Teaching Kids the Language of the Ages

Edward Millais, "Boyhood of Raleigh"

Edward Millais, “Boyhood of Raleigh”

For my book discussion group I’m currently reading Christopher Tilghman’s The Right-Hand Shore (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012), about Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the decades following the Civil War. I very much enjoyed the following passage about the importance of stories for children.

Wyatt, a peach plantation owner, has set up special tutoring for his son Thomas and for Randall, a black child who is Thomas’s best friend. Their favorite hour of schooling is “story time.” Even though fiction and fact get all mashed up together, Wyatt realizes that deep wisdom is at work. It is a model of education antithetical to that preached by fact-obsessed Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times:

Their subjects the first winter were reading, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, Latin, and what Miss Henderson called “story time,” which they loved, which was simply her sitting in front of them and telling them the stories civilization is built on: ancient and American history, Greek myth, European fairy tales, narratives from the Old Testament, magic from the Prophets, parables from the Gospels, American folktales, Jack tales, Monkey tales: this young woman could do them all, with voices that made the boys squeal. Miss Henderson—until she died, she remained dear to Wyatt’s heart, a person who could do anything. More times than not, Tabitha and sometimes even Zoe could be found lurking on the other side of the door during Miss Henderson’s story time, the door, it appears, having been conveniently left ajar. Now I’m going to tell you about a man who went down to Hell to find his dead wife, she’d say, and it seemed not to matter to her, and certainly didn’t matter to the boys, whether they kept all these genres, religions, eras, and cultures straight, whether they knew that there were no chariot races in Iowa, for example, or whether it was in the Chesapeake in a classic Bay line squall that the Spanish Armada had met its match. It was like the mélange on the mantelpiece; she collected things, she didn’t catalog them. Part of this was because geography was not Betty Henderson’s strength. The girl never got it straight that the Eastern Shore was called that because it was its own region east of the Bay, on a map to the right of Baltimore and of her family home in Prince George’s County. Part of this was because that is how she herself had learned, if not how she had been taught. She might have been fired from any teaching job in America but this one. And part of it was because it didn’t matter when, where. Just who and what. Wyatt knew that. What mattered was the story, and later, when they were stronger readers, when they were approaching adulthood, they could go back and unravel this cultural braid of recorded experience and understanding and be the better for both, the hearing and the unbraiding. Wyatt wondered how she knew all these stories and concluded that she must have been a lonely and studious child and that her farm family must have gone to remarkable lengths to provide her with the books she needed. He’d go by the door and hear the milky drone of story time, and he’d stop, lean toward the panel, and hear her description of Aeneas escaping the destruction of Troy—in many of her stories she would make up what she didn’t know or what wasn’t known, but in this case, what would remain with both boys was some faint connection between the Iliad and the Aeneid—to Wyatt what she was doing suddenly seemed so physical: filling them up, those two willing vessels, packing them full, coloring in their brains, and it occurred to him that they could take what she taught them anywhere in the world—anywhere he could imagine—and speak the language of the ages. He was trained as a scientist, an engineer; never would he have thought that all these stories mattered.



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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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