I’ve been sitting here marveling at the fact that I am still celebrating firsts in my life. I just recently celebrated my forty-seventh birthday, and for some reason I thought maybe those events would happen a lot less as I got older. I realize now what a silly way of thinking that was. While new things may not happen on a daily basis, life is ever changing. New opportunities arise all the time, and paths appear before me that I never imagined I’d discover. I find this truly amazing.
It feels as though we are constantly breaking new ground in our everyday lives. Last summer, my daughter graduated from high school. I homeschooled her from the time she was four until the month she turned eighteen. I won’t say everything about those fourteen years was easy, but I can honestly tell you that I loved being a homeschooling mom. That was a huge accomplishment for both of us, the day we gathered with our friends and family and celebrated the hard work we’d put in. Algebra. Need I say more?
I always thought I’d get to homeschool my son, who is three and a half years younger than his sister, all the way through his senior year of high school. That was the plan, and he and I were an outstanding team through the elementary and middle school years. High school? Not so much. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on both of our parts, I assure you. After a rough year, we decided maybe he and I had run our homeschool course. Maybe it was time to try something different. Homeschooling had been a good thing for us. We’d visited other options in the past, but we’d decided to stick with what was working. When it stopped working for him, we chose another path.
Those were both firsts for me; being the mom of a high school graduate, and suddenly not being a homeschooling mom anymore to either of my kids. They both happened nearly simultaneously, and it felt like an enormous shift in my life. I was prepared for one, not at all prepared for the other … but both of them turned out to be very good things.
The kids are on spring break this week. Scotty’s nearly through his first year in public school, and Maya will be completing her second semester of college here in about six weeks. They’ve both grown and changed so much through the years. I travel down memory lane quite frequently, and my most recent trip prompted this whole thinking about firsts I’ve been doing so much of lately. There was one in particular that came to mind. This happened back in 2011, and it was not only a first for Maya, but a first for homeschooled students across the U.S.
We were a part of a group called Cary Homeschoolers at the time. We were living in North Carolina, just a few minutes west of Raleigh. Wake County had seen its share of challenges when it came to the educational system, and many families had decided to pull their kids from public schools and homeschool them instead. There were more than 7,000 kids learning at home in just our county alone, so we had a lot of support and resources from which to draw. The group itself was comprised of more than 200 families, and we took part in a large number of educational events. One of them was a spelling bee.
This wasn’t just any spelling bee, though. It was the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which began back in 1925. It was held each and every year except 1943 – 1945 due to World War II. It wasn’t until eighty-six years after it’s conception that homeschooled students were allowed to compete. 2011 marked the first year homeschoolers were eligible, and Maya―who has always been an avid reader, and one who enjoys the way words work― decided she wanted to give it a go.
A fellow homeschooling mom―and an incredibly brave woman―took it upon herself to organize the regional bee. There were many rules to follow, much practicing, some tearful outbursts and a half dozen group practice rounds before Maya competed for the first time in January 2011. Maya’s hard work paid off, and she walked out of the Eva Perry Library the regional champion. Then she spent the next month preparing for the state bee that was held on the North Carolina State University campus in late February.
There was a lot more practice that took place, and a few more tearful outbursts―mostly Maya’s, although I might have shed a few tears as well―before the big day came. She competed with eighty-four other students that day. Four hours in, she was asked to spell a word that wasn’t pronounced the way she’d practiced it … and she misspelled it. It was not the easiest word on the twenty some page list Maya had been studying from. It wasn’t the hardest one, either. Still, she finished in twelfth place at the state level and will forever be one of the first homeschooled students to ever compete and win a regional round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
While not every first we’ll encounter in our lives will be as monumental as this one was for Maya, I’ve decided that every one of them is important and special in their own way. Even the firsts that aren’t necessarily positive serve to teach us and help us grow. Certainly, the ones that are, well, those are the ones that really need to be celebrated.
