July 27, 2012 § 12 Comments
For various reasons, I have been thinking about what constitutes an education and the ways in which our twenty-first century American expectations surrounding the learning process are failing us. (Big disclaimer: As posted here, my personal educational path has been decidedly atypical). I think I will have more to say about this soon, but for the meantime, I thought I would post an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the current issue of Taproot.
What is an education? Should it be one thing, and not another? It’s a silly question, really, a bit like asking what is a person? Should she be one thing and not another? I recall the time my father told his mother – my Grandmother – that I was working toward becoming a full time writer. She looked incredulous: “But he’s not qualified!”
Our boys’ names are Finlay and Rye, and they are ten and seven, respectively. It will probably not surprise you to hear that they do not practice formal schooling. “Unschooling” seems to be the contemporary term of choice for education based on life experience, although I’m not sure how I feel about it. I mean, is not doing something the same as undoing it? Or maybe we are schooling them; what is schooling, anyway?
Not so long ago, a few months at the most, I mentioned to someone that Rye does not yet read. She was shocked. “Really?” she kept asking. “Really?” As if this were some unconquerable failing that would haunt him all his life. I was not offended, for I know what the expectations are, what they have become. I know that by age seven, my children are expected to be reading, to be multiplying endless rows of numbers across a page, to be sitting for hours on end, bent over pencil and paper, or, more likely, a laptop or iPad. I know what they’re expected to know.
But in full truth, it’s what they’re not expected to know that interests me: To identify every tree in our woodlot from 30 paces. To butcher the hindquarter of a hog. To wield a splitting maul and use a chop saw. To make a fire. To know when a windrow of hay is dry enough for baling. To disappear into the woods below our home and return an hour later with a bag full of chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms. Of course, this knowledge is not mutually exclusive to a conventional schooling experience. But a child cannot know everything; there are only so many waking hours in a day, and if those hours are passed inside the four walls of a classroom, or gazing into a pixilated screen, they are by default not spent otherwise.
Every so often, I fall victim to the manufactured educational expectations of our culture, and I worry that my boys will remain forever out-of-step with twenty-first century America. I fret over the many things they don’t know, and think, my god, I am failing them. Or I consider my own unlikely education, and my still-bloated ignorance, all the times it feels as if I know nothing or, if not nothing, then not enough.
Yet, this I do know: Whether by serendipity, stubbornness, or blind luck, I have pieced together a good and satisfying life far off the well-trod corridor of the assumed educational path, and it is the aggregate of everything I have learned and experienced that has led me here, to this exact place. In my wildest dreams, I would wish for nothing else.
When I remember this, I am reminded that perhaps the most crucial knowledge I can impart upon my boys is that an education, like a life, can be whatever one chooses. And what I want to say to them is, Go. Do. Be. I will teach you what I can. The rest is up to you.
July 17, 2012 § 10 Comments
Every week or so, Penny and I take the boys on separate adventures. Given the amount of time they spend together, and given that both of them are just as rowdy and rambunctious as young boys should be, and perhaps even more so (never mind strong-willed, hot-tempered, and generally feral), it feels imperative that we occasionally pull them apart for a few hours, lest they thrash each other right into the emergency room. I exaggerate, of course, but not by terribly much.
We alloted this past Saturday morning for just such adventures. The rules of engagement are simple: the boys alternate between us from week-to-week, and can choose what they each want to do, so long as it doesn’t cost anything, and doesn’t require much vehicle travel. Generally, we stick around the homeplace; fishing is a popular option, as are mushrooming and the construction of catapults from scrap materials on hand.
This week, Fin wanted to go squirrel hunting, as he’d recently made what he deemed a decent squirrel potpie (actually, it was chipmunk, but truth is, there’s precious little difference between squirrel and chipmunk. They’re both disgusting) and was keen to replicate his success. So he loaded the .22, and he and Penny set off for the woods to stalk wild game.
