Patricia O’Sullivan Interviews Charity Hawkins

Patricia O'Sullivan

PO: Why did you decide to homeschool your children?

CH: My story is a lot like Julianne’s in the book. We knew a lot of people who homeschooled, and my husband liked the idea. He’s a very quiet, non-opinionated person, but he had an opinion about this! So, I figured I’d try it for a few years, do my best, and then we’d put the kids in school somewhere.

Something in me liked the idea of trying homeschooling. It seemed like such a rich, beautiful type of education and childhood.  I liked the idea of saving tens of thousands of dollars a year over private school, and hoped we could use that money to travel with the kids instead, introducing them to the world firsthand.

But homeschooling was just so hard. It was eating my lunch. I didn’t see how people did this all day long, year after year. Throughout the course of three years, though, the last being the hardest, God changed my heart.  I started to feel called to homeschool, at least now, when my children are young. I also started to see the benefits of it: how each child could have one-on-one teaching, explore their own interests, develop close relationships with each other, read great literature and poetry, and learn about God and His Creation.

Homeschooling is still hard, but it has gotten easier, and that’s the story I wanted to tell to other moms with this book. Just like motherhood, homeschooling is terrifying at the beginning (at least it was for me), and you wonder how you can do it, but it does get easier. And, as Todd Wilson says, “It’s hard, but it’s good.”

PO:  How have your book and your blog changed your homeschooling routine? When do you write?

CH:  I did a lot of the intense work last spring and summer after we’d finished school. I don’t think I could have written it while I was doing homeschool, because my brain was totally focused on the story. I was almost living in that world until I could get the story out.

Once I had the idea to write it as a novel, I just had to get the story out. I have three kids, just like Julianne in the book, so we’d be at the park and my kids would be swinging, and I’d be writing the next scene inside my head. I would imagine: If Vicky were a real person, what would she be wearing? What would she be saying? What would we be eating for lunch? I might jot down notes. (I would, you know, talk to my children, and feed them and all, but I was not doing any deep teaching or conversation! They didn’t really notice.)

Then, during my toddler’s nap and older kids’ rest time, I would write for two hours straight. When my husband came home from work, I’d work from about 6 p.m. to about midnight. It was crazy. That was all I did for three weeks straight. I just had to get the story out. I didn’t cook; I didn’t clean; I ate in front of the computer. (I am not recommending this as a balanced approach to life; this is just how it happened!)

The rough first draft was done in three weeks. I worked on rewriting and revisions at a slower pace throughout the summer and fall. Mostly it was during nap time or on weekends or evenings when my husband was home. Then it might have averaged two to four hours a day. I absolutely could not have done this without my husband. I worked on editing a lot over Christmas when my mom was in town. She watched the kids a few full days for me.

The book was released in March 2012, and things have been very busy again with promotional work. I’m trying my best to keep book-related work to the kids’ nap/rest times and to Friday afternoons, when the kids go to a babysitter or my in-laws (unlike the ones in the book, my real in-laws are very helpful and supportive). But I do have to admit, right now my kids are watching WildKratts as I type this. So, I guess I work on book stuff during rest time, Friday afternoons, and during WildKratts.

Charity Hawkins

PO: The majority of homeschooling parents are moms. But more and more dads are staying home with their children as moms become the breadwinners. How do you think stay-at-home dads will change homeschooling either in how it is carried out or how it is perceived by non-homeschoolers?

CH:  Wow, that’s a really good question. I think it would be hard for a homeschooling dad because there are so few. They probably feel out-of-place at homeschool meetings or co-ops. I would guess homeschool dads might form their own support groups because it’s so important to have that encouragement when they’ve had a bad day.  My publisher, Familyman Ministries, started in order to support dads in their roles at home, and maybe that type of thing will grow.

One positive element would be the impact of dads on their kids. Sometimes fathers don’t get to teach character, or model reading for their sons, or do science experiments with their kids as much as they would like because they are just so busy working. I know that’s true in our family. So having the dad at home, even if it’s just for a season, could be a really neat time in their family life.

PO:  Why did you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir or self-help book?

CH:  I wanted to tell about this homeschool journey, but I was having trouble finding the right voice. Was it the voice of experience, as someone who has homeschooled for several years? (But then you sort of feel like a loser when you read books where the author seems to have it all figured out, and I certainly don’t have it all figured out.) Or was it the voice of inexperience, someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing? (The way most of us feel starting out, but why would you want to read a book by someone totally clueless?)

I had just finished reading Little Women with my book club, and God gave me the idea to write my story as a novel. You have to understand, I had no aspirations of writing a novel. I had never considered such a thing! Plus, writing a novel sounded so hard!  (I’m starting to sound whiny here, aren’t I? “Homeschooling is so hard! Writing a novel is so hard! But they are!)

As soon as I thought about it as a novel, everything clicked. The narrator could be starting out and clueless. I could have the wiser moms who would be the voice of wisdom. I could make up some characters to create tension, spur self-doubt, and be those critical voices we all hear. The narrator could be funny, yet thoughtful, as she grows and matures. Plus, writing it as fiction gave me latitude with the details. I could condense three or four years into one, I could make up a fabulous finale for dramatic effect, I could change names, and I could make the main character’s breakdown when it worked for the plot. Also, because I was writing so candidly about my children and family, I wanted to use a pen name to protect everyone’s privacy. That made more sense with fiction.

