My Life With Children
I grew up in western Michigan, where fun is the way of life for all. Summer camps, swimming, canoeing down the Pere Marquette River, climbing sand dunes and jumping in the waves of Lake Michigan, picnics all through the Manistee National Forest, hay rides in the fall and horseback riding across fields, ice skating on real ponds and tobogganing down steep hills, all were part of my formation and have had great influence on my writing style. “A certain fresh naturalness” someone has called it. “There’s a simplicity and playfulness in your style.”
Perhaps I also owe it to my French-Canadian father who certainly had a taste for enjoying life, that Joie d’ vivre that bounces back in me even when life takes a bad turn. Plus my always cheerful Swedish grandfather, who I watched live through many challenges of spirit with quiet gracefulness. I can find the rainbow in the rain, eventually and always. Much of my writing, then, is an attempt to share the positives that I’ve gotten out of the negatives of my life. Much of it are learnings I wish I’d known as a child. I instinctively try to express what I’ve learned in a way that either a child or adult might enjoy taking in this learning.
After plodding through the brain-exhausting college years, I married and immediately began the completely different work of raising a human being, for which NONE of my education had prepared me. As I walked out the hospital door to get into our car, the nurse handed me this fragile little being, wrapped in a snuggy blanket and quietly looking up at me. I took him in my arms, climbed into the front seat holding him delicately, and we were off! I thought to myself “What am I supposed to do with it? How on earth do I care for this? I know nothing about babies!” I could not believe the nurse was entrusting this precious life with me.
Two ignorant humans are a little more help than only one, and my husband and I began to figure things out. “He’s crying! I’ve fed him, he’s napped, I held him and rocked him and he’s still crying! I exclaimed in fear and frustration. “How about his diaper? Said the other brain. …. “Oh! The diaper!” I remember throwing the pampers down the toilet – I thought that was how we dispose of them – but it plugged up the plumbing badly and the landlord was most unhappy with us. I sat the baby on the kitchen table facing me and watching the fishbowl in front of him. Next thing I knew he’d pushed his feet against the fishbowl and fallen on the floor, still strapped in his infant seat. Yes, we were off to the doctor, and yes, a concussion. “It will heal by itself,” the experienced pediatrician assured me. “Their heads are malleable in the beginning.” How did the first one survive my ignorance? Somewhere I read that the miracle of raising children is not so much that parents raise children to become adults but that children raise parents to become adults.
From those first tender exhausting years, finally we arrived at kindergarten with the firstborn. At the school door, the little Hungarian boy from up the street stood crying pathetically and hanging on his mother’s skirt. He did not know English yet and was completely scared to leave her. My heart went out to the child and next thing I knew I’d volunteered to come to school twice a week and help that particular child learn English. I had no training, just the intuitions of mothers about children and language. The teacher gave us chairs in the coat room, I brought magazine pictures, and thus began many years of teaching English as a Second Language with immigrants. From there a Cuban friend who was a social worker asked me to teach Mexican mothers English. Again, I just jumped in with no training, we all brought our babies and the social worker watched them while I used my simple magazine-pictures technique and we did something with the English language. I went on to paid positions with titles without even knowing there was a profession called “teaching English as a Second Language” and one could be trained for this work.
Again with no education in how to raise a child, we grew on with our two children, learning as we went. Fortunately my husband, Tom, was a problem solver (a math major) and he had a great sense of humor and play so we relaxed into the years with many happy times. We did tent camping and eventually were able to get an old popup trailer so we could sleep off the ground. Tom had a telescope so we’d often stay up late into the night out in the state parks looking at the stars. Teaching the children to swim was a must for me, being a Michigander. Soon it was time for Cub Scouts! And then Brownie Scouts followed. We “got involved”, as parents must in volunteer programs like these. I recruited and trained leaders and Tom was Scoutmaster. Then I led a day camp for the Girl Scouts. Such fun! I got to sing all those wonderful songs I’d learned myself as a Brownie and Girl Scout! Games and crafts and fun, fun, fun; I, the director, took the name “Stretch” because I’m so short. Then the next summer our local professional Girl Scout trainer and I designed a two week camp for both boys and girls in the area who were from other countries. The neighborhood was a little United Nations, 32 different languages were spoken in the elementary school! In the summer the children lost much of their language learning while out of school, besides needing to get to know the Chicago area. I directed this two week program, with field trips, and recruiting the shy parents to help out.
