The Lofty Chronicles: 13 — Do You Want to Play Learning?

Do You Want to Play Learning?

Lauren's gear
Lauren’s gear

Winter 1992

The Worst Day of My Life (Tuesday, 1 December 1992) We’re in California, helping celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Today, however, is Lauren’s big day. We’re on our way to visit Nat, the boy who took such an interest in her last summer when she and Joyce spent a week at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia, where Joyce had been an assistant calligraphy instructor. Some correspondence between Nat and Lauren followed, and this visit was arranged.

As we approach his neighborhood, Lauren’s eagerness and apprehension increase visibly.

“This is the worst day of my life,” she mutters, as we turn onto the street where Nat lives. Her smile, however, tells a different story.

During the first five minutes of the visit, as we talk with Nat’s parents, Lauren sticks close beside us. Then Nat and his younger brothers draw her into their play. Nat’s mother quietly tells us that he never really got over his infatuation with Lauren after meeting her this summer.

Soon Nat’s brothers start teasing him about Lauren. And when Lauren shyly opens a present from him, and finds a necklace, the teasing becomes merciless.

“Nat L-O-V-E-S’s Lauren. Nat L-O-V-E-S’s Lauren.”

Fortunately (or perhaps by design), when we sit down for lunch there aren’t quite enough places at the table for everyone. So Nat’s mother kindly sets a small table for two, off in a corner of the room, where Lauren and Nat can eat in peace and chat together quietly. After lunch, his father takes Joyce and I and the two kids off for several hours to hike in the nearby hills. We walk and talk and throw a football around and get to know one another.

So the day turns out to be a pleasant one. Not nearly the worst of her life, Lauren readily agrees. In fact, she later gives her aunt and uncle quite a warm account of her visit with Nat.

“He’s not a boyfriend, though,” she carefully points out, perhaps to forestall the type of teasing she saw Nat receive. “He’s a friend who’s a boy.”

Sign Language (Friday, 11 December 1992) We’re visiting my cousin Lisa in Flagstaff, Arizona, on our way back from Hope and Caleb’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Early in the visit, Lauren discovers that Lisa is taking a course in American Sign Language. Immediately intrigued, she asks Lisa to teach her the finger-spelling signs for the alphabet. Lisa does so, then lets Lauren use some of her course material.

Ever since, Lauren has been immersed in her books and practice. It isn’t unusual for me to leave a conversation in the living room and head up the stairs, only to find Lauren nestled on a step, half-way up, deep in her studies.

Today Lisa takes us to some Anasazi ruins at Lomaki. Lauren is only barely willing to leave the sign language book in the car when we go to explore the site. After a lovely hike through the enchanting, snow-covered ruins, we return to the car.

“Now I can get back to my conversation,” Lauren exclaims, diving back into her book.

Then she explains that she’s practicing for a sign language conversation that she’ll be having with some deaf people in the Chicago train station on our way home in several days.

[Sure enough, settling in for the lay-over in Chicago several days later, we find ourselves next to someone who “happens” to know sign language. She has a deaf grandchild. And as soon as she leaves for her train, someone else sits down who also knows sign language. So perhaps Lauren, who engaged both women in hand talk, had a prophetic guess; or perhaps her intense interest attracted what she wanted; or maybe Chicago’s “Union” Station is a hotbed of synchronicity. Joyce and I still recall with wonder our Thanksgiving communion with the nun from Milwaukee in this very station on our way out west. Yet another so-called chance encounter.]

The ABC’s of Home Schooling (Saturday, 12 December 1992) We’re nearing the end of our visit with Lisa. Lauren calls me over to the mirror, where she’s practicing her finger-spelling.

“Do you want to play learning?” she asks.


And she proceeds to teach me the alphabet.

While learning my visual ABC’s, I’m struck by the power of what’s happening. The phrase “home schooling” doesn’t feel appropriate. “Home learning” is a bit better. Or “home education,” in the root sense of education meaning to draw forth.

