Thursday, May 31, 2012

How Homeschooling is like the Circus Bus

In 2001 I had the enlightening experience of traveling through Southeast Asia with a couple of friends. The three of us started off in Bangkok, Thailand, then migrated south over the borders of Malaysia. Next we took a ferry across the Indian sea to Sumatra, Indonesia, where we spent about a week backpacking up to the Northern province of Banda Aceh.(this area was hit hardest by the tsunami in 2005, thank goodness I wasn't there)
As typical foreign travelers we stood out like sore thumbs amongst the Asian people. With our large backpacks full of clothing and supplies, and our passports close by our sides, everyone knew we were vacationers on holiday.

It was easy to spot us, but not so easy for us to evade the sales pitches made by almost every street seller in every town. Every time we got off a bus somewhere, we were literally swarmed by people trying to sell us their goods and wares. Among the street vendors there were also a handful of tour guides, ready to sell us the next bus tickets to our next location. Each tour company rivaled the next in comfort and luxury. They would surround us, each boasting of air conditioned seating, large, comfortable chairs, shaded windows, and American music playing in the overhead. They would hand us our tickets and promise us a very special price for our very special vacation, in the luxury of one of their large, expensive, tour buses.
We watched as the other tourists quickly bought up the seats, happily securing their place to the next city, with one of these fine tour companies. We knew those folks would sit content in their large chairs, watching the views pass by out their shaded, air conditioned windows. We had been on one of those buses, and knew how comfortable they could really be.

However, we felt that there must be another way.
After the first few days of this we began to feel annoyed that these companies would just assume that we wanted to ride their buses because we were foreigners. We started to question the monopoly they held over our traveling monies, as they had already predicted we would be purchasing their bus tickets. We felt hustled and slightly violated that just because we were American, they assumed we had loads of money to spend on fancy bus tickets. Last of all, we started to feel angry towards the swarms of sales pitches, and demanded they leave us alone to fend for ourselves.
We pushed passed the crowds on our next stop and began to search out other options. Many of the tour guides lied to us and told us there was no other way to travel, that we would be stuck there forever if we didn't buy their tickets. Some of them even told us that we were not allowed to ride the local buses because we were foreigners or there would be no room for us on other buses. However, we knew that there must be another way; that in a city full of thousands of people, there must be a local transit system in place. So we set out to find it.

By this time we were in Malaysia, heading south towards the ferry. We needed to get from North Malaysia to South Malaysia, which would take about a day. After asking around, we finally found the local travel system. It was a small building in the heart of the city, surrounded by the real working class peoples of Malaysia. We lined up with the local men, women, and children, and didn't bat an eye as everyone stared at us in wonder. We were intent to purchase tickets just like everyone else, and to travel in this country, just like everyone else.
We excitedly bought our tickets, and secured our places, happy that we had finally found a way out of the tourism monopoly. The tickets were 1/3 of the price of the fancy bus tickets, and promised to take us where we wanted to go. Little did we know how truly interesting this decision would turn out to be........

The local buses were crowded. Our backpacks were thrown onto the rooftops, and our bodies were stuffed into small, cramped seats below. Men and women were so tightly packed in that you had no room to move your arms. The men chain-smoked for hours on end, filling our lungs with clove cigarette smoke. The music was blaring loudly, louder than is comfortable for people packed so tightly together. There were also many, many stops along the way. A bus ride that promised 6 hours, took us close to 13 hours. We stopped so many times and for so many unknown reasons, we couldn't help but wonder at times, if we were going the right way? We also switched to different buses many times along the way, as we'd get off one bus, and onto a smaller bus, then onto a bigger bus, and so forth. At one stop we waited for nearly 3 hours for the next bus to come. I remember waiting in the dark at 4 in the morning, in the middle of a run-down town, with nobody around but us. When a bus finally came to get us, it was filled with Catholic children in uniforms, heading to school. It was baffling! But when we asked the bus driver if we were going the right way, he assured us our tickets were good.
There were chickens running down the aisles of another one of our buses. And yet another one of our buses was filled entirely of men who didn't stop staring at us three girls for the entire ride.
Although we found ourselves in some wild and awkward situations, I never once felt regret for choosing to travel the local bus system. It opened up my eyes to the real people and cultures of Southeast Asia, and the true experiences of humanity. Not only that, it gave us girls a lot to laugh about, as we happily looked forward to our next, wild adventure!

