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High Altitude Homeschooling: My unique path into medicine

Updated: Aug 4



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.


With my father in the health field, we remained strongly rooted in science, despite my parents holistic tendencies. My father introduced me to the field of complementary and alternative medicine, and I credit him for my love of integrative medicine, the blending of conventional medicine with more holistic practices such as plant-based medicine and Eastern medicine. From an early age, the principle of mind-body-spirit medicine was emphasized in my education and home life.


Though my father was a pharmacist, we didn’t have any medications in our home. Dad didn’t believe in taking medication unless we were sick enough to go to the hospital or ER. If I had a cold, I'd be given garlic capsules, L-lysine, vitamin C, zinc, and a massive smoothie full of spinach and OJ. We took our supplements and vitamins daily and had freshly squeezed veggie juice most mornings. We had no TV in our home either. To this day, I have very little interest in TV or movies—I far more enjoy writing or reading articles online when I have down time. If you make a pop culture reference from anything in the 80s and 90s, I’ll likely give you a zombie-like stare.


I didn’t have throngs of friends, but I built some close friendships with my neighbors, all who went to public school and eventually accepted me into the neighborhood pack.

My only close home-schooled friend, Sarah, lived about 45 minutes outside of town, up a rugged 4-wheel rutted out dirt road, in a homemade A-frame log cabin “off the grid” at 9,000 feet elevation. Sarah and I became fast friends, though we were different in many regards. Sarah only wore dresses, the home-made, Little House on the Prairie type with a white square of lace cloth that hung from the neck like a nun’s habit. She was an only child whose parents “fled” inner-city Denver to live their dream of re-creating Mountain Family Robinson in seclusion.


I often would have sleepovers at Sarah’s. Her family had no electricity, so when I came up from town, it was a very special occasion to turn on their generator, light the gas lamps, and watch a movie. For dinner, they’d make a fire in the oven, wait for it to heat, then cook dinner on top. One night we woke up to the gun-shots of her dad scaring away a bear from the chicken coop, the coop that we'd collect eggs from at 5 am the next morning for morning chores.


They had no running water, so Sarah and I would go down to the spring with buckets, about a ½ mile walk each way, and bring buckets back to heat over the fire. For bath time, we’d transfer our wood-stove heated water into the bath. The next day, we’d do some homeschooling together, then wander the mountains collecting rose hips and berries and helping with chores. We'd turn the forested berries into "fruit leather" for snacks after drying it over their woodstove that we had built a fire in that morning, along with the homemade jerkey from her dad's recent hunt.


“Aren’t you lonely?” was a question I was asked frequently, mostly by adults who held my parents in reproach for breaking out of the public school system. “How are you going to learn how to socialize?” “What about sports?” “Do you have any friends??” I grew tired of these questions that adults would often whisper to me when my parents were out of ear shot. It was true, I didn’t have flocks of friends, but I don’t remember feeling lonely too often—I had the neighborhood kids, church kids, and a few random homeschooling friends.

As far as sports, I grew up ice skating, playing a little hockey, skiing, doing gymnastics, and mostly, swimming. Turns out that swimming teams are very affordable when all you need is a swim suit, cap and goggles, so my folks were all about it. I swam for the local team “The Stingrays” for many years. For other extracurricular activities, I did a bit of 4H, Girl Scouts, and had piano lessons. In the summer, I attended camps where I learned to climb, hike 14ners (mountains over 14,000 ft), and mountain bike. I “bagged my first 14nr” around age 8.


However, being a homeschooler in a community not accustomed to homeschoolers was a bit like having leprosy—I was gawked at, scrutinized, gossiped about, bullied and teased from a very early age. I was often excluded, and this was indeed hurtful.


When it came time to “pick your teammates” during team sports, I was always the last to be picked by the “team captain.” The other kids all went to school together, so when the captain of each team was selecting teammates, I was the joke, the last one to get picked—whichever team got the “weird homeschooler” got laughed at. I felt this intensely.

When the school bus drove past my house, school kids would roll down the bus windows and holler and jeer at me: “There’s the dumb homeschooler! Hey, homeschool freak, how's it going?!” they’d laugh, pointing at me, everyone gawking like I was a side show. from the safety of the bus. I developed a fear of school buses well into my 20s.



