Monday, September 15, 2008

Back to the Beach

Jeanette White is a freelance writer and editor living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She and her husband are homeschooling two daughters who are adopted from China.

I thought long and hard about how to make Jie-Jie’s earliest memories of first grade special. In the end, we went to the beach.

For a week.

I wasn’t really that desperate to sell my kids on homeschooling. So far, they’re believers. It’s just that we waited way too long to reserve a yurt on Washington state’s coast, and the only time we could find an opening was—surprise!—the week everyone else went back to school.

The morning we packed to leave, I realized we weren’t actually playing hooky. Consider this exchange with 5-year-old Mei-Mei:

"Mom, how do you spell ‘today’?"


"T-O ... and then what?"


"D ... then what?"


"A ... and then what, Mama?"

"Y. What are you doing?"

"I'm going to keep a diary of our trip."

This would be a very long trip, I thought. Then I smiled. Her first diary! The week would be an extended field trip captured in Mei-Mei’s own words! Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Admittedly, I’d already planned some of the week’s education. I’ve nurtured the girls’ love of audio-books since they were very young, so during the drive we listened to stories told by a first-rate storyteller, Jim Weiss. The Jungle Book was the favorite this time.

I’d ransacked the public library and our bookshelves at home for field guides and kid-friendly titles about the ocean and Pacific Northwest rain forest. I tucked the books between their rolled-up sleeping bags and booster seats. Halfway to our destination, I checked “reading practice” off my mental list. That was taking care of itself.

My face lit up again when Jie-Jie and Mei-Mei requested the Geography Songs: Sing Around the World CD and then asked me to put their favorite tunes on repeat. (“Bagpipes, the Beatles and Big Ben are found in the British Isles ...”)

That evening, when I watched Jie-Jie’s face as she saw the ocean for the first time, any lingering concern about leaving the math books behind melted into the sunset. I was reminded that life’s best lessons don’t necessarily come in books marked “educational.”

It truly was a week of firsts, as the girls reminded me again and again. They spotted their first banana slug in the Quinault Rain Forest, plucked their first sand dollar from the shore, visited their first cranberry bog. They learned what it’s like to fall asleep to the sound of waves slapping the beach, and oh, they blew their first-ever bubble gum bubbles just south of Seattle. They’d want you to know that.

Already, I’m wondering if back-to-school should mean back-to-the-beach for our family next year.

Now we’re home, and my attention shifts to the stack of new school books that somehow looks even more enticing than before. Our package of art supplies has arrived in the mail, and my niece remembered to flood the Nile while we were gone, leaving the delta surprisingly green. Instead of watching spellbound as the sun sets over the ocean, I’m contemplating ways to convince my husband he’d enjoy mummifying a chicken for that ancient history project.

All the shining moments from our beach trip are captured in photos and our collective memory—which is a good thing, because Mei-Mei showed me her diary when we got home. On a single sheet of flowery stationery, she wrote: “Today I am going to the sea shore.”

On the next line, she wrote: “I am halfway to the sea shore.”

That is all. And that’s enough.

Read-Aloud of the Week:
Odysseus retold by Geraldine McCaughrean

Quote of the Week:
“How do you spell ‘Mommy loves me’?” – Mei-Mei, 5