Jenn and Greg White could perhaps have been described as your typical, beautiful couple living in Washington state circa the 1990s.
Jenn spent her days rearing up three young children while Greg toiled away as a VIP at Dell Computers back when owning a computer was actually kind of a big deal. Native Texans, the couple convinced Dell to relocate them to the Pacific Northwest—a move Greg himself engineered as he and Jenn’s desire to find something new for their lives found itself on opportunity’s doorstep—so that Greg could help handle the handshakes and hellos the company would be doing with Microsoft. They bought a car or two, owned a few homes, and generally were on track to what would be considered highly successful models for a commercial advertising America.
A young couple, with the seed of exploration only just now slowly budding from out of their bellies, they purchased a Toyota Dolphin camper and, whenever they got the chance, they’d load the kids up into its home on the road interior and head out to the Olympic Peninsula, Washington’s National Park rainforest wonderland just across Puget Sound from Seattle.
But mostly Greg was kept busy toiling away for the massive computer company while Jenn was left to tackle the responsibilities of raising three young babies—a very young woman herself, not 23 before all were born—on her own and far from family. It’s a tale Americans are all too familiar with: dad is required to spend whatever time is necessary to appease the powers that be and keep the bread being won while mom tries to figure out how to balance a baby on her shoulder while getting one toddler out of a tree and using her foot to hold the other one back from jumping off a cliff.
That was a long time ago, spanning three decades, a different century, and a completely other lifetime for this little self-made family. Today, all three children (the youngest 16, the oldest 20) have graduated from the family’s own school, with flying colors. Greg hasn’t worked for Dell, or anyone else really, in years. The family runs their own businesses, projects as they refer to them, always switching things up as the years go by, from doing social media management to authoring a book to running a coffee shop, and a host of other forays along the way. They have taken their life, and the lives of their children, into their own hands. Instead of Greg getting nightly updates on how the kids’ days have gone, he is free to raise and teach them alongside his beautiful wife.
This is the abbreviated story of the Bare Naked Family, as they’ve come to call themselves, their travels, their independent school of three, and their inspiration to an entire generation.
These days you can find a new family embarking on the journey of hitting the road in an RV and homeschooling their kids as they travel nearly every day. In 2012, it’s become an almost normal, if not simply purely acceptable, thing to do with the kids. After all, we live in the digital revolution. Remote workers, ubiquitous WiFi, ordering pizza online; alternatives to the traditional lifestyle have never been more accepted.
That was not exactly the case back in the mid-90s when Jenn and Greg first imagined a roving, mobile—and more together—lifestyle while sitting around a fire at Kalaloch (pronounced “clay – lock”), a beach and campground living on the southwestern coastal stretch of where Olympic National Park and the Pacific Ocean meet daily.
“Yeah. No.” She begins by relating the two times, then and the present. Remember, this is when not everyone had a computer, and many people had never even been online. Grunge was over, but no one had ever heard of Ryan Seacrest. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago, but things were actually very different in the 1990s, before we were all walking around with the Internet in our pockets.
“There was no MySpace.” Jenn begins. “There was no…there was nothing.” The turn of the century Internet was not quite the bastion of information we see it as today. “We hit the road in 2001,” she continues “and we made the decision in the year 2000. So we were like early Y2K basically. If you wanted mobile Internet you were still going to truck stops and plugging in a modem at the table. So it was very primitive and there was no website that had any info on what we were trying to do. I literally remember thinking at the time in 2000 when we had made this switch in our minds to do this—I remember there was probably 28 websites on the Internet. It was so vacant.”
We can turn to social media, Wikipedia, any one of a number of forums for travelers today. We can find out not only where to buy an RV on the cheap, but watch YouTube videos to tell us what to look for when we find one, and then dig really deep and figure out what kinds of people the former owners were. Back then, you were still required to use the Yellow Pages if you didn’t know a phone number, let alone imagine figuring out where to even start looking for resources on how to the traveling thing.
“I remember hitting search and nothing coming up,” she recalls.
