Educating Ned

"Unless Love build the house, they labor in vain that build it."
(Paraphrase of Psalms 127:1)

My three children went to school for six years before my husband and I decided to homeschool them because they were miserable and weren’t learning. In trying to discern whether homeschooling was the way forward, we sought help from our meeting. In the presence of our clearness committee, we decided on this path. The decision felt joyous, "covered," sacramental. The experience of clearness drew my husband and me closer to each other and made me feel deeply hopeful about what we were going to do. Since then, I have struggled to learn how to educate my oldest son, Ned, who is autistic. As in so much Quaker process, the path has been frequently interrupted by corrections, disagreements, and unanswered questions.

Ned is an affectionate, gentle child, tall for his age, with tangled blond hair and blue eyes. His many phobias and sensitivities are his greatest difficulties, but he also finds it hard to communicate and doesn’t understand social cues. He was diagnosed at age two with classical autism, one of the more severe types. He is a bright child in some areas and severely impaired in others. There’s nothing he can’t memorize, if he’s interested. He has wonderful abilities in geography and pattern recognition; he’s a natural mimic as an artist; and when he hums he’s like a mockingbird. However, he finds anything abstract difficult to understand.

He is a ten-year-old fourth grader now, but he was in public school until the end of second grade. Kindergarten was wonderful, but after that we saw only a steady deterioration of Ned’s ability to thrive. He learned to read and write before kindergarten, but by the end of second grade he hated reading. He had given up drawing and singing. His time at home after school was mostly devoted to asking over and over whether there would be a fire drill the next day—and crying. Throughout his school years, I met regularly with his team of teachers and therapists, and we tried again and again to find the right combination of assistance and accommodation to suit Ned’s needs. My husband and I tried putting Ned on medication and tried every type of therapy we could find. Yet we could not find any way to make school a more comfortable place for him. By the time we took him out of school, I felt Ned no longer had access to the best parts of himself—affection, creativity, or joy. He wouldn’t speak to me unless it was absolutely necessary and described himself as a "bad boy." When I prayed and asked for guidance in worship, I knew that the environment of school, especially the noise and crowdedness of it, was so painful to him that his spirit couldn’t survive there.

My kids were so excited about homeschooling that the early months were absolutely delightful. We played games and painted with watercolors. To teach literature, I used their toys to put on "puppet shows" while I was reading, which gave Ned a visual way of catching the narrative. Suddenly he loved stories, but it was clear that his comprehension of what he or I read was not at all what I had been told it was at his school. He still read at a kindergarten level. Soon the novelty of the puppet shows wore off and he was tired of stories. I wasn’t sure how to continue with reading after that, so we started math.

I knew Ned had a lot of trouble with double-digit addition at the end of second grade. He didn’t want to "carry the one," so we started with that. After a little while, it dawned on me that Ned didn’t understand place value at all. Place value is an abstraction, a kind of shorthand. No wonder it was so hard for him. At this point, I was starting to feel demoralized about Ned’s condition. During his school years, I was told by Ned’s teachers that he was working at grade level or above in all areas of academic work, and I believe they thought he was. He tested well. Since he already knew how to read, he seemed advanced. But suddenly all my hopes and expectations for Ned’s future seemed to be disintegrating. How would he go to college, have a career, or live independently if he couldn’t keep up with a normal school curriculum? For years, Ned’s undeniable intelligence and precocity had led me to hope he could have a somewhat normal life as an adult. Now, I began to wonder whether he would ever be able to take care of himself, leave home, or fulfill the potential I thought he had.

These were unbearable questions. I panicked. I felt bitter about the "failure" of Ned’s teachers to understand how to teach him, and I determined that I would march him through all the learning that he had missed as quickly as possible.

I tried to make the math lessons both engaging and visual by using candy (jelly beans and gummy worms) as manipulatives. Because he liked the gummy worms more than the jelly beans, I told him that one gummy worm was worth ten jelly beans. I asked him to do many simple problems where regrouping was required, using the manipulatives as well as pencil and paper; when the jelly beans required regrouping, he received a gummy worm as a reward. He could follow the process, but only if I coached him through it every time.

Finally, we came to a crisis. When I asked him to try it without coaching and carry the one, he refused. He tried to comfort me, telling me, "It’s okay, Mom. I can do it my own way." His stubbornness angered me and I told him he’d have to go back to school if he wouldn’t let me teach him. He seemed flattened by the threat, and all the joy and interest went out of him. But he offered a compromise. He would do two of my problems and then I would let him write his own problems. I agreed. After he did my two problems my way, he wrote 71 + 72, 71 + 73, 71 + 74, 71 + 75, 71 + 76, 71 + 77, 71 + 78, and 71 + 79. He carried the one on the last problem without any assistance and without writing anything down. The next day he did the same thing, and I didn’t make him do my problems at all.

This was a message for me, and I mean that it came from the Light. He had found a way to walk himself over the obstacle of regrouping, slowly and methodically, a way that made sense to him. Perhaps he had understood it all along but hated to change his method, or perhaps he could understand it only in a sequence. In any case, the guidance had come from within. He was better at teaching himself than I was. I wondered if the insistence of teachers that he learn according to their methods had been part of what soured him on school in the first place.

