By Trevor PyleA reader’s comment, a trove of first-hand documentation and a patient, collaborative approach. Those were three elements among many that helped Washington Post reporter Peter Jamison report and write a powerful profile of a family that turned away from their community’s deep commitment to home schooling.
Jamison’s “The revolt of the Christian home-schoolers” profiles the Bealls, a young Virginia family. Parents Aaron and Christina had been home-schooled in an evangelical environment that adhered to a strict patriarchy, distrusted secular education and advocated corporal punishment. When they fell in love and married, the Bealls fully intended to follow that path. As the story summarizes the beliefs of their community:
Public schools were places where children are bullied, or raped in the bathroom, or taught to hate Jesus.
But as they raised their four children, the Bealls were beset by misgivings — first nagging, then powerful. Their 6-year-old daughter, Aimee, was struggling with kitchen-table lessons, so they decided to enroll her in a neighborhood public school — a decision met with everything from confusion to pity to suspicion from members of their family and community.
The story touches on broader topics: the surging national interest in home schooling, which intensified during the COVID pandemic; the commitment to home schooling among conservative Christians, some of whom see it as a way to raise a “Joshua Generation” of leaders who will gain political and cultural influence; and the trends in home schooling in recent decades.
But most of all, the piece is an intimate profile of the Bealls, who grew to question, grapple with and oppose the environment in which they were raised.
The story was sparked by a reader comment about an earlier piece Jamison did, which focused on a little-known political candidate in Maryland. He pursued it as part of The Post’s occasional series “Home School Nation.” But the resulting story, which was featured as a Post “Deep Read,” wouldn’t have happened without the Bealls’ thoughtfulness and candor. That kind of cooperation is something journalists must be patient enough to earn.
“A huge part of my job is demonstrating to people like Aaron and Christina that I want to understand their story as well as I can and that I’m willing to take as much time as necessary to do that,” he told me in an interview for Storyboard. “I like to think that by putting in the work — showing up for those early mornings when school starts, or nights when there are family events on campus; attending a child’s musical on the weekend; sitting and talking for as long as they are willing to talk — I’m ‘anteing up,’ so to speak, showing that I’m committed to the process.”
He also had access to years’ worth of documentation, ranging from notes Aaron and Christina wrote each other during a parenting-seminar workshop, to emails, social-media posts and text messages as their quiet rebellion led to a rift with other family members. Access to such materials, Jamison said, also is earned through a candid and straightforward approach.
“One way to encourage candor is by showing it,” he said. “There’s no way we can expect people to disclose the most painful details of their lives unless we’re honest at the beginning, middle and end of the reporting and writing process about what we’re up to,”
In a Q&A followed by an annotation of the story, Jamison explained how it was conceived, reported and written; how he navigates the challenges of a story that touches on so many larger topics; and about reader reaction that “was like unlike any I’ve received before.” The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
The story of the Bealls is part of a Washington Post continuing series about home schooling. How did this particular story come about?
It began, as good stories so often do, with another line of reporting. Last fall I was assigned to profile Dan Cox, an obscure state delegate who had improbably cinched the Republican nomination in the Maryland governor’s race. Cox, a MAGA candidate who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, lost the general election in a landslide. But his candidacy was interesting, especially the extent to which his life and worldview had been shaped by home schooling. His father, an evangelical Christian pastor, was a pioneer in the early days of the home-schooling movement.
Two things became clear while I was reporting that story. First was that home-schooling parents have tremendous latitude in what and how they teach their children. The Cox family’s home-schooling network, for example, teaches that a married woman should “desire to be under submission” to her husband and promotes a history book stating that American government should “acknowledge the Lord of Scripture and be reconstructed according to His demands.” Second was that interest in home schooling has positively exploded over the last several years.
Knowledgeable and well-meaning people have different views of what this means. Home-schooling offers an almost limitless opportunity for parents — many who feel their kids have been let down by more traditional academic settings— to tailor an educational program to their children’s needs. But for the same reason, it can lead to educational neglect and to physical or emotional abuse. Little to no regulation is exercised over home-schooling in much of the country. The entire topic seemed like a rich vein to mine.
At the outset, I got lucky: Among the commenters on my story about Dan Cox was a person claiming firsthand knowledge of the Coxes’ religious community of home-schoolers. I sent a message to the email this commenter had used to register on the Post’s website — I wasn’t sure who I was writing to — and about 90 minutes later heard back from Aaron Beall.
What was the reporting, writing and editing process like?
After an initial phone call, Aaron and Christina agreed to meet me at a public library in Northern Virginia. They showed up with their 2-year-old daughter, Aurelia, and took turns watching her as we spoke for a couple hours in a conference room. The idea was to get to know them a little bit, and let them get to know me, and let them talk in an unstructured way about what was on their minds. For me this is an essential part of the process: When I’m talking to people I suspect might have an interesting story to tell, I try not to be too intent at the outset on what exactly that story might be or how it will shape up in the writing.
While Aaron and Christina could point to positive aspects of their own experiences as home-schooled children, the overriding impression they conveyed was a negative one. A lot of this had to do with the faction of the home-schooling movement in which they were raised: Their parents were conservative Christians who saw home education as an antidote to the secularization of public and many private schools. As I hope comes across in the story, Christina and Aaron are a very bright pair. But Aaron had never found a way to pursue his passion for the sciences; he had never attended college. Christina had been taught throughout her life that a woman shouldn’t seek a career outside the home, so she didn’t.
