Shelved: An Essay Alphabetically Arranged
Almond, David. The Fire Eaters.
This is a smart book for a smart kid. Mama said, only smart kids understand this book. I stared at its bright red cover, admiring a last name that reminded me of the almond bread she bought at Christmas time. It was braided bread, sticky marzipan. I read the book too fast and I pretended that I understood it even though I did not. I didn’t know much about England or the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When I told her that I liked it and it was very interesting, she beamed under the yellow lights of the half-finished basement. She whispered, “I knew you were a smart kid.”
Bauer, Marion Dane. Runt.
I am Runt. A runt is the smallest in the pack who gets pushed out so that the others can thrive. I was in the back seat of the car, reading Runt for the second time, the cold afternoon light bouncing off the car windshield and glinting over the soft brown pages.
Papa said over his shoulder without turning around, “You’re a runt, too.” His forced and buckled laughter bounced against the gray plastic siding of the car.
Conner, Leslie. Waiting for Normal.
I was always grasping at normal because being homeschooled never felt normal. My favorite moments of normal were going into grocery stores on the weekends or after school at the time when it made sense for children to be out. The cashier wouldn’t peer over the rim of her thin half-moon glasses and ask, “Is it a school holiday?” even when she knew it wasn’t.
Instead I would skip along dragging my small fingers across the row of brightly colored cereal boxes like every other normal kid.
Dowell, Frances O’Roark. The Secret Language of Girls.
I hoped this book would be a manual—step by step instructions like Spanish For Dummies. While I spent afternoons skimming that yellow textbook, tripping over the reorganization of red car to carro rojo, I carefully plodded through my new manual. I reread its worn pages to make sure I hadn’t missed any of the important parts. I knew that there was something I was missing, maybe a code word or a secret handshake everyone else had learned by intuition but I hadn’t.
The first team I ever joined was a swim team. I wanted to know the secret thoughtfulness behind the girls’ careless giggles, easy conversations, and calmness. I thought maybe it had been there all along, in that book, and I’d just gotten it a little later than everyone else.
But there wasn’t any grammar or tenses or vocabulary lists like I’d hoped for, words that would make me fit. By the end, I still didn’t know what the secret language was and the girls ended up fighting and lonely.
Dowell, Frances O’Roark. The Kind of Friends We Used to Be.
This one didn’t help me much either.
Fox, Paula. The Slave Dancer.
“‘Flying fish,’ said Purvis. ‘There’s peculiar creatures in these waters.’”
That is true. Most times when I swam I got stuck in the slow lane with all the kids that were much younger than me even though I wasn’t that slow. I swam in the right lane against the wall every week, knuckles skinning against bruised concrete. Younger kids moved up before I did even though I had better race times. I knew because I checked every week.
When I asked for help, my coach would say, “You’re just having a bad day,” even when I wasn’t. “You must be coming down with something,” even though I rarely got sick. She never pushed me like the other kids, unless she was pushing me out.
Sometimes from the elevation of a blue styrofoam kickboard, I’d pass by the kids in the regular lanes and try to splash water at them when they weren’t looking. Sometimes I’d pass the girls in the other lanes, and they would giggle and then not tell me what was so funny, no matter how many times I asked and swore I wouldn’t get offended. I wished I would have figured out what that Secret Language was.
Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt.
I read on the back porch in the sun while my younger sister tried to make up for all the school she hadn’t done that year. She shook the rickety white plastic table with her foot, biting down on the end of her fat yellow Ticonderoga pencil, squishing through the metal casing.
“I can help,” I said, watching her white face flush with frustration. The pinkness hid her sprinkle of freckles, tears filling up her eyes. She always cried when she did schoolwork and I could feel the explosion bubbling in the tremble of her bottom lip. I wanted to stop it, to keep her at a soft boil long enough to finish her subject.
“Leave Boo alone,” Mama said from inside the screen door. “You always make it worse.”
I shoved the plastic chair back further into the sun, the hot white of the pages burning my eyes. I bit my tongue against a retaliation that would only make Boo cry harder. She never did catch up, years spilling into one another as September came around. The soft squidge of falling behind.
Hannigan, Katherine. True (…Sort of).
Lying is a survival tool, a genetic trait passed down from generations of people who needed to get themselves out of trouble. For my grandmother, that was a marriage and five children she didn’t want. For Mama, it was things she shouldn’t have done, like spray painting an underpass or stealing skateboards.
My lying was different. When Papa came home from work and made us tell him what school we had done that day, I lied about Newton and gravity. When I was with the girls at the swim team, I lied about little details like who I’d been with and what I’d done.
