Learning Disabilities and Homeschool

I have not been in contact with my family in several years, and my siblings have attended some charter school and community college. I can only speak to my personal experience, not to what has happened in my siblings’ education since cutting contact.

My parents had a religious and political agenda in homeschooling my siblings and me. They were not capable of teaching a full range of subjects through 12 grades to 16 kids. To believe this is possible takes a great deal of ignorance and arrogance, and this fueled their approach to how they taught us. While these elements contributed to my ignorance as I entered adulthood, I was also limited by learning disabilities that were overlooked and undetected by my parents. I was told that I was excelling when I was never being tested. Homeschool Christian speech and debate competition supposedly held significant weight in my academic and professional success.

When I started college, it was not only my lack of basic education that held me back. I had severe anxiety and was struggling to focus, study, and learn. Several distinct symptoms indicate that I am neurodivergent. This means, among many things, that I struggle to learn at the same pace and in the same way as neurotypical people. I have been trying for years to teach myself what I missed growing up, but my retention of information is poor. I’m either highly distracted or hyper-focused on creating. It is difficult if not impossible for me to force myself to focus or pay attention, even to do something simple like watch a movie.

While I was a distracted student throughout my childhood, it was treated as a behavior problem if it was noticed at all. Mostly it went unnoticed, because my only standard of success was whether I had trophies from memorizing passages from the bible or performing in speech and debate. I didn’t take tests or receive informed instruction beyond the simplified children’s propaganda published by Christian conservative homeschool publishers. My symptoms of fidgeting or struggling to sit still were punished when I was very young so that I would sit still in church. Beyond this, I was often reprimanded for being forgetful of the many things I had to keep track of in caring for my younger siblings. Overall, my symptoms were not recognized as ones that could hinder my learning, just my own failures to shoulder the responsibilities I was given.

There is also significant stigma against acknowledging and properly treating mental illness in the evangelical Christian world. In some instances, it is seen as a spiritual problem to be addressed with prayer. In others, it is seen as behavior to be corrected with negative reinforcement. Rarely is a child given adequate treatment to address the underlying cause of the symptoms in this environment. There was nothing to indicate whether I was doing well or not, because homeschooling meant my parents could teach in whatever way they wished. They could declare me an educational success because they said so.

Year after year, my parents would teach us kids the same basic things. Year after year, most of the kids would fail to learn these basics, because there was no structure, no testing, and no informed instruction. We went through at least three different reading curricula before one of them finally clicked, which left my younger siblings very confused about how to read, write, and spell. I was often tasked with helping to teach them how to read when I should have been learning more advanced things myself.

In 2014, when I started blogging about my parents’ abuse, I gave another example of neurodivergence in my family. This is because I had still not recognized that I had learning struggles of my own. I was vague and didn’t specify which sibling or identify their gender when I brought this up. I wrote the following in my post “Of course it wasn’t all bad”:

“Another one of my siblings is severely dyslexic, and thinks it’s their own fault they didn’t work harder to learn to read by themselves. After all, I was a fast learner and I picked up on reading quickly, surely all the other kids will pick it up by themselves. My parents didn’t discover that sibling’s dyslexia until that sibling was fourteen.”

During 2020, my dad had the entire draft of his book about me up on his blog, but it has since been removed. I have the screenshots and text saved from when it was online. In response to what I wrote above, he twisted my statement to make it sound like I was attacking and teasing my sibling, or blaming my parents for something they couldn’t control:  

“My second-born son, just a year younger than my first and nearly an adult, was most devastated. He had a strong story of overcoming severe dyslexia and going on to winning national speech tournaments. He’s quite a success story, but his sisters hijacked his story to accuse us of “educational abuse,” making his dyslexia somehow our failure as parents. He hated the misrepresentation and attempted to enter the online frenzy to set things straight. He was teased by his sisters, especially when he would misspell words, and the online community claimed such misspellings as evidence of our “educational abuse,” not his dyslexia.”

In my dad’s own words, the emphasis on speech and debate success is apparent. I wasn’t saying that the dyslexia itself was my parent’s mistake, but their failure to notice it until he was well into his teens was. This sibling is not the only one in the family who struggles with spelling and grammar – we all did, including me. I may write for a living, but that doesn’t make my writing academic or grammatically excellent by any means. I just write about what happened, and I know now that I have learning disabilities of my own that were overlooked because my education was inadequate.

I am an Ignorant Adult

I was severely unprepared for adulthood in every way. I had been indoctrinated to view the entire world through a religious lens. This meant that I thought the world was small. I lacked (and still lack) the professional and social skills needed to attain and maintain gainful employment. I also lack the skills needed to learn in a formal educational setting, as my abysmal college GPA shows. It’s been ten years since I took the SAT and “finished high school,” just before I turned 19. I never got a diploma and I wrote my own transcript, but I had a graduation party and my parents made a speech about how proud they were of my accomplishments. I would remain at home with my parents for another two years while struggling with higher education.

