Lisa has spent almost a decade juggling her career as a television producer with single motherhood, she is now taking a year out to go backpacking around Latin America with her nine-year-old daughter, Lily. You can read more of her posts here, and this post was written by Lily
“Do you think having all of these men in your life is good for Lily?” she said. I was struck dumb, “I mean there’s Jerry, there’s John” she continued, “it can’t be very good for her to see all these different men come and go, don’t you agree?”
This conversation took place five years ago in my first ever parent/teacher meeting, I already felt on the back foot as the only parent in attendance but the teacher’s comments literally floored me. She was concerned by Lily’s “challenging” behaviour but I was blind-sided by the accusation that my sluttishness was the cause. “There’s only Jerry” I mumbled “and he’s one of my oldest friends.”
I wasn’t married when I became pregnant and following the breakdown of my relationship, became a single mother just weeks after Lily was born. Without a rich ex-husband waiting in the wings to support me and my daughter financially I only had two options: 1) scrape by on benefits or 2) maintain my lucrative career in television to support us both. There was no middle ground – there is no way you can put a roof over your head, pay the bills, feed and clothe your child and cover the eye-watering costs of childcare with a McJob. Pride wouldn’t let me consider the first option so I knew I was going to have to find a way to plough on with my demanding career in TV production whilst raising a child on my own.
In the four years since Lily had been born, with the help of two nannies and a childminder, I’d produced several TV dramas, stockpiled some cash and managed to buy a house in south London to secure both of our futures. By the time Lily started school I was near exhaustion, low on self-esteem and in no fit state to defend myself against the teacher’s accusations. She had added two and two and got five. My saint like friend Jerry, himself already married – to a man – had stepped into the breach for me on several occasions and taken Lily to school when I had been asked to attend ‘breakfast meetings’ in central London.
Please allow me a moment to vent my hatred for the horrific corporate creation that is the ‘breakfast meeting’ where the sweetener for attending a work meeting at 7am, a commute away from your home, is a posh plate of scrambled eggs in some brassiere or other. A more inconsiderate demand of a lone parent I have yet to encounter as it is virtually impossible to get any kind of childcare to come to your house at 6am. Your only options are to hawk your child around for a sleepover – tricky on a school night – or hope that some angelic friend will run over to your house at the crack of dawn on a Tuesday morning to get them up, dressed and into school on time. My amazing friend Jerry did just that – on several occasions – but his appearance at the school gates had obviously triggered a flight of fancy in the mind of Lily’s teacher.
The teacher was right about one thing though – Lily’s behaviour was challenging there was no denying it. From the moment she could walk and talk, she exploded into life with the most incredible momentum – she is and always has been a child in perpetual motion powered by rocket fuel. Don’t get me wrong, Lily’s extraordinary energy is magnetic and wonderful – others are drawn to her liveliness and sense of fun, but the flipside is a volcanic temper which can scorch everything in its path. The containment of a classroom just didn’t suit her and she hated school with a passion from day one. The school run was often traumatising with her flinging off her shoes and screaming in indignation about being forced to attend. On occasion I had to carry her through the school gates with her little legs kicking in protest and inevitably these temper tantrums were disruptive for the rest of her class.
The finger pointing wasn’t helpful however – not that it would have been any of the teacher’s business if I’d been swinging from the chandeliers with every Tom, Dick and Jerry – but it couldn’t have been further from the truth and it made me feel like the world’s worst mother.
Both Lily and I soldiered on and Lily slowly became more accepting of her fate. The Year One teacher was kinder at parents’ evening, “I wouldn’t say she was badly behaved Lisa, just more of a health and safety hazard”. Apparently as Lily twirled around in the classroom she would occasionally knock things over or accidentally strike another child. This assessment of my child as hazardous still stirred feelings of failure as a mother and made me want to cry on her behalf. I didn’t question whether the school system fitted Lily, I just assumed she needed to fit the system. It was only when a German au pair moved in with us and explained that in her country compulsory schooling didn’t kick in until the age of six that the penny finally dropped. There is more than one way to educate a child and Lily would have been much better off under the German system with its voluntary, no pressure, play-based kindergarten until the age of six…the age at which she was truly ready to start school.
When thoughts of travelling with Lily entered my head last year and I looked to see what other families did about education whilst they travelled I was excited to find the online ‘worldschooling’ community made up of tens of thousands of global families educating their children as they moved around. This wasn’t a one size fits all community – some followed online schooling programmes, other were ‘radical unschoolers’ feeling that the very act of travelling with kids was education enough and many settled in far flung communities for periods of time and enrolled their children in the local schools for an alternative learning experience.