“There was two people that we ended up finding,” while researching families living on the road, “and one was this crazy, religious family that apparently fell apart as a result of following those dreams. So that fucked us up. We were like, ‘Oh my God. I don’t wanna be like that and [we’re not even really] religious,’ and then there was this other family that was doing it and their website was still really primitive. It was like the Wild West, there was nothing.” Jenn and Greg would need to invent their inevitable lifestyle of living, schooling, working and being a family together from scratch.
So rather than relying on the Internet for inspiration as to how to make this new life on the road their dream, the two played the game of trial and error. But before they could even learn from their mistakes on the road, they needed to learn how to even get to the point to where they could start making those mistakes. Figuring out how to sell all of their stuff, when and how Greg should leave his job, what kind of RV would work for them. It was all completely new and, she admits, very daunting. But even before that, they needed to figure out what exactly “their dream” was.
Let’s begin with Greg. Sitting around a fire, the kids playing those games that children in the forest tend toward, something finally came to him. He calls it “winning the mental lottery.”
“Greg was just sitting by himself,” Jenn remembers the day as sharply as the needles on the fir trees. “It was this cold winter day. Cloudy gray rain layer, cold, and he’s sitting at the picnic table, looking at the fire and the kids were all just running around the parking lot. We always had this place to ourselves, like just having the whole Pacific Coast to yourself. He started letting his mind wonder and I guess he was really able to let go, he just went into his deep thoughts and—watching the kids play and run around—he was like, ‘What would I do if money was no object? What would I really do?'”
The first thing Greg came up with? “I’d buy a bus and travel around with my family, living large. That kind of lifestyle.”
Jenn refers to Gregg as the family’s resident genius. Wavy, dirty brown hair that explodes like a lion’s mane if he doesn’t keep it pulled back in a pony, his smile is the Grand Canyon, his eyes are like two city stars shining over the ambient aura of everything around him. He can build a web server from his bedroom as easily as fix an old Volkswagen on the side of the road, organize a concert or teach his son how a bicycle works. He’s an all around “man”, one of those true American father figures, and in these modern times such a renaissance type is growing rare. As the wheels in that big, beautiful brain of his began grinding away, though, something happened that no amount of genius can necessarily discover, and referring to it as winning the mental lottery couldn’t be more apt: it’s both very unlikely to happen to most people, and because the reward makes you richer than any money could ever afford.
“I don’t know, the sky’s parted or something because for the first time it really hit him.” She recalls. “You don’t need to win the lottery to do that,” speaking toward his budding new dream of living with his family in an RV headed down the road to wherever they might want to go. “[It was] a realization that we always have these reasons and these logistics of why we can’t do something and often times we actually can or we already are at some level. That really shifted for him; in that epiphany, that wakening.” Greg realized that he had a job he truly enjoyed, making six figures, in a beautiful part of the country, a gorgeous young family growing up underneath him.
Even with it all, though, Greg realized that there must be something more, something better out there. A great job is still a job. It means you work for someone else, you belong to them, in a very large way, for at least as long as you want to keep that position, those six figures. It had given them a ton of toys, and even some opportunity, but the pile was not enough to keep him from just throwing his hands into the air from content.
“We had a bad ass Bronco. We had an RV, a kick ass Toyota that we absolutely loved. We had this house in Washington,” one of three the couple owned at the time, “that we were absolutely head over heels for. We had this great public school, one of the top ten at the time or something. We were loving where we were. You just didn’t get better than where we were. Nobody did. I felt like we were the richest people ever!”
Dell had moved them from their native homeland of Austin, Texas to Washington. Every few months they were able to take a roadtrip together in the RV from the Pacific Northwest back to Texas so Greg could do some reporting back to the higher ups as to how things were progressing with Microsoft in Redmond. So the position had given them traditional riches, it had even given them some travel.
“But we were empty inside,” she recalls thinking. “This is all great, but there’s still an emptiness inside of us. What is that?” And thus, at the pinnacle of success, three beautiful children, living the definition of the American dream, hell, living out a Busch Light, Cheerios and Jeep Wrangler commercial all at once, it proved to them exactly as it seems to so many rock stars, actresses and successful businessfolk. Complete and utter success in your career does not immediately equate to happiness, or even fulfillment.