All this was compelling, as was the firsthand knowledge the Bealls had of the Coxes’ home-schooling network. But what immediately stood out to me as we talked was that three of their four children were not with us at the library that day. They were attending a public school. Aaron and Christina had essentially embraced what they were raised to believe was one of society’s greatest evils: the public education system. How and why did that happen?
The reporting involved many interviews with Christina and Aaron and repeated trips to their home and their kids’ school. (Public school officials in Loudoun County allowed me extensive access to the Beall family’s elementary school.) The writing was difficult, simply because the Bealls’ story touches on so many profound topics, any one of which risked derailing the central narrative if examined disproportionately. Where do parents’ rights end and children’s rights begin? Where is the line dividing education from indoctrination? What does it mean to turn your back on the community and belief system in which you were raised? All of these issues are present in what Christina and Aaron experienced. The challenge was to let these themes emerge as organically as possible, hewing to the narrative of what their family had been through.
The story is accompanied by striking photos by Matt McClain, and was edited by Lynda Robinson. Tell me more about how much they contributed to the final result.
I’m lucky to work with extraordinarily high-caliber photojournalists at The Washington Post, and Matt is no exception. His pictures are essential to the final product, and not just because they enable a visually appealing design for the story. The images he captured convey so much about the sometimes conflicting moods and emotions of the Bealls: the excitement of the school day, which for them is bound up in the excitement of discovering a new way of life; the closeness of their immediate family, but also their loneliness and ambivalence after severing themselves from the world in which they were raised. These photos aren’t just adornment. Alongside the text, they portray a reality that the reader is meant to see and feel.
My editor, Lynda Robinson, plays a big role in everything I write. We talk almost every day, and sometimes multiple times a day, during the reporting and writing of a story like this. Lynda has many strengths, but one of the ways in which she’s most helpful to me is in intuiting the shape of a complicated story built on lots of material. I mentioned above how important it is to let a story’s weightier themes emerge organically through a central narrative. This I learned from Lynda. In early drafts of this piece, I was tempted to get too discursive on subjects such as the dearth of regulation for American home-schooling or the psychological dynamics of evangelical Christians who “deconstruct” their faith. But for the story to have any hope of reading as a cohesive whole, this temptation had to be resisted. Lynda made sure I resisted it.
Are there any lessons you took away from this story that may help other journalists?
It’s a cliché that reporters should try to zig while others zag (or is it zag while others zig?), but I think the response to this story underlines the cliché’s basic truth. So many stories have been written about the not-very-edifyingly-named “culture wars” in education and about families’ post-pandemic flight from the public school system. Many of those stories have been quite good and necessary. But I believe that one reason the Bealls’ story resonated is that it’s something that approaches similar themes from a totally different direction. Here are two people who grew up in very insular environments, with their parents exercising nearly complete control over the ideas they encountered. And ultimately, for them, the public schools meant broader horizons and a form of liberation. The Bealls live in Loudoun County, which has been an epicenter for the debates over topics such as Covid mask mandates and school policies toward transgender children. But as Aaron put it with characteristic eloquence, “People who think the public schools are indoctrinating don’t know what indoctrination is. We were indoctrinated… It’s not even comparable.”
THE REVOLT OF THE CHRISTIAN HOME-SCHOOLERS
They were taught that public schools are evil. Then a Virginia couple defied their families and enrolled their kids.
By Peter Jamison
May 30, 2023
ROUND HILL, Va. — They said goodbye to Aimee outside her elementary school, watching nervously as she joined the other children streaming into a low brick building framed by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Christina and Aaron Beall stood among many families resuming an emotional but familiar routine: the first day of full-time, in-person classes since public schools closed at the beginning of the pandemic.
But for the Bealls, that morning in late August 2021 carried a weight incomprehensible to the parents around them. Their 6-year-old daughter, wearing a sequined blue dress and a pink backpack that almost obscured her small body, hesitated as she reached the doors. Although Aaron had told her again and again how brave she was, he knew it would be years before she understood how much he meant it — understood that for her mother and father, the decision to send her to school was nothing less than a revolt.
Aaron and Christina had never attended school when they were children. Until a few days earlier, when Round Hill Elementary held a back-to-school open house, they had rarely set foot inside a school building. Both had been raised to believe that public schools were tools of a demonic social order, government “indoctrination camps” devoted to the propagation of lies and the subversion of Christian families.
At a time when home education was still a fringe phenomenon, the Bealls had grown up in the most powerful and ideologically committed faction of the modern home-schooling movement. That movement, led by deeply conservative Christians, saw home schooling as a way of life — a conscious rejection of contemporary ideas about biology, history, gender equality and the role of religion in American government.
Christina and Aaron were supposed to advance the banner of that movement, instilling its codes in their children through the same forms of corporal punishment once inflicted upon them. Yet instead, along with many others of their age and upbringing, they had walked away.
