it coming and I just hadn’t been quick enough to prevent it.
I asked Owen and J to take the dogs for a walk and get some fresh air and I sat and talked with Myrna until she’d calmed down and then went through the songs with her. When Owen came back he apologised to Myrna (I'm sure J whispered something is his ear, he's a true friend) and she gracefully accepted.

That night at the concert a few of the orchestra’s violinists were slightly out of tune, to put it mildly. For Myrna that’s sheer torture, but she sat through it bravely, a big sigh of relief when it was finished. She then turned to me and said: “Good thing Owen isn’t here, he’d really go berserk and run out!”
It was one of these moments where I'm aware that, eventhough my children may have conflicting talents, they are so lucky to have each other. If they now learn to accept and live with each other, they will at one moment be ready to cope with the rest of the world!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Eccentricity rules

The score after a long weekend in a youth hostel with a bunch of dedicated home edders, about 50 in total, in age ranging from 8 months to over fifty:
4 wonderful days, 3 very short nights after 3 delightfully relaxing evenings, 3 excellent communally cooked dinners that Jamie Oliver couldn't fault, followed by the most gorgeous puddings one can imagine, 2 nutritious and again communally prepared soups and lunches and 3 breakfasts of a similar standard, various walks to suit various people through various kinds of weather, loads of games played, many books read, countless lovely chats and at least as many deeply serious conversations, one overall laid-back, friendly and accepting atmosphere, no incidents or accidents and the few minor differences that did occur were solved in a way that I would hardly dare call adult, because there are few adults that manage to do it in a similarly sensible and respectful fashion. Of course we all watched the lunar eclipse together and telescopes and knowledge were shared. And then to close it all off with last night, one excellently performed and incredibly humorous pantomime-like play, "The Sleeping Fabulous", created, produced and put on stage by practically all the young ones together.

Whoever says home educated children lack socialising must never have seen more than one home educated child at the same time - if ever they have seen any at all - or they have never taken the trouble to actually look at them with genuine interest and an open mind, i.e. not hindered by conformist thinking.

Because Ken had to leave early to pick Owen up and bring AL and M back to campus, he'd missed that last evening, night and morning. When I got home today I first installed Myrna on the settee to watch tv (she'd slept on the way back and was too tired to do anything else), then listened to Owens stories about his wonderful weekend away. But then it was time to sit down with Ken, fill him in on what happened after he'd left the hostel and do my favourite part of the whole weekend: Discuss everybody who'd been there! That is so much fun! And so educational at the same time.
In the end you can't help but come to the conclusion that we're a rare collection of strong willed individuals (including the children!) who all have our own very outspoken opinions about who we are and what we want out of life. Some of us even look weird! Well, exceptional...
We are all so very different, yet we have one thing in common: We've made the choice to take responsibility for the education of our own children and we go about it in our own, usually pretty well thought out way. For most of us this means that we've adjusted our life style, our income and everything to what we strongly believe in: Our children deserve the right to develop their talents in a way that is maximally suited to their individual needs.

To a lot of people that makes us eccentric. And when eccentric means: having the courage and the ability to think outside the box, having your own well-formed opinion about what you feel is best for you and your family and living by it and making conscious choices, then I don't mind being called eccentric. I'll even consider it an honorary title.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Moonlight brainwash

I've just come back from a refreshing walk with the dogs. Soaking wet I am. Usually Ken walks the dogs at night, but he's already in the Youth Hostel where this weekend we meet up with a lot of other HE-ers for some good old socialising. This time it took us some extra planning and organising in the logistics department, because Owen was offered the chance to play in a Lord of the Rings tournament in Glasgow and although we'd already booked him for the YHA weekend, it was too good an opportunity to miss for him. Would you have told me three or four years ago that I'd happily let him go off to stay with his friend for a couple of days and even go to Glasgow while I was going the other way at that same time, I probably would not have believed you. But he's doing it and both he and I are absolutely comfortable with it.
Ken left around midday in the van, to pick up the food for the weekend. Myrna went with him to collect one of her friends, who is now coming with us instead of Owen. And I went to pick up AL and her friend M from campus, because they're looking after house, dogs and cats while we're away. I didn't fancy driving to campus first - 1,5 hour there and back - and then nearly two hours to the Youth Hostel, so I'm staying at home tonight and leaving early in the morning.

I wouldn't go out in the middle of the night in the pouring rain if I had a choice, but I didn't have that choice, so I put my rainproofs on, stuck that silly but o so useful headlight on, woke the dogs and took the plunge. And once I was outside - and wet - I must admit I enjoyed it. It's nearly a full moon and I just love walking in the magical moonlight. The world just looks and feels completely different. It is so quiet up here, there's not a sound to be heard apart from the occasional tawny. And at night cars are even more scarce than by day, so I let both dogs off the lead - please don't tell our gamekeeper! - and we just walked and walked.
I felt the tension in my body get less with every step I took and I realised I should really do this more often. Because if I hadn't gone for this walk I wouldn't even have noticed how tense I was.
With every deep breath of fresh air I felt my head get clearer and my thoughts less tangled up.

I realised one of the reasons I was tense was that I was mentally preparing for this weekend. I've become a bit of a hermit since we moved here and two or three nights in a very full Youth Hostel is a big thing for me nowadays. At the same time I am so looking forward to seeing people that I haven't seen for a while, catching up, chatting, chilling out, while the kids have a great time. There's never a set programme for these weekends, although usually someone organises an interesting outing, the kids put together a play or a pantomime or a puppet show or sometimes even a musical, we go for long and short walks, and of course there's the communal cooking and eating. I suppose it's the sheer number of people and the sound they produce that I struggle with and which costs me a lot of energy.
But the moonlight seems to have charged my batteries and of course I do not have to get involved in everything. I can just withdraw to our room or go for a walk if I want to have some time and space to myself. I'm sure I'll be allright.

I was also tense because the talk with AL's tutor didn't go at all as I'd prepared it. It was brief and business-like and I felt she had her mind made up about AL and about me too, for that matter. I felt myself make a more or less desperate attempt to actually talk about the individual AL, but I simply failed to create a proper communication. The good thing is that I could just let that happen and think: Don't get all worked up about this, it's not worth your energy trying to convince this woman of anything that differs from her own opinion. Let's just do our best to support AL as good as we can to get through the remaining four months so that she gets her certificate. I'm sure it's not going to be easy for her, but she'll feel so good about finishing the year, it'll be worth it.

Although I'm quite exhausted now, I don't have the overloaded brain that I usually have at the end of a full day with lots of 'screen-time'. It feels as if the moon and the rain have washed away the heaviness. I'm ready for the weekend.