“Does it only go downhill from here?” she began to wonder. If they were at the pinnacle of their success, was there no hope but to ride the wave and crash into the beach on their inevitable descent. “Holy crap,” Jenn didn’t want to know that her life, at the prime and still full of uneasiness, was set in this particular stone. “I don’t wanna go downhill feeling empty,” she begins to admit the price of that success.
“Earning those six figures, the shit we had to go through…” she begins, “The medication and marriage counseling to deal with the time away over those years that it took to get this earned position we did. We sacrificed a lot. We almost came unglued and became a very corporate statistic, divorced husband and wife, alimony, kids, child support—we definitely could have gone that way easy. And so here we were and we only had these little small windows of time with our kids on the beach and then everything else went to everybody else, the school, the work, and me, my whole thing of ‘I don’t even know who I am.'”
An all too common feeling in young, ambitious women who find themselves thrust into the role of raising children. No matter how vital and important the position of homemaker is to the family, especially to your kids, it can leave you feeling without identity, like you are simply living to watch your children grow up. And at 23, just beginning life herself, to begin to resign that over completely seemed foreshadowing, hazy.
“I was really struggling for, ‘Who am I? What am I made of other than chicken nuggets and macaroni?'”
Back on that beach, when Greg had his epiphany, the kids now in bed, tucked snugly into their camper. Greg and Jenn exchange a brief set of words that will change them forever.
“I get it,” he tells her, “I’m really feeling what you’re saying all of a sudden. I get it.” Jenn had been toying with the idea, mulling it over with Greg, for months at this point. It just seemed like a pipe dream, unreal outside of a daydream’s setting.
“Greg, what are you talking about?” she was somewhat oblivious to the workings between his ears, fast at work making peanut butter sandwiches for the kids lunches tomorrow. She joined him around the fire and they went long into the night imagining a flicker of hope into a purposeful decision to try and move forward.
“We connected with it. We talked about it, sat there around the fire and said, ‘What if?'”
“Really? You don’t think I’m fricking crazy,” she asked him. He didn’t. “That’s awesome.”
“I’ve always been the slide by the seat of my pants person in the marriage,” she reveals, “So I was really excited, but I still didn’t know what that meant and we still had a lot of work to do to figure that out.”
So they’d won the mental lottery, now it was simply time to spend that capital.
The first step came with the realization that it wasn’t about money, it was about time. “You need your freedom mentally to be able to go. I don’t have to abide by the ways of conditioning. I can go out and create something. Just believe in myself to do something completely nuts…and courageous too. Greg freed his mind and that’s really hard to put into words. It’s hard to give somebody a good answer to that if you have never experienced something like that or certainly if you’re too logistical you’re probably not gonna understand what I’m saying, but he freed his mind to not be a rat in life going through all the emotions.”
But an idea is not a plan, and that was specifically what they lacked. At least the details, “Sell everything, hit the road, and start a family business,” Jenn lays it out, that was the general idea, anyway, “but really, what does that mean? What do you do?”
The first thing they did was to revel in their new abandon, and just take the remainder of the weekend with the kids in Kalaloch, letting their toes dip into the idea. But as they were driving home and getting closer to reality, Jenn knew they wouldn’t just immediately put in Greg’s two weeks, throw a yard sale and disappear.
Jenn recalls, upon arriving home, thinking “I remember just stepping back into life and trying to understand what we do now? I don’t wanna lose this momentum and I certainly don’t wanna be consumed with just the structure of Monday through Friday life again. I really wanna keep this ride going. I don’t know what that means.”
They decided to just let it simmer up as it would naturally. They didn’t discuss it with family, or with much of anyone else. They didn’t try and pin it down too precisely. They allowed the pot to brew to see if it would simply evaporate away, or if the idea would bubble over the top and refuse to be restrained.
“I gotta get the kids ready for school tomorrow and you’ve got that thing tomorrow at work,” Jenn told her husband, after a long drive home considering what could be, the next step was as plain as day, as simple as that. They spent a few weeks discussing it, but in the meantime, life goes on. There’s no pause button to just put everything else on hold while you organize a dream. At the end of those weeks, she brought it all up to him again. “Okay. Are you really serious? You would really consider this?”
