How Frank Zappa educated my children

My Mom was a teacher. Her daddy before her was a caddy master at a golf course and her mom sold cosmetics. My Dad worked on Wall Street and his parents weren’t teachers either. R’s father is of Mormon heritage and her maternal grandfather had three wives simultaneously. There’s a lot of mystery, intrigue, aunts, uncles, and cousins on her side of the family. None of them are teachers. We come from a long line of non-teachers and Coconut and J were quick to call our bluff. “You’re not my teacher”, they said when we tried to teach them the things we told the Alexandria City Public School system that we would teach them in this year of homeschooling so that they could be placed into an age appropriate grade whenever we get back to that version of reality. Though, looking on the bright side of failure, J may be able to drive himself to middle school, which would save R and me some time in the mornings.

We’re both pretty smart people though, R and I. We’ve been around the block a few times - R a few more times than me given her advanced age. Since both our kids were reading above grade level and were selected for advanced placement math when we took them out of school for this trip, I proposed we could surrender on the education front and when we re-enrolled Coconut and J in public school the other kids in their age group would hopefully have caught up. While that would be a nice, easy solution to eliminate the daily stress R and I experience trying to get Coconut and J to do a math lesson or write in their journal instead of watch 6 consecutive episodes of The Amazing Spiderman cartoon before 9 a.m., R convinced me that it was an abdication of parental responsibilities. That’s why we’ve agreed to rely on others to educate our children.

Coconut and J learned from the Frank Zappa song “Why Does it Hurt when I Pee?” about sexually transmitted diseases and we’ve now enrolled them in a project-based learning school in San Felipe del Agua, just north of Oaxaca City, where over the next month, they will have social interaction with children their own age, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and decide whether or not they like the color yellow.

Coconut and J walking to their first day of Mexican school in uniform - yellow shirts and long pants. There was not too much protest so we think they were both somewhat excited about it.

All it took to enroll them for the month was some money and they started that day - no transcripts, placement tests, health records, or questions about allergies. Mexico is so simple! And to put a grand finale on their first week of school, they got to walk around town in a parade led by a professional brass band in celebration of the Day of the Dead. R and I could not have topped that in our version of school.

Everything that we read before leaving on our trip (when I say “we read”, I mean that R read the articles and forwarded them to me where they piled up in my inbox) about road-schooling - a version of homeschooling performed in the back seat of some type of wheeled vehicle - condemns the rote structure of the traditional classroom learning experience where children are told how, where, and when to learn certain subjects, and are held back by their peers who learn at a much slower pace (i.e., they’re borderline dumb), and trumpets the virtue of taking the child out of the classroom and letting his or her natural inquisitiveness with regards to a particular thing dictate the learning process - even if that interest is imagining the offspring of two extinct species of fish.

We read about road-schooled children - world-schooling is another kitschy name that people use to try to get you to read their blog where they sell space to companies trying to capitalize on the growing world-school market - who willingly do science or creative projects, “collect” photos of historical buildings or fancy churches they’ve seen, and go on hikes or bike rides through nature that doesn’t exist in a Minecraft world. My kids don’t do anything willingly, but I shuddered to think what level of greatness I could have reached if only I had been released from the drudgery of classroom learning and left on my own to pursue my real passion - idealizing Old West gunfighters. Alas, it was college and law school for me, and a stack of Weird Western Tales comic books.

Sometimes, road-school works out really well, like when Coconut helps out her brother with a tough math problem.

Now, us road-schoolers, (I use that term loosely as it regards myself) recognize the value of knowing addition, subtraction, and using the proper verb tense when speaking, and we have the same hopes for our children that our parents had for us - love, health, happiness, and beer money. The difference is we are more in tune with the research, numbers, and hypotheses that tell us the right way to achieve those things.

To be brutally honest - which I am sometimes too much so, to the point of being offensive - I don’t think the decision we road-schoolers make to pull our children out of the traditional American education system for a lesson in comparative analysis of traffic signs is completely borne of wanting what is best for our children. Some of it must be motivated by self-interest - we’ve been sitting behind a desk for the last pick a number of years while the days of our lives tick by without us being fully engaged. It’s depressing to think that meeting a deadline is all life has to offer for those of us who have always daydreamed about some kind of nomadic existence. As a kid, I used to watch the medians between highways on car trips thinking about whether it would be a good campsite, by criminies! I’ve spent too much of my adult life where the highlight of my year was receiving the revised edition of the Internal Revenue Code. Enough!

Nevertheless, despite this trip being perhaps R’s and my idea of a good time more so than Coconut and J’s, R and I have spent a good deal of time discussing whether what we are doing is in the best interests of the kids. Yeah, we had those conversations before we left on the trip too, but we got caught up in the articles we read about how an iPad is a tool for learning and not just for playing Asphalt 8 (not in this family!) and how much fun it is to learn math by converting foreign currency into dollars and kilometers into miles (combined, these “lessons” took about two minutes before the kids got it.)

