I like to flatter myself that some of my friends on Iranian.com are wondering where the hell I disappeared to. I used to have a pretty regular presence here and dug a lot of the people and stuff on the site. Not anymore. Nowadays unless a friend sends me a link to something, I have no idea what’s on IC. Heck, last time JJ was in town we didn’t even manage to have lunch.
I’ll tell you what happened to me. I had to take my kid out of school. I’m “home schooling” him now – free-schooling I call it. By California law if you want to home school you have to establish a “private school” which is nothing but filling out a form online and every October report that you are still in operation. Technically the state can at any point show up at your door and demand to see what you’re teaching your kid. That’s alright with me. In honor of my old school, Touran Mirhadi’s Farhad School in Tehran, I called my school Farhad Azad School. I figured we have daneshgah-e azad, why not dabestan-e azad?
The first thing I did after establishing my school is that I emailed two of my friends from Farhad School (we’ve been friends since preschool) and told them about my own Farhad School. One of them asked if I was now planning on joining “tea parties.” No my dears. It’s not just Christian fundamentalists and radical right-wingers who home school. There’s a lot more of us out there than that.
Let me tell you what made me pull my fifth-grade son out of school in the middle of the year: bullying and ganging. My son – who now calls himself Rex – had become the object of attack of a couple of bullies and one of them had organized an ever-growing gang against him. The main bully, Terry, was a big, powerful dude (older than most kids because he had been held back, I suspect because of his behavior) who threatened and intimidated other kids into joining his gang and not playing with my kid. Although almost two years younger than Terry, Rex would not be browbeaten to join his or anybody’s gang. He’s just not the sort. Being a big guy for his age and a bit of a tough guy himself Rex is not the type to walk away from challenges and give bullies free reign over the school yard. He fought back. “I couldn’t resist getting extremely mad at the gang leaders, so I would fight them,” he said, “because if the leader goes down the whole gang goes down.” I did everything in my power to convince him that it is best to walk away from provocation and conflict, but I’m afraid that’s a lesson that people have to learn for themselves.
I won’t get into the details. I’ve written about it extensively elsewhere (I’ll come to this shortly). Suffice it to say that it got so ugly, with teachers behaving so callously and incompetently, that the school district got involved. Boy, were they mad at our school! I could have given the school a lot of grief but I didn’t. I documented everything, wrote about it, and just left with my kid. I’m not one to attempt to reform American public schools. And now, actually, I’m very glad that things got as bad as they did so that we had no choice but to leave. In fact, I don’t want to write about the disaster that American schools – public and private – and the educational system have become. I want to write about what a great thing it is to free school my son – and what a toll it takes. But first hear me out on another aspect of the education my kid was getting.
You see, for years now I’ve been trying to make the best of my son’s school experience. I was very active with the PTA, I ran afterschool clubs, I volunteered, made donations, supported the school, teachers, other parents, you name it… On top of that, my husband and I tried to actually give Rex an education outside of school: read good books with him, expose him to real art, science, life, the world… I kept thinking to myself, it’s OK, my son will be educated despite the daily six hours that get absolutely wasted in school. He’ll get educated despite the lack of even text books in school. Yup. Public schools can’t even afford text books any more. The kids come home with random sheets of Xeroxed study sheets and assignments that have no meaning and no connection to anything else. Worse than that, they come home with Time for Kids. This is a publication of Time Magazine that has pretty much replaced books in American public schools.
I won’t go into Time for Kids. I’ll only say that every time I saw it come home with my son my entire being went go into revulsion. We don’t have TV at home. Every time I catch a glimpse of network kid shows, especially Disney Channel, I feel that a vile and vulgar subhumanity is staring me in the face. Then here is my kid being “educated” on one of the most insidious, despicable, and stupefying products of American media: The Time/Life Corporation, or whatever conglomerate it is called now. The last Time for Kids that came into our home was right after the Haiti earthquake and had on the cover a picture of a couple of black kids carrying boxes of disaster relief supplies as benevolent American military personnel looked on in the background. It gave me political and moral convulsions.
And I swear, it is not just political. Here’s a sample of the level of the prose in that publication: “I love that hockey is a team sport. Your teammates become your friends. They are like your sisters. You have to work together in order to win.” Let the English language and every even semi-literate English speaker who ever put pen to paper be damned. In fact, from the face of it the English language doesn’t even exist in schools any more. Kids are not taught English; they are taught Language Arts. Those Xeroxed sheets of paper containing random lists of baby words are Language Arts. How I wish I could tell the inventor of the phrase that their “language art” is neither.
