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.
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.