“Yeah, I’m on board.”
There were some additional intricacies: selling their stuff, and not just the china cabinet, but two homes, cars, all of it. Greg timing his departure from Dell. How to pull the kids out of school. It was a mountain of responsibility and Jenn was happy to take it on, if a bit daunted at where exactly to draw the starting line.
“Do I just sell this dresser right now or do I wait? Or do we pull the kids out of school now or do we wait? What does this mean for our 401K?” It took months, but they forced their way through each tough decision, each seemingly anti-common sense move like selling off stock with Dell that was doing really, really well. She found herself, at times, second guessing herself.
“Was this really a good idea? How far down the rabbit hole are we willing to go?” The more she came to realize that, once you’ve bought into working for the corporate world, once you’ve enrolled your children in public school, basically, once you’ve been an American, it’s tough to get out. The American Dream is like the mafia in that way.
“You start realizing you are so deeply tied to a million things in this traditional lifestyle. You can’t just walk into the school and pull your kids out. You can’t just walk in and quit your job. You can’t just pull your retirement fund out. You can’t just sell that dresser. You can’t just put your houses on the market.”
They had renters in their Texas homes. Transferring a 401k to an IRA, or getting it as cash, is an undertaking for sure. The government wants your kids in school.
“Weeks turned into months and months turned into epic frustration and attitude because we now weren’t even content in our life that we had once been content in, all because we just didn’t know where to go, what to do.” She recalls how for every milestone, putting the house on the market for example, there came ten new obstacles. Closing costs, realtors, inspections, this, that, the other. They were like a family given the powers of superheros all of a sudden, but no crime to fight, nothing to do with that new x-ray vision. A watched pot, if you will.
“All this stuff, the three houses, the retirement, you are engrained. They’ve got you by the balls everywhere and it’s absolutely overwhelming and seemingly impossible to pull outta the game unless you just walked off into the woods and never came back, and that was not our option. So it became terrifying.”
But that terror was not with their new life, it was with society in a more general sense. With how accepted all of this tradition had become in our lives, that 60 hour work weeks and 5 days a week, seven hours a day at school had become. How separating families instead of bringing them together was the norm in our culture.
“We realized we couldn’t even change our own life. This all belongs to other people and E-Trade and AT&T and this school and this… You belong to them and you realize, ‘Holy shit. I’m not even a person anymore.’ We absolutely were dumbfounded at how remote we were from our physical being, our spiritual being, but we were doing everything right.”
In other words, they were ready to make their move, but no one was really listening.
“You’ve just changed your language and you’re having a real hard time understanding it yourself and interpreting what you’re actually saying,” so trying to communicate to family that you’re going to homeschool your kids from the road, or trying to explain to the public school system that little Junior won’t be showing up tomorrow, or anytime after that. The response is “okay, for how long?” or “where will you be transferring him to?” Jenn and Greg knew what they were saying, but since it even still all sounded a bit like a foreign language to them, it was all the more difficult when the people on the other end of the conversation weren’t following along. It’s hard to teach a language you’re only now learning for yourself. So, they kept it to themselves.
But this family, as the years would prove, are nothing if not determined to make their wants their ways. They managed to sell it all off, the dresser, the houses, the extra vehicles. They cashed in their stock, pulled out their savings, bought an RV and called it a brand new day. After all was said and done they had a chunk of cash large enough to fund their first year on the road, as well as a stash of around $10,000 they were saving to start a family business.
“That was the general plan,” she simplifies it all, “sell our stuff, hit the road, and start a family business.”
They had no specifics in mind with that last part, what type of business they’d start, how to run a business, where it would be. “That was part of the first year on the road,” she says about someday starting a business “figure out what that means, just another language we had to learn.” They were just one step at a timing it, and now that they were on the road, they’d finally taken the first large enough gait to feel like they’d accomplished something real.
Jenn and Greg have three beautiful children. Austin, the eldest, and Kesley, baby number two, little girl numero uno, had already begun school, she in kindergarten and he as far as second grade. Their youngest, Sunny, never stepped foot in a public school as a registered student. All three have graduated, all three are brilliant in their own particular way, and not a single one of them seems to have “suffered” at the hands of a lack of a public education.
