(Well, don’t really close your eyes or you won’t be able to read this!)
Picture yourself with your favorite people, walking down a new trail that none of you have ever been on before. As you walk along the terrain changes frequently.
There are grand vistas and the tiniest of wildflowers. Every now and then a deer grazes across your path. You and your companions take these things in and talk about them, and about life in general, in excited, flowing conversations. The path curves and moves and you are all looking forward to discovering what is around the next bend or over the next hill.
Just as another great conversation begins you notice that the trail starts to run alongside a railroad track. At first there is no train on the track and you find yourself daydreaming about where this track might lead. Still, there are these favorite people, fantastic vistas and engaging conversations right here, right now so the imaginary train’s destination isn’t enticing enough to really pull you in.
Then you hear the rumbling of a distant train, and you can tell it is headed your way. The group buzzes with excitement about where the train might be going and what it would be like to take the train instead of walking. You wonder too.
Soon the train is zooming beside you and the group’s curiosity peaks. Before you can even think about it, the train slows to a stop and a door opens. Standing there is a fascinating-looking person who extends a hand and says, “There’s room for you all, hop onboard!”
Your beloved companions are jumping up and down now saying, “Yes, let’s go! Let’s go! PLEASE can we GO?!?”
Your head is spinning and the train person says, “Are you coming or not? It’s now or never.”
With all eyes on you, you reluctantly agree and the next thing you know you are being whisked away from your beautiful trail and the train is moving at full speed again, toward an unknown destination. Your insides are in a knot wondering if you made the right choice thinking, “We had just started to find our stride. We had so much more to explore on that trail. It was so peaceful and other than the occasional, friendly stranger passing by, it was just us learning together. Now there are all these other passengers starting new discussions with my traveling companions. Now there is noise and speed. It is exciting, yes, but is it the best choice for our family? Is it worth what we just gave up?”
That is how it felt for me on the first day of school. And that is how I still feel 2 weeks later.
For the past year we have been homeschooling our 3 kids. We chose to homeschool because we moved onto the 45 foot sailing catamaran, Dawn Treader and it gave us the freedom to explore on our terms. We called it “Worldschooling” because we didn’t use a specific curriculum but simply let the lessons unfold from the places we explored.
As for how that year of homeschooling went, I am the first to admit it wasn’t all rosy. For starters, I was usually outnumbered 3 to 1, and often terribly outgunned. Some days I felt like a total failure. Many days the lessons I planned fell flat and just didn’t get done. And, like every homeschool parent I know, I got a tremendous amount of pressure from people who love us, worried that our choice to homeschool would turn our previously delightful children into socially inept, uneducated cretins. That, plus preteen hormones and mommy meltdowns. In other words, homeschooling was hard.
But then there were the amazing days that made it worth every head-butting and eye-rolling we endured.
Moments like swimming in a magical, underwater grotto surrounded by colorful sea life.
Experiencing the silence of crossing the ocean in the middle of the night where you can’t tell where the stars end and the water begins.
Being able to put our kids in a Bahamian school for a month to give them (and me!) a unique cultural exchange.
Sleeping under the stars anchored beside an uninhabited island.
Learning to manage groceries and laundry on a budget and in a dinghy.
Gaining real world experience fixing sails, rigging, engines and toilets.
Snorkeling over coral reefs and playing an underwater mermaid piano. Exploring, learning and growing together.
In other words, sometimes homeschooling was magical.
But the train unexpectedly switched tracks when we returned to Florida for regrouping and reprovisioning. My husband was offered a promotion at work and our summer sailing plans were cut short. Being tethered to land in the Land of Plenty (at least for a few months, maybe longer, we are still not sure) offered opportunities we couldn’t get at sea: consistent gymnastics training for our competitive gymnast (Ahava, 12), beach volleyball lessons from professionals (Ziva, 10), easy access to travel options to connect with people we missed and, my personal favorite; IKEA.
For the past 4 months we soaked in the social and strengthened our networks. While reconnecting with our land-based loved ones, one thing came up again and again; “Now that you are going to be in one place, will you put the kids in school again?” My answer was always; “Probably not. I really like the freedom that comes from boatschooling.” That was until two weeks before school started when 6 year old Samuel said, “Mommy, can I go to a real school for 1st grade?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Absolutely!” he heard.
