Friday, November 13, 2009


My family recently attended our first unschooling gathering, ARGH, in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. For the most part, it was a wonderful, positive experience, and it was through and through a learning experience for all of us.

Our trip began not too early Saturday morning when we headed south on Interstate 81. We very nearly traveled the entire length of I-81 on our journey. Esme, Jo, and Lia were piled into the rear seat of the minivan, a large cooler and several bags of snacks, books, and audio tapes took up the middle seat, and Diana and I did our best to make ourselves comfortable up front. Our day consisted of driving down to the NY state border and then through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and halfway through Virginia. We stopped and took pics in rest stops in each state with the exception of Maryland which we were in for less than 30 minutes on a very busy highway with no rest areas in sight. It was nice to feel the temperatures rise and to watch the trees become leafier as we headed south. As with our earlier trip to NYC, I-81 in PA was very slow going! That got us a couple of hours off schedule leading to no lengthy stop for lunch and arriving about an hour later than anticipated at our motel in Verona, VA.

To keep expenses to a minimum, we decided to not eat out during our trip except for dinner this Halloween night which was chosen from the dollar menu at McDonald's. We were all soon asleep in beds in the motel and awoke early the next morning to a very skimpy continental breakfast courtesy of the motel. In spite of heavy rainfall, we were all excited about our first stop of the day, Foamhenge, a life-sized replica of Stonehenge made out of styrofoam! After a twenty minute drive, we trekked up a muddy slope and were not disappointed! It was magnificent, well worth the walk even in the rain. We hope to return one day when it is not raining for a more lengthy visit.

Our drive continued south through Virginia then into Tennessee. The route was a little confusing when we entered Bristol, a border city that is part VA and part TN. There was no sign really saying that we had entered Tennessee, but we kept following our trusty Google directions and eventually got where we were going. We had one last stop before Roan Mountain State Park. We were stopping to get some groceries. At first, we had thought that we would bring all the food we would need with us, but I was worried about keeping that much food fresh for two days so we decided to plan a stop at Elizabethton to stock up on the food that we would need for the next few days. This took much longer than I had expected. We were all a little on edge after two days of travel, and the people in the store were so slow! After a lot of people watching mixed in with my shopping, I realized it wasn't a bad thing. It seemed that everyone was just going at their own pace doing what they needed to do with no rush or hurry. Even the cashiers were extra patient, going with the flow one step at a time in an extremely busy store! I don't know if this is a southern thing or not, but it definitely had a different feel compared to my usual shopping trips where everyone is in such a hurry! At the Tennessee store, we were the ones who were hurrying. It was sort of embarrassing. I felt a little bit like we stood out from everyone else as outsiders even though I was in a large store in a not-too-small city on a busy Sunday afternoon.

When we got out of the store, I was disappointed because I realized that we were definitely going to arrive at the campground later than I was hoping to. I was working hard to let go of my disappointment and to just go with the flow, when Diana noted that the clock in the store said an hour earlier. All of a sudden, we all realized that we forgot to set our clocks back! We were right on time.

Arriving at the campground was very scary to me. I am not a people person. I have an irrational fear of people, and when I am coming to a place where I am somewhat expected to interact with others, with no clearly defined rules or expectations, I tend to fall apart. I should have recognized faces from the internet, but suddenly my memory was faulty and I couldn't remember who anyone was! We had talked at home about what to expect walking into a gathering where a lot of the people already knew each other. All of us were trying to have no expectations other than just having fun together in a beautiful setting, but at this point, I was worried that I would never be able to even ask anyone where to pick up my key!

A few people who arrived said hi, but that was the extent of the conversation. We started carrying our bags to our cabin and piling them on the porch. Then I saw Ren, and I was 100% sure that I recognized her! So, we went over, and Laura came, and we got our keys, and I was able to relax a bit.

Note, in the midst of my anxiety, I couldn't help but basking in the beautiful surroundings. I have been many beautiful places, but this was magnificent!!! If you are looking for a quiet, beautiful, inexpensive vacation place with lots of amenities, I highly recommend Roan Mountain State Park. Even if ARGH were never to take place there again, we would love to go back and enjoy the beauty/explore some more!

The next few hours were a blur of unpacking, putting up the Halloween decorations, and putting on costumes. (Not me, 'cause I was not going to trick or treat. I was hoping to spend absolutely as much time as possible alone in the cabin on this trip!) Then, after getting directions, we piled into the car and headed to the conference center. More beauty was everywhere! Deer in every field, gorgeous foliage, the nearly ever present fog on the mountains, sunset, moon rise...well you get the picture!

Esme, JoAnn, and Lia were feeling shy, but still got their make up done for trick or treating. We all like to participate. Sometimes I think that we are odd unschoolers. Even Diana had a bunny nose and whiskers done. We met a few people, but I was not feeling particularly social, and that is OK. The kids and Diana in various combinations along with various people that they met along the way had fun trick-or-treating, and I handed out candy and spider rings to lots of trick or treaters. There was such a festive feeling, and everyone was so nice. By the end of the evening, Lia had a new friend, and the rest of us were more than ready for a good night's sleep.

The beds in the cabin were very, very soft! I fall victim to soft beds with a resulting lower back pain that can be relieved only with lots and lots of pain reliever and ultimately time. The next morning, my back was aching. It wasn't too horrible though, and I hoped that by pursuing my normal activities I would be able to coax it back to health. The day was filled with funshops including making candied apples, henna, and well other things that now seem just a blur! Esme and JoAnn found their way to the hang out cabin and met a few tweens and teens. Diana set up her wares at the untrepreneurial fair and sold a couple of items. I was hoping to have a few hours alone at the cabin in the afternoon, but it didn't seem to be in the cards. I did get a long walk in the woods and a hot bath, both of which were very nice in spite of my back.

