Dear Captain Awkward,
My siblings and I were all home-schooled, and we all turned out all right, finished school, have decent jobs…until tale-end Charlie was born twelve years after the rest of us. My parents decided to home-school Charlie (PUBLIC SCHOOL EVIL! DRUGS! GANGS! ROCK MUSIC!) except by then they were both tired of the time commitment and just…didn’t.
They kept Charlie home and didn’t teach him anything. Since they live in a state with zero government oversight (BECAUSE FREEDOM!) they got away with it. One of my other brothers taught Charlie to read when he was ten. I’m the oldest and I moved to another state when Charlie was seven, and moved out the house when he was four. I knew on one level things were slacking, but I was wrapped up in my life, finishing college, and getting the hell out of my hometown. I never spent very much time at home for various reasons I won’t get into, but my cousin would tell me Charlie doesn’t know this, or Charlie doesn’t know that so I’d talk to my parents and they always had a reason.
“We haven’t started the unit on that yet, that’s the next grade, we’re taking break for Nov/Dec because of all the holidays and we’ll start again in Jan, I just ordered this great new curriculum…”
I should have called the police on them years ago. But I didn’t. I still believed my parents could turn this around and teach Charlie like they taught the rest of us. I didn’t want to call the police on my own parents. But I should’ve. If I could go back in time I would.
Last fall, I had a heart-to-heart with Charlie via skype and his desires to join the military and Do Exciting Things do not at all jib with what he knows. Every time I asked him about school he’d say he was really studying hard, then (over skype) I got him to show me his ‘Math reviewing’. It was a third-grade adding-columns-of-numbers book like the dollar store sells. Which he couldn’t do because he didn’t know/had forgotten how carrying works. I flipped out on my parents, who promptly blamed everything on Charlie (who was deeply addicted to WoW and ‘wouldn’t study’, therefore it’s Charlies fault).
I live in another state so I started tutoring Charlie over Skype every second we were both home. We covered third and fourth grade math in three months. Charlie’s smart, he’s just *NEVER* had to study/take tests/learn how to push through frustration to comprehend information before. Right after he turned eighteen, he moved in with me and my wife. Using a hodge-podge of elementary school/middle school resources, we covered the basics up to sixth grade, and now he’s doing seventh grade work at a REAL, ACCREDITED, online middle school.
The problem: Charlie WILL NOT study/do school unless I sit at his elbow. My wife and I both work full-time. Charlie has a job with erratic hours at a cleaning service to pay for his car and insurance, so there’s no regular time we’re all home, and he’s got to cover five years of school. I want to send him to school, but since he’s eighteen he’d have to go to the alternative school in town and each grade takes a year to cover…and he couldn’t go past the age of twenty anyway. This is bullshit. I can’t hire a tutor, we don’t have the money. I would like to do other things besides stick to Charlie like a tick on my few hours off. (I work 4 12s and a 6).
I am so angry at my parents for allowing this to happen, and I’m so angry at Charlie for screwing off and ‘catching up on Netflix/assorted bullshit’ instead of studying and working through his classes. I can log onto the website and *see* he only spent twenty minutes on a lesson, when I know (because I rolled him out of bed at seven before I left) he doesn’t go in until noon). If he’d bust ass and do it, he could finish school in about two and a half years but I don’t know how to make him understand working at the cleaner is not a successful life-choice. He’s really good at faking knowledge to get by. He says he doesn’t like learning all this because it makes him ‘feel dumb’. His solution is to ignore all the things he doesn’t know instead of learn them. He has no interest in a trade (probably because my parents have always sneered at trade-schools). When asked, he claims he wants to join the military and be an infantry commander. I have explained the military does not want him with his lack of education, he says he understands, but he’s NOT TAKING THE STEPS TO FIX IT.
What do I do? How do I motivate an adult? I want my brother to have a shot at a decent life. But he won’t do school without me right there and that’s not going to work for the *years* this process is going to take.
Please help me.
This is slightly edited – I missed the detail where Charlie lives with the LW the first time and thought he was still living with the parents.
