High Altitude Homeschooling: My unique path into medicine

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

There's been a lot of recent talk about "learning pods" as a new concept of small-group education as an alternative to traditional large classroom learning. While this may be a new concept for most, it is very familiar to me. I've had friends and patients reaching out lately, asking "As a provider and mother, what would you do? Would you send your child to school during this pandemic?" I can't offer educational advice, but I can share my own unique educational experience that led me to medicine.

For brief introduction, I'm a family nurse practitioner and owner of an integrative primary care clinic in Bend, Oregon, called Hearthside Medicine Family Care. Most people don't know that I was a homeschooling pioneer of the early 1980s and 90s. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, but I was a wild child whose grades and behavior were plummeting, and my mother was desperate for a solution.

“Your daughter got another pink slip, today,” my disgruntled kindergarten teacher told my weary-eyed mother. “This time she grabbed a boy’s hat off his head and flushed it down the toilet. She also doesn’t pay attention during class time and is not keeping up.”

My mother grimaced. Last time she got called, it was because my friend Melissa and I were pulling chairs out from under our classmates when they went to sit down. There was also that time I may I have climbed up some stairs to pour a Sprite over the head of an unsuspecting boy below who bullied me relentlessly.

But the behavior wasn’t really the motivation driving my mother to consider being a revolutionary. My teacher was threatening to hold me back a grade—as in, repeat kindergarten. I don’t recall what my scores were, but close enough to indicate by public school standards that I was “failing” kindergarten. Somehow, I scraped by and made it to first grade. However, first grade was also a flop, and again, teachers contacted my mother. “We need to consider holding her back or getting her some tutoring help,” they relayed. "She is too distracted in class and not keeping up."

With growing frustration, my mother pulled me out of public school. My elder sister, 10 years my senior, and my brother, 8 yrs my senior, both succeeded “just fine” in public school, so the decision to home educate was a deviation from family norm. It was going to be “an experiment for one year.” My mother was clear that her goal was to teach me herself to see if my tests scores would improve.

She diligently selected my course materials, and one by one, textbooks would arrive in UPS packages on our porch. Her plan succeeded. I went from about a 37% passing rate to 98% passing rate on the standardized test by the end of 2nd grade. And so began many years of homeschooling--from 2nd grade through 9th grade.

I flourished having one-on-one attention with my education, and homeschooling cultivated in me a love for learning. I would sit down with my mother on the couch and sift through the homeschool textbook catalog for my curriculum each semester, each year. I played an active role in my own learning from an early age.

When the books would arrive, it was Christmas on the porch. I’d run to the door and eagerly tear apart the boxes, pouring over my new learning materials. I vividly remember the day my Saxon’s “lightly used” Algebra book arrived, bright blue and perfect, like a new baby—but resuscitated. The epitome of nerd in me sat cross-legged on the couch, trying to solve X’s and Y’s, my dad leaning in over my shoulder to offer some insights.

There were pros and cons to being home- educated.

I’ll start with the pros.

*My behavior improved (per mom)

*I developed a love for learning that was self-directed (this proved to be an invaluable acquisition of self-paced learning that has stayed with me through college, a master’s program, and a post-master’s degree)

*Everything became a learning experience, including field trips around the town studying ecology and geology, learning about spore formation and penicillin when the bread had mold on it, writing a book report about something I’d recently read. Learning became something I loved, was invested in, and actively involved in. This stayed with me for life.

*If I had ADHD (up for debate), the shorter, more concise school days, low in stimulation, with plenty of outside learning activities, seemed to be “the cure.”

*I developed a few close friends with whom our family created a small cohort ("learning pods")

*I was articulate and could converse with adults (since I spent so much time with adults) and understood complex subject materials compared to many of my peers in the same grade

*I could work at my own pace, without feeling pressured

*My school was portable and affordable

* I developed leadership skills & self-direction that has benefited me through life

The were cons too, of course.

Some folks in our community associated homeschoolers with being social outcasts and misfits; I would often hear other parents refer to homeschoolers as “kids with poor social skills at high risk for learning deficits due to lack of formal education and socialization”, so I grew accustomed to skeptical and concerned adults surreptitiously prodding me for intel. School teachers were the worst (in hindsight, there are homeschoolers who met the above description, so now I understand their concern). “Does your mom teach you? " They'd prod. "What does she teach you? What are you learning in math class? Do you have any friends? Do you get to play any sports?”

