There's a little girl in my neighborhood who is six years old. Her mother, whom I will call Jane, has carefully guarded the girl's childhood from the stress of early learning requirements. Jane had personally been sacrificed on the alter of education-worship. Now, as an adult, Jane lives with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy that prevents her from learning for the sheer joy of it. In reaction to her own personal history of torture, she decided that education should not be forced upon a child's happy youth until social expectations demand it.
As a result Sally recognizes her name when it's written down, but cannot write it herself; nor can she read another word. The very thought of starting school this year is a source of great fear and anxiety for the little girl. When you ask Sally if she likes to read, her face loses its usual animation to become clouded with doubt.
This summer, Sally's three-year-old cousin Jimmy came to visit her. As soon as he entered her house, little Jimmy headed straight for the bookcase. He passed by the half-dressed Barbie dolls, the pile of cartoon videos, and even the sing-along record player. He pulled a stack of dusty books off of Sally's shelf and sat down in the middle of her floor. She stood about three feet away and watched him pensively. Jimmy quickly went through the pile of five or six books. He tossed about three of them behind him in disfavor before settling on a dinosaur book. Jimmy opened the book and looked up at his cousin curiously.
“You wanna read with me?” he asked her cheerfully. She looked dubious.
“Can you read?” she asked.
“Yep, I can read,” he assured her.
“No, he can't,” came the voice of Sally's mother from the kitchen. “He just thinks he can.”
“I can read!” insisted Jimmy, without losing his good-natured composure. His confidence was not in the least bit swayed.
Sally hoped her mother was wrong. If Jimmy could read… maybe there was hope for her! She sat down beside him. Jimmy pointed to the first page.
“D is for dinosaur… there's the D. And there's the dinosaur. He's a Brach… Brach… bracho-dino-saurus. He's a good dinosaur. He doesn't eat the other dinosaurs; he eats his broccoli.”
Sally stared at Jimmy in wonder. She knew that what Jimmy was reading sounded different than the first time she had heard the book read to her, but it was strikingly similar, and if possible, more interesting. Jimmy read the whole book to her. He pointed out alphabet sounds and characters regularly. When he finished, Sally turned to find her mother sitting in a chair behind them, listening.
“Did he really read it?” She asked her mother. Sally's mother looked at Jimmy for a few seconds. There was a funny expression on her face. Finally she nodded.
“Yes, he read it pretty good, all right.”
Sally smiled in relief and handed Jimmy another book, one about butterflies.
Sally's mom told me this story with a sense of helpless confusion. She was unsure of what had happened and what to do with Sally's “education.” She sincerely wanted what was best for Sally and until that point had simply been protecting Sally from the destructive pressure she herself had experienced.
This is what I tried to explain to my friend Jane that day:
Familiarity lends confidence. Whether Jimmy could read or not was not the issue. Jimmy's confidence, and Sally's lack of it, was the issue. Reading was not an unknown fear that lay ahead of Jimmy. It was a familiar area of progress. He could look back in his memory and recall learning to recognize D is for dinosaur. He could recall dozens of books that he read at home with his daddy until he could quote them by heart. He could remember Mama helping him draw A is for alligator all over a sheet of paper with a red crayon.
So many things in life are traumatizing because of the abrupt manner in which they are introduced. Potty-training, musical instruments, work and chores, reading, writing, math, cooking, etc. Children who hate school are usually children who never experienced learning as a way of life—as sheer, undiluted joy.
“School” can be another day full of fun and exploration of a wonderful world; or it can be a designated time of tension and stress when the student is required to perform for an equally fearful teacher.
Imagine having your private parts covered and warm your whole life. Suddenly when you turn two years old someone strips you bare and places you over a large, empty chasm, big enough to fall into. They tell you that from now on, you have to do your business over that big yawning hole. Your stomach is in knots and you couldn't pee if your bladder was bursting.
But what if, from the time you were tiny, you watched your mama or siblings sit on the “toilet” and heard the tinkle, tinkle? What if sometimes mama lifted you up in front of her and said “peepee.” Sometimes she took off your diaper and dribbled warm water down your belly while you sat there and applauded when you peed. Finally when you learned to toddle to the bathroom on your own, the transition from diapers to potty seat would be a breeze.
I have potty-trained six little ones—I should know.
Learning is not a race that you begin when the gun goes off and the flag comes down. Nor can one ever say, “I'm finished learning now. The race is over. I won. I lost. I'm done.”
Learning should go on as long as life does.
Our kids jokingly refer to fresh-squeezed orange juice as “The Elixir of Immortality.” But I often think of learning as that elixir. You can never drink enough. If there is immortality, wouldn't it derive from knowledge of the truth?