My parents started homeschooling before homeschooling was cool. When they decided to take my two oldest siblings out of elementary school in the late 70’s and start teaching them at home, they would be the first to tell you that they had no clue what they were doing. There was also very little in the way of outside resources, like homeschool co-ops or online help. Although she initially dabbled in using a mail-in correspondence course, eventually my mom ended up blazing her own trail, deciding for herself what she thought was important to a good education. One of those things was the ability to write well.
From the time that my parents started homeschooling to today, we’ve gone from an era where few households even had a computer, to feeling lost without a computer in our pocket. Many children have their own iPad before they can even talk. My one-and-half-year-old daughter will walk up to our blank TV screen and try to swipe and click on it with her finger. Today, whether we’re writing a dissertation or a simple text message, our writing is automatically checked (and even automatically edited) by computers.
Of course, we’ve all discovered that the computer doesn’t catch everything. In 1992, a man name Jerrold H. Zar wrote a tongue-in-cheek poem meant to illustrate the danger of relying too much on spell check. The first verse reads:
Eye have a spelling chequer,/It came with my Pea Sea./It plane lee marks four my revue/Miss Steaks I can knot sea.
As I type Zar’s poem into my word processor (Microsoft Word 2016, if you’re curious), I see that spell check no longer recognizes the spelling “chequer,” but otherwise it finds no fault with the purposely atrocious ditty.
Not only does the computer not always catch everything, it often infuriatingly catches things which don’t need to be caught. Who among us has not cursed our phone as it automatically “corrects” proper names with alternate albiet correct spellings, or just words that are perfectly acceptable but somehow didn’t make it into the database? As I was saying to a friend recently, "It's no coincidence that when I type 'stupid' on my phone, the text predictor suggests 'autocorrect' as the next word."
My mom’s homeschooling career spanned 10 children and touched four decades. Although she began to see, along with the rest of the world, the importance of knowing your way around a computer in the nineties, she never changed her method for teaching children how to write. As the public schools exchanged hand-written cursive for “Times New Roman, size twelve” and began asking for assignments to be handed in via e-mail and thumb drives, my mom still insisted that we learn to write the old-fashioned way. Her system was not broken and she saw no reason to fix it.
Her process was simple: as soon as we could read and write well enough to string together a sentence, we got a journal. In this journal, we were to write one entry every day, Monday through Friday. It could be about anything – what happened that day, a movie we saw, or a book we read. One day it might be what we had for breakfast, the next it might be what we thought about what was going on in the world.
When we started out, we would be required to write half a page, double-spaced. Then a whole page, double-spaced. Then a whole page, single-spaced. Then two pages. Childish, capital block letters turned to cursive. Journals were kept through the summer and even taken on family vacations some years.
My mom would come along with a red pencil (none of these purple or green corrections for her, thank you very much) and underline spelling and grammar mistakes. We had to go back and fix those, looking up the misspelled words in the dictionary. A list of misspelled words went into the back of the journal. If we kept misspelling the same word, we might have to write it out five times. Or sometimes my mom would randomly stop in the middle of the day and say, “Rachel, how many L’s in ‘really’?” “Rachel, spell ‘restaurant.’” “Spell ‘exaggerate.’” “Spell ‘responsible.’”
As we got older, the underlined words grew fewer and were replaced by less technical, more substantive observations: “I would have liked to have read more about what you thought about the end of the book.” “This is a beautiful sentence.” “This should be a new paragraph.” “Where did you get this information from?”
Slowly but surely, with no text book, just my mom’s neat, red, cursive in the margins, my writing was patiently untangled and ironed smooth, word by word, page by page, day by day. There was no going forward tomorrow without stopping to correct today’s mistakes. I was forced – in the best sense of the word – to internalize good spelling, good grammar, and good composition, until it was as much a part of me as knowing how to tie my shoes and brush my teeth. At the same time, I learned more than technicalities. You don’t write every day from the time you are six without finding your voice. I filled 16 volumes’ worth of school journals before they gave way to personal journals, which I keep to this day (although I confess I have long since ceased to make it a daily practice).
I write professionally these days, something I’ve wanted to do since I was seven years old, and I credit my mom’s simple, unvarying method for the fact that I am as comfortable on paper as I am tucked into bed. I credit her for the fact that I know when it should be "its" instead of "it’s," even when the computer doesn’t. I think of her as I catch crotchety little errors, like the difference between “more” and “moor,” in the submissions that I go through for the publication where I now both write and edit. I credit her for the gift of writing as a means of comfort, of expression, and of finding clarity.
None of us do all the things our parents did in the same way that they did them, but in a few years when my children are old enough, I will teach them how to write the same way my mom did. I will turn off the computer and buy them a journal. I will make them write in it every day, and I will take a red pencil and underline the misspelled words and circle the wayward apostrophes. I will write corrections and encouragements in the margins. I will make sure that they know, without asking Google, when to use "there," "their," or "they’re." My mom’s labor of love will continue another generation.
Progress is well and good, but as for the things aren’t broken – far be it from me to fix them.