Thursday, July 4, 2013

Did Independence Day Really Happen?

Have you ever heard one of those news segments where people on the street are randomly asked "what happened on the Fourth of July?" and been appalled at the woeful ignorance of the American citizen? I often
wonder if it is a true representation, or if only the most outlandish responses are recorded. Still, is the point of such an exercise to expose the failure of the modern education system, the silliness of patriotism, or somehow meant to mock celebrations of national holidays? I don't know.

Whatever the purpose, I think the grain of truth that emerges is the fact that events of the past are of little concern to the average person, certainly history lessons once learned are disconnected from anything that occupies our thinking today. The idea that the freedom we experience now, our way of life, the privileges we take for granted were once a matter of life and death struggles is lost to the average person.

This phenomenon is not limited to the present time. Earlier this spring I read a little book to my younger son called "Understood Betsy," by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It is one of those books that is entertaining for children, but was probably directed as much to the adult as the child. The tale on the surface is of an  orphaned girl, Elizabeth Ann, whose life takes a radical turn when she is suddenly required to move from the clutches of an extremely timid and nervous aunt who has raised her in a most over protective and coddling manner, to some distant relatives on a farm in rural New England. Elizabeth Ann is abruptly thrust into a world of adults who consider children capable of thinking for themselves and making intelligent choices and who take it as a matter of course that a child can be expected to act responsibly and independently.  Whereas, back in the midwest big city life, she had always been told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, she is now expected to "know" and act as a thinking person. This is a humorously told bewildering  change in environment, but the various everyday events and experiences in her new home eventually lead to  freedom and joy and growth in the child that are heartwarming to the reader.

I'm convinced Mrs. Fisher was making a commentary on what was then popular parenting and revealing a fault of the educational methods for the young. Those practices haven't necessarily changed in the last century, however, and I believe her subtle message is as eye-opening to today's parents as it was when it was written. May I suggest, that this little book, considered children's literature, is an important one for any parent trying to raise and educate children in the twenty-first century?

I will share just one brief incident from the book that especially relates to Independence Day. In this episode, sensible Aunt Abigail has included Elizabeth Ann in the normal activity of a day on the farm by casually teaching her the fine art of butter making. Bear in mind that the heroine has never even tied her own shoes, far less considered herself as contributing anything to the world about her. As she struggles to form her first pat of butter with the wooden paddle, Aunt Abigail is musing to herself about her own first struggles:

"I was about five years old - my! what a mess I made of it! I remember - doesn't it seem funny - that [my grandmother] laughed and said her Great-Aunt Elmira had taught her how to handle butter right here in this very milk room. Let's see, Grandmother was born the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.  That's quite awhile ago, isn't it? But butter hasn't changed much, I guess, nor little girls either."

Aunt Abigail's companionable prattle has just rocked Betsy's world. She is thunderstruck:

"She was thinking! "Why, there were real people living when the Declaration of Independence was signed - real people, not just history people - old women teaching little girls how to do things - right in this very room, on this very floor - and the Declaration of Independence was signed!"

"To tell the honest truth, although she had passed a very good examination in the little book on American history they had studied in school, Elizabeth Ann had never to that moment had any notion that there ever had been really and truly any Declaration of Independence at all. It had been like the ounce, living only inside  her schoolbooks for little girls to be examined about. And now here Aunt Abigail, talking about a butter pat, had brought it to life."

The shock of realization that there were once real people, related even to herself, who had performed life's simple daily tasks at the same time "history" was being made is astounding to her, and probably would astound most children today. This is the very reason why we at Living Books Library are committed to putting stories in the hands of children, good literary descriptions of people who come alive in the imaginations of children and allow them to relate to historical characters and events. This is how history  becomes reality to a child, not by serving them a diet of dates and names and places to memorize and digest as a daily vitamin dose, but an appetizing meal of a whole story about real people with real thoughts and  feelings not unlike their own.

The day any of us realizes that our life is not disconnected from the lives of those who have lived before us, that the stories we are taught were once current events, that what we do and say today may impact the next generation, is truly an independence day to be celebrated. Freedom is precious. The truth will set us free.  Stories, not factoids, reveal truth and make it palatable. Woven into the threads of stories are ideas that can germinate in the mind of a child and enable them to own their history lessons, not to mention become conscious that they can make history in their own lifetime that will contribute to the freedom of those who will follow them.

For the joy of reading,


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