I have made the same joke, probably a thousand times, when I tell people that I was homeschooled. I never volunteer the information unless it's in some sort of defense for not knowing some strange rite of passage that all other "normal" high schoolers went through. It usually comes out when people ask what high school I went to, or where I graduated from, or where I grew up. I went home for high school. I graduated from my dining room table. I grew up everywhere.
But the joke, the funny-ha-ha moment comes right after I give the damning information that I did not have a locker or report cards or lunch hour but actually received my education from my parents and myself. The joke serves to soften the blow that they may not have a point of reference in discussing my upbringing and education. And it goes something like this:
"I was homeschooled actually. Yes, for ten years. Second grade until graduation. But don't worry, I don't like horses or wear denim skirts."
Inherently, there is nothing wrong with denim skirts or horses. However, coupled with being homeschooled, you run into a bit of a stereotype. Most "homeschoolers" or at least the ones that I encountered in Alabama and Indiana, did wear denim skirts and did love horses. They didn't know how to make and keep friends. They loved their parents and siblings - a lot. They were usually religious in some extreme way or another - and I had met them all, from a Wiccan bi-sexual with purple hair dancing naked in the moonlight to the devoutly Catholic friend I made my junior year whose sister (one of nine other siblings - God bless Catholic's opinions on birth control) wanted nothing more than to become a nun and the man who eventually knocked her up wanted to be a priest. And the horses - I can't quite explain the horses or homeschoolers' fascination and love for them.
But even in spite of the jokes, in spite of my attempts to delay the inevitable judgment about my parents' choice to raise and educate me, I did, once, love that equine species.
I wanted to ride.
I wanted to have one.
I wanted to feed and groom and trot and brush my very own Black Beauty.
But my family was poor. And horse riding lessons were not cheap, even in the most rural towns in Alabama. But one day. One early morning. One miracle of a chance that my mother gave me, I remember being taken to a ranch, or at least I think it was a ranch. Deep in the dark of the early morning. Before the sun thinks about rising. Right in the middle of everyone else's dreams. During that hour that you wake up, afraid you've missed your alarm and sink back, relieved that you have another three hours before it will go off, a glaring and red reminder that you have another day week month year lifetime of work ahead of you. I remember so little about getting there, being driven or setting up this experience that I must have been very young, probably less than ten-years-old. I doubt I was even homeschooled at that point. I was probably just another young girl, taken, and in love with those majestic creatures who stood tall above my small frame, all rippling muscle, rapidly moving eyes and knotted coarse tail.
However old I was, however I came to find myself there, I remember sitting on a footstool. One of those plastic ones you buy at Lowe's to step up a foot or two or to allow a small child to brush and spit and rinse their mouths at the sink after they've learned to brush their own teeth.
I sat there on that plastic stepping stool and I watched a woman riding a horse. It was Alabama then, it must have been because I didn't live anywhere else except there that I can remember and the places where I lived after, the memories are much more clear, much more concrete, much less filled with joy, and hope, and exhilaration.
And it was cold. Sometime in December or January because I shivered, the entire time I sat on that stool. I sat there, outside of the ring, on the other side of the fence, fifty yards or so from the horse and her rider. And I watched them. I watched her lead the horse from a slow walk to a trot to a steady gallop. She worked the horse. She rode her in a way that I couldn't stop watching. Her body told the horse where to turn and to move and to go faster or slower. I remember seeing the horse breath heavily with deep exhalations, the giant clouds of air bursting from its dark nostrils. She was majestic, this mare. She was beautiful. Even in the cold, even as I sat shivering, watching, I could see the sweat on the beast, glistening beneath the light from the barn on the other side of the ring. I don't know why I was there. I never took a lesson. I never got on a horse to ride and learn where to put my feet and how to squeeze my thighs and lean in and to one side or the other to get the horse to go my way. But I do remember sitting there, feeling the hours go by as this woman rode her horse, and it really was that simple. A woman riding her horse. But I couldn't stop watching, I couldn't stop staring as they welcomed the day together, as they breathed in and out at the same time and moved their muscles in the same direction, feeling the cool dirt beneath their warm hooves and feet, panting, trotting in their measured pace in the dew-soaked air, damp and sweating from the birthing of the heated dawn from the chilled and cooler night.