I’ll be honest … I’m glad we’re firmly settled into February. I always breathe a sigh of relief when those first thirty-one days of the new year have taken their leave and I can say goodbye to January. It’s an emotional thing, really. By the time January comes around, I’m still on a happiness high from autumn, which is my favorite season. I’m still giddy with the memory of a million shiny Christmas lights and brightly wrapped packages. January comes around and all that fades away. Sure, it’s the beginning of a brand-new year. Clean slate, right? Time to start over and make the best of the next twelve months. I get that. Still, I find January somewhat bleak, and maybe a little empty.
I’m not all about bleak or empty, so this year I decided to find a silver lining in this cold, less than fluffy January cloud. It didn’t take me long to come up with something that made me smile, something that helped redeem this month … even if only a little bit.
I was always a very frugal homeschooler. I worked as a writer/editor for an independent publisher during the first year and a half of my daughter’s life. When my kids were a little older, I went back to work for another magazine. I now own my own editing business, but for most of our homeschooling years, we lived on a single income. We were a no-frills kind of operation. We didn’t pay for cable television, I acted as barber for the entire family, I bought store brands, and one of my biggest resources for both homeschool curriculum and childhood entertainment was the library. I was a pro when it came to doing a lot for very little. We traveled this way, too.
In early 2011, my husband’s company enrolled him in a week-long class in Hanover, Maryland. He’s an IT guy. I have no idea what he does at work. He has a handful of different security clearances, and even if I had the patience to try to understand his job, he’s not allowed to tell me about it anyway. I didn’t know what the class was for, but still, I was intrigued.
I’d never been to Maryland and neither had the kids, and the fact that Washington, D.C. was but a short train ride from Hanover had not escaped my notice. I couldn’t ignore the poke and prod of a possible adventure, so I took it upon myself to do a bit of research. I was ready to present my case for tagging along with Steven by stating that it wouldn’t cost any more money in gas to have the three of us strapped into the car alongside him. There was space in the room for all of us to sleep, it was equipped with a kitchenette, and the hotel offered a full Continental breakfast every morning. Who needed to buy souvenirs? I had my camera, and most of the things I wanted to see were free. Either Steven was already prepared for me to take full advantage of his business trip―I was a pro at this sort of thing and had done this more than once before― or the horrible head cold he’d been suffering from for more than a week had weakened his resolve. The four of us packed ourselves up, loaded up into our little sedan and our (mis)adventure began.
I was an avid blogger back then. My blog was called Wing’in It―because I’m clever like that―and I chronicled everything to keep grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who lived more than 1,600 miles away up to date on all that was happening in the kids’ lives. The number of photos I uploaded during those six days nearly herniated Blogger as I sat in our hotel room writing my daily posts.
“Our first day in D.C. was amazing! It’s really cold here right now but we got to visit the Smithsonian today. We saw the skates Brian Boitano wore in the ’88 Olympics! The dinosaurs were incredible at the Museum of Natural History, and we got to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the original Kermit the Frog puppet and C3PO at the Museum of American History. We even met up with my friend Beth, who I haven’t seen since high school. She had lunch with us at the Old Post Office building. The elevator ride up to the clock tower was a little scary, but the view was spectacular. Steven’s not feeling great. I took him to a clinic today. The doctor says he has bronchitis, but he’s on antibiotics now, so hopefully he’ll start feeling better soon.”
Blog post day two:
“Woke up to snow. It’s beautiful but icy. The kids and I decided to spend the day at Arundel Mills mall near the hotel. This was the biggest mall I’ve ever seen. It has more than 200 stores and a passenger train that runs through the main common area. Maya and Scott rode a roller coaster simulator and ate Dippin’ Dots before we went and saw a movie at the huge Egyptian 24 theater.”
Those first two posts were lengthy; pages of text interspersed with a million photographs. I’m a writer, after all. So far so good, right?