Like all rebellions, this one had come with consequences. Their decision to send Aimee to the neighborhood elementary school — a test run to see how it might work for their other kids — had contributed to a bitter rift with their own parents, who couldn’t understand their embrace of an education system they had been raised to abhor. And it had led Christina, who until that summer day had home-schooled all of their children, into an existential crisis. I was struck by how carefully structured these first four grafs seemed to be. You provide readers with a visceral scene in the first sentence — referring to the Bealls in the first sentence with “they” — then add more context in each successive paragraph. How much did you work on the opening, both in your initial writing and later with an editor? I tend to work a lot on tops, and this one took more work than usual. My editor and I knew this scene — Aaron and Christina taking the decisive turn away from their upbringing by sending their daughter into a public school — was the natural beginning for the story. The trick was in introducing the elements that give that decision its emotional weight (their background in conservative Christian home-schooling, their families’ beliefs about public schools, and so on) without overwhelming the reader.
“I never imagined sending you to the local elementary school instead of learning and growing together at home,” she wrote later that day in an Instagram post addressed to her daughter. “But life has a way of undoing our best laid plans and throwing us curveballs.”
Christina did not describe on Instagram how perplexed she and Aaron had been by a ritual that the other parents seemed to understand; how she had tried, in unwitting defiance of school rules, to accompany Aimee inside, earning a gentle rebuke from the principal.
And she did not describe what happened after their daughter vanished into a building they had been taught no child should ever enter. On that first day of school — first not just for one girl but for two generations of a family — the Bealls walked back to their SUV, and as Aaron started the car, Christina began to cry. This is an elegant transition: From the public details of Christina’s post to what she didn’t include. Do you recall anything specific about how these paragraphs were written, or what you wanted them to accomplish? In my mind this moment sets an important tone for everything that follows. The Bealls’ story is not one of triumphant self-realization. Yes, they are taking a step they hope will lead to a better life for their daughter, but they are also rejecting principles that were once central to their identities and risking estrangement from their parents. Christina’s tears when they reach the privacy of their car show more about this messy emotional reality than anything I could say.
Across the country, interest in home schooling has never been greater. The Bealls could see the surge in Virginia, where nearly 57,000 children were being home-schooled in the fall of 2022 — a 28 percent jump from three years earlier. The rise of home education, initially unleashed by parents’ frustrations with pandemic-related campus closures and remote learning, has endured as one of the lasting social transformations wrought by covid-19.
But if the coronavirus was a catalyst for the explosion in home schooling, the stage was set through decades of painstaking work by true believers like those who had raised Aaron and Christina. Aided by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) — a Christian nonprofit that has been dubbed “the most influential homeschool organization in the world,” and is based less than five miles from the Bealls’ house in Northern Virginia — those activists had fought to establish the legality of home schooling in the 1980s and early 1990s, conquering the skepticism of public school administrators and state lawmakers across the country.
Through their influence, a practice with roots in the countercultural left took on a very different character. Among conservative Christians, home schooling became a tool for binding children to fundamentalist beliefs they felt were threatened by exposure to other points of view. Rightly educated, those children would grow into what HSLDA founder Michael Farris called a “Joshua Generation” that would seek the political power and cultural influence to reshape America according to biblical principles. Much of this story is focused on the Bealls, but it also includes a primer of sorts on the rise of and backlash to homeschooling. How did you do research into homeschooling? Were there any particular challenges to overcome with that research, and/or resources you found helpful? I began researching the history of home schooling late last year in preparation for launching this series. From a quantitative perspective, the topic can be frustrating: Home-schoolers are, almost by definition, a difficult population to study, and credible research is hard to come by. Fortunately, there are some terrific scholars who match an encyclopedic knowledge of home-schooling with an acknowledgment of what can’t presently be known. Two in particular I have found helpful are Milton Gaither and Robert Kunzman. (Gaither’s book, “Homeschool: An American History,” is a great place to start for those looking to learn more about this subject.) The backlash against conservative Christian home-schooling — led first and foremost by people who were raised inside the movement — has been chronicled by groups such as Homeschoolers Anonymous and the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.
Home schooling today is more diverse, demographically and ideologically, than it was in the heyday of conservative Christian activism. Yet those activists remain extraordinarily influential.
Over decades, they have eroded state regulations, ensuring that parents who home-school face little oversight in much of the country. More recently, they have inflamed the nation’s culture wars, fueling attacks on public-school lessons about race and gender with the politically potent language of “parental rights.”
But what should be a moment of triumph for conservative Christian home-schoolers has been undermined by an unmistakable backlash: the desertion and denunciations of the very children they said they were saving.
Former home-schoolers have been at the forefront of those arguing for greater oversight of home schooling, forming the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education to make their case.
“As an adult I can say, ‘No. What happened to me as a child was wrong,’” said Samantha Field, the coalition’s government relations director.
Earlier this year, Jinger Duggar Vuolo — familiar to millions of TV viewers from the reality show “19 Kids and Counting” — published a memoir in which she harshly criticized Bill Gothard, a pivotal but now disgraced figure in conservative Christian home schooling whose teachings her parents followed. Beginning a decade ago, Gothard was accused of sexual abuse and harassment by dozens of women — allegations the minister vehemently denied.
Farris said it is not uncommon for children who grow up in oppressively patriarchal households to reject or at least moderate their parents’ beliefs. However, he said such families are a minority in the home-schooling movement and are often considered extreme even by other conservative Christians.