When I first met Austin, several years ago, he had various pieces of a bicycle torn apart and scattered through his yard. Originally a part of a bicycle program designed to simply get more bikes on the street, known as Yellow Bike, Austin, with perhaps a little guidance from Greg of course, tore the bike apart, repainted it, and rebuilt it. Just to know how to do it. We left town via our travels. When I came back I saw that he’d taken up a keen interest in photography, and by sixteen or so had surpassed the abilities of many of my art school photography student friends. There’s a video of him from a Nightline expose on the family playing guitar, pretty well, at maybe ten or twelve years of age. He’s an amazing kid, and not “for a homeschooled child”, but all around. The type of guy that when you meet him, firm handshake that, once you’ve become friends, will always pull you in for a hug, smiling and looking you right in the eyes, a genuine quality to his voice, it just makes you think, “man, this kid has it made, he’s got the whole world ahead of him and it had better watch out or he’ll have it by the reins and spinning around a new sun if we’re all not careful.”
The family took their first year, traveling all around the US, doing everything from exploring National Parks to volunteering at Ground Zero after 9/11. They took that year, and then six more, on the road.
“Yeah, about seven years. Four to five years pretty full time,” meaning they were just about always headed on down the road. “The last two years we stopped in for a few months living in a place, stopping in for a few months, living in a place. So the first year we thought it’d be a year and then we’d maybe settle back down in Issaquah or maybe we’d find this magical place to live in another town that we’d never been to on the road. We were completely open. We didn’t know if we were coming back there or coming back to Texas or finding a cute little town somewhere else or whatever. We thought we’d take a year off, decompress our life and figure it out at the end of the year. We’ll probably know more at the end of the year.”
And at the end of the first year they did, they moved back to Issaquah.
But with no family business, and that itchy feeling to keep on going spidering up their backs, they realized they still had a solid chunk of cash left to work with.
“We quickly realized we weren’t ready to be back in the real world,” and so they pulled out of Issaquah and kept the quest alive.
During that first year, they’d actually made a commitment not to try and do any schooling with the kids, to just allow it to be a time when they could all come together and learn more about one another, and thus about themselves as a family.
“Yeah, initially when we hit the road in 2001 we promised that we would not try to work and we promised that we wouldn’t try to school. We were going to take a year off and decompress from the traditional American dream life. We weren’t gonna try to emulate anything. We were just gonna go play. So the first year was a free pass to do whatever the hell we wanted.”
As that first year was extended by months, and then another year, they began to think they might need to consider how to approach their children’s education.
“Okay,” Jenn recalls thinking, “We’re gonna teach the kids something. Right? So what does that mean?” All three of them at the elementary school level, she figured they could handle that. Greg was, after all, her own personal genius and she had done plenty of the PTA type stuff and being a room mom to know how it all worked.
“Without even thinking it’s almost like we moved into going to buy curriculum books at the teacher store and sitting them down to as close to traditional school as possible. Some of our very early practices with homeschooling—well, at that time I guess you’d call it homeschooling,” which she mentions because over time their attitude toward education would evolve greatly, “It was very much like, ‘Okay. At 9:00 we’re gonna have coffee. At 10:00 we’re gonna move into reading and spelling,’ and really try to create that schooling atmosphere before realizing, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not what we’re doing anymore. That was that old life. We’re falling into trying to do it that way,’ because we’d try to do that and it would take us ten hours to complete an eight hour school day trying to recreate traditional homeschooling and lesson plans and books and we all hated it.”
She realized that sitting at a desk may work for others, but it’s a concept born from a long bygone era when children were essentially being trained to be factory workers. It’s not the right solution for a dynamic family of travelers.
“We just spent a year and a half on the road going to see Gettysburg and walk in the battle fields and stuff like that. So looking at bumblebees on a workbook page did not cut it for us anymore and we were like, ‘This crap is stupid.’ It’s almost like dumbing down kids, and so we struggled with trying to do it traditional and then trying to do it on our own. Early on we weren’t sure that we were providing enough education. It felt like we were, but again, it’s all new. You’re pioneering your life and so you’re not really sure if you’re actually helping it or you’re breaking it. And so when we’d get weak and feel insecure we’d go right back to curriculum books and try to do that and then we’d spend about a week or two doing that and you’d just see the kids light fade and you’d be like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ This is not who we are.”