“My friend and I went to see that movie,” I’d say, when I really meant my sister and me.
Irving, Washington. The Complete Tales.
My house felt a lot like Sleepy Hollow. We lived in a slothy haze, bodies turning to mulch under layers of blankets, piled on top to keep warm for the winter. Time didn’t seem to pass right especially because we were never counting: five days or five months could have passed, sometimes I couldn’t be sure. Mama’s calendar was never on the right month anyway.
The day to day routine was always the same: wake up late, do schoolwork, play video games, go to sleep. On Thursdays we had piano lessons, but even those off-day adventures yielded their own routine. Although there was comfort in the routine, when it lasted a hundred years, I started to wonder if something wasn’t right.
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
We have always lived in this house. The gray house on the hill. Hopscotch Hill School we called it, pastel chalks dusting off our knees in the hot summers. One summer, my sisters and I spent hours before a rainfall making roads in chalk all over the large flat driveway, squiggly half roads dotted with places I would never visit.
“This is my house,” I said, drawing a misshapen rectangle in green chalk, fingernails digging into the loose gravel. Stamping over to the other side of the sizzling pavement underneath the pine tree, I drew a halfmoon in purple. “And this is my friend’s.”
“But you haven’t got any friends,” my younger sister said, glancing up from her own rendition of a storefront in pastel pink.
“It’s for when I do,” I said, scuffing the lines into an inerasable smudgy blob with the front of my bendy flip-flop.
Korman, Gordon. Schooled.
I met Mabel at summer camp one year. She became my friend by default, and I didn’t really like her but she was hard to shake. I tried to befriend a smart, bubbly girl named Tessa, but Tessa liked Mabel more than me, so we all ate lunch in the cafeteria together even though I thought Mabel was boring.
While Tessa easily skipped past the idea that I was homeschooled, Mabel couldn’t quite jump that hurdle. At the end of the camp, when Tessa drifted off into a private school schedule, Mabel continued emailing me. I figured I was supposed to have friends so I might as well keep replying.
Mabel used to talk to me for hours on Skype. She’d set up a time, and I’d spend an hour getting ready—brushing my hair, smearing on dark blue eyeshadow and red lipstick I bought for a Halloween costume. I’d get dressed, even though I wasn’t going to be leaving the house, and I’d sit spinning in my creaky desk chair. And wait for her to call.
Most times she would, and she’d talk about everything that happened at her middle school. She told all of her friends about me like, “My homeschool friend does this,” “My homeschool friend doesn’t know how to do this,” “My homeschool friend has never seen this.”
One of the last times we talked, she said, “I’ll ask my principal if you can come to my school. Just for a day. Like, you can shadow me, and my friends can meet you. He’d love to meet a real homeschooler.”
I said, sure, that sounds fun. And I tried to convince myself that, so I could be a good friend. I was never her real friend, though. I was only her homeschooled friend.
LeGuin, Ursula K. Very Far Away from Anywhere Else.
On the side of the pool we sat in groups, our discount collapsible lawn chairs facing inward circles by age groups. The 12-15 age group sat tucked in their circle, and I glanced at my older sister eating wet cheerios out of a Tupperware beside her best friend. I was on the outskirts of the 8-11 age group, my chair faced inward behind someone else’s chair. I’d gotten there first, but their chairs somehow managed to navigate their way around me. I listened to my designated group of girls talk, but I didn’t try to butt in. I gnawed on the organic, whole wheat, no frosting Poptart my mom thought was healthy.
When they got up to go to their race, I lightly pushed their chairs a little further apart with my foot, the cool yellow metal sliding in between my toes. I dragged my chair forward one or two scooches and checked to make sure no one saw my stealthy attempt at fitting.
When I got back from my race, my chair was pushed back and sideways like someone tripped over it and hadn’t bothered to reset it. My blue towel that had my name emblazoned on it was missing, but I was sure I’d find it draped over someone soon.
I spend the rest of the long weekend waiting for another moment to push my chair up into a space where it wouldn’t get pushed back out.
Mass, Wendy. A Mango-Shaped Space.
There was never much to distinguish myself from anyone else. At home, my sisters and my personality blended together because we all watched the same things, wore the same clothes, experienced the same things, and my parents always mixed up our names anyway. We were interchangeable.
When I was at swim, I was only the homeschooler, and it wasn’t really an admirable weird trait. I had always wanted something cool like synesthesia, so when my own mango-shaped space floated into my field of vision, I thought I had finally got something that would make me interesting. A stuck piece of orange color blocking out my left field of vision, it took me weeks and doctors’ visits to realize the floating blob was a visual migraine.
