Sunday, September 28, 2008

Getting back on track

My brother’s death derailed homeschooling for over a week. However, since family tragedies are part of life, completely ignoring them would not be normal. Had Jacob, Alexandra, and Larissa been going to school, I would have been writing excuses to the teachers. They might have been able to be physically present in school, but they would not have had time for homework. We congregated at my parents’ house almost daily since hearing of my brother’s accident, first to wait for news, then to mourn, and finally to plan the funeral. My parents needed them for moral support; the family needed them to babysit my out-to-town niece as the adults all ran errands.

But the funeral is over and it’s back to the homeschooling routine. I’ve added back all the subjects that were put on hold. Monday evening on the day of the funeral, I went back to spending over an hour per night writing up individual schedules. This weekend I’m working on weekly schedules for each of the kids. Managing their time and planning out the curriculum for each child over the course of the year takes more time than the “teaching.” In fact, for teenagers, I think that this planning is the majority of the teaching!

Since I’m homeschooling three kids this year, I have a new policy: that day’s homework must be on the corner of my home office desk by the end of the day. No more tracking down assignments. I haven’t come up with a penalty for not handing in an assignment by the end of the day though I realize that in school the consequences are either a full grade lower for a late assignment or a zero for not turning it in. I want to run a tight ship (it’s part of my personality and my role at work), but I don’t want to be so strict that it’s more about schedules than actual learning.

So I’m considering going to a weekly schedule – that is, still writing out the schedules for each day’s work, but allowing them the week to complete all the assignments. One day they can do all their vocabulary and math, another day spend the whole day reading literature, and still another day do their science. There are subjects, like voice and piano, that they must do daily. You can’t sing a week’s worth in a day. But whether I collect work at the end of the day or by the end of the week, I should come up with a penalty for late work, shouldn’t I?

I’ve read so many theories about homeschooling that I suppose it’s completely up to me how to handle late work. I do know, however, that for my job as a writer, I have schedules and deadlines, and the consequence of turning in late work could cost me my job. If my husband George promises clients a job will be completed by a certain date because the client is planning a party but George doesn’t finish by that date, they’ll never hire him again to paint or install a floor.

That’s the real world, and that’s where all kids end up someday.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Where’s the will?

This is the question in the forefront of our minds. My two brothers, Andrew and John, and I converged on Greg’s house today and sorted through his things searching for that key paper. Andrew’s wife Tammy was with us. She was a filing genius. Andrew went through the three organized filing drawers that contained papers only up to 2004; Tammy sorted a box full of papers from 2004 to the present, organizing all those papers into folders. I realized a bit later that since Greg lived in that house four years, the papers in that large cardboard box were ALL the bills, etc., that came in since he moved into that house!

My job was to open and sort new mail. We found out more about Greg’s financial affairs than Greg would have ever been comfortable sharing. How much he made. How much he owed. How many credit cards he had and what he spent his (or rather not his) money on. It didn’t feel right finding out all those details.

The elusive will was not in the filing cabinet. Nor the box of papers. His divorce lawyer did not write one up. Greg’s ex-wife knows nothing of a will. Nor does his fiancée. Yet Greg had come into my office one day and demanded, “Do you have a will?” You don’t do that unless you have one. It would be like me asking, “Did you eat all your vegetables?” I can only challenge that if I ate mine. So there must be a will!

We don’t know of a safe deposit box (his credit union doesn’t have one). His will isn’t on file with the county clerk’s office. It wasn’t among the papers at work. (On a long shot, I drove to the company to pick up my brother’s effects.) We found no record of it on his computer when we did key word searches. Greg wasn’t the neatest guy, but there are only so many places you would logically put a will – aren’t there? Where or where can it be?? If we don’t find it, I will get appointed executor, and that’s a crash course I didn’t want to go through – while homeschooling children and working?!