My parents received similar—“Aren’t you worried she won’t be able to keep up in a traditional educational system or in college?” “Aren’t you concerned she won’t have any socialization skills?” These were questions my parents frequently fielded. Even my siblings were worried for me. After all, being one of the few homeschooling pioneers in an isolated mountain town made me somewhat of a pilot program.

Being the subject of a home school experiment meant my parents and I were under the microscope. In hindsight, I believe my mom felt this intensely. She maintained meticulous records of my exact daily schedule—what I learned, what time I learned (history: 10 am -11 am), and my grades. I had to take regular tests for each subject, often weekly, and the grades were stored in a well-organized file cabinet.

My mother was always “prepared” for an investigation by the state, always worried someone from the school board would report us for not “being at school”. There was a fair amount of paranoia that accompanied being scrutinized. I recall in particular one day when my mother had to go to the post office. It was not quite 3 pm yet, so the children at the school across the street were still in session. The postman looked inquisitively at me, then at my mother, then back at me, carefully measuring his words. “Young man, why aren’t you at school? Special day with mom, is it?”

This wasn’t my first rodeo with gender confusion and home-education interrogation, but still I’d blush with embarrassment and then anger that he thought I was a boy and wasn’t minding his own business. It didn’t help that my mother gave me crew cuts and dressed me in trousers and plaid collar shirts.

I had been prepped for moments like these. “Just tell them you didn’t feel well and needed to stay home today if they ask,” mom would sometimes pre-direct. It wasn’t that she was ashamed of homeschooling me so much as she was worried I think that somehow, someway, someone would “report her” for not having me in school—not to mention, the alternative of answering truthfully with “we homeschool” often turned into a 30 min unwanted discourse. After several of those incidents, mom decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, so we didn’t venture into town between school hours.

My father was the town pharmacist and my mother held a master's degree . She had taught college-level courses before putting her career on the back burner to educate me at home full-time. They both truly enjoyed teaching me, and likewise, I really liked having my parents be my teachers. I won't lie though. There were definitely times I felt left out and wished I could be "in real school."

Peers would ask, “What’s it like having your mom be your teacher? Is it weird? That must suck so much.”

It didn’t suck. In fact, I looked forward to most school days like a new adventure. Because I enjoyed it, I was efficient. My typical day of study was from 8:30 am to 12:30pm, without many breaks. The rest of the day was left for creative play. We’d also do a little study during summer. My parents made a point to search out learning adventures for me, such as field trips to historical sites or museums when on vacation. They’d make an entire history lesson out of a day trip to see the Statue of Liberty, and then have me write a research paper on Ellis Island and immigration. They’d both carefully edit my writing and provide feedback, encouraging me to make the necessary factual and grammatical corrections.

We had a dedicated “school room”, which I helped my mom prep each school year by hanging up educational posters, maps, graphs, and globes. We also had a small library that received generous use, a science lab, and various model skeletons my dad and I had built together for anatomy class—one with a developing fetus en utero.

During second grade and third grade, there was only a couple other homeschooling families I remember interacting with. In the 80’s, our Colorado mountain town, elevation 7,700 feet, population around 5,000, wasn’t known for its “homeschooling community.”

The other homeschoolers built their own teepees, made homemade bread, milked their own cows, raised chickens, and kept to themselves. According to my parents, there were two main types of homeschoolers: “hippy homeschoolers" and "homestead homeschoolers." We didn't fit well into either category. Some of the families in our community that chose to homeschool did so because they were “anti-establishment” and distrustful of “big brother.” That’s not why we homeschooled. Had my teachers never suggested holding me back, I’d probably have had a more traditional education.

While my parents did not consider themselves hippies (I’d argue this point), I was certainly raised “naturally”—spending hours unsupervised and free-range, building booby traps and tree forts with the neighbor boys next door. Organic nutrition and exercise were strongly emphasized for preventive health in my home, and I was fully immunized, unlike some of the homeschooling families who believed vaccinations to be on par with the over-reach of the public school system and government.