My Homeschool Success Story

In future blog posts, I’m going to present a new approach to homeschooling, called the Destination Method. It’s only natural for you to wonder “Who does this guy think he is?” or “Why should I bother slogging through yet another blogger’s opinions about homeschooling?” Fair enough: I’m Dr. Taylor Arnold Barnes, and I’ve been blessed to experience the full scope of what homeschooling can achieve.

A Homeschooling Journey Begins

After teaching at a badly mismanaged public high school in the 1980s, my mother made a life-altering declaration: no child of hers would ever be sent to a public school. Though I would not be born until years later, this decision marked the beginning of my wild and exciting educational journey. Friends of the family, especially those who were themselves public educators, viewed homeschooling with considerable skepticism. The fight to legalize the rights of parents to educate their children was a fresh memory, and becoming a homeschooler still meant navigating uncharted waters.

The earliest years of my education were largely unstructured. Mom went over my letters every day, and I knew them by the age of 18 months. She started teaching me phonics as soon as possible. Formal schoolwork mostly consisted of workbooks, of which I completed many. These weren’t anything remarkable – just the sorts of generic school workbooks you can buy cheaply at any bookstore – but they did their job. I went on field trips with other homeschoolers and played with my dog in a giant pile of dirt in the backyard.

Learning From Computers

I spent many, many hours playing educational video games (and also less-than-educational video games). Computers were much less user-friendly back then, but my father customized an MS-DOS computer to make it easier for me to use. For games that required reading, Mom would sit with me and read the text on the computer screen. We would often stay up well past midnight playing games together. I eventually realized I could stay up for as long as I wanted if Mom felt she was helping me with something educational, so for a period of time I pretended I couldn’t read in order to keep the late-night gaming sessions going. I probably owe more of my educational successes to video games than to formal instruction. At the very least, video games enhanced my critical thinking and problem solving skills in ways unachievable through any book.

One of my favorite games was Civilization II, a strategy game about leading nations over the course of history. It was far too complex for 6 year-old me, but I was determined to figure it out, and I carried the game’s 200-page manual with me everywhere. While my family was at a restaurant and I was trying to understand how different political models would affect my civilization, an elderly man waved me over. “Young man, are you really reading that big book?” Embarrassed, I thought “It’s not a real book. It’s just the manual for a game. He wouldn’t be impressed if he knew.” In retrospect, I should have accepted the compliment. Here is a fairly typical example of the manual’s contents:

“The combined tax revenues of all your cities must exceed their combined maintenance requirements before gold can accumulate in your treasury. It is not necessary for each city to have a positive cash flow. However, enough cities must do so to cover your civilizations’ expenses, or your treasury will be depleted to cover the deficit.”

Civilization II Instruction Manual, 1996
The Civilization III Instruction Manual, which is a more recent version of the manual mentioned above.

Learning Through Self-Study

After learning the basics of reading and writing, I was increasingly able to study on my own. In time, my schedule became somewhat more structured. Mornings began with math. I would read a lesson from a math textbook and then work a set of problems. Mom gave me the teacher’s manual so that I could check my own work and correct any mistakes; as a result, I was largely self-sufficient. This whole process would usually take roughly an hour.

Once my math lesson was finished, I usually had another specific assignment. Sometimes this would be grammar practice (which worked similarly to math practice) or a topic for a one-page handwritten essay. This would typically take another hour or two. Of course, I didn’t always want to do my schoolwork in the morning, and I threw a few tantrums. Mom had a strict policy of never letting me get what I wanted through bad behavior, so no matter how much I resisted, I wasn’t allowed to move on with my day until finishing my work. With a zero-percent success rate for tantrums, I quickly learned it was easier to just do my math.

Rapid Growth

Occasionally, afternoons were dedicated to doing all manner of laboratory activities. These would be done in the kitchen under my mother’s supervision. In high school, we spent countless hours doing sophisticated chemistry activities that were considerably more advanced than anything done in a typical public school laboratory. This instilled in me a love of science that would eventually lead to a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Beyond this, I had considerable freedom to choose when to study each subject. Mom filled a bookshelf with all the textbooks and other curriculum materials I would need through the 12th grade, so as far as I was concerned, completing an education just meant reading all the books on a shelf. This little detail might seem insignificant, but I think it helped me enormously. Textbooks didn’t materialize out of thin air. I wasn’t on some endless treadmill; over the years, I could visually see my progress as book after book became completed. Granted, there were occasionally small changes and additions to the shelf, but nothing dramatic enough to break the sense of continuity. The bookshelf was a sort of unwritten contract. Every day it reminded me: “Do all of this, and you will be finished.”

Often I would read a single textbook cover-to-cover before starting another a week later. Sometimes, I would immediately proceed to another textbook for the same subject, but at the next grade level. Because of this, I invariably ended up studying different subjects at different grade levels. It always felt awkward when people asked what grade I was in. At any given moment, I might be reading a 6th grade history book, an 8th grade literature book, and a 7th grade science book.

