by Lisa VanDamme
VanDamme Academy began twenty years ago, with a message on my answering machine.
The message was from a family in Southern California, who were looking for a private, homeschool teacher for their two children, and who had heard from a mutual friend that I might be a good candidate for the job.
At the time, I was pursuing an MA in Education at Penn State with the plan of teaching literature to high school students. Running my own little one-room schoolhouse was not something I had ever contemplated as a career path—it was not something I had even dreamed of. It took one sleepless night to decide that that was exactly what I wanted to do.
I always say (only somewhat facetiously) that my motivation for taking the job was resentment for my own education. I had been a model student—good grades, good SAT scores, admitted to a good university—BUT: (1) I graduated from high school feeling thoroughly uneducated, and (2) I never loved school. At the time, I took those facts as a given, as I think most people do today. I now regard them as a travesty. This job would be an opportunity for me to offer my students an educational experience utterly unlike my own.
I had the good fortune of being able to draw upon the experience of a few friends and family members of previous generations (particularly my grandparents) who were truly educated. Even in comparison to my most successful and talented peers, their education seemed not just different in degree, but different in kind.
Whereas I graduated from thirteen years of school, including AP History classes, unable to generate even a bare-bones outline of history or rough sketch of the map of Europe, I distinctly remember asking my grandmother about the historic split between the Protestant and Catholic churches, and being regaled with a story compelling in plot, rich with detail, and fraught with meaning. Whereas I graduated from thirteen years of school, including AP English classes, having read and superficially discussed only the stock list of American “classics” (Catcher in the Rye, East of Eden, The Great Gatsby, etc.), my grandparents had read Dickens, and Tolstoy, and Ibsen, and Hugo, and could recite a poem to suit every occasion. Whereas my peers and I could crank out a passable five-paragraph essay, my grandparents’ writing was impeccably grammatical, exquisitely eloquent, and deeply insightful. They possessed the knowledge, the wisdom, and the depth of soul of truly educated people. My peers and I possessed a diploma. From those early days of the one-room school-house to the present-day VanDamme Academy, my colleagues and I have devoted ourselves to the goal of producing students who emerge deeply educated and who love school."