It’s so exquisitely ironic! Here I stand with my daughter, in front of a mirror, learning my ABC’s. I’m not teaching her the ABC’s; she’s teaching me. And she has learned them entirely on her own, either from books or from what she has begged out of Lisa.

Talk about child-led learning! This is a prime example.

From what mysterious depths did her impulse come, to be so powerful and insistent?

And now I recall her peculiar phrasing as she invited me to join her: “Do you want to play learning?”

Learning not as drudgery or rote. Not as something demanded by another. But learning as play, so that, “come learn with me” and “come play with me” become indistinguishable. And then having the gift of sufficient free time to follow her interest wherever it takes her, no matter how fleeting or consuming the impulse may turn out to be.

This is the flavor of true education–a seamless, sparkling garment in which all distinctions between work and play, living and learning, parent and child, teacher and student, are effortlessly dissolved into a contagion of enthusiasm.

Stone Fox (Tuesday, 22 December 1992) On the last leg of our return journey from California, riding the Cardinal from Chicago to Virginia, Lauren befriended a girl about her age. (This, by the way, has been a consistently enriching aspect of our journey–the presence of other children on the train, and Lauren’s easy friend-making ability.) At one point, Lauren’s new companion brought a book back to the seat where they were sitting and started reading it aloud.

Her reading level was a bit beyond Lauren’s. Joyce and I kept casual tabs on the scene, wondering what Lauren’s reaction would be. Would she feel disconcerted by the discrepancy between their reading abilities? Or would she feel challenged in a competitive sort of way? Or would she be indifferent? I doubted it would be the latter reaction, since Lauren was keeping an eagle eye on her friend’s face and book throughout the reading session.

A day or two after returning home, Lauren receives in the mail a book called Sarah Plain and Tall. It’s the latest in a series of Weekly Reader books that have been coming the past year, thanks to a subscription from her grandparents Joe and Sandy. The earlier books had been beyond Lauren’s ability, so we’d placed them on a book shelf to await her ripened interest.

After supper, on the same day this book arrives, we go to Ron and Marlene’s to watch a video. Lauren’s not particularly interested in our fare, so she tromps down to the little TV. in the basement to see what she can find. Much to her amazement (and ours) she tunes in to a movie version of Sarah Plain and Tall!

The next day, be it coincidental or causal, whether related to her friend on the train or to the overlapping of her new book and the made-for-TV movie, Lauren shows a sudden interest in the Weekly Reader books. Going over to the book shelf where they’ve been patiently waiting, she picks one out and asks Joyce to help her read it. It’s called Stone Fox.

So Joyce and Lauren develop a pattern of sitting down in a big chair together each afternoon. Lauren holds the book and reads the words she knows, turning to Joyce for help with the unfamiliar words. All of us are astonished by how much she already knows and how rapidly she picks up the new vocabulary.

Even more important, Lauren is deeply engrossed in the story, commenting on it as she goes along, and crying at the bittersweet ending. There’s no question of whether she’s comprehending what she’s reading. And as soon as she finishes Stone Fox, she chooses another, The Canada Geese Quilt, and asks me to help her with it.

Feels like another of those learning spurts.

Book Reader (by Lauren)
Book Reader

Reading and Drawing (Wednesday, 6 January 1993) Lauren shows me a picture she has just finished. It’s such a lovely blend of two of her strong interests–reading and drawing–that I’m including it here.

Money! (Friday, 8 January 1993) Joyce, Lauren, and I are having a problem-solving session. Lauren’s wanting to make some money. Her parents are looking for more help around the house. The mutually agreeable solution that we arrive at is to set a minimum amount of time per week that Lauren will devote to household chores, and beyond that she can do additional jobs for pay.

She’s excited by this solution and immediately starts pestering us about what needs doing. So we come up with a job list– sweeping, gathering kindling, washing windows, packaging calligraphy–and she gets busy.