PO:  Most homeschooled children enter traditional schools right on track with their peers. Some, like Christopher Paolini and Emerson Spartz, enter college having achieved amazing creative success they credit to their homeschooling experience. However, some homeschoolers have come under fire for not adequately educating their children. In fact, some homeschooled children are speaking out against the lack of state standards or yearly benchmarks for homeschoolers. Do you think there should be state standards or benchmarks for homeschooling. Why or why not?

CH:  I certainly can understand the need to make sure that children are well-educated.  The Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has a great document that summarizes the findings of a National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) study. It found homeschooled students outperform their public school counterparts by 30-37 percentage points. The average in public school is 50%. Homeschooled students were around 80-87%. That’s incredible. So, homeschooled students are statistically performing dramatically above public school students.

What if the mother didn’t even graduate high school? How can she teach? That same study shows that the one-on-one tutoring effect more than negates the lack of education. The average homeschooled student whose mother didn’t graduate high school scored in the 83rd percentile in math, versus the 28th percentile for the public school student. I had to read this study several times; I kept thinking I was misunderstanding. The advantage is huge.

There is also an extremely convincing chart in the same document that shows no correlation between states’ regulation of homeschooling and student achievement. Highly regulated states had absolutely no advantage over the less regulated ones. So, why spend taxpayer money, impose burdens on homeschool parents, and raise barriers to homeschooling if it doesn’t actually accomplish anything? I have no idea. Maybe there are some teachers’ unions pushing for it? I really don’t understand the motivation.

I’m against regulation for personal reasons as well. Every time standards are imposed, freedoms are lost. Would I have time to teach my children to memorize poetry and great artwork if I had to worry about meeting state standards at the end of the year? I have given my son standardized tests, just for my own knowledge, and there have been whole sections he has not performed well on because the questions were in a format our curriculum didn’t use. I’d ask him the same questions later, and he’d know all the answers. So, the problem was—we hadn’t practiced for that particular test question format. Do I want to spend my time teaching test-taking skills or the actual information, or on teaching my children to think? Plus, what about all the things you can’t measure with tests, like creativity, diligence, compassion, independence, and leadership?

I understand people’s hesitation if they are not familiar with homeschooling, but most of the time those fears are not based in fact. Any concerns about abuse or neglect are covered with child welfare laws. People may be worried about a child falling through the cracks, but what about all the students that drop out or get an inadequate education in the public schools? I think most homeschoolers are doing an exemplary job, and the research supports that.

PO:  There are so many stay-at-home moms who have become writing successes such as J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Ally Condi, and Wendy Walker. Do you think their success has changed the public perception of stay-at-home moms? Did any of them inspire you to write?

CH: I was inspired by hearing an interview with Barbara Kingsolver on the Diane Rhem show where she said when she had young kids she would spend a couple hours in the closet at night writing in a notebook. I thought, okay, if Barbara Kingsolver did it, it can be done. I didn’t even have any clear writing aspirations at that point, it just stuck in the back of my head. I have always written, but never really knew what direction to pursue. Another of my favorite authors, Catherine Newman, has written beautifully about motherhood, and she inspired me with the way she wove humor, honesty, and depth together in writing about this life at home with young children. I saw that it could be done.

I do have to say though, that for me, I don’t think I can balance being a homeschooling mom (the kind I want to be) with being a part-time author. It’s too much for me. I worked very hard on this book, but it was something I just felt called to share to encourage other moms, and it was for a season. I might like to write another book in ten or twenty years, but not tomorrow. I am also inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who didn’t start writing her books until she was sixty-five. Until that time, she was living her life, learning, growing, and enjoying language.

And I really want moms to understand: I had to take things off my list in order to write this book. Already I’ve had some of my friends, who should know better, think I have effortlessly done this and they “must be lazy” because they haven’t done anything on the side. In order to write this book, my house was a mess, we ate Wendy’s and pizza all the time, I didn’t read to my kids as much as I wanted, I barely talked to my husband, and I was a bit stressed out. It’s not like we had a perfect house, perfect kids, perfect homeschool, oh, and I happened to write a novel. It was a trade-off. I was willing to make it for one year, but not on an ongoing basis. I just find for me, being an engaged wife, mother, and homeschooler leaves very little time for much else.  That’s awesome if someone else can do it well; I don’t think I can.

So for now, I really want to cherish these years when my kids are young. I can’t do that if I am at the computer six hours a day. This is a season, of young children and homeschooling, and for me, writing any more novels will have to wait.  The blog is a good outlet, I think, because I can still write a bit. I do love writing and words, and Catherine Newman showed me how to write beautifully about this funny life with children in a essay-type format. So, I can spend an afternoon once a month and write a few blog posts, schedule them, and be done for the month. I think that’s something that will work for this season.

Thank you so much for interviewing me. I am so honored!

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