The Year of the Autodidact

I was my own homeschool teacher.  

In August after the sixth grade, I took a tour of my new school. The large junior high, that was basically a grid of four interconnected quads, didn’t seem so hard to manage.    

I’d been the new kid almost every year for the last four years, and I’d done okay. 

I was finally going to a real school, with lockers, and a different class for every subject, and four hundred and ninety-nine potential new friends. 

These were all my thoughts before the first day.

Then I was dropped off. Everything looked different. There was a swarm of four hundred and ninety-nine strangers. Since all four of the quads looked identical, I couldn’t find my locker. Or did I have four of them and didn’t know? When I finally did find the locker I was pretty sure was mine, I couldn’t open the combination lock. 

I got lost. I was late for every class. The time between when class ended and another one started again was five minutes. Superman himself couldn’t have made it all the way over to the other side of the school in that amount of time. And all the “new friends,” were impossible to make, because with so many classes, I never saw the same person twice the whole day.

At around 1:30, got my first-ever migraine headache. A migraine feels as if, while some unknown force repeatedly stabs your right eye with an ice pick, your stomach churns up bile with the force of a tsunami, and the light burns your eyes like you’ve turned into a vampire.

 When I had to go back next day, I couldn’t breathe. My legs went numb. I gulped in air, but still felt like I would pass out or my heart would give out: I got my first-ever panic attack. 

When I had to go to school the day after that, it all happened again. 

To add some context, things at home weren’t good. 

For a while my mom, my Aunt Mary, her daughter, their three cats, my goldfish Poseidon, and me all lived in a together modest house. Then, my mom and my aunt got in a horrible fight and she and my cousin, and the cats all moved out forever. 

At the same time, my mom accepted, for the first time in my life, a full-time office job. 

We lived twenty miles—basically the distance from Earth to Mars when you’re twelve—from all my friends. 

All at once, I was alone. 

Since going to school gave me anxiety, it was decided I would be homeschooled. 

We met my home school advisor, Mr. Foster, a good-looking younger (for a teacher) man that I’m pretty sure both my mom and I had a crush on. He asked me a couple questions, and gave me a packet of work to complete for the first month. We never really discussed the logistics of how my mother, who had never helped me with a homework assignment, would work full-time and homeschool me.

Although it went unspoken, it was obvious that I would be in charge of my own education. 

That next Monday morning, my mom left for work at 9 a.m. 

Now, based on every movie or book about twelve-year-olds being left to their own devices, you might assume that this was an absolute disaster. But, I was not like most twelve-year-olds. 

I concluded that if the homeschooling didn’t work out, I’d be forced to go back to Nightmare Junior High. The thought made me so anxious that I got straight to studying. 

My anxiety became my watchful taskmaster. 

I laid out my assignments. Things that I hated, like Math and Life Sciences, would be done first. I spent the next two days working on only those two subjects. Then, I was done. And I didn’t have to look at a single exponent or cell membrane for another twenty-eight days. 

For Language Arts, my favorite, I would assign myself persuasive essays, like, “how to sell refrigerators to Eskimos.” Then, through my studies, I discovered the correct term was “Inuit People,” so I went back and edited it to “how to sell refrigerators to Inuit People.”

I would assign myself poetry to write, historical figures to research, then books to review from the local library.

It was at the library, I came across a word: autodidact. An autodidact is someone who can teach themselves things, without needing an instructor. Leonardo Da Vinci was an autodidact.

I was no Da Vinci, but I was teaching myself new things every day. 

The truth of my autodidact status was revealed after the first month. Mr. Foster looked over my work and gave me perfect marks. He had no idea I was the captain of my own schooling. And since I’d done well, my mother didn’t suggest that I go back to real school. 

I’d always known I was different. Now I had proof: I was an autodidact. 

But being different at twelve is challenging and isolating. And I was already almost as isolated as an Inuit Person on an ice floe. No matter how much scholastic greatness I achieved, there was problem I couldn’t assign myself to solve. I was lonely. 

 I was far from my friends. My mom was gone all the time. My goldfish Poseidon was very one-sided company. I’d left junior high school because I had anxiety around too many people. But now, I had anxiety being alone. I taught myself what this was called, too: irony. 