I tested it out and found this mango-shaped space didn’t correlate to anything, not smell or sound or memory, but floated there without changing. Even if a migraine wasn’t as interesting as synesthesia, being able to say I had a UFO of color was something I had that nobody else did. It was a party trick, not a symptom of perpetual stress.
Northrop, Michael. Trapped.
I never got snow days. On winter days I woke up and watched through the gloom of my bedroom window the oak tree slowly fill up with crusty crumpling snow. I waited to see if the bright red lights of my digital clock would flicker dim for a power outage. Even if it didn’t, I waited long enough in the soft cocoon of my comforters until I was sure that I could convince Mama I could have a snow day.
“You don’t need a snow day if you don’t have to go anywhere,” she said, a dented clear Calvert ruler in hand.
“But it’s snowing,” I said, stirring my brown sugar oatmeal in the kitchen gloom.
“After school, you can go out,” she said, in a way that was only slightly affirming, like if I did just half of it and begged hard enough she would let me creep out into the pale afternoon.
I sat at the kitchenette table in front of the two heavy uncurtained glass doors, watching the snow fall heavily over the porch and across the stoic woods. The table was fake wood, pressed and stained into unnatural yellow gloss, and I drew dark green marker over it and wiped it away quickly before it could dry. I stared at the same page of copy maker homework, wondering if I’d ever make it out.
Orwell, George. 1984.
The August I was seventeen, I made a friend. He had been homeschooled most of his life, dragged from the mountains of California to the cool suburbs of Massachusetts by his professor parents. He was the first homeschooler I’d ever met that was my type of homeschooler—a little pretentious and flighty, but not too much where tie dye was a staple pattern. He had the type of freedom I was craving; he sauntered into Boston whenever he felt like it, snuck into state parks late at night, and had friends.
“Did you forget?” he said once when I forgot. “We’re the same person.”
The first time we went into Boston on the T, I gave him my copy of 1984 and he gave me a copy of The Man in the High Castle. I returned it in a week, but I never got mine back.
Rosoff, Meg. How I Live Now.
As a conversation for a group project slowly died down, a classmate asked me what high school I went to. I stuttered a hesitation before on misplaced instinct I said, “Coyle Cassidy.” A private school not too far away, I hoped that he wouldn’t know someone who taught or went there. I had guessed right when he shrugged and said he went to the public high school, so no wonder he hadn’t met me before. The lie is a comfortable one I will adopt.
Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl.
I wanted to be Stargirl, and I almost went as far as asking people to call me that. I wanted to draw a subtle connection, as if to say: look, I’m one of the good weird homeschoolers.
She was the perfect kind of homeschooled because she went to real school and people liked her. She was unabashed and perfectly quirky, and even if she couldn’t get the Secret Language quite right, nobody minded. It became my favorite book, but I think I liked these books out of obligation because in the end the books were bad and the only thing they accomplished was saying the word “homeschooled.” But I wanted to like them, because at least they were trying.
Tolan, Stephanie. Surviving the Applewhites.
I told my neighbor about getting into college while standing in the dead zone between our two yards. The crisp yellowing grass once held buzzing roses of sharon Papa planted before their house was built, inherited from his mom in a plastic grocery bag. One day my neighbor ripped them from the ground and drilled stakes in their place so we would be sure where never to cross.
“You’re going to go into culture shock,” my neighbor said, his eyes searching me from behind his dark sunglasses. I imagine him thinking, how will you possibly survive?
My sister’s teaching major advisor told her, cramped into a small office, “You can’t be an actress if you’ve never seen a play.” And I imagine her thinking, you won’t ever survive.
Zusak, Markus. I am the Messenger.
“What was it like being homeschooled?”
“Oh it was cool.”
But the thing is I don’t know. It’s impossible for me to separate the homeschool from the homeschooler, to know what was education and what was childhood. Most of those things blend together. It’s impossible for me to say it was all good or all bad, because like any other experience, it was a soft mix of both—years spent happy, comfortable, and calm easily became suffocating, itching, angry.
Most times I feel like a messenger, stepping between these two places and observing what has happened in the other, but not really being allowed to experience it myself. Instead, I’m sent to try to tell the world what it’s like to be homeschooled, and to never understand what it’s like not to be. I don’t have a permanent fit in either of these places, I only know what it’s like to be an other.
Mialise Carney is a writer and M.F.A. student at California State University, Fresno. She is an editor at The Normal School and Nightingale and Sparrow, and her writing has appeared in Atlas and Alice, Your Impossible Voice, and is forthcoming in Belle Ombre and Hobart, among others. Read more of her work at mialisecarney.com.