This blogpost was written for CHILD USA by Amanda Lorentson, a survivor of educational neglect. Despite the immense obstacles in her path, Amanda went on to attend an Ivy League law school and is currently an attorney for Kline & Specter, a prestigious law firm in Philadelphia. With this blog Amanda hopes to inform the public on the realities of educational neglect, which impacts every aspect of a child’s life.
I grew up a five-minute walk from Windemere Boulevard Elementary School. The school sat on about 15 acres in a quiet residential area. On occasion, a trip in our station wagon to or from church or the grocery store would take us past the school’s grounds. Decades later, I still vividly remember the pain I felt as a child, looking out our sedan’s windows at the large brick building with its playground, playing fields and gymnasium, imaging what it would be like to go inside.
I grew up in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, New York in the smallest and most overgrown house on the block. Inside that 1086 square foot two-bedroom, one bath house, my mother and father raised three children- my older and younger brother and myself. We were the only kids that lived on the block but if you asked our neighbors, they would probably tell you that they didn’t even know we lived there since we rarely left the house and no school busses ever came by to pick us up or drop us off.
My parents belonged to an extremist Christian church—what most today would call a cult—that preached complete separation from the outside world and that nothing save being closer to God meant anything.
Because they believed that public and even private education would be harmful to our souls, my parents decided to keep us completely out of school. My mother worked a job here or there but for the greater part of my childhood was unemployed. While my father—who suffered from severe mental illness and an inexplicable temper that would send him into verbally and physically violent outbursts at least once a day—took it upon himself to manage the task of home education. A job that he would shortly prove to be mentally and academically ill-equipped for, evidenced by the fact that after teaching my older brother how to read, he quit.
He stacked up a pile of books and Hooked-on-Phonics cassette tapes and walked out of the playroom where we kept our school desks – mismatched wooden sets that we found waiting for the trashman outside of Windemere – never to attempt anything that closely resembled teaching again.
I was 5.
I didn’t know my ABCs, I couldn’t count past 10. I knew nothing yet was somehow bright enough to realize that everything was out there if I could just read. And since no one would teach me how to read, I would just have to teach myself. And that was it. At 5 years old, I sat in large closet that belonged to the bedroom that I shared with my brothers and using a half broken, skipping cassette player, fumbled my way through the Hooked-on-Phonics workbooks my father had cast aside. I hoarded whatever books I found lying around and anything else that had writing on it – cereal boxes, monopoly instructions, greeting cards. It was there in my makeshift classroom that I painstakingly taught myself how to identify letters, create their sounds, recognize the words they made…it was there that I learned how to read, and it was there that I taught my younger brother how to read as well.
All of this was largely in secret of course, since I knew it would draw intense punishment if my father found out, as my industriousness would most certainly be interpreted as disrespect or disobedience.
For the next 9 years, home schooling was a chaotic, self-led exercise. Our textbooks, outdated and damaged, were usually whatever the school district gave away, although, sometimes, my mother would beg the local district for a new book or two. Although NYS (at least pre-COVID-19) mandated annual testing from third grade on, I remember only taking one or two state exams. NYS also required that each parent submit an annual ‘individualized home instruction plan’ (IHIP), to ensure “competency of the instructor and substantial equivalence of instruction being provided at home,” and quarterly academic reports. I don’t believe my parents ever submitted these once. No social workers visited our home. No school administrators or superintendents checked up on compliance.
By the time I entered high school—by some miracle my parents had been convinced by family to send us to high school—I was severely academically, socially, and physically stunted. As one would expect, my freshman year was an academic nightmare, I was unable to do basic math, had only a loose grasp of science and social studies, had never even attempted a foreign language, did not know the difference between nouns, verbs, or really anything having to do with writing or the English Language Arts. And then there were the incredibly traumatizing ways that being homeschooled negatively impacted my ability to socialize, form friendships, engage in group learning, hindered basic communication skills—making me an easy target for ostracization if not full-blown bullying from most of my classmates. While the academic and social impacts of homeschooling are not a secret, I have realized that many do not consider the physical ramifications as well. It is scientifically proven that early exposure to germs has lasting benefits—being around other kids helps children strengthen their own immune systems and can protect from developing allergies and asthma. However, because I had essentially spent 14 years isolated from my peers, I had never gotten the chance to build up my immunity. As a child, I developed asthma and severe allergies to dairy, dust, pollen, mold, pet dander, bee stings and perfumes. My freshman year in high school I contracted the flu several times, strep, walking pneumonia, a bizarre full body rash that doctors couldn’t treat or diagnose…
I am presently an attorney at Kline & Specter, a prestigious personal injury firm in Philadelphia. Ambition, hard work and unrelenting stubbornness, drove me to legally emancipate myself at 18 which opened the door to college, earning a master’s degree in education (the first advanced degree in my family) and graduating from an ivy league law school. However, I still struggle every day with the lasting impacts of educational neglect. Having missed out on so many crucial years of school, spelling is a constant struggle; I must always be mindful to give myself extra time to proofread briefs at least three times because my eyes were never trained to pick up on things like punctuation or verb tense; and of course, this does not even touch the imposter syndrome that comes with being someone with a past like mine working in a competitive, academically rigorous environment.
To this day, while I celebrate my accomplishments, I always wonder if I hadn’t missed out on so much school what kind of difference it may have made if not in my destination, then in the almost impossible path that got me here. And while, I will never know what could have been, I am grateful to stand here today where I am, as a witness to the inimitable, lifechanging power of education and the crucial need to ensure that all have equal access to it.