Ultimately though, Jenn decided that stuffing their kids noses into books to read about experiences that didn’t even compare to their actual lives was just not going to cut their particular mustard.
“We detoxed ourselves off of those stupid curriculum books and plans.”
The kids began to learn from their experiences, rather than through others perception of an experience. The girls learned to read naturally, when they were ready, when they wanted to. Reading no longer was a chore, it was a hobby, a desire.
“We’re making an effort,” she says of their attitude toward schooling. “We didn’t just stop teaching them and then slump into the table. We were actively climbing in our backyard, which was America. So we got stronger and stronger with that, but early on we did all that traditional crap and we pulled over one time—we just spent like $300 on curriculum books and tried to put two weeks effort into them and realized this is the last time we’re going to do this. We stopped at a little Goodwill donation box in the parking lot somewhere and I dumped the $300 worth of books I had just spent two weeks ago and said, ‘No more. We’re not doing this anymore,’ and that was the last time I bought a curriculum book. That was years ago.”
“Education was completely changed in our minds and we had to really learn to be secure with it. It’s okay that it doesn’t look like everybody else’s and it’s not called a curriculum and we started learning that we were likely becoming more in the unschooling realm.”
Unschooling being a growing trend, or perhaps more accurately a throwback to an older time, where children are allowed to learn from their environment, from the natural process of life, rather than being cornered into a desk every day for several hours.
And so the Bare Naked Family, as they were officially calling themselves by this point, had managed to sell their stuff, hit the road, and found their own path with schooling their children.
They were happy.
But when you discover a way out, a better life, sometimes jealousy, or simply misconception, can drive wedges between you and society. Or more so, in their case, between them and their extended family.
“We come from a long line of Republicans. So we would start getting a little self-conscious ‘cause of opinions or judgments when you did pop into town you’d have those kids compared to the other kids.” When your conservative family begins quizzing your children to see if they’re at a level of education they feel appropriate, the idea of family sticking together begins to dissolve in favor of the harsher reality that they’re actually trying to break you apart, pick at you until they can figure out a flaw with this whole happiness thing you’ve stumbled across.”
“A long line of hard workers,” she continues, “single parents, things like that, and they work really hard for what they have. And I definitely wanna paint them in a wonderful light, because they are really wonderful people; that’s just the generation they grew up in, going through the depression and working really hard for the things they had.” So it was a difficult pill to swallow when Greg and Jenn decided to give it all up in pursuit of a happiness.
“They thought we were probably pretty cavalier in thinking this. Extended family thought we were probably pretty irresponsible. We didn’t really think about our options through and through before we started to leave and it clearly made no sense to them that we would trade this hard work and all this reward to go live in an RV and be with our kids.”
“In fact, they would always be like, ‘I can’t imagine spending that much time with our kids.’ Well, guess what? We were those kids and that sucks to hear. Second of all, that’s why we’re breaking cycles is because we didn’t agree with that work, church, family, in that order. We would of, as kids, like to have seen it more family oriented. I’d love to be feeling like family is not so much like an acquaintance or a tolerated thing. It’s like I would really like to understand what a family really feels like, and we have that in certain elements. I don’t wanna make it sound like I’m little orphan Annie. We definitely have relationships within family that are healthy and wonderful and great and all that, but when some of the extended family found out about our shenanigans they immediately backlashed.”
The idea of “permitting” the Bare Naked Family a little time, to “get it out of their system” if you will, was extended. But after a year, then two went by, attitudes became a little harsher.
“When we didn’t return then the true judgments really started coming through. ‘What do you mean you’re not gonna put the kids back in school? You mean they’re not going back to school?'” And Jenn would explain it all over again. “It really sucked,” she admits, “that lack of belief that we would feel from people that we weren’t…” she pauses, it obviously really gets her stirred up, years and years later. “We were college educated. We made six figures. We talked Dell into creating this position for us. I think we’re pretty capable of teaching them nouns and verbs and shit like that. I think we’re okay.”