“I view this as the fringe of the fringe,” Farris said. “And every kid that I know that has lashed out at home schooling came out of this.”
Christina, 34, and Aaron, 37, had joined no coalitions. They had published no memoirs. Their rebellion played out in angry text messages and emails with their parents, in tense conversations conducted at the edges of birthday parties and Easter gatherings. Their own children — four of them, including Aimee — knew little of their reasons for abandoning home schooling: the physical and emotional trauma of the “biblical discipline” to which they had been subjected, the regrets over what Aaron called “a life robbed” by strictures on what and how they learned.The Bealls offered a wealth of documentation — emails and handwritten notes — as well as their own thoughts. How did you approach them, and what kind of interactions did you have to facilitate such candor and thoughtfulness? Christina and Aaron are unusually reflective, and the documentation they provided — most of it preserved over time by Christina — was invaluable. Absent audio or video recordings, the kind of contemporaneous emails, text messages and other records they shared with me are as close as a reporter can come to reliably reconstructing exchanges and emotional states from years ago. In the beginning I had no idea any of those materials existed, but Christina prepared for one of my early visits by digging up some old photos and journal entries. As they shared more and more with me, Christina and Aaron proved very willing to illustrate or verify their accounts with these materials when possible — for example, the notes they wrote to each other during a 2012 parenting seminar that cited the Bible in support of hitting your kids. How did you facilitate that cooperation from them? You’ve mentioned being candid about your reporting process, but can you say more about that? I can never fully explain why subjects choose to share or withhold certain things about themselves. Subjects like Christina and Aaron, who had been completely private people before I approached them, frequently have questions about how the reporting process works. Unless doing so would violate an ethical obligation, I answer those questions as straightforwardly as I can. This could concern anything from our publication timeline to how certain material might be used to how my perception of their story is evolving. At every step, those honest conversations are important.
Aaron had grown up believing Christians could out-populate atheists and Muslims by scorning birth control; Christina had been taught the Bible-based arithmetic necessary to calculate the age of a universe less than 8,000 years old. Their education was one in which dinosaurs were herded aboard Noah’s ark — and in which the penalty for doubt or disobedience was swift. Sometimes they still flinched when they remembered their parents’ literal adherence to the words of the Old Testament: “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.” This is a powerful detail. Did you see Aaron or Chistina flinch while recalling this edict? How did you record this detail? It took a while for Aaron and Christina to become comfortable speaking with me about the corporal punishment they had experienced as kids, and ultimately, only Aaron did so in detail. His memories, recounted more fully later in the story, are harrowing, but he relayed them calmly and with precision. This is one of the harder parts of my job. Journalistic rigor and fairness demand that we ask people to describe what are obviously traumatic experiences in as much detail as possible and then, later, that we return to double-check and verify those details. If there is any smooth or comfortable way to do this, I haven’t discovered it.
The Bealls knew that many home-schooling families didn’t share the religious doctrines that had so warped their own lives. But they also knew that the same laws that had failed to protect them would continue to fail other children.
“It’s specifically a system that is set up to hide the abuse, to make them invisible, to strip them of any capability of getting help. And not just in a physical way,” Christina said. “At some point, you become so mentally imprisoned you don’t even realize you need help.”
Christina had felt no urge to escape when, at the age of 15, she listed her “Requirements for my husband” in neat, looping script on a ruled sheet of notebook paper. One aspect of this story that stands out throughout is how well-executed the transitions were. It’s not the flashiest subject, but in a story with so many layers, it’s essential to guide readers through the Bealls’ changing beliefs. For example, the sentence that begins, “Christina had felt no urge to escape …”, which moves the story from Christina’s present beliefs to her earlier ones. How much work did you put into writing transitions? Thank you for noticing! I think a lot about transitions, especially in longer or more complex stories. My goal is for the copy to always have some degree of momentum — propelling the reader toward what comes next — even as the pace varies from passage to passage and section to section. We all know that sinking feeling when you’re reading a longer piece of journalism that slows to a crawl or to a standstill, and I try at all costs to avoid that. It’s natural for a story to slow down in places, but those are also the places where I try to be particularly vigilant about not losing readers. Transitions are a useful device for preserving momentum, but they have to make sense. No amount of artfulness can mask the fact that the pieces of a story don’t fit well together; a sound structure must come first.
“Must want me to be a full-time homemaker & only have an outside job if required or instructed by my Potter,” she wrote, referring to biblical verses that liken humans to clay in the hands of God. “Must believe in ‘full & unconditional’ surrender of our # of children to God Almighty.” And: “Must desire to homeschool our children.” How did you learn about this list and get to view it? The list was among the documents Christina unearthed during one of our early interviews to show me how she looked at the world as a home-schooled teen. To her great credit, she seemed to instinctively grasp very early in the process that this type of supporting documentation would be helpful for my story, which of course it was.
The list is a blueprint of what she had been taught about the proper ambitions of a woman: to bear and raise children while shielding them from what those around her called “government schools.” She felt both hopeful and nervous when, several years later, her father, Derrick Comfort, came home with news: He had just met with a young man who had been raised with those same ideals — and who wanted Christina to be his wife.
