When my mother died suddenly in late 2015, my world turned on its head. It wasn’t just losing my friend, confidant, and traveling partner, but having to deal with all the STUFF that comes with death. As a single mother raised by a single mother, all the work fell on my shoulders and mine alone. By the time I had taken care of the immediate tasks — tending to the body, cremations, wills and bills, and then her house (a hippie handmade Earthship that I spent months transforming from a liability into something that could be sold) — I was demolished and still working full time in a toxic office environment. Nevermind that I still hadn’t had time to mourn …
In the months that followed, a friend sat with me and asked about my son. My son had grown quite close to my mother during his 10 years, and I imagined his loss was equally immense. But when my friend asked how he was handling her death, I had no answer. The truth is, I was so overworked and exhausted that I simply had no idea how he was doing. I mean, no real idea, like the “take the time to really connect with your child” kind of idea. I hadn’t had the time. I hadn’t made the time. At that moment, I knew things were about to change radically.
Within two months, I had made a decision to quit my job, rent out my house, and take my son traveling so we could reconnect and so I could finally begin to heal. Within a year of my mother’s death, we were flying to Mexico, the first stop on what was to be a year-long adventure that also took us to Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. A dear friend who was reluctant to travel alone joined us, and we were three.
One year to the day from my mom’s funeral, we were in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, celebrating the Day of the Dead. This tradition that falls near Halloween honors all family members who have passed, but who, in the Mexican tradition, are still among us and need to be honored and celebrated. Together, my son and I shopped for items that reminded us of my mother: some dreaded cigarettes, a bottle of Coca-Cola, some milk chocolate, and a live recording of Eric Clapton. We built a shrine to celebrate her life and then we joined hundreds of Mexican families in the streets and cemeteries doing the same thing. The healing had begun.
At the outset, I hadn’t thought about how to educate my son during our travels. He hated his public school at the time, one that spent more time on standardized testing than on anything one could call teaching, so I figured there was no loss, however we chose to move forward with education.
We started with a more structured curriculum that I called homeschooling, devoting morning hours to English composition and math skills. I should say, that was the intent. Instead, we fought nonstop, usually until one or both of us was in tears. He resisted, and I yelled. “I traded disconnect for outright conflict?,” I thought to myself.
Obviously, homeschooling was not for us. I did some more research and landed on the term “unschooling,” a word that I felt was needed to release and literally unlearn a framework of public education that measured my son by standardized testing alone while downplaying his skills. (I had been told by school staff that he shouldn’t be reading above his grade level because he might encounter mature content!)
Unschooling, I would learn, allows a child to follow his or her passion and to learn in the time and place that he or she chooses. I figured he would learn a language if we traveled enough, and that would suffice for his immediate learning.
We chose to begin our journey in San Miguel because my traveling friend was of retirement age and wanted to see if this could be her home. I didn’t know that the Spanish colonial town, known as a retiree haven, also included a large number of expat families. From connections I made in Facebook groups, we eventually spent afternoons sharing playdates with other traveling families; here, I learned of a world of travelers and any number of ways they were educating their children. During one park visit, while our children climbed and ran, becoming fast friends when just an hour prior, they were complete strangers, I learned the term worldschooler (schooling through traveling the world). This resonated with me; this is what we were doing.
I also came to know that the most challenging aspect of this approach to education was not finding sufficient learning opportunities — they were everywhere if one simply looked — but creating opportunities for my son to have a social life. Yet, I found that through Facebook groups around the world — for traveling single mothers, unschoolers, worldschoolers, and others following an unconventional path — many families were searching for similar social opportunities. We were everywhere.
We left Mexico with some broad learning categories in mind, and lessons became more practical and integrated into our day: currency exchange, language usage, and trip research and planning were all valuable lessons as we moved south through Mexico and then to Ecuador. We explored Mesoamerican pyramids in Mexico, traveled deep into the Amazon jungle, and saw environmental protection in action in the Galapagos Islands.
In Peru, we learned of ancient Incan cultures as we visited Sacsayhuamán, where my son used an early stone slide, and we trekked to Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel set high in the Andes Mountains. Along the way, we experienced the amazing and unexpected: I had a surprise role as the photographer in a home birth attended by a talented midwife, even handling the iPhone and flashlight for a 2 a.m. episiotomy! My son chose not to be in the room during the delivery but helped supervise the heating of water on the stove when the bathtub refused to fill. To call this experience valuable, even magical, says nothing.
In Colombia, we spoke of the African slave trade, the reality of a drug war, and the irony of the new peace creating a rush on rainforest and jungle land. I finally felt we were hitting our stride. But it was time to head back to the U.S.
I had promised my son a return home that summer and was honorbound to keep it, but I could tell on our flight back to New Mexico that neither of us was ready to stop traveling. We had chosen the voyage to heal and reconnect and to learn about the world and expand our cultural knowledge. I had also chosen it because it was more affordable to travel full time than to live in our home in the U.S. Our trip may have ended, but our motivations had not.
So by summer’s end, I gave my son the option to either return to Mexico or to restart school in the United States. I needed him to be a full participant in any decision we made, or I feared he could become wed to resistance for resistance’s sake. Luckily for us both, he quickly decided that we should return to Mexico, where he had made a number of close friends.
But this time, I tried yet another approach to schooling. While worldschooling was our primary educational structure, I also enrolled him in an international school in San Miguel so he could have social interaction and the structure he craved. We used this as a base from which to explore other countries and cultures.
We attended worldschooling conferences and joined the growing number of worldschooling online groups and meetups. Last year, we participated in our first organized worldschooling trip to Indonesia, which proved one of our most enjoyable experiences to date. All the while, we built a stable base in Mexico from which my son could explore.
This year, three years after leaving “home,” we’ll return to the U.S. to prepare our house for sale as we set our sights on more permanent worldschooling adventures. Regardless of where we end up in the coming years, I constantly remind myself that nothing is permanent and that the travel we’ve already had the good fortune to endeavor has made us flexible and resilient, open-minded, and more easily able to navigate life’s challenges. My son has matured and become more culturally sensitive, he has made friends around the world, and he is not intimidated by foreign languages or locales. For lack of a better term, he is becoming a true global citizen. Wherever we land, we will continue to use the world as our curriculum planner, forever learning from the rich offerings each state and country provides, from the natural wonders of American public lands to international historical sites that form the underpinnings of our intellectual and cultural life. We’re worldschoolers now, and that’s how we roll.
Do you have questions about Worldschooling or just traveling with your children? If so, please leave me a comment. Let me know about your fears and your questions. Let me share resources with you and take out the mystery. We WILL be able to travel again, promise! 😉
(This was also published in Everywhere Magazine)