I certainly didn't learn what I know about geography in school. In my fifth grade class, for example, I had a teacher who taught us that there were eight continents, which mistakenly included Central America. Don’t worry - I've since learned that Central America is part of the North American continent.
I learned what I know of geography by traveling. My daddy was in the Navy for 20 years, overlapping the first 16 years of my life. We moved eight times before my tenth birthday. I can find the locations of where I've lived on a US map: Key West FL, Rockville MD, Monterrey CA, Cheltenham MD, Bethesda MD, Houston TX, Foster City CA, Port Bolivar TX, Sugar Land TX and Nicholasville KY. I can trace most of the road trips I've taken, and will recognize or remember the waypoints along the way. Twice we moved from DC to California. For these moves, Daddy scheduled his leave back-to-back between duty tours so that we could make moving into a family vacation road trip.
It was during these cross-country travels that I learned that Houston was always “on the way”. No matter where we were going, it was safe to assume that Houston would be one of our points of call. Both sets of grandparents lived in Houston, so if we were moving the family from one end of the country to another, of course we would drive through Houston. I vaguely remember bundling up in my favorite white blanket with yellow roses on it and huddling down in the back of the station wagon the time we drove away from Mammaw's when I was sick with a sore throat and ear infection. I have tons of memories of playing at my Granddaddy's big old farm house which was still pretty far out in the country from Houston back then. He had a special refrigerator Just For Soda Pop which produced those glass bottles of Dr. Pepper with the 10, 2, and 4 on them - the ones that would trap your tongue if you drank too fast out of them. I remember the front porch full of toys just for kids, the bathtub with the funny pink mirror, Meemee sinking down into her chair to rub her feet, and deciding never to be a nurse. I remember Granny making cakes without a mixer; the special sleep-sweaty-Old-Spice smell of my Granddaddy and the big ship tattoo that covered his back. There was a great old garage with naked stud walls between the car and workshop sections, and an old-fashioned soda-pop-dispenser chest. The dog's name was Precious, and Granny chewed food for her when she, Precious, got too old for solid food.
But we didn't stay in the US. I learned just a taste of what the wide world outside the US was like during the 17 months that we lived in Iceland.
The most exotic locale where I’ve lived was Iceland. Daddy was stationed at the Naval Air Station there after Vietnam. It was an exciting place to live as a kid. It's near (but south of) the Arctic Circle, which means that the days get very, very long in summer, and very, very short in the winter. In the summer time, the Icelandic kids were allowed to play outside in the parks until sunset. My brother and I had to come home much earlier. We lived off-base when we first got to Iceland; and even shared a duplex with a *gasp* communist. I didn't know much about it at seven, but I knew that the Russians were communist, Americans were capitalists, and that Iceland was a democracy that had communists living there.
When we lived in town, Mommy only went shopping at the commissary once a month. There was a price limit on the amount of groceries that could be taken off base, to prevent people from selling the subsidized groceries in town. The guard actually checked Mommy's receipts at the gate. This meant that we froze a lot of our food to keep it good, and that we supplemented our shopping in town. I remember that the milk cartons were tetrahedrons. When I was older and I heard about "pyramid power" I remembered the milk cartons in Iceland. I think it's just a more efficient shape, but I'm not sure why.
The food in the commissary included comforting foods from home, like Kraft Jet Puffed Marshmallows and boxes of General Mills, Kellogg's, and Post Cereals. Most American junk foods have an amazing shelf life, so the only indication of the advanced age of the cereals were the already-expired prize offers on the boxes. When we moved back to the states, we laughed about how long those contests really lasted. The marshmallows weren't so lucky, however. By the time a bag of marshmallows made it all the way to Iceland and onto the shelves of the commissary, the marshmallows within the bag were rock hard. Just think about the consistency of the marshmallows found in a box of Lucky Charms, then upsize that to a full-sized marshmallow. I've always had a sweet tooth, though, and if Mommy said I could have marshmallows, I was darned well going to eat them. I found that they were best enjoyed like a hard candy: just suck on it until it was gone. To this day, I have a special fondness for stale marshmallows. Ro always makes it a point to save out Easter Peeps for me over the years that it takes for them to truly go stale. We can't age them properly at home, because we have an in-line humidifier in our heating system.
One of the neatest things about Iceland was its proximity to the rest of Europe. We were able to fly Navy stand-by for vacations in Spain and Germany while we were there. I remember riding in a plane where my seat faced backwards, and reading the Narnian chronicles while we flew. It's amazing that I learned any geography at all from those trips -- my mom says I had my nose in a book for the entire ride. As I was only seven, I don't have a lot of memories of our travels in Spain and Germany, but one of the few things I do remember about Spain is my older brother buying a fencing sword when we toured Toledo. I also recall eating "french fries" that turned out to be deep-fried squid sticks. I fell asleep at dinner every night because the seatings were so late in the evening. I remember returning to the steak restaurant with the oh-so-hot plates for a second night, and being surprised to get a cool plate for my steak when the food came. I'm the only one who remembers Daddy picking up his on-the-rocks glass with the heavy bottom, all wet with condensation from his ice, and it breaking in his hand, because the bottom was so firmly stuck to the table.
It was winter when our family went to Munich, Germany. There was a park that featured stories from the Brothers Grimm illustrated in beautiful, full-size dioramas, all covered in freshly fallen snow. I remember there were complications between our touring schedule and the hotel’s restaurant schedule that didn't mesh well, and my parents were concerned about eating at local restaurants. I was their main concern - I was a very picky eater. It would be an exaggeration to say that I only ate grilled cheese sandwiches, since I was happy with standbys like steak, potatoes, corn, french fries, whipped cream, cheese pizza, etc. But I was a pretty picky eater, and we were in foreign country that made weird food like schnitzel. My parents tell people that they've taught chefs to make grilled cheese sandwiches (when there was nothing acceptable on the menu). But we found ourselves out in a small village at lunchtime, so they took a shot. I ate my first uitsmijter when I was seven years old, and I actually liked it: an open faced sandwich, prepared on dark pumpernickel bread, layered with ham and cheese, broiled, and topped off with fried eggs.
When the school year started in Iceland, the firemen set up sewing day: our parents brought our winter coats to the fire station on base, and they sewed that reflective cloth tape that is used on fire-fighting gear onto our coats. There was a school bus to take kids from home to school, even though it was within easy walking distance. This was done because it was still pitch dark in the mornings when school started. If the wind blew out the power (this was my young mind's image of what happened when the weather caused black-outs), we lit candles and sang along with our guitar-playing teacher.
I learned about geothermal energy in Iceland, and about the whaling industry (mostly, that it smells TERRIBLE). I learned first hand about the longer days and nights our tipped planet gives us closer to its poles. I learned that there is more than one system of broadcasting TV signal - the Icelandic TV stations broadcast in PAL, and our TV was the US standard, NTSC. My brother was very excited to get to see Russian MiG fighters firsthand, and he also got to participate in an international Boy Scout Jamboree. He learned that moving water can be below freezing temperature, when he swam in a creek during the Jamboree.
I don't remember a lot of what I learned in my early schooling, which unfortuntely is when we teach our kids the states and capitals and continents. But my experiences as my family traveled the country and the world will always stick with me.
Experience teaches our kids as we live. Live fully and they will learn fully.