A Lifelong Journey: Twenty Years of Homeschooling
My involvement with homeschooling is a 42 year journey that began long before I ever heard of John Holt. It began when the man whom I called father, an American soldier that married my mother, adopted me and brought us to the United States in 1956. From our stay in Augusta, Georgia, to Fairbanks, Alaska, and finally to Maryland were he was to retire from the service, my father practiced what John Holt would later call "invitational learning." Wherever he would go my father never failed to invite me to come along and participate: selling insurance to families in Georgia, panning for gold in Alaska, or working a paper route in Washington DC.
My father always read the paper and would share with me his thoughts about what he had read. We would have discussions about many things ranging from Greek history to whatever was the hot issue of that day. In today's jargon he would be called a life-long learner. If you met him you might have assumed he had a college education, but he never made it past sixth grade.
It was my mother who provided a different learning model, however. Whereas my father showed me the intellectual side of learning; my mother illustrated the practical side. Growing up in Germany, she survived two world wars and a difficult home life. Her experiences range from tossing unexploded incendiary bombs out of windows during World War II to being the most valued worker in an electronics plant in Washington DC thirty years later. To feed her family during the end of the war she carried heavy loads of precious food from a relative's farm over a hundred miles on foot. She was strafed by fighter planes, and once blown out of the windows of a building during a bombing raid. She learned to fire anti-tank missiles at 34 and drive a car at 62. She has held jobs ranging from painting tanks and making gas masks to working with pharmaceuticals and assembling electronics. Although my mother's formal education ended with a couple of years of trade school in Germany, she has had to learn many new and different things all her life and is a living model for the success of a hands-on philosophy of learning. Her can-do attitude is an important component of my attitude toward life and learning.
During the 60's I became interested in education after reading Summerhill by A.S. Neill. This book pushed me into a teaching career working in the public schools where I hoped to "change the system." Twenty nine years later I know better. In 1978 I discovered an article by John Holt about homeschooling and my life was never to be the same again.
One chilly February Saturday afternoon in 1979 three families interested in homeschooling met at my home in Columbia. None of us had school age children, but we had a vision&endash;&endash;to educate our children at home. By 1980 I organized the Maryland Home Education Association and our membership grew steadily as our existence began to spread by word of mouth and through my speaking at a La Leche League conference.
Things began to heat up in the fall of 1981 when Reverend Offer, a local minister, wanted to create his own home academy and found that the press was stacked heavily against him. MHEA went public that year when I decided to responded to a sarcastic article written in the Washington Post that ridiculed Reverend Offer's efforts to create a place where his children could learn free from the negative influences of school. My letter in support of his homeschooling effort was published and the media "discovered" homeschooling and calls from assorted reporters began to trickle in. When MHEA threw its support a year later behind Ellen Andriolo, a homeschooler in Harford county who was resisting efforts by her school system to cower her into submission and return her children to school, homeschooling began to get a wider and more supportive coverage. It was at this time the press discovered that I was a public school teacher which caused increasing attention to be focused upon MHEA and my role in it.
In 1984 the Anne Arundel County Public Schools decided that they would end this homeschooling nonsense once and for all. Kathleen Miller, a homeschooler living in Anne Arundel county, had been homeschooling successfully using Calvert for more than a year when school officials chose to ignore her obvious success and take her to court for truancy. MHEA organized the legal defense. We were immensely fortunate to have homeschooler Ray Fidler as the Millers' lawyer. The trial lasted two days, and the defense team overwhelmed the prosecution. The trial proved that Mrs. Miller was in full compliance of the law and that anyone could homeschool in Maryland so long as they provided regular and thorough instruction to their children. This trial created a lot of media coverage and I found myself interviewed on radio and television. Suddenly the whole world saw and heard about Manfred Smith, the public school teacher who was advocating teaching children at home! The Miller trial was over, but I was to face a "trial" of my own the following Monday.
All my life I've been a risk taker and have engaged in individual acts of courage of which I am proud. While in high school I broke up an emerging nazi group. I was on the receiving end of riot police eager to use their clubs during the 60's peace movement. I have confronted obnoxious customers bullying salespeople in food stores. Returning to my job as a teacher following the Miller trial with all its media attention, however, was my most difficult challenge.
Clusters of teachers gathered in the hallways ceased talking and stared after me as I walked by. No one spoke to me about the news, but it was obvious that everyone knew. Although no one appeared hostile, the peer pressure of disapproval was palatable. I swallowed down a rising panic and forced myself to keep walking. This was not some demonstration where a whole lot of folks were there to support each other. I was alone, and I felt fear deep in the pit of my stomach. One step at a time I found my way to my classroom &endash; I had survived.
