Our summer vacation culminated in a family road trip across scenic Colorado. We wanted to enjoy the end of summer in the snow-free mountains, see some friends along the way, and get some much-needed “unplugged” time before getting back to a full-time school schedule.

The second stop on this journey was a camp on Lake Irwin near Crested Butte, where we spent three days (and nights) roughing it with the girls — tents and all. Although the camp was wonderfully secluded, surrounded by majestic mountain views, and a perfect place to unplug, it was more than 10,000 feet in elevation, unpredictably wet and cold, slightly deserted… and closing for winter just three days later. Between the fog, rain, hail and near-freezing temperatures, it was clear that summer was definitely over at Lake Irwin.

All this to say that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain one of my favorite camping traditions: late night fireside chats with my husband. The first night the sky cleared up just long enough to reveal a beautifully brilliant starry night, only to be cloaked in a blanket of bright white scattered clouds less than an hour later. We did our best to cozy up to the campfire, but the incoming clouds and chilly dampness ushered us back into our tents to seek retreat in zero-degree sleeping bags. The second night, rain kept us from lingering by the campfire after dinner.

Although we were having a great time as a family, I was really starting to miss our campfire conversations. Honestly, I had been counting on them: After my husband’s busy month of business travel and my own preoccupation with preparing for the new homeschool year, we needed the time to reconnect— and we were about to miss out on it.

Thankfully, the third night was cold but clear — not a cloud in the sky, and it looked like it might actually stay that way. Time to get a great campfire going and have some meaningful conversation, just the two of us. Finally!

But about an hour into our intimate banter about everything from homeschooling issues, family challenges, friends’ struggles, our dreams and desires, current politics and more, a visitor disrupted the scene. A retired high school English teacher who was camping with his wife at a site just down the hill from us emerged from the shadows and asked if he could join the conversation. Seriously!

My husband and I were definitely caught off guard and somewhat embarrassed. I mean, what had we said — and how loudly had we said it — to engage him in our campfire conversation? I was cautiously curious.

After a few introductions were exchanged, we quickly discovered that he came “in peace” — he said he was captivated by what he called “intelligent” debate between us that was uncommon and unexpected out here in the boonies. He was intrigued by our points of view and wanted to learn more about us and what had formed these perspectives.

He also applauded our homeschooling efforts. In fact, he said that he had “called it” after observing us going back and forth to the lake from our campsite over the past couple of days and interacting with each other along the way. He told his wife, “That’s a homeschooling family — they function like a unit.” Although he taught in public schools his entire career, he explained that he recognized and respected many of the benefits he’d observed about homeschoolers over the years, and was especially glad to see more parents doing it as the public school system has become more challenged than ever.

We accepted his compliment, and I have to admit that at first, I felt an inkling of pride. Of course we are doing the right thing, and, of course, it makes intelligent sense to do it. There are plenty of logical reasons, backed by recent research, that support the homeschooling movement. It felt good to hear that we had “impressed” this career educator with our harmonious, unified family.

Then something interesting happened: Audrey (our eldest, 5th grade daughter) emerged from her tent, awakened by the conversation, and our visitor challenged her to a little word puzzle quiz that he used to play with his students to warm them up to English class. Audrey loves a challenge, especially when she thinks she can “win” something, so she quickly agreed.

He proceeded to ask her some pretty complicated questions, and they went something like this: “The topic is geography. The word has three syllables. The first two are a noun that characterizes what Venus Williams is known for. The third is a transitive verb that also describes one of the five senses. What is it?”

If you’re an educated adult, have some decent grammar skills, and keep up with pop culture sports icons, this puzzle isn’t much of a stretch. (And if you’re not, the answer was “Tennessee.”) We had to give Audrey another hint about the sport before she solved that one because we knew she wasn’t familiar with the eldest Williams sister — or many other sports figures, for that matter.

After a few more increasingly difficult word puzzles were thrown her way, something else became clear to me: He was putting our homeschooled student to the test. Yes, he agreed with the concept of homeschooling and had observed its many benefits. But he was obviously curious about how our homeschooled fifth grader stacked up intellectually and was going to find out with this cryptic quizzing game (which he used to play with high schoolers, by the way).

He didn’t know that we had only started homeschooling a year ago, but at that point, I decided not to mention it. I also found a way to bring our conversation to a close and get Audrey back in bed. Her furrowed brow told me all I needed to know about where this was going, and I didn’t feel the need to prove anything else to this well-meaning visitor. My husband and I had a quiet laugh about it after he left, and we came to the conclusion that our own campfire conversation should be put to rest for the night.

The next day, I realized that I had learned a lot about myself and my feelings about homeschooling during our unexpected campfire conversation. There was a time that I would have been happy to show off the results of our homeschooling efforts, to be applauded by an intellectual audience. Yes, many homeschooled children become impressively brilliant thanks to focused education and freedom to soar beyond classroom constraints. And that is all well and good.

But I’ve come a long way since my Oral Comm persuasive speech about homeschooling in my freshman year of college. I will always be proud of what my children accomplish as we take this educational journey together. But at the end of the day, I hope they never feel driven by the pursuit of knowledge — and I hope they don’t believe they have to prove their worth as homeschool graduates by performing well beyond everyone’s expectations. I hope that they can make the leap that I never did when I was homeschooled and surpass the need to achieve and impress others. Instead, I hope they arrive in a place where they are confident in Christ and the role that He has molded them to perform for His greater glory.

It took me 38 years to get here, and it’s my prayer that I can help my children reach this same, life-changing conclusion much faster than I did. However, I know that I’m just one vessel that God will use to draw them to that place: The outcome is in His hands. So I will do my part to make sure that knowledge alone isn’t the focus of our homeschool efforts — and pray that God captures their hearts along the way.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — Mark 8:36

Renée Gotcher is an entrepreneur, writer, wife & home-educating mother of three daughters: Audrey, Claire and Elise. Renée was homeschooled during her last two years of high school and started homeschooling in 2010. She is currently editor and lead author of NextGen Homeschool: Formerly Homeschooled Moms Homeschooling Our Next Generation. The Gotcher Family lives in Castle Rock, Colorado.

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