School Daze

Cruising and homeschooling go hand in hand, at least most of the time. "Off Watch" from our April 2010 issue

school daze 368

Wendy Mitman Clarke

Our son, Kaeo, leaped out of bed this morning, wolfed down a bowl of Cheerios, and jumped on the bus-our dinghy-so he could get to school a few minutes early. For this aberrant pre-teen behavior-waking up before noon, brushing his teeth without being asked, and racing to school ahead of time-my husband, Johnny, and I had a fellow sailor to thank. Jim Austin of the catamaran Salty Paws, a professional photographer, had offered to take Kaeo on a wildlife-photography hike on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Lessons on this day would involve wild ponies, armadillos, and egrets, apertures, shutter speeds, and backlight levels. For Kaeo, whose ambition is to become a wildlife cameraman, school today was a dream come true.

It also beat the pants off diagramming compound-complex sentences, which was on today's lesson plan. As a successful professional writer for 25 years, I've never once had to diagram a compound-complex sentence, which makes me question the usefulness of such an arcane skill. But Calvert School says he simply must know, and who am I to question 100-some years of educational chops?

It's no coincidence that when cruisers with kids get together, the first words after hello usually are "How's school?" Responses vary wildly. In our first four months of home-schooling, which coincided with our first four months of fulltime cruising, our answer was often something like "Help!" School was far more time consuming and emotionally laden than we'd ever imagined. We chose the long-established Calvert School based on other cruisers' recommendations as well as on the safety net of its highly structured curriculum. We aren't teachers in any professional sense, and as Dirty Harry would say, "A man's got to know his limitations."

However, the structure proved to be a double-edged sword. Everything we were supposed to accomplish with 12-year-old Kaeo and Kailani, our 9-year-old daughter, was clearly laid out in daily lesson plans. And that was just the problem. We were pushing through four- and five-hour school days to meet the curriculum's testing requirements, but we were feeling like we were missing the whole reason for being out here. And as new as the kids were to the rigors of intense, one-on-one schooling, so were we. Sometimes I heard a tone in my voice that reminded me way too much of my mother trying (in vain, as it turned out) to teach me to play the piano. I would look into my son's face and know that he was feeling exactly as I had all those years ago: frustrated and hating it. More than once we had to get off the boat to give us all time to cool off. More than once I envied the freedom of our cruising-couple friends whose kids were well past school age.

We weren't alone, though. Based on our talks with cruising families, it seemed that like everything else having to do with fulltime sailing, the first year of school proved the hardest, the learning curve the steepest. Some chose far less rigid programs or ditched classes entirely for months. I heard stories of some who gave up cruising when they'd barely started, grounded by the difficulties of school. I was grateful for the counsel of a complete stranger I met one day in the Bahamas, a German woman with two gorgeous kids studying peacefully beside her while she worked on her laptop. "Don't worry," she said, smiling, when I spilled out my fears of failure at this most critical thing, the education of my children. "You're already doing fine."

And I think she's right. Our daughter flew through third grade so handily that she's skipped fourth and jumped to fifth. Our son finished sixth with the equivalent of straight A's. And we, as their teachers, have learned that knowing how to diagram compound-complex sentences is only as useful as the education offered out here in a bigger world, where we learn to question, to take risks, to frame the perfect image of a wild pony walking against a golden morning sun.

Osprey and her floating classroom continue southward while providing opportunities for real-time geography lessons.