“Sold!” the auctioneer shouted, and I excitedly watched with my dad as the ring attendants herded my newly-acquired dairy goat into the holding pens for sold animals. At twelve years old, I currently cared for my family’s herd of miniature horses and donkeys, and I eagerly anticipated managing a farm animal that would produce something for the family besides amusement. Originally, I’d hoped for a dairy cow, but I didn’t mind settling for a goat instead. In fact, I was a little relieved. While neither of my parents had any former homesteading experience, they decided to start the homestead as part of our homeschool education. Despite my own complete inexperience, I’d promised to take care of the dairy animal myself. As my mom and I spent over two hours trying to milk the poor goat for the first time, I felt relieved that we hadn’t bought a cow. I had no idea how much I would learn through caring for my new goat. Eventually, I could milk in ten minutes, but no matter how long it took, owning her was a twice-a-day commitment from the moment the auctioneer banged his gavel and pronounced the goat sold.
My parents posed a good example of never allowing a lack of knowledge to prevent them from undertaking what they wanted to do, although they both approached new tasks from a different perspective. This caused some unforgettable occasions. While my mom put great importance in extensive research before actually beginning a project, my dad valued the skills, knowledge, and persistence gained by trial and error. There are pros and cons to both ways. At times, the research stage can become so overwhelming that the project never gets underway. On the other hand, working by trial and error can sometimes be heavy on the errors, which is just as discouraging. Specifically, one project comes to mind as a splendid example of a trial-and-error project that became stuck in the error stage for quite a while. In the end, we did learn the hard way what we might have gained more easily through research, but the lesson was certainly a memorable one.
It all started with the need to put up a fence quickly so I could bring home the pony I’d just purchased. Consequently, my dad strung a few rows of electric fence wire on metal T-posts, hung a couple gates, put in wood corner posts, and attached a mini solar fence controller. It actually outlasted my pony, which nearly injured me and had to be sold, but as time went on, I acquired a herd of miniature donkeys. Ingeniously, they discovered the weakness of the battery in the solar fence controller and contrived an escape method. The mother donkey would lift the sagging, loose bottom wire of the fence with her nose, allowing her baby to walk out untouched. Scarcely feeling the weak electric pulses of the failing fence, she would then squeeze under the wire herself and feast on the tall grass. Every afternoon, I had to go out and chase both donkeys back in before they strayed too far. We tried everything short of replacing the fence to keep them in, but nothing worked for long.
One day, the entire herd of miniature donkeys escaped. While we later discovered that they hadn’t gone through the fence but had unhinged a gate, the harrowing experience that followed inspired us to completely reconstruct the entire fence. I don’t remember who discovered the escaped donkeys first, but before long my whole family was out to round them up. Strangely, my normally languid and docile pets suddenly experienced a burst of unheard-of energy. Galloping through the backyard like desperate criminals, the escapees ignored the treats I tried to entice them with and took off toward the highway. My dad jumped on the little miniature motorcycle my brothers and I often rode around the yard and revved the engine to the max, speeding after the naughty donkeys. There was a small stream crossing the field between us and the highway, and the donkeys headed straight for the bridge. Taking a shortcut through our front yard, my dad hoped to reach the bridge before the donkeys. It was our only hope of keeping them out of the road. Scarcely ahead of the stampeding herd, he reached it just in time and the donkeys soon settled down after seeing that their escape route was blocked.
The next fence we tried was the woven wire cattle fencing that comes in rolls of a hundred feet. If it kept cows in, we figured it would work for miniature donkeys. After nailing one end of the roll to a wood post, we unrolled the rest and stretched the fence out with the tractor before nailing the other end to another wood post and attaching it to metal T-posts every ten feet. It didn’t take long to stretch out a few rolls and finish the project, and it looked quite nice for a while. No more loose donkeys! But eventually, the donkeys learned how to stretch their necks over the fence and eat the grass on the other side, and in this way they squashed it down sufficiently with their hooves to walk right over it. We tried stringing barbed wire around the top to prevent them from putting their necks over the fence, but they surprised us by intentionally itching themselves on the barbs, as if we’d provided them especially for their destructive enjoyment. Many years and failed fences later, we finally worked out all the kinks and built a beautiful white fence made of electric tape, which resembled a plastic fence but was powered with a complete solar power system that provided standard household current. Finally, we learned what it takes to contain donkeys! My only regret is that we had to move less than a year later. Thankfully, the knowledge gained and character built from the project moved with me, even though the fence had to stay behind. A common thrust at homeschooling is the claim that the students have to learn every single thing in life from just two people: their parents. I’m sure thankful that’s not the case. If I only had the knowledge I learned directly from my parents, I wouldn’t be who I am today. However, my parents’ idea of homeschool was not merely school at home, but a chance to do school radically different. Instead of simply passing down their own store of facts and information, they wanted to give me the ability to learn. Knowledge is readily accessible, but the character required to search for it, apply it to life, and handle it considerately is a rare gem. The homestead provided constant scenarios where I learned by experience, and my projects also taught me how to seek out information from the plentiful sources available today. In refining my ability to learn, my parents opened up a whole new world of opportunity for me. Nothing lingered out of reach. Between the library, the internet, knowledgeable people, and practical experience, I felt confident in learning anything I wanted to know to accomplish whatever I set out to do.