Homeschooling? Oh, that. For the last week as I frantically took care of funeral details, I shoved a book at each of the kids (The Jungle, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and a book of short stories by Tolstoy) and told the kids to read. Fortunately, I’d started school with them in mid-August, in case we had guests that would distract them from working. Instead, my brother’s death distracted them.

But now I’m being distracted. What is a logical place to keep a will? Wouldn’t you put it in a place where others would find it???

Monday, September 22, 2008


It’s very difficult to bury your brother – especially when he’s not a believer. In fact, he rejected God.

We grew up in a Catholic church. While I left the Catholic Church and joined an evangelical church, after Greg left home, he never went to church again – except for weddings, funerals, and the occasional Christmas.

I was assigned the task to speak in church about my brother, mainly because the Ukrainian Catholic church my mother attends – and where the funeral was – has a new priest directly from Ukraine, one who doesn’t know Greg and who cannot speak much English.

The turnout was huge. Greg was gregarious and well-loved – a ski patrolman, a biker (Harley Davidson, not bicycle), a veteran of the Coast Guard, an adventurer, a multimedia graphic designer in a large company where he and I worked in the same department – and a loving dad. So this is what I said to the congregation today:

* * *
…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. - Ecclesiastes 12: 7

We are gathered here to remember my brother, Gregory. Greg was a devoted father. From the moment that his son Luke came into this earth, Greg doted on him. Luke wasn’t like other children; he had special needs, and special needs required extra sacrifice on the part of the parents. Greg never complained about this turn of fate. Not once. He adored Luke, doted on him, and simply glowed whenever he talked about his son. Since Greg and I worked together for the same department, Greg would come to my office quite often and share stories about Luke – how Luke had a cough and how worried he was that the cough might go to his lungs. How Luke had finally learned to crawl. Then taken his first steps – but not at a year like most children; he was much older. Or Greg would describe how Luke laughed with delight when Greg would play the guitar for him. He described Luke’s teachers in Kindergarten or told me how good the other classmates were to him. Greg could mimic Luke’s giggles and squeals. He talked about getting him hearing aids. Braces for his legs. A special walker. There was nothing that Greg wouldn’t have done for his son.

Our Father in heaven loves us even more than Greg loved Luke. But how many of us return that love? Do we just think about Him once a week on Sunday mornings? Or perhaps not even that often? I think that if Greg could speak to us today, he would tell us that this is the most important relationship – our relationship with Jesus Chris, our redeemer – to work on while here on earth.

The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. – John 6:63

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What can I do to help?

I hear this question often since my brother died. So many of us tend to say that we can’t think of anything. We think that turning down offers of help is the right thing to do. That way we won’t burden the other person. In reality, you are rejecting their love when you reject their offer of help. If you accept help, you allow them to serve you and you become obligated – or at least that’s the perception.

When folks have asked how they can help, I’ve accepted their love offering and suggested that they bring meals to my parents’ house. Many of us converge on their house now; it’s our central station for planning our brother’s funeral.

“You have such nice friends,” my mother told me after the parents of Larissa’s best friend dropped off some chicken and rice and a cake.

“I’ve taken them up on their offers to help,” I replied. And indeed, this visit and the visit of coworkers have cheered us and helped us in a tangible way.

But help on a completely different level came about from a conversation with Greg’s boss. I mentioned that in the past, especially after Greg’s divorce, my family would come over in the fall to rake the leaves in my brother’s wooded lot. He always had a LOT of leaves because of his 40 or so trees. “With Greg gone, we will have to do a lot of raking this fall,” I sighed.

“Now there’s a way we can help,” said Barb. “We’ll do the raking.” She had mentioned that the folks at work wanted to know how they could help the family, and this was a concrete way.

“Well, you can help even sooner. The windstorm a few days ago knocked off a lot of branches in his yard,” I informed Barb.

The next day when I visited his house, the branches were cleaned up, the deck and walkways swept, the lawn raked.

Today even more bags of leaves were by the curb. Like little secrets Santas, people had come and bagged leaves, mowed the lawn, and left.

