30 @ 30: questions of identity [#1]

Glen Nevis, Inverness-shire, Scotland (May 2004)
When I was seventeen I enrolled in a college writing course the title of which was Questions of Identity. It was a required course intended to teach incoming first-year students what was expected of in terms of written work during their college years, but each faculty member was allowed a fair amount of autonomy in terms of content. My professor (for whom I harbored a major schoolgirl crush) framed it in terms of memoir. We read Annie Dillard's An American Childhood and Tobias Wolf's This Boy's Life (I still remember the bit about the beaver in the attic). We read creative nonfiction essays about everything from the Holocaust to Italian cookery. We wrote autobiographical essays.

I loved it so much, I turned around and took another class from the same professor the following semester, where I wrote more memoir, and the semester after that as well.

What strikes me, looking back on the content of those essays is what the subjects of those papers reveal about my primary question(s) of identity. They were not questions of sex or gender, of religion or race ... though I'm sure one could find markers of these aspects of identity throughout, they were not the categories I was then thinking in. I was simultaneously taking Christian Feminism and Feminist Theology, so sex and gender, sexual orientation and religion were very much on the table ... but not what preoccupied me when it came to identity. I already took for granted being a feminist; sexual orientation was puzzling but not a burning concern. By 1998 I'd pretty much given up on the church, though I found theology a powerful language with which to discuss human rights and justice.

I didn't choose these subjects to write about in English class. What I chose to write about, primarily, was friendship, family, and my experience with home education. Looking back, I would argue that these essays all implicitly explore how the experience of home education helped shape the nature of my closest relationships. As a teenager, I was working hard to establish relationships outside my primary kinship network (which I planned to maintain, but was ready to expand beyond). And I wasn't particularly sure how -- or, more particularly, how to do it well.

Two of my major papers during that academic year hinged on an examination of intense friendships -- one a intimate childhood friendship that had ended painfully, another a portrait of a young man I had worked with the summer before and felt both attraction toward and irritation over. The following autumn brought a third paper that was a profile of my then-closest friend, a young man with whom I carried on a passionate correspondence (yes, these were the days when pen-pals actually used pens). I also authored two papers specifically about the history of home education -- my own family's experience and the broader movement -- as well as pieces about my childhood family life and one paper for which I shadowed a friend who attended the local Christian high school.

Home education played a central role in all three friendship essays. The childhood friendship (looking back I would argue this was my first romantic female friendship) was with a girl from another family that home educated and our two families were extremely close until I was in my early teens. I made connections with my pen-friend (still a good friend today) through a long-distance homeschool writing group, and the man for whom I harbored complicated love-hate feelings was a grown homeschooler. Part of the attraction I had for him was the seduction of being close to someone seven years older than I who was an adult, but had had a (superficially) similar childhood experience to mine. While I didn't necessarily conceptualize it this way at the time, looking back I would argue that part of the work these papers were doing was helping me to understand  how central my experience as a homeschooler had been to my childhood, and how central it would continue to be as I moved into adulthood. Would it color the relationships I formed? Would it be easier for me to form bonds with people who, like me, had grown up outside of institutional education? Would the experience of college alter my identity as a homeschooler, and if so what would that mean? What was my relationship as an individual to the larger (and wildly heterogeneous) community of other home-schooled people? To what extent did being a home-educated person make me "weird" or cause communication or cultural translation problems with my fellow students at college and the faculty under whom I studied? How would I be able to move into a culture (college) where I was no longer surrounded by like-minded individuals (fellow homeschoolers) and still retain those aspects of my identity that I felt were important?

When I was a young child my mother once asked me how many children  I thought were homeschooled like us. "Oh, about half," I told her, after a moments consideration. This was an accurate reflection of the proportion of people we interacted with regularly who were home-educated or in more traditional situations. In other words, as a young child I assumed that my experience was normal. As I grew older and faced the skepticism and suspicion and saw friends approaching learning in radically different ways from my own family, I came to understand that our family's choices were very different from those of the dominant culture. I realized that home education was something that marked me as an outsider. Those things that we feel mark us as different (from the implicit norm) are a more conscious part of our identity than those things that seem normal.

By the time I was seventeen, home education had become a self-conscious part of my identity, but also one that was precarious as I moved into college coursework. It became a project to understand what, exactly, that part of my identity meant to who I was as a whole person, and what it meant in terms of my relationship to others.

In some ways, this exploration is still ongoing. I don't think it is a mistake that Hanna is also a grown homeschooler: in some ways our experiences were quite different, but nonetheless it is a part of our growing up that neither of us has to explain to the other, or defend to the other as an insider speaking to an outsider. While I've had close friendships over the years with people who never homeschooled, I continue to feel a particular kinship with those who have. And, as the subject of my Master's thesis shows, my consideration of educational alternatives has continued to be central to my identity as a thinker and academic.

At the same time, the anxiety that attended my written exploration of my education and its connection to my intimate relationship bonds has abated considerably. I still think about how my growing up has shaped the person I've become (a lot!), but then I think a lot about most things in my life. It's just the way I work. I still have a special place in my heart for home-based education, and feel that spark of automatic affiliation with folks who are homeschooled or homeschooling. Yet it isn't so present in my life as it once was. At seventeen, it would have been one of the primary ways I introduced myself to others; now, new acquaintances often know me for months or years before, depending on the conversations we have, the topic arises. At seventeen, I likely would have felt unable to be known to others if home education remained undiscussed. At thirty, I am more relaxed about letting my personal history weave itself in to present-day narratives in its own time.

Recently, I've been thinking about what it would be like to mentor younger folks in the home education community; and I still have that oral history project with grown homeschoolers I'd love to complete! We'll see in the next thirty, sixty, or ninety years how much it continues to play a role in my life.

You can read more about my reflections about home education in this interview I gave over at I'm Unschooled. Yes, I can Write.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this, Anna. I feel much the same, though home schooling always took second place to my religious identity, where both being Mormon and then NOT being Mormon felt like the most important thing about me (with homeschooling and my sexual orientation close behind). But today I'm realizing none of those things are that important to how I define myself. I think of myself much more now in terms of my creative projects, which actually feels great, a lot like childhood again before I was really aware what being Mormon, home schooled and gay meant.