Rye was having trouble deciding what to do. I offered fishing, romping through the woods, tractor driving instruction, and helping Melvin, our 65-year old dairy farming neighbor, load square bales into his barn. I’d seen Melvin baling at nearly 9 the evening before, and knew the hay would still be sitting in his wagon, which was fine so long as the weather held. But showers were forecast for the afternoon, and if that hay didn’t get under cover, it’d be ruined. It’s not that Melvin couldn’t've put the hay in the barn by himself, but if ever there is a task where the phrase “many hands make light work” rings true, it’s loading square bales.
I was a bit surprised when Rye chose the lattermost of these options. First of all, at 7:30 a.m., it was already wicked hot and humid, and would be more so in the loft of Melvin’s old barn. Second, he freakin’ loves driving the tractor – what boy doesn’t? Third, the bales weighed somewhere in the range of 50 to 60-pounds; Rye weighs somewhere in the range of 50 to 60-pounds. You do the math.
In any event, we puttered down the hill to find Melvin, which wasn’t that hard, considering he was where he is every single morning of every single day of every single year at 7:30 a.m. Which is to say, he was milking. “Melvin, we came to unload the wagon,” I said. He looked at me, then at Rye, and almost – but not quite – missed a beat. Within a half-dozen minutes, we had the wagon positioned at the bottom of the hay elevator, and Rye had climbed the sketchy wooden ladder with the missing rung into the loft. It was determined that I would load the elevator from the wagon, and Rye would pile bales in the barn. To be honest, I wasn’t sure he’d be able to do it, and I don’t think Melvin was either. But there was nothing to be gained by not trying, and so Melvin returned to his cows, and I started sending bales up to Rye along the clattering elevator.
Within an hour, we had most of the bales unloaded, and Melvin had finished milking, and he came out and we all stacked them neatly along the back gable wall of his hay loft. In the vast, open space of the barn they looked almost inconsequential, and I knew it was maybe three days worth of feed for his small herd. Three days out of the 200 or so days they’d need to be fed hay over the year, and for a moment I thought about all of the essential work that happens that most of us never see, that goes unheralded and unnoticed. Unappreciated.
That night, Rye showed me his hands, and the blisters that had already formed and burst. Little flaps of skin hung ragged from his small palms.
“That was fun,” he said.
And so it was.
July 9, 2012 § 9 Comments
Frankly, I am struggling a bit with updating this spot. Part of it is the madcap rush of mid-summer and my increasing aversion to the desk/computer/interior of our home. It seems the more time I spend outside, engaged with the particulars of innumerable projects that are either partially completed or not even begun in earnest, the more time I want to spend outside. Our phone and internet were out for nearly 3 days, victims of the July 4 thunderstorm, and it was like a gift. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate these conveniences, only that, like most in contemporary America, I too easily allow them to exceed their proper boundaries, to the point where it sometimes seems as if they are using me, rather than the other way ’round.
The other part, however, is that I do not feel compelled to share the quotidian particulars of our life, no matter how un-quotidian (non-quotidian? De-quotidian?) they may seem to others. Truth is, there are plenty of folks doing that much better than I ever will, and my intent with this space is to say something only when I have something that I truly want to say, that feels important to me or, at least, that feels as if it demands some clarity which might be gained by sharing. The fact that I haven’t had much of this lately is perhaps a reflection of long hours of physical work at hand: Splitting wood until the day has been quite nearly overtaken by night is a fine way to scrub cobwebs from the mind. Despite my last post, and the very real need to figure out how to maintain some meager cash flow beyond the even more-meager proceeds our little farm brings in, not much in my life seems as if it needs clarity right now; the demands of what needs to be done on a day-in, day-out basis provide all the clarity I need. This is what matters. This is what I must do.
All of this is a sort of long-winded apology to those who visit regularly. I am all too aware of the expectations that blogs will be updated regularly, and that to not do so is to risk alienating readers. But I am in a place where the physical is taking precedence over the intellectual, and it’s hard to say when that might shift.