Childhood learning · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

Here’s Where I First Encountered the Past

The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 1939, Kansas City, Missouri

When I was eight years old and still an only child, my parents and I spent many Sunday afternoons at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now called the Nelson Atkins Museum) in Kansas City strolling through the cool marble halls, looking this way and that at the paintings. 

Not that my parents had any particular interest in art, but it was a pleasant place to be and it was (and still is) free—an important consideration in those days.

I don’t remember a single painting, But what I do remember with the utmost clarity are the period rooms. They were arranged in chronological order in a recessed area off a main hall, beginning with a colonial keeping room, followed by a bedroom, which I now know was from an antebellum Southern mansion.

I knew these were supposed to be rooms where real people once lived and I was absolutely enthralled. I tried to imagine the child who slept in the bed with the ruffled roof—a bed so high off the floor that you needed little steps to get into it. But I just couldn’t do it. It was like a magic trick I began well but kept fumbling. I wanted to climb under the ropes and get into that bed to see what it was like. But of course I didn’t dare. 


* * * * * * * * *

Fast forward over half a century. Recently retired, Herb and I had moved to New York City where like all newcomers we set out to visit all the tourist attractions. One day we happened on the Merchant’s House Museum, an urban row house constructed in 1832 which miraculously still existed complete with the family’s original furniture and many personal possessions.

And this time the magic worked!

Eliza Tredwell’s bedroom, Merchants House Museum, New York City

I stepped through the front door—not into a room but into an entire house where real people lived over 100 years ago! And this time the magic worked. I could easily imagine the Tredwell family in those rooms because by that time I had become acquainted with the Victorian era through my study of history and literature. I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more. I was disappointed to learn there was not.

But my childhood passion had suddenly been rekindled, and I knew this was where I was meant to spend my newly acquired free time. So I volunteered and for the next 20 years I moved among those rooms,  conducting tours, training the guides, and eventually writing the book I had wanted to buy on that first visit. (See sidebar.)

And  yes, from time to time I was tempted to lie down in that big bed, but I never did for fear it might collapse. I confess, however, to once sitting on the sofa, just to see what it was like.

Childhood learning · paintings · Theatre

The Actress Daughter Weighs In On “Play”

Hopscotch, oil on canvas by Herbert Knapp

Last week Herb posted this painting of a little girl playing hopscotch all by herself on his blog. He talked about the nature of play and why it’s so important.

When Sarah read what he had to say, she was moved to respond. It seems to me her remarks are too interesting to languish in the comment section of Herb’s blog. So here they are:

This post got me to thinking. In the theatre, actors, directors, designers, all refer to what they do as “”work.” It legitimizes the play and the fun they are actually all having. I’ve always found it kind of odd to have someone say, “Your work in that play was brilliant.” I have been known to say it too, when I wanted to sound serious and smart. But lets face it; if we are any good at all, we are playing and having a grand time. And sometimes we even get paid for it. How lucky can you get?

So—that’s why they call it a “play”! It’s a game of Let’s Pretend. 

Sarah Knapp pretending to be Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, MA. “All I can do is look forward to that wonderful day of days. . .when I marry Mr. Snow.”


Now Herb likes to quote the poet W.H. Auden, so I’ll quote him too:

My own conclusion is that the impulse behind play-acting is a longing to escape into a world of prelapsarian innocence . . . our actions are outside the realm of ethical judgment . . . when we imitate another human being, we imitate a sinner and at the same time we are not guilty of his sins.

Or to put it another way, “his shortcomings.” I hate to think of Carrie as a sinner.

Books · Childhood learning · Laura Ingalls Wider

So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

The Long Winter was a Newberry honor book for 1941.

Have you  heard about the hard winter of 1880-81? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember it as the winter that 14-year-old Laura and her pioneer family endured in the remote Dakota territory.

Recurring white out blizzards began in October and continued until spring with little respite between storms. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, snow accumulated as high as the house, and the trains became stuck in the snow packed cuts, unable to get through with supplies. The Ingalls’ family’s coal and kerosene dwindled until there was none left. For months they spent every day all day huddled together in the small kitchen performing the laborious tasks of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the cookstove for warmth and grinding seed wheat in the coffee grinder to make flour.  They were finally rescued from starvation by the heroic efforts of two young men, one of whom would later become Laura’s husband.  And then the Chinook wind started blowing and spring came—as it always does.

Pa teaches Laura how to twist the hay into sticks which they burned in the cookstove for warmth.