Blog post day three:
“The kids and I went back into D.C. today. The sun was shining, but it was still very cold. Our first destination was Ford’s Theater. We saw the Presidential box where President Lincoln was sitting with his wife when John Wilkes Booth shot him in the head. It was very sobering to see the derringer pistol Booth used before jumping twelve feet down onto the small stage on which actors still perform today. We ventured past the White House and had a late lunch when we made a second stop at the National Museum of American History before heading back to the Smithsonian metro station.”
Okay, so, there may have been more to that post. I’m sure I mentioned the fact that the contact in my right eye began to fall apart somewhere between Ford’s Theater and the White House, and that Scotty, who had been acting a bit off since earlier that morning, dropped his nine-dollar chicken strips on the shiny tiled floor of the Stars and Stripes Café at the museum before we called it a day and lumbered back in the bitter cold toward the train. Oh, and I know I wrote about Maya’s fever that grew increasingly higher as she sat in the passenger seat of our Audi while I white-knuckled my way through rush hour traffic on I-495. To the kids’ dismay, I chronicled the assault of Q-tips up their noses and down their throats when we made a return trip to the clinic later that determined neither one of them was suffering from the flu. They were both diagnosed with bronchitis, though, and Maya wound up with a double ear infection.
“They’ve got their antibiotics and after a good night’s sleep, I’m sure they’ll be ready for more sightseeing,” I blogged, still as optimistic as ever, even though by that time my contact had torn completely in half and I was wearing glasses with a prescription that hadn’t been updated since I’d been pregnant with Maya almost twelve years earlier. At least that’s what I think I typed. Honestly, I’m not sure. It was kind of hard to see.
I was still flying the positive vibe on Thursday, although, admittedly, things were starting to feel a bit heavy. They grew more so when Steven got a phone call from his boss telling him that they had a company car for him there in Maryland, and he could just pick it up while he was there. The issue of a torn contact and out of date glasses grew to much more than an inconvenience when I realized that we’d have two cars to take home, and that I’d have the responsibility of driving me and the kids back to North Carolina.
Since the kids were lounging on the recliner and the couch in the hotel room, binging on episodes of Supernatural and breathing loudly through open mouths, I set about figuring out my contact dilemma. There was much red tape to cut through when it came to getting a copy of my current prescription, and once that feat was accomplished, no one was willing or able to get a pair of contacts or glasses ready for me within a day or two. The positive vibe, while more than a little strained, held steady. There was a solution. I just hadn’t found it yet.
Blog post for day four:
“I met one of Steven’s bosses today at breakfast. He seems really nice. The kids are still sick, and I’m unable to drive, but the hotel room is comfortable. We’ve got movies and TV and good food to eat. I have a new pair of contacts on the way, and hopefully we’ll get to see a bit more of D.C. over the weekend! “
Again, the devil is in the details. I did meet one of Steven’s bosses―when I went down to the dining room that morning to gather breakfast for my sick clan. I wasn’t prepared for such a meeting. I was wearing the sweatshirt I’d slept in, my unruly hair was piled in a teetering mess atop my head, and the only makeup I wore was what I’d applied the day before. Apparently, Steven had mentioned the fact that his family had come to D.C. with him during class one day. I’m not sure how this guy knew who I was―I stop myself from contemplating that every time it comes to mind―but when he approached me, his arm outstretched in an attempted handshake, I just smiled. I think I offered him an elbow because my hands were full. I remember feeling embarrassed as I was making my way back to our room with my arms loaded with cereal, pastries, juices and milk. “Way to make an impression,” I thought.
As you might have already guessed, our sightseeing had come to an abrupt halt. The kids were still feverish, coughing and droopy eyed, and Steven wasn’t doing much better. It had been decided that there would be no extended stay over the weekend, and that we’d be leaving on Friday as soon as class ended … or as soon as I could see again. I’d arranged for our good friend and neighbor who was taking care of our dog to overnight a pair of contacts to me. I was bummed about missing out on some of the places we hadn’t gotten to visit in the city, but I pushed that aside. I was determined that this trip would end on a high note. Things might not have turned out exactly as I’d planned, but in my way of thinking, the trip hadn’t been a total failure. At least not yet. At this point in time, I was willing to concede a win if I was able to see out of both eyes and get the kids and I back to our house successfully.