Jenn and Greg remembered that in their families, it was often work, then church, then family. At one point a relative directly came out and said to them, “No. Family does not come first. You’ve gotta have your work. You’ve gotta have your school and then the family. Why doesn’t that make sense to y’all?”
Their reply was simple. They were the product of that work then church then school mentality, “and it hurts.” She admits. “I don’t like it. We wanna change that.”
So they dubbed themselves the Bare Naked Family, a term meant to imply that they are completely open and available to the world, life’s experiences, they are not hiding anything. “We got pretty in your face and we decided to call ourselves Bare Naked Family through this wonderful story. It was a name that was very significant and hit us in a very significant time. It wasn’t just a silly name. What you see is what you get with us and so you try throwing “naked” in your namesake and it really flipped out our conservative family pretty well. And we got really upset because it’s like they shut off to our ideas before we even got the whole idea out of our mouth, our reasoning, our intentions of what we were trying to do.”
She makes it clear that she has no desire to harbor animosity towards anyone, but that it all stings a little, ringing true from her past. “It comes down to nobody being around to listen to you whether you were kids, teenagers, and now as adults.”
Eventually they withdrew from those relationships, fostering the ones that were accepting and open and loving, and realizing that some others would need to be kept at bay for the sake of their own happiness.
“We tried to prove them wrong and stuff and we should have learned that there was nothing to teach them. That’s their course and that’s their life and we learned that our life does not work for them and that’s okay because their life does not work for us and it was okay for us to be okay with that enough to change it. We stopped coming home. We stopped visiting as much and we stopped talking. That was the saddest part is that we stopped talking and/or trying to talk with our family about what we were doing, what we were learning.”
Needing to leave behind longterm, lifelong in fact, relationships is never easy, no matter how big of a wedge has been driven between however wide a gap in perspectives.
“We’d come to Texas from being out on the road for a year and having these epic experiences and these stories and these characters that come into your life and these things that play out and you’d come home and you’d wanna talk to your people about it, your family, and you just learn that that’s not a safe place. They get irritated. They are mad that you were out there and not in school or they were mad that you didn’t have a job at that time or you did have a job, but they just don’t hear you because they think that you’re unemployed forever and so we…the saddest part is that we stopped talking. Or when we were talking we weren’t saying anything. Everything had to stay topical. We had to learn to protect them from us. We started feeling like this poison to them. We were toxic. We were dirty. We were trash.”
“We learned that if we wanted to talk about anything personal it’d likely have to be around the campfire somewhere else in America with some other person because it didn’t exist here, and that was okay.”
So they learned to manage extended family, and in a larger perspective, began to understand that society can all too often be harsh, it tends to want to destroy what it can’t understand.
They’d found their own path though, at aside from strife with extended family, it had become an amazing ride. The next step was to keep it going, figure out, finally, what this family business would be.
“We never really found what that was in that year and a half,” referring to their hope to start some type of family business. “So we just kept traveling and we kept looking and we tried things and we started really going in and trying to figure out what would we wanna do, and then getting crafty because we really tried to find a business that we could plug into, but we never really connected with anything that we’d even consider letting our kids be part of it. There was a few things that came up, but we weren’t really jazzed about them.”
Another moment of clarity came.
“…we’d probably have to create work and so we went into, ‘Well, then what do we love? What do we wanna do? We took this huge risk. We might as well do something we love.'” They dabbled in this and that, scrapping ideas along the way as they tried working hotels, doing networking for a pool maintenance company, random inspirations and everything in between. The years went by, and they ended up back in Austin, Texas.
“That lead us into the music industry here and our form of concerts and stuff that we did for families and we got really networked into Austin’s music scene as a part of that. We dumped some of the last of that family business money for that, but by then we were already working.” The family began organizing concerts that were family friendly, which they called Families Rock, trying to continue to promote their love of all things bringing mom, dad and the kids together.
