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Take Note: SCASD board member Carline Crevecoeur on her memoir "Pressure Makes Diamonds" about homeschooling her five children

Take Note: Crevecoeur
Emily Reddy
/
WPSU
Carline Crevecoeur

On this week's Take Note, we talked with Dr. Carline Crevecoeur about her recently published memoir "Pressure Makes Diamonds: From Homeschooling to the Ivy League - A Parenting Story." In it, Crevecoeur talks about giving up her job as an OB/GYN to be a homeschooler when she felt like schools weren't challenging her five very bright kids. Crevecoeur lives in Boalsburg. And as the title implies, her kids are now in or graduated from very prestigious colleges. Crevecoeur is now on the State College Area School District board of directors. And I should mention that she used to be on the WPSU board of directors, and currently underwrites, along with her husband, WPSU's Health Minute program.

Here's that conversation:

Emily Reddy

Carline Crevecoeur, thanks for talking with us.

Carline Crevecoeur 

Thank you so much for that introduction.

Emily Reddy 

So I think of a memoir as being, you know, about the person writing it. But a lot of your memoir, "Pressure Makes Diamonds" is about your kids and homeschooling them. Was your goal to make this kind of a "how to," for other homeschoolers? Or why did you decide to write this memoir?

Carline Crevecoeur 

When I sat down to write it, honestly, a lot of people because they knew about my kids, they wanted me to write a how to book. But when I got down to writing it, I just didn't feel like I could write a how to book because the how to really dealt specifically for my kids, my children. And I didn't want to say that just because it worked for me, it'll work for you. So when I sat down to write it, it took a turn. And I began to be self reflective. Because as a mom, and as a parent, I think, especially when the kids are older, you always want to second guess yourself. Even though my kids did end up in Ivy League's and they did wonderful. But I'm thinking, could I have done something differently? Because there were some problems along the way. It wasn't all fun and games, you know. And this is what I wanted to convey in the book. There's a lot of ups and downs in every decision that you make in life. And so it was a time for me to think about what I did and could I have done it better. And also dealing with my illness, we never really talked about it as a family. And when I sat down to write the memoir, and you want it to be honest about the whole trajectory of our journey, and I had to include that. So it was a way for me to come to terms on my life. And I think that was the main purpose for writing it. And my kids were a big part of it.

Emily Reddy 

And I want to talk more about your illness. But I want to talk more about this homeschooling aspect, too. You know, at first you you did try and put your kids in public schools. You were living in Altoona then, when they were young. And your oldest daughter, Danielle, though she had learned to read when she was 2. Knew her times tables by 5. So when she went to school, they were learning things she knew and she was bored. So you made maybe your first of many trips to the principal, to ask them to challenge your daughter more. And what was the reaction you got?

Carline Crevecoeur 

It was very dismissive. And that annoyed me. At first, I guess, the first time I went to speak with him, he was understanding and he says, "Okay, we'll give her extra work." And she finished it. It wasn't really challenging. It was just more. And when I tried to explain that to him, he started getting upset. Because I wasn't satisfied. And so he convinced me that things will be better the following year, because they put two grades in the same classroom. And then my son was going to be starting there also. And it just got worse. And so I had no choice.

Emily Reddy 

In you write about the principals, "I wondered if their attitudes were due to my gender, ethnicity, or both. Either way, I was stuck." How much of their reactions do you think were because you are Black and Haitian and your kids are mixed race.

Carline Crevecoeur 

You know, you always, as a Black person, you always don't want to say anybody's racist right away. You know, you want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Especially when I lived in Altoona, I had a lot of white patients, and they were wonderful. And they really, and I really cared about them. So I didn't want to call racism right away. But he was very dismissive. And especially in those days, where doctors were judged to be like, the best career and with respect, and I felt that he didn't care. You know, he was just so rude and dismissive of me that after a while, I thought, you know, would it be better if it was my husband that went to talk to him. And I think sometimes teachers or principals, they always feel like they know your kids more than you, sometimes. Not everybody. But I've also seen that. There was a lot of reasons why I felt he could have been very dismissive of me. Because he's probably thinking, "Oh, parents always think that their kids are so smart." Or it could have been my gender.

