It's been ten days since we left Gili Air, an island off Lombok, Indonesia with the shape of an inverted heart. Dave, Alex and I spent three weeks there lazing around at the beach, swimming in the pool, eating ice cream, watching the daily 6 pm movie at the Beach Club and socialising a bit.
The reason why we went on this 'holiday' was to meet other homeschooling and unschooling families. It was not really a holiday then, because I kept working on my writing every day and at every chance I got. And the children kept playing and interacting with the world like they do when we're in Dunsborough or elsewhere on the planet. It was through Facebook that I got the invitation to join the group, and even though I didn't know any of the others, I jumped at the opportunity to meet people with a similar philosophy and way of life to ours.
Although it is a small island, we didn't bump into any of the other families straightaway. The first few days we kept to ourselves, and I was glad we had that time alone to settle in. To my surprise, I realised I was a bit apprehensive about meeting the others, most of them radical unschoolers, like I consider us to be, although I hate labels and actually prefer to think of ourselves as autodidacts.
I was really curious about the children, all of them older than Dave and Alex. What would they be like? A friend asked me that same question in an email. 'They seem pretty normal,' I replied. As the days went by I discovered they were literate, math savvy, happy and sociable like most kids, and the relationship they had with their parents was not at all different from the one all children and parents have when they are on holidays. The main difference is that for these kids work and play go together and it's all fun, and there is never the need to say, 'You must do your homework now' or 'Time for bed. There's school tomorrow'.
There was only one kid who puzzled me at first, the one both his mum and I had hoped would be friends with Dave and Alex, because he was the same age. If I hadn't known he was unschooled I would have sworn he was in fact schooled and tagged by teachers or school psychologists as a problem child. It was not until a few days later that I found out he had in fact been at preschool and had hated it from the first day to the last. He was one of those rebellious children you come across sometimes, so highly misunderstood and disliked by adults who try to discipline and control them, and fail. His mum said he's always been aggressive, or at least since he was one. I soon saw he was very sensitive and felt attacked and laughed at when Dave and Alex teased him like they do each other. I tried to explain this to my kids and asked them not to tease him. I also tried to tell this boy that the other kids were just playing. But they just didn't click. They fought most of the time and became rivals over another boy's loyalty.
But I had no worries about the children, really. They are so transparent and sincere, really easy to get to if you know how to listen. It was of the adults that I was wary. How weird would they be? As it turned out, we ended up being only women, most single mothers with interesting and some disturbing personal stories of child neglect and marital abuse. At least one of them had a male partner, but knowing that it would be mostly women on the island, he preferred to stay in Australia. I hadn't known this and was actually looking forward to meeting some fathers. I have a strong suspicion that all this natural learning is mainly the work of women.
At first I couldn't understand why I was feeling nervous about meeting people with similar ideas to mine. After seven years of rearing my children in a truly loving and trusting way and being confronted by people who misinterpret this approach as permissive, I should have been exultant at the prospect of not being judged. After some introspection, I knew what was nagging me: I'm not used to being around people who are or think like me. Some of my best friends are still mums who raise their children in a very different way. I don't agree with it, and they don't agree with mine, but I cherish their friendship for who they are, not for how they parent. I only shy away from people who openly put me down for what I do. It is possible to live in harmony with different people. Acceptance is the key and I love Difference. I don't know how it happens that I click with some people and with others I don't, even if they're more similar to me, but that's the way it is.
Funny enough, the first person I met on the island was not an unschooler. She was there with her two younger children because her daughter was friends with one of the unschooled kids and had begged her to come along on this holiday. 'My kids go to school. I'm the freak,' she said when I asked her how she managed to work out of the house. I liked her instantly. She made me laugh, but I said, 'No, no, we are the freaks. You are normal.' Later she said, 'My social skills are terrible. I'm better at making friends with the locals than the other mums.' That's when I loved her. On successive days we kept congratulating ourselves for being anti-social and staying out of trouble. I didn't connect with all the other mums either. I did like them, but when the very first week I heard two or more of the mums fell out over the children's squabbles, I lost a bit of faith and interest in becoming part of a community where we had all hoped to live in peace and harmony.
I connected with another mum, the one who had the 'problem' child. She is relatively new to the world of unschooling, but has embraced it with a lot more enthusiasm than I have. (I insist on being an autodidact, since my kids never went to school, so there's no school to undo.) What I loved about her was that there was no judgement passed between us. Our children, all three of them strong willed, were constantly clashing. Yet, we managed to keep calm because we both knew we were on the same wavelength. I had never before felt such at ease with another parent when our children were hitting and calling each other names. I listened to her talk about how she's learnt to brush off all negativity coming from others in form of criticism, disapproval and judgement for the sake of authenticity to her child. As for the child, I was happy and relieved in my certainty that despite some damage that has been done to him, he will be saved, not by discipline, simply by the love, trust, patience and understanding of his mother.
All in all it was a great learning experience. On a personal level, I am glad to have found out that I'm not going to connect with all the hippy unschoolers of the world just because I might be one too, in the same way that I don't connect with all Spanish people living in Australia for the mere fact that we were born and raised in the same country. I'm also very happy to have made friends with people who are like me in some ways and I look forward to more meetings like this in the near future.