There was one bus ride that stood out to me the most, and still has a strong impact on me to this day. I like to refer to it as,"The Circus Bus", which started out in East Indonesia, taking us to Central Indonesia, near Lake Toba. The bus driver told us we'd arrive there in about 5 hours, no problem. I'm not sure why we believed him, seeing our history with local buses thus far, but we jumped aboard, nonetheless. We boarded at about 10 pm at night, and were looking forward to getting some sleep along the way.
I remember it was sweltering hot, in the middle of an Indonesian summer heat-wave. I found myself seated in an aisle seat, next to a man who was smoking clove cigs for the entire ride, just like everyone else, except there weren't hardly any windows open. After about an hour, my lungs started to burn, and I felt light-headed. The dirt roads were windy and bumpy, and I jolted upward out of my seat each time it bumped, as their weren't any seat belts. I felt packed in like a sardine, as I recall holding my large backpack between my knees in front of me, and my small purse with all my money and passport, clutched between my thighs. There was a man on the outside of the back of the bus who would yell, "Woooooo!," every time it was safe for our bus to pass another car. After several hours of hearing "Woooooo!" and swerving through the lanes, I started to feel sick to my stomach. I tried to shut my eyes and block out all the noise and chaos, but it only seemed to heighten my other senses, which were being attacked from every angle! My seat was broken, too! Where normally a seat might recline for an overnight ride, mine was forced into a slightly forward position. It was so very uncomfortable, to say the least, and was hurting my back!
We sat on that bus for hours and hours. My friends were in the backseats behind me, where I couldn't see or hear them. Every couple hours we'd stop for a pee break, only to get back onto the crazy Circus Bus. I remember wanting to scream, but I couldn't. (Although I don't think anyone would've heard me anyways) So I got out my travel journal and screamed with pen and paper. I wrote in barely recognizable scribble,"This Circus Bus is @#%*&## CRAZY!!"

As it turned out, that five hours turned into 6 hours, then 8 hours, then 10 hours, then 13 hours later, our bus dropped us off at our destination,Lake Toba. I was so sore, so exhausted, and so terribly sick and dizzy that I couldn't make sense of anything. We took the first room we could find. I remember us walking into a small area with 2 beds and a hard, white floor. I didn't wait to barter with my roommates about who gets a bed, I just collapsed on the floor and slept...... and slept, and slept, and slept, until 18 hours later I woke up.
When my blurry eyes finally opened I looked down to see I was covered in black ants, and I didn't know what day it was. I looked over to see that my traveling buddies were still asleep in their nice, soft beds. I decided to get up, walk outside, and find the lake we had hoped for. A short walk down a muddy trail, and I was by the waters edge. As I sat on a wall, thinking about all that had happened, a huge smile came across my face. I looked out over this tremendous volcanic crater, filled with sparkling, green water, and felt grateful for the journey it took to get to this amazingly beautiful place.
It was a really rough ride, filled with discomfort, confusion, and doubt, but in the end it all turned out wonderful. I could see how my mind had expanded and my heart felt fuller, because I had chosen to travel like this. It was a journey that I needed to endure to truly understand the depth of human experience. I learned that not everything in life is a comfy, fancy bus ride, and when we make choices to do things that seem harder and definitely different from the norm, we often find ourselves with a richer, more powerful, and more fulfilling experience.

Flash forward 10 years, we are homeschooling our 3 boys. I never would've considered choosing this path before, as I didn't see it as an option. I was one of those people (I'd thought) that wanted to sign my kids up for the comfy Kindergarten class, as soon as they turned of age! It was the obvious thing to do, afterall, I went to public school, my brothers and sisters went to public school, and all my friends went to public school. You could say I was a "product of public school", and I turned out just fine.
But I tell you what, everything changed for me after my first son was born. Giving birth was the most transformative experience of my lifetime, (next to the traveling circus bus), and I immediately started to look at the world in a different way.