Emily Reddy 

And maybe even just they don't have the framework to deal with kids who are out of that sort of "middle."

Carline Crevecoeur 

And I think they also feel that because your kids are so far advanced, why are you complaining? You know, they're so busy working with the kids that are failing. And you should be lucky that your kids are advanced. But they don't understand that a lot of these advanced kids will find themselves in trouble because they're bored. And because they're so smart, you have no idea what they are capable of doing. And so you need to challenge them and engage them.

Emily Reddy 

And you wrote about your own story of being a kid in school going up to the teacher to ask a question. And this was a nun in Catholic school. And she told you not to breathe on her, you know, how did that affect you and your education?

Carline Crevecoeur 

I became such an introvert. I hardly spoke in class. I only answered questions when I was asked. If I didn't understand something, I would just try to find the answer by myself. I was so embarrassed and intimidated by that experience that I... it still haunts me, you know, because I just didn't know what I did. Not only did she say, don't breathe on me, but she pushed me. She like shoved me away. And I just went back to my seat crying, not knowing what I did. And so, I didn't want ever to feel that again. And I guess that's why I stopped asking questions or answering questions because I was going to be rebuked. So that was very painful. And I was just a third grader. And I didn't know who to talk to about that. Because, again, I thought I did something wrong.

Emily Reddy 

So you're here with your kids. Your brilliant kid is bored. And you're shuttling these five kids all over to lessons, daycare, having trouble with babysitters. And you and your husband decide one of you needs to stay home. You spent years training to be an OB/GYN. You know, what was it like to to make that decision to quit?

Carline Crevecoeur 

it was a very, very difficult decision. Because I enjoyed my job. I loved it. I mean, like you said, I spent years practicing to be an OB/GYN. Studying to be an OB/GYN. And I paid my own way through school, college and medical schools. I had loans to pay back. And I work while I was at medical school. I work when I was in college. You know, my parents couldn't afford it. And so just quitting, it wasn't only financial, because it was two paychecks. And it was five kids that we were raising. But it was something that I wanted to do. But when my husband said one of us had to quit their job, I knew it had to be me. I wanted five kids; he wanted two. So he gave in to me. And also that was the time that a lot of the baby shaken syndrome was occurring. And one of my friends that I went to medical school with, her brother had this babysitter that hurt their children. And that child ended up in the ICU, in a coma. And I felt that I could not put my kids at risk for that. They had to come first. So after analyzing all the situation, I realized that he was right after my son Nicholas was hurt. I didn't want to go through that again with any of my kids.

Emily Reddy 

Hurt by the babysitter.

Carline Crevecoeur 

Yes.

Emily Reddy 

You wright, "In January 2001, with five kids under the age of 6, I officially became a homeschool mom." I read that and I just thought, I cannot imagine what that would be like. How daunting was that prospect?

Carline Crevecoeur 

It was daunting at first. But the kids were so excited about it. They were happy. They were like, that's the best thing since ice cream. And so I began to get as excited. I realized I could teach them anything. You know, the sky's the limit. We could do all kinds of stuff. And once I became as enthusiastic about it as they were, I saw a lot of possibilities.

Emily Reddy 

How did you figure it out, how to be a homeschooler? And not just the one who orders the packets of lesson plans and books online but who customized everything to your children's individual strengths and interests?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Actually, it was trial and error. Not all my kids learned the same way. Danielle it was just so easy to teach her. Take a book and just read it and boom she gets it. Mikey was different. That was my second one child. And I had to think outside of the box for him. And once I started realizing how he learns, how he grasps things, especially with music, I realized that I have to start customizing his education. And that's what I ended up doing for most of the kids. And that was kind of fun, because I felt that it made me creative. I would never have considered myself a creative person. You know, I'm very structured in a way. But I had to stop being so structured and just learn to respond to my kids in the way that they needed me to respond to them. And it worked.

Emily Reddy 

So you had a lot of fun with it. But there is some structure to homeschooling that's required by the state. Right?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Right.