You can be optimistic and realistic at the same time.
I did get those contacts, and we were on the road just as soon as I popped them into my eyes. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if traveling to Washington, D.C. in January was the best idea. Maybe travel―or anything―isn’t good in January. I don’t know, but there is one thing I’m sure of. Even though that trip was an utter disaster, there was a silver lining. At least I got through it without getting bronchitis.
It’s winter, one of my most favorite times of the year. What’s even better is that it’s Christmas, and time to bake cookies! I have a lot of memories about cooking baking. As a child, my grandmother, Mimi, made a big deal out of baking and decorating cookies. She was alive long enough to introduce the yearly tradition to my kids, which I’m incredibly grateful for. As I sit here, I can recall the smell of freshly baked sugar cookies coming out of the oven, and taste the over-sweet flavor of powdered sugar icing dyed in bright shades of red, green, yellow and blue. The assorted sprinkles in various colors, the crimson and pine hued sprinkling sugars, and the red hots that more often than not made it to my mouth faster than the squishy surface of an over frosted cookie.
My kids and I are Colorado natives. The weather here is predictable in it’s unpredictability. It might not snow much throughout the winter, then dump a foot or more on us in April or May. We might have to wear sweatshirts during an unseasonably chilly week in July, or hunker down through thunderstorms in January. We may shake our heads at whatever sort of weather is happening at any given time, and yes, we do think it’s crazy, but as Coloradoans, the randomness―and the craziness― is all part of the package.
When we moved to North Carolina in early February of 2009, it was smack dab in the middle of winter. I think about that now, but I don’t recall giving it much thought back then. I didn’t give much thought to anything, truth be told, except packing, leaving my family, and trying to figure out how best to approach the subject of breaking a rental agreement with our not so easy to deal with landlord. The decision to relocate was one that had to be made within a couple of days. My kids were nine and six at the time, and although we’d moved many times around Colorado, this was the first time we’d ever relocated to another state. It was a no-brainer, really. Either we went and had a job, or we stayed and we didn’t. We opted for employment and vacated the premises. The only thoughts of weather and winter I had at the time was what we may be faced with on the road as we travelled the 1,675 miles eastward toward our new home.
Setting up our homeschool in North Carolina proved to be a little challenging. The rules for each state are different; some more lax than others. In Colorado, there were letters of intent and record keeping, such as attendance and vaccinations. We were to begin standardized testing at the end of third grade, then again at the end of fifth, seventh and ninth. There were guidelines, but not many, and I followed them all.
There were homeschool support groups, but none of them were near our location, and because my kids were involved in so many activities, I decided not to join any of them. That’s the big thing about those who don’t homeschool. The “S” word always comes up in conversation. Socialization. Are the kids integrated into the world enough? What about friends? What do your kids do all day? Are they active? Are they socializing? I could hear these questions before they were even spoken. So, I was always ready, whipping out the proverbial calendar, prepared to tell them about choir practice, soccer games, gymnastics, dance, piano lessons, swim team … the list went on and on. Quite honestly, it didn’t matter to me that I couldn’t find a homeschool group close to us. With all the socializing we were doing, I doubt I could have found any time to pencil one in.
When we settled into Wake County in Cary, North Carolina, we learned very quickly that the residents there were very unhappy with their school district. They were so unhappy that many of them decided to take matters into their own hands. There were more than 7,000 kids being homeschooled within the county, and there was constant grumbling about the education system. It was the perfect place for us for so many different reasons. Not only was it beautiful there, and we were lucky enough to find a rental house in a wonderful neighborhood, but many of the local businesses catered to those homeschooling families by offering discounts and special programs. We even got an educator’s discount from Barnes and Noble. I went from being the odd woman out to being one of the many moms who homeschooled her kids. Even though my son’s new best friend happened to attend public school, and his mom was a substitute teacher in the county, the idea that Scott learned at home was accepted without question. Merchants and other residents of the town who saw me during the day never asked me why my kids weren’t in school. We’d become the norm. At least in Wake County.
