Like many people my age, my parents were away fighting World War II when I was little. My mother left me on the farm where she grew up to be cared for by my grandparents and aunts and uncles. For me, it was a wondrous, free time of exploration with little adult interference. When I see parents scripting their childrens’ lives down to the color of pencil they use, I wonder a lot about what we’ve lost by no longer living in a world where children may play and explore without feeling constricted by rules.
Public schools were legislated into existence so that immigrant children could be trained to be Americans. But for me on the farm when I was little, school was not yet a tool for turning me into something I was not.
I usually played around the farm yard, but on this fine spring day, I wondered off. The sun was shining brightly and there was a hint of warmth in the slight spring breeze. It was late enough that the snow melt was no longer running in the road ditches, but it was still early enough that the grass was new-grown green. The hot winds and lack of rainfall hadn’t yet stiffened the prairie grass into brown, sear stems.
Our mailbox was about half a mile down the road, right next to the one-room schoolhouse. The schoolhouse had stood there during my life time, but as with most country schools, they were moved about to be near the families with the most children. This school house, I was to learn as an adult, stood a mile north of my grandparents homestead. My mother and her brothers and sister all attended this school when it sat north of their home.
Someone drove to the mailbox every day for the mail. No one ever seemed to walk. No one on the farm really needed to create ways to get a healthy amount of exercise.
I didn’t bother to tell anyone where I was going, but then anyone in the house or yard could see what I was doing. I walked down our short lane and headed straight east on the dirt road. Traffic was no real danger. There was none.
Perhaps I was looking for attractive rocks. Perhaps I had decided just to walk up and get the mail myself because I was bored. But somewhere between the house and the mail box the thought evidently occurred to me that I might just as well stop in at the school and see what was going on. Not that I’d ever been inside when class was going on.
While this may sound like an amazingly cheeky thing for a three-year old to do, keep in mind that the teacher lived in the school house as well as taught her class there. I didn’t know who she was, but my family did. And she no doubt knew who I was.
When I finally reached the school, I marched in the front door and crashed this teacher’s carefully crafted lesson plan for that time of day. I assume I said “Hi” before I and sat down in one of the empty desks. My memories of the event do not include the look on the teacher’s face or the other six or eight students. But keep in mind that they probably knew who I was. Indeed, most of these kids were my cousins.
What I do remember is that the teacher, with the instincts of a master instructor, brought over some clay and molds for me to play with while she continued teaching. She didn’t need a fancy certificate attesting to her many years of childhood study to figure out how to handle the situation. I have no idea how long I stayed, but after I was finished playing with the clay, I got up, walked out, and started walking back home.
When I got back to the farm, I have no memory of anyone saying anything to me about my off-site visit. Clearly I would have remembered being yelled at. What I remember is how truly magical it was to walk that dirt road, going where the spirit moved me.
I suspect children today never experience this kind of free exploration of their world, unencumbered by adult expectations. There’s much in the “good old days” better left behind, but there are also gems in that lifestyle which we are the poorer for losing.