Anniversary of a (Mostly) Past Life

Today’s date almost slipped by me, even though it had occurred to me a few months ago that it was coming up. Twenty years ago today—June 8, 1997— was when I officially became a Famous Homeschool Author™*.

It was very nearly an accident. We were a homeschooling family, of the secular if-we’re-going-to-spend-most-of-our-time-reading-we-mght-as-well-be-comfortable school of thought. (Seriously, the best way to understand the attitude with which we approached learning is to go watch Carl Reiner’s new HBO documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. Those over-90s totally get it.) I was active with a statewide homeschool organization, and one day got a call from an editor at a local publisher (then the “5th largest independent publisher in the United States”) who was interested in developing curriculum packages to sell to homeschoolers. I sent them a bunch of articles, magazines, and other info, got taken to lunch, had my brain picked, and was eventually asked to give feedback on a truly awful proposal they came up with. (I tell the complete story in the introduction to Viral Learning.) That was the end of that, I thought.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from a different editor at the same company, who told me she thought there was a market for a trade book about homeschooling and invited me to submit a proposal. Soon, I had signed a contract to write at least 70,000 words about homeschooling over the next 18 months, which seemed an incredibly generous amount of time. It turned out to be far more time than I’d needed, because—inevitably—i procrastinated so much that I ended up writing the bulk of the book in the last two months before my deadline.

Then came the fun of learning how the publishing world worked. I was asked for title suggestions, most of which were completely ignored, because the publisher was more concerned with appealing to book store buyers than the eventual retail purchasers. (After all, if the books aren’t in the stores, either physical or online, nobody gets the chance to buy them.)

There were multiple, seemingly endless opportunities to read my book—over and over and over—copyediting run, making the index (which I did myself because I was too much a cheapskate to pay $400 for someone to do it for me), proofing run, final proofing run.

And somewhere in among the rereads, the publisher sent me the proposed cover, which I detested from the moment I saw it. I hated its homespun faux-denim look with the red scalloped line that looked like a badly tensioned line of machine embroidery. I hated the run-on multi-part title/subtitle/sub-subtitle. Most of all, I hated that damn pencil, irritatingly bearing that smarmy SUCCESS, which seemed to me to symbolize every homeschooling stereotype my homeschooling friends and I had been fighting for years. I suggested a few changes. (My friend Kim Stuffelbeam even mocked up a lovely red cover for it, which I passed on to the publisher, who said thanks, but no thanks. They really liked the faux denim.)

I did win the fight over the back cover copy, persuading the publisher that the original “THE ONLY HOMESCHOOLING BOOK YOU’LL EVER NEED!” would alienate more potential purchasers than it would attract. I decided I could live with “Don’t Even Think About Teaching Your Child at Home—Until You Read This Book.”

Eventually a carton full of books showed up, most of which I signed and sent to all my contributors who’d filled out an obnoxiously long questionnaire for me. June 8 rolled around, the book was officially published, and I was a Famous Homeschool Author™, learning to form coherent sentences on the fly for radio interviews and obsessing over the book’s Amazon ranking. Somewhat to the publisher’s surprise, the first printing sold out within two weeks, and they went back to press, and then asked me, “What’s next?”

So for 1998, I wrote another one, The Unschooling Handbook, which I liked much better. By then, the publisher had decided that my advice about reaching my part of the homeschooling market wasn’t completely baseless, so I ended up with a cover I liked much better, too. The new book sold well enough that the publisher decided not only that we needed a new updated version of my first book, for which I wrote about 40% new material, but that it would be the first of a whole series of homeschooling titles in uniform, identifiable covers. The Homeschooling Handbook, Revised 2nd Edition, came out in 1999, with a cover that was less interesting than that of The Unschooling Handbook, but at least had an illustration of a kid with a book and a magnifying glass, looking at a ladybug, which reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

My publisher was a bit shocked, I think, that I wasn’t at all interested in writing any of the titles for the new series, but after three years of writing about homeschooling (and talking about it at conferences and in interviews), I’d said what I’d had to say about the subject, and had no interest in rehashing it into further titles. After my younger daughter started college, I sent out another of my long and obnoxious questionnaires to as many of my previous contributors as I still had contact info for, and in 2007 came out with my self-published Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, a collection of linked essays, plus an appendix full of the questionnaire responses. But that book was just for me, and for the contributors, not a real part of my Famous Homeschool Author™ collection.

The HH and UH, as I think of them these days, are still in print and still selling. My little “5th largest” publisher was acquired by Random House, so my books are now published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Books Group, a division of Penguin Random, owned by AG Bertelsmann. (My contacts and communications with my publishing conglomerate these days are entirely electronic and non-human.) Both books are in their 14th or 15th editions, at least the last time I saw copies in a book store. with cumulative sales now approaching 95,000 copies. (To put that number in perspective, back when I still knew humans at Crown, they declined my fencing book proposal with a kind “We think it would be a great book, but we’re not interested unless it will sell 100,000 copies in the first year.”) My little backlist homeschooling titles have been only enough to keep me in new glasses and occasional computer and phone upgrades over the past two decades.

But backlist titles still earning royalties after 20 years is still kind of amazing.

*”Famous Homeschool Author™” is the term coined in sarcasm by my then 12-year-old older daughter to keep me in my place. The whole family (including me) has used it off and on ever since, invariably ironically.

A Necessary Missive

Wrote a letter to the USFA board today:

Dear USFA Board Members and Staff,

I was disappointed and disheartened to see or hear no public statement from USFA after the recent reports of at least two of our members having been singled out for unusual attention going through U.S. Customs when returning from fencing-related international travel. Perhaps, I thought, there was a statement being worked on, to be posted to the USFA website. Or, failing that, maybe there would be a formal motion or resolution to come out of the February meeting of the Board of Directors.

