Not the most typical of thetrek.co topics, but for the 0.2% of thetrek.co readers who have similarly poor judgment and wish to backpack a long ways with school-age kids… Here’s how our family has chosen to hike with kids and not fall off the academic bandwagon… Trailschool! (And how we came to homeschooling in the first place.)
As Usual, it Starts in Africa
By virtue of living in rural Chad, Africa, we have essentially been forced to homeschool our kids. The local school functions in French and local languages. Beyond that, the school simply isn’t the quality I want for my kids. It’s a mud brick school with a tin roof, or a grass thatch hut if you’re in the overflow class. There’s no electricity or running water and you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with sixty kids in each class.
Queen Bee and I work at our hospital extremely long hours. We unsurprisingly found ourselves without the proper time and energy to be real rockstar homeschoolers. You know, the ones who select Singapore Math and Saxon Phonics and Khan Academy for science and this and that and the other thing after ‘doing my own research’ while sipping mochochocodoubleespressolattevegansoyalmondoatlactosefreeorganicfreerangenon-GMO beverage in front of their hobby-farm selling peaches to raise money for the homeless dogs in the neighborhood. It’s been a while since we lived in America, but I’m pretty sure this is how it works, according to my social media feed, targeting me as a 40-something white male physician father of five kids. Social media just hasn’t picked up on the fact I live in one of the world’s poorest countries, apparently.
Abeka, it is. Plug ‘n’ Play.
So Queen Bee and I chose the path of least homeschooling resistance. This proved to be Abeka, a traditional conservative Christian homeschooling curriculum. The kindergarten girls wear dresses or skirts for modesty, etc. (Meanwhile, my daughters do their lessons in their underwear, because it’s hot as blazes here on the edge of the Sahel desert. No air conditioning in this classroom!)
I describe Abeka as a very high-quality 1980’s curriculum, just dressed up to look modern. They rail against Common Core and the evil du jour that fits that portion of this generation of Americans. Whatever. It suits our purposes nicely, and my kids can crush math and reading and a few other things. So it would appear to be working well for us. The curriculum comes with textbooks, workbooks, quizzes, tests, teachers’ keys and instructional DVDs. So the kids pop in the DVD, watch class, do the work. Simple. So it seemed…
Mom, Come Baaaaaack!
My in-laws left Chad in 2018, at age 75, after serving for six years. My father-in-law was our surgeon and my mother-in-law ran our household. We anticipated his departure, and I spent many months as his understudy in the operating room. I learned the basics of hernias and hydroceles and orchiectomies and lipomas and the little stuff. All this little stuff adds up to 20-50% of our surgical volume in any given month. I figured that could take some of the workload from my dear wife. Queen Bee would otherwise be fulfilling her old role as gynecologist, but also her new role as surgeon.
What we anticipated less so was how much the absence of my mother-in-law would sting at home. You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. We discovered how much she meant to us. For one, my mother-in-law has probably changed more of my kids’ excrement than I have, and she potty-trained them all. She also happened to enjoy feeding us, which worked out swimmingly, because I have a baseline hiker hunger, even while sedentary.
Guess I’m Staying Home
We tried out several Chadians to watch our kids, but our little semi-feral free-range vermin of children ran roughshod over them all. We came home one evening to find our two-year-old with a second-degree burn on her hand. And nobody could tell us why, including the one charged with watching her. For safety and school (and cooking and cleaning, since our cook retired at the same time), we decided we could only remain in Chad if one of us stayed home. Since the hospital’s greatest need at that moment was surgical, and my wife can run circles around me with a scalpel (metaphorically, although probably literally as well, I just wouldn’t recommend it), we decided she would go to the hospital and I would stay home with the kids. (It also helped we had just welcomed a new family practice doc who was also highly-skilled at obstetrics.)
My first afternoon as a stay-at-home dad, I put the two-year-old down for a nap and went hunting for my other kids. Walking our several-acre residential compound of expats to no avail, I began checking doors. I found the back door of my in-law’s now-vacant house to be open, but no living creatures inside beside the well-sated mice and rats feasting on what had been recently left behind. Continuing to check doors, I finally found my kids in another recently-vacated house, back door unlocked, fridge door open, children on the floor before the refrigerator, shoving dulce de leche into their mouths with a spoon.
