What follows is the forward to my new book Gifted: Raising Children Intentionally, now available at Amazon in either paperback or as an e-book.
Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire
William Butler Yeats
Grandma was sitting in the living room reading a book. She always seemed to be reading something. Her bedroom floor was piled high with reading material. She once warned me that a person who stops reading will grow old in his mind. Her mind never seemed old and her broad range of knowledge was welcome everywhere. She laughed easily after which she would dab at the corner of her mouth with a Kleenex.
I walked into the living room and flopped myself on the couch opposite her. She always looked the same to me: smartly dressed, her pure-white hair nicely groomed, and the ever-present Kleenex poking out of the cuff of her blouse within easy reach. Dabbing the corner of her mouth with a Kleenex had become so habitual she was no longer aware of how often she performed this ritual. The removal of a facial nerve had left the right side of her mouth paralyzed and it tended to leak saliva.
Her name was Florence, but she was affectionately known to her children as Flossie. I was not allowed to call her that. The reason, I suppose, was the 64 year difference in our ages.
Grandma was born in a little town in southern Minnesota but her Dad eventually moved the family to Walnut Grove. Even though Laura Ingalls was 12 years her senior, Grandma must have known the Ingalls family as Walnut Grove was just another of the many small villages on the frontier.
Descended from a famous Scottish clan leader, Grandma was a proud Scot and did not let the prevailing attitude toward women stand in the way of her earning a Master’s Degree at a time when most women did not usually attend college. She had successfully raised five children on a teacher’s salary after the death of her young husband. Her proudest possession, and one that never left her person, was a pocket watch given her by her father, engraved with the date of her 21st birthday: May 21, 1900.
This was Grandma. She had been in and out of my life as she moved between her various children’s families, staying a few months with each one.
Grandma put down her book and turned to me. Her face and seemingly frail body betraying the twinkle in her eye as if she was always forcing her aging body to admit that it housed a girl’s adventuresome spirit.
“How is school?” she inquired, a very logical way for a retired school teacher to begin a conversation with a 13 year old.
Truth is, I hated school. It’s not that I hated learning. I just hated school. Everything about it made me feel dumb and I hated feeling dumb. My emotional maturity had been slowed by my father’s premature death when I was two, and my mother had to work to support the family. Paying for a babysitter was not within her means. So, she had put me in 1st grade two months after I turned five, and a few years later, the school Principal talked her into allowing me to skip 4th grade. I was in 9th grade at age 13, but with the maturity of a much younger child.
To her question, “How is school?” I answered, vaguely, “It’s okay, Grandma.”
“What are you learning?” She was a schoolteacher, after all, and this was what she wanted to talk about.
“Well, you know,” I answered, “Thanksgiving is next week and we are learning about the Pilgrims.”
“That’s wonderful!” said Grandma, her face lighting up as she found a topic she loved and that we could share. “Tell me what you’ve learned about the Pilgrims.”
As a 13-year-old there were many things I didn’t care about, and that definitely included the Pilgrims. Unfortunately, I heard myself say this to Grandma.
“I don’t care anything about the Pilgrims, Grandma. That was ancient history.”
A perceptible change came over my grandmother’s countenance. The previous look of pleasurable interest was now one of disbelief. I knew I had said something very wrong; but, as with most things I said or did at that age, I was unaware of what it was.
Finally, a light appeared in grandmother’s eyes as if she had understood something important. Slowly she nodded her head and she said, “I see.” Then, she picked up her book and began to read where she had left off. So ended our brief conversation.
I went through Thanksgiving and Christmas without another talk with Grandma and she finally left and went to stay with one of my aunts.
Toward the end of that school year my mother said, “I bought a canvas tarp. I want you to spread the tarp on the driveway and paint it with the waterproofing paint I bought.”
“Why?” I asked. “What would I do that for?”
“Your grandmother is taking you somewhere,” she said. “She will be here to pick you up the day after school is over.”
I was taken aback. “Taking me somewhere! Where?”
“You’ll see,” she said with such finality, I knew that was all the answer I was going to get.
Saturday morning I spread the canvas on the driveway and painted one side of it. The southern California sun soon dried it and I turned the canvas over and painted the other side. By evening, it was completely dry and waterproof. My mother took out an old suitcase and put it on my bed. She then dictated which clothes I was to put in it. She avoided all my questions about where I was going with Grandma and how long I would be gone.
The last day of school is the favorite day of the year for most students. It was always my worst day because I received my report card and my grades were always pretty bad. I never saw the point of school. I intuitively thought that most of what I was required to learn would have little meaning in my future. I thought school was probably meant to fill the days rather than make me a smarter person.
The next morning was Saturday and I awoke to the realization that I had a whole summer ahead of me without school. Since I lived on a hill above the ocean, I envisioned three months of body surfing and, generally, being lazy.
During breakfast, my mother announced, “Your grandmother is here!”
My heart sank. “Oh, yeah,” I said as the future began to dawn on my awakening mind. “I’m supposed to be going somewhere with Grandma.”
On the back seat of Grandma’s 1948 Chevrolet was a large Coleman cooler. On top of that sat a very old Coleman stove. The rest of the back seat was filled with sacks of groceries and more camping gear. Grandma opened the trunk. It was a good thing I had folded my tarp as tightly as I had because there was just enough room in the trunk for it and my little suitcase. The rest of the trunk was stuffed with more camping equipment, including a Coleman lantern, a large canvas tent and other odds and ends.
I stepped back and looked at my mother and grandmother. It was clear to me that this was not going to be any day-trip, and it was also clear that it had been planned for quite some time.
