On Freedom and Space
Homeschooling as a response to racism and Islamophobia
By Maliha Balala
The tree in Maliha’s front yard.
My two older boys woke up this morning and the first thing they did was to climb the tree in the front yard. The same tree they measured yesterday from one of the lowest branches all the way down and declared about 11 feet in height. They marked the limbs, first level, second level, and set goals on how far up they could go. They shared ideas on how to navigate and reach the harder-to-climb spots.
Later, my oldest found some tracks in our backyard and out came the wildlife book and measuring tape. He measured the tracks and declared they were too small to be a raccoon or squirrel, so he figured it could be a mouse or rat. Earlier this spring, they created the perfect zip line running across the backyard. It required climbing one tree, attaching a strong hook to the line, and zipping across at least a 30-foot distance to the other side.
On days that I announce “no lessons!” the boys erupt into cheers. They run outside and play for a while, but soon settle into reading, drawing, illustrating comic strips, building something, or playing chess or homemade checkers, gazing out of the window, getting lost in endless creative ways.
There is a fluidity in our days where play, learning, discovery, being, and growing are all intertwined. And every day I witness something that underscores our lifestyle and our decision to homeschool. This space for them to live out their childhood in all its wonder, ingenuity, curiosity and novelty is becoming rare territory. I am grateful and protective of this space and I admire the magic that happens within it.
There was a point in my life when I didn’t admire who I was turning into. It has been a long, mostly painful and sometimes exhilarating journey to circle back into myself.
Sometimes people protest, “But you turned out okay!” and I think of weeds, the dandelions that sometimes push themselves in the cracks in sidewalks and forgotten concrete lots. And I think yes, sometimes against all odds, in the most asphyxiating environments, life still manages to bend and twist and distort until it gets that flicker of sunlight and that drop of rain that makes it push through harder and miraculously survive. Survival is the miracle of existence, but I want so much more than survival for my children.
What would it take to raise secure-in-their-skins black and brown children in a “post-racial” America? How do I create safety for them to explore the meaning of their names, families, traditions, religion and communities without allowing shame to paralyze them before they even begin the journey?
Who ultimately benefits when our children lose their orientation and their sense of place, purpose, and meaning so early in life? Lastly, is it possible to nurture a whole human being with uncompromised ethics, sound intellect, spiritual and moral grounding, courage and compassion all at once?
I knew early on what I didn’t want for my children.
- I didn’t want their intellectual pursuits to be divorced from their cultural and spiritual exploration.
- I didn’t want them to check their identities (and “differences”) at the doors of institutions.
- I didn’t want them to spend most of their days around strangers who wouldn’t attempt to pronounce their gorgeous, heavy names correctly. I didn’t want them to shorten their names in shame.
- I did not want them to dissemble. I didn’t want them to become “model minorities.” I didn’t want them to become “ambassadors” for their culture. I didn’t want them tokenized.
- I didn’t want them carrying the burdens of “Islamophobia” and all other “-isms.”
- I didn’t want them to have to ask permission to pray during school hours, or require a hall pass to use the bathroom for that matter.
- I didn’t want them bullying or bullied.
- I didn’t want them defining themselves against the prescribed limits of their peers.
- I didn’t want them warehoused in a building waiting for the tired margins of the day and holidays to live.
- I didn’t want them to occupy dead time.
- I didn’t want them spending a majority of their lives “preparing” for the “future.”
- I didn’t want them evaluated, ranked, and categorized in a random pool with other children (on an equally random timeline) and being told they don’t measure up.
- I didn’t want them stratified within the capitalist status quo.
And the list goes on and on.
I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I did want when I started out, I just knew we needed time and space to let their growth unfold. So we live out our days with a rhythm all of our own. The TV was one of the first things to go out the door, and in the vast silence of its absence we create, read, play, laugh, fight, cry, and live without being programmed on what “popular” opinion dictates.
We limit other screens and devices too, to cultivate the love of more enduring reality.
We eat delicious homemade organic and mostly locally sourced meals. We know our farmer by name.
We pray with the circling of the sun and the older ones have started learning the discipline of fasting. We celebrate Fridays as one of our holy days and go congregate in mosques.
We have created tribes with other homeschoolers of diverse religions and paths, meeting at nature centers, museums, and libraries. We have bonded with mentors across the wider community who have taken them by hand over the years, and taught them something of the local flora and fauna, of service, of giving, and of the spirit.
We memorize the Quran, Latin prayers, and Homer side by side. We speak our mother’s tongue and other tongues besides.
We read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to hear the swell of voices and narratives that shaped America into her greatness and we add our voice and narrative to her-story. We occupy public spaces unapologetically.
These sacred spaces we live in are free, and in this freedom we founded our home.