A fellow teacher is of the opinion that I was born 100 years too late and the more I have considered that suggestion, the more it seems to ring true. Actually, the remark opened a window through which I could see why I have gone through my life feeling like I was missing…something; feeling offended by…something; always searching for…something. I believe that I have been missing the Past with its higher standards of decency, morals, values, classical educations, close family ties, lives spent closer to the earth. Modern culture and modern life offend me in so many ways.
One only need look about my home, or notice the way we raise and educate our child, to see that the past means a great deal to me. I probably developed these values from close companionship with my paternal grandparents; from stories my father told; from time I spent in the one-roomed schoolhouse. Every room of my home holds memories of these things. The oil painting of our ‘Century Farm’ hangs over the piano. Grandmother’s sewing machine holds the ‘antique’ radio (with CD, cassette and record players hidden inside.) Grandfather’s massive wardrobe owns a corner of the living room and serves well as a closet in this 140-year-old farm cottage built, as most in that era, without closets. Other than the soft living room furniture, and my computer desk, chair and equipment, the house is furnished in antiques from ….oh, about 100 years ago.
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Antiques of every size have come from relatives or been discovered during family trips to antique shops. Always I seek items that point back to the past and serve to comfort me. Our son has become a person in search of treasures from the past, as well. When he was small, he loved antique locks and put together an impressive collection, paid for with birthday and chore money. David views ‘old things saved’ (a phrase from the wonderful book, Song and Dance Man, (1992) by Karen Ackerman, Stephen Gammel, illustrator) with as much awe as I do. Now David has grown larger, as have his tastes, and so a John Deere B tractor sits in the yard, and people find our house by looking for the antique John Deere mowing machine and plows. (David’s dream is to become a mechanical design engineer for John Deere, which surprises no one.)
As I look through our multitude of books, I am again reminded of my longing for the past and I am relieved that David has developed the same hunger for times gone by. His attitudes developed during the time spent with my father; then were reinforced by the books that we read aloud when he was young; later reread silently by David. I believe that it is very important to teach children about the past, not only in official history classes, but also by telling and reading stories of family life during eras that families view as specifically admirable and meaningful.
By equipping our children with a better understanding of what was, we prepare them to spot, assess and reject aspects of modern life which prove to be upsetting and harmful. We want to empower our children to wisely choose their own paths in life. I worry very little about my son’s choice of friends, clothing, music, and behavior. He has developed strength of character; built upon his interpretation of what his grandparents and great-grandparents would think of modern times, and what they would wish him to become. Using their values and lifestyles as a measuring stick, David rejects the low aspects of our current culture. He is rooted in the past; connected to the values of those who have gone before; and I am glad.
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Our numerous bookshelves are loaded, but our very favorite books are those written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Not only have her books been read many times, and the values discussed at length, but family vacations have been spent visiting many of Laura’s homes. To be in those homes; to touch the things that belonged to Laura and Pa and Ma, is to reach back in time in order that we may consider, evaluate, and share their value system.
We have been to the Little House in the Big Woods and also took time to visit Caddie Woodlawn’s home, which is near there. We have been to the sod dugout On the Banks of Plum Creek. We have visited the surveyors’ house from By the Shores of Silver Lake. We have spent time in DeSmet, South Dakota, visiting the places described in The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years. We have been out to the claim where Laura and Almanzo spent The First Four Years. We have twice traveled to Mansfield, Missouri, to visit the home that Laura and Almanzo built; where Laura did her writing. We have grieved at the gravesides of those much admired persons.
There are hundreds of children’s books available to assist parents in connecting their children to the values and family life of more moral, and more Constitutional, times in America. There are books that touch every aspect of life and living. I have time to mention but a few that can assist those seeking ways to teach children the real American heritage: love of freedom; love of family; joy of childhood; love of learning; pride in an honorable America.
