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What We Gained (and Lost) When Our Daughter Unplugged for a School Year

The handwritten letters from our 13-year-old daughter sit on our coffee table in a clear plastic folder. With their drawings of pink flowers and long paragraphs marked with underlined and crossed-out words, they are an abridged, analog version of her spirited personality — and a way for my wife and me to keep her close as we watch TV and fiddle with our phones.

They would not exist, of course, if Amelia was home with us in Sydney. But she is hundreds of miles away at a uniquely Australian school in the bush, where she is running and hiking dozens of miles a week, sharing chores with classmates, studying only from books and, most miraculously, spending her whole ninth-grade school year without the internet, a phone, a computer or even a camera with a screen.

Our friends and relatives in the United States can hardly believe this is even a possibility. There, it is considered bold just to talk about taking smartphones from students during class time. Here in Australia, a growing number of respected schools lock up smart everything for months. They surround digital natives with nature. They make tap-and-swipe teens learn, play and communicate only through real-life interaction or words scrawled on the page.

“What a gift this is,” we told Amelia, when she was accepted, hesitated, then decided to go.

What I underestimated was how hard it would be for us at home. Removing the liveliest member of our family, without calls or texts, felt like someone had taken one of my internal organs across state lines without telling me how to heal. The silence and hunger to see paper in the mailbox, anything from my girl, spurred nausea and a rush to the Stoics.

Yet as we adjust, her correspondence and ours — traveling hundreds of miles, as if from one era to another — is teaching us all more than we’d imagined. The gift of digital detox that we thought Australia was giving our daughter has also become a revelatory bequest for us — her American parents and her older brother.

Something in the act of writing, sending and waiting days or weeks for a reply, and in the physical and social challenges experienced by our daughter at a distance, is changing all of our personal operating systems. Without the ever-present immediacy of digital connection, even just temporarily, can a family be rewired?

Amelia is at Timbertop, the ninth-grade campus of Geelong Grammar, one of Australia’s oldest private schools, which has made outdoor education a priority since the 1950s. The headmaster at the time, James Darling, was inspired by Outward Bound, a movement birthed in Europe before World War II that aimed to build competence and confidence. But rather than tack on an adventure for a few days or weeks — as such programs generally do in the United States — Mr. Darling Australianized the idea and made it residential.

Geelong bought a huge tract of rural land in the state of Victoria, at the base of Mount Timbertop, in 1951. Students helped build some of the rustic cabins where my daughter and her classmates now live — cabins where hot showers happen only if they chop wood and fire it up in an old-fashioned boiler. The idea was to build courage, curiosity and compassion among adolescents, and their ranks have ranged from the children of sheep farmers and diplomats to a certain angsty member of the British royal family named Charles. The current king of England spent a semester at Timbertop in 1966. He later said it was “by far the best part” of his education.

Many schools have trod a similar path, with analog outposts in the hinterlands. And like a lot of elite schooling, these programs hold up a mirror to national mythology. For Australia, the goal is hardiness, not Harvard: Outdoor ed thrives on a sparsely populated island the size of the continental United States where there is still a deep love for the pastoral, where “mateship” in the face of unexpected hardship lives on in novels and pop culture.

The bush schools of Australia are not cheap — Timbertop costs around $55,000, with room and board, on par with private day schools in New York City, but as steep as it gets in Oz. For regular Geelong students, the experience is compulsory; others must apply and be selected after an interview, yielding a class of 240 boys and girls who have signed up for, along with the usual classes, community service at local farms, winter camping in the snow and, in the final term, a six-day hike, where students plan their own route and are entirely self-sufficient.

The year is meant to be difficult.

Before we dropped Amelia off in late January, we received a video from Timbertop showing teachers sitting at picnic tables in the sun, warning that confidence and personal growth would come only with struggles and perseverance. My wife and I, having grown up when such things could be easily acquired for free, laughed at what felt like a satirical New Age pitch. Thanks for paying lots of money, now get ready to suffer!

Within 24 hours, we started to understand what that meant. Not for Amelia. For us.

The WhatsApp group for parents from Sydney was abuzz with pangs of despair and grief. Gone were the texts asking for a ride or wondering what’s for dinner. The apps we all relied on to chat or to know whether our kids were on the bus were useless. We knew where they all were. But we couldn’t call — even phones sit outside Timbertop asceticism, except in emergencies. Were their cabin mates nice? Were they miserable with all the running, hiking and cleanliness inspections?

A few days in, I also couldn’t avoid tough questions about myself. Was the fact that it was so hard to lose contact a comment on my over-involved parenting? My own ridiculous addiction to tech-fueled immediacy? Or both?

“Withdrawal” was a word we heard discussed in Timbertop, or “TT,” circles. In Amelia’s first letter, arriving after a week that felt like a year, we could certainly see the symptoms. She was anxious about friendships, wanting them to form as quickly as they do on Snapchat. In her Timbertop interview, when asked about homesickness, she had bluntly said “that’s the least of my worries,” but, in fact, Amelia missed us — even her brother. Her early letters to us and to him made clear that she found the intensity of her emotions surprising.