Aaron was shy and cerebral, a self-taught web developer who had grown up in Fairfax County, Va., had never attended college and, at age 26, still lived with his parents. He barely knew Christina Comfort, the oldest of eight children on her family’s 10-acre farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A graduate of Patrick Henry College — founded by Farris in Virginia to cater to Christian home-schoolers — she taught math and writing to her siblings and did chores around the farm. She prayed while riding a lawn mower for God to send her a husband. The lawn mower is such a specific detail, the kind that sticks in readers’ minds. Do you recall how it was revealed? This story, like any other, involved exhaustive fact-checking at the tail end of the process, before publication. Christina and Aaron were very patient with me on this front and, as often happens, I caught a number of things that I hadn’t gotten quite right. One had something to do with the stage in Christina’s life when she was living as a young adult on the family farm. In fact-checking, I asked Christina if she had any other concrete memories of this period, something that evoked her general mood and outlook, and this is what she shared: riding the mower, praying for a husband.
The Comfort and Beall families were both active in a religious community led by Gary Cox, an evangelical pastor and pioneer of Maryland’s home-schooling movement. Christina was a graduate of Cox’s home education network, Walkersville Christian Family Schools, while Aaron began attending Cox’s church in rural northern Maryland as a teenager. The minister exerted a powerful influence over his congregation and students, teaching that children live in divinely ordained subjection to the rule of their parents.
Cox — who still operates a home-schooling organization, now called Wellspring Christian Family Schools — declined repeated interview requests.
Last year his son, Dan Cox, a home-schooled Maryland state delegate who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, won the Republican gubernatorial primary. He went on to lose in a landslide to Democrat Wes Moore.
During Aaron and Christina’s “courtship” — a period of chaperoned contact that served as a prelude to formal engagement — they seemed ready to fulfill their parents’ hopes. Eating calamari in Annapolis or touring Colonial Williamsburg, they talked about what their future would include (home schooling) and what it would not (music with a beat that can be danced to). But signs soon emerged of the unimaginable rupture that lay ahead.
On a spring afternoon in 2012, the couple sat in a small church in Queenstown, Md. In preparation for marriage, they were attending a three-day seminar on “Gospel-Driven Parenting” run by Chris Peeler, a minister whose family was part of Gary Cox’s home-schooling group. The workshop covered a range of topics, including the one they were now studying: “Chastisement.”
“The use of the rod is for the purpose of breaking the child’s will,” stated the handout that they bent over together in the church. “One way to tell if this has happened is to see if they can look you in the eyes after being disciplined and ask for forgiveness.”
Bible verses were cited in support of corporal punishment. But Christina had misgivings.
“I really don’t think I can be a parent,” she wrote to Aaron in the margins of the handout. “It just feels like you have to be, like, hardened.”
“YES! YOU! CAN!” Aaron wrote back. This document from a decade ago is a powerful snapshot into the Bealls’ growing disquiet with the environment they were raised in. How did you learn about it and come to see it? Christina had kept a binder with worksheets and handouts from this parenting seminar, which took place 11 years ago. They initially shared it with me, I believe, to illustrate the parenting philosophy that was passed down to them, specifically the emphasis on what was interpreted to be a Biblical decree that one should hit disobedient children. But those handwritten notes are what make it a truly fascinating document. It is essentially a live conversation about their misgivings, preserved on the page.
The use of the “rod” — interpreted by different people as a wooden spoon, dowel, belt, rubber hose or other implement — was a common practice among the conservative Christian home-schoolers Aaron and Christina knew, and one they had both experienced regularly in their own families.
The elder Bealls and Comforts did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the discipline they used with their children and the decision by Aaron and Christina to embrace public education. Aaron’s older brother, Joshua — who Aaron said still home-schools his children — did not return calls. Aaron’s other siblings could not be reached for comment. Christina’s siblings, some of whom have also left her parents’ home, either declined to comment or could not be reached. You’re transparent about which potential sources didn’t respond to interview requests. Why is it important for that to be included for readers? We must acknowledge what we don’t know, and a big part of that is acknowledging who we weren’t able to talk to. That is especially the case in a story like this, which describes scenes whose veracity can only be confirmed or disputed by those who were present. I wish Christina’s and Aaron’s parents had spoken to me, and I tried repeatedly to persuade them to do so — by phone, email and through visits to their homes. I very much wanted to hear them explain why they made the parenting decisions they did, and how they had been affected by Aaron’s and Christina’s rejection of conservative Christian home schooling. But it was their choice, not mine, and they ultimately chose not to talk.
Aaron actually shared Christina’s qualms. He knew that the term parents in the movement casually used for discipline, “spankings,” did not capture the childhood terror of being struck several times a week — sometimes more, sometimes less — with what he describes as a shortened broomstick for disobeying commands or failing to pay attention to his schoolwork.
The memory of waiting as a small child outside his parents’ bedroom for his mother to summon him in; the fear that his transgressions might be enough to incur what he called “killer bee” spankings, when the rod was used against his bare skin; his efforts to obey the order to remain immobile as he was hit — all these sensations and emotions seeped into his bones, creating a deep conviction that those who fail to obey authority pay an awful price.