One of my very favorite children’s books is Roxaboxen, written in 1991 by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. It claimed a firm spot in our hearts because of the stories I had told my son about “our” huge rock at grandfather’s farm. The rock ‘belonged’ to our group of cousins and was large enough for each of us to find a seat, pretend that it were a castle, and live remarkable lives there. Roxaboxen, based on a true story, confirms that children can effectively use their imaginations to create towns (or in my case, castles) where memories are born, to be retained and cherished long into adulthood.
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The years went by, and the seasons changed, until at last the friends had all grown tall, and one by one, they moved away to other houses, to other towns. So you might think that was the end of Roxaboxen but oh, no.
Because none of them ever forgot Roxaboxen. Not one of them ever forgot. Years later, Marion’s children listened to stories of that place And fell asleep dreaming dreams of Roxaboxen.
~ From Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran
I would tell my son stories of my life in the one-roomed schoolhouse with Mrs. Beaudry and he knows his Great-Aunt Mildred, who taught for 50 years. When we read My Great-Aunt Arizona (1992) by Gloria Houston; illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb, David was better able to picture the schooling experiences of the past.
For fifty-seven years my great-aunt Arizona hugged her students … She taught them words and numbers, and about the faraway places they would visit someday. “Have you been there?” the students asked. “Only in my mind,” she answered. But someday you will go.” … She never did go to the faraway places she taught us about. But my great-aunt Arizona travels with me and with those of us whose lives she touched… She goes with us … in our minds.
~ from My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston
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I told my son of our large family gatherings and we read, The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant. He could picture a crowded house; makeshift beds; a home filled with strange breathing. I told my son of the wonderful Christmas pageants we put on at church each year, and reinforced the lesson with the beautifully illustrated, The Christmas Pageant (1989) by Jacqueline Rogers. We enjoyed The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1972) by Barbara Robinson. Even yet, when we notice badly behaving families, we think “The Herdmans!”
I explained how my grandmother and her family had moved to Michigan by covered wagon, and how grandfather’s family had sent him to ride in a boxcar, tending the horse, cow, and larger pieces of furniture, as the family followed in a covered wagon. In addition to the Wilder books, we read Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985) by Patricia MacLachlan as we discussed the pioneer spirit. Now that David is older, we are reading the works of Willa Cather (My Antonia and Oh Pioneers!).
We discussed my grandfather’s self-reliance in caring for his family, and of the family working hard, and together, in order to make ends meet; to store enough food for animals and humans. We reinforced those lessons with fine books like Ox-Cart Man (1979) by Donald Hall with pictures by Barbara Cooney, and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey. (Even though Sal wasn’t of much help to her mother and they “drove home with food to can for next winter a whole pail of blueberries and three more besides.”)
We discussed the wonder of animals, and the respect and care that must be given to animals, especially those that work for us; for those that will be sacrificed that we might eat; for those that are ill and in need of care. We read the wonderful books written by veterinarian James Herriot, (Only One Woof, The Market Square Dog, the All Creatures Great and Small series.) We cried with Rob, and empathized with his entire family in A Day No Pigs Would Die (1972) by Robert Newton Peck. David learned the importance of being responsible with guns, and understood that one must never shoot animals ‘just for fun’ when he read One-Eyed Cat (1984) by Paula Fox. In Owl Moon (1987) by Jane Yolen, we breathlessly crept through the woods, hoping to see the owl.
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We worried if anyone would adopt that plain brown dog in Who Wants Arthur? (1984) by Amanda Graham with pictures by Donna Gynell. When David was nine years old, I took him to Australia to visit friends. We had rented a car and were driving through the areas west of the Blue Mountains. Stopping in a small town to rest, we noticed a library across the street, and went in to investigate. The first book we saw was a well-worn copy of Who Wants Arthur? It was like running into an old friend, and we felt as though we were home, again!
My father told my son many stories about growing up without electricity and with hardships, but he also described the favorite part of each day. His mother would gather the family around the kitchen table and read aloud, by the light of the kerosene lamp, until bedtime. Dad said that Grandmother would always stop reading at an exciting spot, thereby leaving the listeners ‘hanging.’ She would send them off to bed with their imaginations alive, anticipating the next evening’s reading when the story would continue. I borrowed grandmother’s idea, and while my father was still alive, he would come for supper then stay to listen as I read his old and dearest favorites, Kazan, and Baree, Son of Kazan, by Michigan author, James Oliver Curwood. We all found those stories of early Canada so enticing, that I then read the marvelous book, Incident at Hawk’s Hill (1987), and its sequel, Return to Hawk’s Hill, by Allen Eckert.
