People like to categorize other people. They can look and (usually) know the classification we seem to feel is most important–gender–and we can sort of guess the age, and, therefore, if we care, a child’s school grade level.
As my homeschooled children were growing up, adults–strangers and acquaintances–would often ask them or me about the child’s “school” grade level. This left me fudging an answer. Often, I would think for a moment, mentally counting on my fingers, “Let’s see…she’s 14, and if she started first grade at age six then she would be in seventh grade now…”
If I had time and thought the questioner might be receptive, I would explain that we didn’t “do” school, and we didn’t “do” grades beyond what was necessary for reporting as our state law requires. Even the grade level of my children’s “school work” was not a fixed category; they excelled tremendously in some areas, were above average in others, and average or below average in a few. Sometimes, I would answer with a non-sequitur, going off on a story about our latest cool “field trip” adventure. That would turn the topic to a much more interesting course, where the well-meaning adult would be allowed a glimpse of life and education outside the school box. This let them understand, if only a little, that homeschooling is not about “doing school in isolation at home,” but about being out in the world, meeting all kinds of people, engaging in hands-on activities and learning from life. They might have found out–through interesting stories–that my children have deep interest in theatre, that they love to listen to classical music and are excellent critics of the cinema. Perhaps they would have heard about our 1/4 acre organic permaculture garden and the wildlife it sustains, like bluebirds, robins, turtles and rabbits.
The questioner would never learn this interesting stuff if I just answered their question directly. “What grade?” does not transmit information of any value; the best that can be gleaned is a means to arbitrarily categorize a child. It seems the question is merely a “pleasantry,” a way to make idle conversation when one does not know what else to say. How sad that our society has so segregated us by age that many adults do not know how to make real conversation with children.