“For a long time, I’ve wondered why I was so unable to think for myself in this environment,” he says today, attributing the shortcoming to “learning that even starting to think, or disagree with authorities, leads to pain — leads to physical and real pain that you cannot escape.”
Now, on the threshold of parenthood — Christina would become pregnant within two weeks of their wedding on Sept. 29, 2012 — the couple’s reservations about “chastisement” could no longer be ignored. As a wedding gift, they said, Aaron’s brother and sister-in-law had given them “To Train Up a Child,” by the popular Christian home-schooling authors Michael and Debi Pearl.
The Pearls advocate hitting children with tree branches, belts and other “instruments of love” to instill obedience, and recommend that toddlers who take slowly to potty training be washed outdoors with cold water from a garden hose. Their book advocates “training sessions” in which infants, as soon as they are old enough to crawl, are placed near a desired object and repeatedly struck with a switch if they disobey commands not to touch it.
The Pearls have defended their methods, saying they are not meant to encourage brutality and, when properly applied, reduce the frequency with which parents must later discipline their kids.
Aaron and Christina did not follow the Pearls’ advice when their first child, Ezra, was born. Nor did they take on authoritarian roles with their second, Aimee, or third, Oliver. All were home-schooled, albeit in less isolation than their parents: Christina joined co-ops with other Christian mothers in Northern Virginia.
But by the time the Bealls had Aurelia, their fourth child, Aaron — now a successful software engineer whose job had enabled the family to buy a four-bedroom house in Loudoun County — had begun to question far more than corporal punishment.
“When it came time for me to hit my kids, that was the first independent thought I remember having: ‘This can’t be right. I think I’ll just skip this part,’” he says.
But if that seemingly inviolable dogma was false, what else might be? Aaron gradually began to feel adrift and depressed.
“It’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet,” he says. “All of reality is kind of up for grabs.”
He scoured Amazon for books about evolution and cosmology. Eventually, he found his way to blog posts and books by former Christian fundamentalists who had abandoned their religious beliefs. He watched an interview with Tara Westover, whose best-selling memoir, “Educated,” detailed the severe educational neglect and physical abuse she endured as a child of survivalist Mormon home-schoolers in Idaho.
And in the spring of 2021, as he and Christina were struggling to engage Aimee in her at-home lessons, he suggested a radical solution: Why not try sending their daughter to the reputable public elementary school less than a mile from their house?
Christina could think of many reasons. They were the same ones Aaron had learned as a child: Public schools were places where children are bullied, or raped in the bathroom, or taught to hate Jesus.
But she also suspected that Aimee could use the help of professional educators. Just as important, she had learned all her life that it was her duty to obey her husband. She was confounded and angry, at both Aaron and the seeming contradiction his suggestion had exposed.
“I guess I’m just honestly confused and wonder what you think,” she wrote in an email to her father in May 2021. “I’m supposed to submit to Aaron, he wants the kids to go to public school. … You think that’s a sin but it’s also a sin to not listen to your husband so which is it?”
At first, Christina’s and Aaron’s parents reacted to the news that they were considering public school for Aimee with dazed incomprehension. Did Christina feel overwhelmed, they asked? Did she need more help with work around the house? As long as Aimee was learning to read, she would be fine, Aaron’s mother assured them. Christina’s father sent a YouTube video of John Taylor Gatto, a famous critic of America’s public education system.
The dialogue took on a darker tone as Aimee, with Christina’s hesitant agreement, began school that fall. By then, Aaron had told his parents he no longer considered himself a believer.
“This is absolutely devastating,” his mother, Linda Beall, wrote in a long email to Christina. “I hurt so much for you Christina!!!”
“I don’t think Aaron is going to be wrestled into heaven with good arguments,” Linda added. “I think this is likely about his response to hard things in his life. I think he needs to come face to face with God himself, and bow before Him in recognition of his own sin, and need for a Savior.”
Despite the sympathy expressed in the email, Christina bristled at the suggestion that her husband’s crisis of faith stemmed from his reluctance to face “hard things” in his life. She knew that reexamining his religious convictions and traumatic memories had perhaps been the hardest thing Aaron had ever done.
Aimee, meanwhile, was thriving at Round Hill Elementary. By the third quarter, her report card said she was “a pleasure to teach,” was “slowly becoming more social and more willing to participate in class” and showed “tremendous growth” in her reading skills, which had lagged below grade level at the beginning of the year.
For several months after that first week of classes — when she had come home wearing a paper hat, colored with blue crayon and printed with the words “My First Day of First Grade” — Aimee had had a stock response when her parents asked her how she liked school: She would suppress a grin, say she “hated it,” and then start laughing at her own joke. I like the detail of the hat. Did you see it, or were you told about it later? The hat was in a photo taken of Aimee during that first week of school.
“You should have asked to go to school,” Aimee, who knew her mom had been educated at home, would eventually tell Christina. “It affects your whole life.”
Now it was Christina’s turn to question her belief — not in Christianity, but in the conservative Christian approach to home schooling. She began to research spiritual abuse and the history of Christian nationalism. Ideas she had never questioned — such as the statement, in a book given to her by her dad, that it “would be a waste of her time and her life” for a woman to work outside the house — no longer made sense.
Her loss of faith in the biblical literalism and patriarchal values of her childhood was coming in the way the movement’s adherents had always warned it would: through exposure to people with different experiences and points of view.