It took us awhile even after we settled into our new state before I entertained the idea of a homeschooling group. I had a lot more to do for North Carolina than I did for Colorado. I had to register our homeschool and jump through a few more administrative hoops to make sure we were legal and set up correctly. Testing was required yearly―something I was in total agreement with―and the kids even had school ID’s administered by the state. We’d added yoga, bowling leagues, book clubs, sailing lessons, robotics and art classes to our after-school schedule, and were busy exploring a whole section of the US that we’d never seen before. Socialization? Yeah. We still had it more than covered.
Another one of the variables we had to get used to in North Carolina was weather. The predictable unpredictability of Colorado had flown right out the window. We didn’t know what to expect. When judging whether a jacket was necessary, we’d take a peek outside. Sometimes it appeared cold, but when we’d touch our fingers to the window, the glass would be warm. What was this wonderful thing called humidity? My dry skin loved it, and my hair … well, my curly, uncontrollable hair was even more so in our new more southern clime, but that’s what hair ties were for, right? There were lightning bugs, and no coats for trick or treating. The kids had perpetually rosy cheeks from the heat in the summer, but could pull out their beloved sweatshirts in the cooler months. The lightning storms and heavy rain proved to be a bit scary, and I was worried about missing winters like I’d grown accustomed to, but all in all, the weather in our new home was close to perfect.
I liked it, but I wasn’t used to this new weather―specifically the humidity. I’d spent some time in Texas as a child, but it was always during the hottest times of the year. I’d visited Florida, too, but during Spring Break when the heat was still bearable. Humidity, in my mind, was a hot weather thing. I never thought about what humidity was like when the temperature dropped.
It took us a long time to decide to join the Cary Homeschoolers group. It was a large group made up of more than 200 families. I still wasn’t convinced it was something we needed, but decided to give it a try. It was winter time when we took part in our first group activity, which was a cookie exchange held at a local park. It was December, and the kids and I reenacted our yearly Christmas tradition of baking cookies. I went through a mental checklist, careful not to forget any of the things Mimi would have had on hand. It was our first Christmas away from her. I wanted to make sure I did it right.
The weather that day was indeed wintry. The kids and I bundled up as we were used to doing in Colorado. In ski country, you learn to layer, and we had our parkas, our hats and our gloves at the ready. We’d been inside all day, in our kitchen with a warm oven, and had gone from there to our car which had been tucked away in the garage overnight. When I pulled into the lot at the park and got out of the car, I got my first taste of cold, humid, winter air. It was … invigorating.
No amount of tepid cocoa could chase away the chill that afternoon. The three of us walked around, introduced ourselves and munched on a variety of different cookies and other sweet treats, shivering and teeth chattering the whole time. Plumes of frost appeared before our faces when we spoke, and by the time we decided to climb back into the car, we could no longer feel our fingers.
I think maybe that memory is such a strong one because it was a day of firsts. North Carolina was a lot warmer than I was used to, but I was happy to realize that I wouldn’t have to totally give up one of my favorite times of the year. I still got winter. I knew Mimi would be happy to hear that the kids and I had carried on her cookie decorating tradition … and that everyone who asked would be pleased to know that, even though it took us some time to warm up later, we had a blast while out socializing.
J.C. Wing has homeschooled her two children since May 2003. She served as a homeschooling resource for Kids 411, a magazine geared toward families in the Douglas County area of Parker and Castle Rock, Colorado. She wrote monthly articles about homeschooling based on her own long term experience on the subject, and did much research about different homeschooling programs and opportunities in the area. She also served as an editor and proofreader for other writers on staff. After moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, J.C. became involved in a large homeschooling group where she worked with kids between the ages of 7 -12, teaching them creative writing and poetry.
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