Nailing Down Normal

(Originally published in the March, 2008 issue of Homeschool Horizons)

Jean Rath


The word “normal” is liberally used. I have been told by homeschooled youth that it is found in such backhanded compliments as: “I wouldn’t have known you are homeschooled; you’re so normal”. It has also been used by my children, insecure in the educational course that they’re following, knowing that it is not normal to enter adulthood without ever having been to school.

A very insightful use of the word appears in the book “Ja, No, Man”, by Richard Poplack. It is an account of a “normal” childhood, lived by a South African white, during the final years of Apartheid. Poplack’s family moved to Canada when he was 16. In the book’s introduction, he describes how it felt to find himself in a Canadian high school in which it was normal for different ethnicities to laugh and chat together in the hallway. As he puts it, “I was used to a very different kind of normal.” His subsequent description of white suburban Johannesburg in the 70s and 80s is strange, bordering on creepy. Poplack found his multicultural Toronto high school exotic at first, but it soon became normal; he concludes: “But by then, I think, I was deeply suspicious of normal.”

It would appear that any form of “normalcy” requires close examination. It cannot be used as a standard from which to view the world; nor is it a good standard upon which to base the educational decisions we make for our children. When examining our world, we must consider what is right (another liberally-used term); and when considering educational options, we must constantly force ourselves to discard the question “Is it normal?”, and replace it with “Is it right for my child?”

In our household, the right decision seems to be to continue homeschooling our two younger children; but it does mean that my eleven-year-old son is developing some unusual learning methods. Is it normal for him to recite his times facts while hopping up and down in the kitchen? Is it normal that he should tackle his schoolwork crouched on the floor with his books laid out around him? How will my son handle the world if he was never required, as a child, to sit still at a desk? Then again, how would he handle the world if he was? For the moment, we’re glad that his education does not have to include conformity to “normal” classroom form.

My fourteen-year-old daughter is taking one virtual learning course each semester. She attends the two classes per week in her pyjamas, in front of the computer. As the Christmas holidays approached last year, she was told that the current science assignments did not have to be handed in until the New Year. I advised her to finish them up so that she wouldn’t have to think about them, but she was unconcerned: “It will give me something to do if I get bored over the holidays”, she said. Perhaps it is abnormal for a teenager to consider her lessons all part of a day’s entertainment, but I’m glad that she does.

When considering what is right for a child’s education, there is understandable anxiety when the choice is different from the majority of society. It is important to resist this anxiety and make the right education decision for each child.

©Copyright 2008, Christopher & Jean Rath
Telephone: 613-824-4584
Address: 1371 Major Rd., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1E 1H3
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