While Greg was an avid gardener and had just painted his house and changed the roof, the inside of his house is a different story. It’s a true bachelor pad. When you open the front door, you step over his toolkit. Even though Ruby the cat is very timid and hides, you know that there’s a cat in the house by the white cat fur. (We took the cat to my parents for the time being.) Clothes are strewn on the floor in one room; in the office, you can hardly get to the desk. The linoleum floor is in need of replacement because it’s broken in places. The wall studs are visible because part of the wall is missing in the dining room.

The house needs an overwhelming amount of work. My brother simply hadn’t gotten to it. He was living life – biking, ski patrolling, and spending time with his sweetheart.

“We’ll need to do a lot of work on the house before we can sell it,” I mentioned to Barb tonight when I called to thank her for the yard work.

“Just tell us what you need done and when you want to do it. You’ll have to limit the volunteers to they’re not tripping over each other,” Barb said.

I’m humbled, truly humbled by this outpouring of help – of love. In large part, it’s a testimony to the type of person my brother was. My brother touched many, many lives in his short life. He was a dedicated father of a disabled child, and although his life was tough at times, he didn’t complain. He could always see the bright side of things, even about being the parent of a disabled child. “He’s always happy,” Greg said of his son. And Greg seemed like he was always happy, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


My mother and I got out of the van and looked at a plot of ground.

No, not good. Not enough shade.

We got into the van and were taken a little ways down a peaceful drive. I got out, still holding my morning coffee and the folder of papers that I began carrying with me yesterday. Mom and I looked at another plot of land.

No, too out in the open. Too stark.

We went around the corner in that van. I left my folder in the vehicle and gazed at a majestic oak nearby. A few browned leaves littered the ground, signaling that fall was imminent.

I looked at another plot, then turned away. Walking toward the oak, I gave in to my grief. Tears streamed down my face. I sobbed.

This was the spot, the place where my brother would be buried.

My brother, who a week ago was taking off on vacation on his motorcycle with his lovely fiancée-to-be. My brother, the optimist, the outgoing man who could bring out even the shiest, most reticent person. My brother, full of joy and life, who had a ready smile and a way with people. My dear, dear brother…

The sun shone and the day was warm. He would have enjoyed this day.

Oh, Greg, I never thought that I’d have to bury you! I never expected I’d stand by your grave someday. Oh, my dear brother, I thought that you would outlive me, your older sister! You were in such good health, had so much vigor, so much to give, so much of your life still ahead! My dear brother, how I’ll miss you!

Greg, I’ll take good care of your gravesite. We shared a passion for gardening, and yours, my brother, will be a lovely site with hostas and spring bulbs and many forget-me-nots from my garden. They will be watered with tears.

My dear brother, it will be very, very hard to stand by your gravesite when we bury you in a few days.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:10b–11

My brother Greg died late Saturday. It was a meaningless, unnecessary death, a tragic accident.

Since then, I haven’t been able to keep him out of my mind – all the things that he worked so hard to achieve (the perfect lawn, the lovely hosta garden) the material possessions he accumulated (two motorcycles, a boat, his massage chair) – all are now meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

All night I saw him walking, walking, walking. Greg had a unique gait, his knees bending slightly out with each stride. Unable to sleep in my grief, I saw him walking as I did daily in the halls of the company, coming to visit me in my cubicle. I will miss him so much when I return to the office. I used to have long talks with him daily. He wasn’t only my brother – my favorite brother of the three I have – he was also a coworker and friend. I will miss his tremendous wealth of knowledge, his generous spirit, his willingness to help.

The entire work group at our company is shocked and dazed. Greg was gregarious and well liked. Not only did they lose a coworker; another coworker is part of the grieving family! I’m out on leave because of death in the family; he is the family who died.

