Un-Schooling And Other Neat Stuff: An Interview With Theodora and Zac
Recently, I conducted interviews with Theodora Sutcliffe (Travels with a Nine Year Old) and her 9-year old son, Zac (The 9-year-old strikes back). Though Mom calls him Z, I asked his preference – it’s Zac. (Guess Moms get to call you by whatever name they choose. Comes with being a Mom.) Each was given a similar set of questions to answer. I hope you enjoy their replies.
Zac: In the blog (Travels with a Nine Year Old), your Mom has written: “…since he was small we’ve talked about taking a year out to travel the world when he is nine. Now we’re finally doing it.” Why did the two of you choose age nine for this journey?
Well, for starters, it was a 24-karat golden opportunity since Mum had the time.
Well, for starters, it was a 24-karat golden opportunity since Mum had the time. We always talked about it. We first started debating on it when I was seven. However, I didn’t want to do it then. I felt like I wasn’t ready to spend a year travelling round the world. So Mom said, “Alright then, maybe when you’re nine.”
Theodora: From a mother’s perspective, why was this odyssey important at this time in Z’s life?
I think as a parent considering long-term travel with a child, or children, you are caught between two stools. You want them to be old enough to remember it and participate in it, and I certainly wanted Z to be able to actively participate in activities such as diving and trekking. So that gives you a minimum age. And I think for a teenager, or a child approaching that age, intense travel as a family might be absolute hell. At that age you really want to be finding your own space, forming your own relationships, and shaping yourself as a person removed from your family. So there’s a maximum. More immediately, the time was right in my life in January 2010. And he personally felt ready to do it, which he didn’t a couple of years ago.
Zac: If I’ve paid attention correctly, you’ve been traveling since mid-January (2010). Have you felt homesick for anything or just enjoying the adventure?
Indeed I have been feeling homesick at times. Most of the time it comes up when I’m bored or something just gets me thinking about home. I haven’t been bored that many times. But when Mom took a dive course and left me out of it I was a bit bored. I feel homesick for my best friend, Fred, and for England, because I do miss being back in England for some awkward reason, which I don’t even know.
Theodora: You write very lovingly about traveling with Z and the assorted adventures, mishaps, and such. Has anything been a true test of patience yet?
LOL! I’m surprised you didn’t ask him this!
In terms of travel per se there has been no unpleasantness which hasn’t been counter-balanced by the benefits, or actually quite funny at the time. Neither of us has been significantly ill. We haven’t been robbed. We haven’t been stranded anywhere hideous. So I’ve never had the “OMG what am I doing? I want to go hoooome!” moment, and nor, I think, has he.
The exchange that is seared into my memory is me saying, “Look. What exactly is your problem here?!” He took a deep breath and said, “The problem, Mom, is YOU,” and launched into a recital of everything I had done wrong EVER. Going back about five years…
We’ve also always got on very well. Since Z was a baby, he’s had a very chilled, calm temperament, a high pain threshold and low requirements for sleep. He’s always traveled well, been very articulate and found it easy to talk about his feelings. So as a travel companion, I knew it was going to work.
However…. We had a real humdinger of a row in Luang Prabang, Laos, which has been sitting in my drafts file for a while. I was trying to get him to write some postcards. When he wants to, he can be absolutely stubborn as a mule. He’ll change the subject, stonewall, ignore, ignore, ignore, ignore… He said writing postcards made him homesick. I said he was making up excuses because he didn’t like handwriting. We ended up sitting on a wall by the Mekong bickering, with passers-by looking pityingly at him and disapprovingly at me. The exchange that is seared into my memory is me saying, “Look. What exactly is your problem here?!” He took a deep breath and said, “The problem, Mom, is YOU,” and launched into a recital of everything I had done wrong EVER. Going back about five years…
Zac: I can’t help but ask – how is the “home schooling” coming along? (I read you were writing stories now. Bravo!) Is it easier or harder than sitting in a classroom?
Well… It’s harder than sitting in a classroom but it’s a hell of a lot more fun! You see, sitting in a classroom, you just have to sit down, do your learning and for me sometimes watch the clock awaiting a science lesson, an art lesson or any lesson you prefer over the one you’re currently doing. However, when you’re home schooling, you’ve got to seek cover from loud music, find a desk, a chair and a decent place where you can easily concentrate on whatever you’re doing.
In normal school the lessons have a set order, a completely set order. The compass has motionless points. In home schooling you get to choose what you want to do and the order in which you do them. In unschooling you get to run your finger across pebbledash instead of being told how it feels. You get to take apart a phone and see how it works instead of being told about the mechanics of a Nokia.
