All I remember of my formal education is the humiliation. Having to cover two chalkboards with the word "luncheon" because the teacher said I'd spelled it wrong on a quiz, when I hadn't. Having to ride my bike home during class, blinded with tears, to get the arithmetic book I'd forgotten.
Being openly rebuked in high school for whispering to a friend--by the very teacher we both had a crush on and were whispering about. Being accused of false modesty because I was too embarrassed to read a personal composition aloud in front of my classmates--and having the teacher read it to them herself.
Apart from that, I have only two memories of school. I felt smug as a second grader because I learned how to spell bicycle from overhearing a fourth grader spell it (all grades were in the same room)) and I remember taking a telephone receiver apart in ninth grade science. (I don't remember whether we put it back together.)
That's it. That was my formal education through high school. I accidentally learned how to spell bicycle and I took a telephone apart.
Actually, I have to confess, my formal education was sketchy. I was mostly home schooled, although 30 years ago we didn't know it had a name. I was in the middle of second grade when we moved from Ohio to Japan and the one-room school I attended was on an Australian-American Army base outside Hiroshima. I was ten when my dad finished designing and building the yacht which was to become our home for the next ten years.
Once we started sailing around the world, I wasn't in a formal classroom for more than a week [although I did take some Calvert classes by correspondence] until the tail end of junior high in Honolulu. I completed eleventh grade and then we sailed back to Japan and I never got around to doing the assignments that were supposed to enable me to graduate.
In short, I have two college degrees and am working on a third, but I don't have a high school diploma. [I can identify with college graduates and high school drop-outs. All things to all men, right, Apostle Paul?] It feels very strange, with our daughter a senior in high school, to be helping make decisions about class rings and yearbook photos and graduation invitations.
I wish I could give both our children the enriching experiences my parents gave me. During the years that I was home schooled, I got an education I wouldn't trade for four years at Oxford.
My brother Ted taught me math as we criss-crossed the storm-tossed Pacific. He made up word problems like "If two porpoises are swimming 23 knots [nautical miles per hour] north-by-northwest and a killer whale with its baby are swimming 16 knots south-by-southeast. . ." My mother taught me spelling and punctuation by having me keep a daily journal. I still do, though no one corrects it and gives me a grade anymore. Our whole family read encyclopedia articles on the geography and history of whatever island or continent we were approaching at the time.
There were certainly gaps in my education. I didn't pick up algebra, poli sci and economics until years later, out of my kids' textbooks. I had only the haziest idea of the geography and history of my own country; I remember picturing the west coast of the United States as a smooth curve and wondering where the Golden Gate went--parallel to the coast or from the coast into the sea?
There were other disadvantages to being home schooled on the high seas. I missed hamburgers and apple pie and salivated over ads for Cheez Whiz. I was lonely. We were never anywhere long enough for me to get past the feeling that I was this week's "show and tell" item--"She's sailing around the world on a yacht!" Later, I had a difficult adjustment socially.
What did I gain? I became best friends with my mother, father, and brother. (My other brother Tim was in college during the time we were sailing; we became close later, when we were both adults.) I learned a smattering of a dozen languages. I learned to like curry and sushi and poi [if it's banana poi. Seriously.].
I learned to catch colorful tropical fish (though they were poisonous, therefore inedible) with bananas and albatrosses with breadcrumbs. We were so close to a volcano in Hawaii that Ted got his eyebrows singed off. In the Indian Ocean we rode out a typhoon. On Bali we watched an Indonesian teenager have her incisors filed flat in a coming-of-age ceremony. And, in a hair-raising festival, I heard men and women shriek as demons possessed them.
I learned the names of the stars we navigated by. (I liked the name Zubenelgenubi best; years after our trip my mother named a dog Zubenelgenubi, Nubi for short.) I learned to steer with a tiller and climb the mast.
I patted a lion cub, stroked an iguana and held a kiwi bird and a hedgehog (not at the same time). I helped raise a Galapagos tortoise. Ted and I chased a seal across an otherwise deserted beach in the Galapagos. I rode a bucking yacht through the Panama Canal.
I saw where Napoleon was exiled and where Captain Cook was murdered.
By the time we reached Durban, South Africa, I didn't find it odd to see barefoot women in the city, with pegs in their earlobes and red clay forming their hair into beehives. I learned firsthand about apartheid: which bus benches were our Japanese crewmen supposed to sit on, the one for "Europeans only" or for "non-Europeans"? No matter where they sat, someone from that group would tell them they didn't belong there.
We arrived back in Honolulu and I entered high school. I found kids my age shallow and their concerns petty. Incessant talk of "crinolines" (the stiff petticoats of the 50's that made "poodle skirts" stick out all around) and pimples and the prom bored me. I had already seen the world and part of my journal was in the process of being published as a book. Before the year was out, I would be leaving school for a new kind of voyage.
During our sabbatical from classrooms, Ted and I had bonded with our parents to such a degree that when they decided to sail into the Pacific nuclear testing zone as a protest in 1958, we insisted on going, too. Their values had become our values, their cause our cause, their vision our vision.
None of us were Christians then. Now, as a parent, I want my own children to share our Christian values and cause and vision. How can they, I wonder, unless they are close enough to us to watch our lives and feel our heart?
Much as I long to, I can't give my children the childhood I had. I can't take them out of school to give them an education. I can't even get them to watch history being made on TV--the Challenger disaster, the Contra controversy, the Souter debates and the Persian Gulf crisis. They're too busy studying old history, out of textbooks.
I'm very grateful for the Christian schools they attend. But as a parent, I feel deprived, cut out of the process. And somehow, when I picture my children having to spend six hours a day sitting in chairs and listening to someone talk, month after month for 13 years, it's almost more than I can bear.
(First published in Home Education Magazine, May-June, 1991--some notes added later.)