Special thanks to Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, my former professor and fabulous author, for agreeing to write for the Daily Dose of Gratitude blog.
My maternal grandmother’s name was Emma. She could shine a sunbeam through my gloomiest thought, sprinkle a soft rain onto my smoldering temper, and splash a dash of magic into my most ordinary day. She was short on formal education, but long on experience when it came to nurturing young children. Though I dearly loved my grandmother, I didn’t consider myself fortunate to be placed in her care from the time I was three until I started first grade. I felt I was missing out on getting an education because everyone else in my family left me behind when they went to school each morning. It took me years to realize that my grandmother was providing me with the education of a lifetime.
While my grandmother read to me, sang to me, and engaged me in conversation, her greatest strengths as an early childhood educator were encouraging me to participate in imaginative play and captivating me with her storytelling. One of my favorite flights of fancy was pretending to be my grandmother’s dog, an activity she fostered by talking to me in such a friendly voice I was convinced I was her little pet dog. She’d put my “dog” bowl on the floor, so I could lap water from it. Then I’d lie down on my special “dog” rug so she could sprinkle some of her good-smelling powder on me “to get rid of the fleas.” Once I was flea-free, I’d lie still while she ironed the white shirts my father wore to his job as a teacher, the blouses my mother wore to her college classes, and the puffy-sleeved dresses my sister wore to elementary school. As she ironed, my grandmother regaled me with stories about what her life was like when she went to school in the early twentieth century.
“When I was a little girl,” my grandmother would say, “my hair was so long I could sit on it. Mama used to take hold of my hair and yank that brush through it so rough I’d cry.”
This was how the story of my grandmother’s school day always began. Even now I can see my grandmother as a girl – little Emma with tears streaming down her cheeks, sitting in front of a fireplace in a straight-backed wooden chair as her mother pulled her long, sand-colored hair into two thick braids. When her hair was braided, Emma picked up her lunch bucket and walked out into the cool morning air. The sun was not yet shining on the flat delta farmlands; only the moon and stars lit the path Emma took through the thickets and briar patches. Emma’s feet would come down on something that felt like a copperhead snake. Just as the slithering devil was about to strike her ankle, she’d look down and see a branch fallen from one of the trees that bordered her path. She breathed a little easier once she got off that path and onto the gravel road that took her to school, but she was still in the dark woods. As Emma walked along that road, the moon and stars faded into a foggy dawn. In the mist she saw a panther ahead. He was sitting by the side of the road, poised and ready to pounce. She crept closer to him, never once taking her eyes off him, showing him she was not afraid. When she got close enough to that old panther to look him in the eye, she saw a hollowed-out stump. She had to stop a minute while her thudding heart slowed down.
In the story my grandmother always made it to school safe and sound, but her telling of the trek there was nonetheless riveting. Sadly, I also knew how the story of her schooling ended – she didn’t have the opportunity to finish school.
“Get an education,” she always told me. “Nobody can take it away from you.”
I followed my grandmother’s advice and eventually earned a doctorate in education. Through the process of my formal education, I learned that my grandmother’s methods for educating me were “research-based.” In fact, many experts in the field have long advocated fostering learning through imaginative play and storytelling – activities America’s public schools have all but abandoned in favor of more highly prescriptive modes of instruction and an obsession with standardized testing. Though the political winds of change seem to be shifting in the direction of allowing teachers more autonomy in shaping their students’ learning experiences, the price American children have paid in recent years has been a high one. All good teachers know there are teachable moments that if missed can never be retrieved. While I was under her tutelage, my grandmother seized those moments daily. Having received such a vibrant early education has left me feeling beyond lucky.
Teresa Burns Murphy is the author of a novel, THE SECRET TO FLYING (TigerEye Publications, 2011). Her short fiction has been published in Gargoyle Magazine, Pulse Literary Journal, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS (Arkansas Literary Society) Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. Her short story, “Halloween Gift,” was recently published in an anthology of Washington, D.C.-area women’s writing, AMAZING GRACES (Paycock Press, 2012). To read an excerpt from THE SECRET TO FLYING, visit her website at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.