You probably wouldn’t get a short lesson about gunboats and just go snorkeling to look at one when you’re at an average school! Plus, Mom downloaded some particle physics for me and I’ve hatched a new theory about the universe, that it’s just a computer programme designed by big, powerful, super-intelligent aliens.
However, when you’re doing home schooling, it’s just you, whoever’s teaching you and possibly a friend, cousin, brother or sister, and there’s no annoying classmate flicking Blu-tac at you or doing some idiotic stunt like sticking a clothes peg to their eyelash. Believe it or not our class clown Emre has done that.
Theodora: I asked Z for his opinion of the home-schooling thing. I’d like to hear your side as his teacher.
Obviously, world travel is a phenomenal context in which to discover history, RE, geography, the natural world… You learn things by exploring Angkor Wat, walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail, meeting Khmer Rouge survivors, snorkeling a World War II gunboat or diving a coral reef that would take aeons to learn in a classroom. I think the permutation of home-schooling we’re now trying works extremely well. We’re using a version of unschooling (I wrote about it here: Unschooling Rocks!), which means you allow children to learn what and when they want, rather than working with syllabuses and schedules.
Z was a year or two ahead of the grade point average when we left the UK, so I can afford to be relaxed and experimental. He used to hate writing. He is now creating blog posts and chapter books, writing stories, planning stories, and doing a lot of art work to go with them. He reads well and is now discovering Dickens, which is brilliant.
But there are challenges. He’s quite technically minded and scientific. I did a single science subject to sixteen, twenty years ago. So responding to his learning desires involves a lot of learning on my side. He wants to do animating, and has played around with his Dad’s Flash animation software. So we’re getting a copy of that, which means I’ll have to learn with him on it. He has been talking about the Theory of Relativity a lot, and his objections to the Big Bang theory, and we’ve been learning about particle physics because he wanted to know what a positron was and how the Large Hadron Collider worked. We’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of scientists as we travel, so that’s really helped.
Recently, he sat through my Open Water dive course and absorbed a lot of stuff about gases and pressures and percentages and decimals and fractions. So he learnt a lot there, too. Now he’s plotting the anatomy of a dragon and has been asking about the properties of gases so he can work out how their insides operate, the relationship between inertness and toxicity, and so on. So, I guess that’s my next challenge.
He’s also been teaching himself some French off Google Translate, coming out with random phrases from time to time. I’m trying to build on that when it comes up.
He is really into art, which presents another challenge. I can’t really draw, fold or sculpt, and, while you can do amazing things with found materials, like seashells, as we’re backpacking, it’s pretty much pencil, pen, crayon and paper.
Physically, it’s amazing how fluent he is compared to when we left. He was clowning around on a diveboat and someone said, “Well, he’ll either be a sailor or a particle physicist…” And I like learning myself, which is good. The downside is the amount I’m having to learn. Because I could walk the fourth and fifth grade syllabus’, and go a lot higher in the arts… But particle physics? On a beach?!
Zac: Of the places you’ve visited so far, do you have a favorite? If so, why?
Yes, I do have a favorite. Finland! I prefer skiing down a mountain to tropical cities. It helps that I’m capable of overheating before you could wave a ten-gallon hat and shout Yeehaw! Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Of course, if you’re talking about all the places on our holiday, so far my favourite would have to be the Philippines. As well as having Manila, which is a very nice city, there is the island of Marinduque, which boasts some hot springs, which have been converted into swimming pools and it also boasts a tamarind orchard. In the tamarind orchard you can find sweet tamarind trees, sour tamarind trees and one ridiculously sour tamarind tree. There is also a very nice hotel in Puerto Princesa City, which has its own kitchen, free room wifi, a little snackshop and hugely cheap fan rooms with well-maintained shared bathrooms. And of course there is the island-hopping and last of all some very good dive resorts.
Zac: Of the places you will be visiting, is there one you want to see the most? Again, if so, why?
…my cousins Eliza and Monique have their own pet chicken, which once laid a blue egg! We have also kept an egg secret in the hope that it will be brooded for long enough to hatch. Perhaps now it has hatched!
Australia! You see, I have cousins, grandparents and the like all living happily in Australia. I even have an uncle there. What’s more, my dad is Australian, which is why he’s coming out to meet us there. Also I am looking forward to Halloween, Christmas and my birthday, which are all conveniently close together, also my cousins Eliza and Monique have their own pet chicken, which once laid a blue egg! We have also kept an egg secret in the hope that it will be brooded for long enough to hatch. Perhaps now it has hatched!
