“And where do you go to school?” The lady asks. It’s almost always a middle aged woman in a shop. It’s just a fact of life. I inwardly groan. Adults don’t know how to talk to children. But they must know that that question won’t lead to riveting conversation.
I assess my surroundings. Is my mother around? That will affect how rude I am. The reason I’m so defensive is this, no matter the version of the question, “where do you go to school?”, “What grade are you in?”, etc., my answer will be weird. Don’t get me wrong, I love saying weird things to strangers. It’s pretty much the most fun a person can have. Drop a weird truth bomb, or a fun lie, and walk away. Chances are, you’ll never see them again. But still, you’ll know you left them wondering.
This is different though. There are follow up questions. Lots of them, and none of them very flattering. And you have to stand there, while your mom pays for that pair of shoes you don’t really even want anymore.
My mom is next to me, and I took too long to answer. “She’s homeschooled.” She tells the woman. Homeschooled. Yep, there is it. The slightly glossy look in a stranger’s eyes that says, “This isn’t how this conversation goes. I don’t know how to respond to that. I was supposed to be able to say, ‘so-and-so’s daughter goes there. Great school.’” So instead, the next thing out of her mouth is, “what about socialization?” You’re ruining your child. What are you doing? Look at her, she already has pink wire glasses and terrible teeth! She can’t also be homeschooled!
At this point, I’ve mentally checked out. There will be more feeble conversation about how socialized I am or am not. My mother has many talking points on this. She talks about how education is more than just school, it’s learning to be a part of society. How to relate to adults, how to grocery shop, I don’t know, how to make friends outside of school. Whatever she says she’s polite and reasonable, even when other mothers judge her.
My preferred method, when I feel like I should be a part of this conversation, is to make unwavering eye contact and say one thing with conviction, putting as much finality into it as I can without having to hear about it later. Depending on my age, my go-to phrase is, “I have plenty of friends.” or, “Public schools do not have a monopoly on education.” That one was early teenage years, around 14-15). This didn’t really help. The problem was, I like to be odd. I like to say the weird things that in the long run, just make people think I’m unsocialized. I enjoy the look of confusion on a person’s face. That’s what you get for asking me a question I don’t want to answer.
If my mother isn’t there, it’s a different story entirely. When I was 14, I graduated from high school. This was, at the time, both my greatest accomplishment and the weirdest thing I had ever done. My mother still drove me to the mall. Strangers still wanted to know, “Why aren’t you in school?” “What grade are you in?”, “Where do you go?”
Either I or my mother would patiently say (okay, my mother would patiently say) that I was homeschooled so I wasn’t in school. I was a college freshman. “No, you can’t be. You look 15.” “Yes, I am 15.” I would respond, finally talking for myself. “What?” “How?” “Why?” “Who are her peers? Who will she talk to?” and one time, notably, “How will she find a husband?”
I was defending my life choices to strangers on a regular bases. My mother was explaining my life choices to strangers in front of me. “No, I didn’t make her, she wanted to graduate early.” she would say, and truthfully too, it was my own obsession.
“Is this what the country is coming to?” I would think. (Oh yes, I’m very dramatic and no stranger to sweeping generalizations. It has never taken me long to arrive at “What is this country coming to?” Followed closely by, “Now sonny, when I was your age…”) “We can’t think outside the box? I can’t be the only person to ever graduate from high school early.” In fact, I knew I wasn’t. My sister, who has always kindled my competitive streak, graduated from high school at fifteen, a year and six months from when she started. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll do it in a year.” I did not do it in a year. I finished my degree in a year and three months. It was a monumental failing that I was sure, would haunt me. It hasn’t. To be fair to my sister, she didn’t have a big sister that did it first like I did. And without her, I’d still be working on that accounting elective. Math isn’t bad, but when you put a dollar sign in front of it, it’s stressful and impossible. Fortunately for me, I have an accountant for a sister. Anyway, I knew it could be done, and to this day, don’t understand what’s baffling about not paying homage to the public school system. But they are everywhere.
Fortunately, I got my drivers license as soon as I possibly could. At 16 I discovered two new freedoms, driving, and lies. Boy do I love lying. Not things that could get back to me, just twisting the truth. The morality’s still iffy, sure, but you have to be sneaky about it for your own sake. I discovered the joys of lying (obviously it was actually much, much earlier, but this particular type of lie) the first time I drove myself to the mall alone and had to make small talk with a middle aged woman.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” She asks, predictably. “Oh, spring break?” It was probably April, near my birthday, or maybe I’m mixing two separate incidences. “Yes.” I agree without thinking. We make small talk while she rings up the shirt I bought, or possibly the ice cream or face wash, because that wasn’t the point. The point was, she had asked about school, I had answered, and now we were done. It was a beautiful day. Or it was raining. I can’t be bothered to remember.
That has become the way I deal with it. Whenever I’m alone, or no one I’m with could correct me, I go with the questions, wherever they lead.
“How old are you?”, “18.”, “Looking forward to going off to college?”, “yes.” I’ll say, like I’m happy and have made plans, but not so excited that she’ll ask me where I’m headed. In theory. Because here’s what I’ve learned, they aren’t asking because they want to know, they’re filling the time between you buying a shirt and you leaving.
Disclaimer: actual life not as pictured. See above an idealized version from a bank photo shoot. You can tell because there is camera equipment to the left and the children are trying so hard to look well behaved that they are actually creepy.