Reading this book as an adult was an interesting and rewarding experience. So rewarding in fact that I have resolved to reread all nine books in the series—in order. I just finished the third book and will have something to say about the controversy surrounding them in the future. 

In the Little House books we see the westward journey through a child’s eyes. It is beautiful, exhilarating, sometimes dangerous and frightening,

But these books are much more than adventure stories. They convey a reverence for the natural world and are thought provoking in a way that makes sense to children (and adults as well). It’s no wonder that so many of us remember these books as such an important part of our growing-up years.

Countless sermons have been delivered and gallons of ink spilled by theologians pondering the thorny subject of free will.  In the first chapter of The Long Winter,  Wilder addresses the subject.

The story opens on a sunny, summer day. Laura has talked Pa into letting her help with the haying. By noon they have gathered the hay from the little haystacks (“haycocks”) and loaded it into the wagon.

Laura spies what she thinks is a haycock they missed. Upon inspection, however, it proves to be a muskrat house.

Pa notes he has never seen one so thick, and that means the muskrats have built their house to prepare for a hard winter.

Pa, how can the muskrats know?”  she asked.

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow I suppose.”

“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” 

“Because,” said Pa. “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

“I thought God takes care of us.”

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us conscience and brains to know what’s right. But he leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

“Can’t Muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of.

And maybe for the first time in her life the child thinks about the serious subject of what it means to be human and she just may file the information away, for later consideration.

Childhood learning · Education

How I Learned to Read

Eastman-Johnson-Boy-Reading

The other day in one of those internet searches that leads you somewhat astray, I stumbled down a track that dealt with the teaching of reading.

In an article titled “Yes, There is a Right Way to Teach Reading,” the author maintains that some kids are just not sensitive to the sounds of the spoken word. For example, they don’t hear that there are three sounds in the word “bag.”  In teacher-speak they lack “phonemic awareness.” Therefore what is called for is at least 100 hours instruction in phonics early on.  

This triggered a memory of how I learned to read, I was apparently one of the lucky ones to whom phonemic awareness came easily although I certainly did not get off to a good start.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Some drink, Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade “with reservations,” Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation just as I was on my way outside after breakfast to play sword fight with my friends, she grabbed my arm, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch. plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said. “Now read! No more monkeyshines!” (So much for Progressive education.)

I learned I was going to sit there until noon every day all summer, except to go to the bathroom. I whined. I pouted. I amused myself by turning a slow backward somersault on the glider. “Is it noon yet?” No answer. Boredom. Boredom. So I began teaching myself to read.

Mother was pleased. She looked forward to the day when “we” would “show” those old teachers of mine. Reservations, indeed!

“We” showed them, all right. But then I went right on reading.

Mother began to worry. “Too much of anything’s not good, son.”

Too late. I was hooked. Before long, when my mother started parking my sister and me at the library while she grocery shopped, I got a library card and eventually began making long walks on my own—14 blocks—to the nearest branch library. In those days—the late 1930s and early 1940s—nobody felt obliged to intervene if they saw a little boy walking alone—unless he was bleeding.

Mother wouldn’t have minded if I’d read how-to books, or inspirational books, or books about science. But all I read were stories. She thought stories were fine for relaxing. But a person couldn’t spend his life relaxing. (I didn’t see why not.)

If my teachers had known I loved to read stories, they, too, would have disapproved. In the 1930s, all the experts agreed that students who loved stories were introverts, loners. They were trapped in “the romantic realm of yesterday.” (The science was settled.) A teacher’s job was to discourage “outmoded individualism” and to focus children’s attention on the present not the past, to teach them to face facts—like dates, names, and statistics. Every “social studies” test I took in elementary school seemed to include the question, “What are the chief exports of . . . ?” The country didn’t matter. The answer was always “copra, bauxite, sisal, flax, and hemp”—whatever they are.

But my teachers could see I wasn’t one of those romantic loners. I didn’t act like a bookworm. I was simply a good reader. They approved of that. Being able to read well helped a person solve problems, and solving problems was what modern life was all about. Besides, my scores on their reading tests reflected well on their “progressive” teaching methods.

Dick and Jane

I don’t remember the names of the books Mother plunked down beside me, Ferdinand the Bull? No, I think that came later. But knowing nothing of theories of reading, she did not bring me any books with scientifically tested “age appropriate” vocabulary about Dick, Jane, and their beloved Spot. (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) I’m sure my poor performance in first grade was solely the fault of these boring books. Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

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Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from abebooks.com for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!