Fathom Mag
Article

Homeschool MFA

I’m Tresta and I’ve never been to university.

Published on:
September 11, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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I just spent half an hour reading an article about reading. It probably should have taken me fifteen minutes, but looking up words and re-reading whole paragraphs takes time. I had to muscle through.

It was an article linked on Twitter by someone far brighter and more educated than myself—someone who probably read it and fully comprehended it in ten minutes or less—and the premise was this: our brains are changing due to our highly-digital reading diets, and the skimming we learn to do online is diminishing our capacity for empathy, insight, and discernment, not to mention our aptitude and appetite for long-form reading.

Reading it was just one more reminder of my need for continued education

None of this was surprising or entirely new information, but reading it (and the irony of my struggle to read it) was just one more reminder of my need for continued education, with real books and slow work.

So, hello. I’m Tresta and I’ve never been to university. I line my shelves with books too hard for me, listen to speakers who talk right over me, and am constantly trying to pick up hobbies that are too advanced for me. I sign up for courses. I fill my Netflix queue with documentaries. I download more podcasts than a reasonable person could listen to in a lifetime, and I always feel humbled by what I don’t know. This is my education.


In 1996, I graduated from community college with an associate’s degree, which doesn’t even garner capitalization, and was married the next day. I worked in a lumber mill, then a daycare center, then a preschool, and then had babies and have been at home ever since. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted, though as we near the empty nest stage of our lives, I wonder what a better degree could mean for our future.

In fall of 2000, I began homeschooling my stepson. The day our books arrived for our first year of school, I found out I was for sure pregnant and would give birth to my third child in three years the following spring, and I cried. I was overwhelmed, and we hadn’t even begun.

But I didn’t cry because I was scared I couldn’t homeschool. I didn’t cry because I was worried about high school or diplomas or biology. A naive sense of my own capabilities made me believe that we would cross bridges as they came and I would learn what I needed to learn in time to teach it to my children. God had prepared me, and hidden in my confidence to homeschool was a love of learning and a legitimate excuse to read lots of books.

God had prepared me, and hidden in my confidence to homeschool was a love of learning and a legitimate excuse to read lots of books.

Barring any major changes, we will finish homeschooling in spring of 2023 and I will have spent approximately thirty-seven years of my life focusing on education.

And I will still have only that lower case associate’s degree.

On a normal day this doesn’t bother me. I live in a small and beautiful place and am content to try and be a small and beautiful part of the world, without the letters and learning and loans of a fancy degree. My life is enviable, and I am surrounded by people who work hard and make their living without capital letter degrees.

But there are other days. I am human, full of the pride of life and desire for recognition or appreciation, or maybe just the permission to read books and write papers and call it my vocation.

It seems like someone should be coming with a degree for me, soon—something that acknowledges just how many times I’ve mastered junior high, solved a quadratic equation, read a classic work of literature, studied chemistry, or declined a Latin noun.

Enter: the Homeschool MFA.

I have traced that term back to Patricia Zaballos and there are many variations and sources to draw from. It’s a combination of ideas and planning that give me an outline for my own at-home education, and though I have never run out of books to read or things to study, a Homeschool MFA is helping me narrow and shape my plan according to the life I actually have. My booklists are growing more purposeful, and my writing submissions, the subsequent edits and re-writes, and a few speaking engagements here and there, are all sharpening my skills and taking me out of the comfortable places where growth stagnates.

I won’t actually get a degree when I’m done. This is not an accredited program and no one is grading my performance. What I am piecing together at home may not even come close to a true MFA program, but there is no degree that could replace what I’ve gained slowly—the empathy and insight and discernment that comes from a truly liberal, self-directed, Christ-centered education, scratched out of spare time and muscled through with naive confidence.

What’s important now is that I know what’s important. It’s not the degree. It isn’t the credentials. It’s knowing Christ every day through the humility of recognizing what I don’t know, and pressing in to what I can know. I’m in this graduate program for life.

But I would contend at all costs in both word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one doesn’t not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it. —Socrates in Plato’s Meno

Tresta Payne
Tresta Payne lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and four kids. She writes at trestapayne.com and obsesses over fir trees, her dog, and her family on Instagram.

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