Archives for the month of: May, 2012

When I was six, my father was offered a professorship at the University of Florida, and we moved from Storrs, Connecticut, to balmy and laconic Gainesville, Florida.  While north Florida lacked the intense educational focus of New England — where the plethora of historic Ivy League universities surrounding gave the entire region an intellectual quality unlike anywhere else in the nation, any university town provides countless offerings that can help parents in providing cultural experiences to children. For me, the first glimpse I had of what would eventually become a fixed mental ideal took place when I was seven.

My parents, always trying to bring culture into my brother’s and my young lives, brought us to UF’s University Auditorium for a performance. This was the first visit of many for me to that old-world-looking edifice.  The performance we went to see might have been The Messiah, or a visiting operatic production, or the annual reading of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by Dean Lester Hale – for these and many other performances were things we regularly saw at University Auditorium.  But it was less the production, and more the gothic arches of that towering space, the worn red velvet cushions on the seats, the scuffed and dinged mahogany newels and pilasters, that filled me with wonder.  I felt like I had come home to something that I hadn’t known existed before – but something that was created for me – or I for it.  What was it?  It was the echo of history, and the grandeur of the immense height and cavernous space, the ghosts of past lives represented by every trailing velvet thread and center-worn step, the dim light and the vast stage – everything about that historic building spoke to me, as if to say, “Here is inspiration. Here is something that worth living for.”  

Of course, when you’re seven the elevations of early 1900s faux-gothicism seem magnificent, indeed – and I still pause and smile when I see University Auditorium on the University of Florida campus.  No one could have told me at that time that far grander gothic cathedrals from the first iteration of that architectural style were an ocean away, and that this neo-rendition of something done more authentically centuries before might be a bit contrived. In all honesty, that didn’t matter. What mattered in terms of making an impression on my young spirit was that University Auditorium was older and more magical than any other buildings I had been in, and I loved it.   It had withstood something – a lot of things – and for that reason it was a very reassuring presence in a town of 1960s cinder-block ranch homes.  (In fact, Memorial Auditorium, as it was called at that time, had been sensitively designed in the early 1920s by William Augustus Edwards, who clearly was evoking Westminster Hall and the Central Lobby of London’s Houses of Parliament, as well as Princeton’s Proctor Hall, designed in 1913 by Ralph Adams Cram. The interior includes feature an important 14th-century-style hammerbeam ceiling — a unique application in a cruciform structure. Each hammerbeam culminates with one of the four land-grant quadriviums: the Scholar, the Musician, the Engineer, and the Athlete. Above the east and west balconies, two large windows showcase six more scholars, these presented in early 20th-century Art Deco style, who have gazed with sanguine detachment on the many performances and events held there through the decades.)

So when my children came along, I wanted them to know the exhilaration and wonder of being confronted with the towering grandeur that some buildings lend. As a result, we have a lot of great stories about how that worked out that I’ll share in a subsequent post. My love for historic architecture began with that first trip to University Auditorium in 1962. It continued with an assortment of serendipitous moments: a visit to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. while on a sixth-grade school trip; a horseback ride through the Garden of the Gods in Colorado at the age of 13; a lucky assignment to live in a 1939 dormitory my first year of college rather than in a  soulless, concrete, steel and glass highrise.  From all these snapshots indelibly engraved on my mind, I learned about the deepening impact that our structural environment can have on us, and I found myself gravitating toward structures – manmade or natural – that seemed to have stories embedded in their substance.

In the meantime, what are the buildings in your child’s life — or in your life — that have contributed to a sense of awe, of wonder, of romance?

Where to begin? Is there any way to describe the importance of reading in the life of a child? Can one start it too young?

I will confess that my mother thought perhaps she started it too young with me.  At least she thought she  caved to my desire to learn to read when I was too young.  Like every younger brother or sister, I wanted to do what my older brother was doing.  So naturally when he started to school and was learning to read, I wanted to learn to read, too. But I was only three, and my mother worried that if I learned too early, I would be bored when I reached grade school.  She had just cause to be concerned, too: in those days, first grade consisted of a rigidly constructed curriculum, and if it was repetition for a child, tant pis, as the French would say: tough luck.  Teachers had no idea how to adjust for individual needs, which surely has been the difficulty of teaching a classroom of diverse children throughout history.  But in the early 1960s, it was unheard of to alter curriculum for individual needs. So my mother tried everything she could think of to put me off.  She assigned my father the job of teaching me to read music and to play the piano, and I went along for a short time, but it wasn’t what I wanted.  They tried to distract me with art supplies, craft supplies, play dates, nursery school, anything, until my mother succumbed to my misery and pulled out the “easy to read” books and started in on phonics.

