Family is the Foundation

Originally published in Home Education Magazine

 January-February 2014

Have you ever thought about picking up and moving somewhere far away? Do you read articles about people who homeschool their way around the world in a sailboat and think, wow, I would love to do that? I am one of those people.

 

Almost since we got married, I have suggested to, nagged, teased my husband about getting a job in France. Wouldn’t it be great to live in Paris? Tasty baguettes! Cafe au lait on every corner! Red wine! History! Not to mention my ultimate parenting goal – raising bilingual children! That my husband did not share my love of France, nor have much in the way of French language skills, did not deter me. That my husband had a wonderful employer right here, and a job he liked, I dismissed. “When we move to Paris . . .” became something of a running joke in our house.


In the meantime, living not 100 miles from where we had grown up, we had four kids. And also in the meantime, we realized that public school was not the right road for us. When our oldest was about 11, we took the plunge and began homeschooling. And the longer we homeschooled, the more I thought about moving overseas. Now that we homeschool, I thought (knowing nothing of the viability of doing so in Europe), we are perfect candidates for living in France! Imagine the educational bonanza that living in a foreign country would provide! But my husband’s desire to live there remained lukewarm at best. But something about my incessant talk of moving must have sunk in, because one day he sat me down and said that although he never saw us moving to France, his employer did have another office to which they might consider moving him – Arizona.


I’d never been to Arizona, although my husband had as a teen and had fallen in love with it. He was the one who read cowboy books and loved westerns; he even owns a framed Clint Eastwood poster, which matches his, ahem, Clint Eastwood switch plate. But frankly, a desert landscape populated with snakes, a climate that routinely includes three digit numbers and more irrigated golf courses than anywhere else in the world – none of this particularly appealed to me.


“Arizona?  Don’t you have offices anywhere else?” I asked, still hoping for a heretofore undisclosed Paris office. “Well, yes,” he began, “but I couldn’t work in any of them. I can do my job here, in Pennsylvania. Or Arizona. Those are the options.”


As you know, Arizona is not a foreign country. English is the dominant language. And as far as cuisine goes, it isn’t known for either baguettes or coffee. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it still might be that educational bonanza. Americans have a responsibility to know the rest of the world, but don’t we also have a higher responsibility to know our own country, too? We could live amongst fellow Americans, but their outlook might be very different from our East Coast mentality. It would be a terrific launching point for touring the western states, none of which my kids nor I had ever seen. If Paris wasn’t in the cards, at least we could still go somewhere different. And, realistically, didn’t it make sense to make a cross country move, kind of as a warm-up, before we tackled moving to another country? I agreed we should go.


In a remarkably short amount of time, we found ourselves leaving suburban Philadelphia and living in Scottsdale, Arizona. And it was the educational bonanza I had hoped for, although, of course, not exactly or only in the ways I had anticipated. I’d expected to be living in a more diverse, more Hispanic-influenced area, but we wound up living in a neighborhood that was more homogenous than where we’d been. I’d envisioned endless weekend trips to places like Yellowstone, San Francisco, and Mt. Rushmore, not understanding that the west is absolutely enormous. You can barely get out of Arizona in a reasonable weekend trip (especially) with kids, unlike the northeast, where you can readily drive through half a dozen states in a day. Not to mention the fact that – surprise! – hotels, restaurants, and attractions still cost money, just like back home, and it wasn’t economically feasible to be traveling every weekend.


Something else I’d anticipated was a lack of acceptance because we were “outsiders,” but I am happy to report that the complete opposite was the case. Scottsdale is populated almost exclusively by people who aren’t from there. Everyone is a transplant. Everyone who lives there has left friends and family behind in far away northern and eastern cities. And when you don’t have actual family nearby, you make family out of your new friends. I was astounded by the warmth of the welcome we received. Even though many people did have radically different political and religious views, they were nonetheless friendly and neighborly.


There were a few other surprises. Our family became avid hikers, which was something new for us. We got sick of the sun shining every single day and rain became cause for much excitement and celebration. We hunted scorpions in our backyard (because I was terrified by having repeatedly found them strolling around inside my house). More importantly, my kids discovered that yes, they could – and did – make new friends. They hadn’t exactly been excited to make the move, to be ripped away from a close-knit band of buddies. Like all kids, schooled or otherwise, they were very worried they would never again find friends as wonderful as they ones they were leaving behind. But you know what? They did.


I also took several steps in my personal homeschooling journey. I came to homeschooling because I was unhappy with traditional schooling. But I went to prep school when I was a kid and I started out trying to give my kids a classical education – the school-at-home approach. (I say trying because there were never enough hours in the day for me to actually achieve this, especially when there was so much fun to be had with everyone at home all the time.)  

 

In Arizona, I spent a lot of time with a lot of people who described themselves as unschoolers. And although they didn’t completely convert me to their way of thinking, I did gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for that approach to homeschooling. I still use texts and workbooks, but I am much more comfortable waking up and deciding that we need an unschooling day, or series of days, to refresh our outlook on life. I don’t think I would have gained this respect for unschooling had I not met so many families that were shining examples of its success.


By far the most noteworthy and surprising thing we all learned was that it didn’t matter where we were living – home was wherever the six of us were. We might miss grandparents and old friends, we might not enjoy stepping on cactus burrs or worrying about snakes in the driveway, we might wish to be “home” for Christmas. But we were all in the adventure together and we saw how much we could rely upon each other. I don’t think our move to Arizona strengthened our bonds as a family unit so much as it shined a light upon them and made us see how happy we were as a family, no matter where we were. We could live in PA or AZ or the Sahara and we’d still have the love for and confidence in ourselves to keep us not only functioning but genuinely happy.


Every choice in life is part of your voyage. Had we not chosen to homeschool, I can’t imagine we would have chosen to try living in Arizona. And had we not lived in Arizona, my kids wouldn’t have seen how yes, they can make new friends wherever they are; homeschooling can come in a variety of guises; and wow, our family is the mighty foundation for everything else we do. These are lessons that might actually be more important than being bilingual. But I’m still working on that!