As they transitioned from a life on the road to one in their new, old home in Austin, “we’d find jobs that we could do. Greg was a pool guy at one point where he was doing more of the tech stuff, not cleaning pools, but he was working on motherboards for these really fancy pools and a lot of times the kids would cruise around with him. And we’d take on projects like that, make a few grand, then go do your Bare Naked projects and that began working together for us for—in a lot of different ways.”
That’s right, while most teenagers are dabbling with cigarettes or sleeping away their Saturdays or just generally being young and unmotivated, Kesley, Sunny and Austin are managing a successful business. And though homeschooling laws in Texas are extremely lax, essentially allowing parents to graduate their children with nothing more than a slap on the back and a home printed diploma, three of the Bare Naked kids chose to take the state’s public school tests, the TAKS, and passed splendidly. Yes, they struggled a bit, but it was mostly due to taking a test based on a system where you attempt to trick children, to test them on what number of facts they’ve memorized instead of encouraging them to think through problems, to solve situations in their favor in life. Even still, they passed, and Jenn and Greg proudly handed all three of their children their diplomas from Kalaloch High, named for the beach where this entire experiment began.
“I never once said that this would work,” Jenn reveals. “I never once said we would be better about it. I hoped and I dreamed about those things out loud, but this was always a risk. It still is a risk, and initially over the years we struggled. We haven’t gone back to those curriculums. We haven’t gone back to those books, but shit, our kids have done all these other things and we’ve seen them. We know they can work. We know they can read. We know they can add. We know they can do all these things, but I’ll be honest: up until they took those TAKS test I was a bit nervous. I was like, ‘I really hope that I’ve taught them how to problem solve and we taught them well and we were anxious. But we were ready to be okay with whatever the test said that they were going to be because we also know that we’re also plucking them into a system with their testing that doesn’t really apply or make any sort of sense,” with regards to what they had been doing all of their lives, trying to live outside of a broken system, even though they were now going to allow that system to determine if they’d succeeded.
“The kids wanted to make sure that they weren’t academically stupid either, and I think that was pretty noble. That was them wanting to do that and then us going, ‘Yeah. It would be cool to see if this experiment worked. Did you really learn anything?'”
The answer was a resounding yes, even if the kids, post-test, thought the endeavor a complete waste of time.
“They finished and they did it and they scored well, but then they looked at it and said, ‘That’s a complete waste. People spend 12 years of their life learning like this?'” The three came to the simple conclusion that, from what these tests proved to them anyway, traditional schooling doesn’t teach you much other than how to take a test.
When I ask her if she’s now an expert at this stuff, she’s emphatic. “Fuck no! I am so not an expert.”
When I ask her if she thinks her kids are better off, though, she’s reversely confident in what they’ve done, and equally passionate. “Yeah. I certainly can attack that question and say ‘yes.’ Absolutely, because they’re still very early in the self-sufficiency level, but already leaps and bounds with kids their ages. They can take care of themselves and know how to play the game, get in and get out, but also know what drives their heart when they’re not in the system. They know how to communicate with other humans, they know how to be compassionate and they know how to work and they know how to obviously read and write and all that kind of stuff, but then do it with intention, do all that stuff with intention. I would definitely say they would be better off this way than getting just another generation back into the cycle.”
I, and anyone who’s had the good fortune to meet this family, these children, almost unanimously agree. The Whites, the Bare Naked Family, are a full-fledged experiment in roadschooling. They took three children from the earliest stages of school and walked them through their young lives, right into adulthood. Each one of them blossomed into an amazing person. They are surrounded by friends, both those long distance ones they met over the years and on the road, but also plenty of local kids in the Austin area who were traditionally schooled. And most importantly, they’ve learned to become thinkers, wielding minds of their own in favor of storage lockers full of the collective non-sense so many of us struggle through high school to achieve (for example, you at one point memorized all of these dates, but can you tell me when George Washington crossed the Delaware, who the third president of the US was, or exactly what you can use Pi for?).
I look at the experiment and see a tragic success. A success because of the kids and their parents, who I’ve come to know personally and find to be the best family I know apart from my own (of course). The tragic part is that the experience will be limited to only them and a handful of other children who’s parents are courageous enough to teach them to learn to make a path for themselves, not just wander down the trails beaten by others.