Zac: What have you learned from this trip so far (life lessons, new feelings, discovering new things, eating bugs, etc.)?
Well, for starters, I have learnt divers’ sign language and emergency diving procedures. I have also learnt that due to the recent modernization televisions have become all the rage and now even the Lao minority tribes have them. In some countries, mainly Buddhist countries, it is considered hugely rude to put your foot up at someone.
I have learned that even if it freaks you out sometimes you can eat it because, as you asked, yes, I have eaten bugs, fried crickets, to be precise, and the other night I ate a delectable dish called sisig which consists of sizzling pig cheeks, ears and – yes, I know it’s kind of disgusting but it does taste nice – pig brains! You see, Asian cuisine has a 60 km difference between European or American cuisine.
The problem is that almost everywhere you go you cannot escape from commercial foods and global stereotypes. You see, we went to an island, which had a tribal village in it. These people lived very simply. Their diet consisted mainly of coconut, papaya and clams, and – would you believe it? Packet foods. I even found a sachet of Sunsilk conditioner! True story.
I have had some new feelings. One of the new feelings is the feeling where you feel like you’re a complete idiot. I first discovered this feeling when we were in a posh hotel in Thailand where each hotel room had a combination safe, four digit, and I cheekily locked my mom’s cigarettes in it.;-) I then attempted to write down the combination, realized I didn’t have a pen and started looking for one. While I was looking for one, however, I completely forgot the code!
The number one stereotype I hate is the stereotype that if you’re a kid your favourite sweet flavour is strawberry. Complete tripe. (Speaking of tripe, did you know tripe is Britain’s most hated food in the modern era?) Actually, I prefer sucking the juice out of lemons to eating that trash they call strawberry flavoured sweets.
Theodora: I also asked Z what he has learned from the trip so far. To date, what have you learned? Anything unexpected?
First and foremost, mooching… The joys of just wandering around, appreciating somewhere, sitting on the dock of the bay, and so on… It’s not something I’ve been good at historically, and I’ve learnt that through travel and my son. That’s a big discovery for me.
A close second? The wonders of diving. I don’t think I have a particular talent for it, but I do love it, and I’m contemplating qualifying as a scuba instructor.
Thirdly. How great are people?! I’ve never really doubted that the vast majority of people are good and kind. But our experiences on this trip, running from megalopolises to tribal villages and tiny islands, have really reinforced my belief in human nature.
Theodora: Now that you are 4+ months into this adventure, what advice do you have for parents (single or not) considering a similar travel experience?
1: First and foremost: go for it. You will regret it if you don’t, because your kids are only children once.
2: When things go wrong, which they will, see the funny side.
3: Try not to fly too much. You get a lot more sense of a place by travelling slowly than you do by whizzing between airports. Plus it’s kinder to the environment.
4: Don’t over-schedule. If you’re planning an itinerary, leave plenty of days spare in it for just hanging out, enjoying stuff, staying a few extra days somewhere nice, going somewhere you’d never have heard of, etc. Adding a week to each month you plot off a map is a good rule of thumb.
5: Teach your kids to manage risk and strategies for dealing with environmental dangers.
6: Plan by the seasons but don’t plan exclusively for dry. Wet and cold can be interesting too.
7: Get decent backpacks for your kids. They are few and far between in the West and impossible to source in Asia.
8: Take more than one laptop to avoid turf wars. And stash movies on the children’s.
9: Sarongs are a godsend. They’re beach towels, bath towels, cover-ups, sheets, kiddie sleeping bags, and they weigh nothing and take up no space.
10: Zip-off trousers are two outfits for the weight of one.
Theodora: What is one thing you left at home (purposefully or by mistake) that you could really, really use right now?
Hmmmm… I am kicking myself for not buying, bringing and using a bona fide Drybag: they’re great as beach bags, too. I lost a camera to damp on the Mekong, plus two snorkel sets and a pair of Raybans off Koh Chang. Which means I am also missing the other pair of shades I didn’t bring!
Other than that? I would like to have family photos and old photos on my laptop now. Most of them are print, but I’m annoyed not to have transferred the digital ones. But, to be honest, in cities like Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, you can buy almost everything. I’m currently looking for a really robust camera. I’ve been through two in four months and just want something impossible to kill that’s good for scuba too.
Zac & Theodora: Can I check in with you again in a few months to see how it’s going?
I look forward to it! (Theodora)
You can follow Theodora and Zac at Travels with a Nine Year Old.
You can also follow Zac’s own blog at The 9-year-old strikes back.
Editor’s notes: All photographs courtesy of Theodora and Zac.