Meanwhile, back in the back of my mind I had realized I wanted to get some practical education so I could do something professional and financially helpful. I’d begun taking college courses preparing to direct Religious Education programs for Catholic public school children. I received my Masters of Arts in Religious Studies, focusing on religious education, and I took a full time position in a Catholic parish. What a joyous opportunity! I’d grown up in a rural Michigan town where my own Catholic parish did almost nothing for the children because they believed that nothing can be done with the public school situation; “someday” they’d be able to build a school and then the children could learn about their faith. I’d observed my Baptist friends at school: not allowed to go to movies or dances at all, yet the Baptist kids enjoyed being Baptist and learned their Bible and beliefs well. They had all kinds of sports teams and outings and fun together. All the Protestant churches had very lively summer camps. I knew we could work with Catholic children in public school situations if we wanted to do it and I began to dig in as Director. I was responsible for 1,000 children, preschool through high school, to design the program, recruit and train all the teachers, order all materials, supervise the class times, and also be in charge of the religion program in the parochial school! The nun who’d tried to run this before me had also taught eighth grade! She’d had a nervous breakdown.
I worked there two years, often hurrying home to pick up my two children after school and then bringing them back to my office with me. I felt exhausted but happily satisfied that I did begin a thriving program for all ages, including a social and learning program for the high school students. However, it was at this point that I hit bottom with my Catholic faith, feeling entirely discriminated against as an intelligent competent woman. Strangely, also, when the Mass had been put into English this had turned counter-productive for me; it felt like there was too much talking, too many thoughts to handle too quickly! When I’d had to deal with Latin, I’d become used to more quiet, contemplative worship.
I looked for a new spiritual home to feed my spirit, and was led by slim chances to discover the unprogrammed Quakers, who worship in silence and equality, waiting for Spirit to lead anyone present to speak out of the worship. I joyfully embraced this new spiritual family. However, these Friends do not hire anyone, not even pastors! There were no jobs in religious education in this denomination. I began serving on the religious education committee for my Meeting and then also for the regional gatherings, called Yearly Meetings. At summer Yearly Meetings I often taught the middle grade children and then eventually the high school students. These were dear and rollicking times, as we all camped out in tents and wooden dorms in the middle of corn and soybean fields in central Illinois. Campfires and singing at night, dancing children and adults on the lawn with live fiddle music, doing crafts with the children under tents in the afternoons, carting all to the nearby town to swim, I got to go back and forth between being an adult with the children and being a child with the children.
My own two children continued to grow and we all together entered the world of high school and challenges of the teens. I went back to college and took courses in teaching at the high school level and began to substitute in the four local high schools. Every day was a different “adventure,” directing choirs, teaching languages and subjects I didn’t know, trying to keep a balance between seriously trying to teach something and just relating to these young people as human beings.
These years were interrupted by the sudden death of my husband from a heart attack , the result of having been given too much radiation for cancer. My life took a break here; my son fortuitously was able to get good scholarships to a Quaker college. My daughter and I had three close years as I tried to accompany her through a serious high school attempt at a music career. Finances were more difficult for her college as a music major. During these years I taught English as a Second Language in local junior colleges and designed and taught E.S.L. programs for factory workers.
Somewhere in between all I’ve remembered here were a few other children’s activities. I was trained in the Children’s Creative Response to Conflict Program of the Fellowship of Reconciliation; from that, I and my daughter led a two week summer camp for poor children in the inner city of Chicago at The People’s Church in Uptown.
I also worked with Illinois Quakers to revive the work camp opportunities that Friends had done after World War II in Europe. We helped our own young people develop leadership skills working with us in committee work, and later several went on to design what is now called Quaker Volunteer Service, an internship program for young adults.
I had taken training in counseling in the method of Carl Rogers and was certified in Client Centered Counseling. When my children were both launched off into college, I took a position in Triton Community College as counselor for the Adult Basic Education Department. I counseled adults and young people learning English as a Second Language or getting their high school G.E.D. or still learning to read in the Literacy program. This work was the richest work of my life. It was so deeply touching, such an honor, to help support the lives of people struggling against so many odds to build a future. All these students worked while going to school, many had children to raise, too.
Eventually, my life took another sharp turn when my adult son died of melanoma at the age of 40. I had remarried after my first husband died but my second marriage had been short when that second dear man had a brainstem stroke and eventually also died, after I cared for him for 2 ½ years. Now the death of my first born and only son really brought me low. I did immediately try to pick up where he left off with his high school students in their Robotics Club and in the creative contests of Destination Imagination. I worked with these delightful high school students for three years but then decided to move closer to my daughter, now married with her own two children.
I had followed the lives of children now from newborns through elementary school, through the teen years, and the college years and young adulthood. Where I am now is back at the beginning, immensely enjoying the best job I ever had – being a grandmother! And finally, I have no responsibilities except doing my writing, which has been waiting patiently in my heart. I look forward to sharing more from my life experiences with children, youth, and adults in interesting and creative self expressions.