NOT back to school: Breakthroughs in Jabberwocky History

Last weekend we took a History field trip, to visit the Harriet Tubman House in Auburn, New York, and then John Brown Farm in Lake Placid. The day before we left, we visited our local History Museum and learned about western New York’s role in the Underground Railroad, and talked smack about Columbus and other European slave traders. We watched the Reading Rainbow episode about slavery and read books like Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People and Follow the Drinking Gourd. We went on tours at both sites.

I returned home feeling accomplished. This is what homeschooling’s all about. How many kids get to go on a trip across the state and experience history? When we got back into rotation with our usual weekly activities, people started asking, “How was your trip?” And I was confident, maybe even a bit smug. “Go on,” I said to the kids. “Talk about what we did.”

And Isabel and Aidan both broke into big, happy smiles, took deep breaths, and said:

“We went on vacation!”

“And swam in a hotel pool! Two hotel pools!”

“And one of them had a glass elevator!”

“It went up, up, up!”

“And we got McDonald’s! And the meal came with a toy!”

I couldn’t believe it. Those little snotfaces.

All the hours I’d spent painstakingly finding the best books, researching, taking meticulous notes – it was for nothing. I read a biography of John Brown. A goddamned biography of John Brown! And you know what I learned? Dude was fucking crazy. Nuttier than a pair of communal boxer shorts. But we learned all about what he did in Ohio, Kansas, Virginia (now West Virginia). Because it’s history, and that was the whole stupid point of the trip.

And there were my dear, sweet children. Who, according to all current wisdom, have brains like little sponges just waiting to “soak up” knowledge. Only instead of drinking from the pool of fine wine that is historical significance, they both opted to flop face-first into a gutter full of bathtub gin. Wearing bathing suits and clutching a pair of rolling, chattering teeth from McDonald’s, apparently. Soak it up, kids. The world can never have too many human paperweights.

Disclaimer: That entire paragraph was hyperbole. Defined as, don’t call CPS on me, my kids weren’t really drinking alcohol out of a roadside gutter. I would never allow that; gutters are totally unsanitary.

I can’t lie, I was pretty irritated. When people asked me about the trip, Harriet Tubman and John Brown were the first things I talked about. Oh – wait, I guess not technically the first, since I discovered Dunkin’ Donuts pumpkin coffee while on the road, and that stuff is so amazing, it just wouldn’t be right to not tell everyone about it. Mmmmm. So I guess the first thing I say is about how Dunkin’ Donuts pumpkin coffee is like a little bit of heaven right in your cup, it really is. Then I have to talk about the leaves a little because, truly, the Adirondacks in early October are glorious. And we visited with family a bit, and had lunch in the deli where I worked as a teenager and  they still make the best sandwiches around. Then, on our way home, Aidan told our waitress at Friendly’s about how he likes fossils, and when she brought us the bill she gave us a bit of rock that she dug up in a geology class she took, because it has fossils in it. (Friendly’s, Watertown, NY. Best. Waitress. Ever.)

But then I talk about Harriet Tubman and John Brown. So it’s, like, the third… fifth? Sixth, I guess. Okay, so it’s the sixth thing I talk about. But these kids, they’re just, “Pool and McDonald’s! Pool and McDonald’s!”


I was still feeling pretty grumbly about the whole thing a few days after we’d gotten home, when something caught my attention. It was Aidan, “reading” out loud from Follow the Drinking Gourd. Aidan doesn’t actually read yet; he knows a good many phonemes, which is hilarious, actually, because he’s all Pavlov’s dog-ed into instantly parroting his phonemes when he sees a letter he knows. Show him a big printed A, and he will immediately call out, “A, Ay, Ah!” (As in, Apple, Ajax, Allow. I don’t know why “Ajax” popped into mind here, I don’t think I’ve ever purchased or used Ajax. But, you get it.) One time, when Isabel said “ain’t” and my head exploded and then I lectured the children for 20 minutes about how “ain’t” isn’t a word, I lost a little steam at one point and said, “This is a…” And while trying to figure out the best words to fill in that blank (“moral outrage,” “capital offense,” and “chicken poop-scraping punishment” would all fit the bill), both kids, in their eagerness to not be in trouble over the one and only four letter word that makes Mom lose her shit, both promptly responded, “A, Ay, Ah!” Which made me laugh. And then all was well again, especially since laughter makes Scary Mom even more menacing. See how that works?

