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March 7, 2011

Good Kite-Flying Days

By Rachel Retallick

When I was 7 my mother gave birth to my second brother. Sadly, complications with her labour meant that the baby, Paul, was severely brain-damaged and given only a few days to live. Years later, when I had babies of my own, I realised the full significance of the phrase I often used when telling this story: “We thought he would only live for a few days, but in fact he lived for nine months.” Nine months! To a young mother, nine months is like a lifetime—it seems as if the baby has always been. My mother, who carried on as normal as far as I was concerned, spent much of each day while I was at school, traveling several miles to see Paul in hospital. She was able to help care for him, feeding him through a tube in his nose.

This may seem an odd way to begin an article about home education, but the whole experience of Paul’s life became foundational for mine. Through those many traumatic days we knew he might die at any time, and I began to think seriously about life and death and what would happen to me if I died. My grandmother was staying with us and reminded me that Jesus had died on the cross so that I could be forgiven and know that I would go to heaven to be with Him. We prayed together, and I said I was sorry for my sins and that I wanted to be a Christian and give my life to God.

Paul died in a beautiful way. He spent his last five weeks at home and died in my mother’s arms. I was in the bath when my father told me, and my brother and I went downstairs and held him. We all cried together.

Make the Most of Time

Life is very precious and incredibly fragile. Death is one of life’s inevitable events, and yet so often we pretend it won’t happen to us. Knowing Paul taught me to live one day at a time, to try to please the Lord at each stage of my life and not to look to the future too much. It is good and right to plan and prepare for times to come, but we do not know how many days we have, so my aim has been to live each day wisely. King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Because I educate my children at home I am able to make the most of my time with them and try to ensure that they are living in a way which pleases God now.

In June 2005 my children and I went on holiday with my father in his camper van. We explored an area of our beautiful island of Anglesey which we had not visited before. Near Porth Eilian there is a lovely campsite which overlooks the sea and lighthouse at Point Lynas. At a moment when the children were at a loose end, my father produced a small pocket kite which he had brought, thinking it would provide some fun sometime. We also had a larger kite given to us by the campsite owner, one which someone else had lost earlier. We had flown kites before and knew how best to get them in the air but, try as we might, we couldn’t get either to stay up. One child would hold it in the air while the other started to run with the string, all to no avail. The campsite had a rocky outcrop in the centre which was excellent for running round. And run we did, mostly with the kites bouncing along the ground behind us. Occasionally they would stay up for a few seconds, but it was not very satisfying. It just wasn’t windy enough.

A few weeks later we had planned a day on the beach with fellow home educators, the Hardy family from Manchester. The large kite came out again but on this blustery day, flying it was a completely different matter. The kite took off on its own and swooped high into the air. The only skill the flyer needed was to hold on tightly to the string!

One of the things I have discovered as a mother and home educator is that when the conditions are right, flying is easy! Watching the learning process of my babies and toddlers was one of the first things which led me to teach the children at home. They just grew—in all ways—so easily and naturally. I didn’t want to interrupt this wonderful process by sending them away to school. I wanted to continue to be an intimate part of it; to be present all the time and therefore able to understand fully their developing gift of language; to guide them as they grew and to share the joy of a love of life and learning. So, much of my time was spent trying to ensure that the conditions for the children’s growth, in every area of life, were as good as they could be. I described myself as a facilitator rather than a teacher.

Learning on the Road

One of the great joys of our home educating life has been our many trips and visits to places of interest. We started to explore our home area of Anglesey several years ago and still feel we are only scratching the surface. A visit to somewhere like the city of Bath is invaluable for its reinforcement of the history of the Georgian period, not to mention Roman and medieval history! And surely there is nothing quite so memorable as standing on HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship) or taking a boat trip round the present fleet at Portsmouth. Our life has been full of such delights, all recorded in diaries containing photos, leaflets and other souvenirs. Looking back over these ensures that nothing is forgotten and it consolidates the things learnt over the years.