My husband has been a big advocate for homeschooling our kids from the very beginning. Unlike me, he never once claimed to have had a very positive school experience. From the time he was in Kindergarten to a Senior graduating high school, he never felt like school was worth his time. He's told me stories of teachers who accused him of turning in false homework, claiming it was "too good" for his age level. He'd come home feeling defeated after working hard on it all week long, only to have someone accuse him of cheating. He said he was so bored in high school, he rarely had enough to do to fill his time. His grades were at the top of his class, his scores were high, but he wasn't being challenged to learn anything more than the average requirements.

I, on the other hand, was your average, happy-go-lucky student, who loved attending my classes. I was very social and outgoing, and got good grades. School was how I connected with my friends, and I felt like I belonged there. I loved going to school most of my Elementary years. It wasn't up until high school, where I just didn't want to make the effort to go anymore. I felt like there wasn't anything I was really interested in learning, and most of my friends were skipping school or on drugs. I just wanted to surf, and work to make money to travel, yet I was stuck in those classrooms day after day. When I barely graduated in 1997, I never wanted to go to school again. As far as I was concerned, learning meant sitting in a hot room, doing worksheets, and being drilled about boring facts. No, thank you, I'd rather be surfing.

It wasn't until after this trip to Southeast Asia in 2001, that I decided to come back to Hawaii and attend college. Something sparked inside of me while I was out there, convincing me that I needed to expand my mind even further, and college would be the answer.
I was immediately blown away by how much I loved it. I loved being able to sign up for whatever classes I wanted, and to follow my interests in whatever direction I chose. I felt this amazing mental high, as I'd study and learn something I'd never thought of before. I loved the intellectual challenge it provided me, and was able to pursue the things I loved the most. I went on to study Recreational Therapy, and although I didn't earn my degree, I still value and use so many of the things I learned, in my life today. Later on, as I went on to get married and have children, I found that giving birth to children, and raising babies, was another opportunity to choose my own direction in life. Here I was given the chance to follow my heart and make choices for my family that would be the best for all of us.
I love that, as parents, Micah and I can prayerfully decide what to teach our children, and then choose the things that will interest and benefit our family the most. To me, parenting is a mental, spiritual, and emotional high, as we are constantly being blown away by the things our kids are learning and doing. They are amazing people, and I hope they will continue to be excited about the world around them.

So, when our eldest son turned 5 years old, and I looked around to see everyone else happily signing their kids up for Kindergarten, I was reminded again about the circus bus. From the outside, I think that Institutionalized schooling would be easier, more comfortable, and provide all the necessities our family needs, but it's not the right option for us. We've looked around, and seen all their is to offer, but feel there must be another way for our family.
People have come along and warned me about homeschooling, saying it's too hard, that it's too much work, that our kids will turn out weird and un-socialized. They've tried to persuade me that public school is the easier route, and the option that will bring me the most joy as a parent, in the long run.
However, I've refused to listen to them, because I know they've probably never ridden on The Circus Bus.

Most people will never find out what it's like to do it different, to take the other options; the ones that seem impossible or harder. I have no doubt that there is more work involved in homeschooling our children, that there will be some discomfort, doubt, and confusion at times, and that the homeschooling road will seem long, bumpy, and windy,(and yes, maybe our kids will turn out a little different), but I know that we will find ourselves with a richer, more powerful, and more fulfilling experience than we'd ever known before.
There's more than one way to do things in life, as I found out so many years ago on that bus, and now I'm determined to allow homeschooling our kids to give me that opportunity once again.
As we've had Zadok home this past year, his first year of "Kindergarten", I've seen and felt the wonder and excitement of learning in our home and family. It's been enlightening, challenging, hard, rewarding, and has provided many opportunities for each of our own personal growth. I realized awhile ago that getting an education is not about reaching a certain destination, it's about experiencing the journey along the way.

I think homeschooling our kids is a lot like taking that circus bus, and I wouldn't do it any other way.


chelsea mckell said...

When I grow up I want to be more like you!

Sally Jackson said...

Now what did I do do deserve THAT comment? lol

Zen Mama said...

I admire you so much.

Paul often says to me, "most people choose to do the easy thing because it is easy. You choose the hard thing because it is hard." You are one of the few people who understand. And you make me look lazy!

Sally Jackson said...

We're all brave in our own choices. Finding the right one for our family is the tricky part sometime, and then doing the thing that is hardest for YOU.Homeschooling doesn't come natural for me, but I am loving it more and more.