Smashing Assumptions

Flute PracticeMy children’s flute teacher retired from teaching last month, and the process of finding a new flute teacher has been fraught. Their relationship with their teacher was so close, the thought of replacing her feels wrong, like we’re reducing our relationship to the mere pragmatics of finding someone to teach the mechanics of playing the flute when it was so much more.

“It’s like trying to find a new brother, or another parent,” my daughter says.

My son is reluctantly willing to play for prospective teachers, but insists he doesn’t want anyone but the teacher he’s known since he was eighteen months old to teach him.

The depth of my children’s connection doesn’t particularly surprise me, but the lessons I’m learning from this process are not the ones I expected. My daughter is quite advanced in her flute playing, so we’ve been focusing primarily on the obvious hard-hitters of the eastern Massachusetts flute scene, which are numerous but often a significant distance from where we live.

During this process, I learned that a fellow homeschooling mom is a piano and flute teacher, and she teaches right here in town. After I spoke with her, I decided we’d consider her for flute for my son or piano for both kids, but I thought she wasn’t high enough caliber to be my daughter’s flute teacher. This might be true, but when I went over my reasons for this assumption, I was really surprised with myself.

Here was a teacher with similar credentials, experience, and mentors as the other teachers we’re interviewing, but I put her at the bottom of the stack because she’s a homeschooling mom.

Like me.

That was a shock. It’s quite possible that this teacher will not be a match for my daughter, but I shouldn’t dismiss her because she’s a mother and a homeschooler. Here I am spending conscious effort every day to change the negative perceptions people have of stay-at-home parents, and I’m applying the same stereotypes I’m trying to fight.

I’m trying to see how positive it is that I even recognized this latent assumption and how it colors how I perceive other women, but at the moment, I’m just ashamed and very, very sad.

What does this say about how I think of myself? Why am I engaging in such self-defeating thinking? I’ve internalized the messages of our culture, that by choosing to focus on motherhood and put career well down on my list of priorities, I’ve relinquished my claim on any expertise I might have. What would the nineteen-year-old me sitting and steaming in Women’s Studies classes think?

How many times have I dismissed fellow mothers and not even realized it? How many other assumptions and biases influence my perceptions every day?

I’m trying—trying—to feel hopeful that this awareness will help me get better at seeing people for who they are in the future, instead of blindly following my biases. I’m starting by scheduling trial flute lessons for my daughter with the homeschooling mom flute teacher. If she’s not a match, she’s not a match, but I won’t be writing her off simply because she’s chosen a path similar to mine.

Weirdos Unite!

Hubble telescope picture of the Whirlpool Galaxy.
With all of this out there, does it make sense to focus on our differences? (Image via Wikipedia)

Last night, my husband came home from a day-long work event with a story.

He and his colleagues were eating lunch together, when one of his colleagues at the end of the table—I’ll call him Tony—revealed that he had seven children.

“Oh, my GOD!” came the chorus from the table.

“Oh, but you don’t even know the half of it!” said one of his colleagues amid the laughter and ribbing.

At this Tony excused himself and left the table, unwilling to have his life choices judged by a group of hyenas.

Not only does Tony have seven children, he and his wife homeschool. *GASP*

Amid the titter of agreement that Tony was, simply, insane, the guy next to my husband nudged him.

“Hey, don’t you homeschool?”

“Yes,” my husband replied, “yes we do.”

We know Tony and his wife through the homeschooling community. We know Tony and his family to be generous and kind. When he found out we didn’t have a GPS, he gave us one of theirs. They have different politics than we do and I, frankly, feel a little ill when I think about the level of chaos they must deal with on a daily basis with that many humans living in one house (I can’t even wrangle two kids into the car without totally losing my mind), but their choices aren’t who they are. Their choices reflect their values, but you can’t necessarily assume what those values are just by looking at their choices.

This is perhaps one of the best lessons I learned living in Utah. As homeschooling homebirthers, our paths intersect with both very “conservative” and very “liberal” families. In Utah, we also had the privilege of knowing people with quite large families, many of whom birthed at home and/or schooled at home. Some of them were conservative, some were liberal, most were Mormon, but then so was most of the general population there, regardless of family size.

Another of the things I learned (re-learned, over and over and over) in Utah is that political and religious affiliations often just serve as smoke screens for what people really value. Someone says, “I’m Mormon” or “I’m Unitarian Universalist” or “I’m conservative” or “I’m crunchy” and people make assumptions about that person’s values based on whatever stereotypes they hold about those labels. But you can be a Mormon who believes in legalizing gay marriage and you can be a Unitarian Universalist who believes in small government. You can keep chickens in your backyard and cloth diapers on your kids and make your own deodorant and vote any way you want to.

I find that the same thing happens when I say I homeschool or, apparently, when someone says he has seven kids. People make assumptions about our values based on our actions. But if we can sit down and have a conversation about our choices and why we’ve made them, we find that our values aren’t binary. They are much more nuanced than that, and if we can get past the assumptions and the defensiveness and the (sometimes) evangelism and really connect on the level of feelings and needs (oops, there’s the “crunchy” again), I find that we’re more similar than we are different, regardless of our choices.

If we focus on our differences, those differences seem too big to surmount. But when we focus on our similarities, the differences seem smaller and smaller.

The ray of light for my husband as he willingly served as the face of homeschooling at lunch yesterday was when one coworker asked, “How do you teach your kids something that you don’t know?”

This was a real question that came from curiosity and actual interest rather than the assumption that my husband was a weirdo.

My husband came away from the conversation feeling good that he had made a real connection with one person about homeschooling and that he had taken some of the heat away from Tony.

I told him, though, that if he really wanted to take the scrutiny off of Tony, he should have told them about our homebirth.