Shelter is Not a Four-Letter Word

Contributed by Jennie Marable

At Simpson Beach.

When our twins outgrew their cribs, I devised a signal system to guarantee me and my husband a few delicious extra minutes of sleep each day. An alarm is set on the stereo in our living room, the agreement being that if the twins want to wake up at 4 a.m. and do calisthenics or compose terza rima, or otherwise transact whatever VERY IMPORTANT BUSINESS small children feel compelled to do in the unholy hours of the morning, it’s fine by us– as long as they do not cross the threshold of their room till the 8 a.m. news blasts from the speakers. Unbelievably, it works. Until just recently we left the broadcast on while we got breakfast ready, but the twins have reached an age where they hear unfamiliar words like ‘bomb,’ and ‘kardashian’– words that raise questions we don’t feel quite ready to answer. I think every parent experiences moments of odd inertia, recognizing the simple action you need to take and then doing a big bunch of nothing about it–the alarm situation is currently one of my moments. Rather than (logically) changing the station to a more child-friendly broadcast, I choose instead to fly out of bed each morning and have a race with impending bad news. Yesterday, mid-sprint, I was stopped short by the opening lines of a piece about a grim anniversary– March 24th–the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Standing barefoot in my sunny living room, I was 25 years and 3000 miles away from where I first heard the news, but I was cast suddenly back to a lonely, uncertain time. Junior high.


Often cited as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history (until it was eclipsed by the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010), the tanker’s wreck on the Bligh Reef destroyed the ecosystem of the Prince William Sound, as well as the livelihoods of the people who made their home there. In 1989, the year of the spill, I was thirteen. I lived in a picturesque little village on a pretty sound, and many of my neighbors made their living from the sea, so I think we understood what the spreading cloud beneath the ship meant, exactly, even before the images of dead fish and broken birds and oily, black beaches made their way into our living rooms. And despite the absence of Twitter, and cell phones, and the 24-hour news cycle, we knew the news before it was news because, suddenly, we were the news. The captain of the tanker lived in our little town, and his daughter attended the local public school. She was a shy, mild kid who came to my birthday parties and let me copy her programming homework. Purple was her favorite color, I think. They were real people, not just abstractions on our television screens. They were our neighbors. She was my schoolmate.

What does the wreck of the Exxon Valdez have to do with homeschooling? Nothing. Everything. My proximity to that 25 year-old disaster is weirdly connected to my feelings of doubt about traditional school and the distance it places between parent and child. School is where life happens to your children while they are away from you, where you get news of them secondhand, or not at all.

Critics of homeschooling often level the charge of ‘sheltering’ at those of us who make the choice to keep our kids by our side as they learn to move through the world. I have examined my own motivations again and again, wondering if I am, indeed, attempting to keep the world at bay for as long as possible by educating my kids myself. The evidence doesn’t really seem to support it. My kids don’t know how to work an Iphone, and they don’t know what an angry bird is, so yes–I have erected walls where I can to keep out the clamor of 21st century life. But despite our attempts to give them an idyllic, albeit urban, childhood, they know what racism is, and they know that for some people, home constitutes a shopping cart, and they know that people steal from other people because they are hungry, or angry, or both. They know all living things die, and they know some people’s brains don’t work like theirs, and that the world is full of beauty and ugliness in shifting measures. Am I happy that my very young children are aware of these things? Not entirely. Am I glad to have the opportunity to be with them as they encounter and absorb the realities of the world we live in? Yes. Yes. And yes again.

In the days following the disaster, the captain’s daughter came to school. It’s hard to imagine now, but the world was slower and bigger then, back before the unblinking eye of the internet gazed upon all of us. People could still be invisible. I imagine her mother thought she was safe there at school, away from the news trucks circling their house, surrounded by the children she had known since kindergarten. And for the most part, she was, I think. The kindest among us pretended like nothing had happened, cushioning ourselves from whatever she might be feeling with silence and blank stares. The cruellest? Well, we were all thirteen once. Does anyone ever forget the savagery of that age?

Yesterday, standing in my living room at 38, I was struck by how long ago thirteen was, how young we were, and how ill-equipped to cope with disasters, both global and intimate. I remembered how alone I felt, always, at school, and I remembered the difficulty of trying to articulate that loneliness to my parents. I remembered that all of the significant events of my early life happened outside of my parents’ purview. I remembered accepting my loneliness as inevitable, as surely as my parents must have accepted that once I began formal schooling, much of their news of me came from others, if it reached them at all. I don’t think my experience of traditional school as isolating is unique, nor do I think it led me to try to hide my kids away from the world, because it’s not the world I’m worried about–it’s as lovely and scary as it ever was, and ever will be. I worry about their sense of themselves in it. I don’t want them to feel like they are moving through it alone. I want to be present with them while they sift meaning out of the magic and mayhem of life, and I hope educating them at home will allow me to meet the world alongside them until they are ready to be alone in it–until they wish to make their own way .

The anniversary stories about the Valdez report that the land and waters affected by the spill are far from recovery, and years away from being restored to a balanced state. I wonder about the lasting effects of loneliness upon children who are expected to navigate the world without the constant, sheltering presence of their parents, well before they are really ready to do so. I think about the captain’s daughter, her whole world capsized, bravely navigating the halls of our junior high school, alone. So yes, chorus of critics, I shelter my children, and I will continue to do so, proudly. If and when the world crashes in through our front door, much as it did in my little town 25 years ago, I want to be standing next to them as they make sense of it all, not somewhere else, fiercely hoping that they are doing alright on their own.

For now, just a few steps behind them.
For now, just a few steps behind them.

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