Back in the mid to late 70s, I was still a skinny little girl with ratty braids and huge eyes. My parents were on the cutting edge of the homeschool movement, and being the oldest of five children, I was the experimental guinea pig.
I loved it then, and I still do, at 30 years of age. Homeschooling did not simply represent a change of location for doing bookwork. My dad wanted his family to be together; self-employment and homeschooling were just part of an all-encompassing vision. That vision was bigger than education; Dad wanted us to be competent human beings in every aspect of life.
Almost all of us were allowed to “fall” into the pond the first summer we were old enough to toddle down to it. All of us except Shalom; she had to be pushed in, because her balance was so good she never fell in of her own accord. Mom and Dad would choose a warm day in Spring (but not really warm) and hide in the bushes while the youngest toddler found his or her way to the pond. First came the playing in the mud on the edge of the levee, then a little splashing at the edge. Finally the baby would lean forward to reach for one of those bugs that skate on the surface of water. Splash! Mom or Dad would leap out of the bushes and watch for a moment as their darling baby thrashed frantically, bobbed a few times, and swallowed a mouthful of water. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen seconds, but it was long enough. The frantic baby would be lifted out of the water and comforted. “Oh, no! You fell in the pond!”
There were many simulated situations that allowed us to learn how to take care of ourselves. It was rarely – if ever – needed since Dad or Mom were usually in the pond playing with us. I guess they knew there would be a day when they wouldn’t be around. Even as a kid, I knew they weren’t just teaching us to be wary of the pond. We were learning to be alert, cautious, and aware of danger. There were very few hazardous exploits off-limits to us, because we had learned to recognize the hazards and to cope with them.
One summer Dad taught us how to swim in severe conditions. He let us tie his feet and hands together and push him off the diving board. Then he demonstrated how to swim back to the bank like an eel. We all had to try it. He tied our hands and feet and stood in the water nearby as we thrashed and heaved our way to safety. Then he had us pretend the surface of the pond was frozen over. We had to swim to the bottom, find a rock or heavy stick and pound our way up through the “ice” to air. It was hilarious fun. However, I don’t suggest you try it unless someone who swims very well is watching from the water’s edge.
Dad often played a game with us where he would yell “out!” and everyone would dive out of the vehicle we were driving (excuse me, I meant a parked vehicle!) or the building we were in, preferably through an open window since that was more impressive. The last person out was the rotten egg. It served its purpose very well one day in front of a busy little country store.
We had an old army ambulance that we used to go explore the Mississippi river bottoms. The batteries were set behind the front seats, and occasionally one of them would spark. Just as we pulled up to the country store that day, the batteries sparked and ignited something in the back seat into flame. Dad said, “out!” and four little kids came flying head first out of two army ambulance windows. We picked ourselves up out of the dust and grinned at the incredulous old-timers sitting at a cypress table in the shade of the overhang. Dad put out the fire easily enough and then leisurely let himself out the driver’s-side door. We tromped on into the store and each selected our sherbet push-up or ice-cream sandwich.
There was no paranoia in our training, because there is no fear in competence. I don’t think our parents expected lots of bad things to happen to us; but I do think they were making sure the possibilities were even less than usual.
“It takes a greater awareness to give children liberty than it does to withhold it.”
Our family has the New World mentality. When I was growing up, my parents attacked one frontier after another, not to secure our freedom, but rather to show us how to obtain our own. Because we were homeschooled, we were able to travel the world, an advantage my parents took several times, much to our delight and benefit. In 1982, our family spent a winter in Central America. Dad bought an old school bus and remodeled it into a crude shelter on wheels. We drove for a week across the States, down through Mexico and into Belize. The country was lush and green with unfamiliar but beautiful, thick vegetation. There were awesome rivers full of freshwater lobster and fish. The trees hid mischievous monkeys and iguana. Occasionally we ate an iguana, but we preferred the lobster Dad caught in a large trap. Once he caught a boa constrictor that was 10 feet long and larger around than his leg. We ate that too. Part of the time we stayed in a Mayan village where Dad built a sawmill in order to make lumber to build a school. Towards the middle of our trip, Mom became ill with a kidney infection. She received medical care at a British military base but was bedridden for a few days. Four-year-old Nathan and two-year-old Shalom played beside her cot while Gabriel, and I helped Dad or ran around the village with the native children. In the evenings, Dad would go hunting for bush chickens, which made a nice breakfast. Once we shot a parrot and ate it. The village women were mostly topless, but I can’t remember being surprised or concerned. They certainly didn’t resemble the wanton females we had once seen on the beaches of Florida.