Everything changed when my path converged with another person, who was just as lonely as I was. 

Heidi, who was about thirty, lived two doors down in a beautiful yellow house. 

She had “the perfect life.” She was funny, pretty, and sweet. She was married to a man who made so much money she didn’t have to have a job. 

One day, she knocked on door to borrow milk. Upon hearing that I was not out sick, but actually homeschooled, and by myself, she invited me over for lunch. 

We ate sandwiches and talked. The fact that there was a twenty-year age difference was not apparent in her voice-tone or the topics of our conversations. She didn’t edit herself because I was a “kid,” which I could always tell and always hated. Heidi was not the studious type, but listened happily as I told her about the books I was reading and my thoughts about them. 

After lunch, I found myself not wanting to go home to my empty house. Just when I was going to leave, Heidi asked if I wanted to help her make cookies. Of course I did. I stayed. 

From then on, it just kind of happened that I kept coming back to Heidi’s for lunch every day. This became my second homeschool. 

I would do my assignments at my house until noon, then walk over. We’d hop into her giant white SUV and drive to McDonald’s. She would buy me a chicken sandwich, fries, and a coke (all things, I never mentioned to Heidi, I was forbidden from eating). 

We’d go back to her house, and eat our lunch. We watched Passions, an outlandish, now-cancelled soap opera with a witch named Tabatha with her mischievous accomplice Timmy, who was a doll come to life. Then Days of Our Lives, a much more coherent story with way less fanciful characters.

Usually by the time Oprah came on, Heidi would break open one of her many craft magazines and we’d pick something to make. For Halloween, we hot-glued foam core and black lace to make spooky haunted houses. For Thanksgiving, we baked and decorated cupcakes to look like little turkeys. For Christmas, Heidi taught me to wrap the perfect present. I learned that you never need more than three pieces of tape, no matter how big the gift is, if you do it right.  

Every day around 4 pm, Heidi’s husband Gary would get home. My stomach always dropped when I heard the garage door open and his car pull in and the engine shut off.  

Gary was the opposite of Heidi in every way. Sour, silent, and unwelcoming. And whenever he got home, even though she tried to hide it, Heidi changed. 

 I didn’t like Gary. It was obvious, by the silent language spoken among all three of us, he didn’t like me either. Gary coming home was always my cue to leave.

I kept going over there, five days a week, for months. Heidi and I talked about everything. Except that I pretended everything was fine, when it wasn’t. And she did the same. 

The topic of children had begun to come up more and more. I wasn’t sure exactly if Heidi couldn’t have them, or Gary didn’t want them, but I knew Heidi was desperate to be a mother. 

As much as I was learning on my own, Heidi was my crash course in home economics. I crafted, baked, learned how to make seven-layer dip, used a hot glue gun, and cut my own stencils. She started me on my first screen-writing course. I learned every character’s backstory on Passions and Days of Our Lives. I became a food critic, with an opinion on every single item on the McDonald’s menu. 

For two days, the week of my thirteenth birthday, Heidi, with me assisting, painted Gary’s home office a beautiful sky blue. Yep, I even learned how to paint a room. 

Everything seemed as good as it could be, for the weirdest, unconventional year possible. But like everything in life, all good things come to an end.

I came over at noon a couple days after we’d painted. Gary was home. They sat together at the kitchen table.

    Please tell me you are getting a divorce, I thought. 

    They were not getting a divorce. They were going to have a baby. 

I wanted to be happy. I told her I was happy. But I just couldn’t be. I hardly knew anything about being a grown up, but I knew in my bones, that when the baby came, everything would change. 

It did. I still went over there, but everything became about the baby. Our crafting course was baby-centric. And more and more often, Heidi would have to go to the doctors, or host Gary’s family — just as stoic and awkward as he was — who would come into town.

It was a gradual fade out. And then, just as swiftly as they’d been brought together, our path diverged. In September, Heidi had her baby. And I went back to (a much smaller and more manageable) junior high, where I ended up making new friends my own age. Some of them, I’m still friends with today.

That year, Heidi learned how to be a mother, and I learned that just because I could be on my own, didn’t mean I had to be lonely.