I felt deeply confused by these experiences. It seemed to me that in threatening Ned with school—his greatest fear—I had behaved with some brutality towards him. Though it had seemed to work, it had also made him feel glad to be done with math, which he had enjoyed until then. I began to feel that it was more important that he be happy than "catch up" or have the kind of future I wanted for him—which, after all, might not be possible anyway. When I thought about what it meant to love Ned truly and without my own ego involved, I knew I had to take time and wait for more answers.

I thought perhaps the practice of "un-schooling" might provide a way to take a step back. This is a philosophy of education developed by a teacher named John Holt, author of Learning All the Time, which asks parents to trust their children’s freedom and strength of mind unconditionally. Basically, Holt says, parents should limit themselves to facilitating whatever learning their children choose for themselves. Since Ned seemed better able than I to figure out how he could learn, I hoped this philosophy would suit us both.

We have practiced un-schooling for a year or so. Ned has participated in many fun therapeutic classes that help him develop communication, physical strength, skills, and imagination. He is allowed to quit any class he doesn’t like. His own choice at home is to spend as much time as possible on the computer learning whatever he likes, but he has not been willing to do any formal academic work. He doesn’t read fiction or nonfiction; he does no arithmetic; and he prefers to learn through video.

His anxiety has decreased, and his enjoyment of life, emotional resilience, physical health, and ability to communicate have all improved. And yet I feel a growing sense of unease. He really isn’t learning anything conventional and may even be forgetting some of the math and reading ability he developed at school. He often seems overstimulated by his intense involvement in what he watches and creates on the computer. Although the computer may lead him to a career someday, I worry about whether it is good for his spirit to spend so much time on it. I have a growing feeling that we’ve drifted too far in the other direction, and that Ned is again not getting what he needs.

When I had my epiphany about Ned, it seemed to me that I was discovering a Quaker educational path in deciding to trust his ability to find the tools he needed to learn. I also enjoyed the freedom that his freedom offered me, and it was pleasant to think I was obeying God in my "benign neglect" of my son’s education. But, of course, Friends have struggled from the beginning with the awareness that people, left entirely to their own devices, often don’t follow the Spirit, even when they believe they are doing so. Friends believe in gentle, yet unmistakable, forms of community guidance. For instance, unprogrammed Friends expect some structure and purpose to be present in unprogrammed meetings—a paradoxical goal if there ever was one. I would like to discern a way to provide a structure both open and gentle for Ned’s education so that, academically, he is not completely free or unguided by other people. Perhaps returning to reading and math lessons of some kind might be a minimal way to begin.

Deciding that Ned needs to do at least a little academic learning seems easy. The more difficult question is how on Earth I am going to convince him to participate. The obstacle isn’t just that he’s used to deciding what he will do, but also that I still don’t really understand how best to engage him in it.

For most of us, our thinking is like walking down a road. We make decisions about where to be and where to go, and the reasons for going places are obvious to us. We need directions the first few times we go from home to a new place, but once we get used to it we can do it alone. Of course, things arise in the landscape that we don’t create and that may distract us or cause us pain, but we usually feel that we are in control.

I have come to realize that my son experiences his mind as more like a circus. He sits passively in the audience, but there’s always something very exciting happening in the center ring. It occupies as much of his time as we allow. He doesn’t try to control it and doesn’t want to, as long as it’s predictable and gives him pleasure. Asking him to learn something difficult that he doesn’t enjoy— like double-digit addition—is like asking him to walk the tightrope at the top of the tent. He’s been walking tightropes of our creation since we first taught him to speak, but it’s always hard for him to leave that exciting show and instead concentrate on the rope. He needs lots of props to keep his balance, and every single rope is an enormous challenge for him and for us.

I’m sitting with many questions. How do you teach someone whose mind is so different from yours that you cannot understand how he learns? How can you give up on teaching him when you know he’s intelligent and can learn? What means can legitimately and successfully be used to induce him to try to learn? Now that we have cut ourselves loose from the structures of public school, nothing has to be taken for granted. How much should I expect of him? How much should I expect of myself? Am I meant to devote most of my time for years to come to educating Ned?

A little story from the Buddhist tradition has helped me think about these things. When the Buddha was asked whether the mind in meditation should be working strenuously or relaxing peacefully, he answered that neither was correct. The mind should be like the string on a lute, neither too tight nor too loose, but tuned properly so that it will play. For me, this advice suggests many things: that I might try to find balance between my own needs and Ned’s and between Ned’s freedom and his education. It suggests, in a way, that Ned and I might become partners in deciding how tight the string needs to be so that both of us can "play." When I describe this image, it hardly seems like more than a bromide, but it still gives me hope.

As an answer to my questions, this image is in keeping with my experience of the presence of God in worship and the kind of guidance I find there. I rarely hear direct and clear answers of the "do this, not that" variety. Practical and probably temporary, imperfect techniques for teaching Ned will emerge from research and from the doing of it every day. The more important question about the nature of my relationship with Ned has been answered. The Holy Spirit and the quiet kindness of Friends teach me to trust and love unconditionally and to go forward in a spirit of gentleness as far as I am able.


Rosemary Gould, a longtime attender of Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting, homeschools and teaches poetry classes part-time for a local lifelong learning institute. She hopes to write more, as way opens.