A hiccup in studying the effects of nature vs. nurture is the fact that most children are raised by their parents. Am I inclined to move around a lot because I share genes with parents who were inclined to move around a lot? Or is it because I was moved around a lot by my parents during my developmental years?
I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but I have no memory of living there because my first big move occurred when I was two years old.
I lived in California until I was nine. My city, Santa Cruz, is fairly renowned among surfers, but outside of that subculture I don’t think most people have heard of it. It’s near San Francisco, and from what I can remember, it’s basically a smaller version of San Francisco.
Hippie central, basically.
I was homeschooled, or technically “alternative schooled”. Enough families homeschooled their kids in that city “alternative education centers” cropped up to service them. I know the name evokes some sort of Communist internment camp, but basically it was a way homeschooled students could still have the experience of going to school one or two days a week. The academic curriculum was still left up to the parents, while the “classes” featured such subjects as gardening, painting, and African drumming.
Since you don’t have any frame of reference, you assume whatever experience you have is normal when you’re a kid. I had heard tale of the mythical “public schoolers” who had to go to school every day, but I assumed the atmosphere was similar, and that they were taught a curriculum similar to what my mom taught me at home–including studying Latin beginning in second grade.
I won’t speculate on the merits of homeschooling versus public schooling or raising kids in an unstructured hippie culture versus a stricter academic culture. The best thing to come out of my unusual childhood was the fact that it was unusual. Like everyone else, I grew up with certain assumptions about what is normal and how things should be done. Unlike most people, I was lucky enough to have my model of reality shattered so early.
Lucky? I think so. Sure, it was painful and disorienting, but most people either have a much more painful experience when their reality is shattered later in life, or worse, get so wrapped up in their reality that they never learn to see beyond it.
Pretend I’m Not Here
I must have been about eight or nine when my parents casually dropped it on me and my siblings that we were about to move to another country, permanently. That should have sent me reeling, but at that age it’s hard to visualize something you’ve never experienced. I knew a big change was coming, but couldn’t process the implications, so I pretty much carried on like normal until the big day came.
Our ultimate destination was Terrace, British Columbia, which is in the province right on top of Washington. We could have driven north in three or four days. Instead we decided to stop in New York first. The cross-country drive from Santa Cruz to Schenectady took seven days, in a minivan packed with a six-person family plus all our earthly possession.
Getting to see the myriad environments, both physical and cultural, that make up the United States was eye-opening, although we didn’t make many stops for sightseeing. The first day we made a detour to the Grand Canyon, and then we spent a day with an uncle in New Mexico. Other than that, I got a crash course in which kinds of crops, trees, mountains, or deserts can be seen on either side of the highway in any given state.
Most people don’t know that Upstate New York exists, and those who do usually willfully ignore it. There’s a nonzero chance I’m the only person alive who has been to New York many times, often for months at a stretch, but has never set foot in New York City.
In this instance, my family was taking a six-month vacation over the summer before finishing our emigration to Canada. My grandparents live in the city of Schenectady, but spend their summers in two large, old-fashioned lake houses collectively owned by my extended family. In the middle of a beautiful region known as the Adirondacks on the shores of serene Lake Sacandaga, the houses are a quiet retreat from society and a great place to immerse yourself in nature.
Again, I don’t think my brain was really processing what was happening at the time. Technically I knew I was never going back to where I grew up, was never going to see my friends again, and was facing a future I could scarcely imagine, but none of that had registered yet. Children have a remarkable superpower when it comes to staying in the present moment.
Focusing on the present, my primary goal was finding ways to entertain myself for six months in a place that was several hours from anywhere and where I had no social interaction outside of my family.
I’ve always been innately creative and active, but I think that summer–and similar summers to come–served as an incubator for those latent traits. Maybe I would have developed into the same person without that experience, just at a much slower rate. Maybe not.
In any case, with nothing else to do, I spent those six months running, reading, swimming, writing, and largely just relaxing in an idyllic environment and thinking about stuff. I developed a love for all of those things that carried with me to this day, as well as an appreciation for the vast and life-changing power of cutting yourself off from the world and forcing yourself to be bored from time to time.