And math… that killed me. What they call math is really arithmetic. And basic addition and subtraction and jadval zarb are now called “math facts.” My son who is quite average in his “math” and other subjects was routinely designated by annual state-administered exams as “gifted and talented.” I mean, thank you, I am flattered, but who are you kidding? My son is learning next to nothing in school and I’m supposed to feel all goody inside? What’s infinitely worse, my son is supposed to think that this is what is required to be considered “gifted and talented”? He’s supposed to think he is doing just fabulously and getting educated to boot.
Expose my son to daily violence and work my own butt off for this? Forget it, baba. We’re out of here.
A few years ago Rex told me that his ideal form of education is “learning a couple of hard things a week and being free the rest of the time.” Now that’s a smart comment. He knew that the education he was getting was what I call a mind-numbing waste of time. He also confirmed something that I suspected all along: you can teach kids the same way you teach college students. So I decided to put my ideas into practice.
My first step? Reading Around the World in Eighty Days with him. Remember the Jules Verne classic? It’s such great reading. We sit with an old and illustrated edition of the novel, a hefty world atlas, a large world map, and a pen. On the world map Rex draws a line tracing the journey of Phileas Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda, and detective Fix. On the atlas we look at the places they pass through in more detail. Starting with the Suez Canal I started adding history to geography. My favorite part so far has been India where I gave Rex a good introduction to British colonialism, looking at a fabulous little map that showed all the different Indian provinces under maharaja vs. British rule. We discussed the East India Company and the Parsis in India, which of course touched on the history of Iran and Islam. The Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Vietnam, the opium dens in Shanghai – we talked about all these. Right now the Fogg party has just landed in San Francisco and we have the US ahead of us…
And you know what? The kid remembers everything. It’s so interesting to him. The other day I overheard him say to someone that history is his favorite subject. Before I took him out of school he didn’t even know what history was. And this is only a little over a month after leaving school.
In addition to this, he’s a teacher’s assistant in a science lab where they have afterschool programs for school kids. He also joined a rock band, sat behind a professional drum set for the first time and took to it like duck to water. In the summer I’m not going to make him do any “school” work but perhaps we’ll read Agatha Christie. And next year, forget about “math fact” kind of crap, I’m going to start algebra with him. What game or puzzle is better than algebra? What is a better introduction to design than geometry?
For “social studies” next year we’re going to read Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. What better introduction to sociology?! I’ll also borrow some comic book versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata from my Indian friend and that will be my kid’s intro to Indian mythology. He’s become interested in Greek mythology from the recent Percy Jackson books and of course we’ve read some Shahnameh stories – the treachery of Afrasiyab in Rostam-o Sohrab had him spellbound when he was five. We’ll keep coming back to Shahnameh.
Now please, I really am not trying to tell you that my kid is “gifted and talented.” He’s quite a regular kid. The whole point is that regular kids are perfectly capable of being educated on the best books in the best way. Heck, you and I read Jules Verne and Mark Twain for fun, didn’t we? And we learned. And we listened to Shahnameh stories and memorized a Sa’di poem or two in school, and we learned. And a lot of us even grew up liking calculus and trigonometry, never having heard about “math anxiety.”
Why can’t our kids get educated this way?
Of course they can. But that means at least one parent can hardly have a life of her own. Yup, I used the feminine pronoun on purpose. It’s usually the mother who gives her life over to the kid. The same old same old – but an updated, post-postmodern version of it. I’m back to being a traditional mother, devoting myself to my kid. (I guess my friend wasn’t that wrong in thinking I might be joining the tea party thing now!) Though in the traditional traditional days the mother was not giving a ten-year old a college education at the same time of keeping him fed and in clean clothes.
And that’s not even all. What’s a killer is that my new “traditional” mode is superimposed on a rather nontraditional role I’m also playing. I’m working as co-publisher and editor with my husband, developing a business so that he can quit the drudgery of his day job. We’re simultaneously working on our third and fourth books while I’m also the editor/publisher of a growing website: www.mothersofbadboys.com. As principal blogger I’ve written about my son’s school experience on that site (Clara’s Clearing). Now I’m sure I’ll be writing about my son’s “free school” experience. It’s a lucky thing that my traditional and nontraditional roles at least overlap on the intellectual level.
And that’s why I’m not on IC any more. I work (raise a kid), I work (educate him), and I work (write, edit, publish, market).
I haven’t just vanished from Iranian.com; I’m vanishing period.