Unfortunately, life is not always full of perfect kite-flying days. Sometimes things do not go to plan and everything seems very hard. In 2000, my husband, Simon, had a breakdown, following years of difficulties with work and periods of unemployment and struggling with the pressures of church and family. Later, he was diagnosed as having chronic fatigue syndrome. Sadly, problems in every area of his life made it impossible to live as a normal family and in April 2002 the children and I moved into rented accommodation two miles away. The stress and trauma of the years leading up to the move are indescribable. The breakdown of a marriage is tragic, but the children’s relationship with their father has improved and is now much more stable.

So I became a single parent. Although lone parents are not stigmatised as they were in the past, there is no doubt that becoming one is not a good career move! No longer could we be looked upon as an exemplary Christian family. However, there are always benefits to every situation, and when you feel you are at the bottom of the heap it is good to know that you can’t fall much further. Also, to be living in rented accommodation and facing the possibility of having to move if the landlord pleases, helps to remind you that nothing is permanent in life. I have found it easier to trust the Lord when times are hard and there are fewer external things on which to depend.

During the extremely difficult times of making life-changing decisions, moving house, sorting out finances, and endeavouring to provide for Simon’s needs as far as possible, I tried to maintain a normal routine with the children, their education and outside activities. A few close friends and my father helped me keep my head above water, but without a doubt the continual, close and very evident presence of the Lord kept me going. For a very long time, whenever I felt down or needed some encouragement, the right word for the moment would be found in a daily text, personal Bible reading, or passage of Scripture (from Keys for Kids) shared with the children. God was faithful and carried me through. As time went by and I retold the story of our move, I was blessed by the response of my home educating friends who were, without exception, understanding and supportive. So many have helped me and upheld me in prayer and I feel very privileged to be part of such a wonderful community. The children and I have made many good and special friends through the Home Service conferences as well as through events organised in the North West and Deeside Groups. Also the email forum, Deut 6v7, has been a tremendous encouragement. To know that at any one moment there are many others experiencing similar home educating joys and difficulties is a continuing source of help, and in times past was almost literally a lifeline.

Keeping the Kids Involved

Having three children with you all the time is not easy, but at the time of our move I was very grateful that they were close by and able to share in everything that happened. I felt sad when I remembered a story of a child who came home from school to a different house having played no part in his family’s move. To include the children in as much of my life as possible has helped them, and me, to cope with its challenges. The many difficulties of life, worked through together, are another important means of growth. As Paul says in Romans 5:3–4, “...we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

One of the wonderful things about home education has been the ability to study historical periods and base the rest of our work and reading around that time frame. It is exciting to see how art, literature, music and science all fit into their historical context. Much of the formal, more academic work we have undertaken has been linked to our other activities, trips and interests of the moment. David and Hannah have tended to work together. Jonathan latches on to all he can and studies reading, English and maths at his own level. As the children get older, we are working towards some exams but trying not to focus too much on them. We do not want to lose the freedom of home education by being too exam orientated, but we find they are a good incentive to work hard and achieve more.

It is fascinating to watch the children’s characters and natural leanings develop. Jonny is very good with his hands and delights in making things and doing woodwork with his grandfather. Hannah loves to play the piano in between writing, organising her Literary Society, cooking or planning special events. David reads avidly, enjoys sport and plays on the computer. The joy of home education is that we can follow our interests and catch up on other things quickly if we feel the need. Any weaknesses are addressed as and when necessary. This is the year for an extra emphasis on maths!

Since David was 4 I have recorded in detail the events of each day and everything each child has studied. Originally this was in case we were inspected by the local education authority. However, I am also very interested in the learning process and so wanted to remember what we had done and when. I am so glad I have this record. When I feel we have not done much I can look back and see how hard we have worked—or not!

My biggest problem in life is getting up in the morning (having worked into the early hours)! However, once I have managed that, we have our breakfast and Bible reading together and start work. Because we often begin late (about 10.30 am) we usually work until about 3.30 pm. As well as the work we do in the day, we enjoy many other so-called “extra-curricular activities.” I actually view them as far more central to the curriculum—the curriculum of life!

Weekly Routine

Our week is shaped by our regular commitments. On Sunday we attend services at Ebenezer Evangelical Church in Bangor and in the afternoon have a walk and share fun and fellowship with some of our old friends from our previous church. They are like family to us, and their knowledge and wisdom are a very enriching part of our lives.

