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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off the Grid: A personal introduction to lifelong education

By Ammi Midstokke The Spokesman-Review

When my family moved to North Idaho on a December day in 1985, the trees were heavy with billowing blankets of fresh snow. I had never seen anything like it, and neither had my parents, apparently, because they sent us out of our truck-bed camper to play in just our sneakers and swishing new snow pants. I distinctly remember how the air absorbed the noise and held little clouds of our steamy breath.

The idea of moving to Idaho came with the promise of much greater things. It was not dissimilar from when my mother announced she would home-school us, shattering my dreams of Valentine’s Day parties and tiny cartons of chocolate milk. Home schooling, she said, would mean we could learn whatever we wanted, but as far as I can tell, there’s still no degree available for tailoring Barbie clothes.

It was only a few months beyond our first bread-baking lesson that we embarked on our path north. Schooling on the journey, reminiscent of a Steinbeck migration, included combustion engine physics (the truck blew up), economics (we couldn’t afford to fix it) and whatever subject involves food deprivation, Pink Floyd lyrics and frozen oranges.

Idaho, our parents said, was a place of freedom, nature and abundance. That was before they’d tried to garden, of course. Or find employment.

Those first few months, the whole family was in school. My dad dug an outhouse in the middle of winter in his first lesson on frozen ground. Our next lesson had to do with the thermal effect of our bare bottoms on a frosty toilet seat. My dad wanted an outhouse with a view and the lack of a door meant brushing snow off the seat with whatever molding magazine sat nearby. Mother Earth News, most likely.

My brother continued to learn about small engine repair as they felled trees for our house. I learned about cooking beans and peeling logs. My anatomy lessons came from my mother’s midwifery texts and occasionally the uncouth neighbor boys.

What we didn’t know about physics or nature or meteorology, we taught ourselves through mistakes, observation and critical thinking. We had to be innovative because it was our only choice. Poverty comes with that unexpected benefit sometimes. And I can still repair most anything on a generator.

The house we built was crooked, if not a little precarious. My dad sunk cedar posts into the dirt as if they’d never decay. Foundations were for city folk, perhaps. When it was time to build my room, he said, “I’ll build it if you do the math.”

There are a few things in my psyche for which I blame my parents, and equally as many for which I thank them. For example, I’m still believe I am capable of making myself capable of doing just about anything. Now, raising my own teenagers and trying with reckless naivety to find the “right” way to produce contributing members of society, I can’t tell if I’ve made improvements or am contributing to a digressing civilization.

“Just because you suffered in your childhood,” my kid said, “doesn’t mean I have to.”

I had said he had to walk to school. The public kind where they have power, private bathrooms and vending machines. As far as I know, teachers aren’t even allowed to take the ruler to kids or put them in the corner with a dunce hat anymore.

“B” is right, I did suffer. Most of the time, I didn’t know it. I’m not sure if that makes it any better. But here is what I do know: When we asked our kids to come help us work on the new house a few weeks ago, they came.

They cranked up the Pink Floyd and Talking Heads, and they rolled stain onto siding for hours. They brought an electric grill and made sandwiches. They told us stories, made concerned political commentary, and offered little glimpses into their bright souls.

We learned they are helpful because they have empathy and social awareness. They can and do work hard. They are informed and smart and concerned about the world. They are capable and resilient, and we didn’t even have to abuse or neglect them. All they need are some sandwich supplies and a Bluetooth speaker.

Somehow, even as the music of generations has come full circle, so has the teaching. I just didn’t expect it to be the children who were educating us.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at