A Practical Education

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There is academic education and then there is life education. My paternal grandmother had little of the former but was a valedictorian of the later. It pained her that she was neither able to read nor write, but she possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the world. We have none of her recipes because her cooking skills were all in her head. She learned from the school of experience about nature, running a household, and history. Hers was an oral and practical tradition of knowledge, and her skills were remarkable. All too often we base our appraisals of a person’s intellect on grades, degrees and credentials. We assume that without those things the individual is not particularly bright, confusing educational level with intelligence. We place a lesser value on skills that do not require a doctorate which leads to grave misjudgments of certain people.

There are many things that we must know in order to lead good and productive lives that are not generally in the domain of a classroom. Knowing how to appreciate all people and demonstrate kindness toward them is not necessarily something learned from a book. It is a characteristic that we see modeled by example. In that regard both of my grandmothers were exceedingly gifted. They were open and welcoming to anyone who came to their doors. They appreciated people for who they were rather than how they may have wanted them to be. Their love was unconditional, guileless and unselfish. If someone came to their door at dinnertime whether invited or not they set a place at the table for them.

My grandmothers could sew on buttons and create fashions out of sack cloth. They understood the concept of thrift and were saving the planet with their frugalities long before doing such things was fashionable. They gathered rain in barrels and ladled bath water to keep their plants alive. They cooked bones for broth and turned broken cookies into luscious deserts. Every scrap of everything in their homes was used and reused in ingenious ways. They lived in the heat of the south without using air conditioners, and instead planted trees to shade their homes and rested in the steamiest portions of day by sitting on their porches doing chores that required no movements that might make them hot.

They knew how to raise animals to provide milk and eggs for the family. They fished for food that was free. They knew how to wring a chicken’s neck, pluck the feathers, and cook up a delicious stew. They understood how to make medicines out of herbs, vegetables and fruits that helped to heal wounds and cure coughs. They seemed capable of growing a thriving plant from a stick. They gathered seeds and made cuttings to expand their gardens, understanding what do to in each season to keep their land healthy and green.

We need to instill some of the old ways into our young. It would be to our benefit and theirs for them to know how to sign their names with cursive handwriting. We should encourage them to compose thank you notes, and demonstrate how to act at restaurants and concerts. I had an English teacher who took the time to explain when to wait and when to clap during a symphony. He showed us how to watch the conductor for cues. I think of him to this very day and feel accomplished in knowing how to carry myself in public places.

Last Sunday I was enjoying brunch in a lovely tea room. The music was perfectly quiet and relaxing. The decorating created a pleasing ambiance. Sadly there was a group of young people who did not appear to realize how annoying their loud chattering and laughing was to the rest of us. They seemed not to notice that they were not alone, and apparently nobody had ever shown them how to moderate their voices in public. We heard every sentence that they uttered and every joke that they told. We did not mind that they were having a good time, but they might have done so a bit more quietly. I don’t think that they had any idea how annoying they were because undoubtedly they had not been coached as I was by my mother and my English teacher.

My little niece stuns people with her ability to introduce herself with such confidence. When I asked her where she had learned to do this so well she told me that her fourth grade teacher had asked his students to enter the classroom every single morning with a greeting and a handshake. It taught her how to be gracious and aware of the people around her. She also mentioned that it kept bullying out of the classroom because everyone was conscious of the worth of every single person around them. It’s a skill that we too often neglect, but one that is so important.

When I was a child we stood and welcomed every adult who ventured into our classroom. Young men removed their hats inside a building, and we used the words “please” and “thank you” throughout the day. We learned to be considerate ladies and gentlemen and our courtesies became second nature. I’ve known teachers who have started clubs that teach students etiquette and how to navigate in various situations. Such lessons will undoubtedly serve them well.

A full education requires knowledge of many things not found in a curriculum guide. We need to know how to change a  tire, hang a picture, create a budget, plan our time, and save for the future. Sometimes such little things make all the difference in the direction of our lives. Learning geometry is a good thing but we can’t ignore the basics while we are doing so. Most we need to be teaching just how much worth their is in every single person, something that my grandmothers showed me long ago.

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