There’s a certain part about getting good
at something that involves loving it.
– Natalie McDonald, age 13

I was born in Kobe, Japan, the child of American expatriates, whose marriage lasted long enough to produce four children.  Upon their divorce, the expatriate chapter of my life abruptly ended.  Along with my mother and three siblings, I landed in Napa, California at the tail end of my fourth grade year looking like I should fit in, but feeling like a stranger in my own land.  I was, in fact, a foreigner, who spoke with a funny accent (a combination of Japanese and English), who felt overwhelmed in a large brightly-lit grocery store, who knew no English slang or curse words, who knew the Lord’s Prayer in Japanese but didn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance in English, and who was equally mesmerized by a lawn sprinkler and a large American car.

Years later, I would be driving down Highway 29, approaching Napa, with my husband William, and he would turn to me and ask, “Have you ever noticed that ‘Napa’ is ‘Japan’ spelled backwards without the ‘J’?”  Stunned, I stared at him with a look that I can only describe as a combination of No, I have never noticed that and you are absolutely amazing for figuring that out.  For that was exactly how I remembered feeling in my first year living in the United States: flipped around with a piece cut away.

The experience of feeling like a foreigner in my own country and having to figure out how I was going to fit in became a big chapter in my life story.  It was a painful chapter, but it also allowed me to appreciate different perspectives and insights, and made me consider alternate approaches when I saw that the standard approach was less than ideal.  From this vantage point, I would have to say that the idea to home school our daughter Natalie during her middle school years probably originated long before she was born, a few years after my move from Japan, after I had been through middle school.  For somewhere deep inside me, I remembered thinking that there had to be a better way to nurture and educate 12 and 13-year-olds.

By the time Natalie was born, I had found what I loved to do — independent documentary filmmaking — and I was good at it.  But choosing this path hadn’t been easy or straightforward.  Sitting in an undergraduate history of documentary film class at UCLA in the late 1970’s, it slowly dawned on me while I watched films by the “fathers” of documentary filmmaking that it might be possible for a woman to be a filmmaker. It was Robert Flaherty’s film “Man of Aran,” about the Aran Islanders who live off the west coast of Ireland, which planted the idea in my head that one could explore places, people and ideas through images and sound.  His black and white images of a lifestyle so stark and harsh in its beauty had so enthralled me that I saved up my money over a period of five years –- typing, editing and researching papers for doctors at a research hospital — and traveled first to Galway, Ireland, and from there by ferry and then curragh (a traditional Irish boat that fisherman have used for centuries) to the Aran Islands.

By then, I couldn’t imagine being anything but a filmmaker, no matter how impractical a career choice it might be; I applied and was accepted to graduate film school.  For the first time in my life, I was pursuing my passion and I wanted to learn everything there was to know about writing, producing and directing, cinematography and sound, and editing.

Natalie is so right when she says, “There’s a certain part about getting good at something that involves loving it.”  Loving what you do makes you want to be good at it.  Furthermore, it’s a tremendously exhilarating combination – loving something and being good at it.  The filmmaking part of my story led me to the belief that at the heart of anything worthwhile, there had to be love.  And with a daughter approaching middle school age, I began thinking that the focus of middle school education should be to help children find what they love to do and then allow them to explore it fully.  If, at this moment in their lives, they are encouraged and assisted in this endeavor, everything else in their education will become more meaningful and fruitful.

I was concerned that the traditional construct of middle school would suffocate the creative and intellectual sparks I detected in Natalie.  Furthermore, about to turn 50, I had been pondering the importance of finding balance, in mind, body and spirit, at any age.  Yet I wondered if it was even possible to find balance in a frantic society that Alexis de Tocqueville aptly described as “at once agitated and monotonous?”

So, two ideas began to criss-cross in my brain more and more frequently.  First, I felt there was another, more nurturing educational approach for Natalie.  And second, William and I could work together, just the way we made films, and achieve something special and unique.  We could create our own model for middle school, where maybe even balance was possible.  What pushed me to move beyond fantasy and talk was Natalie’s stressful 6th grade year.  Although I knew that my strength as a mother would be tested in ways it had never been before, I was prepared to forge a new trail if it led toward growth and happiness.

If I had been told at that moment that skipping middle school would turn out to be life changing for Natalie and me I would not have been surprised.  What was entirely unexpected was that skipping middle school would turn out to be life saving as well.  Opening the door to the unknown — choosing “uncertain happiness” over “certain unhappiness” — we took our first steps toward living, loving & learning.  This is our story.

Copyright © 2011 Two in the Middle – All Rights Reserved


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