It was a beautiful, sunny day at Clemson University. I was in my sophomore year and had just dropped off my tuition check at the registrar’s office when I got a phone call from my mom, Leigh Bortins. We all have those moments in life that we remember so vividly. Typically, it’s something really life changing. My mom said, “Robert, your dad is thinking about getting you a car for college. He changed his mind, though, and quit his job. He is going to homeschool your younger brothers, and I am going to try to make Classical Conversations a real business. You’ll have to pay for the rest of college, yourself.” So, I went to the co-op office and asked what jobs they had available for the next semester.
Fortunately, because I was homeschooled, I was able to work as an engineering intern in my last two years of high school and had an impressive resume. This allowed me to get the highest paid co-op. In college, I would work for a semester and summer and then go to school for a semester. In those years, I experienced all kinds of living arrangements. I rented out a walk-in closet one year to sleep in. I slept on the top bunk at a family’s house for another year while their high schooler slept on the bottom. Eventually, I did get a car and, for one month, either lived out of it while it was still nice weather or crashed at different friends’ places; either way, it saved me a month of rent. Between student loans, saving money from my co-op job, working while taking eighteen hours of Engineering credits, switching state residencies to get in-state tuition, and learning how to roll credit card debt from one card to another—I was able to graduate in three and a half years of full-time schooling over a five-and-a-half-year period.
I think, at least once a semester, my mom would call to see if she could borrow some money from me to buy inventory to sell at a local homeschool curriculum fair or state organization event. “Robert, if I could borrow from you $1,000 this week, in one month, I will pay you back in full and give you interest on top of it,” she would ask. Then I would say, “Mom, all of my friends call their parents for money; this is not how this is supposed to be.”
Like most single-income families, my stay-at-home mom was always looking for a side business to help with the family’s finances. My dad, also named Robert Bortins, was a well-respected aerospace engineer, but my mom loved business. She tried different multi-level marketing (MLM) opportunities and started various small businesses she could run out of her home to make an income. She was giving us an education on entrepreneurship, without even meaning to.
I think my mom is a natural teacher. She always sees the best in people and wants them to see beyond their fallen nature, so they can be who God made them to be. So when she told the local homeschoolers she was starting a community for high school students called Classical Conversations, there was a lot of interest, and we had ten students join us that fall. That year, she was writing the program as she went, but her work then became the framework now for our Challenge I class. It was important to her to charge a fee in the early days because it required families to buy in and show up, and thus created accountability. This was something she saw that was missing in the co-ops we were a part of in the past. That first year went well, so we decided to do it again for a second year. Some more families wanted to join, and my mom for the first time gave her curriculum to a friend who was willing to run her own Classical Conversations community. They were a single-income family like ours, so my mom made a deal that her friend would give her a percentage of any tuition she collected and keep the rest. This way, if her friend did not get any students, she would not have to pay. This was a lot different than the MLM we had been a part of in my growing up, where we would shell out a lot of money up front. My mom did not want to place that burden and financial risk on other families.
By the time I had exited high school, there were four or five communities going, and people were driving a few hours to attend. There was a small waiting list, but I didn’t give it much thought back then. I was going to be heading off to college to study Industrial Engineering. People often ask, “Did Robert Bortins always want to be part of Classical Conversations’ leadership?” I have to say, I enjoyed being homeschooled under the Classical Conversations model, but the organized business it is today did not exist back then for me to consider joining. One of my friends who was studying Business did a paper on my mom. At that time, there were about 2,000 students in a CC program. CC was not bringing in an income for my parents in those years, but the Lord was good and allowed them to pay their bills from the savings my Dad had dutifully put away for the first nineteen years of their marriage. One year, my mom won a business award that gave her a $10,000 grant, and that become a lifesaver for ordering the inventory she needed.
After I graduated college, I got a job at UPS and worked there for nearly a year as a management trainee, before moving on to be a plant engineer for a small recycling company. Meanwhile, my mom had other amazing moms join her, such as Heather Shirley, Mary Alphs, and others, to help homeschooling families know about the benefits of education in community. Classical Conversations began to grow from one state to many states. In that same span of time, I was gaining valuable life and work experience. My mom and I started talking about me coming on to help, but she could not match my salary, and I was a young man with bills to pay.
I did start helping with Homeschool Testing Services so that parents could get the end-of-grade testing they needed for their children. I enjoyed being homeschooled, and now Classical Conversations was becoming a structured business. While making widgets run a little more efficiently is fun, it isn’t life-changing work, and I felt I could add value at CC.
My two youngest brothers had grown up with my mom traveling 18-30 weeks a year, telling people about becoming a Director and starting a Classical Conversations community in their area. She wanted to spend time with her younger sons before they went off to college. Classical Conversations had reached about 38,000 seats and was finally providing a regular paycheck to my parents (most months). I quit my job to join CC full-time in 2012 and promptly enrolled in the Irmo, South Carolina Foundations and Essentials classes, so I could learn about those programs. That poor Director and Tutor… I think they were very nervous, at first, but they quickly realized that I was just a normal 26-year-old in this class of 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls. I did not become a Memory Master, but I did write all of my Essentials papers! (Boy, I wish I had the new guide back then!)
I moved to the home office in West End, North Carolina in 2013 and spent the year learning from my mom the ins and outs of the day-to-day tasks that needed to be completed at CC. We had about thirty people on staff at that point, and we had a small office and warehouse space. My purpose was to free her up from a lot of tasks to allow her to concentrate more at home with my brothers’ education. Since that time, I have been leading the day-to-day operations at Classical Conversations, as we have expanded from serving families in forty states to serving families in fifty countries. Our staff has expanded to nearly 150 full-time employees, most who homeschool with Classical Conversations. In fact, about 70% of our employees are homeschooling moms, some current and some empty nesters. We are expecting to add another ten positions this year to support the surge in homeschooling.
Today, I have three children, six and under. The eldest is in our local CC community. Neither my wife, April, nor I have been able to absorb through osmosis all that my mom has learned. My wife did take Latin in college, so I guess she has some advantages there, but I was a typical boy, growing up, and did my schoolwork so that I could go play. Now, I read the books we recommend and study them. Perhaps in twenty years, I’ll know what my mom knows—but probably not. We’re in community, taking each week as it comes, and trying to raise our children in the love of the Lord. We know it is invaluable to have a like-minded community around us, helping us educate our children to know God and to make Him known.