That night was a potluck dinner in honor of Day of the Dead. Diana had decorated a sugar skull and carved an apple in honor of her stepfather Frank who died this past August. I made roasted veggies and marinated cucumbers as our contributions to the dinner, and the girls brought paper plates, plastic silverware, napkins, cups, and soda to contribute to the group effort. Lia, Jo, and Es ate with people who they had met that day, and Lia made plans for a sleepover with a new friend. Diana and I found seats and enjoyed a succulent buffet of tasty dishes. Wow! The food was wonderful! Diana and I and several of the other people at our table particularly liked some sweet potato scones which I hope to find the recipe for and recreate myself!

Unfortunately, my back was getting worse, not better. The seats were at a bad height for me, and I didn't bring a pillow with me to help get a good position. (I thought of it, and I should have!) Diana took me home shortly after we finished eating. At that point, I didn't care about socializing. I just wanted to get comfortable. There was a lot of confusion that evening. Lia had her sleepover, and Esme had decided to spend the night in the hangout cabin. Josie did not want to spend the night in the hangout cabin. She didn't want to spend the evening alone with Diana and me either though. She was very sad that she takes longer to get close to people than Lia and Es do. We talked a very long time about a lot of things until she was doing better. You can't change who you are. It is OK to take a long time for feel intimate with someone. It is OK to not want to play games that other people think are fun but you don't. It is OK to be yourself, even if you feel very different or on the outside of other people. Those are lessons that took me a long time to learn. JoAnn and Antonio are much like me in those ways, but I believe because they do not attend school, they have learned those lessons better and quicker than perhaps I ever will.

In the end, Esme came home and spent the night with Josie. She knew that Jo was sad, and she wanted to be with her more than away with people who she didn't know well yet. Es and Jo played PGSM and ate Halloween treats late into the night. My night was not so pleasant. I could not find a way to sleep. My back pain had become severe. There seemed to be no comfortable (to me) seat anywhere in the cabin! The worst part was that I had forgotten to even bring pain relievers with us. The next morning, Diana took me to the store to get some pain reliever. This was definitely an act of love considering how much she disliked driving on those mountain roads. It was a good trip though. We were able to call Antonio and check on him. (There is no cell phone reception at the park at all!) She also filled the gas tank so we would be heading home with a full tank.

The pain reliever made the pain bearable, but I still needed lots of rest and had to accept the fact that I had to limit my activities. There were some events that I had wanted to attend that day that I had to let slip by, Diana also. I had hoped that we could go to Carver's Gap, matter of fact that was one of the parts of the trip that was most exciting to me, and I had to let that go too. Diana and I had a quiet day in our little home in the mountains. I read on the porch and made a fall feast of turkey cutlets, stuffing, baked yams, and apple cherry wine for our dinner. Diana did art and took photos and read. The girls were out and about socializing, and we really didn't see them except for a moment or two all day! In the evening, we regrouped and headed to the conference center for the talent show.

This time, I had brought a pillow and was in it for the long haul! I love talent shows, and this one was wonderful! Our girls danced to a j-pop song among other things. I have heard a lot of good things about unschooling talent shows through the years, but the thing that really struck me (coming from a mainstream world) was how many kids on the spur of the moment decided to perform! If you were at a typical public school with a similar sort of event, very few kids would volunteer to get up in front of everyone and perform. The confidence was so shiny!

Although my back was a bit better, once again we did not stay for dancing or socializing. I needed to rest. That night, Esme stayed in the hangout cabin until late and then joined her sisters. I got up early the next morning and started packing up our cabin and doing a bit of light housekeeping. The girls soon followed and carted everything out to the car. The two girls who Lia was close to had both already left, so we decided to not stay for the closing circle but to head home. Diana was hoping to make it in one day! The gathering sort of lingered as we retraced our route home seeing various other ARGH attendees at rest areas along I-81.

What did we learn? Diana learned that our kids do not fight a lot! I realize that this is a subjective thing, but as an only child, Diana never really had to get along with other kids in her home on a regular basis. I think our kids are excellent problem solvers, very loving towards each other, and get along great. Diana has thought that they have too many disagreements, but what she hasn't seen is that they are pretty good at solving these disagreements and that living with a bunch of people is inevitably going to lead to disagreements that you have to work out. At ARGH, several people commented on how well our daughters got along with each other, also how well behaved they were (although we are used to that!) This was good for Diana to hear.

Esme learned that all teens are not the same, and that she can fit in with a group of teens and have fun in real life. She also learned that the next few years have many different options for her, and that she has many different roads and activities that she can explore throughout the rest of her teen years.

Josie learned that although she may be slow to get close to new people, that that does not mean that she isn't OK or that she will never have friends. She learned that there are different ways to go about making friends, and she is on the way to finding the right ones for her.

Lia learned that there are other people out there who are not obsessed with school, sports, or boys.

Ant learned that although he can survive a nearly a week on his own, life is more fun with the rest of us!

I learned that even when I am not able to function well and when things don't turn out the way I had planned or hoped, I can still be OK and have fun in a different way. I also had new seeds planted on why I have felt more discontent the last few months. I will write more about the another time though.