I often joke that I am the poster child for the “unsocialized homeschooler.” In 1989, my parents moved to the country of Papua New Guinea to be missionaries in a tribal village on the island of New Britain. I was in eighth grade, and I graduated just before we returned to Canada in 1994.
People coming to Papua New Guinea for the first time usually experience “culture shock.” It’s a small country, but rugged, and over 800 languages are spoken by the tribal people who live in grass huts on the coasts, in deep valleys and on mountain ridges that are often only accessible on foot or by helicopter. The people are incredibly friendly, but their lifestyle is dramatically different from western culture. In our village, they tended gardens of sweet potato and taro root, and fished with hooks and spears in the ocean that lapped just a hundred feet from our doorstep. How I loved waking at night to see shadows cross my walls as a lone fisherman drifted with his lantern in an outrigger canoe!
Getting an education in a tribal village is very different from that experienced by today’s North American homeschoolers. There were no support groups, no dual credit college courses, no extra-curricular sports and arts programs, no internet research (even today internet service in much of Papua New Guinea is extremely unreliable). My brother, sister and I completed the required number of pages each day, graded our own work and took bi-weekly tests on the material. We usually started our school year in August and finished in May, and completed our day’s assignments by noon, a basic course load of math, social studies, science, language arts & grammar, and spelling. I took French for two years, and learned more pronunciation than vocabulary.
I missed most my rosy ideal of what a “normal” student’s social life would be. In the tribe, I had only my sister’s friendship and letters from friends in Canada for company. I spent so much time writing letters to my friends! The culture and language barrier meant I had only the most shallow friendships with teenage girls in the village, who were usually concerned with adult issues, caring for siblings or their own babies. My dreams of boyfriends were hazy imaginings, while as one of the few white girls in the area (my sister being the other one) my every action felt exaggerated and I didn’t even dare look a village boy or man in the eye for fear of it being misinterpreted as sexual interest. I used to worry that when I did return to North America, I wouldn’t be able to look at or talk to boys because I had needed such great reserve in New Guinea.
Seventeen years later, I am in my fourth year of home educating my own three children, and I hope that they too will graduate from home, as I did. Despite the lack of support, my limited social experience, and “missing out” on extra-curricular classes and clubs, I would not exchange my high school homeschool experience for anything else. The freedom I was given in homeschooling gave me opportunities to explore my own interests and ideas and it was so fun! From my earliest childhood, I loved creating art, and in the tribe, I may not have been able to take art classes but I explored so many creative ideas – drawing, painting, learning calligraphy, making puppets, writing music and stories that I then illustrated. We pored over our twenty-year-old World Books and wore out the pages of our set of Childcraft encyclopedias. We bought fish, massive tuna from local fishermen, and packaged and sold them to missionaries in more land-locked villages, using our profits to buy bicycles so we could ride daily to swim in the ocean or our favourite fresh-water spring. We learned to swim proficiently and explored the coral reef with snorkels, or on foot when the tide went out. We visited World War II wrecks and listened to village legends about the Japanese occupation. We marched through enormous bat caves and hiked into remote villages to visit friends or attend a tribal church service. I listened as my father told a village, in their own language, the gospel for the first time, and learned that even though I would have chosen a more traditional teenage circumstance for my own life, I was right where God wanted me to be, and I could trust Him through it.
In his book, Lies Homeschooling Moms Believe, Todd Wilson says that your child will be who they are meant to be. I don’t know if my parents lost sleep over their decision to educate their children in such a remote location and the opportunities we might miss in the process, but I hear and see daily the concern from parents that in homeschooling, their children might miss out on something vital that they need in order to succeed in life. Often this holds parents back from home educating their children, or gives them a sense of self-doubt as they make choices for their children. How encouraged I am to trust that it’s not all up to me! God can take our circumstances, whatever they are and wherever they are, and enable us to not just survive, but to thrive.