One day while working on my subjects diligently at my kitchen table, my mother and I heard thumping sounds on the roof and then smashing sounds at our windows. We opened the front door to find a small gaggle of kids throwing rocks at our home, calling me names.

However, if you had asked me if I liked being homeschooled, which many adults did ask, my days of learning at home were generally regarded as “fun.”


We had a pretty set routine:

-Breakfast

-Math

-English (usually writing, grammar, reading comprehension)-my favorite part was diagramming sentences, poetry and creative writing—all of which I’d sometimes do for hours because it was “fun")

--Lunch

--Science (often taught by my dad, involving chemistry experiments, assembling model skeletons, studying cloud formations from the rooftop, etc)

--Home Economics (balancing my mom’s checkbook was a weekly assignment)

--Spanish (using audio tapes with a textbook, staying in the Dominican Republic for a couple months)

--Art or music and then social studies


Then I was done for the day, set free to explore cattle fields, barns, tire swings, and tree forts for hours (no cell phone or tracking devices—I have no idea how I’m still alive!)


Mom and dad would alternate teaching me—anything science or math based generally was taught by dad who had more science background, and anything regarding humanities was generally left to my mom. They also alternated taking me on “field trips” –to the fish hatchery, searching for insects under rocks (identifying genre, species etc), water damns (to learn about hydraulic engineering), and on and on.


Sometime around 4th grade, a couple more families started homeschooling. We’d do some “after school” play dates, but there were no organized co-op style learning opportunities or "learning pods." All that changed when we moved to the East Coast around 7th grade to be closer to my dad’s family.


In Virginia, my social life blossomed. There were so many homeschooling families that our parents formed a homeschool co-op of five or six families and arranged small group classes for certain subjects. One of the dads had his PhD in chemistry and taught this along with a lab. One of the moms had been a high school physics teacher and volunteered to teach a physics class + lab. Our parents paid them a small stipend. For subjects that needed a teacher with expertise not available to the parents, they hired public school teachers looking for “side job", such as our math and Spanish teachers. We met at a local church in small groups of 3-6 teens/pre-teens for “classroom time” about 3-4 days a week for an hour or two. The other subjects we completed at home on our own with our parents. For PE, I continued to participate on the local swimming team, gymnastics team, and do rec sports.


My parents became close friends with two of the ER physicians who attended our church. They caught wind of the fact that I had a deep interest in medicine and would often invite me to come “shadow” them at work. On several occasions, I’d accompany them to their shifts in rural hospital ERs and learn from them, eagerly soaking up everything I could learn. I credit them and my parents with cultivating my early love for medicine. My parents also supported my desire to volunteer with the doctors internationally, allowing me to accompany them on volunteer medical humanitarian trips to Honduras and Costa Rica where we’d set up make-shift medical tents and pharmacies.


At the end of 9th grade, my parents asked me if I wanted to try “real school.” I did, so they enrolled me in a private one. I fit in immediately, felt accepted and loved “real school”. I held a 4.0 at the end of the year and enjoyed having school friends, school sports, science fairs, and group classes immensely. However, at several grand a year, my parents could not justify the cost. Therefore, we decided as a family that I’d “skip” 11th and 12th grade, and go straight to the local community college to finish my junior and senior years of high school, finishing with a GED.


At the tender age of 16, I enrolled in college classes “for high school.” I thrived again—became president of student government and finished with a 4.0. During community college/high school, I also won a scholarship to attend a pre-med camp at University of Virginia Med School. This involved living on campus for a week and attending “med school” classes taught by medical students and residents, including a cadaver lab.


After 1 or 2 years at the community college, I applied to a handful of 4 year Colorado universities and was offered scholarships at University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State, and Western State. Ultimately, I ended up back in my Colorado home town where I had been homeschooled in the early years to attend Western State. Ironically, my mother was teaching speech and communication and my brother was teaching English and creative writing at my college. As they were required classes, I had both my brother and my mother for classes. My peers were astounded by this—“What is it like having your mom and brother being your college instructors?” They’d ask, mind blown. I smiled, not a stranger to that question.


I completed the pre-med track at Western State College and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Spanish and a minor in biology/pre-med. While in college, I sat on the student governance board, was a resident advisor, swam competitively, and worked part-time as medical assistant at the family clinic down the road.