…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7

Funeral preparations are keeping me busy; the kids are doing homeschool only part-time. They help cheer my parents in their grief by spending time there. Tomorrow, when the key to Greg's house arrives in overnight mail, the kids will come with me to his house capture Greg's timid cat and bring it to my parents' house. And I have to try to find Greg's will. I know he had one - but where?? Meanwhile, my sister is still working on shipping his body from the Midwest back home in the Northeast.

All those possessions, that perfect lawn that he labored over – meaningless!

“Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.” What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:2–3

Saturday, September 13, 2008


The call came at 3:30 AM. Four rings, and the answering machine clicked into action. It was the clicking that awoke me. Another wrong number, my groggy mind assumed, and I listened to the clicking of the answering machine, but no message.

I may as well go to the toilet while I’m awake, I thought, but walked by the answering machine to check it. The red light blinked in the darkness, indicating that the caller had left a message after all. Still assuming I’d hear a stranger’s voice on the machine, I wound the tape back and turned up the volume, which had been off.

It was my sister’s voice.

“Faith, pray. When you, George, wake up, pray. Greg had a very bad accident. They have to do surgery on his head and he has only 50% chance of surviving. He’s in Kansas City. A golf cart ran into him. Please pray. Pray.”

Greg is our younger brother. He was in Kansas City with his girlfriend at a motorcycle rally. Neither of us had known that, however. Greg realizes that none of us really understand his sudden obsession with his Harley Davidson, which he purchased after his divorce, a mid-life crisis sort of thing. He and his girlfriend had met in part because of that motorcycle.

Greg, always an optimist, has not had a charmed life. He and his wife had a severely disabled child. Then one morning his wife turned to him and said, “I don’t love you anymore.” And that was that. His marriage was over. Try as he did to patch up the relationship, she would have none of it. Her mind had been made up before she ever mentioned being unhappy. I got to hear the blow-by-blow account of my brother’s breakup, to be his shoulder in the time of crisis; I work for the same company and the same group as my brother. Our offices were a few aisles apart. We saw each other daily. He needed someone to listen, and I was that one.

He left the dream house on the lake and almost everything in it to his ex so she’d be better able to take care of their son, and started life anew.

The divorce was now many years ago, and things were looking up. Greg bought an engagement ring for Cindi and on Thursday at the rally was going to propose to her.

It never happened.

Greg was out walking. The golf cart was going too fast. It was raining. It put on its breaks and slid; Greg went flying from the impact and landed on his head.

He had a part of his skull removed to allow the brain to swell. These two days are critical. The life signs do not look good.

I am praying. George is praying. Our children and friends are praying.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Can’t do this in a public school!

Have you ever had a hard time putting a book down? Admit it. Hasn’t there been at least one time when you should have turned off the light, but you read halfway through the night? Certainly I have! I even pawned off cooking duties on my husband once when I couldn’t put a book down.

I suspected that keeping a steady supply of good books for 12-year-old Larissa to read would be this year’s challenge. It’s her first year of homeschooling, so I’m just getting to know her learning style. And I’ve had a few surprises.

I knew that Larissa is an avid reader, but she’s always been a conscientious student. I thought that when I gave her a list of the day’s assignments, she would get them done quickly, then have the rest of the day to do something fun – like read some more! But I’m going to have to change my expectations. Or my assignments.

During August, I started homeschooling on a part-time basis, giving the kids only reading assignments (literature), vocabulary drills, and one other subject – art for Larissa. When I gave Larissa Bridge to Terebithia, she read it the same day. It wasn’t a big surprise; she didn’t have many other assignments.

Yesterday I gave Larissa The Adventure of Tom Sawyer for her next literature assignment. She had a generous ten days in which to read the book. But once she got it into her hands, all other assignments – science, art, French, music… – disappeared from her conscience and she was transported to the shores of the Mississippi River to join the fun and frolicking of a bygone era. She didn’t stop reading until she’d finished the book.