When the agenda for that meeting was posted today, I therefore read through it in search of such a resolution or proposal, and the only item I could find even plausibly related to this issue is Mr. Alperstein’s motion in the Good & Welfare portion of the agenda:

“RESOLVED: USA Fencing remains committed to the principles of diversity, inclusion and openness, and reaffirms that it welcomes and embraces members and participants without regard to ethnicity, religion or national origin. In furtherance of these values, USA Fencing reiterates is commitment to pluralism and its opposition to any practices, policies, rules or laws that discriminate against or stigmatize individuals or groups, that mark them for special treatment, or that deny them the full enjoyment of liberty, opportunity and equality on the basis of superficial or pretextual criteria.”

This statement is, to be blunt, a “Miss America contestant” statement—one that uses a lot of pretty words to say virtually nothing. Is it intended as a statement of support for those USFA members and others who have experienced unusual attention when traveling internationally? How can we tell?

To fail to take a strong public stand against policies and procedures that have already affected at least two well-known USFA members and may yet affect others is to implicitly approve such actions. While I understand the desire to avoid making a public fuss, this is exactly the sort of situation which requires a public fuss. That two United States citizens could be pulled aside on what can only be interpreted as the basis of race, religion, or culture is chilling. That effect can only be more threatening to those of our members who are legal residents, but not yet citizens.

A significant number of the referees and other officials the USFA depends on to staff our domestic tournaments and serve as part of international team cadres are immigrants and permanent residents. Impingements on their freedom to travel on our behalf have the potential to discourage their service and hamper our operations. Were such incidents to continue or increase, we could also expect to see fewer international competitors and officials willing to travel to the United States, and might find our ability to win bids to host World Cups, Championships, and even the Olympic Games compromised.

Beyond any practical potential effects of these troubling incidents is the simple fact that what happened to Ibti and Abdel was simply wrong. Like that of the United States itself, the history of the United States Fencing Association is not free of policies and periods of which it now has reason to be ashamed. Do not allow these incidents to join that part of our history. Do not allow these incidents to pass without notice or protest.

I urge you to strengthen the language of this motion to make clear that it is meant to specifically address threats to our members’ ability to travel freely, and then to approve it and urge other sports NGBs, as well as the USOC, to take similar strong public stands. I also recommend that the USFA provide appropriate information about travel rights and contacts for legal representation to any and all who travel internationally on the USFA’s behalf.

Mary Griffith

Gerrie

Ooof. Hearing today that Gerrie Baumgart died is a tough one to wrap my brain around.

I first became aware of Gerrie Baumgart during the 1999 Summer Nationals in Charlotte, when my older daughter, competing in her first national tournament, signed a pool sheet that showed her winning one bout fewer than she’d actually won. Gerrie was the person who met Kate and her coach at the bottom of the stairs to the BC stage (like all good fencing parents, I was across the room, though paying close parental attention) to explain that verifying that her scores were correct was part of what Kate had done when she signed her scoresheet and that the scores would stand as entered. Gerrie was nice about it, even sympathetic, explaining that this was something most young fencers did once and only once, but Gerrie was clearly not someone who would be moved by piteous looks from fencers or rants by angry coaches.

When I began working as a bout committee trainee the following year, Gerrie was even more intimidating. She understood that some of us were new and just learning the ins and outs of running events, but she also expected us to pay attention and learn quickly. Making a mistake was regrettable but forgivable, as long as any regret didn’t interfere with the smooth running of the tournament and was not repeated. Repeated errors were likely to earn the offender one of Gerrie’s ferocious but discreet little chats in an out-of-the-way corner.

Gerrie was almost always head referee at the March NACs, back when they were the Division II/III/Veteran combination and always the tournament that brand new half-trained bout committee chairs—including me—were handed. I may have been terrified of Gerrie but I recognized immediately how much she could—and did—teach me about running strips, handling complaints and protests, and managing my crew. More than anything else, she taught me how to think not just two or three rounds ahead, but through the entire day, to make sure I knew when bottlenecks could occur and to assign strips to allow for possible double-stripping or other impromptu rearrangements as conditions changed throughout the day.

Mostly, though, Gerrie was a referee, and a developer of new referees. One of the most fun talks I ever had with her (after five or six years, I wasn’t scared of her anymore, and she seemed to think I’d become acceptably competent) was when I was writing this article about referees for American Fencing. She had great stories to tell from her decades fencing and refereeing—more than I could use—and we laughed a lot. With fencing daughters, including one who herself became a referee, I especially appreciated her stories about becoming one of the earliest women referees with an international license.

Baumgart says attending an engineering school for college got her used to bias against women. She wasn’t happy with it, but it wasn’t so unexpected to find it in fencing, too. “But I’m competitive and wanted to be better than I was, so I worked at it.”

“Ralph Zimmerman was good at seeking out younger referees and taking chances on them,” she says. “Women were chancy assignments. He asked me if I was willing to do whatever I was asked to get to the Olympic Games. I said yes.”

It turned out to be a huge commitment. She worked 17 world cups in about a year and a half to build her reputation as a suitable selection. But in 1996 in Atlanta, she became the first American woman to referee at the Olympic Games.

Occasionally—and considerably more than occasionally in recent years, at least when we were done in time—Gerrie would join the BC gang for dinner. Especially on the last night of a tournament, she liked a good steak, often followed by an Irish coffee—and stories and laughter and more stories and more laughter.

The last couple of years were pretty rough on Gerrie, with the death of her husband, along with her declining health. Though it might have been better for her, she wasn’t the type to abdicate what she viewed as her responsibilities to the fencing community. I hope that same fencing community recognizes how much Gerrie Baumgart gave us.