Learning Then And Now

The Autumn Equinox occurs September 23rd, just two days away.  Ready or not, summer will transition into Autumn/Fall. It is harvesting time, whether garden produce, farm fields or the maturing of growing kids. Even with periods of drought and then buckets of drenching rain, our gardens (weeds, especially) have grown.  Marigolds are 4-feet tall; perhaps feeling competitive with the tall weed grasses! And even with back-to-school problems; lack of bus drivers, not enough teachers, or challenging hot weather, growing kids are mostly back in school absorbing knowledge; some happily and some not so thrilled.   Our little grand-niece, Lily, began pre-school and was SO-O-O excited she hopped on the bus without even waving goodbye to her (probably sniffling) mama.  

And cheers for the teachers!!  I took courses in education, but never spent a whole year in one classroom, I have had some interesting teaching adventures, though. In Pennsylvania, I was a weekly teacher for Life Skills (Home Economics) in a small private school, worked as a part-time aide for a teacher friend, in a high school Home Economics class for one year, and was a substitute teacher in two different school systems. Subs are scarce, so schools are willing to call whichever certified sub they can get regardless of actual expertise.  I’ve been called for physics, biology labs and music, all of which would find me abysmally unqualified to lead a class. Some teachers, in their absence, leave well-written lesson plans for subs; others provide very little. So, in self-defense, I created folders filled with ideas for each grade level. This made that early morning call less stressful, and helped to keep kids at least a little interested while I was with them. I must admit that the senior physics class had study hall that day!  I enjoyed working with the kids, and I do miss that interaction, but am wise enough to know that my energies are insufficient for coping with current class demands.  However, I can assure anyone reading this that most (some very few do not!) teachers deserve a shower of gold stars and our enduring gratitude. Substitutes too!

I had a recent interesting experience with a college class.  The Dept. of Fashion Design & Textiles Studies (my major) of Cornell University, via Prof. Denise Green, asked if I’d be interested in sharing some of my experiences at Cornell from back in the Dark Ages of the 1960s, especially regarding rules for women’s dress and behavior.  It sounded like fun, so I agreed.  My years at Cornell were good ones, but as I look back, there were some issues, or things that would definitely be issues today.  Rules and regulations were different for women than for the men. Cornell was still trying to be the parent in absentia — for girls!  Men apparently could handle freedom better??? Really???  We had curfews (10PM on week nights) and had to sign in and out of our dorms.  There were dress codes; no jeans or shorts for classes.  There were blinking lights to warn men to leave the social areas so the dorm could be locked. Never, ever, were men allowed beyond the living room of women’s dorms.  We may have grumbled a bit, but mostly accepted those restrictions as normal.  Rebelling didn’t occur to most of us. However, in the short span of time between my first year there and my last, curfews vanished for seniors, and soon thereafter, for everyone, Also, gone were requirements for skirts at dinner, and as for men in the dorms, most dorms are now coed.  Dining is no longer “gracious” and the dorms no longer offer maid service for changing bed linens and fluffing up the pillows.  These changes in the student landscape were probably long overdue.  But even with such curbs on our freedom of movement and dress, even then, the possibilities for learning, experiencing new things, and having fun, were wide and deep and I am grateful that I could attend Cornell. I felt that same attitude coming from the students in this recent class.  They are a diverse, creative group, and interested (if a little incredulous) in the past as well as their future.  I observed some of their studio work, and it was exceptional.  I expect they were grateful, after hearing our stories, to be at Cornell now, instead of then.

