Books and Saxophones

Sandra Dodd
with comments from others

[article first appeared in Home Education Magazine, July/August 2003]

I went to school. Most people reading this probably went to school. But most people reading this probably are not sending their children to school. Many of you are probably finding that your vision of homeschooling isn't exactly the same as the reality of your child's life at home. I know my own vision missed coming true.

The nest I built for my children even before I knew we would homeschool was made of toys and books, music and videos, and a yard without stickers. It was a good nest.

When our oldest was five and our third was still inside me, we stuck our toes in the homeschooling waters, and asked ourselves some serious questions. We bypassed the regular serious questions. We weren't worried about socialization. We weren't worried about times tables. What my husband and I asked when our should-we-do-this eyes met was "What about marching band?"

Years have passed, in that sneaky way years pass. Sometimes we're so busy we look up from our work and play and find we don't know what month it is. Kids bump their heads and elbows on things because they don't realize how big they're getting. My husband and I will say "Wasn't it last year?" and Holly, our time-keeper, will say "That was three years ago in March, when Gina was here and the couch was over there," or some other clear, visual and correct reference.

So what went wrong?

I saw what I had loved as a child and I thought my kids would love that too. At first I "saw" school. I loved school. But Kirby wasn't cut out for being stuck in a school. Maybe I hadn't been either, but I had just drawn in my head and my elbows and made myself fit. And I had found happiness there.

School wasn't going to work, for Kirby at least. But still, his dad and I knew what he would love: Books and music. He would have time to read all the books in the world, and he wouldn't be limited in the time he would have to learn music. What a wonderful life he could have, even without marching band.

Those thoughts took just seconds, because the reality involved bicycles and Ninja Turtles and friends and food and medieval costumes and road trips and board games.

A few years ago I reviewed my progress and realized that my three lovely children who are busy every single day and who can converse about any subject neither read books for fun much nor do they play any band instruments whatsoever.

I played clarinet from the time I was eleven. So did my cousin Nada, who lived with us. My little sister played flute when she hit the magic "age" of fifth grade. My younger cousin, Nadine, who lived with us, who was in the same grade as my sister, made a shocking choice. While student-model clarinets and flutes were around $120 each, she made a fateful declaration: "I want to play saxophone."

Saxophones cost three times as much as the daintier things the rest of us were playing. My parents didn't want to say, "No, play something smaller, and made of resin if possible, not five pounds of brass." Well, I'm sure they WANTED to say that, but rather than seem discouraging they made those heavy saxophone payments.

In the jumble of reviewing the what and why of school and comparing our unfolding homeschooling outcomes, I learned about myself and school. "Well, of course you did," you might say, and you might roll your eyes. But wait until I tell you what I learned.

For me, band was what books were: escape.

By "escape" I don't mean escape into a fantasy world and another plane of thought. Sure, that happens sometimes with music, and more often with adventure stories and mysteries. I mean physical, outathere escape.

Elementary school band got one out of the classroom. Every hour spent in band was an hour I was not dealing with textbooks and notebooks. We were still sitting in rows, but they were high-class semi-circular rows around a conductor. I had seen orchestras do that. We were doing something adults did!

And when I wasn't in band, I used my other escape ladder, and that involved the library, extra-credit reading, and books sneaked under my desk. I had allies. Sometimes the librarian would ask me to come and help her. YES!! Virtue AND escape. Sometimes I would be reading something wonderful under my desk that took me out of the room, out of the school and out of my skin. But it didn't take me out of the teacher's line of vision. So sympathetic friends would do a noble thing. When the teacher called my name to read aloud from the history book or "reader" that was being dragged out into the air paragraph by paragraph, I would look up shocked at my surroundings, and then glance at where someone was casually pointing at a paragraph, behind the back of the kid in front, and I would read my section as calmly and clearly as though I had been attentive. Then back into the real book I went.

We have books in our home that our children have glanced at wanly and that's about it. We bought Henry Treece books, when we saw we had boys. They are wonderful, out of print kids' novels about Vikings and Saxons. An attempt to read one aloud to Marty failed. Other nudges that direction have been ignored. They have much better ways to internalize Vikings and Saxons than to read a novelization of something that didn't happen anyway. They have a medieval studies club as part of their lives, and great Eyewitness and Usborne books with photographs and archeological reports and maps and diagrams. Why would they want to read 180 pages of unillustrated text when their dad has a reproduction Viking sword as real (and almost as heavy) as a saxophone?

A younger Kirby tried to play clarinet, when we begged and jollied. Twice he went to the beginning homeschooling band sessions, with his new reed and the old clarinet his dad still had, who had spent large chunks of life playing clarinet, oboe and bassoon in the steady pursuit of excellence at getting out of the classroom. But in Kirby's case, when he was at band he was missing something better elsewhere. His choices are richer and more varied.

Years passed. Holly is playing fiddle, and starting to mess with recorder (which her dad and I play regularly) because Cyndi Lauper played one on a concert video. We just borrowed a banjo for Marty who has said "banjo" for years, because of Steve Martin. Kirby has talked about piano, but is a busy, happy guy and it hasn't yet happened. They all sing for fun (and well).

I don't mind that my vision failed. The realities of longterm natural learning were not within the scope of my beginning-homeschooler imagination. If their lives had unfolded as I had predicted they would have been smaller and sadder. I'm very happy to report that their real, natural, unschooled lives are both bigger and happier than my imagination.


I reported to unschoolers online that Marty was reading a book called The Road to Miklagard by Henry Treece, and someone wrote "Sandra, weren't those the books you mentioned in your last HEM column as just sitting on the shelf? You never know..."

Until she wrote that, I hadn't remembered. But he didn't get it off the shelf, he found it in a little pile of stuff a moving-away adult friend had brought back to us. It was left out in the living room, and Marty saw the book and started reading it.

I had forgotten to strew!! I told him we had several more books by that author, also about Vikings and Saxons. "We do!? Cool!" So thanks, Pam T., for pointing this "update" out to me.

August 15, 2003
update on column written in May

I didn't find a good Henry Treece page, but found a bio and booklist on a page about a school with which he was associated.That page was gone, but MrsStranahan brought the new bio/review page which is linked at left. And in a review of a Poul Anderson book on Amazon U.K., I found a HECK of a quote by a reviewer, about Henry Treece: "I agree with the earlier reviewer who mentioned Henry Treece, another writer who came before Tolkien and in my opinion did the job a whole lot better." Wow.

From a discussion on encouraging reading at's message board:

I have no doubt that I used to read so many novels to help me forget about school.

By dragonfly (Dragonfly) on Tuesday, November 4, 2003 - 02:39 pm:

My younger daughter, when in school, seemed to feel almost desperate about needing reading time. Contrast that with the moment when, after a few months of unschooling, she said, "I miss reading! It used to be my only fun thing, but now I have so many fun things that I never read any more!"

I should point out that her idea of "never reading" is going through "only" a couple of novels a week.


Sandra Dodd's children were 16, 14 and 11 in those days, hanging out at home and the gaming shop and the new playground near their house.

Book Worship Music Learning Mindful Parenting