The very thought of over 100 unschooling families gathering at an exclusive use state 4-H conference center might be the thought of nightmares to many and invoke thoughts of Dante’s unwritten 10th ring of hell, but it happens every year for home-schoolers and un-schoolers from across the south, primarily from Texas and Florida. I just returned from the 22nd annual (my 5th) RE-Thinking Everything conference, this year held at the 4-H Conference Center of Alabama, and thought I would like to introduce to you the community and events surrounding it. Long story short, it appears that we didn’t add or subtract to the earth’s population or show up at or in any hospitals, newspapers, or jails. We spent 3 full days (most were there for up to 7 days) allowing our children to be children, our adolescents be adolescents, our millennials be millennials, and parents (and parent-sized people) be parents. We all learned, laughed, cried, and grew together as an intentional community as we always do, leaving armed with gratitude and fortitude, nourished for yet another year. I write this as a recovering traditionally schooled middle-aged guy who, because it was the only thing I knew, put his own children through the same and was only introduced to home and un schooling as a Renaissance-d (new word, you read it here first) re-married now step-father of two untraditionally schooled teens. The judgement of the first sentence was very much mine 5 years ago, and I am beyond grateful that I was able to open my eyes, mind and heart to this journey.
I used the word “intentional” above. To place context, one of our members gave a talk on the intentional community she and her family live in in Missouri. She stated, and I am paraphrasing parts here, that an intentional community is simply a gathering of people who agree to reconstruct culture to their shared ideals and beliefs. Living off the land and forgoing clothes and air conditioning isn’t my gig right now, but the thought that any of us can gather to recreate cultural norms to our ideals is appealing on many levels. At the conference, the cultural norm is alternatively educating our children, and in that, the constructs and perceived judgement falls away, leaving us to dive into deep, safe, and actionable exploration of what that means. We hold structured talks and roundtable discussions about home and unschooling, and life in general. Some are led by parents, others by young adults. We heard from a couple in their early 30’s about how being unschooled allowed them to create a life around their passion of mechanics and modeling, and have become successful in doing so, having just been picked up by a network for a weekly television show, even though they have not owned a tv as a couple, ever. We heard from college aged kids about finding their path in traditional college settings. We had eye opening conversations about the effects of #MeToo and how younger people define equality. (Pro Tip: Evidently, if you are younger than 20, you can smell the difference between an internet troll and a racist a mile away). We had robust discussions about the generation that has never known a world un-connected by the internet and what that means to them, and us. Trust circles were held for men, women, teens and younger. The hour and a half set aside was not near enough, with all feeling heard, but yearning for more. Music flowed, babies were passed around, there may have been beer, and to a person, feelings left unhurt.
For the kids, activities were not in short supply. Parent led events included a 176’ waterslide, laser tag, teen built and run escape rooms (in 3 different age groups), egg drops, art rooms, and the penultimate RE-Gatta, child built carboard and (bio-degradable) duct tape boats that were kid powered along a course in a bay off the Coosa River. For those that are just a little old to have parents next to them all of the time, but too awkward to engage fully with the real world, a gaming room was set up within one of the lodging common rooms. Far from being removed from everything, the positioning of the room was such that there was a constant flow right outside the windows, and even a steady stream of fruit and veggie trays provided by a carb-adverse parent. Older teens were given free reign to wander, connect, and just be. There were always groups of teens sitting on the grass, talking, singing and believe it or not, ready to lend a group a helping hand without the hair flip, sheesh attitude. Funny thing happens when teenagers feel connected within community, all of the stereotypes fall away. Older kids that have “graduated” into college, work, life, marriage return year after year to give wisdom, hold space and act as ombudsman in those years between the generations, quietly adding to the glue that holds the whole community together.
As one parent of 2 unschooled children stated, “We need the kitchen measuring stick to not only measure the physical changes in our kids, but the emotional changes year over year”. I could not agree more. I have watched 5 years of growth with these families, have watched the kid who would not leave her room the first year become a proctor in truth circles for her peers. Watched Carboard Boats go from instant Titanic mode to DARPA projects. (Pretty sure the Navy had representatives there this year, those things were unsinkable). More importantly, though, I have watched the tribe grow in all aspects. As connected as we all are in the world today, I have watched the relationships of these kids flourish through the internets and meeting around the world for weeks or months at a time. (We invited a friend’s son to stay with us in Mexico last year to keep the youngest company, and to hear his parents talk about his personal growth over that one month brings me to tears.)
If you have made it this far, you may have opened a new tab on your browser and started your comment with something like “Dude, there is no Utopia…” and you are right. There were the occasional meltdowns, accidents, even a few personality conflicts. Luck would make them few and far between, and there were always shoulder and ears to hold space, as well as a bevy of professionals on hand (parents) that ensured people felt heard and gently guided to the importance of staying in connection, raising the ideal of relationship above the fray. That is why, when a luggage dolly full of x-boxes, televisions, and other nerdy things decided that gravity, above all other laws of physics, was the most fun and rolled down a grassy knoll into a dry creek bed, we could all spend the time in wonder that it stayed upright through the ordeal and not place blame or ostracize the 2 kids that sat by in wide-eyed wonder as it happened. They felt bad enough. There was nothing that anyone could have added to that lesson that they had not learned in that moment. Instead, these 2 kids took it upon themselves to ensure they were right there whenever anything needed to be moved, and handled the rest of the weekend like moving pros.
At the end of the day, though, and the long weekend, was the feeling that we, all of us, were on the right path with our children. It is hard to reconcile professional lives and quite “unprofessional” home lives. We were reminded that the most important thing on this planet are our children. Knowing it or not, we made that decision at one point when we brought them into this world. It feeds the soul to be surrounded by families from all walks of life that hold that common bond. This may seem like a 1300 word sales page by now, but please trust me when I say it is not. First, we limit the growth of our tribe year over year to keep the vibe intact and have a peer-centric vetting process to ensure that the conference is a good fit all around for new families. More importantly, though, is that I know there are many people out there who are on the fence about home or un schooling, and are afraid of the isolation, not only for their children, but for them as a family. Your tribe is out here. Find it with intention. Recreate your cultural norm. RE-Think Everything!
Who/What: The RE-Thinking Everything Conference
When: Annually, Labor Day Weekend
Where: This year, The Alabama State 4-H Center, Columbiana, Alabama (Midway point for the bulk of the participants split between Texas and Florida
More: https://www.facebook.com/groups/369006339882621/ for a feel, most is done via private facebook group and website is under construction