As the years went by, it became clear I was advancing rapidly. In the words of my mother, “He’s been an adult since age 8.” That was the year I was baptized and began to take an active role at our church, sometimes giving short talks to the congregation. By the time I was in my teens, I would be preaching and teaching on a semi-regular basis.

Another key milestone at age 8 was my introduction to what would become a lifelong passion: programming. No one told me I should learn how to code, but I spent so much time with computers, it was inevitable I would want to learn how to program them. My mother didn’t know anything about the subject, and while my father was proficient with computers, he was no programmer. Programming resources for children were still quite limited, so I got an introductory C++ programming book intended for adults. It wasn’t easy, but I did begin to learn the basics. I wouldn’t have enjoyed half of my success in later life if not for the doors this skill opened for me.

An Unusual Problem

At the age of 13, something amazing happened: I reached the end of the bookshelf. My mother had originally planned to continue homeschooling me at the college level, but quickly realized the futility of this plan. Why should I waste time reading college textbooks at home, if I wouldn’t get any college credit? Somehow, I would need to be enrolled in college.

Making the transition from homeschool to college can be a challenge. Doing this at the age of 13 is another matter entirely. I took an ACT test and scored high enough for admission into the honors program of any university within commuting distance, but this simply raised other issues. How would I commute? Would it be safe to send a 13 year-old to college? Would colleges even allow a student to enroll at such a young age? Mom contacted local colleges and universities, asking whether they would be willing to enroll me. Some of them offered a Duel Enrollment program which permitted high school students to take a limited selection of college courses. This wasn’t a good option: I wanted to major in Chemistry, but laboratory classes weren’t available to Duel Enrollment students. My mother explained that I had completed high school, taken the prerequisite standardized testing, and would like to fully enroll. It didn’t matter; children below a certain age could only be enrolled via Duel Enrollment.

From Homeschool to College

Eventually, Mom found a community college in a nearby town (specifically, Hinds Community College in Raymond, MS) that allowed me to enroll in freshman chemistry. Still uncertain whether a college instructor would tolerate a 13 year-old in a chemistry lab, she called him to ask if my age would be a problem. “That’s fine,” he said, “but I require everyone to take a pretest on the first day, and if they can’t pass, I tell them to drop the class.” My grandmother drove me to my first day at a college campus. I had never been in a group learning environment and really didn’t know what I was doing, but everyone was very gracious to me. A few hours after taking the chemistry pretest, I nervously walked to the instructor’s door and began to look for my score. It didn’t help my nerves when he stood up and watched me. My score was only in the 80s, so I was disappointed. Then I looked at the other scores. Confused, I began to ask “Did I…?”, and the instructor quickly interrupted with “Yes, you did.” I had made the highest score in the class, by a roughly 20-point margin. Apparently the rest of the department already knew, because all of the other doors opened and the faculty peered out at the 13 year-old who beat an entire college class.

Not quite willing to part from my homeschooling self-study habits, I began studying for CLEP and AP tests independently from college classes, even choosing to spend a year dedicated to this task alone. This allowed me to test out of a total of 41 credit hours of college coursework. By the age of 15, I was ready to transfer to a university capable of granting Bachelor’s degrees. Still too young to live in a dorm room, I would live with my grandparents and attend Middle Tennessee State University, where I enrolled in the University Honors College and double-majored in Chemistry and Physics.

Life at MTSU

While at MTSU, I tutored fellow students, taught labs, and assisted faculty in preparing and grading assignments. I was elected President of the MTSU Student Chapter of the American Chemical Society, which organized science demonstrations for hundreds of K-12 students every year. One such demonstration was for a high school chemistry class that included the son of one of the chemistry faculty. She afterwards told me that he had learned more from that one demonstration than from the entire rest of the class.

I was also blessed with the opportunity to engage in several different research projects. During one particularly eventful summer, I worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the formerly secret government lab responsible for enriching the uranium used in the first atomic bombs. Because of this, I had access to the most powerful supercomputer in the world, and was able to contribute to a project that was eventually granted a prestigious R&D 100 Award. I was honored to receive numerous recognitions while at MTSU, including the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship (America’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarship for students in the fields of science, engineering, and mathematics), the Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship (a nationally competitive fellowship for students entering their first year of graduate studies), the MTSU Provost’s Award (MTSU’s highest recognition for scholarly achievement), and being named to the All-USA College Academic Team (a nationally competitive accolade organized by USA Today).

One of the supercomputers the author has used.
Attribution: U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Later Life

I graduated summa cum laude from MTSU and received a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship to begin my graduate studies. I was accepted into the Chemistry Ph.D. program at Caltech, which is considered by many to be the most prestigious university in the world. In my department alone there were three Nobel laureates actively serving on the faculty. After completing my Ph.D., I became the Distinguished Admiral Grace Hopper Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, which maintains and operates supercomputers for scientific research. I now work as a Team Lead for an organization that trains college students, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and professors in software development skills. Over the course of this work, I have had the pleasure to mentor many fine scholars who have enjoyed impressive career success.

In time, I hope I’ll be able to contribute in some small way to your child’s success, as well.

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