It’s been six years since our family made the bold decision to “skip middle school” and home school Natalie during her 7th and 8th grade years. At the time, some people questioned our judgement. One mother asked, “What about high school? If you do this, won’t Natalie have a hard time getting into a good school?” Yet others expressed their envy and support. One man confided, “I’m still recovering from middle school. If only I could have skipped it.”
Natalie and I took notes during our two years and then we wrote our story about the fears we faced and overcame, the trust (and schoolhouse) we built together, the “Professor-Daddy” who opened his heart and Mondays to the adventure, and the amazing encounters we had with people who peeked in and stayed. I am in the midst of revising our stories into book form. The book will reveal the little-known history and facts about middle school, which ultimately made us conclude that getting rid of middle school altogether and switching to K-8 could easily solve many problems we hear discussed about our educational system. The story will also include our search for a high school and finally Natalie’s application and acceptance to Pomona College. In short, we have come to the conclusion that skipping middle school was one of the best decisions we made as a family. It taught us that “uncertain happiness” is way better than “certain unhappiness.” Please let me know if this is a book you’d want to read. Publishers want to know if there is a readership.
And, you can read the introduction to the book below.
There’s a certain part about getting good at something that involves loving it.
— what Natalie tells me just before our journey
I was born in Kobe, Japan, the child of American expatriates, whose marriage lasted long enough to produce four children. Upon their divorce, the expatriate chapter of my life abruptly ended. Along with my mother and three siblings, I landed in Napa, California at the tail end of my fourth grade year looking like I should fit in, but feeling like a stranger in my own land. I was, in fact, a foreigner, who spoke with a funny accent (a combination of Japanese and English), who felt overwhelmed in a large brightly-lit grocery store, who knew no English slang or curse words, who knew the Lord’s Prayer in Japanese but didn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance in English, and who was equally mesmerized by a lawn sprinkler and a large American car.
Years later, I would be driving down Highway 29, approaching Napa, with my husband William, and he would turn to me and ask, “Have you ever noticed that ‘Napa’ is ‘Japan’ spelled backwards without the ‘J’?” Stunned, I stared at him with a look that I can only describe as a combination of No, I have never noticed that and you are absolutely amazing for figuring that out. For that was exactly how I remembered feeling in my first year living in the United States: flipped around with a piece cut away.
The experience of feeling like a foreigner in my own country and having to figure out how I was going to fit in became a big chapter in my life story. It was a painful chapter, but it also allowed me to appreciate different perspectives and insights, and made me consider alternate approaches when I saw that the standard approach was less than ideal. From this vantage point, I would have to say that the idea to home school our daughter Natalie during her middle school years probably originated long before she was born, a few years after my move from Japan, after I had been through middle school. For somewhere deep inside me, I remembered thinking that there had to be a better way to nurture and educate 12 and 13-year-olds.
By the time Natalie was born, I had found what I loved to do — independent documentary filmmaking — and I was good at it. But choosing this path hadn’t been easy or straightforward. Sitting in an undergraduate history of documentary film class at UCLA in the late 1970’s, it slowly dawned on me while I watched films by the “fathers” of documentary filmmaking that it might be possible for a woman to be a filmmaker. It was Robert Flaherty’s film “Man of Aran,” about the Aran Islanders who live off the west coast of Ireland, which planted the idea in my head that one could explore places, people and ideas through images and sound. His black and white images of a lifestyle so stark and harsh in its beauty had so enthralled me that I saved up my money over a period of five years –- typing, editing and researching papers for doctors at a research hospital — and traveled first to Galway, Ireland, and from there by ferry and then curragh (a traditional Irish boat that fisherman have used for centuries) to the Aran Islands.
By then, I couldn’t imagine being anything but a filmmaker, no matter how impractical a career choice it might be; I applied and was accepted to graduate film school. For the first time in my life, I was pursuing my passion and I wanted to learn everything there was to know about writing, producing and directing, cinematography and sound, and editing.
Natalie is so right when she says, “There’s a certain part about getting good at something that involves loving it.” Loving what you do makes you want to be good at it. Furthermore, it’s a tremendously exhilarating combination – loving something and being good at it. The filmmaking part of my story led me to the belief that at the heart of anything worthwhile, there had to be love. And with a daughter approaching middle school age, I began thinking that the focus of middle school education should be to help children find what they love to do and then allow them to explore it fully. If, at this moment in their lives, they are encouraged and assisted in this endeavor, everything else in their education will become more meaningful and fruitful.
Furthermore, about to turn 50, I had been pondering the importance of finding balance, in mind, body and spirit, at any age. Yet I wondered if it was even possible to find balance in a frantic society that Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described as “at once agitated and monotonous.”
So, two ideas began to criss-cross in my brain more and more frequently. First, I felt there was another, more nurturing educational approach for Natalie. And second, William and I could work together, just the way we made films, and achieve something special and unique. We could create our own model for middle school, where maybe even balance was possible. Although I knew that my strength as a mother would be tested in ways it had never been before, I felt I was prepared to forge a new trail if it led toward growth and happiness.
If I had been told at that moment that skipping middle school would turn out to be life changing, I might not have been surprised. What was entirely unexpected was that skipping middle school would turn out to be life saving as well. Opening the door to the unknown — choosing “uncertain happiness” over “certain unhappiness” — we took our first steps toward living, loving & learning. This is our story…