Schools/colleges are only a part, one form, of education. We learn from all experiences, good and bad. Sometimes learning is accompanied by our kicking and screaming in protest; sometimes we are grateful when the lesson is pleasant or an “A-HA!” If we are alert, we continue to learn right up until the day we pass on into eternity.  Those who think that education is limited to the four walls of a classroom are mistaken, and poorer for their lack of understanding.  I learned many useful things in my classes at Cornell, but some valuable skills were acquired outside the classroom.  Leadership, appreciation of diversity, speaking comfortably, mostly learned outside of classrooms. All of life is a school into which we put varying degrees of effort, and achieve varying degrees of growth.  Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho* describes it this way:

“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity.  Life is eternal.  We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.  This is a precious moment.  It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”

I find a whole bouquet of these little parentheses in my garden.  Weeding has been a struggle lately, but once in the garden, handling plants and soil sends little spurts of energy enter my body and actually encourage more labor.  I find that when I’ve weeded one area, I am drawn to keep on, to clear one more spot.  And I forget bodily ills.   Perhaps, too, the impending change of seasons is sending little “Hurry, Hurry” messages to my brain, reminding me that Hosta plants need separating, that Hollyhocks I planted from seed need to be moved and that those unpulled the weeds are happily reseeding themselves! 

We are also closing in on time with extended family, and friends who leave our snowy environs for the winter.  Earlier this month we made a quick trip to Pennsylvania for the purpose of visiting friends who have impacted our lives in many good ways.  We lived in the Lewisburg area for ten years, so we have many memories of, and attribute much of our growing in good ways, to people there.  Currently, networking is a popular business concept, but to me, far more important, are the sparkling meshes of friend and family connections.   These people close to us, affirm us, bring us up short when necessary, and rescue us from drowning in loneliness and isolation.  Staying connected in daily life, personal networking, is crucial to my happiness.  

Currently, much of the world emphasizes and keeps wide, the gaps made from lack of understanding, among us.  This is sad, because we could be learning from, and supporting each other in our struggles.  When I was growing up, students in my school sort of fell into groups, depending on whether we were Regents or non-Regents students.  It was basically a matter of who was in whose classes. Kermit said his school was separated into the town kids and the farm kids. In New York State, there is a wide gap in goals and thinking between the highly populated New York City with its surrounding suburbs, and the rest of the state.  The whole nation, in the last eight to ten years, has seen all of us pulled apart by people who wish to achieve political power, and will use any available method of manipulation to keep us separated in our thinking. 

We/they proselytize, preach, march, yell in the streets.  We/they lobby, buy votes, try to make laws that guarantee life as we want it to be.  Political wanna-bes do their best to make us forget or common humanity; make us forget that we are put on this earth to become more loving, to increase our wisdom and to help others to do the same.  Our “aid” programs seldom work well because we do not become involved personally, people to people.  Patronizing from a distance has never worked. Neither has banning books, brain washing or forbidding life-styles we find unpleasant.  Friendships and understanding require learning about and finding empathy and then, compassion, for people!  I recently attended a high school class reunion where a few of us spent an afternoon on Honeoye Lake, reconnecting.  And it was good — very good.  No worries about Regents or non-Regents, or where we lived.  We were just friends sharing stories and memories.  That wise, honey-loving little bear, Winnie the Pooh, says: “A friend is one of the best things you can have, and one of the best things you can be.” Kiddie lit. truth!

Whoever we are, NOW is time to enjoy our seasonal changes.  As the vegetation browns and fades around us, September will be giving way to October.   Golden rod will fade and the roadside vegetation will turn rusty.  We’ll soon be mulching the roses and digging dahlia bulbs.   I look forward to some mellow days in which we can prepare for cold months while still enjoying the sunshine and scents of the season —-especially the aroma of soup on the stove and oatmeal bread coming out of the oven —- OH, and the smell of a fire in the woodstove on crisp mornings.  This native American prayer seems perfect as we enter in to autumn: “May the sun bring you new energy by day.  May the moon softly restore you by night.  May the rain wash away your worries, may the breeze blow new strength into your being, and may you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life.”**

Carol writes from her home in Spencer. She may be reached at: carol42wilde@htva.net

*Paul Coelho —Brazilian lyricist and novelist.

**Taken from Face Book, but could find no reference to author or speaker.

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