Postcard 6: Seashell school




March suddenly got wintery-cold once more, so I thought it was the perfect excuse for another postcard from somewhere beachy and warm. Don't you agree? Besides, postcards always arrive after we've returned home anyway.

This is a story about seashells, but really it's a story about homeschooling. 

More accurately, it is a story about interest-led learning and what a powerful gift that can be for our children, if only we have the courage to allow it to unfold.


It is a story that I share now because I believe that for some of you it will hold a sliver of hope. Hope that you've chosen the right path for your family; hope that your wild and unconventional beliefs (like that passionate, life-long learning is not only normal and natural but also fun) aren't delusions after all. 

It is a story for those among you who, at the crossroads of school and home, chose to go off-trail with your child's education.

Because despite your enthusiasm for this unconventional path, there are worries that intersect your route. I know them well. Because it's all in your hands. Their education, their future, their everything. It all hinges on the choices you've made for them along the way.

And it hinges on the decision that you made to cast aside convention and safety and to cut your own trail.


If instead you had followed that well worn road – the one that begins with K-12 and leads straight into college and grad school beyond – the worries would be different. Because then if something went amiss, at least you were following the rules and there was a support network there to hold you.

But break all the rules and have something go wrong? That's a burden that you carry alone.

There is no system to hold accountable. Only you.

And some days – when it feels like you're stumbling blindly through the underbrush, cutting your own trail and hoping against hope that you got it right, the fear can be paralyzing.

Those days don't come often, but I'd wager we've all had them.

And so each day we scan the horizon, searching for a sign that maybe, just maybe, we're on the right path and that it really is leading where we had hoped. 


To those of you out there crashing and stumbling through the thickets, trying to find your way while secretly wondering if you've made a terrible mistake? 

This seashell story is for you. 

It's small and simple but (in my heart anyway) significant. I'm putting it right here, on the edge of your horizon.

Let it be a trail marker to remind you of the power of the path that you have chosen. 




Seashell School

Wherever we go our children make friends. Often with other children, but also with the adults they encounter in the world.

On the island last month Sage befriended a kitesurfer (from Wisconsin, of course) and a man with a sailboat who taught him a little about sailing, something he's wanted to learn for years. He showed up in our campsite one morning to offer our family a day trip on his boat. Lupine met and befriended other homeschoolers, a couple of dogs, and a handful of adults within hours of arrival. On a previous road trip she once befriended a little girl from Switzerland. Lupine ran back to the camper to tell me, "Mama! I made a new friend. She doesn't speak any English and I don't speak any of her language, but she's really nice!"

It's that easy for them.  

And so it happened that Lupine met a few of the volunteers on the island (mostly retired northerners) and approached one of them with some seashell questions. A day or two later she asked her a few more. The volunteers were eager to answer and help however they could. 

"You really should talk to Jan. She knows the most about shells and has an incredible collection!" Adrienne the volunteer told her.

Fast forward a day or two and Adrienne and Jan invited Lupine and I over to see their seashell collections. Lupine brought along her seashell guide and was engaged, thoughtful, and curious.

Jan picked out a shell from the hundreds spread across the screened table. "Fig or pear?" she asked Lupine.


She picked up another shell, subtly different from the first. "Fig or pear?" she asked again. 

I smiled to myself as I realized that Lupine's first ever pop quiz was taken barefoot at a table full of seashells.


She aced it.




"How long have you been studying shells?" Jan asked her.

A shell in each hand and her field guide beside her, Lupine shrugged. "I'm not sure. For a little while."

She had never considered it something she studied. Just something she loved.

They dug back into the buckets of shells.


An hour must have passed as they discussed the difference between a fighting conch and king conch, the size range of various welks, and the predatory habits of the shark eye. Lupine listened intently and studied the array before her, asking questions, sharing observations, and generally getting lost in the magic of so many seashells.

Finally Adrianne looked at me and spoke. "Do you homeschool?" she asked.

I told her that we did and she responded, "I can tell. She's so different. She has so much curiosity."

And it's true! She does. Learning has never been an obligation for her. Nothing about it is drudgery. Learning is joy.

