This post reviews Carol Plum-Ucci, Homeschooling Abbey: Your Basic Mom Tries Home Education & Tells All (BookSurge, 2008)
The book begins badly, I must say, and for the first couple of chapters Plum-Ucci seems like the sort of slightly neurotic woman who drives everyone around her crazy by talking obsessively about herself and her children. But once she gets into her actual homeschooling experience, Plum-Ucci provides many thoughtful chapters that offer a creative and original spin on some of the issues with which homeschool researchers are perennially concerned. It is those that I wish to focus on in this review.
First for a brief orientation. Plum-Ucci is a New Jersey native. She has two daughters. The first, from a previous marriage, is profiled early in the book and makes a return appearance later as a mature 27 year old. But the book’s focus is on her second daugter from a second marriage, who Plum-Ucci homeschools from grades 2-5 (and, one presumes, is still doing so today). Plum-Ucci is a Christian but definitely not the stereotypical fundamentalist protestant homeschooler. Her memoir has an earthy quality to it–talking freely of sex, potty-words, and her own inner demons in a way that sets this memoir apart from the typical homeschooling narrative. She dwells long and compellingly on her own doubts and second-thoughts about the choice to homeschool, giving the book a welcome sense of authenticity more celebratory accounts typically lack.
By far the best parts of the book are those that tap into Plum-Ucci’s special talent, which is to reproduce with palpable vividness the social world of middle school and jr. high. This skill has been a major factor in her success as a novelist, and here it leads her to address some of the classic homeschooling questions in fresh and exciting ways.
The best chapter in the book, worth its price in my opinion, is entitled, “What Does Your Daughter Do For Friends?” It’s her take on the socialization question, and it is full of fascinating insights and revealing disclosures. With a clarity that can only come from keen observation and memory, Plum-Ucci describes the social world of tween girls, explaining how they all, whether schooled or homeschooled, typically have one “BFF” (best friend forever), four or five “core” friends, and then an assortment of “stragglers.” Plum-Ucci reproduces with jarring clarity the world of petty cut-downs and insults, of alliances and betrayals, that make up the daily life of girls between 4th and 8th grades. I can’t reproduce the effect here as the power is in the description. To summarize her point captures it about as well as a plot summary captures a good novel.
But the basic point is that schooled girls really don’t have thousands of friends–they have about the same number, and the same sort, that homeschooled girls do. Homeschooled girls, moreover, tend to be spared the social pathologies that go along with being warehoused in an age-segregated institution for most of the day where rules govern social interaction almost all of the time. Plum-Ucci tells gripping stories of worldly-wise fourth graders with make-up, cell phones, and boyfriends, and of the 7th graders they become, getting felt up and more when nobody’s looking. She contrasts this world to that of the homeschooling co-op where 4th graders and even 7th graders are still largely innocent of such things. Plum-Ucci herself is somewhat ambivalent here. Her daughter Abbey is not interested in the pettiness and artificiality of her schooled neighborhood friends, but she is ironically detached from the naivete of some of her co-op friends.
Another theme Plum-Ucci tackles with fresh insight is parental motivation for homeschooling. After a powerful section describing in Gattoesque terms how institutional schooling must, by definition, operate according to inflexible policy rather than common-sense human relationality, she notes a parallel with some homeschooling mothers who seem to operate in the school mode. Homeschooling, for these mothers, is the policy, and it must be stuck to regardless of the context or individual situation. She has found in many co-ops several women, especially some of the more conservative sort, who don’t seem really to like homeschooling all that much, but they do it because they (or their husbands) are committed to it ideologically. In contrast, Plum-Ucci has no philosophical commitment to homeschooling–it just seems the best thing for her daughter at the present moment, and she is having the time of her life doing it. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that Plum-Ucci has just one daughter whereas many of these moms she describes who are struggling with burnout are homeschooling multiples, often with less help from their husbands than Plum-Ucci receives. Regardless, there may be something to her claim that some families may be “putting the ‘policy’ of homeschooling above people, namely the kids…” (p.113)
Finally, and relatedly, Plum-Ucci has interesting things to say about who should and shouldn’t homeschool. She doesn’t think academic preparation, teaching ability, or family income have anything to do with it. For her, households that are stable and peaceful make ideal homeschooling settings, while homes marked by stress, violence, dysfunction, and so on are likely to do more harm than good. She acknowledges that some children who grow up in homes without love and stability might be better served in schools whose routines, even if they are inflexible and unconducive to good education, at least provide a child with some grounding. Let me close this review with an excerpt that provides an anecdote that both describes the sort of family that might want to reconsider the homeschooling decision and gives a bit of evidence for what such families might do to the idea of homeschooling in the long run. I have noticed in my own job teaching at a college that attracts a large number of homeschooled students how many of them are enrolled in the teacher preparation program we provide. Perhaps this example explains why some of them are making this choice:
I have a friend Janice who now has two toddlers, and Janice was homeschooled. Janice was of interest to me, becaus she was one of the early models of homeschooling–one who did it before many others were doing it.
“So, what was it like?” I asked one day when we met at a local playground.
“Well…given that my mother suffered from depression, it was sort of like the four of us kids being under a dark cloud all the time,” Janice said blandly and shrugged. “I’m not going to homeschool, and I guess there isn’t too much more I can say about it.” (p.111)
Let me be clear that this is not a great book. The prose (to me) seems a bit too eager to convince the reader of its hipness, and one tires of Plum-Ucci’s recurring reminders of the awards her novels have garnered. But it does have moments of insight (more than I’ve mentioned here) that make it in the end worth the time in my view.