IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Homeschooled On a Boat While My Parents Sailed the World

I went from sleepovers to literally sleeping with the fish.
Publish date:
June 11, 2015
parenting, kids, travel, education, high school, homeschooling

I didn’t want to go to homeschool, but I didn’t really have a choice.

My parents wanted to sail the world while they still had it in them, and my sister and I were just along for the ride. I was 12, and doing well at a nice middle school, when we left the States. I went from sleepovers to literally sleeping with the fish.

Just like any kid who moves, I was anxious about leaving my hometown, my school, my grandma, my friends, and basically everything I knew. I was headed instead to homeschool on the high seas.

My parents may be a bit hippy-dippy, but they believed in a traditional educational core. (We were more like the Wild Thornberrys than Mormon missionaries.) They went out of their way to find standardized and accredited homeschool programs for my sister and I.

We both took grade appropriate programs, from Calvert Education and later for me at the University of Nebraska High School. UNHS is not some Duggar-approved ATI crapfest. The course credits are pretty much transferable to public schools, with NCAA-approved classes and College Board approved AP classes.

It's counted as a Tier 1 high school (aka a “real” school) by the US military, and it touts the placement of students in public and private colleges, including Ivy League. It’s pretty much as legit as you can get in a homeschool program.

My little sister was still a grade school kid, and her homeschool experience was probably a lot more like what you’d picture than mine. The homeschool parent, in our case my mom, sitting next to the kid, reading together from a workbook. So many workbooks. Workbooks on workbooks on workbooks. There were even teacher workbooks for my mom, with parts to read out loud and answers to common questions from the kids.

They didn’t fight about it much; both of them seemed pretty resigned to doing the lessons. The favorite section for both of them was literature, with the chance to read a story (sometimes one they even got to pick!), and talk about it. Typically my sister could be done with a day’s lesson plan in three hours.

My typical high school day was also far shorter than the equivalent “real” one, four or five hours at most. The occasional textbook or novel was added to the never-ending stream of workbooks, but there was no teacher material for my mother to quote.

The curriculum was designed to be self-taught, so my mom was off the hook for almost all functions outside of proctoring exams and mailing in my essays. Yes, we did mail things off for independent evaluation, as required to receive class credit, however, the return times were so slow due to our uncertain address that I barely remembered the poetry I had written in the first place.

While my sister took homeschooling in stride, I was underwhelmed. I went from a school with a real Parisian to teach us French, multimedia art lessons, a volleyball team, and teachers that pushed us to excel, to the workbook parade.

Some of the classes had compelling reading; besides the family favorite literature, I really enjoyed the (probably outdated even then) geography textbook, filled with maps of biomes and crops as well as political borders. But I sped through my easy and dull lessons to get to the relaxed, unassigned afternoons, where I was free to swim, read book after book (oddities traded with other travelers or picked up in random ports of call), play with my sister, paint, write, and sew.

I guess that half of the day might have fallen under un-schooling, because I was encouraged to pursue my curiosity and subsequently learned a lot.

It was good luck for my parents that I found the lessons easy and that I was a bit of a self starter. If they had to sit with me, read along with me, and encourage me, the classes would have taken twice as long.

And what if they had to answer questions on my lesson plan? Grade-school work is pretty basic; most adults implicitly understand the stuff they learned in grade school, and with a little coaxing in the form of a teacher workbook, could regurgitate it for their kids. For high school classes, that’s a dicey prospect. My parents are both pretty mathy, but could they have explained geometry theory to me? Were they going to speak French to me?

That’s a big part of ultimately why I wouldn’t choose to homeschool my (future) kids. There are so many holes that form in your learning when a single source is responsible for everything from French to friendship skills.

I homeschooled in the pre-Internet era, and was effectively cut off from any resources outside of course materials and my parents. In this day and age, I get that there are more resources for homeschooled kids. There are remote classrooms like Australia’s long-running School of the Air, live teaching and boards online, and resources like the Khan Academy videos and Open Courseware.

If you live in the outback, by all means, utilize all this stuff along with a state-approved curriculum and homeschool your kids. But if you live in a nice suburb with a school bus, put your kids on that bus.

Besides the presence of teachers qualified to teach, there’s also the whole social skills deal. And this goes beyond the whole having-friends-outside-of-your-immediate-family thing. Homeschooled kids don’t often get all the lessons on behavior like waiting your turn, understanding people from different backgrounds, how to act around new people, and helping and being helped by your peers.