So I can see that she’ll be reading way, way more than I wrote on her IHIP (Individualized Home Instruction Plan). And that I’ll have to give her a list of weekly assignments rather than daily tasks to complete. (She still hasn’t done yesterday’s science.) But the daily task list is something that my son needs to stay on track. So I’ll have to adjust expectations and assignments based on each child’s learning style.

But to skip all your classes and sit in your English class to read a classic – it’s just not done in public school.

Monday, September 8, 2008


Last school year when I pulled Jacob out of tenth grade in January, I tried unsuccessfully to get information about enrolling Jacob in our local Career Center – a vocational school where high school kids go part of the day to learn trade skills, like automotive repair, welding, and cosmetology. But no one seemed to know much about enrolling a homeschooler, so I stopped pursuing it. I was, after all, the middle of the school year and trying to learn how to homeschool for the first time myself.

Learning a practical skill, like auto repair, is quite appealing. After all, I’m teaching my son Chemistry, Trigonometry, and other college-track courses; a practical course would actually supplement his education very nicely. Besides, he’d always be employable; cars constantly break down. And, of course, like my husband, Jacob would be able to fix his own car someday. Jacob loves working with his hands, so this would be a good fit for him.

So today I tried to sign him up for the auto repair class in the Career Center, a school subsidized by my tax dollars. Since I got only recordings when I tried to reach the Center by phone, I drove there.

The receptionist for the Center, which services ten school districts on the east side of my fair city, was very nice. “We’ve had other homeschoolers,” she smiled. “But you have to sign him up through your school district.”

Since I prefer meeting people face to face when trying to get something done, I drove to the school administrative offices and was directed to the woman to whom I send my IHIPs. I thought I was getting close to my goal with maybe another stop at the school, but she completed stunned me when she said that there’s a law against signing up my son at the Center!

I was stunned. A law against it?

Her supervisor gave me a printout from the New York State Education Department website, citing the answer to question 20. However, the printout she gave me had a longer answer:

Pursuant to Education law 3602-c, instruction in the areas of occupational and vocational education, gifted education, and education of student with disabilities may be furnished to students enrolled in nonpublic schools. With that exception, which is not applicable to home-instructed students, boards of education are not authorized to instruct pupils on a part-time basis (Appeal of Pope, 40 Ed Dept Rep 473, Decision No. 14,530; Appeal of Sutton, 39 Ed Dept Rep 625, Decision No. 14,332; Matter of Mayshark, supra)).

Was the Center receptionist wrong? Had they really had homeschoolers sign up through more lenient school districts? Is there anything more I can do?

“I called the assistant superintendent and superintendent,” said that woman I spoke to at the school district. She had taken it upon herself to pursue this matter and called me at home an hour ago.

So I’m really upset. Fuming. I know I sound like a toddler having a tantrum, but it’s not fair! Isn't there anything I can do???

Saturday, September 6, 2008


A new school year began this week. It was a breezy week of yellow sunshine, a few falling leaves, and end-of-summer warmth. The school buses rumbled down our street. They stopped for Larissa and waited for her to show up because the driver had not yet been notified that she was not returning to school. (Alexandra, who was in high school, was part of a group stop while Larissa had a bus stop for her alone right in front of our home.) I could see the girls looking somewhat longingly at the yellow buses that have been part of their lives since Kindergarten. Was I doing the right thing pulling them out of school this year to homeschool them?

I had a big internal battle over that this week. A large part of me said that their public schooling was high quality and that I could never do as good a job as trained teachers in expensive facilities with the latest lab equipment and books, and even math and science tutors available any hour of the school day on a walk-in basis. How could I match that? I was feeling frazzled over scheduling courses for three students – two in high school and one in junior high. Chemistry, physical science, vocabulary, literature, American history, global history, writing assignments, grammar, music, art, cooking… I’m responsible for these and more. I juggle scheduling time with tutors for math, French, and Spanish. I’m really nervous about taking on the kids’ education, stressed out over the long evenings of writing lesson plans and schedules, and worried about how I’ll balance this with work.

