Every fall and spring the two of us play the game — the Pelosi-haired lady at the school district and me. We are like chess pieces — queens — coming at each other across the checkered board. Opposites, yet strangely similar.
We are both dressed for the day’s business. She wears a neutral-toned, tailored pantsuit (it is an 87-degree day outside, but the air conditioning inside makes the office too cold for her thin frame), coordinating pumps, and a professional dye job just a touch lighter than the suit. The “I have a doctorate” look.
I’m in a navy-blue top with an off-white linen skirt — a good make, which my daughter found at the thrift store for three dollars. My comfortable open slides revisit the navy, in an attempt to pull me together. They have a touch of pink whimsy running through them. My Miss Clairol highlights are recent… enough. The “I have children” look.
We’re both wearing the same shade of Clinique lipstick. We are smiling the same smile. We are thinking the same thought: I am the real educator.
We act happy to see each other, as if we are friends. We are not. We are not enemies, either, but we could be. Neither of us wants to be. We are both thinking: I am just doing my job.
I am submitting my semi-annual homeschool paperwork. She is reviewing it. It is spring. I have done my required 180 days of school. The details are in my log book, if Doctor Pelosi wants to check. I never cheat.
My friend Kim thought I was crazy to put it in those terms. “It’s not cheating! Whose kids are they?” I don’t believe she ever “cheated,” either. There was too much at stake. Not many homeschoolers care to risk a court date.
Once I tried to argue with her that, since we enjoy the privileges of citizenship, we must obey the law — as long as it does not require us to commit an immoral act.
“You’re such a good little citizen,” she said.
I get that. We mothers are rightfully protective. Why should people who have to look up our children’s middle names get to decide whether we are giving them a proper education?
But I also get Doctor Pelosi. She did not create the situation. Our Pennsylvania representatives back in the 1980s did. It’s an old law, one that most states got rid of once homeschoolers proved themselves. Pennsylvania is conservative. We like to do things the way we’ve been doing them.
This kills me when I think about how I live 20 miles from New Jersey. My friends Kelly and Jill homeschool there. The regulations might as well be scrawled on an old napkin:
Homeschooling? Give us a call. If we don’t hear from you, we’ll assume you had better things to do. Yours affectionately, The Garden State.
Then again, it could be worse. New York’s not that far away from our border, either:
We recommend you hire a lawyer to assist you in decoding our state homeschooling requirements. You will certainly need one should you fail. Mua-hahaha! Signed: The Empire State.
New Yorkers have an “individualized home instruction plan,” quarterly reports, and a base score on standardized tests — which means it’s borderline illegal for your kid to get a D. Which makes me wonder what they do to the public schools if kids there get D’s.
If you don’t give it all it asks for, New York will send a “home visit team” to assist you with complying.
Q. What if we can’t comply?
A. We will break your thumbs.
The Quaker State is more pleasant than the Empire State. There is just a little light paperwork in the fall. All you have to do is assemble a list of educational goals. These can be very basic: You list the subjects you are planning to cover. Science — Biology. Math — Geometry. Foreign Language — Latin. There, that didn’t hurt a bit.
It gets slightly laborious when the errands begin. First you visit various health professionals. Your child will need one or more of the following, depending on what grade he or she is entering:
- a complete physical
- just a spinal check
- a hearing and vision test
- just a vision test
- a TB test
- just a height and weight check
- a dental exam
It’s not been my favorite part of having seven kids — keeping the paperwork straight for all of them at the same time. That is something Doctor Pelosi totally has over me: She signed up for this kind of work. She oversees the destiny of hundreds of students who attend school in the district as well as the few homeschoolers. She is comfortable spending the day surrounded by filing cabinets. And she has a secretary.
I have a baby book for each child, which is more likely to contain the complete account of the time they said “duh” to the bishop than their shot record or doctor visits. Which further means I have to call the doctor’s office and ask, “Did they have a TB test? Can you send me the paper?” Another step.
Armed with my growing, breathing, reproducing stack of papers, I am ready to fill out the official affidavit form and take it to my favorite notary public.
I am just glad the old lady is not running the nearest notary shop anymore. She always found something to point a crooked finger at. “More than one child on a single form? Tsk tsk tsk.” She reminded me of the ear-pulling, pinching, terrifying Sister Formida in first grade. The ladies who are at the notary now are like the lay teachers I had in parochial school: It’s just a job, and they’re not making enough money to get picky.
My affidavit states my intention of homeschooling and reassures Doctor Pelosi that no one in my household has been convicted of behavior that endangers the well-being of children:
- assault with a deadly weapon
- indecent exposure
I will not mention which of these things the children routinely commit against one another.
That was the fall paperwork. It is now spring.
I am not the same person who filed back in August. I’ve been through a winter of colds and stomach bugs. The highlight was finding an electronic back massager at an after-Christmas sale. For a while, my social outings had dwindled to church and piano lessons. When spring finally arrived, I added Saturdays to the school week so we could finish all our books and get a jump on summer.
I always plan my school year to end just before June. That’s two whole weeks of owning the park across the street before the city moves in to claim it.
So today, tired as I am, I’m motivated. I have everything Doctor Pelosi wants:
- two samples per month for each subject, for each child
- standardized test scores
- reading list
- social activities list
- extra-curriculars list
In the early years I used to include photos: “Here is Mary Grace petting a goat at the Philadelphia Zoo field trip.” “Here is Katie eating ice cream at the dairy farm field trip.” If you label something a field trip, it counts as a day of school. If I learned one thing from going to school, it was that.
We’ve been to visit a state-certified teacher, too. We gave her 50 bucks per child. Her report, plus all of the above, is secure inside a fat portfolio. Even Sister Formida could not find a thing out of place. I enfold it in my loving arms — it’s my ticket to freedom — as I approach the school district building.
I walk in and announce myself to the secretary. I have taken the trouble to learn her name — Carmen — and use it. She goes to get Doctor Pelosi, who soon materializes.
I greet her. My whole attitude says, “Gosh it’s nice to see you! I’ve kind of missed you. It’s too bad I only get to come here twice a year. If you didn’t have the power to take my children from me, I’d say, ‘Come on out to piano lessons with me sometime.'”
She is pleasant back. She commends me on the excellent job I am doing. She adds, “Not everyone does as well as you do.” Carmen nods knowingly. They are letting me know what I happen to know already — that my friend Ave has been judged and found wanting. She showed up without enough paperwork (because her kids had their lessons memorized). I am the only one in the room who knows she is smarter than I am. I just happen to look smarter.
I am grateful to receive the praise, because frankly it beats not getting it. I do not want a talking-to such as the one Ave got. She told me that the previous year Doctor Pelosi pulled a fat portfolio off the shelf and exclaimed, “This is what we expect!”
I am sure it was mine.
I receive clearance, and our visit is over. The queens nod graciously to one another as we each move back to our own corners: She will preside over the filing cabinets, and I will take my children to the park.
In just a few weeks I’ll be back to file for fall. And we will play the game again.