This afternoon she looks up from sweeping the floor and glances at the clock.

“I need to work another 17 minutes,” she enthuses, “then I won’t have to work for the next three weeks. Or if I do work, man, I get paid for it. Money! Money! Money!”

Becoming a Goose (Monday, 11 January 1993) Lauren’s telling me one of her dreams from last night.

“I’m running away from these people who are chasing me. Then I just know I should turn around. So I turn around and run straight at them! When I hit them, I fall down. Then I start to feel this THUMP, like the beat of a goose’s wings in my chest or something. Then I see a flock of geese flying over, and I seem to be one of these geese. And that’s the end.”

“When do you become aware that you’re a goose?” I ask.

“It’s like all my life I knew I’d be a goose, but I just didn’t know when. And it was when I hit who was chasing me and fell down that I became one.”

“How did you know to turn around and run toward the people who were chasing you?”

“I just knew somehow that when these two guys with sticks were chasing me, that if I turned around and ran right toward them, right toward the middle of them, that I’d turn into a goose and be able to get away.”

The Charm Bracelet (Monday, 11 January 1993) I don’t quite know how to begin this entry. Bizarre, strange, synchronous–all the words have already been used, attempting to describe similar experiences in the recent past. One incident in particular looms up, casting a brilliant shadow of deja vu across me as I write. It’s a September afternoon. Lauren and I have stopped at Smith’s Store to buy apples. Lauren finds a small scrap of paper on the ground…

No, I remind myself. This is January. I haven’t just returned from Smith’s Store. I’m sitting at my computer, recovering from yet another plunge into the inexplicable universe. The encounter, now just minutes old, replays itself before my closed eyes:

Lauren’s playing quietly downstairs.

“Hey, Dad,” she calls up, “want to see something strange.”

I register some feelings of anxiety, perhaps triggered by a subtle tone in her voice.

“Haven’t we been here before,” I think.

“Sure,” I reply, wondering what it’s going to be this time.

She comes up the stairs.

“Look at this, will you?”

And she hands me a charm bracelet.

Three or four years ago, Ron’s sister Diane had this charm bracelet in her house, along with several other items that she used for entertaining small children. Ron felt that Diane’s stash was a pretty good idea, so he collected some similar trinkets for Lauren and Rosie, who was living here at the time, to play with when they came by to visit.

Shortly thereafter, Diane gave Ron the charm bracelet. Lauren immediately begged it off him, and it’s been kicking around her room ever since.

She places it in my hand.

“Take a look at it,” she says again.

I do so, noticing that six or eight charms hang from the well-made chain. There’s a little bell, a pair of scissors, a barrel and a goblet, all of silver. Looking closer, I see a small disk with a spinner-type arrow on it. In tiny letters, at the top of the disk, it says Lie Detector. Around the circumference are the words, True…False…True…False…

“It’s nice,” I say, wondering what she’s getting at.

“Look at the clasp.”

I run the bracelet through my fingers, the various charms feeling like beads on a rosary, until I reach the clasp. The side facing me is blank; just plain burnished silver. So I turn it over. There, engraved in neat capital letters on the inner, hidden side of the clasp, is a single word: ADAM.

I stare at it for a few moments in total, mute astonishment. Then I’m suddenly back on the porch of Smith’s Store, bending over a tiny scrap of paper that Lauren has just picked up off the ground and is holding up to me on the tip of her finger, a scrap of paper with a single work printed on it-ADAM.

The paper turns into the clasp of a charm bracelet; but the word remains.

“That’s too much,” I finally manage to say.

She nods and smiles.

“When did you first see it?” I ask.

“Just now.”

“You’ve played with this charm bracelet all these years and you only just now noticed that word?”

She nods again.

I shake my head (probably a subliminal shield of denial) and hand the charm bracelet back to her. She returns to her play, taking her charmed life with her, leaving me poised over the keyboard of my computer, staring into inner space, pondering the imponderable.