I am going to start with a moderation note because I’ve seen the shitshow of amateur debate shenanigans that happens when you mention the word “homeschooling” on the internet:
Successful homeschooling exists. The Letter Writer had it. It in no way looks like the above model of how “Charlie” was educated. If you are here to talk about why homeschooling is the best idea ever, how it worked for you, and soapbox in favor of it, I will delete your comment. If you are here to talk about why homeschooling is stupid and useless and shouldn’t be allowed, I will delete your comment. It can be right for certain kids. It can be abusive and neglectful for other kids. This is not Debate Club, and I don’t want to read your arguments or collect anecdata for an unwinnable argument (since we don’t have a time machine and can’t go back and get Charlie what he needed as a kid). Please keep your comments to the above specific situation and focused on constructively, actively helping the LW and their brother. If your experiences apply to that end, like, you were neglectfully homeschooled and then got an education later, by all means, share them. But if you want to write extensively about the merits or evils of homeschooling, may I suggest your own blog.
Thank you. We now return to your regularly-scheduled programming.
Letter Writer, I suggest that you express to your parents how angry and worried you are. Use words like “criminal neglect.” Use words like “I think you failed him, and I feel guilty for not being around to pick up the slack, and terribly worried about his future. Is that a concern at all for you?” Ask them outright to pay for Charlie to go to school and for all of his educational needs.
Then I suggest that you offer yourself as a sounding board or tutor to Charlie when he wants it. “When you are ready to go to school, or study on your own, I am here for you.”
And then I suggest that you back the hell off for a while and focus on your own life, and drop all statements like “I don’t know how to make him understand working at the cleaner is not a successful life-choice.” He’s eighteen, he has a job, working at a cleaner is a job. Your family’s snobbery – toward public school, toward trade schools and trades (which I’m glad you realize is wack)- is one of the things that has y’all in this mess, I suggest you dismantle as much of it as you can for yourself. Keep having weekly
Skype chats Brother Time. Don’t make all of your time together about tutoring/teaching him unless he wants to do that. It’s okay to make staying in school/completing school work regularly a condition of his continued living with you, but once you articulate that and create a structure to spend time with him that works for you, focus on having a relationship with your brother where you show him that you like him and aren’t just testing his ignorance or looking to fix or improve or parent him. That is, seriously and from the heart, your best chance in having him actually come to you when he is ready to buckle down. We avoid people who only want to fix us. If you see him as an ignorant failure, if you talk to him and about him like someone who is not living up to his potential, if you audit him for all the things he doesn’t know and can’t do, if you keep him as a living example of how your parents fucked up (and your anger at them for not sending you all to school-school), he will eventually delete you from his life in favor of people who are, well, nice to him. He doesn’t owe it to you to turn out a certain way.
Charlie may well drift for a while. He may fake it for a while. He may work jobs that you see as below his potential for a while. He will do this until he wants something different – like, to really join the military, for real, or to impress a romantic partner, or to get a promotion/better job/earn more money so he can get his own place, or just because it interests him. I know your worry, that it may be “too late” – too late for the alternative school that ends at 20, yes, probably/possibly. But eventually he will grab onto something that he wants to learn how to do. Or he will figure out other ways to be happy and other things that he values. The author of this book is that Canadian guy who said a bunch of dipshit things about teaching female authors in his classes, so, caveat emptor, but I think it’s a good read and is a good read for you specifically, right now. His bright, lazy son was struggling with school so they made an agreement: You can drop out, as long as you watch a movie with me every week and we talk about it. A list of movies can be a syllabus. Yes, you have to know some math. Yes, it’s embarrassing to not know certain facts. But there are a lot of ways to be educated, and many many functioning autodidacts have good jobs and careers doing stuff they like.
