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Feature Article: Hard Times in North Dakota
art of my preparation for moving from San Marcos, Texas, to North Dakota, was to try and get in touch with some home schooling families in the Minot area. That was my first inkling of what the situation would be like in North Dakota. I wrote to several families whose names I had obtained from Hewitt-Moore. Without exception, ALL had either given up home schooling or had moved to a different state. But we had no choice; the United States Air Force had given us irrevocable orders to Minot Air Force Base.
     One of my letters resulted in a telephone call from the Paden family who had moved to South Dakota where home schooling was legal. They told me who the few individuals were who had been supportive of them in the church in Minot, but did not reveal the names of those who had opposed them—except to say that it was the church school teacher and her husband who had turned them in to the authorities.
     So, in August 1983, the first week that we attended church in Minot, I almost felt as if I should be wearing an overcoat and dark glasses! Somewhat to my alarm, a woman named Iris Severtson, a friend of the Padens, approached us immediately and asked us over for dinner. But Mrs. Severtson, though a public elementary school teacher, was indeed supportive of home schooling, for she had a daughter who was doing it in another state. But we had already decided to NEVER tell anyone else that we were home schooling.
     Our son Scott was below compulsory attendance age that first year. Still, people seemed to assume that my 6 1/2-year-old son was (or should be) in first grade. So whenever anyone at church asked, “Does Scott go to school on base?” I nodded affirmatively. Our home school was definitely on the base where we lived. On base, we simply “hid” from our neighbors, which wasn’t too difficult to do through the North Dakota winter.
     I had decided that if we should get caught the following year, I would insist that Scott be allowed to attend the elementary school downtown and be placed into Mrs. Severtson’s second grade class. But by the end of that next summer, it was evident he was nowhere ready for second grade. He was nearly eight, but had not learned to read with our curriculum’s “look-say” method of teaching reading, and was still quite emotionally immature. It was then that God brought phonics into my life, and eventually—voila!—decoding began to make sense to him.
     Thus, during the school year of 1984-85, we virtually started over with reading. I felt more strongly than ever that it was absolutely imperative for Scott to continue being taught at home because of what might be considered academic “irregularities.”
     At first, we were nearly too paranoid to have any contact with other North Dakota home schoolers. But eventually we met Gerald and Sheryl Lund and others who were being prosecuted. I attended the 1985 legislative committee hearing in Bismarck and heard the eloquent testimonies, and I watched the proposed home schooling bill go down in solid defeat. I soon found out about the school census that was taken every other year in North Dakota. It was through that census of 1983 that the Lund family was “caught” and marked for prosecution. So when I read the announcement of the May 1985 census in the base newspaper, I totally panicked to the point of being physically ill, and was even led to fast with my praying.
     After the Lunds and the others were given guilty verdicts and began the long process of appeals, it seemed that more and more North Dakota home schoolers came out of the woodwork, risking and facing prosecution, court trials and guilty verdicts. It was exciting to see that persecution did not stamp out home schooling, but watered the very seeds for its growth. Near the end, our paranoia about not wanting people to know we even knew home schoolers had changed to a deep friendship with Sheryl and Gerald and assisting them in their battle against the illegal tactics of the prosecutors.
     But we knew we never could be as brave and open as they were. Randy was not many years away from retirement, and we just couldn’t risk his entire career with a civil court prosecution. (Several years before, Randy and I had known a military family in California who had merely wanted to keep their barely six-year-old son out of school an extra year. They were nearly court-martialed over it!) During the next two years, Randy tried very hard to get orders to another base in a different state—and was even willing to accept overseas orders, since we had learned that military members overseas were able to home school legally. Finally, shortly after the beginning of the 1986-87 school year, Randy got an assignment to Europe to take place the following summer, so we began to relax, yet never really released our vigilant determination to never tell anyone our secret.