Emily Reddy 

To make sure that they're learning. Can you talk about what you had to do to meet those requirements?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Yes. So periodically, people come up to me and say, you know, how do you homeschool? Or what's the requirements? And the first thing I say is you have to check with your state. Some states, they don't care. You want to homeschool? They said, "Fine, here you go. You homeschool. Leave us alone." Other schools, they want everything documented. They want immunization records. They want dental records. And you have to hand in an affidavit of what you're going to teach them. And you have to get it notarized. And then you have to have a lesson plan. You have to have the subjects, the books, and your goals. And so and then you have to keep a portfolio. And the portfolio... when you talk to any homeschoolers, they hate portfolios. Because they're large binders that you have to keep the whole year's work. And you keep a sample of the math, the history, all their lessons. And so, I love the portfolios. They will like my little brag things about what my kids did at each stage of their life. In third grade, in fourth grade. And they helped me write my memoirs. Because people came up to me and they said, you know, how do you remember all these dates? And it was easy, because I had all the portfolios to help me write.

Emily Reddy 

And then your family moved to State College in 2004, a few years into your homeschooling journey. And that changed some things because the State College School District lets homeschooled kids take some classes in the schools if they want to. So how did you decide, you know, okay, what's my kid going to take it the State College schools, and what am I going to teach?

Carline Crevecoeur 

That was such an eye opener, because the way we were treated in Altoona was so different from the way we were treated at State College. And so once I realized that the kids could take some classes, we sat down, and we looked at the classes they were offering. And it was kind of a family thing. I let the kids also choose what they wanted to learn with me and what they wanted to learn at school. My little mathematician Joey said, "Okay, Mom, I want to go to school." And he was like a fourth grader. And he wanted to take Algebra 2. And I was so afraid of him being with high schoolers at that stage. And I said, "Sweetheart, mom's good at math.Trust me, I could teach you this." And he says, "No, Mom, I want to go to school for that." And he was so determined that I allowed it. And so that's how we decided, you know. Courses that I felt they really wanted to take, or was probably out of my range, or probably things that I think in a group setting would be interesting.

Emily Reddy 

And as you mentioned, your fourth grader is here in high school doing math. And that happens multiple times throughout the book that your middle-school-aged kid is taking these classes at the high school. And you know, how much did you worry about how that would affect them socially? And do you think it was the right move?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Well, see, that's the thing. Because there was five, I had like my little classroom. They were so innocent, they were still kids, you know. And so they went to their class for Calculus, or Algebra 2 or whatever. But when they came back home, they were still kids, they were still children. They still did children things. And when they played sports, they played in their age range. And so they have friends around that same age, which I was very happy about. So they knew when they went to school for different things, that's only what they were going to school for. It wasn't so much of a socialization because these kids were a lot of times much older than them. It was just to learn. And then when they went to play with their friends when they did sports, or when they were with their siblings, they were kids again.

Emily Reddy 

If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU. We're talking with Dr. Carline Crevecoeur about her recently published memoir "Pressure Makes Diamonds: From Homeschooling to the Ivy League - A Parenting Story." In it Crevecoeur talks about giving up her job as an OB/GYN to homeschool her five very bright children. You pushed your kids to succeed not just in their classes, but also in sports and academic competitions. The title of your memoir is "Pressure Makes Diamonds." Why did you feel like it was important to put this pressure on them to succeed?