The inevitable happened, and for first, second, third and fourth grades I was bored, bored, bored — and spent much of my time sitting at a desk out in the hall, because bored, curious children. . .well, it isn’t a good thing. I think my mother decided that teaching me to read early backfired in all the ways she had feared, and in many ways she was right.

So I had a few trepidations about early reading when my children came along, but I suppose not enough, because as soon as I saw that little glimmer in their eyes — that intellectual connection between the words on the page and the words I was speaking — and they began to tilt toward literacy by learning their ABCs, and then learning to write their ABCs, and then writing books with titles like PREWEO REWO and reading them outloud, good old mom was right there, bouncing up and down with a nauseatingly goofy smile, bending forward in the way mothers do when they are terribly excited, nodding vigorously, and stage whispering, “Do you want to learn to read? do you want to learn to read??”

It was all over, then. Of course, the older child came first.  I think he was four. Lest anyone think this requires extraordinary intelligence on the part of the parent or the child, it does not. It’s really quite Pavlovian.  It begins with identifying the shapes of the letters, perhaps on wooden blocks or other toys, and repeating the letter sound at the same time.  Of course, today one can get V-Tech toys to do all of this, but I doubt there is any substitute for physical closeness with a parent or another trusted adult in the process.  (My daughter used to fairly pound the floor with her little fat hand as she played: “Mama, sit! Play!” as I raced through, invariably on the way to the washing machine. Would a V-Tech toy have answered that desire for human proximity? Of course not. Did I? Let’s just say that even “renaissance parents” have strains of guilt years later over various failings and personal propensities. And the kids are all right.)

But I do think that half of learning to read is about snuggling, lap sitting, or just being side-by-side on a sofa or in a big, cushy chair: which may have something to do with the decline in public school literacy in the primary years, but I am no expert about that.

Having a lot of books around is also critical. But they don’t have to be new books from the bookstore or Amazon, if the budget is tight.  They can be from the library, they can be from used booksellers, they can be exchanged with friends.  And of course, children will want to read if they see their parents reading — so even if you don’t have the habit, develop it.  Even if you find it the hardest thing in the world to do, fake it for your kid! Sit with a book in front of you and turn the pages in the child’s presence, rather than let him or her always see you watching television or playing on the computer.  I will be assaulted by parental feedback for that — for encouraging deception — and of course, part of me is being facetious when I recommend faking anything, but I am only trying to impress upon you how good it is — like Vitamin D and Vitamin C and broccoli and protein and fiber and baths and hugs and kisses — for your child to see you using books and deriving benefit from them.  A lot.

From there it’s really quite simple.  What does the “C” sound like? “kuh-kuh-kuh”  What is the next letter?  “A”  What sounds does that make?  “ah” or sometimes?  “ay” What is the last letter?  “T” And what sounds does it make”  “tuh-tuh-tuh” So we put it together to make? “kuuh. . .ahhhh. . . .tuh. . .CAT!!!”

Now, here’s the critical part: if there’s a picture of a cat on the page, the next time, the child will say, “CAT!” immediately, from the picture — BUT HE WON’T HAVE READ THE WORD.  So if you are really trying to teach him to read and not just to find reasons to load him up with empty praises, you have to force him to slow down, and repeat the whole exercise: dismantling the word letter by letter, sounding out each letter, and putting it together.  Because kids can memorize books very, very easily, and they and you can tell yourselves that they are reading.  There is nothing wrong with that, but don’t be fooled by it. Reading comes when they recognize the individual letters on the page, identify their corresponding letter sounds, and string them together to create the words.  And yes, it gets a bit complicated with short and long vowels and “e’s” on the end of words, combined vowel sounds, and similar English peculiarities. It requires a lot of faith and patience, but if your child really wants to do it, you can do it.

Should you? Oh, that depends. I would say it depends on the primary educational offerings where you live, and your willingness to advocate (read: fight) your way through them. In our case, I was pretty sure that I could find what my children needed when they entered school, even if they went in reading chapter books fluently. And I was even more certain of my own dedication to making sure that they got what they needed, smash-mouth mother that I was.  And I knew the law, which is vastly different than it was in the early 1960s. Today, special needs children have to be given the education they need in the public system. Is it wrong to make them outliers by teaching them past grade level, and then to insist that the public school system meet their needs? Well, let me answer that question with another question: Is it right to discourage one’s children from learning when they are ready to and want to, simply to save government resources?