Those people just happened to be her daughter and her husband. This seems like a keen observation, that the different viewpoints came from those in Christina’s immediate family. Do you remember when you were struck by that insight, or when you decided to include it in the story? I can’t recall a specific moment when it occurred to me. I think this description evolved out of thinking about Christina’s words immediately below this — that she is unable to simply dismiss Aaron in the way she had been taught to dismiss anybody else who questioned her beliefs. At some point it just struck me that this was a remarkable twist on a threat she had always been warned about. The ones who challenge her ideas about child-rearing and education are not some interloping strangers. They are two of the people she loves most and knows best.
“This is the guy I’ve been married to for eight years,” she recalls thinking. “I know him. I know his heart. I know what kind of parent he wants to be to our kids. These easy answers of ‘Oh, you’re just not a Christian anymore, you just want to sin’ … didn’t work anymore.”
As Aimee’s first year at Round Hill Elementary came to an end, Aaron and Christina were more convinced than ever that they had made the right decision. But they were also at a loss for how to heal the tensions with their parents.
In a 2022 email intended for a pastor at her church but sent by accident to Christina, Linda Beall blamed her daughter-in-law for their deepening rift, saying she had taken undue offense at good-faith efforts to advise and support the family through Aaron’s loss of faith.
“So she is again flipping the script from the reality that we love them and her, want to support them, and have only tried to do that again and again, but have been assaulted every time we engage. And I have given up trying [because] it all gets flipped and used against us,” Linda wrote. “I really can not remember one conversations we have had since this unfolded that has not escalated things. So when she beats up ‘everything’ I say, never offers forgiveness, why would we want to engage again?”
Around the same time, Christina sent Aaron’s parents a series of text messages lamenting what she said was their unwillingness to reconcile and explaining that she had changed her opinions about the way she and Aaron had been raised.
“There has been so much pain but I am so excited to now understand and see past the ways that people control and manipulate me,” she wrote. “And you may not believe it but I still love Jesus.”
Aaron and Christina had decided that, in the fall of 2022, all three of their school-age children — not just Aimee but 5-year-old Oliver and 9-year-old Ezra — would attend public school. Aurelia, then 2, would remain at home.
Despite Aimee’s positive experience, Aaron and Christina were anxious, both for their children and about how their parents would react. One afternoon in June, Christina sent a text message to her mother.
“I need to tell you that all three kids are going to school in the fall. I’m sorry, because I know this will be upsetting and disappointing to you and dad,” Christina wrote. “I figured you should hear it from me first.”
Three hours later, her mother texted back.
“Dearest Christina, it is not at all upsetting or disappointing to me,” Catherine Comfort wrote. “You and Aaron are outstanding parents and I’m sure you made the decision best for your family.”
Even Aaron’s parents finally signaled a grudging degree of acceptance. What has the reaction to the story from general readers been like? Have you heard any reaction from the Beall family? The reaction from general readers was unlike any I’ve seen before, at least to my own stuff. The story was among the most read on The Post’s website for several days, and I got hundreds of emails, many of them long and thoughtful. Some of the most heartbreaking were from adults who had grown up in households similar to those in which the Bealls were raised. These readers said they recognized for the first time that they weren’t alone in trying to live with the tangled emotional legacy of this type of upbringing. There were many, many messages expressing admiration for the courage Christina and Aaron had shown in rejecting the approach to home schooling that had defined so much of their lives. There was also a strong response from home-schoolers who said the story did not capture the ideological breadth of the movement — basically that we had ignored the secular and less doctrinaire world of home-schooling families, which seem to account for a substantial amount of the movement’s growth over the last several years. Subsequent stories in The Post’s Home-School Nation series have examined those types of home-schoolers, and future pieces will as well. But I firmly believe that understanding the world of conservative Christian home schooling is indispensable for understanding the modern home-schooling movement. These are the parents who, while they did not originate the concept of home education, developed the movement’s political infrastructure and fought some of its most important legal battles. Home-schooling simply would not exist in its current form, and with its current popularity, without them. Christina and Aaron hoped their story could help illuminate this world, and I think they were both gratified by the enormous and mostly positive response. But I also think that it’s more than a little strange and unnerving to be the subjects of a widely read piece of journalism. It’s an experience most of us, myself included, have never had and likely will never have. I try never to forget or underestimate the risks people take and the costs they incur— in time, mental bandwidth, exposure of their lives’ most intimate details to strangers — by participating in something like this.
In February, Linda and Bernard Beall walked into the gym at Round Hill Elementary one cold Saturday afternoon to watch a school performance of “The Lion King.” Ezra had a part in the chorus as a wildebeest.
Sitting on plastic chairs in the dark and crowded room, the pair gave no outward sign of the remarkable nature of their visit. When the performance was over, they hugged their grandkids in front of the stage and exchanged halting small talk with Aaron and Christina. Then they drove off, with no discussion of a visit to their son’s house a few blocks away.
About 10 minutes remained before the Bealls would have to pile into their minivan, and the children needed to get dressed — in their pajamas.