Carline Crevecoeur 

See, that's the thing, though. I didn't put the pressure on them. I didn't. And I called it that, because I think a lot of people assume that I did. A lot of times when I noticed that your kids are smart, and sometimes also when they're African American, I don't think that people expect that. You know, and so I was always told by some teachers, some counselors that I was putting pressure on them. And, and we talked about it, and I told them, you know, "Do you guys feel pressured?" And they were like, "No, Mom, I want to learn. This is what I want to do." And so I just feel like sometimes, if it was Asian kids that were doing so well, would they have thought that they're putting too much pressure on them? Or would they just say it's their culture or what it was? And so that always bothered me that I felt teachers sometimes came up to me and said, "You know, I think you're putting too much pressure on your children." And I'm thinking, "You don't know my children. How could you even say that?" So I got really upset sometimes. And I just wanted to call it that. Because I think people would assume that that's why, you know, you put so much pressure on them. And I don't think I did. I think they put more pressure on themselves when they didn't succeed at something. And I had to remind them that it's OK. Because in life, I think, not trying is worse than failing. And I had to keep reminding them of that. And sometimes... I wasn't happy when they failed. But I wanted to see if they could get up. Because I think in life, there's always going to be times that you feel like you can't get up. But the ability to get up, the ability to try again, is the lesson that I wanted them to learn. I also felt that the title also conveys something about me. Was I putting too much pressure on myself? Did I have to prove anything to anyone? Was I trying to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect teacher. And I think as women and as parents, we think we have to be perfect. And we put so much pressure on ourselves. And so this pressure... I think there's enough pressure in the world, that I don't think we need to add this to ourselves. But at the same time, I think that some pressure is good. Because it makes you feel alive in a way. It makes you feel like what you're doing is worthwhile. Because if what you're doing wasn't worthwhile, if you didn't have any pressure to succeed, or you wanted to play a piano piece better, if you didn't push sometimes, then I think you would not find a lot of meaning in your life. You know, especially when you're young, I think that's when you should try to do all these things. And it's OK to fail. But at least you should try. And so I think that's what I was trying to convey with that title.

Emily Reddy 

You also talked about it preparing them for the real world.

Carline Crevecoeur 

Right. Yeah. Because as much as we would like to live in a pressure-free world. That's not the reality. There's job interviews, there's exams, there's certification. And you just have to know how to handle it. And I think the earlier you know how to deal with it, the better of your chance of succeeding in the world.

Emily Reddy 

And when your youngest daughter, Jackie, who is very bright, but is having trouble thinking she's not living up to these older siblings. You know, she's nervous about getting into the Ivy League, like her siblings. And here you say, "Pressure makes diamonds, but I knew pressure also makes dust." So a very fine line to walk.

Carline Crevecoeur 

That is true. And I think of all the children I think, being the youngest, and seeing all these others succeed or how things came so naturally for her twin and for her sister, who she's always compared to, I think that was hard for her.

Emily Reddy 

When your son Nick wants to date instead of focusing solely on academics, you write, "I wanted to tell my son, 'Nick, you are a Black child. That's how the world sees you. I don't want them to assume your success in life is due to affirmative action. You're a Black male in America; you need to work twice as hard as your white friends. You need to stay focused. I want you to go out there and compete with the best of them. I want so much for you. But more importantly, I want you to want more for yourself.'" You don't actually say this to Nick. It's sort of an internal dialogue. But, you know, how much of your choice to homeschool your kids do you think is based on them being Black children and feeling like you need to prepare them extra hard to succeed?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Yeah, because it is true about people not seeing all of you, all of a Black person has to contribute in this world. All of the intelligence, all of their brilliance. Sometimes I think people just look at some Black kids as just athletes or basketball players. Not intelligent. Not piano players. Not, you know, scientists or mathematicians. I knew... because we've all faced, all my siblings, we've all faced our share of racism growing up. And living in State College, I think, I don't think they really understood that. Everybody was fairly nice to them. And I think that they didn't get a real realistic view of racism in the United States. And so once they leave for school and college, and out of Pennsylvania and out of State College, I just didn't want them to be shocked for the first time in their life. And so I needed to prepare them. And I talked about when Trayvon Martin was murdered, that was so traumatic in our family. And that's when we really had to sit down and talk about racism. And when I was visiting one of my kids at their prestigious university, my son's friend introduced me to his mother. And he said that "Oh, mom, they beat us because they have one at Harvard, and one at Dartmouth or whatever. And they have five, but we only have two. And so they beat us." And the mother was, at first really nice to me. But when she realized that I had five kids in the Ivies, all of a sudden, her expression just changed. She just had to think about it. And then first the first thing she said after that was, "Are they all playing sports?" Like that's the only way that my kids could go to the Ivy League as if they played sports. And I just said no. But that's the thing, you know, you can't think that these kids are brilliant, in and on their own. And so that's what I was trying to prepare my son for, all my kids.

