For Elsa Haas, with love

Elsa Haas passed away early Sunday morning after living with cancer for 14 years.

I’m betting most of you have never heard her name before.   Even if you have, you might be unaware of the debt we as NYC unschoolers owe her (and I would say unschoolers everywhere, particularly Massachusetts and Spain – more on that in a minute).

This was at least partly intentional on her part.  She did not enjoy talking about herself, and when NYCHEA (New York City Home Educators Alliance) approached her about doing an interview for our newsletter late this past summer, she declined.  She was her least favorite subject.   She did allow us to honor her with a plaque acknowledging her contribution to our community – a small token for a woman who deserved so much more.

So who was Elsa, exactly?

That’s not the easiest question to answer.   To me at least, she was something of an enigma.   When I joined NYCHEA it seemed she was already well established in the group – she ran an email list called Unofficial NYCHEA and headed up PAHSI (Partnership for Accurate Homeschooling Information).   Her son Tyler is only a year older than my daughter, but I felt as though she was a veteran when we were still newbies.

Turns out I wasn’t wrong.

After finishing college Elsa worked with Pat Farenga at Holt Associates in the mid-80’s (Massachusetts!), then moved to Spain and was instrumental in starting the homeschooling movement there.  (Pat told me the other day that she translated entire issues of GWS into Spanish during that time!)

What I love about that is that unlike most of us, she was already working on behalf of homeschoolers long before she had a child of her own.   I didn’t start thinking about homeschooling seriously until after my daughter was born, and then my interest was limited pretty much to the four walls of our house.  What other people did was none of my concern at the time.

Back in New York City, Elsa founded PAHSI and spent countless hours educating the NYC Homeschooling Office on the ins and outs of unschooling, and insisting on accurate record-keeping on their part.  I have a feeling they did not always enjoy those interactions, but there is no doubt that we NYC unschoolers enjoy an acceptance and understanding on the part of our DOE office that other unschoolers around the state lack.   This is 100% due to Elsa and her efforts over the years.   I can’t begin to estimate how many hours she devoted to our cause..

So Holt Associates, then Spain to help kickstart the homeschooling movement there, and then NYC and PAHSI and raising her own son.

Oh, and let’s not forget a cancer diagnosis….

When I got to know Elsa (I’d always known OF her, but until my son started taking Wayfinders with her son, I hadn’t spent any time talking to her at length) I had no idea she was living with cancer, although it had already been part of her life for a decade.  Her in person demeanor was quiet, unassuming and sometimes bordered on meek.   She would have made a fantastic litigator, because there is no doubt her opposition would have underestimated her.   Woe to anyone who challenged her about the homeschooling regulations.   Shall we say that diplomacy was not always her strong suit?   Particularly when a discussion was happening via the email lists, she could come off as ascerbic, abrupt and dismissive.    And often I think people completely misread her because of this.   A kinder, more loyal defender of unschoolers never existed.

Oh gosh, I’m rambling.   But this is difficult, so bear with me.

Elsa was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.  When I had questions about middle school quarterly reports, her answers read like legal briefs (and she wrote her paperwork so that should the need ever arise, it could be defended in court).  Sometimes dealing with her was exasperating, especially if it involved any kind of conflict with the NYC Homeschooling Office.  She demanded word for word transcripts of any interaction wherein a question of compliance with the NYS regulations had arisen.   If you couldn’t provide them, she would berate you for not being more diligent.

Ascerbic, remember?

But then she’d follow up with an email relating a funny incident that happened with her son, or a self-deprecating anecdote, and I realized that she was not in fact angry with anyone.  She just never wanted a miscommunication between parents and the Homeschooling Office to jeopardize the compliant status of an unschooling family.

And that is what I will miss most about her.  Her loyalty and razor sharp wit.   Over the last 18 months or so, our interactions happened entirely via email, usually after she’d read one of my blog posts.  She never posted on the blog itself, but would send me an email.  Sometimes just one sentence, sometimes an entire anecdote – always hilarious.   Then we’d message back and forth for a bit.   She told me last year that she wasn’t leaving the house much, but didn’t think her demise was imminent.    She was realistic but optimistic, and until the end I sort of thought she’d find her way through just as she had for the last 14 years.

I kind of can’t wrap my head around the fact that next time someone has a problem with the Homeschooling Office, Elsa won’t be shooting off emails demanding to know EXACTLY WHAT WAS SAID, and then providing legally defensible advice and guidance.