After graduation, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. I was interested going into research in the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease), but also interested in going to med school. After exploring options that would allow me to integrate natural medicine with conventional medicine, I ultimately landed on the nurse practitioner (NP) role. I had looked closely at being a naturopath but wanted something a bit more grounded in conventional medical training with a broader scope of practice.


Finally, I settled on NP school and went to L.A. (culture shock!) to become an RN and complete my Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), working for several years as an RN in various roles, from ER and ICU to maternal-child health. Then, after getting some critical bedside nursing experience, I went back to school to become an acute care and family care nurse practitioner, through Colorado State University.


Many of my friends don’t know I was homeschooled and are typically surprised when they find out. “But you seem so normal,” they chuckle, tongue in cheek. I’ve learned to chuckle with them, after years of the same response followed by more predictable questions: “Did you like it? Do you have any regrets or wish you’d gone to real school?”


That’s a mixed bag. No, I don’t have regrets-I don’t think regrets serve much purpose. I do often wonder what my life might have looked like had I had the opportunity to have a more traditional education. There were little things that I felt envious of, like school sports. But overall, it seemed to work well for me. I've stayed in touch with my former "learning pod" friends. One is an RN, one a professional violinist and professor of English, another an attorney and another a professor of history.


So back to the question I'm fielding these days: “Would you homeschool your own kids?”


There is a pre-pandemic and mid-pandemic response to this.


“Heck no, I wouldn’t homeschool my own kids” I often used to retort with a smile, pre-pandemic. I love my kids, but I am absolutely ready to go back to work after one or two days at home with them all day. Some parents are extraordinary and have super-powers with staying home and teaching their kids full-time. I am not one of them.


I believe I was successfully homeschooled because I had a full-time stay-at-home parent who poured her life into my education. She was able to do this because the other parent had a full-time decent paying job and assisted in certain subjects. I don’t know what my education might have looked like otherwise. In my day, there was no such thing as “distance learning/online learning”, until high school. I did complete some of my community college classes online for my 11th and 12th grades, but mostly my classes were in-person. When I think about the prospect of teaching my own children, it feels daunting at best. I worry I won’t have the patience or motivation. That being said, I think “homeschooling” looks somewhat different now, with many more options and much more community.


My response is different now, however, mid-pandemic with a virus we don’t understand. For the folks who are asking me now, here’s what I've got: My children are not school age yet, but if they were, yes, I’d probably homeschool. If there was an option for a blend of homeschooling, distance learning, and very small "learning pods", that would be ideal. Even now, we’ve formed an intimate social circle with just a couple families—families that we trust are taking the same precautions we are taking: not mingling in large groups, wearing masks indoors in public places, maintaining social distance outdoors, having the common courtesy to self-quarantine if they were to get sick.


In my opinion, it isn’t worth taking the chances on a virus we understand so little about, especially the long-term implications of how infection may affect the heart, lungs, kidneys or other organs. What about socializing, you ask? They can socialize outside, at a distance, or with masks on, until we know more about how to prevent and treat this disease. My 3 and 4 year old do pretty great with masks, but I know that isn’t the reality for all kids, so I think homeschooling is a great option, for those who have the resources to do it.


There were a lot of positive things that came from homeschooling for me. I credit who I am today for that one-on-one learning opportunity and the opportunity to truly develop a love of learning and be intimately involved in my own education. However, quality education demands a lot from the parents, and I do wonder what that would look like for a family that may not have enough resources of time, money or education. I’m very grateful that my parents were so vested in my education and had the resources to be so—this is a luxury that many parents are not able to afford or want to do. I cannot emphasize enough the amount of time and energy my parents, especially my mother, put into my schooling. I was likewise was a highly motivated student in this dynamic. Had those factors been different, my education may have likely suffered.

About the author:

Havilah Brodhead is a board certified family nurse practitioner. She is an avid mountain biking mama with a 3 yr old and 4 yr old and owns an integrative medicine clinic, Hearthside Medicine Family Care in Bend, Oregon. She holds the following degrees: RN, B.A., MSN and FNP degree. Her husband is also an nurse practitioner, and together they enjoy mountain biking, being parents, teaching locally in the community, fascilitating continuing medical education classes for other providers, and putting on "mini-med" camps for kids.
















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