Oct. 27, 2022
Today’s lesson at the Pope family’s RV homeschool: The Crazy Horse Memorial
CRAZY HORSE, S.D. — Delilah “Dee” Pope, 4, inspected every square inch of the Crazy Horse Memorial gift shop — at least every inch of it she could reach on her tiptoes.
She mulled over the books and the pens. She deeply considered the mugs. When she finally zeroed in on a silky silver rabbit pelt, just $8 from her $20 trip budget, she pridefully presented it to her father, Ben.
“I pick this,” she said. And then: “I want to catch a rabbit.”
Ben, who is 41, crouched to her level. “OK,” he said. “But you know if you want to catch a rabbit, you have to kill the rabbit. And you have to skin the rabbit. And then we have to eat the rabbit. I’m happy to teach you how to hunt, Dee, but do you want to kill the rabbit?”
Dee’s brow furrowed beneath her blond hair. No, she did not want to kill a rabbit. She sulked away and placed the pelt back in the corner.
Such is a lesson in the Pope family roving classroom, where the real-world curriculum is dictated by whatever state their Alfa See Ya RV landed in that week. Kacey and Ben Pope have been on the road since August with their three children — Dee, her little sister Abigail, 2, and their big sister Lily, 16. They left most of their worldly possessions behind in South Carolina and set off for the American west, stopping for weeklong stays along the way.
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“We haven’t really been to a place if we haven’t been there for a week,” Kacey said. Big gas tanks and fast highways make it easy to skip across the surface of the nation. The one-week rule lets the family sink in for a while.
Outside the gift shop, I showed the girls how to transform a Capri-Sun package into a flip cellphone: press it flat, fold it up, use the straw as the antenna, and voila. Dee dipped behind a tree and whispered into the receiver, testing its transmission capabilities. I asked who she was calling.
“Oh, just one of my boyfriends, Carl,” she responded casually. Carl is a 4-year-old boy from California; his family parked their rig near the Popes somewhere along the road.
“The kids form attachments so quickly but we keep moving,” Kacey said. “So we started buying postcards to send to everyone.”
The adult Popes traveled the world with military careers that took them to Iraq, Cuba, Tonga, Japan and Samoa, and are both pursuing master’s degrees in early childhood education. But their decision to homeschool their kids, in an RV no less, leaves them open to criticism back home and on the road. Some say the mobile life robs the children of stability or creates attachment problems. Others question the homeschool method in general, even if the home stays put.
They don’t pretend to know the right answer to educating kids in America. They just know something isn’t working. “[B]y and large our school system is lacking. We don’t value teachers,” Ben said. “Until we do, until something is restored, we’ll do this. We could be wrong. We’ll never really know. It’s a bit of a social experiment. But at least it’s something they’ll never forget.”
As the family made its way through the museum at the base of the Crazy Horse monument, they stopped before a 6-foot-long scale model of the grounds.
The colossal sculpture of the Oglala Lakota warrior famous for his role in the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn will eventually dwarf the nearby Mount Rushmore. That is, if it is ever completed. In the fiscal year 2020, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation reported $20.5 million in revenue and $95 million in net assets, in addition to an undisclosed amount of income earned through the gift shop, restaurant, and snack bar. But after 74 years of construction, just a fraction of the monument has been carved out of the mountain. This diorama is one of 20-odd models throughout the museum that touts what the monument may become.
Ben had already read up on the criticism about where the funds for the private project have gone after all these years, if not into the actual construction. He pointed to the detailed model where a replica of the monument should have been carved, but instead a wilted photograph was taped to the faux rock face, as if an afterthought. Every other structure in the model had intricate three-dimensional detail.
“Chief Standing Bear wrote a letter to them asking them to build a monument near Rushmore to let the white man know that the native have heroes too,” he told his kids. “Then you come over here and see that. They built out everything else in this model. There’s even water in the lake. And they use a photograph for the actual monument. Incredible.”
It was a comment far too nuanced to stay with the younger two Pope children. But it stuck with teenage Lily. Later, she walked around the gift shop, with its mugs and pelts, and muttered to herself about a pen priced exorbitantly at $3.
“I doubt any of the money from all this goes to Native Americans,” she said, looking around the room.
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