One skill I developed as a child through both experimentation and study is woodworking. As a six year old, I loved going dumpster diving with my dad and brothers in the housing developments springing up all over the place. The discarded scraps of lumber tossed in with the trash were treasures to my brothers and me. One day, we found four wooden doors in the dumpster in perfect condition. Since my littlest brother was too small to play in the tree house we constructed with the other lumber scraps, my oldest brother and I made the doors into an outdoor playpen for him. Most of our projects didn’t work out as planned. The funniest and most elaborate started with a box we made big enough for the two of us to sit inside. After securing this box to a wagon, we dubbed it our caboose, hauled it up the little mound in our backyard, squeezed inside, and rolled down the hill—but not on the wheels. The entire “caboose” tumbled down the incline, tossing us on top of each other until it reached the bottom of the mound a few seconds later. Thankfully, it wasn’t a big hill. Trying to sled down it in the winter was pitiful, especially when we tried to ride our homemade wooden sleds. They didn’t budge an inch, partially due to the hill (or lack thereof) but mainly because of our poor design. Despite my many failed projects, I still enjoyed creating things out of wood.
While they weren’t experts in the subject themselves, my parents continually encouraged me to pursue my interest in woodworking. Gradually, my wood-handling skills and attention to detail began to improve as I learned from trial-and-error experience, research, and helping a carpenter remodel our home. At the age of 18, I completed my crowning achievement, a beautiful 34-string wooden harp that I built from just a paper blueprint and planks of wood straight from the lumberyard. Other successful projects included outbuildings, children’s toys, and beehives that I made for my honeybees. One of my favorite projects was designing and constructing a three-sided building for my goats on a budget of $115, complete with a feeder, hayloft, and milking stand that folded into the wall when not in use. Even as a homeschooler, my learning was never limited to my parents’ store of knowledge, and my strides in woodworking are just one example of the many areas in which I far surpassed their level.
The intriguing projects provided by the homestead proved to be a great source of both learning and character-building for my siblings and me. Through the animals alone, I learned invaluable lessons in patience, responsibility, consistency, sacrifice, and persistence, and also found the inspiration to study things like biology and nutrition before it was ever assigned. It took a lot of determination to trudge out in the dead of winter to haul water to the animals or labor in the hot sun in the summer stacking hay on swaying haywagons out in the field, but that determination stuck with me when life brought other challenges. Along with everything else, my entrepreneur skills also grew. Pursuing information in books and from acquaintances, I learned the basics of horse training with much experimentation and successfully trained a few horses for profit as well as a hobby. Additionally, I delved into gardening, cooking, and sewing, and also made lip balm and lotion bars from my own beeswax to sell along with honey from my own beehives. Gaining numerous useful skills as well as knowledge and character from my real-life projects, I quickly finished my minimal textbook work each day and spent most of my time pursuing my interests rather than calling it a day and watching TV after filling in the answers for the day’s lessons in a daunting pile of textbooks. I can’t imagine what a home education would be like without the opportunities created by the homestead.
To my surprise, I have heard it said that homeschoolers lack the discipline afforded to other children by their timely attendance at school required five mornings a week. While that may be true for some homeschoolers, my animals kindly provided me with a discipline far stricter than the average school student. From the very first day, I milked my goat at 7 o’clock every single morning and evening, including weekends, vacations, holidays, and even when I was sick. The weight of responsibility never fully left my shoulders as long as I had animals, and I learned what it means to be dependable and follow through with commitments. The only break I had every year was during the winter, when I stopped milking to allow my pregnant goat to nurture her growing fetuses. Even then, I still had to feed and water her twice a day. A dairy goat requires care on a rigid schedule every single day of the year, and my alarm went off far more regularly than that of even the most disciplined public school student. I smother a laugh at the idea of me sleeping in all week simply because I didn’t have to be at school. That couldn’t be more wrong.
While some people might see the homestead as just a lot of hard work, I value the experience for what it taught me indirectly. The knowledge and skills I gained in homestead activities undoubtedly continue to contribute to my life, but more significant to me are the experiences that prepared me to be a life-long learner by planting the desire in my heart and teaching me both how to discover information and what it takes to face discouragement or failure and still push on. Education does not consist merely of facts and figures, but of a strong character comprised of honesty, motivation, willingness to work, determination in the face of hardship, and the ability to stand alone and do the right thing. A deficiency of knowledge and skill, though unfortunate, can be repaired, but no amount of learning can make up for a lack of character. In both aspects, the homestead simply reinforces the efforts of homeschooling parents.