On course with education

Maryland Science Center is school for kids of Volvo participants while race is in town


Shhhhhhhhhh, coaxes the teacher in her calming, whispery, indoor voice: Be sensible.

"Who's sensible?" she continues, her eyes skipping from child to child sitting and squirming before her on a mat - each trying to out-sensible the next. "Kacey's sensible? Who else? Cameron?"

Only the most sensible of children, it seems, will be allowed to venture from their classroom on the ground floor of the Maryland Science Center out into the world of buttons, gadgets and playful wonder existing just beyond.

But it's such a silly demand. Because sensibleness, seriously, is just not in these kids' DNA.

Unless steering delicate yachts around the world over unruly seas for months on end just to win a race counts as sensible. As children of the Volvo Ocean Race's sailors and support staff, that's the mindset and general level of prudence these kids are raised on.

The dozen or so young people of mixed ages and nationalities, who follow their competitive parents across the globe, keep up with their education in an ad-hoc school set up by the race.

As they crash like waves onto the shores of various countries - Spain, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and now in Baltimore for the United States leg - the school is their constant, their buoy of routine.

Terri Mourant is mom to Kacey Dool, who at 12 is the oldest girl in the class. It was a family decision, Mourant says, to pull Kacey from school in Ontario to travel with her father, a trainer with the Movistar team.

Since the race began last November in Spain, Mourant's watched her daughter suffer and prosper, moving from place to place like the gypsy she is not.

"There's nothing romantic about this. It's a very difficult lifestyle," Mourant says. "We try to make it normal with the Volvo school. But it's not. The normalcy is it's not normal."

Though the boat race began in 1973, the school wasn't established until 1997 when parents trying to home-school their kids along the course realized one sailor's wife was a teacher.

This year the two instructors are from England, young women with boyfriends in the race.

Each time the yachts cross a new finish line, the school settles into a new temporary home. In Baltimore, it's the Science Center at the foot of the Inner Harbor. In Capetown, a room above a waterfront shop. A local yacht club in Spain. And in Melbourne, a very windy little tent.

In each spot, teachers unpack their colored pencils and construction paper, workbooks and mats. They hang maps of the world and little art projects. About three weeks later, they box it all back up and move on.

In Baltimore, about a dozen children, ages 5 to 12, pile into their impromptu classroom each day. Not all kids stop in every leg of the race.

This week was Ollie Wharington's school debut.

In her clipped British accent, teacher Bryony Percy introduces the 8-year-old from Australia.

"Ollie, where are you from?" Percy asks him as he joins the other kids on the mat.

"I'm from Melbourne."

"In Melbourne where we visited," she reminds the others. "And what does your dad do?"

"He's a skipper."

"Ollie's daddy's boat arrived last night so he's going to be joining us in school. Brilliant."

Ah, a couple kids mutter, a replacement for Liam, a little boy from New Zealand who traveled only as far as Australia.

Though they still have pages and pages left in their math and reading books, resilience is a subject these kids have already mastered.

"He copes fine," Ollie's mom Kylie Wharington says.

She regrets nothing about trading the predictability of home for adventure on the road. There's academics, she says, and then there's learning.

"He's got a very good knowledge of the world - a lot of kids don't know where's where," she says. "He knows that when the sun's going down in Melbourne, it's coming up somewhere else, like in New York."

Not that these kids aren't working on the fundamentals. After their moms drop them off, they sit in a circle and count off to 20, introducing the morning's math lesson.

For some, like the 8-year-old Chade from France, counting like this is their first time using English words. For Tova, a sweet-faced 5-year-old from Sweden, it's an initiation not only to English, but to math, reading and school in general.

When the older kids head to their desks to consider multiplication, division and more complex stuff, Tova and Anna, a 4-year-old Australian, stay on the mat for extra counting and alphabet practice.

"Look at Maddy! At work straight away," Percy cries, fussing over the 7-year-old from New Zealand's studiousness. "I like it when I see people who work straight away."

"Different parts of the world have different school stuff," Maddy tells a visitor. "I learn about more here than normal old school."

Abel, a 12-year-old from the Netherlands, pencils answers to multiplication questions on his worksheet, his head so low in concentration that his scruffy blond hair nearly brushes the desktop.

By figuring out various numbers that add up to 10, Auriane, a 6-year-old from France, earns a teacher's "Well done, you!"

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