David learned to love fantasy instead of television by reading books like Amazing Grace (1991) by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch when he was small; later by reading and rereading the Redwall books by Brian Jacques and The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. David learned to care about people whose lives differed from ours by reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (1984) by Bette Bao Lord; Julie of the Wolves (1972) by Jean Craighead George; The Rough-Face Girl (1992) by Rafe Martin and David Shannon, The Sign of the Beaver (1984) by Elizabeth George Speare.
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David learned history by reading books like, My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) by Collier and Collier; the “…If You” series of books: …If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon, …If You Lived With the Sioux Indians, and other historical books for children. He learned of life around America in days past, by reading the wonderful books by Lois Lenski Strawberry Girl, Prairie School, Indian Captive, and more. Now he is studying history and economics with the Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? “Uncle Eric” series of books written by Richard J. Maybury.
For the opportunity to observe and be offended by injustice, I had David read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1977) by Mildred D. Taylor. To better understand life as we now see it, and to gain insights in how to handle these confusing years, he read the fine book, Rules of the Road (1998) by Joan Bauer. Jenna, an awkward sixteen year old who has watched her family break apart because of her father’s drinking problem, muses, as she drives her boss through the Midwest towards a stockholder’s meeting in Texas:
It seemed to me that the people who made the rules ofthe road had figured out everything that would help a person drive safely right down to having a sign that tells you you’re passing through a place where deer cross.Somebody should stick up some signs on the highway oflife.
CAUTION: JERKS CROSSING Blinking yellow lights when you’re about to do somethingstupid.Stop signs in front of people who could hurt you.Green light shining when you’re doing the right thing.It would make the whole experience easier.Life was too hard sometimes…
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We made it to St. Louis by nightfall drove past theGateway Arch…The arch represented the gateway to the west where the pioneers began their journey to the new land…Seeing it made me feel like I’d just done something important. I thought of all those pioneer teenagers pushingwestward in the covered wagons hot, sweaty, wonderingwhat the new land would bring, trying to convince their parents to letthem drive.
~ From Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
Children’s literature so often contains wisdom and lessons for guiding the experiences of children. Parents need only be discriminating in choosing which books will teach the lessons important to individual families, and there are lessons to be found in books from all eras. My wishes were that my son understand and ‘feel’ America when it was good; when it was more in-line with how the Founding Fathers envisioned it to be. It was with an eye to that end, that I read and chose the books for my son to read. I did not need an arbitrary date; neither did I need any list from any teacher. To search, one needs only a focus and a belief system.
When I am asked to read to a group of children, I usually take the book, Home Place (1990) by Crescent Dragonwagon, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. The book accomplishes the near impossible by taking the reader to an overgrown homestead, then introducing the reader to the history and reality of prior residents of the home which no longer exists. By letting the former residents speak from the past to share their lives and values, the reader can reach into the past and share a time of… maybe about 100 years ago…
Listen. Can you listen, back, far back? No, not the wind, that’s now. But listen, Back, and hear: a man’s voice, scratchy-sweet, singing “Amazing Grace,” a rocking chair squeaking, creaking on a porch, the bubbling hot fat in a black skillet, the chicken frying, and “Tommy! Get in here this minute! If I have to call you one more time !” and “Ah, me it’s hot,” and “Reckon it’ll storm?” “I don’t know, I sure hope, we sure could use it,” and “Supper! Supper tiiiiime!”
~ from Home Place, by Crescent Dragonwagon
A gift of the past, to the children of the present, who will become the adults of tomorrow. For the sake of America, we need to now teach the lessons, which then held families together. If we do not do this soon, more children will grow up feeling that they, too, are always missing…100 or so years of…something.
July 21, 2003