My wife, Diana, and I wrote back right away with encouragement. We scrutinized a school ID photo that appeared on the Geelong website — proof of life! — and spoke to her unit leader, a warm, wonderful teacher charged with monitoring her cabin of 15 girls. She assured us that things would improve when the rhythm of letter writing became more regular.

I was skeptical, but Timbertop seemed to know what it was doing. We had to trust. We had to write.

The last time I’d composed actual letters, it was the late ’90s, and one of my closest friends was in the Peace Corps in Paraguay. We exchanged tales of our exploits on blue paper as thin as tissue that folded up into an envelope to minimize the weight for postage. This time, I mostly typed in Google Docs using the newsletter template so I could easily add photos and, as I told Amelia, create more of a Pinterest vibe. Totally disconnecting and writing by hand — that still felt too slow and out of reach for me.

And yet, among the more fascinating elements of the process has been watching Amelia’s handwriting change. She sent 19 letters home in the first five weeks, from a page to a few, and they show heaps of growth in penmanship. Words have taken clearer shape and fit better together, flowing with her thoughts, delivering humor, fear and a heightened self-awareness that seems to come from long hikes and sitting quietly without electronic distractions.

Her missives still contain common requests from a 13-year-old — send me this or that — and phrases we don’t understand. My favorite moments are the sudden interludes that reveal she’s not alone, but writing the letter at a mandatory letter-writing time in a room with other girls. I almost cried with joy when, between critiquing one particular class, she wrote about her recent hike: “OH MY GOD. The Mt. TT was 1,200 meters high! Just found that out. Crazy.”

Reading that, I felt enormous pride and thought: Maybe it’s the mix of the banal, the deep — and all that is omitted — that makes letters distinct. They pass from our mind in a way that allows for a portrait of the self to emerge that can be more revealing than what we get through electronic media because letters often lack editing, are long enough to justify postage and are run through with holes of subjectivity.

For example, in my early letters to Amelia, I left out details of home because I was consumed by curiosity and concern. I asked a million questions about the food, the weekly schedule, classes, teachers, hiking and chores, because, well, didn’t she want her parents to know?

But every letter we received seemed to veer away from my questions to what she cared and worried about. Two or three weeks in, I offered a bribe — I’d send her a present if she would write to us with the funniest story she had experienced or heard. Even then, it took a while to get an answer, and it was far less satisfying than when she, on her own accord, started sharing smile-inducing tales that included honey poured in shoes, gross dirty dishes, tears while hiking, bribing a boy with snacks to chop wood, falling down a trail and the mysterious reappearance of a lost camping knife.

The experiences she told us about, including the occasional mention of a class in positive psychology to identify personal strengths, spoke to the importance of play and pushing adolescents into environments where they can learn they are far more capable of managing risks and taking on tough tasks than they (or we) might think.

But I was also starting to find value in the retelling, in the slow sharing of our lives by analog means — in the letter writing itself.

Seeking more insight, I reached out to John Marsden, the former head of the English department at Timbertop and a best-selling young adult novelist who later founded his own experiential learning school north of Melbourne.

He laughed when I asked about the meaning of letters.

“It’s been happening for thousands of years,” he said. “It’s just new for this generation.”

After a bit of joking at my expense and Timbertop reminiscing, he went on to suggest that what I was discovering in our letters might in fact be something significant — what he often tells parents they should aim for in their own families, in their own ways.

He called it a “gradual divergence.”

Places like Timbertop, in his view, don’t just provide important firsthand experiences with the outdoors. They also mark “the beginning of divergence from the path of the adults which needs to happen, which, in modern Western society, is increasingly difficult for children to achieve.”

He told me he often draws a diagram to help parents understand. I asked him to send a copy by email.

“I don’t have a scanner but it’s just as simple as shown here!” he wrote, attaching a photo. “The third one is the healthy one. The vertical lines indicate adolescence but of course it’s simplistic to imply that adolescence begins in such a measurable, almost abrupt way.”

What he was getting at — what I could see in his and Amelia’s own hand-drawn correspondence — suddenly became clear.

The letters to and fro are both a point of connection between us and our daughter and a way to push for the right amount of separation. They fill and expand the in-between. Letters written with the delays of snail mail in mind, if we’re lucky, let us develop a voice apart from others, with less (or no) attention to the pings and alerts of harried modern life.

In Amelia’s case, letters let her speak at her own pace, meandering in expression, sharing the trivial and private, sending away the stress, marking in ink the joys and messy uncertainties. They point to a certain kind of gift, but not like my wife and I had imagined.

Amelia’s experience involves not just the luxury of removal — the taking away of social media. It also includes an addition, something the letters capture and embody: the gift of agency. Far from home at 13, in a messed-up world, she has landed where there is intellectual space and the means to practice a method for asserting and exploring who she is and wants to become. She has found a room of one’s own.

I’m tempted to send her a letter detailing my discovery. Maybe this time, I’ll write it by hand. Better yet, maybe I’ll let her tell me what she thinks when she gets the urge.

#Gained #Lost #Daughter #Unplugged #School #Year