Indeed, our decision to homeschool was based on this very observation that I made out in the world, interacting with kids who just seemed to be wired differently – alive with curiosity and a hunger for knowledge. Though I had no kids of my own at the time, I asked too. And all of them were homeschoolers.  


But what I told Adrianne this: My kids aren't special. They are simply children in their natural state.

There isn't some magical teaching technique that I use as a homeschooler that lit a fire for learning in their souls. That fire was there all along. It's a normal, healthy, natural part of childhood.

All we did was keep the wet blankets away.


We learn because we are passionate; curious; hungry.

And through that exploration we learn how to learn

If you asked me to pick a destination for this journey a life-long love of learning would be it.

And I don't care if their passion is for seashells or French pastries; blacksmithing or web design – that thing they love can teach them what they need to know. 

Other times we learn because there is a skill we desperately want to master (like multiplication or reading). On these days it is necessity that feeds our fire. 


And so as you cut this trail with your kids, remember that children are born with a love of learning. They arrive pre-programmed. That passion is how crawling and talking and walking happen, at their own time and at their own pace. Not because of a curriculum or class schedules or timelines, but because of their internal fire to learn and grow.

And at the other end of this journey that begins (quite literally) with baby steps is a lifelong passion for learning of every kind.

All we have to do as parents is keep that fire alive – and keep our wet blankets out of their way. 


On the island last month we met two people who remembered meeting Sage on our visit two years ago. Sage, especially at 12, didn't talk a great deal to people he didn't know. But with just a few careful comments and questions during our stay he made enough of an impression that out of the tens of thousands of people who have come and gone from the island they remembered him.

One volunteer said, "Are you homeschoolers? I think I remember meeting your son a couple of years ago. He knew more about the plants on this island than I did. And he had such great questions about them that I remember the ranger had to get online to help him with answers!"

They remembered him, not because he's special or brilliant somehow, but simply because his fire is still aglow. (Never mind that his questions were all based on his curiosity at the time about toxic plants and his questions were rooted in a story he heard on the boat to the island about the deadly manzanilla tree. Like I said: any passion will suffice.) 


This path that you have chosen will try your confidence.

There will be days when you lose sight of your destination and wonder if all this freedom and exploration can really amount to anything in the end. But I ask that on those days you take a moment to reflect on who your child is and what lights her heart and mind on fire. Then feed her passions with books and projects and field trips and mentors.

Follow her lead, then get out of the way.

And as you keep one eye on your child's passions and another on the trail before you you can't help but find the beauty that lie along this path. 

Insatiable curiosity and a life-long passion for learning are found there. 

And sometimes, if you're really lucky, you'll find them disguised as seashells.




7 thoughts on “Postcard 6: Seashell school

  1. Donna says:

    Awesome story!
    I know you write about visiting the North Shore and Lake Superior. Check out North Coast Community Sailing in Washburn and Bayfield. It’s a fabulous week long Sailing school for kids. Sage would LOVE it! My youngest homeschooler was a student for two summers and now will be a Junior instructor for his second summer. Funny…three other Junior Instructors are also homeschoolers!

  2. Katherine says:

    Thank you! Your gorgeous photos are so welcome on this frigid Michigan morning, and your words are uplifting and a comfort as I travel a similar path with my gaggle of life learners.

  3. Thursday says:

    Thank-you. From a struggling, isolated, single parent, special needs, unschooling Mumma, I so needed this today. Your words are so inspiring. Thank-you, thank-you. xo

  4. Morgan says:

    This was really beautifully written and it resonated with me. Our oldest started kindergarten at the public school this year – her first formal schooling experience – and she’s still really fresh and seems different even at 6 from her peers because she hasn’t been in the system as long. I had always considered homeschooling but our lives expanded with twins and survival and plans started looking different for us. And yet – and yet! I read this beautiful story and look at my oldest and still see her spark and feel a furrow in my brow, a worry that bubbles every time she comes home with a story from school that doesn’t sit quite right with me. Who knows what our future holds? It’s a grand experiment. I’m always reminding myself it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

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