The only things I learned at home revolved around my assigned role as a daughter and future wife under the Quiverfull patriarchal movement. That is, I learned how to change a lot of diapers, wash a lot of dishes and laundry, and supervise a lot of children. My work experience was in the family business, so I knew a very specific niche (curriculum for homeschool Christian speech and debate competition), but it failed to give me adequate skills to qualify for other jobs.

My parents didn’t care whether the children assigned a daughter role went to college. I wanted to be a journalist, but my closest sibling had no interest in college at all. The first classrooms I sat in for a full semester were in college. I didn’t know how to study, and didn’t have time to study anyway because of my responsibilities at home. I was used to trying to study with a child sitting in my lap and five more piled on my bed. I didn’t know what a scantron was, and I didn’t know the answers from my attempts to learn. I dropped out because I knew better than to keep trying to win a game I couldn’t figure out how to play.

Socially, I was praised as a child for being able to converse so well with adults. I was considered “wise beyond my years” and knew better how to talk to adults than to kids my own age. I miss social cues every day. Jokes and trivia go right over my head, along with common knowledge about history and geography. I often find myself missing whole chunks of conversations with my peers because I don’t understand what everyone else is talking about. I have accepted that this is a normal experience for me because it’s better than singling myself out by asking. Not only was I deprived of a normal education, but I missed most of the entertainment of the 90s and 2000s, because most things including television weren’t allowed. Some things were considered too secular, others too satanic. As the years passed and my parents had more and more kids, they relaxed a little and let the kids watch movies throughout the day.

My professional track record is a mess. My only desk job was one I got through my parents as a reference, and I was lucky to keep it after I blogged about my parents’ abuse. After that, I realized that what I’d learned had not given me what I needed to stay in the white-collar workforce. I knew how to watch kids and keep a home, so I became a nanny and then a summer camp counselor. After that I washed dishes in a restaurant, then worked as a deli clerk at a grocery store. I was a line cook after that, then I worked at a call center. Between 2019 and 2020 I went back to a grocery store deli, and I’ve been working for myself thanks to Patreon since March 2020. I don’t know how I would attain meaningful income otherwise.

I believed that things were not as they are. I thought I was supposed to demonstrate god’s goodness to the people I encountered. Worse, I thought I was succeeding in doing so. I saw myself as a prophet, someone who was chosen to do the work of god. I fully trusted that my parents had expertly prepared me for this purpose. I was wrong about everything I thought I knew. This ignorance made me believe I was informed when I wasn’t. It went along with naivete and bigotry.

All of this hardly scratches the surface of how significantly my life was impacted. I am so many years behind my peers, and while I can patch my education in ways, I can’t get those years back. I spent my school years doing my parents’ work for them. I worked at home and for the family business. My childhood was exploited for labor instead of cultivated for learning. The result is that all I can do to get by is keep unpacking what I went through in my writing. I am ignorant about everything except the oddity of my own experience.

Homeschooling as Indoctrination

The prevailing myth surrounding homeschooling is that it is a superior form of education. The problem is that homeschooling is such a broad and vague categorization. A wide variety of experiences exist. Furthermore, it is difficult to objectively judge one’s own quality of education. I know because when I first “graduated,” I believed that I had received a better education than my peers. The truth was that I had been indoctrinated with propaganda to interpret everything in the world through a lens of fundamentalist teachings. Part of what I had to believe was that I was highly informed and educated, and the rest of the world was in fact being misinformed and indoctrinated to believe in falsehoods, like evolution.

Homeschooling is as unique as any family might be who uses the term to identify their educational style, or lack thereof. For some, it indicates specialized emphasis with the help of teachers or tutors to thoroughly educate the children. For others, it swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes referred to as “unschooling,” that is, nothing resembling schooling happens at all. For me, schooling meant religious indoctrination, pro-US propaganda, and competitive speaking to defend what I’d been taught.

From early childhood, what I had to learn was centered around religious beliefs. I memorized verses from the bible before I could read, learning that Jesus had died for me because I was sinful. Every time we “did school,” bible study and prayer was prioritized, sometimes after singing some worship songs and pledging allegiance to the American and AWANA flags. Most of our curricula was written and published by Christians, so even seemingly unrelated subjects used biblically based examples. Everything I knew about the world was interpreted through a religious lens – science existed to magnify the creation of god, and the course of history had the clear influence of providence.

