Our arrival on Thursday afternoon had us feeling a little shy, a little exposed, and intimidated. The hotel was nice and as we stood in the lobby, I immediately recognized my friend Shannon and we greeted one another with a big, cozy hug.
We settled into our room and then we were off. We checked in with the conference divas and explored the funshops. Adam and I went off to make sushi with Beth, while Olivia did speed dating and Alex gathered with some of the other dads.
We could choose to do funshops, we could hang-out, wander, go back to our room, it didn't matter. The point was, the conference would be what we made it and we would take what we wanted from it, and we would hopefully give something back, too. That first evening during dinner break, we went out for pizza and supplies, as we brought our cooler and coffee maker, so we could have breakfast and lunch or snacks in the room.
We don't have a Trader Joe's in Maine yet, though one is supposed to be coming to Portland within a year.
Back at the conference, we enjoyed the music of Fishing With Finnegan. Folks milled about, kids and adults formed long chains and danced through the rows and mostly, we hung back a bit, tried to take it all in, and hoped that we would get a hang of feeling comfortable being newbies.
I could see the kids, working through the discomfort, trying to find their niche. As the evening went on and the music ended, the kids both joined a group of kids playing capture the flag (using the entire hotel as their arena). They were both in the room by midnight, however, tired and pleased with how the day had ended.
Friday morning, Olivia and Adam had lots to tell about the day and evening before.
We stuffed the kids with Greek yogurt, orange juice, vitamins and elderberry syrup, knowing that Olivia was already feeling a bit run-down and having read many accounts of post-conference crud, it was something we were eager to avoid. Alex and I went to see Peter Gray speak about free-learning and play in hunter gatherer societies. The kids took off to their various funshops but also attended some of Peter Gray's talk. His talk was fascinating as his research has explored child development in societies with free-play as learning. It was a timely and excellent reminder to both Alex and I to let go and be more than okay with the hyper-focused play that so often has us and all parents anxious. (As in, Adam spending months exploring and producing with his FXhome tools is indeed months and months spent learning. When he masters that, he will move on to something else.)
Friday afternoon was spent enjoying more talks, (some so moving, I was nearly brought to tears-I'm talking to you, Phil Biegler), more hanging-out, the kids played lots of Werewolf and we generally did what we felt like doing.
We went into town for a quick bite to eat and stumbled on an old-fashioned ice cream parlour.
Everyone was looking a bit tired by this point, but we were determined to locate a second or third wind somewhere, and maybe at the Talent Show, which was Friday's evening entertainment. The Talent Show was three hours long and consisted of a wide range of acts, improvised and rehearsed, from all ages and abilities.
It was totally inclusive, zany, loud, funny and fun. Olivia was brave enough to get up there and perform the song she had written, and despite her sore throat, she performed it well. We were struck by just how much true talent, love and support was in the room. After that, we thought for sure the kids, not to mention Alex and me, would fade, but with a little searching, we slowly found the beginnings of our conference tribes.
Adam and Olivia soon joined a large group playing what was to be all night
We were invited to play immediately. Alex joined in first, because he's like that, and soon the whole table was laughing, with all the players trying to spell out bitchslap, which was the winning word. Soon I was playing. A little sharing about ourselves, learning more about the others there, many innuendos and lots of laughing later, Alex and I definitely felt like we had made friends.
We didn't head up to our room until about 1am, after checking in on the kids, who were engrossed in a game of Werewolf. Adam came up at 245am and we didn't see Olivia until almost 5am. It looked like they had found their tribe as well.
Saturday, our last full day at the conference, had us feeling as though we wanted to pack as much into our day as possible. Olivia was up and ready to go by 9am, and Adam soon followed. Alex and I attended more presentations, one on unschooling with teens and one on unschooling math and video games, both fascinating. Much of our day, however, for the kids and us, was simply spent walking the halls, finding a spot to chat with friends (apparently Zoa and I chatted so much that I forgot to take any pictures.)
Alex played some Werewolf, as did the kids, of course. But while it looked like play, and naturally it was fun, it was also really important learning-how to be together in a group, learning to work through irritations (it's no fun being discovered a Werewolf early in the game, as it happens), learning to build those oh-so important relationships and connections.
During the dinner break, Alex went and picked up pizza and Olivia insisted she could not nap and proved it by falling promptly and deeply asleep for two hours, while Adam and I cuddled and cat-napped.
By the time the evening concert and dance rolled around, the kids were feeling energized and eager to gather with friends for another evening of fun and connection-building.
We danced, we laughed, the kids took off and Alex and I hit the Banangrams tables once again. Content and tired, we were all in bed early, by 230am.
Sunday morning, our last hours at the conference, was spent in a very similar manner. Lots of small group chats, swapping of contact info, movie-making and photographing.
We listened to the closing remarks and then spent the next hour or so, not wanting to say good-bye. Many hugs, secret handshakes, and goofy photos later, we climbed into our hot van and headed up the road towards Salem, MA. We thought we'd explore Salem some, but the 95F temps got to our physically and emotionally tired bodies very quickly.
The thing about learning in freedom, however, is that we had choices as a family. We knew we didn't have to do Salem, right then. We didn't have to wake up for school the next day. We could come back, plan a fall trip, perhaps. We had options and we exercised them. We opted instead to keep heading up the road, where we stopped by the Platts-Bradstreet House in Rowley, where we were given an impromtu, off-hours tour by one of the caretakers. It was the perfect, free-learning moment at the end of such a meaningful, wonderful, enriching, and yes, life-changing conference experience.
Olivia's video from the NEUC. Grabbing tissues.
So what I've learned, and what I think the rest of us have learned, is that we needed this unschooling conference. Even though we've always unschooled, we needed to expand our tribe, build a foundation of people who get us. Alex and I felt and feel supported, accpeted and loved. Truly. Both Olivia and Adam have come home, fielding friend requests on Facebook, sharing photos, seeking their own game of Werewolf (plus expansion pack) and I know that they, too, feel that they have cast a wider, stronger circle. The unschooling conference is one of the best things our family has ever done and we can't wait to seek out other conferences to attend. We hope to see new friends well before another year goes by, as so many are in the New England area. I know that if you, dear reader, are in any way thinking about or are already unschooling, attend a conference. Build your tribe, unschoolers. I'll see you at the Bananagrams table.