So Elsa, wherever you are, we will miss your humor, your intelligence and guidance.  We will miss you.

Safe journey, my friend.

Elsa (tiara and all!) holding the plaque NYCHEA presented to her and surrounded by a few friends



11 comments on “For Elsa Haas, with love

  1. Emma Goldman-Sherman says:

    Thank you Amy, this is a beautiful, loving description of Elsa who did so much for our community! We will all miss her.

  2. Leslie says:

    Thank you, I never met Elsa and until reading this had never seen a photo of her. I knew her from some email correspondence we had and a few phone calls from time to time. This tribute is so the Elsa I came to know, respect, whose writings (even if not related ot my needs) I enjoyed, a woman who cared for homeschooling families and one I will miss. In all the groups where I’ve seen Elsa posting I can;t agree more … EXACTLY WHAT WAS SAID…… Thank you Amy for writing this beautiful tribute to a beautiful person.

  3. Tara Contrera says:

    Amy, Thank you, this is so touching. I will miss Elsa so much! I don’t know what I am going to do without my friend & homeschool guru. :)

  4. erynn albert says:

    Hi Amy,
    Thank you for saying it all so well. I first met her when my oldest was about 6yrs old and her son tyler was in diapers. People at the homeschool gathering in battery park had children school age and we had started filing paperwork. When we realized Elsa had a baby who would not need to file for years, we thought ” oh how sweet, a pre-homeschooler”….needless to say, we soon found that she had far more experience than all of us put together. But she was not interested in pontificating,. She wanted to hear our experiences. She asked great questions. And she listened leaning in a bit to catch every word and detail. I so appreciate the work she did on our behalf. I also appreciate her honesty in sharing her own journey right to the end. Love erynn

  5. Dasha says:

    That is a beautiful tribute! Thank you, Amy. I am glad I had a chance to see Elsa during last Summer, but I never thought that was the last one.

  6. denise metzger says:

    One very special lady. You captured her essence! T y. And great to see the pic

  7. Daragh says:

    Elsa was instumental in getting things going in Spain and wrote a paper on regulation for a conference here in 2011. She helped people in Europe grasp the situation in New York and was a very genuine person.

  8. Leslie Barson says:

    I never met Elsa in person but have been in contact with her since we first when to Spain in 1990’ish. She was running ‘GWS’ alone in Madrid at the time.She kept home educators in Spain in contact with each other and put us in contact with several wonderful families Spanish and non-Spanish living in the Alicante coastal area. We spent some time on the phone talking about home ed in Europe and The US and corresponded for a while about it.
    I then got to know her better through the Learning Unlimited list where she kept the list informed about what was happen in New York and always had an intelligent and interesting angle on issues in home ed.
    I am so sorry she lost her fight. She will be sorely missed. Leslie, London

  9. Alla Handel says:

    Amy, wonderfully written piece about Elsa. Thank you. I first met Elsa at “not back to school picnic” about 8-9 years ago. I knew we didn’t want our son to be in school (he tried a couple of schools by then) but I was picturing homeschooling group more of the typical stereotype and wasn’t sure we will fit in. After meeting Elsa, Jen, Charissa, Margaret and Melle – my perspective on homeschooling was totally changed. Elsa was exactly like you described – smart , very detail oriented. I couldn’t stop telling my husband that this group is very opposite of what homeschoolers are portrayed as. Everyone I spoke to, was shockingly well educated, enthusiastic and well spoken. I was happy to be a part of this group. We were between Upstate and NYC , and back then the homeschooling group didn’t have that many classes. So we seen Elsa at soccer games and “not back to school ” picnics. We moved Upstate and I exchanged a number of emails with Elsa through the years. She always got back to me right away. I will remember Elsa as a person , who doesn’t take sides but rather wants to have it done right . She was a really tough fighter – with cancer and homeschooling rights. She left our homeschooling community a little too early, but with a great legacy. She will be missed . I still come to the city here and there and I think your homeschooling group accomplishments are amazing. Thank you to everyone for their hard work.

  10. I had the privilege to meet and have a one on one with Elsa almost 4 years ago. What an amazing woman. She took the time time to educate me on the differences between homeschooling and unschooling. With this came the crash course on navigating as a homeschooling parent. I am thankful for every piece of information she shared with me. Her help has shaped me to be the parent I am today. Elsa was a wise woman with endless.. Knowledge she will be missed. Excellent article!

  11. Jenn Shannon says:

    Thank you for sharing such a lovely tribute! She was a very special person and a fierce advocate for all of us.

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