One day we ran out of clean clothes. Dad was busy at the sawmill, and Mom was still feverish with the infection. Dad gave Gabriel (six years old) a quick lesson in machete fighting and instructed him to defend his sister like a man. He gave me a basket full of dirty clothes and pointed us down the path to the river.
“Scream, if you need help,” he told me, “and make sure you get those clothes clean.” He mentioned all the dangerous possibilities we needed to guard against, assured us that he didn’t really expect anything bad to happen, but, just in case… We were six and eight years old. We were suddenly responsible for our own lives. We were about to conquer a New World.
The path to the river was hard-packed dirt and cool beneath my bare feet. Some children followed us and shouted to their friends and family about what was happening.
“The pale, weak, white children are going to wash their huge wardrobe of fine clothing!” The feeling of coolness in the air and the surging, gushing sound betrayed the river long before you could actually see it. Crowds of naked nationals swimming and playing with hilarious abandon greeted us as we broke out of the thick vegetation. A huge, yellow bumblebee began to circle my head and continued to do so all afternoon. One of the women led me upstream and showed me a large rock that had been worn smooth in a gentle concave curve. She demonstrated how to soak a garment, lay it on the rock, and scrub it down with a bar of laundry soap.
Fifteen years later, as a new graduate of linguistic school, I boarded a plane for the island nation of Papua New Guinea. For two years I lived among the primitive Kumboi people on this jungle island. I studied their language and culture, ate their food, and washed my clothes on a well-worn rock by the stream. One day at the river the native women asked me, “Who showed you how to wash clothes as we do?”
“A topless woman in the Central American jungle,” I told them. They looked horrified and shook their heads while clicking their tongues in disapproval. “Topless? She must have been an uncivilized bush woman!”
Maybe she was. But she sure was beautiful to me that day. How many children eight years old learn from another culture—across a language barrier—to do something self-sufficient that will benefit them fifteen years later? My brother Gabriel was standing guard beside me at the water’s edge. He rolled up his camo pants to rinse the soapy clothes, but was careful to keep his machete strapped on and in an available position. He was learning how to be a man who takes care of other people.
In 1998 when Albania erupted into civil turmoil, twenty-year-old Gabriel went over to help a missionary family get out of the country safely. There was machine-gun fire and bombing going on around them. The house they lived in was a burned-out shell. The airport was also under attack and closed down just after they all managed to get on a plane. A year later Gabriel went back and helped rebuild in the rubble and restore the missionary family’s home to living condition.
In 1999 East Timor erupted into civil war. Gabriel and some of his friends flew in on a UN plane just after the peacekeeping forces quelled the main Muslim uprising. Again they rebuilt structures in the rubble that was left behind.
As I look back on my childhood, I realize that Mom and Dad candidly kept one eye on us, while continually pushing us forward into the unknown. They gave us access to a liberty most adults have never known. Obviously, I’m not talking about parental negligence; no, quite the opposite. It takes a greater awareness to give children liberty than it does to withhold it. We had hundreds of conversations along the lines of “what to do if…” Dad taught us all self-defense tactics and common sense. When we were out with him in touchy situations, instead of jumping in to help us out, he would conversationally guide us through. He was preparing us to live without him. Ultimately, it resulted in freedom for both our parents and us. As we became teenagers and young adults, they had confidence to let us do things they themselves had never done. This was why they could confidently allow me to choose a mate. They gave advice, but there were no expectations or “rules of engagement.” They knew I would choose well. They had seen me do it before. This is also why they now can ask us, their children, for advice and mean it, without condescension. We actually know things they don’t know. We’ve been places they haven’t. They want us to be greater than they are, and they have succeeded by showing us where freedom is and how to use it.
When I went to the mission field of Papua New Guinea, I asked a veteran missionary for advice. “The goal of every God-fearing missionary,” he said “is to work himself out of a job.
I thought about that statement a lot. I remembered John the Baptist saying in reference to Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” I’m not talking about a bunch of fake humility bunk. I’m talking about true success. What did I want as a child? I wanted wide-open, unlimited possibilities. I wanted someone to show me what was possible and to let me try it. I wanted to be greater in every area that my parents are great. And I believe they wanted the same thing for me.
Now that I am grown, that is what I want for my children. I want them to succeed where I have only tried. I want them to be greater than I am. So then, my goal as a mother is to work myself out of a job – as soon as possible. I need to equip them with courage, honesty, confidence, and competence that surpasses my own abilities. I want their lives to be filled with possibilities of conquest, not limitations and guarded areas of doubt. I want them to know liberty in a tangible way, so that they in turn can provide and perpetuate “liberty and justice for all,” including the next generation.
Rebekah Joy Anast