Eventually my colleagues and administrators began to question me about what I was doing, and I discovered that although many simply wrote the entire event off to another crazy Manfred thing, there was a small number who supported my homeschooling stance. Most of my colleagues support homeschooling today and teachers or former teachers make up a significant percentage of homeschoolers nationwide. But back in 1984 I was considered a traitor and believed I might be fired for my seditious acts. When doom did not befall me the next few weeks, I decided that my best protection was public exposure and I accepted every offer to appear on television, radio and in the press. My "unique" position as a public school teacher and the head of MHEA created a continuous stream of media exposure for homeschooling over the years which got the word out to a wide audience and helped to accelerate acceptance of homeschooling by the public.
The Miller trial was only the first round of a larger battle that would cover more than three years. In the fall of the same year, the Maryland Board of Education decided to promulgate a series of very restrictive homeschooling regulations designed to prevent most parents from homeschooling. We organized letter writing campaigns, spoke at the various public hearings, pursued the topic through the media, and so forth. The Board acted as though homeschoolers did not exist and passed their regulations. The result was more homeschoolers than ever! Repression simply caused people to be even more obstinate. People were homeschooling and not notifying anyone. Every so often some school would threaten a homeschooler somewhere and we'd have Ray Fidler contact the prosecutor and remind them of the Miller case and the wording of the law and that usually would do it.
As the number of homeschoolers increased, so did the hassle from the schools and in 1985 I met with Ellen Foster, a homeschooler working with the Family Protection Lobby in Annapolis, who wanted to introduce homeschooling legislation. After some negotiation, I pushed for drafting a radical piece of legislation that said simply that parents have the right to homeschool without any restrictions. Ann Arundel delegate John Gary supported our bid and introduced the legislation to his committee. Of course no piece of legislation would ever make it though the legislature intact (which is why I proposed such a stark piece of legislation) and after some weeks of testimony, lobbying, and mounting pressure from various supporters like the private Christian schools and the tireless efforts of Peggy Gianesin, the homeschooler who had experienced extensive abuse at the hands of Calvert school officials and could address every objection any legislator had, a modified (read: compromised) bill sailed through the House. In the Senate negotiations with the State Board of Education caused the bill to fail&endash;&endash;with a promise to the legislature that the Board would create new regulations that included input from homeschoolers.
So in the fall of 1986 Ray Fidler, Peggy Gianesin and I attended a meeting with the State Superintendent of Schools where we were able to come to an understanding regarding rights of parents to homeschool, the various philosophical approaches to homeschooling, the need for uniform regulations and the promise that no school district could change or add anything to these new regulations.
I worked very closely with the State Board of Education over the next few months making sure that the rights of homeschoolers were protected. Other interests, such as the Calvert School, were also involved in the creation of the regulations, and by early 1987 we hammered out the text of the regulations that we all homeschool under today. These regulations offered homeschoolers choices that did not exist before. Parents who a few months earlier were hiding from the schools, now had a number of different options from which to choose from. They could be reviewed by the schools, enroll with one of the approved correspondence courses or enroll in a satellite school and be out from under state supervision all together. These changes effected me personally when I was instrumental in helping to create The Learning Community's Independent Learner Program for the Community Inc., a non-denominational religious organization. TLC is a registered private school in Maryland offering educational services to homeschoolers. Our program is in its twelfth year now, and we are unique in that our mission supports a totally individualized educational program for our learners. TLC serves families nationwide and in a number of foreign countries.
MHEA will be celebrating its 20th anniversary on April 1, 2000. We field an increasing number of calls and letters from people looking for alternatives to school. We help people network, publish a newsletter, organize yearly conferences, provide a co-op book buying service, monitor the state for any pending legislation that may affect homeschoolers, and lots more.
I am proud to have had the opportunity to help homeschooling grow from its infancy to a movement involving over one million people nation wide. I have learned an awful lot about how children learn, and what kind of effort it takes to create the conditions that will allow them to learn in ways that are unique and effective. I have also learned that as parents we must stay involved with our children, that we need to offer them guidance, that we simply can't buy into any "program" whether "unschooling" or otherwise and think that the rest will take care of itself. Homeschooling is a family affair. It's got to work for everyone or it's not going to work.
I have also learned that it is never too late, that we can and must change our direction, approach or beliefs if they are not serving us well, and that we must always remember to hug our children and tell them how much we love them, no matter how old they may be. And I have learned that they are never too old to appreciate being hugged and hearing that they are loved.
Jeanne and I have been married over 29 years and we are blessed with three wonderful children all of whom we homeschool. Jamie, 22, has been married almost two years, and works for the Baltimore Sun as their Howard County education reporter. Jesse, 18, is our computer expert. He's the one who can figure out anything that ails our equipment. He's very interested in graphic arts, and creates wonderful art work both in and out of a computer. Darcy, 12, is our dynamo. He loves to play games, has a great imagination, makes friends easily and is on his way to becoming a jujitsu master.
I am looking forward to the what the next 20 years of living and learning will bring. I know this much: they will be just as exciting and interesting as the first 20, and I know this also&endash;&endash;it will be a family affair.
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