This summer, my fourth child is now my size, even though she is only 12. Many children outgrow their mothers. The unusual thing here is that I am 6’0” and three of these four older children are daughters. We have a remarkably tall family. Now that two-thirds of my children are nearly fully grown, we felt we could justify the expense of two adult XL mountain bikes. Our home has easy access to trails, so, without pausing to read an instruction manual or get feedback from experienced bikers, we began biking.
Turns out the trails in closest proximity aren’t for beginners. As I struggled on those initial rides, the first thing I noticed was how similar mountain biking is to homeschooling. Perhaps you don’t think of homeschooling as having anything in common with this thrill-seeking log-jumping activity on two wheels. But, I’m writing to change your opinion. Here’s what may surprise you about homeschoolers: one of our key attributes is that we are risk takers. Choosing homeschool means we have stepped off the paved path of standardized education.
Here are five things mountain biking and homeschooling have in common: the semantics of participation and deciding who is in the “club”; the response to fear and the challenge with aim; the reality of ruts in the road; the necessity of community.
Definition of a Mountain Biker
Right away, I realized I couldn’t safely bike up or down all the narrow hills I encountered. I also wasn’t comfortable riding through the stream crossings. As a beginner, I dismount my bike during those tricky spots. Just because I walk my bike some of the time doesn’t mean I’m not a mountain biker. What really makes someone a mountain biker? Owning a bike isn’t sufficient. A mountain biker is a person making an attempt to ride a trail.
The definition of homeschooling can be fuzzy. Recently, due to the school closures related to the pandemic, many parents have said, “I tried homeschooling.” Sometimes they were implementing the school district’s lesson plans in their own home; sometimes they were doing their own thing. To me, homeschooling is best described by three key actions: participating in your child’s education by collecting appropriate resources and supplies, making decisions about the education of your child independent of a supervisor, and centering your attention on the individual learning pace of your child. Regardless of your speed (whether you are walking or riding), you are a homeschooler if you are making these efforts.
I got on my mountain bike and expected it to be similar to road biking. It wasn’t! First off, there’s the adrenaline rush of doing something dangerous. Generally, I am a rather timid, cautious person. On my first downhill, I was unprepared for the slope, the speed, and the feeling of imminent injury. I didn’t have a sense of control. The response of the bike on the rocks and ruts was unfamiliar and thus unpredictable. I did not know exactly how to tackle the challenges of the path. Fear took over all conscious thought. Biking can be a mental mountain.
When I first began homeschooling, I also felt fearful. I don’t have a degree in education. I taught reading unconventionally, unaware of some of the standard strategies. Though I have homeschooled my six children continuously and my oldest is now 20, I still feel some fear about homeschooling. I don’t choose to homeschool because I am fearless. I homeschool because I am willing. Willing to customize, to try again, to be engaged in the learning process, to own the responsibility. My belief is that all homeschoolers, no matter how confident, will feel some fear. There are no guarantees. We don’t know how things will turn out.
Fear, for both mountain bikers and homeschoolers, gets in the way. Recklessness isn’t the antidote; audacity is. With audacity in hand, we can prove our fears wrong. Audacity clears our head, enables decision making,and propels us to action. Remaining mobilized is a key in mountain biking. Looking past the obstacle allows our vision to carry us successfully forward. Homeschooling similarly relies on this forward motion. The more successful days of learning we experience, the more we want to continue.
Dodging overhanging branches and tendrils of thorny vines while scanning the trail ahead for the next obstacle means I don’t have much time to calculate my aim while I’m on my bike. At one point, my path dipped to the rim of the river. I hesitated, trying to estimate the width of the path. The handlebars on my mountain bike are much wider than my road bike. As a result, I overcorrected. My aim initially took me towards the slope of the path furthest away from the river, but there wasn’t room for my bike there. I slipped. I narrowly missed ending up in the murky oozy water. Wanting to avoid obstacles is not the same as proactively choosing the path.
Some families begin homeschooling in order to avoid a bad situation at school. The families that homeschool in the long term aren’t just dodging what they don’t like, they are moving towards what they do want. For me, I remind myself to aim for customizability by noticing my children’s unique needs. “Look where you want to go” is an essential rule both for mountain biking and homeschooling.
Before I began mountain biking, I spoke casually about being in a rut. “Things feel monotonous and unpleasantly dull,” was what I used this phrase to mean. The first time I was actually in a physical rut on my bike, I discovered how gripping they are. There was no exit strategy. I had to “ride the rut.” This meant I had to keep my momentum going until I was all the way through.
With homeschooling, there have been times when I felt I wasn’t being creative enough. Applying what I learned on my bike, though, there are times when I need to just continue forward with the routine. Even a tedious review of multiplication facts has a function and will bear fruit in the long term. I don’t have to beat myself up about the unglamorous aspects of home education.
Bike with a Buddy
After my first few stressful rides, I began to research more information about how to mountain bike. One piece of advice that came up over and over was to find a biking buddy. “Go riding with someone who is more skilled than you, someone that can push you and encourage you,” was the maxim.
This is true of homeschooling as well. Homeschoolers need homeschool buddies. In popular culture, homeschooling is virtually synonymous with “problems with socialization.” Homeschoolers are expected to be awkward. Yet, homeschooling isn’t forced isolation or obligatory oafishness. In reality, homeschoolers network and combine, collaborating beyond neighborhoods, religions, and grade levels.
Tension exists, though, since one of the defining characteristics of a homeschooler is that we are independent. Literally, the way you become a homeschooler is to defy the status quo and strike out on your own. Nonetheless, even the most resilient homeschoolers benefit from emotional support and camaraderie. I’ve personally benefited from that real-time peer support of shared experiences. I have been rallied and cheered on. My friendships with other homeschoolers have improved me.
Like mountain biking, homeschooling is potentially perilous. We homeschoolers feel the fear of the uncertainty, and yet we continue. We need to improve our aim, keeping in mind what we most want to cultivate. Creating a community around the endeavor (mountain biking or homeschooling) is essential. No matter how fast or how slow you bike, or your pace of your homeschooling, just keep riding.