Emily Reddy 

You mentioned this at the beginning, but you actually start the book in 2012, when you first found out that you had colon cancer. Why start in that moment?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Because I think it set it up for me to reflect back. Because especially when I was diagnosed, I was like, "Oh my god, am I gonna see my kids graduate? Am I gonna be able to finish homeschool them? Am I you know, like... how bad is this going to be?" So I did start thinking about my whole life then. And I felt that that was a good way to start the book because it kind of really did happen.

Emily Reddy 

And when you, you were going through the treatments for cancer, your son Mikey took over some things like driving kids to practice. Kids took over some of their own teaching. And you wrote this about it, which I found very affecting: "At times, it felt as if I was watching a dress rehearsal of a play titled: Life After Mom." That must have been so hard.

Carline Crevecoeur 

It was, you know, but they were doing what they were supposed to do. They were doing what I had taught them to do. And they knew that if they stopped their schoolwork, or whatever, that would disappoint me. But at the same time, it was still a little sad that they were able to do without me. I didn't feel needed anymore. You know, life was just going. And I wasn't a part of it. And that was very depressing to me. Although that's what I wanted. I wanted them to go on with their life. But it still felt that I was being erased.

Emily Reddy 

And then the cancer did come back a couple of years later. This time it's stage 4 colon cancer, with a five year survival rate of 11%. You get a surgery that you hope has removed the tumor. You do chemo, but it's terrible and you stop. And basically figure, you know, you might die. You start setting things up: setting up your younger kids' classes for the coming year, checking your life insurance, refinancing the house, showing your husband and daughter how to do the finances, talking to the funeral home. It struck me how much you were still trying to prepare your family in this terrible moment for you.

Carline Crevecoeur 

I like being in control. And I think when I had the cancer I wasn't in control anymore. I didn't know when a blood vessel was going to rupture in my brain and kill me. I didn't know when I was gonna get bald. I was... clumps of hair was falling out every day. I just didn't, I did not feel that I had no control of my life anymore. And so I wanted to have control of my death, basically. I wanted to know that at least that I could do. I could prepare my family, my husband. And I just did not want them to have to worry about my funeral. And I could take care of that. And that sense of control made me feel a little happy again, you know. And once I stopped worrying so much of things that I couldn't control and just dealt with the things that I could control, I was able to relax and just let whatever happened happened.

Emily Reddy 

Of course, you didn't die. You're here seven years later. So after you send your kids off to these Ivy League schools, you decide to run for the school board, here in State College, the State College Area School District and you won. I... we were talking about this, we think you're the first woman of color on the school board.

Carline Crevecoeur 

Yes.

Emily Reddy 

Okay. What do you feel like you bring from this homeschooling experience? Or life experience to the school board? What's the reason that you wanted to be a part of that?

Carline Crevecoeur 

Well, I think it's a life experience. I've always valued education. And I think I could see parents' concern, a different perspective that I don't think some of the school board has. The homeschooling perspective, the rural community perspective, the black community perspective. And I think I could bring all that to the school board. And some of the discussions that we had, especially around curriculum changes, I was able to add my voice because I think that a lot of times that's missing. And I think when you have a lot of different people from different backgrounds, I think you could make a big improvement in your group because then you have a lot of different voices that haven't been heard. And I think it's important for everyone to be heard. So I think that's the contribution that I'm bringing to the school board. And I'm learning a lot in the process, and I love learning.

Emily Reddy 

Carline Crevecoeur, thanks for talking with us.

Carline Crevecoeur 

Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.

Emily Reddy 

Carline Crevecoeur's recently published memoir is "Pressure Makes Diamonds: From Homeschooling to the Ivy League - A Parenting Story." Crevecoeur lives in Boalsburg and is now on the State College Area School District board of directors. She used to be on the WPSU board of directors and currently underwrites, along with her husband, Michael Feffer, WPSU's Health Minute program. To listen to this and other Take Note interviews, go to WPSU.org/takenote. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.