My mom’s idea of teaching us history was to read historical fiction aloud to us according to the time of year. For instance, we spent every November listening to her read a book called “Stories of the Pilgrims” by Margaret Pumphrey from Christian Liberty Press. This book followed children whose families were being persecuted for their secret church services in a time of hostility to true Christianity. It followed their daring escapes to Holland and then the new world. From there, it told how several indigenous people including Squanto helped them survive. There was a good deal of miserable talk about the harsh conditions that led to many white deaths, but none about the impact colonization has had on the indigenous people of this continent. While there’s nothing wrong with thematic reading, it’s not a substitute for actual history, and there was none. The only history textbook I remember was for third grade, and it was called “Our American Heritage,” published by Abeka. It had short descriptions of famous American founders from a Christian perspective.

Science was a subject that was the same every year. We learned about our bodies and about the world as creations of god. We would color in simple pictures of the body parts with crayons while Mom read from a book called “More About My Magnificent Machine” by William L. Coleman. Google describes this book as “an explanation of basic human physiology interspersed with Biblical references and related religious thoughts and prayers.”

For me, high school was focused around speech and debate competition. I have so much to say about how debate was used as a tool of reinforcing indoctrination, I’m saving it for multiple chapters on the subject in my book. In short, conservative Christian homeschool speech and debate has specific parameters defined by a political and religious viewpoint. Our parents had disagreements among the many denominations they adhered to, but they could all agree that abortion was inappropriate to bring up in a debate round. They say their children are “learning how to argue both sides” through debate, which is perfectly logical if you believe that there are no two sides to abortion. There was only the fact that it is wrong, and therefore bringing it up in a debate round is unfair to the opponent. I was also told that I was making friendships that would last a lifetime with the other homeschooled kids who were my competitive rivals. For that matter, my only friends were the children of my parents’ friends, the ones who shared their ideals about family and homeschooling.

The result of my education was that I was prepared to approach my college campus as an evangelist. I wanted to “reach out” to the secular world with the message of Jesus. I joined demonstrators opposing abortion. I campaigned for republicans and worked undercover to try and catch democrats and LGBTAIQ allies in acts of corruption. I thought I was a prophet with a mission from god himself. All these delusions were carefully sown and tended and protected from the invasion of alternative perspectives.

It would take years to get through to me that reality was not what I had been told to believe it was. I was influenced by the people I encountered who were LGBTAIQ and who didn’t share my religion. I fought to hold onto all I’d been taught, slowly losing my grip with each thoughtful conversation these people patiently had with me. Questioning everything took time, but the foundations of the system I was raised to defend crumbled under scrutiny.

My Homeschool Transcript

I was taught primarily for religious and political purposes, not to prepare me for independence in adulthood. My high school transcript, and the fact that I wrote it myself, demonstrates how little I was taught. For me, being homeschooled meant that my access to information was severely limited by what my parents thought was true. It meant that I was expected to teach my younger siblings at times. It meant such ignorance that I could not identify the subjects I had and hadn’t been taught. There was nothing to measure my knowledge against but my only teachers, my parents. They believed they could teach their children everything they would need to know, which is an arrogant thing for any one or two people to assume. The result is that I entered adulthood with incredible ignorance, naivete, and bigotry.

I’ll talk more about the years leading up to high school in another post, because I want to focus on what I learned as a teen as I discuss the transcript below. In short, we learned a great deal of religious and politically conservative propaganda. Once I got to high school age, I started Saxon math books and competing in speech and debate. Math was a textbook with the answer book so I could check my own progress and teach myself. The only measure of success my parents seemed to care about was whether my siblings and I did well in speech and debate competition. Because of this emphasis, our education was warped to form around an extra-curricular activity. There was no foundation in core subjects like math, science, and real language skills. For this reason, my siblings and I struggled to compete against other homeschooled teens in an informed way. Debate was full of big words we didn’t understand and often couldn’t pronounce, and speech was a time to be as performative and we could possibly be.

Below is the actual high school transcript that I designed and wrote myself based on a template I found on Google, and asked my parents to sign. The first thing to note is that I had never been graded on anything, and knew only that I needed to be realistic while getting as close to a 4.0 score as possible. When I presented it to my dad, he asked why I hadn’t put down 4.0 in everything, and I said it didn’t seem realistic to me. I knew I hadn’t taught myself math very well, though I’d tried to work my way to the answers on my own. Every grade is not even a guess, but a blatant lie, because I never had grades. I just needed to write something that looked like I had.

The subjects themselves are odd: I list bible, debate, sewing, piano, and hunter’s safety for my first year. I also listed my debate resolutions as subjects: immigration policy, environmental policy, philosophy, and foreign policy. What I counted as “biology” and “chemistry” were religious devotionals about the human body, butchering animals on occasion for meat, and cooking.

