The Large Room

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“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”


― Charlotte M. Mason, School Education: Developing A Curriculum

 

My elementary school in the 1970s had a large and lovely library with sunny windows and bright yellow walls . Even the radiators were painted yellow to match the walls, although I do not ever remember the radiators actually being hot in central Texas. The floors were wooden and brown, and there were rows and rows and rows of beautiful books. There may have been tables and chairs, but my favorite spot was on the floor under a window facing the biography section. In my young child- mind, it seems like a large room, but if I were to return as an adult I suspect it would be quite a bit smaller.

In my classroom, we often worked on what were then called duplicates. We would call them copies or worksheets today, but back then they were made on a duplicating machine and thus the moniker. They were white sheets of paper with purple writing. The writing could be very dark purple or faintly lavender, depending on how much ink was in the duplicating machine. Upon these sheets, we practiced our capitalization and punctuation, answered reading comprehension questions, or drew lines to match the gross national product with its proper country or some other social studies type question.

Then the bell would ring, and I would go to the library and my real education would begin.

Heading out to Indian Territory with Mary and Laura in a covered wagon, I would learn all about the pioneer life, Indian culture, the natural world of the American west, agriculture, heritage arts and homemaking, music and poetry, and the self reliance that made Alexis de Tocqueville marvel. When I devoured the whole series, there was only one thing left to do: write my own. I had never physically traveled anywhere in a covered wagon or made a rag doll or proved up a homestead or watched a line of Indians being removed from their land, but the characters in the stories scribbled into my Big Chief notebooks did all of that and more. Often these stories were illustrated Garth Williams-style in my childish hand.

Years later, I would find myself grown up and with my own little baby placed in my arms. I began to read of the ideas of Miss Charlotte Mason, who believed that children are born persons and thus entirely worthy of the very best of books to learn of all sorts of things. She maintained that a child learns best by reading “living” books of well-told stories rather than dull, pre-digested textbooks. Her students practiced their penmanship and grammar by copying passages taken right out of those glorious stories. Children narrated, or told back, everything they remembered from their readings. Sometimes these narrations were oral and sometimes they were written, and children inevitably picked up the vocabulary and style of the author. Sometimes the narrations were drawings of scenes or impressions from the books.

I return to the large, sunny, yellow room when I need to be reminded of this “real” education. I cannot remember the GNP of Ecuador or Argentina. The memory map of my mind cannot seem to pull up the white pages of purple information. But I remember the pack behavior of wolves on a lonely starlit prairie night, the way the wind moans across the lonely moors and wraps around the wall of a secret garden, and the dignity of behaving as a kindly princess even if you are rudely treated and live very poorly in an attic. The sound of my pencil scratching across paper, the words coming faster than I could write – it is a drone in the background of my childhood, still sounding.

My feet are planted firmly, and I care, deeply.

 

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