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© 2005. Liz Smith.
They say to appreciate another person you have to walk a mile in their shoes. I decided recently to do just that-except I wasn't wearing somebody else's foot wear. I took the temporary job of a tutor on the set of a reality show. The crew was in Baltimore and working with a homeschooled family and needed someone to work with their children for three days. To be honest my college Theater days called to me-stars in my eyes I began hunting through my wardrobe for suitable attire. Throughout my career as a home schooler I have worked in decidedly unglamorous arenas-retail, cooking,day care. But here was a chance to leave the drudgery behind, even if it was only for a few days.
The advice poured in, friends advised no stretch or sweat pants and showed me the cover of the Enquirer with the vastly unflattering shot of a certain actress hunkered down in a white stretchy outfit. Family advised me against my typical "hippie" gear which stunned me as I never personally thought April Cornell counted in that venue. Finally I had created a pseudo professional, quasi Nordstrom look that passed muster. Except that my own children thought I was insane since in their eyes I never dress that way unless someone is in the hospital or dead.
After obtaining childcare-tricky when you and most all of your friends homeschool and suddenly you have a 9-5 gig. I was off, and for once in almost a decade I left the house dressed up for what proved to be an 8 hour day. It was almost surreal, nicely dressed and not singing with the children, in fact I was listening to NPR and sipping a coffee in the car. It was almost like being a grown-up.
I had discussed at length with my "industry" friends what to expect-luckily for me a dear college friend is actually "in the business" and works regularly in NY. Granted she was balancing a juice box and the Wiggles and her toddler when I called for her sage advice. Her camera man/highly creative hubby was also in on the act and I felt I would arrive on the set New York ready. Ha.
The set was a house in a local neighborhood. Or should I say the house in a local neighborhood had been converted into a set because family with five children were living their day to day lives on film with a small but nimble crew scampering all over the house. I had done some work in this venue but still was amazed at the thought of all that lighting and all that sound equipment and all these kids in this house.
I had made my concerns about homeschooling these children very clear and had set very strict limits. I wanted to honor the mother's approach. An approach that was presented to me as very strict, very religious and very, very "strict." I was there to provide a slightly different style of teaching( they wanted me to basically unschool these children as I do my own), but in truth I planned to follow most of her curriculum and then do a craft/science activity after lunch as a diversion. The children were wonderful, five energetic and enthusiastic kids, three of whom would be in the classroom with me.
The basement had been hastily cleaned and prepped by the crew, the non-TV translation is that they made a stylized area and painted the floor white and sprayed lots of air freshener. I had a wo/wo board nailed to the wall about a foot higher then I could write comfortably and some art work and about 8 percent of their books and materials. The overwhelming scent of a spring meadow filled my lungs as I searched for the mom's lesson plans and the girls' workbooks.
I chatted to the "swap" mom as I searched the house for the necessary materials and the director explained what he was looking for with my day. I was given time to prepare, a luscious half hour to review and attempt to understand another mother's lesson plans and make sure we all had the right books and texts. The mother had written impeccable notes and if the classroom had not been shifted this would have been so much easier. As an unschooler I do very little text work and use very few work books- we learn through experience and exploration, we are community based learners, and now I sat with a real teachers desk and real children's smaller desks lay in front of me.
Then the crew arrived, their snappy British accents making everything they said sound more important and more intellectual then I would have thought possible. Lights were set, I was wired for sound and then the children were to come down the steps to the dual surprise of Tadaa! a new tutor and a new classroom. And after a few takes and a reset we had recreated this spontaneous moment a dozen times.
The children were so easy to teach and so very patient as I leafed through their mom's desk trying to find the Bible. And still patient as we tried to sort out who had whose reading workbooks, and still patient as the crew did some shots as we played a long version of the "quiet game". The "quiet game" is how a bunch of hip, child free film folk think they are entertaining small, tired and distracted children. They promise of a reward to whomever sustains the silence longest. The adult is encouraged to play along, what fun for the students, what fun for teacher and then yippee! Let's add the two youngest, a 3 and a 4 year old-now. Ready? Play silently.
The children were so very good even when the promised reward never appeared. As I found out later the rewards never appeared, and the quiet game had to be played with greater frequency as the weather outside turned dismal.
Our project for the first day was to discuss birds and make orange bird feeders-we scooped out halved citrus and filled it with peanut butter and then birdseed. These would then be placed and observed in the yard. I was to be filmed for this. All my years of theater, the voice lessons, the movement classes dissolved in one smeary peanut buttery moment. I had to act natural, so easy with a mic tapped to my chest. I had to be relaxed,nothing like a crew of cranky film makers to help that along. And then place the feeders. The crew decides to skip this part so the kids and I head out. Then we are left in the yard for longer then we all preferred as they were filming inside. This is different version of the quiet game. Just as we readied ourselves to come in we were asked to place the feeders again. And once again through the magic of multiple takes, some with me lifting multiple children and on tip toes placing feeders we finally got the required footage. What an hour of planned spontaneity!
The children and I struggled with this sort of situation repeatedly. Each day things changed, lights were set and reset, sound levels constantly had to be adjusted. Nothing like having a strange man wearing a tee shirt declaring him a 12th level paladin up under the your desk with microphones as you are teaching. I was actually told to skip math one day as they already had some math footage.
I began to unravel,my original 4 hour day was flowing into a 6-7 hour day. And I truly wanted to follow the lessons. My respect for this mother grew daily as I watched this children stay on task, enjoy their work and make the best of what must have been a stressful situation. I did ask the crew to give me a set amount of time to get school work done, I also spoke to relatives of the children and the families' educational liaison. I tried to advocate for the children and in doing so found myself.
This time had very clear ups and downs, during one trying period I actually removed the mic and told them my concern was the children not being on film. This statement renewed my faith in myself since I had been feeling like a shallow toad for taking this job. The crew was caught between making good TV and dealing with the actuality and mess of real life. What you see isn't peoples real lives. What you see is an edited version, often somewhat scripted and at the very least set in motion. My time with this family was very real, and very enjoyable. As I was concluding my time with the kids the exhaustion of the whole family was apparent. I was so relieved to know the mother would be back in just a day. I am so glad I did this, it made my illusions lose their luster. It made me appreciate my approach to homeschooling for my family, and made me more respectful of others. I had pre-conceived notions of people using different approaches, I had beliefs that were generalizations not realities. Most important of all I had missed my family, and missed them for the wonderful indiviuals they are and what joy they bring to my life.
March 29, 2020