We didn’t put the pieces together and figure out if the style of self-motivated learning was a fit for our children. Maybe we didn’t know our children that well (we thought they had interests!), or maybe it’s too soon to say whether the model is a success or failure for us, but so far, the picture that we are drawing of road-schooling looks like something a preschooler would do - there’s a lot of coloring outside the lines. It could be us too. Maybe we are too caught up in "book-learning" and our expectations of what road-school is supposed to be were something different than how things have turned out so far.  Because, looking back over our three months, we've done some pretty cool things that we may not have had time, opportunity, or money to do back home, and from which they might have learned something.

Here, Coconut learns about physics and locomotion by driving a quad on the streets of San Miguel de Allende. Is this happening in the streets of Alexandria? Not without a traffic ticket!

J loved spearfishing along Manzanillo Beach in hurricane like conditions - a hurricane warning had been issued for further up the coast and the swells at this Puerto beach were larger than usual.

So, road-school, we haven't given up on it. But after three plus months on the road, we wanted to stop and reintroduce the kids to something more familiar to them - classroom learning with their peers. R and I also needed to catch up on our afternoon naps.

Before we left on this trip, someone asked me what I hoped to gain from it. I answered, perspective. R and I want the kids to understand that what they see and hear and know in Alexandria, or in the U.S., is not the only thing that they can see and hear and know, and that different things are important to people in different ways and for different reasons. Basically, we want them to try and live by accepting things for what they are, and to be who they are. As Frank Zappa sings, “Who cares if you’re so poor you can’t afford to buy a pair of mod a go-go stretch-elastic pants. There will come a time when you can even take your clothes off when you dance.” In other words, differences don’t mean one way is right and one way is wrong, unless you are planning to vote for Donald Trump for president. That’s just wrong.

So, perspective on the world is one lesson we want them to learn, and perhaps just exposure will enable them to think this way. Being in a school with kids in Oaxaca, Mexico, will give them perspective. The other lessons we want them to learn are those that will get them a high school diploma.

Road-schoolers do not test because it is a false measure of intelligence and categorizes kids as either smart or dumb, which could damage their confidence and discourage them from thinking of learning as a joy, so it is hard to gauge what Coconut or J have absorbed substantively from our three months on the road. We didn’t think Coconut was paying any attention at all when we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. museum or the other sites we visited during our Civil Rights tour through Atlanta, Alabama, Mississippi, and Memphis, but then one day weeks later she compared teacher strikes going on in Mexico for equal pay and working conditions to the U.S. civil rights movement. Cool!

There's always something going on in the Zocalo in Oaxaca - like teacher protests and women dancing with baskets balanced on their heads!

There was a lot of U.S. and Mexican history printed onto the walls at the Alamo which Coconut and J were too bored and hot to read, but J took an interest in James Bowie and his knife, and when we googled those things later, we learned that Bowie wasn’t quite the hero we thought he was going to be, though he did get stabbed and shot about twenty times at the Sandbar Fight without dying so whatever else he was, we know he was pretty damn tough. We also learned that a Bowie knife is sharp on both sides of the blade, among other features. Padrissimo!

In Dolores de Hidalgo, we learned that Mexico has a history and good ice cream.

We saw in Dolores de Hidalgo that Mexico has its own story of revolution for liberty from foreign oppressors, and Coconut noticed that the heroes and villains in that history have streets in every major city and minor village named after them, and we learned at the archaeological sites of Monte Alban and Yagul that there was a rich cultural and spiritual (and violent!) pre-hispanic society in Mexico to rival any in the world at the time. We also learned a heck of a lot about sea turtles. Chido!

What we saw and learned about sea turtles at Playa Escobilla was unforgettable.

We may not be marine biologists, but we've spent a lot of time in the water.

Maybe in twenty or thirty years Coconut and J will remember some details about these things, or maybe they’ll just have an inkling of the concept, or have forgotten everything. Who knows? Sometimes they don’t appear to be enjoying what we are doing - we know this because we can read their cues, usually preceded by something along the lines of “when are we leaving?” - and R and I think we are failing them. But then everyone that we’ve talked to whose parents did this to them in their youth, before road-schooling was a term of art, look back on the time fondly now that they are adults, so we are hoping that whatever anguish Coconut and J are feeling now will be recalled positively. As evidence this is possible, J said this week that he remembered his preschool days as a fun time, which was good because what R and I were afraid he would remember was that he cried every day at drop off for his entire three-year preschool career. Anyway, I told them the two most important things for them to do this month are 1) stay alive, and 2) learn to speak Spanish. They both laughed, so at least I know they were listening.