Almost all of our time in Spain and Portugal had taken place during the summer holidays, and so when school term rolled around again in September it really disrupted our carefully constructed lack of routine. Menna and I had to call an emergency meeting on the evening before term started to take stock and build a plan.
We had some resources (various maths and English books, stationary, old exam papers, downloaded versions of the curriculum), we had amazing grandparents, generous with time, ready and willing to support via video link. One of Menna’s many jobs is as a senior lecturer for a london medical school, so naturally she would be headmistress of our little school and do the bulk of the teaching, while I would work on various side projects and pop up occasionally with esoteric and unsuitable ideas.
We will make this so much more fun than real school, we exclaimed, bubbling with good intentions and red wine. On top of the normal curriculum, the kids could learn astronomy, languages, philosophy, sculpture, bushcraft! With a few hours of dedicated coaching each week, Arthur will totally ace the 11+ exam he is due to sit in November.
“We’ll call it SOMAD! The School of Mum and Dad…”
And on the first week it goes pretty well. We cover core subjects first thing while the brains are fresh, then we switch to project work. The novelty of the situation brings attention and enthusiasm from everyone. We cover fractions, refraction, prefixes and prepositions. We design a renewable energy strategy for our last campsite, Terra Sangha. The research and schematics are impressive, energy high, collaboration strong. The children present their ideas to a virtual audience that we have roped in on Friday evening. They are proud of their work.
Amazingly quickly the excitement wears off though. There’s a strange sullenness that creeps into the air on a Monday morning. A petulance in the voice. Slumped posture, fidgeting, window-staring. Tears might appear mid-lesson. Our gentle, well-modulated teacher voices falter and harden.
“I’m sure you never cry like this in real school!” We hiss.
“This isn’t real school.” comes back the sulky response. Emotions flare up rapidly and suddenly the air is heavy with barely-restrained shouts that might be unleashed at any point.
I realise that part of the issue here is the unease of redefining our relationships for those few hours on a weekday morning. From being easy-going parents we suddenly flip into being teachers. Where does this sudden new authority come from? How should the kids adapt their attitudes and responses? Our tolerance levels suddenly flick down into a much lower setting. We have unrealistically high expectations and we are instantly critical. We judge the kids on their ability to absorb what we are telling them; we judge ourselves on our ability to impart knowledge. All are found wanting. The kids probe us for weaknesses. It feels like this really matters, and that removes all levity from the proceedings. We become like two Victorian schoolmasters.
“No Matilda, I’ve told you this so many times. If you can’t take away from the tens, then you have to borrow from the hundreds column. Will you listen!… No, look. Now there needs to be one less in the hundreds. Cross it out and write it on top… No! Write it there… THERE! Now you have to add that to the number in the tens, Oh no – don’t just stick a one in front of it… I tell you what, just give it here. I’ll do it. Ah, that’s better. Now look how easy that was. I’m just going to do the next one too…”
“Arthur, if you spell ‘hopeful’ with two ‘L’s ONE more time, I swear I will make you write it out a hundred times! …LOOK! LOOK! You did it again! Right! That’s it my boy. …Well, yes, I know that says ‘meaningful’, but it’s still the same ending and you spelt it with two ‘L’s, just right after I told you! One hundred lines. ‘All words that end in ‘ful’ are spelled with only one L.’ – write it out.
Well, no, yeah, Ok, that’s the exception. Good point! But ‘full’ is a whole word, it’s not an ending… No! I am not writing it out 100 times. I know my spelling! Do NOT be cheeky with me!”
“Isosceles is the pointy one right? Hey, Menna, help me out. It’s the thin pointy one, isn’t it?“
Eventually after a few weeks we find our groove – well, a groove anyway. We chill out and stop caring so much. It’s only education after all. They’re bright kids, they’ll catch up. Arthur can do a B-tech in skateboard design, if such a thing exists. If Matilda doesn’t become a doctor, she has expressed a desire to be a baker, or run a leggings shop. Lesson plans start to become a little more fluid, that is to say they mainly get made up on the day.
Fast forward another month and somehow homeschool has morphed into the freewheeling non-curricular event-driven education that I had always dreamed of. We find a dead snake and bring it home to observe it decompose over the course of a week. Arthur embalms a dragonfly in a jar of hand sanitiser. We get a workshop in fluid dynamics by a local surfboard shaper. We see a live octopus while snorkelling and go on to study its lifecycle in depth using Netflix. To support Matilda’s project on teeth we extract the incisors from a dog skeleton we find washed up on the beach. We identify the zodiac constellations. We understand the atmospheric conditions that cause swell. One Grandpa does daily maths tuition, the other Grandpa does poetry workshops, the Grandmas read literature and host art sessions.
And for pretty much everything else, we have downloaded an app.