And so the train started barreling down a new track.
This shift happened while we were still on a cross-country, travel trailer trip, so logistically it was really hard to pull off registering for school in Florida. Technically, we are Florida residents and have been since moving onto the boat over a year ago. But because we homeschooled there were no school records to help administrators figure out where our kids should be placed. The boat is at a marina, but the marina is in an area with failing schools and a high crime rate so we wanted to look at other school options. Florida school officials told us there were no other options and that the kids needed to go to our “neighborhood school,” but we weren’t actually part of any neighborhood. We could move the boat to another district, but with our work and travel commitments that could only happen after the school year had already started. If they were going to go to school we all felt it would be better to start at the beginning of the school year with all the other kids. The problem was by the time we learned our options it was 2 days before school started and I was still in Washington state.
Chugga chugga, chugga chugga, woo woo!!
In the end, exactly 10 hours before school actually started, we got the email we were waiting for. Because our daughter had an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for gifted from New Mexico and because our neighborhood school had no gifted services, our kids were moved to a neighboring district’s school. This school is highly rated academically. It is a great school by all accounts. And so, bright and early the next morning we drove Ziva and Samuel to their 1st day of school at a place we had never seen before, to be educated by people we have never met.
For 2 weeks now I have cried after drop-off.
The first morning I asked if I could walk them to their classroom and was gently told, “Sorry, we don’t allow that. But don’t worry, Miss so-n-so will deliver them safely to their classrooms.” So off they went.
My husband is more understanding about the whole thing. He says it allows the teachers to start the school year without the distraction of clingy, helicopter parents. There will be a curriculum night in a few weeks when we will get to meet their teachers. But that feels like an eternity after going from being no more than a boat length away from my kids all day, everyday to not having any idea what their teachers or the inside of their school or classrooms even look like.
Walking out of the school that first day, I tried to stay positive, “I’m outgoing, we can make new friends. I’m sure the other families will help me feel less like a fish out of water here.” Then the kids brought home a memo. It said we aren’t supposed to get out of our cars at all when taking the kids to school or picking them up. In the morning we drive up, open the door and wave goodbye as we drive off. When it comes time to collect them at the end of the day we hang a number from our rear view mirror to do a drive-by pickup. No time for hugs or lingering goodbyes. And the school is very serious about this system. I know this because I just got a text warning that if we park to try to pick up our kids, police will be issuing tickets.
So, every afternoon, as I wait up to 45 minutes in the pickup lane in my air-conditioned car, with the windows rolled up like everyone else, I wonder how I’m ever supposed to get to know other families if I’m not supposed to even get out of my car.
I used to think moving from landlocked New Mexico onto a sailboat was a bit of a culture shock. But that’s nothing compared to the uncertainty I feel having total strangers essentially saying, “we got this, now please step away from your children.”
What if the train we jumped onto is actually a circus train; full of clowns, tricksters and animals? That could explain why I find myself feeling like a caged momma tiger, anxiously pacing back and forth, just waiting for a chance to run with my cubs. To be uncaught and free again; free of the schedule, the dress code, the rules, the plan. Free of the worry about people not understanding my kind-hearted, wiggly boy who came home dejected on the 2nd day of school:
For two weeks I have been pacing in that cage, fearing that the restrained, contained, normalizing nature of it all will make these dear, sweet children think less of themselves than they did before.
But then, at the height of fear and regret for leaving our delightful, slow moving path, the kids come home from school with an excited, “Mommy, I got to be the line leader today,” or “Mommy, my teacher has a 3-D printer and will let me design anything I want,” and I realize I have been so busy worrying about what we have given up that I haven’t even looked out the window to enjoy the ride.
“Next station Exploration Falls!”
Regardless of my fears and doubts, the reality is that we have already climbed aboard and the train is already in motion. To jump off now would be not only be foolhardy but against what we stand for as a family. We do not shy away from “different,” or “new.” We do not design our lives based on fear. My companions are excited about this new ride. Although they too have their fears, they are eager to explore. They are curious, mighty adventurers. We helped shape those values when our home was our classroom and we will continue to do so no matter what this year in a “real school” may bring.