I told myself that if I weren’t able to find a classroom that could receive them exactly where they were in terms of learning, and move them forward enough that they weren’t bored, as I was in the primary grades, then I would teach them at home.  I didn’t especially want to homeschool, because I’m independent by nature and have always enjoyed having my own life separate from my kids, and we were blessed that I never had to. I know that both of my children are grateful that they were able to go to “regular schools” (public all the way through for my son and parochial most of the way through for my daughter) and get a good education.  But I wasn’t going to hold them back academically because it might require homeschooling. If they wanted to learn, I wanted them to and was determined to facilitate or even lead the process. If we had to drive one beat-up car, if we had to forego a lot of other perks and pleasures, and I had to sell cosmetics in the evenings, we would do it. (Okay, I lied: I don’t think I could have sold cosmetics, or even plastic leftover dishes, or even encyclopedias. These days, some moms learn to pole dance. I would not be good at that. I guess I could have sung at weddings: “The Lord’s Prayer” and Paul Stuckey’s “There is Love,”  over and over and over and over and over again, Saturday after Saturday, $50 a pop, two per weekend, $400 a month: saved from a life of pink Cadillacs or cash tucked in a G-string. Whew!)

How did it all this early learning work? Remarkably well, for us. Yes, school shopping was a bit of a project at every juncture — kindergarten, primary, middle and high school. Much of that is due to our city and how the schools are organized, as people have told me who have relocated here from other cities, where you simply enroll at and go to the nearest neighborhood school.  I was glad we had a lot of choices; school shopping was a great pleasure for us.  People told me for years that we could have published and sold our “kindergarten notebook” to parents after we were done with the shopping process. I could always find a school that was offering curriculum at the right level.  In the primary grades, that was a Montessori school, which we were blessed to find in a public school setting.

Today my children are both avid readers. They seem to love reading, and to consider it part of their identity, their gestalt, almost their obligation in carrying out a cherished family tradition. They seem to know that reading is nearly as good as travel, and in some ways a good bit better: the water is potable, the bed is your own, there are no suitcases to pack and unpack, you don’t have to worry about forgetting your toothbrush, and you can always find a bathroom.

I remember the Sunday afternoon represented in this picture very well.  We had come home from church and lunch out, and I promised Andrew, who had finished his weekend homework and had no scheduled games or other obligations, that I would set him up in front of the fire with a book. I don’t think it was his idea, and I’m pretty sure I described it using unfairly delectable phrases. But I was trying to create a certain delight in him: a cherishing of a free afternoon or evening to just sit in peace and read. Since he hadn’t yet reached the recalcitrant middle school years, he was enthusiastic about the idea. We asked his dad to drag the old wing chair in front of the dining room fireplace — the only working downstairs fireplace at the time.  From the looks of it, Dad also built the fire. Andrew chose whatever book he was reading that had him entranced, and I got a blanket for him to snuggle up in. Everyone tiptoed past the room all afternoon, and he stayed there for hours.  No music, no TV, no talk.  Just the crackling fire, a cozy chair, a blanket and a good book.  Bliss, right?

But not for many modern-day children, and why is that? I suspect it’s because they haven’t grown up ever experiencing such moments, because anymore, such moments have to be created almost artificially.  Is the TV on more than you suspect it should be? Pause a moment and think about what that constant background noise is doing to your childrens’ sensibilities. Today, at 24 and 20, my children have many friends who cannot go to sleep without the television on — because they have no experience with silence, with quiet. Then we have to ask ourselves: were people built to perform their best with a steady diet of background noise? Consider for a moment today’s epidemic levels of child and adult medication.  Is it possible that the constant drone or blare of percussive noise causes depression in people?  Think about a walk through the woods, with only the rustle of leaves or the distant sounds of rushing water?   Does that not sound soothing, therapeutic, almost like a day at the spa?  Is it any accident that “spa music” so often includes water sounds, bird sounds, ocean wave sounds — and does not, if it isn’t too elementary to point it out — include the sounds of television commercials or nighttime police dramas?

Even music can sometimes become intrusive — an unnecessary distraction from the rare calming moment of reflection and sharing with others. After a day or two of keeping with everyones’ demands — for any of us, but especially for a young child, who surely already feels a small cog in the machinery of the world — just to sit quietly with a book or one’s thoughts, and carve out the time to become inwardly centered — in short, to become friends with one’s self, and not to fear an afternoon spent only with a crackling fire and a book for companionship — is surely an antidote to the social desperation we see in so many teenagers and even, sadly, their parents. If being alone is tolerable, then we needn’t be so frightened by the possibility of friends who turn out to be fickle. If being alone is acceptable, then when the rest of the world is caving to moral expediency, we stand a chance of being the one person who won’t: we might even have a shot at being noble, even heroic.