It was Groundhog Day, a damp night in February, and a low fire glowed in the hearth of the Bealls’ living room. Aaron and Christina sat on the floor playing card and board games with their kids, while Ezra sat on the couch, wearing headphones and absorbed in a game on his laptop. You spend some time describing the family here. What made this a scene you wanted to capture and share with readers? I think this scene and the one that follows, at Round Hill Elementary, reveal a lot about how far the Bealls have come. Reading to kids in pajamas has such intimate connotations. It’s usually something you do with your immediate family or close relatives. Yet in this instance, the kids are wearing their PJs to school, and being read “bedtime stories” by their teachers. I just thought that was a remarkable example of how much trust Christina and Aaron had come to place in public schools — institutions they had been taught to fear. Many parents in the movement they came out of would think the whole idea of a “family reading night” inside a public school is nuts, but as you watch it unfold you can see that it’s not, and that the Bealls have assumed their place in the school community. The scene beforehand at their home as they’re getting ready to leave is the first in which the entire family is brought together and shown interacting. It comes near the end of the story, but this seemed like an important moment to pause and “introduce” them all as a group.
Soon they would be leaving to attend their elementary school’s “For the Love of Reading Family Night,” held in the school library, where students were encouraged to come dressed for bedtime.
As Oliver rose to change (Ezra, the oldest, would not deign to put on his jammies), Aimee told her parents how her second-grade class had learned that day about Punxsutawney Phil.
Aaron looked at her in bewilderment.
“Phil?” he asked. “Am I out of the loop?”
His daughter stared back at him in disbelief.
“He’s famous!” Aimee said. She explained Phil’s role in predicting the length of winter.
“I knew about groundhogs,” Aaron said. “I just didn’t know about Phil.”
“He’s really famous,” Aimee said.
Christina smiled at her husband.
“Home-schooler,” she said. I love how much is captured by this exchange of dialogue, specifically about Aimee’s grasp of the secular world. How conscious are you of “hunting” for dialogue while reporting? “Hunting” implies a degree of single-mindedness — searching for one type of thing — that I don’t think we should bring to the reporting process. But in some ways it’s an apt metaphor, because most of a hunter’s time is spent waiting. And that’s exactly what happens on a story like this. There were entire days of reporting, in Loudoun County and elsewhere, that didn’t yield details I ultimately included in the story. You keep showing up, you keep watching and listening, and you hope that you observe something interesting. Good dialogue is always the prize. Stories like this can’t live without it.
These were the gaps Aaron and Christina had become accustomed to finding as they learned about a world whose boundaries extended far beyond the one in which they had been raised. There were so many things they had not learned, and perhaps would never learn.
Stacks of books on the living room’s end tables testified to their belated efforts at self-education: popular works by the biologists Neil Shubin and Robert Sapolsky, as well as “Raising Critical Thinkers” by Julie Bogart, a leading developer of home education materials who has criticized conservative Christian home-schooling groups. Aaron and Christina were still young, but they knew enough about the demands of life, work and family to understand that they could not recover or reconstruct the lost opportunities of their childhoods.
But they could provide new and different opportunities for their own kids. They were doing so in Loudoun County, one of the hotbeds of America’s culture wars over public instruction about race and gender. To the Bealls, who truly knew what it was like to learn through the lens of ideology, concerns about kids being brainwashed in public schools were laughable.
“People who think the public schools are indoctrinating don’t know what indoctrination is. We were indoctrinated,” Aaron says. “It’s not even comparable.”
There were still moments when they were condemned by an inner voice telling them that they were doing the wrong thing, that both they and their children would go to hell for abandoning the rod and embracing public schools. But the voice was usually silenced by their wonder and gratitude at the breadth of their children’s education.
That breadth was on display as the Bealls jostled into the school library with other families. It was the second day of Black History Month, and the shelves were set up with displays of books about the Underground Railroad, soprano Ella Sheppard and Vice President Harris. Where the walls reached the ceiling a mural was painted, with Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh.
Aaron and Christina stood shoulder-to-shoulder, surveying the room. This was the belly of the beast, the environment their parents had worked to save them from.
But they weren’t scared to be inside this school, and were now familiar with it. On Tuesday mornings, Christina volunteered here, helping Aimee’s class with reading lessons.
“Let’s go out this way, guys,” she said, leading the way through an exit when it was time to disperse from the library to listen to the teachers read stories aloud.
The hallways were long and wide, with plenty of room for small legs to gather speed. Soon Aaron and Christina were watching as their children, who knew the way to their classrooms, ran far in front of them. As you wrote this final paragraph, what impression did you want to leave readers with? There is a naturally occurring motif in this moment: Aaron and Christina are, in both a figurative and a literal sense, being led by their children. They both grew up in homes that placed an enormous premium on obedience and parental authority. And of course they haven’t completely jettisoned those concepts— no responsible parent can— but they have recalibrated their interpretation of them. They are not necessarily seeking to dictate their kids’ course in life, or shield them from challenging ideas, and they are allowing them a degree of autonomy that they didn’t enjoy themselves. Through this process of watching their kids learn and grow, Aaron and Christina are learning and growing. They are re-evaluating their ideas about the world. I don’t know that all this is conveyed to the reader in this last paragraph, or even that I want all this to be conveyed. But that’s what I think about when I hold this image of them: the kids running down the school hallway, Christina and Aaron following.
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Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and now is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.