Dulce de Leche, Gateway to Juvenile Detention
Visions of truancy and juvie danced in my head. I issued a thorough scolding and sent children to their beds for the rest of the day, then realizing a sleeping baby was also in the room, the children were forced to sit on the living room floor in silence until the baby awakened, then reissued to their rooms until sunrise.
Bemoaning my utter failings as a father and anticipating many future trial hearings of heartbreak, I then heard a new story from my maintenance man and my guard. The two found my kids, some days prior, in the vacant house of my ex-administrator Naturally, my children were kindling a small fire on the cement living room floor. (Their pyromania would serve us well later with campfires, but this was less than ideal.) They had apparently broken into my in-laws’ house and stolen cans of imported food, including veggie hot dogs. Searching for a locale to sup on their booty, the miscreants then cut a hole in the mosquito screen of the administrator’s house, removed the glass panels, hoisted the four-year-old up through the window, then shimmied between the rebar anti-theft cage and the window. Once inside with the food, can opener, wood and matches, they proceeded to light a fire upon which they began roasting their barbecue feast. My guard discovered and interrupted them before they could sate their hunger.
Add arson to the list.
Things Smooth Out
We eventually found a rhythm as a family and I had one of my most fulfilling years as a father. Sure, I was still constantly called up to the hospital as the director for administrative issues. And Queen Bee was perpetually requesting my assistance treating patients, but the time I was able to stay home was incredibly rewarding. Equally frustrating to feel I could neither give my to the hospital duties, nor give my all to parental duties, but rewarding nonetheless. Memories of kneading dough every day while my children would sit beside me in the kitchen and stutter through reading assignments are some of my favorites.
I discovered how inefficient traditional school is. It certainly isn’t the fault of teachers. I can’t keep up with four kids. It boggles my mind we expect teachers to take on 20 students at a crack! But when you are able to focus one-on-one, the grade school years can be accomplished with remarkable speed, particularly the first four grades.
Where We’re At:
Our kids academic progress has been:
- We started Blaze in kindergarten at age 8, second grade at age 9, fourth grade at age 10. He will finish eighth grade at age 14, but he spent the last two years taking mostly high school classes.
- Similarly, Boomerang and Angel Wings went kindergarten, second, fourth grades.
- And The Beast skipped from kindergarten now to third grade, which she will complete with flying colors in five months from start to finish. She’s not even six and a half!
With all of our kids ahead of where they should be in school, we’ve had the confidence to hike our brains out. And the necessity to occupy children’s minds while hiking has meant a lot of verbal school on the trail. Trailschooling! 😉
We have spelling tests, math tests, social studies. At age six, The Beast could list all the planets in order and spell them. She could count backwards from 100 by sevens or any other number you threw at her.
The Real Education of Trailschool!
But it’s the non-traditional learning our kids get excited about, and we fall in love with, the heart of trailscholing. My kids identify morels and porcinis and collect where allowed. We carried books on botany and medicinal plants and edible plants on the Appalachian Trail. We stop and read about history and geology and archeology and everything else we can as we hike. It’s concrete and tangible. They’ve smelled, they’ve seen, they’ve touched, they’ve heard… it’s real and tangible, not some abstract notion in a book.
My children know how to plan for a week of hiking, what clothes they will want, how to calculate how many calories per gram a food provides, or calories per dollar (and can now appreciate peanut butter and olive oil), how many miles to the next campsite, what to do if that campsite is full, how many miles we have walked and what our pace was, how many hours we will need to hike tomorrow to complete the goal, taking into account stops, and on and one. That’s like the trailschool final exams!
While we recognize the ways in which our kids are missing out on a more traditional childhood, with violin classes and soccer practice and shooting drills and bullying and… well, I can’t say I regret the way they’ve been raised just yet.
Anybody else raising their kids atypically? Any (non-judgy or judgey) questions about our child-rearing? Anybody tried trail schooling? Leave a comment below!
And if you want to catch up meeting the kids, you can start with the littlest, although she’s not even in school yet, being one year old and all: https://thetrek.co/pacific-crest-trail/dead-weight/
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