Piano was taught by a homeschool mom, and I never got rhythm or sheet reading down after several years of lessons. Physical education was a Christian group that got together weekly to play simple games in groups, like dodgeball. Business was an important subject to include because I was learning about it through working for the family business. “Current events” was code for a speech event called extemporaneous speaking. This involved limited time to prepare a speech about events in the news. Apologetics was in the same “limited prep” category of speeches, but instead of the news, it was about theological questions. I read a lot, so I figured that counted as studying literature.

In my junior year, I wrote that I did a “publishing internship.” This meant that my dad decided to demote me from a paid position in the family business to an unpaid intern. That summer, several other high school students became unpaid interns, too, and my dad’s reasoning for demoting my sister and me was “so my kids don’t get special treatment.” I also wrote in my senior year that I had been a volunteer child counselor, which meant that I’d worked briefly at a Christian day camp in the summer to help children with performing tricks while riding horses.

Ultimately, what I was learning was how to be overwhelmed with too many responsibilities around the house. I worked for my dad and my mom, who each had to-do lists for me. I wrote this transcript to try and show that I had done schoolwork I hadn’t done. Most of my work was spent looking after the family and family business. So it was that I got into college making a poor case for my k-12 education. Once in college, I failed in many ways because my education had been inadequate. It would take several more years for me to gain the experience necessary to look back on my education with some perspective.

What I know now, looking back, is that I shouldn’t have had to write my own transcript at all. This shows how hands-off my parents were about my education, expecting me to figure it out myself. I didn’t figure it out, I ended up being underinformed about the world and frustrated with myself for not being autodidactic. I still don’t know what a normal transcript should look like, or what I might have learned if I was taught real scientific subjects. Instead…I know a lot of bible verses I wish I could forget.

Avoidant Writing

I write stream-of-consciousness rants on a blog. These pieces aren’t really essays, and they certainly aren’t academic or journalistic in nature. I try to do research, but I don’t know how credible my essays are, and therefore how convincing my conclusions are. If there is any consistency in my work, it’s that I try to talk about “big subjects,” but I do it haphazardly. I am not an expert on economics or climate science. I worry a great deal about things I don’t understand. In short, I haven’t been taking some very basic writing advice: write what you know.

I am desperate to communicate, failing at every turn to get out what I want to express. I am committed to working. I don’t self-entertain, I never did as a child because it was trained out of me. I write, I do housework, I keep everyone fed. It doesn’t seem like a lot of work to me because my housework load has been so heavy in the past. If I dedicated all my time to focusing on finishing my book, I think my mental health would decline even further. I’m not okay with my thoughts. I don’t like reflecting on them, yet I gravitate to writing in the early morning, I write with an insatiable desire to just type, type, type, whatever it is that comes into my head. The really painful thing is reviewing what I have written.

Perfectionists never measure up to our own standards. I am tasked with improving my craft as a writer with the best tactics I can learn. I want to, but my motivation is also a deep drive I can’t describe except to other people who can’t stop creating. While I have impossible standards for myself, I also have no way to gauge the difference between what’s perfect and what’s just okay. I expect greatness from my book, and therefore put a lot of weight into every piece that actually makes it into my draft. I would say that over the past seven years, I’ve put about 5% of what I’ve written into the book draft. I’m going to turn 30 before I finish it, which scares me, honestly, but it’s just a fuck ton to explain.

The beginning has been moved and rewritten so many times because I don’t know where to begin. Right now I’m working on a beginning where I recount everything I can remember about the births. It’s been weeks of work, adding bits at a time and recounting the stories aloud, constantly triggered by the vivid images I’m recollecting as I write. Even this post has taken many days of work, many attempts, and I finally pieced the beginning together from several entries before I could write. It seems clunky because it is.

A massive obstacle to writing directly about my experiences is my mental health. I have PTSD from what I’m trying to dig up every day. I don’t think I want to know how many people with PTSD have tried, and how many have failed or succeeded, at trying to write a memoir about the things that gave them PTSD. This makes every writing session gratingly painful, distracted, dissociative, and grief-stricken. I tend to put on music that pulls at my emotions as I write, because it helps to recognize that I can feel my emotions about these things. I couldn’t express my feelings at the time, but I can now as an adult.

I have been writing about what I don’t know because the vagueness of injustice and inequality has been easier to discuss than my own trauma. This is a way of keeping my defenses up. It’s also a way of minimizing my own experience. I still have a warped sense of self-importance in the world, thinking my writing can influence a reversal in the trajectory of human history as it happens. I am learning that I am one small human, and perhaps I can’t save the world, or anyone at all. I can only offer some words about what I have observed, and maybe it will offer something worthwhile to those who read it. I can only do that if I talk about what I know.