“Okay,” my mother beamed. “You guys have a great trip!” She kissed me and her mother and turned toward the house.
Grandma climbed into the driver’s side of the front seat. She motioned me to get in. I opened the passenger door and started to sit down. On the floorboard was a large block of dry ice, sending smoke from its top as if it was a smoldering fire. I had never seen a block of dry ice before. Grandma told me not to touch it as it would burn my skin. I was to sit with my two feet straddling either side of the block.
Grandma turned the key and placed the ball of her right foot on the starter pedal which came out of the floorboard to the right of the brake. She shoved her foot downward and the engine chugged a few times and then came to life. She put the car into reverse and we backed out of the driveway. I sat in silence as we drove toward the ocean at the bottom of the hill, and the highway that would take us somewhere that was still unknown to me.
We drove that way, saying nothing, until we turned east onto a highway marked “Route 66.”
Finally I pointed to the block of dry ice at my feet and asked, “What is this for?”
“Air conditioning,” she said, and she grasped a handle coming out from under the middle of the dashboard and pushed it downward. As she did this, a flap opened just in front of the windshield. A stream of air began flowing around my feet and over the block of ice sending cool air into our faces. I smiled at Grandma’s resourcefulness.
“Where are we going, Grandma?”
“Do you see that book on the dashboard? That is the map of our route. I will drive and you will navigate. You will tell me where to go and where to stop for the night on our route. There are only two rules that we will follow: First, I cannot afford motels, so we will camp each night. When we camp, you will put up my tent. You will sleep outside in a sleeping bag on a cot I brought for you. You have waterproofed a canvas tarp that you will put next to your cot. The tarp is big enough to completely cover your cot in case it rains. I will cook the food and you will wash the dishes. I will wash our clothes.”
She continued, “The second rule is that when we visit a place, we will stay there until you are ready to leave. Is all that clear? Now, take the map and let’s begin our journey.”
I took the book from the dashboard and opened it. There was a map of the entire United States with roads marked all the way from Los Angeles to the east coast. There were several smaller maps of various states with locations marked on each.
The next three months we camped every night but one, when we were forced by a tornado in Tennessee to seek refuge in a cottage. From time to time it rained during the night, but I never got wet. When the first drops began to fall on my face, I pulled my waterproof tarp over my body and the sound of raindrops on the tarp lulled me back to sleep.
Grandma took me to every important historical site in the eastern United States. Williamsburg was my favorite and, true to her word, we did not leave until I was ready to go. Actually, Grandma spent most of that time back at the campsite, reading. I was enchanted by Williamsburg and, for two weeks, I spent every day wandering the historic village, following the tour guides who filled my young, impressionable mind with electrifying stories of the most dangerous and controversial time in the founding of our nation.
I lost myself in the Capitol building and the Library of Congress, riding elevators, wandering halls, opening doors, entering rooms—things that would not be allowed today. I asked questions of everyone I saw.
By the time we left Jamestown I could have led tours. The same with Kitty Hawk and Ellis Island. And, yes, few 14 year olds (I had a birthday during the trip) knew as much as I did about the Pilgrims. I spent hours reading about them in the Plymouth library and asking questions of the re-enactors at the restored Plymouth Colony. When I returned to our campsite, I shared all I had learned with Grandma.
Grandma and I talked about many things that summer as we traveled this beautiful land. And, although Grandma loved American history and had taught it for years, she never used our time together to teach but let my many experiences be my teacher. That summer, Grandma turned 78.
At no time that summer did I ever feel dumb.
Thirteen years later I sat by my grandmother’s bed as she lay dying. She had recently given up her lifelong dream of earning her doctorate. Her diminished hearing made it impossible to follow the lectures.
She turned her face toward me and smiled. Her last six words to me were, “There is so much to say…” Then she closed her eyes. This time, there was no need to dab the corner of her mouth.
A few days later I stood by her coffin as people began moving slowly toward their cars. It was a bright, warm, sunny day. The kind Grandma liked best. I thought of those six words: “There is so much to say…” When I was alone with her coffin, I told Grandma she had been wrong, “No, Grandma. You never had to say anything. Your example said it all.”
I was years into homeschooling my own sons when, one day, it dawned on me that Grandma had formed my ideas of how a person receives an education. Is it any wonder that I could not raise my children by conventional educational methods but, instead, had to do for them what Grandma had done for me? Much of my sons’ education was spent on the Oregon Trail, on Ellis Island, in Williamsburg, or touring Israel…
“None of us has ever been afraid to venture beyond what is familiar to us,” my youngest son said to me recently. “We have been so many places―we are not afraid of anything or any place new. You did that for us.”
No, not I; it was someone you never met. An old lady with a girl’s adventuresome heart, willing to take a 13-year-old kid around the country to learn its history. She changed my life and my understanding of what education means; and, she changed the lives of my sons. Perhaps she even changed many generations to come.
Oh, I almost forgot to add: Grandma visited us again the Christmas I was 14. I was now in 10th grade and my attitude toward public school had not changed much.
She had been there long enough to get settled in. I found her in the living room, reading. I flopped myself down on the couch across from her. She looked older than I remembered. I sat for some time before I finally got up the courage to interrupt her.
“Grandma,” I said.
She looked up from her book. “Yes?”
I hesitated. Finally, “Do you think we could take that trip again next summer?”
For a long time she sat, thinking. Her gaze went far away somewhere. But, even before she smiled, I saw the twinkle enter her tired eyes.
Slowly she responded. “Yes… I suppose we can.”
And, we did.