Memories of my formal education experience are greatly obscured by the veils of time since I celebrate my 50th high school class reunion in two years. As I ruminate on this theme and clear away the clouds and cobwebs, I find I must actually go back further than the first grade to find my earliest significant educational experiences.
I remember my mother reading aloud to us. We, my three brothers and I, would gather round her in bed and she would read either from the Bible, Christian stories for children containing little morals or adult Christian literature. Once, over a period of several months, she read the entire Pilgrim’s Progress by Paul Bunyon. We loved it.
My parents, bless their hearts, were fundamentalist Christians. This meant a lot of church going, Bible reading and extemporaneous prayer composition and oral presentation and public “giving of testimony.” As we grew older our family worship was handled in a very democratic way. Since there were six of us and six days in the week in which our spiritual well-being was not overseen by experts, we were each given a day to lead “family alter.” This exercise consisted of gathering the family together in the “front room” and reading aloud some passage of scripture from the King James Bible (the only translation of the Holy Scriptures that was to be trusted). Then the leader of the day was expected to reflect on the wisdom contained in the Word to demonstrate his/her understanding of it and finally offer a prayer aloud. After that prayer was made we went around the circle and each person, family member or visitor, offered a prayer.
My memories of family alter have grown fonder with the passage of time. As a young girl I participated enthusiastically. As a teenager I felt family alter was a real pain at best and a complete mortification if a friend was present. Now, from the elevated perspective of 66 years of age, I see the immense value I derived from the church/Sunday-school/youth group/family worship forum. The music of the scriptures and the sheer challenge of reading and comprehending St. James English helped me develop a love of reading and excellent comprehension skills, which have served me well all my life. The opportunity to develop public speaking skills in a loving, non-judgmental environment was also a great blessing. I have never experienced any nervousness when speaking before a group.
During the summer vacation months my mother would walk with us every two weeks from our farm in Lafayette, NJ, to the Sussex County Library in Frankford, about four miles one way. There we were allowed to choose as many books as we were willing to carry home. From these experiences I became excited about books and the world of information they contain. I’m still in love with books, perhaps to a fault. Our personal library of several thousand volumes is grossly disproportionate to our income.
I grew up in genteel poverty. I think I was at least ten years old or so before I realized we were ‘poor.’ Although my parents didn’t get along well, I always felt loved and appreciated, special even. That environment gave me strong feelings of self-worth. I have never equated my essential value, or that of anyone else, with achievement or ‘success.’ We were poor only in money. This most basic and important aspect of my education came from my parents and the community of “holy rollers” in which I was fortunate enough to foment. Learning to love myself and all others is without doubt the best lesson I have ever learned.
While the intent of my parents’ activities was to instill in us a love of their God, by default they instilled the love of learning and with it the necessary reading and communication skills to make learning a pleasure. Pleasure is what I most associate with my formal educational experience. I had a great time in and out of the classroom. Making the transition from a small rural school to a regional high school is the only formal education related experience that I can remember ever giving me pause. I spent the first few months of my high school career getting used to the much bigger pond. After that, high school was one big daily social event with just enough formal instruction thrown in to justify it to the taxpayers.
Although many seeds were planted in school, by far the greater part of the knowledge I now possess as a woman of mature years has come from experience and independent study. And that is as it should be at this point. Thankfully I did not stop learning at graduation. In fact, I feel that I can say with confidence that I learn something of importance almost every day. These ‘things’ I learn are not facts and figures, but rather little observations about how to be a better person myself or maybe how to help someone else learn to be a little bit better, too.
My goal, I discover, is not to become erudite, but rather to grow in wisdom. It is in the examination of my life, the lives of others and in pondering the great unanswerable philosophical questions that I get my greatest mental stimulation and pleasure.
My educational history is like a tree. The seed was planted by my parents: basic values, self-acceptance, and respect for others. The root system developed in and out of school: love of learning, love of reading, self-confidence and freedom of expression. The trunk of the tree grew straight and strong throughout my school years and a few tender branches budded: people skills, leadership skills, communication skills, and new interests from exposure to new ideas and experiences. Over the years these branches have thickened and many small branches have grown from them and leafed out: business skills, professional skills, skills and knowledge learned from hobbies, life experience and independent study. Now the tree has matured and is, I like to think, at least somewhat balanced. Spiritual growth is the sap that enlivens the tree.
Life goes on; we live and, hopefully, continue learning. Should we live long enough perhaps we’ll begin to see some small fruits of wisdom?