The discovery of worldschooling families was an epiphany, I didn’t know how easy it would be to pull Lily out of school and join this movement but soon discovered it couldn’t have been simpler. In the UK you have the option of deregistering your child from mainstream education as long as you undertake to provide them with an alternative full-time education (something discussed in more detail in this brilliant article on A Life Loved, written by a homeschooling mum). However, as there is no requirement to follow the national curriculum then travelling as you school is a perfectly legitimate option.
At the beginning of our trip I enrolled Lily in schools in Argentina which she handled pretty well all things considered but the obvious barrier to her learning in Latin America was of course the language. Neither of us could speak more than a few words of Spanish and I’d naively assumed we would just pick it up as we went along. It soon became clear that we both needed structured Spanish lessons for that to become a reality so I decided to head to Nicaragua where I’d heard about an amazing language school – La Mariposa – that had been set up by fellow Brit, Paulette Goudge. I felt slight trepidation about taking Lily to Nicaragua knowing something of the country’s chequered history, but the things had been seemingly peaceful for many years under the rule of Daniel Ortega his wife Rosario Murillo and the school certainly had nothing but glowing reviews.
Lily tries her hand at weaving during our trip to León
At La Mariposa our days were structured around four hours of one-on-one Spanish learning in the morning and then afternoon activities as diverse as swimming in the crater lake of a volcano or a cultural tour of León. Our ‘classrooms’ were tables and chairs in the school’s tropical gardens and Lily often spent her free time running around the grounds with the other children there including new friends Bella from Canada and MacKenzie from the USA.
The school is also something of an animal rescue centre – we lived onsite with over twenty rescue dogs, several cats and a brand-new litter of adorable ginger kittens – but the most extraordinary experience for us both was being given the opportunity to help release iguanas and a howler monkey back into the wild. Although the hunting and eating of iguana is forbidden in Nicaragua a trade still exists as some people believe iguana soup has medicinal benefits. La Mariposa staff had bought a crate of around forty iguanas they’d found in the market so they could be released onto the school’s nature reserve. The animals’ legs had been tightly bound and their mouths sewn shut so Lily and I helped to snip the bindings off and massage the leg muscles of the little creatures before placing them on tree branches to recover.
After an incredible couple of weeks at the school and with our Spanglish somewhat improved it was time to move on. Lily and I were going to do a tour of Nicaragua with my good friend Josef who was flying in from Australia to meet us. I have known Josef for as long as I have known Jerry – in fact the three of us shared a house at university – but as he now lives in Melbourne we often try to co-ordinate our holidays so that we can catch up in random and sunny parts of the world.
I can now look back and laugh at the teacher’s accusations about ‘all these men’ in my life as she couldn’t have been more off target.
Our Nicaraguan adventure started on the pacific coast at Popoyo before we headed inland to Ometepe where we spent our Easter Sunday hiking up Volcan Maderas to get magnificent views of Volcan Concepción and the waters of Lake Nicaragua. From there we headed by prop plane and panga boat to the tiny island of Little Corn off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and had the most incredible week just hanging out on its sandy beaches and swimming in the Caribbean Sea. I can now look back and laugh at the teacher’s accusations about “all these men” in my life as she couldn’t have been more off target. Lily and I are so lucky to have both Jerry and Josef in our lives – Lily loves them both as much as I do – they are a huge part of our family.
Josef and Lily
As Josef headed back to Australia I asked Lily what she wanted to do with our final week in Nicaragua and she did not hesitate “I want to go back to Mariposa mummy, I love it there, it feels like home”.
This has been something of a revelation to me – for a free-spirited kid like Lily it has taken a jungly school in Central America surrounded by animals to really feel at home in the education system! Paulette has created something very special at La Mariposa and to call it a simply a language school is to do it a disservice. It employs over eighty local people and all profits made from teaching are ploughed back into the community whether that’s the building of a therapeutic centre for disabled children or the provision of water to a village that has no supply of its own. Which is why it’s so terrible that our final week in Nicaragua coincided with the country literally going up in flames leaving the future of La Mariposa hanging in the balance.
An announced pension reform by President Daniel Ortega which both raised taxes and cut benefits sparked widespread protest – these protests were in turn brutally supressed with the use of tear gas and bullets in a heavy-handed response that left over seventy dead. As Lily and I made our way to the airport at the end of our stay, we were driven though the dazed aftermath one such violent confrontation in the capital city of Managua. There was broken glass littering the streets and blockades of burning tyres everywhere – it looked like a war zone.
The following day the American Embassy pulled out their staff and the tourist industry virtually collapsed overnight leaving La Mariposa and everyone else reliant on tourism for their livelihood in serious peril. It was a truly devastating end to our time in the country and I am heart-broken for Paulette and the beautiful people of Nicaragua.