Writing through homeschooling

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This is a guest post by Cassie Hamer

Until two weeks ago, I’d never ever contemplated the idea of homeschooling my three daughters. Not once. Not ever. Never ever ever. Can I make that any clearer? 

Never. 

As an author and mum of three, school has been a life-saver. For the past two years, since my third child started kindergarten, I’ve had the extraordinary blessing of a guaranteed six hours a day of peace and quiet. 

When I get home from drop-off, I’m quite sure I can hear the house exhale – or maybe that’s just me – expressing relief in the knowledge that for the next few hours, it’s just me tapping away at the computer in my light, white kitchen, and our puppy dozing at my feet. Bliss. 

Not anymore.

In recent days, as our daughters’ schools have all switched to remote learning, our home has been rebadged as the Hamer Academy for Wayward Girls. We have colour houses – Williams, Healey, Blyton and Watson. I’m in Blyton, obviously. 

I’ve already resigned as Principal. Or, more accurately, I tried it for a day and got sacked. My husband is now top-banana and I’ve been demoted to assistant teacher which means I help set up tasks for the day, then relegate myself to the smelly, dusty garage so I can do a bit of work. 

When Principal Husband is at wits’ end, he summons the reinforcement: me.

Yesterday’s challenge was to teach a seven year-old the meaning of ‘metaphor’. This was off the back of previous activities, learning about similes, adjectives and adverbs. Perfect! I thought. English, I can do. (It’s about all I can do)

 ‘Metaphor’, I began, ‘is a figure of speech in which you describe an object, symbolically, in a way that isn’t literally true.’

Cue my daughter’s cocked head and scrunched eyes of confusion.

‘Okay,’ I started again. ‘A metaphor is when you say one thing is another, when it’s not.’

Glazed blinking.

‘Right.’ Third time lucky. ‘A metaphor is when you say something is like something else, but you just remove the word like. So, for instance, the sun was like a fireball is a simile. The sun was a fireball is a metaphor,’ I finished.

This explanation seemed to satisfy her and she was kind enough to ignore the mundane cliched example. She nodded and started to write her own metaphor, as prescribed by the teacher.   

‘My dad’s hair is a black woolly shaved sheep’s head.’

Hmmm…

This morning, we woke to find my daughter’s second grade teacher had emailed us a survey with a range of questions about remote learning. What did she like? What was she finding hard?

‘I miss school,’ she said. ‘I miss having teachers that actually, like, know something and can explain it.’ 

Ouch.

I’m sorry she feels we’re poor teachers (she won’t countenance the idea that a teacher is only as good as a willing student) but I’ve found the homeschooling experience to be quite instructive to my own process as an author.

Becoming more familiar with the primary school English curriculum than I had ever hoped has made me realise that the adult writer must unlearn many habits of craft that are ingrained as a child.  

This is not a criticism of teachers but more of the system itself. The ‘success criteria’ for narrative writing is explicit and relies, in part, on the competent use of ‘descriptive writing’, which is largely interpreted as their capacity to use adjectives and adverbs and use them liberally.

Argh! Those pesky ‘-ly' words might help a kid get a band six in Year Three Naplan, but if you’re still using them as an adult writer, they’ll earn you nothing but angry red pen marks from a professional editor.

My second big take away from homeschooling is that it’s a full-time job, especially if the kids are young. If you already have a (paying) full-time job, it doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that something has to give. And where does creative writing sit in all of this, especially if it’s not your paid profession?

I don’t have the answers. This world is a new one and there are no experts here. All we can do is be kind to ourselves and others. The privilege of uninterrupted writing hours is gone, but not for good. 

In this odd interim, there are still cracks of time for writing. For me, journaling feels appropriate right now – jotting down dot points that capture how it felt to live through this strange new reality. Honestly, in this moment, writing light-hearted fiction of the type for which I’m known feels frivolous and impossible. 

The earth has tilted on its axis. At some point, it will tilt back, perhaps not quite to the same angle, but something that at least allows the words to start trickling again and when it does, it’s going to feel amazing.

The End of Cuthbert Close by Cassie Hamer, RRP $29.99 is out now 

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