But for a parent to create such moments in a child’s life is a militant act in our world.  It’s decidedly counter-culture, whether one swings left, right, or center. Certainly in American life, horrific noise is on all sides of the political landscape. Just look at both the Democratic and the Republican presidential conventions: the noise is so thick and deep that obviously, real thinking endangers the goals.  Noise drums up fears, hatred and anger. Noise raises money! Quiet encourages thought, tempers reactions, and quells individuals who are one step from joining the mob. Yet from casual restaurants to Hollywood special-effects extravaganzas, from 100,000-seat football stadia (which I do love!) and sold-out concert arenas, we are saturated in noise. I cannot state it more plainly: if you want your children to cherish quiet, you will have to go to some extraordinary lengths.

But the message in doing so could not be more clear: your mind and spirit are worth cultivating. I trust you to be alone with your thoughts and be nurtured by them. You are worth investing time in, all by yourself. You don’t have to have a group around to be of value. You don’t have to be living according to the agenda of histrionics set by the world.  I read recently about people building dream homes with a dozen television screens installed in a media wall, all of them running on different cable channels concurrently, like the monitors in a television newsroom.  Why do they feel the need to absorb 12 news stations simultaneously? “I might miss something,” one such homeowner said. “I don’t want to miss anything.”

But he is missing something.  He is missing the priceless treasure of his own spirit. I wonder how it might all have been different for that impoverished soul if his mother or father had just once wrapped him in a blanket, put him in a cozy chair, lit a fire in the fireplace, handed him an entrancing book, and tiptoed around him on a Sunday afternoon.

How have you encouraged quiet in the life of your child? 

I was reading a book for our book club the other day, about a man who was on trial for murder, and the case the prosecution built to establish the man’s sanity.  The assistant Attorney General asked an expert witness in psychiatry to compare the accused with  someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  The physician asserted that one quality in particular spoke to the man’s sanity: “This is a man who enjoys a good joke.”

“…laughter is always something that is a shared experience. . . .One thing I can tell you in working with hundreds of schizophrenics over my lifetime, is schizophrenics don’t have shared humor with people around them.  Most of the time they are quite humorless.  Once in a , they’ll have their own idiosyncratic humor, laughing with themselves at things that have nothing to do with their environment. But a rather sensitive marker of psychosis is whether people have enough of the same shared reality to not only understand the facts of one’s reality, but the subtle and social meaning and significance that is irony.”1

I had to contemplate that for a while, especially as it pertains to raising children and family dynamics.  What dawned on me was the importance of shared humor in family life: those little moments of silliness that others might not think funny at all, because (we’ll all said it) you had to be there.  But that’s just the thing: in a family, you were there when the joke first came into being.  The off-the-wall comment that becomes an anecdote told over and over again; the games we make up at the dinner table, like the time our family composed native American names for each other: “Runs Like a Grandmother;” “Hates to Lose Candyland,”  “Counts on her Fingers,” and (although my husband is loathe to admit it) “Sleeps While He’s Driving;” the odd gesture that hits everyone’s funny bone and is replayed endlessly for years later;  secret languages brothers and sisters make up to communicate with one another — “patchouli” meant yes, “patchouka” meant no, “bar-bar” meant something really, really sad or bad; and something multisyllabic and complicated that we tragically no longer can remember meant. . .the withering of a pine tree.  (“The withering of a pine tree” in a four-word language? Ah, but yes! With that one word, this developing but nevertheless four-word language implied promise! It was destined to be far superior to English, with its limited description of the stresses undergone by conifers.) Although it isn’t funny, I still remember with maternal poignance the moment my daughter, age 8, learned that friend in her ballet class was getting promoted to the intermediate level.  I told her quietly as she sat in the backseat of the car, and there was utter silence for thirty seconds.  When I turned to look at her, her big brown eyes were filled with tears. “Bar-bar,” she whispered.

Every night when our two had finished dinner and weren’t allowed to be excused while their parents were still eating, they would ask if they could put on a play for us to make the waiting less agonizing.  The large pocket doors would be slid shut between the dining room and the family room, and we would hear endless whispering and giggling from the next room as award-worthy theatrical productions were plotted and staged. Finally the pocket doors were slid back (Dad had to assist with that) and the play would begin.Invariably the entire performance would dissolve into shrieks of laughter shared by youngsters and adults alike. No two plays were alike, but they were all equally ridiculous.  

As the kids got older and we would travel together, we would hear them in the adjoining hotel bedroom, laughing uproariously at some silliness or another.  Is there anything more delightful than hearing your children make each other laugh hysterically?  I often imagine how God must feel when He sees us enjoying each other in that regard — and how He must grieve when we refuse to.

If shared humor is a sign of sanity, then surely shared humor in a family is the foundation of mental health for life.  Pray to have it in your family, and when you catch a glimpse of it, or hear those giggles in the next room, cherish it as the antidote to much of the world’s psychosis.

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