On Monday we all attend our local, highly respected, brass band, the Beaumaris Band. We have been fortunate to be able to borrow our instruments and to learn to play at the weekly rehearsals. After a stressful, busy day there is nothing like a good “blow” to get things into perspective and lift the spirits. It is also nice not to be in charge and just to follow the conductor. David and I sit together and both do what we’re told! Jonny joined the band this year, and in the summer we all wore our red band t-shirts and played together for the first time. It was a lovely feeling.

The children have all had swimming lessons. The exercise is beneficial; they have learnt to swim very well and love being in the water. I find it useful to have a few minutes of time to myself while watching them and have also enjoyed seeing someone else teach them. It was particularly interesting to see that the child who had difficulty concentrating at home also struggled on that front in the pool. Good to know it wasn’t just me who was at fault!

Both in swimming and band the children are of mixed ages but grouped according to their ability. They are excellent “home education friendly” activities! Adults are allowed to play in the junior band, and I have found it humbling and helpful to learn with the children. It is good to be reminded of what it feels like to try very hard and still not always meet the mark!

On Tuesdays we often go to our local art group. It was set up by a friend of ours when Jonny was still a toddler and has given us many happy memories and a great delight in art. The aim of the group was to paint outside, which meant the children could draw or paint for as long as they could concentrate, and then play. We’ve been to many beautiful locations and got to know lots of interesting people, also benefiting from the years of experience of local artists who have come to share their expertise with the group. We have visited exhibitions of their work and got to know their different styles. The Oriel at Llangefni, which is a wonderful friendly gallery and museum, is one of our favourite places, while the Ucheldre centre at Holyhead, which runs an annual “Art for All” exhibition, has enabled the children to exhibit the best of their year’s art. It is a good incentive to keep producing work and to try hard.

On Wednesday and Friday evenings the children attend their respective youth activities at church.

Special Events

We also have several annual events. In the summer we benefit from the United Beach Mission which runs activities on Benllech beach. The teams of varying ages entertain the children on the beach and teach them Biblical truths. I took the children as soon as they were all old enough not to eat the sand! As little ones they loved the afternoon “holiday specials” and now they support the team as much as possible and are looking forward to joining it when they are old enough.

In May we attend many of the concerts and talks organised by our local arts festival in Beaumaris. I took the children to talks when most people thought they were a bit too young to understand them, but because the talks were of an excellent standard the children were able to appreciate them at their own level and, as they have grown up, really look forward to this annual event. We can now go to more of the evening concerts too and delight in the high quality of the performances. I was thrilled this year to be approached by the wife of the artistic director who had seen us at many events over the years and wanted to know who we were. She approached me and said, “I’ve seen you, and thought—‘home education?’ ” I was really chuffed about that!

A summer camp with Mirfield and Dewsbury Evangelical Churches is a recent addition. David and Hannah attend as campers, Jonny as a junior camper, and I go and help with the cooking. We all have a good time, lots of outdoor activities and lovely evening meetings. I enjoy the freedom from the responsibility for the children and it is bliss to cook and not to have to wash the dishes!

Each year in November we hold a Tear Fund Coffee Morning and Evening in our house. We send out invitations, bake cakes and biscuits, clean and tidy the house (a job which is getting more difficult each year!) and our local representative comes and displays Tear Fund products on every available surface. Last year we sold over £500 [about $813 in U.S. currency] worth of goods. We also do a sponsored swim. It is good to remember those who are so much less well off than us and to feel that we are doing something, if only a little, to help.

I have now been home educating for nine years. I expected that by now I would be an expert on the subject, but instead I keep thinking of new questions which need answering. How can I maintain the joy and flexibility of our early years in the face of approaching exams? How and when do I find out what history (for example) Jonny has absorbed while working with David and Hannah? Will I be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge effectively? But on a more down to earth level—when am I going to find time to clean the bathroom?

Rachel Retallick, homeschooling mother of three, lives in the United Kingdom with her family. This story is excerpted from “Making The Right Impression—Stories of 21 British Home Educating Christian Families,” available from The Home Service by contacting Learn more about the book and the history of British homeschooling online.