Yes, work. I was on a medical leave for a couple of months, but now I’m working again. Thanks to my illness and my doctor, I’m working solely from home now, and only 6 hours per day, but when the medical leave runs out and my health is no longer fragile, I’m expected to go back to my company office. And I really don’t want to do that. I’m much happier, and even more productive, when I work from home. I also want to cut back from full-time to part-time employment. Will my company agree?

So as I worry over the quality of my kids’ education, I question them over and over: What did you do in your English class? Am I covering what your History teacher would cover? How did you spend class time in science? Since my children were not homeschooled from early grades, they could compare what they learn at home versus what they were learning in school. And I’m just not sure how I’ll stack up.

One thing cheers me, and that’s that they will no longer have the setup/teardown time when changing classes, which ate a lot of time daily. After they switch classes, the kids have to settle into their new classroom, listen to announcements or write down assignments, take out their books. All this wastes time. At home, they just grab the next book in the pile, the next notebook, and continue on. Still, I feel that by reading everything they learn, they’ll get bored. Read and read and read all day long, punctuated by some writing. And playing the piano.

“I want to go to school,” Alexandra scribbled in the margin of her Health assignment last week. I’m sure she misses her friends. But last year she couldn't wait to leave the school environment and be homeschooled.

I’m just so torn…

Friday, September 5, 2008

Parlez-vous français?

This breezy, summer-like morning, before the kids settled into their studying, the doorbell rang.

“Quick, Mom, she’s here! Hurry up!” my daughters urged me away from my computer where I was already checking the morning email on my company’s computer.

“I’m so glad you could come,” I greeted Karol, our new French tutor.

Karol recently retired from teaching French and Spanish in a nearby public school system. I had met Karol at a missionary prayer circle, and had sat next to her at a church luncheon back in April. I hadn’t known Karol, so I asked her what she did. When she said that she had just retired from teaching French, a language that she loved, I asked her whether she would consider tutoring my daughters this coming school year. (My daughters were taking French in public school last year.) Although she didn’t know anything about homeschooling, Karol sounded interested.

That was in the spring; would she still be interested in September? Perhaps, like many retirees, her schedule had become filled with volunteer work and visits to other cities, extended vacations and projects that she hadn’t gotten to during her work years. So I prayed before I emailed her last week (I didn’t have her phone number, only her email address.) And the result is that she came to our house today.

She is quite an exuberant person, as I’d expect a French teacher to be. Although Larissa has had only one year of French and Alexandra had three, Karol will be tutoring them together for the most part, giving Alexandra more extended vocabulary exercises and pulling Larissa along more quickly than she’d otherwise go. Larissa did mention that last year she doodled a lot in class because many classmates were slow in picking up the language and held back the class.

That’s the beauty of homeschooling – and tutoring, if you can afford it and have the good fortune of finding a tutor. Karol is not cheap, but with half of Africa speaking French, I want my daughters to keep learning the language. Why, I was stunned – stupefied – that after 30 years of not using French at all, I could still understand the language when I ended up in Senegal on a mission trip a few years ago. I could no longer speak French, but I could follow what others were saying all around me. It’s really worth learning another language.

So the girls had their first session of getting to know the tutor, and of Karol getting to know them. With her public school connections, Karol is going to try to borrow textbooks and materials from our school system. I even put in a call to Alexandra’s French teacher – the one she had for her Honors class last year and would have had again this year. Perhaps she can lend us some books.

“How about teaching them some Bible verses in French?” my husband chimed in towards the end of the hour-long session. Work has been slow for my husband George, a general contractor, so he’s been fixing things around the house lately. “After all, isn’t it the idea to use French on mission trips?”

“Excellent idea!” said Carol.

“I’ll try to find some simple Bible stories in French,” I volunteered. With the Internet, that shouldn’t be too difficult. I hope.

I would love some recommendations if anyone has any.

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
— Albert Pike, Scottish Rite Freemason (1809-1891)