We met a lot of other kids, traveling on boats on the same sort of path as us, that hadn’t learned a lot of these lessons, and I am pretty sure we were behind, too.

Dry land homeschooling parents often point out the activities that they make their kids participate in to develop social skills, like playgroups, sports leagues, homeschool proms (which have a sort of creepy body policing reputation, for girls and apparently for boys too), and basically all sorts of parent-selected and approved activities.

I have a couple problems with these activities: one, if a parent is going to put together a decent schedule where the kid gets enough interaction with other kids, it’s a monumental amount of work for the family, and two, the parents are present at these activities, never giving the kid a chance to experience social interactions without their parent looking over their shoulder.

Besides not giving them the opportunity to branch out, I’m also not impressed with the lessons that this teaches kids about the lives of their parents. Kids should feel loved and important to their parents, but the idea that the life of their homeschool parent (almost always their mom) is entirely dedicated to their needs, and the only conduit to any world outside themselves, is not something I’m comfortable with.

If you are thinking about homeschooling your kid, you have to think about how they are going to transition into independent adulthood. If your goal is to keep them in your religion and have them go to a college committed to traditional biblical principles, then fine, I guess homeschool will serve your goals.

But if you want your kid to leave the nest, and go to a public college, or, heck, Harvard, they will have to transition to regular school at some point. That transition is hard, and the sooner they make it, the easier.

Most people who are choosing to homeschool are choosing from a place of privilege, where they can afford to skip working and leave free (tax-supported) services on the table. If that’s you, put some of the energy you’d have to put into homeschooling your kid into looking at other options.

If your local public school is terrible, or if your kid is being bullied, get a transfer to a different one, or look at charter schools and private schools, or even parochial schools. If your child has learning disabilities, anxiety, or depression, get your kid an approved Individual Education Plan.

A friend of mine's son suffers from ADHD and PTSD, and the public school system was able to place him in a school with small student teacher ratios, weekly counseling, and a supervised school bus, as required by his plan.

Some districts have alternative schools that combine self-paced online lessons with teacher supervision. You know your kids best. Maybe you want to hold them back from kindergarten for a year to let them mature. Maybe you want to enjoy spending time with them while they are still cute and still think you are the greatest. (If that’s how you feel I would suggest getting a dog.)

Maybe you want the oldest to homeschool until they are all old enough to go to school together. It’s dicey. Your kid can probably take a couple years of homeschool, but if they don’t make it to a regular middle school, you are closing a lot of doors for them.

My sister and I were lucky that we only spent a few years in homeschool. They were pretty interesting years. I’ve been to countries that most people can’t pronounce, met people from even more countries, communed with nature, developed my sense of wonder and wanderlust.

We’re still closer than a lot of families I know, even living in different far-flung cities. The only way that homeschool affected those things, however, was by enabling my sister and I to maintain our academics with minimal effort, freeing us up to experience the adventures my parents wanted us to have.

On our return to the States, our parents managed to transition us into private prep schools. The public school system would have accepted our grade placements since we had accredited homeschool programs, but frankly, I had a lot of catching up to do at the high school level because of the limitations of the homeschooling, and course selection rules at the public schools would have limited the level and number of courses I could take.

And after several years outside of the social development track, the sheltered environment of private school helped. We were skilled at interacting with adults, but kids our own age, not so much.

Even though I was entering my junior year of high school, I was in a lot of ways still a tween. I didn’t know how to act around a crush; I didn’t know what kind of stuff kids my age were supposed to do for fun; I didn’t have a personal style.

My practical skills were off, too. I could reef a jib but I didn’t know how to take public transportation. It took me years to catch up; I didn’t stop feeling socially behind until the middle of college.

In the end, it all worked out. We both went on to get undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields from universities ranked in the top 10 in the US News and World Report rankings.

In my freshman college class, a class of over a thousand, there was only one other kid who had homeschooled for high school. They placed us in the same orientation group, since we’d have something to talk about. Nice guy, grew up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, too far away from anything for him to go to school.

Though he had worked hard on the ranch with his family, homeschool had not prepared him well for college; he became one of the under 5 percent of our class that dropped out of the university.

I am sure there are exceptions to the rule; kids who have passion projects that take too much for them to be in regular school; kids with serious illnesses; kids who live in wild parts of the world. But odds are your kid isn’t one of them. If you want your kids to have every opportunity in the world and the skills to act on them, homeschooling is not the way to go.