     Even though I had a pianist job at the base chapel for our last two years there, and had also become fairly friendly with some of my own church members, I never talked about my kids’ school life. I found that people inevitably were much more willing to talk about their own kids and their own lives, so I always directed the conversation to them, rather than us. And it seemed to work.
     Of course, as my children grew older, they became more socially outgoing. Naturally, other kids would ask, “Who’s your teacher?” or “What room are you in?” or “Which school do you go to?” To the kids on the base, they said, “We go to a private school,” and that seemed to suffice—except for the one church family who lived on base. The two youngest were Scott’s and Lisa’s ages and became best friends with them. I even became good friends with their mother—a social worker—who confronted me directly only once. I couldn’t lie. I just told her I couldn’t talk about it and that I would tell her “someday.”
     Then a friendly neighbor let us know that they knew of our home schooling. She was neutral and casual, but did say that all the neighbors knew.
     While Randy had had the assignment to Europe for several months, he did not get the official orders until just days before we had to face the ordeal of another school census (May 1987). However, God had plans for us that we didn’t know about. Randy’s orders to Europe were canceled in July, and it seemed as if our whole world had crumpled. Then God gave us an assignment in Texas instead—a state that had had home schooling trouble brewing for several years, but had just won a major court victory for home schoolers in April of 1986—praise the Lord!
     God taught us some major lessons in patience and trust during the months between the canceled orders and the new orders to Texas. Because we had not moved to Europe during the summer, as anticipated, a new school year (1987-88) was well under way, bringing its usual rash of prosecutions of home schoolers and “unapproved” Christian schools throughout the state. So our actual physical move felt something like deliverance from Egypt and entering into the borders of Canaan.
     As with the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, the entire North Dakota home schooling experience had a direct effect on our spiritual life, as a family, and as individual persons. God gave me an increased understanding of my children’s own unique needs. His answers to prayer were very practical and at just the right time. And through visits to other states, He gave us optimism and confidence that my children were progressing quite “normally,” while still confirming the wisdom of our decision to home school.
     God rewarded my tearful struggles with the joys of watching my son reach his “Integrated Maturity Level,” a point when suddenly everything seems to fit together. For Scott it happened near the end of the third year when, at age 9 1/2, he decided he wanted to read on his own. By the end of the next school year, he scored three grade levels above his grade level in reading!
     Throughout, God taught me to overcome fear (II Timothy 1:7), but not to abandon caution (Proverbs 22:3). But it was only after we were safely in Texas (January 1988) that God revealed to us what else He had done for us in North Dakota—a situation which He in His mercy had totally hidden from us at the time.
     In spite of what I initially had told people about Scott “going to school on base,” one of the church members told another inquiring church member that “Scott doesn’t go to any school, as far as I know.” Then one of the “good brethren” of the church apparently felt it was their God-given duty to report to the authorities that the McDonalds were not sending their child to school. And this all happened that first year before Scott had even reached the minimum compulsory attendance age!
     So, that very first school year, a public school attendance officer called the church school to inquire about Scott. God saw to it that the phone was not answered by the church school teacher (whom I was sure would have turned us in), but by an individual who “just happened” to be at the church and answered the school phone when the teacher and students were out on the playground for recess! This happened, not only once, but also during our second school year—that crucial year of teaching Scott phonics.
     When asked, “Do you know of a Scott McDonald?,” this person said, “Oh, yes, he’s such an asset to any school. You’re not trying to `steal’ him, are you?” When they didn’t seem quite satisfied, the respondent continued, describing him as “bright, intelligent, and well-behaved.” And, in answer to prayer, the public school official never once asked directly, “Is Scott McDonald enrolled in your church school?”
     Every day in North Dakota, we prayed for God to protect our home school, to send angels to surround our apartment. Now I know truly just how, as with Daniel, my God sent His angel to “shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me.” To this day I have not stopped praising God for this miracle!

     Jacqueline McDonald


published by Home School Legal Defense Association
Now read our next feature article titled The Battle of H.R. 6