I teach beginning students at an open enrollment arts college, which means that I meet a lot of people who took nontraditional paths to get where they are. Returning veterans, including a senior citizen Vietnam vet who finally cashed in on the GI Bill benefits he was entitled to. Kids from struggling high schools that didn’t supply toilet paper or have a library. Kids from fancy suburban schools that had video programs for 14 year olds with fancier gear than the college has. Homeschooled kids (who do just fine/great). Foreign students who are doing college in their non-native language and doing it beautifully and blowing me away with their dedication and courage. I meet a lot of students who struggled, gradewise, in traditional school settings but who thrive when they apply themselves to making art. I meet a lot of students who were straight A students who struggle with creative expression, because, like, how do I make it perfect the first time? And I meet a lot of people who should not be in college. They don’t want to be there, they don’t know why they are there beyond “it was the logical next step” and “I think it will get me a good job” (this has become less and less true of late, have you noticed?) but they don’t have a real interest in anything. I also meet kids like Charlie, smart, lazy, shockingly ignorant in some areas, who wake up and learn to thrive by being challenged and having their asses consistently kicked by something that can’t be faked. There are a lot of ways to be smart, and a lot of paths to learning, and the students with great test scores and supportive families and the single, teen parents who stock shelves all night at Costco and then come to class in the morning all teach me more than I teach them. When he wants it, That Thing, whatever it is, it will be there for him.
Your parents failed Charlie, horribly, and believe me, I get why you are angry. And I admire your commitment to your brother. But you can’t re-parent him and if you try you will poison all that is good between you. Set up a weekly date to hang out, and don’t stop checking in with him or being close to him. And tell him, “Charlie, I really want you to try to go to school, and I want us to work together to push mom and dad to get you into that alternative program while you still qualify. I hope you can just trust me that opportunities will be better for you if you have a high school diploma. Whatever you decide, I am always here if you have questions about schoolwork or want ideas for stuff to read and watch and learn. But I don’t want our relationship to be just about that, and I don’t want to bug you and feel like I’m forcing you. You’re an adult, or about to be, so you let me know when you want to work, and otherwise we’ll just keep talking.” Offer the opportunity to work when you talk, but ask him if he wants it. “Do you want to work on some more math today, or just hang out?” Go with whatever he says, teach him that it’s up to him and that you will respect him either way.Then, ask him questions, like, how was your day? Do you like your job? Did you meet anyone cool there? Are you dating anyone? Find the stuff that he is smart and knowledgeable about. Be a big brother who loves him and sticks by him and encourages him.
Final note, on pedagogy, since you asked a teacher your question, and you’ve stumbled into two of my bugaboos, namely 1) Education is about more than getting a job someday 2) Seriously, why “be educated” unless there is some pleasure & personal fulfillment aspect to it? One problem in Charlie’s life right now, a real problem, is that middle school schoolwork is fucking boring as fuck. It was boring as fuck when I was in middle school and reading secretly* under my desk, and you could not pay me to redo that stuff now. Online courses can be great, if there is a lot of student-teacher attention and interaction, and the course materials are made by someone with basic design/videography skills, but it can also be very boring and hard to make yourself sit through. I’m taking a class on teaching & learning online through Coursera, and even though the videos are decently-produced and it’s a subject I actually care about, it’s still a struggle for me to get my ass in the chair to focus on something that feels dry and impersonal for a visual learner like myself.
One way to motivate Charlie as a learner is to plunge him into more advanced, age-appropriate material that he can read for pleasure. Middle school history texts and reading exercises, or Devil in the White City? A Distant Mirror? Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee? Guns, Germs, and Steel? Manhunt? There’s a lot of good stuff out there for someone who is interested in the military down the road, right? And I’m sure this commentariat can recommend more history books and popular science books for a Big Brother/Little Brother Book Club. The other thing I suggest is signing him up for in-person arts classes if possible: theater, film, music, whatever. They have a social aspect to them, they involve doing and making, and he doesn’t have to become a professional artist or musician to benefit from learning something about them. Divorce yourself from the idea that he needs to “learn the basics first”, or somehow “earn” the pleasures of “difficult,” interesting books or creative arts. A kid who gets sucked into subject matter and a kid who is learning something as part of a community is a kid who will level up so fast you won’t even be able to see it.
*Not so secretly, since my 6th grade teacher started acquiring new books and placing them at my eye level on the shelf right next to my desk. ❤