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Reconnecting to the Past

The past is a teacher that can inform the present

Sitting in this unprecedented moment brings the stillness to reflect on how the past informs the present. Our resiliency can come from lived experiences that become a storehouse of learning that guides us in how we cope and thrive today.

It’s Monday; the beginning of the week and the end of the day. I am sitting alone at the dinner table that my husband and I made years ago during free time between family visits; and I am enjoying a few quiet moments after the evening meal. I place my sewing machine on the table where my husband just sat, and after minutes of sorting through thread and bobbins, the machine is humming along as I repair a few items in need of care. “A stitch in time saves nine” was an expression that I grew up with that urges me on.

I am semi-retired although I like to say I am retired, and even in these “Stay-at-Home” times, I mention this because Mondays have become fascinating celebrations of independence and free will; my weekly “independence day.” On this particular day, I have had some vivid recollections about the “shop” classes that respectively taught me to sew; enjoy mechanical drawing; foster a love of ceramics and instill a curiosity about all things produced by hand. Perhaps glancing over at a beautiful pink ceramic bowl set me on this nostalgic course remembering when I attended a choral performance by my high school age granddaughter. There was a co-occurring art exhibit of ceramic pieces done by the students and they were on sale to support the impoverished art department. The ceramics teacher lamented that they were not fully funded to supply needed items. The beautiful work, along with the teacher’s remarks made me doubly interested in purchasing a piece and making a small donation to support this subject in the curriculum. Memories of my school days and those of today have mingled to produce a big picture in my mind’s eye and I delight in the opportunity to share my observations that might otherwise not be noted.

I remember that my oldest brother had “woodshop” and he made bookshelves and shoeboxes that carried shoe shining supplies that were a major part of life; letting people know you cared about your appearance, but most importantly that you took care of what you had.  Perhaps less fondly, I recall my Home Economics teacher in Junior High School who reminded me of Miss Havisham in the Dickens classic “Great Expectations.” She seemed to embody a fading reminder of days gone by because even then a feminist revolution was brewing that would “liberate” women from being bound to homely duties. The Home Economics class met in a fabulous space that resembled a home complete with a kitchen and stove. We made scones and what the teacher called “emergency biscuits.” I was never sure of the difference. In addition to cooking, we had to prepare design plans for different rooms in a home complete with fabric swatches; paint color ideas and notes that were all compiled in our composition books. The task was detailed and overseen at every step by our exacting teacher. The exercise seemed so abstract and remote from my thoughts as a 13 year old girl, not imagining myself as a homemaker; after all, I was a card carrying member of the Future Teachers Club which I considered more aligned with my chosen reality. Clearly, I saw no connection, but thinking of her today, I am grateful for her contribution to my valuing of home as the center of family life.

The sharp directives; precise discipline and icy stare of my Home Economics teacher were in sharp contrast to my sewing teacher who I always regarded as patient and encouraging. I fondly recall her guidance and support as I fashioned my lime green denim A-line skirt, cotton apron and stuffed animal toy with features done in embroidery stitches. Another kind and patient soul was our ceramics teacher who was a tall and sturdy man who wore a gray smock over his clothing. He had a calm manner and was skillful at helping us learn how to use molds, glazes, build pieces by hand and fire them. I liked it all so much that I attended his afterschool club for ceramics which was the joy of my junior high school years. It was creative and fun in the company of other devoted and spirited classmates who thought that ceramics “rocked.” For years, my mother kept a painted pixie and a hand built ceramic dish on her dresser. I can remember bringing my children to visit and always seeing it there.

My mechanical drawing teacher was engaging and knowledgeable in how to get us interested in using grids and lines to capture the multidimensional qualities of an object. We labored over our assignments that always intrigued me and gave me a feeling of mastery that took three dimensional objects and captured them on a flat piece of paper.

It must have been by osmosis that I absorbed a slight interest in the types of shop classes that my brother took. Woodworking seemed like a lot of fun and I marveled at the functional products that he brought home. So much so that every time I see a solid wood door like I did today, lying in wait for the garbage man, I wince at the waste and frown at the prospect that it will be replaced by a hollow, flimsy substitute.

By the time I got to college at the beginning of 1970, I had three part-time jobs and I got one of them because I had a neat handwriting. Kudos to the teacher who taught me “penmanship” as it was called. For this job I worked on campus in “Locks & Keys;” a department within Campus Facilities along with two kind staffers handling requisitions; making and distributing keys, as well filing and cataloguing all the keys for the college. A curious feature of our work space was that it was inside of a floor to ceiling vault; something that still astounds me. I guess you could rightly consider our work a security function, so I found it amusing to discover that the senior staff person said he only used a skeleton key for his front door at home. Even for back then, that was surprising.

I tutored students in English at night and worked busing tables at the rather elegant Grove Restaurant that was on campus on alternate evenings. It was while carrying out my duties at the restaurant that a customer shared the observation that “women go to college to find a husband.” I had no clue about this at the time because I thought I went there for a degree and a career. Imagine my surprise when, a short time later, I actually met my husband of 46 years in that very same restaurant.

As I entered my 50’s, I came across a diary kept by my mother who described a love of climbing trees and eating figs; things I never knew about her. She also shared her girlish dislike of carting off food scraps in a wagon to feed the pigs because she didn’t want my father, whose family lived on her block, to see her. I reinvented the practice of recycling food scraps for composting and unlike my mother, I delight in what has become an experience that I relish with a religious fervor because I feel that it prevents tragic waste each time I deposit a pail of fruit and vegetable peels; coffee grinds, egg shells and such. I am both proud and pleased to connect to a memory of my mother and also feel fully present as an example to my children and grandchildren.

Now I will conclude this reflective, nostalgic romp by sharing what I have learned and hope to pass on to other educators, policymakers, students, children and grandchildren:

  • Life is a collective learning experience that unfolds as we busy ourselves with the pursuit of self-styled goals.
  • Teachers come in all shapes and forms and you don’t have to like them all to get a benefit from them. The day may come when you will want to earnestly thank them for what they gave you.
  • Extracurricular programming including creative activities and skills training are vitally important for their value in helping to build a life and sometimes a career.
  • Following an interest is just as valuable as opening yourself, albeit reluctantly, to discover something that takes you out of your comfort zone.
  • Conservation of resources and recycling are noble pursuits and “garbage picking” is sometimes on par with salvaging and other respectable versions of rescuing and preserving items that with time may actually become antiques or cherished reminders of another age (I wish I had my grandmother’s Victrola or the piano that belonged to my other grandmother; or the red rocking chairs that lined the front porch where women gathered to chat,sometimes nursing their babies)

The march of time requires that we leave some things behind. For that reason, and because the push toward innovation and ease will ever persist, I release my grip on how things used to be and embrace the new often finding to my delight that many new ideas are merely repackaged old ideas because  “there is nothing new under the sun.” There is perhaps an even greater blessing in the lessons of the past; namely, that they help ground us in times of crisis and challenge. When I spoke to my daughter on the phone today, while still engulfed in the mist of my cherished memories, I said: “I want to leave a legacy,” but I didn’t know what that would look like. Now I do. When it is time for me to turn over the world as I knew it to the residents of the future, I will not hold back. I will gladly pass on the meaningful lessons that helped me survive life’s challenges and encouraged me to find ways to thrive which made the journey of life a rich adventure.

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