No one says “ain’t” in this household, dammit.

Anyway. What was I talking about again? Oh, right. Aidan was “reading” Follow the Drinking Gourd.

So, he was all curled up in the chair, flipping through the pages and narrating the story. “And the people in slavery said, “follow the drinking gourd!” And they looked at the stars in the sky, and they runned and hided, and slavery came looking for them on horses’ feet, but then they followed the drinking gourd again, and hided and hided, and then they were freedom.”

Well, I’ll be, I thought. He really did get it.

“Aidan,” I said. “You did such a good job reading that book, buddy! You remembered so much about what we learned. Do you remember why the slaves were running away?”

He nodded. “Because of the slavery.”

“That’s right. What does ‘slavery’ mean to you? What is slavery?”

He was very serious. “Slavery is bad. It’s a mean thing.”

“It is a mean thing.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t like slavery. I don’t want it to get me.”

“Oh, buddy, slavery’s not going to get you. We haven’t had slavery in this country for a very long time.”

“But… It might hide like Oogie-Boogie.”

Now I was confused. The boogeyman? What do closet monsters have to do with slavery?

“Honey, slavery can’t hide. Soldiers fought about it more than 100* years ago. Slavery is all gone.”

“But what if it comes back on its horsey feet?”

“Umm… what?” Because I’m a model of eloquence.

“Look!” he jammed his finger on the page, which showed escaped slaves hiding beneath a trap door in a barn floor while slave-catchers searched for them on horseback. Presumably. All we could see of the slave-catchers was the horses’ feet. According to Aidan, that is. I wasn’t even sure it was horse feet we were seeing – it looked like towers of dirt and hay – but to Aidan it was the horsey feet of slavery.

“Those are the slave catchers,” I said, resting a fingertip on a horse’s foot. Or hay. Whatever.

Aidan counted the feet. “One, two, three, four, five… Slavery has FIVE horsey feet. It’s fast! Are there a lot of slaveries with five horse feet?”

Oh. I get it.

“Aidan, do you think slavery is a monster?”

He nodded.

Well, shit.

James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, talks about one of the greatest challenges in teaching History being the need to un-teach the mythology of American History that so many of us learn in our elementary school years – the “Columbus alone knew the Earth wasn’t flat” myth, the “Indians sold Manhattan for $24 worth of beads” myth, and so on.

I bet Mr. Loewen, or any other Sociology or History professor, never anticipated having to un-teach the mental image of Columbus unleashing a great, furry, five-legged, part horse, part Oogie-Boogie, part hay bale, monster into Central America. Way to go, me! You just invented Jabberwocky History!

“Okay, buddy,” I said. “Let’s talk about that a little bit.” Step by painstaking step, we reviewed everything we’d learned. Halfway through Isabel wandered over and helped with the explanations. “Slavery is what the European people did to other people who weren’t like them,” she said, and I was proud. “I don’t think we should celebrate Columbus Day, he was a bad man,” she said a few minutes later, and I was prouder.

When we were done and the kids were off playing “car hotel” (don’t ask, I don’t know what it is, either), I reflected on what we’d just worked on and realized: This is what homeschooling’s all about. It’s less in the driving and lecturing and touring (although those things are great, too), and more in the quiet, watchful waiting. Seeing how they, left alone with their new knowledge, work it out. Talking less and listening more, to realize that to a five year old boy, the most logical explanation for slavery is that it’s a monster… and to totally ‘get’ that. To have every outward attempt at validating your teaching fail, only to have your nine year old wander over at the right moment and not simply parrot facts the way she does phonemes, but to demonstrate a deep and mature understanding of what really happened.

Homeschooling is trusting that even when it looks like all they’re doing is partying it up in the gin gutter, they’re really sneaking their way to the good stuff. It’s having to remember, over and over again, that parroting facts becomes impossible if you’re really thinking deeply about the material – and letting go of my need for validation. It’s having faith, in myself and in them.

And, it’s not saying “ain’t.” Because that shit’s just never going to fly.

*Edited. Because when I first hit “publish,” this said that the Civil War was fought over 200 years ago. Which, of course, is not right. My bad, I don’t have enough fingies and toesies to count to hundreds.

No, not really. It was a typo. Oops.