“True education is a kind of never ending story, a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness.” J.R.R Tolkien
This is my son’s last week in kindergarten, and (whether memorialized by one of those newly popular pint-sized paper-mortarboard ceremonies or not) kindergarten graduation is a milestone. This week it has been almost constantly on my mind. Remembering all the days of my son’s growing life. Remembering all the amazing experiences he has had this year. Remembering my own very different kindergarten mornings in the faded yellow portable metal building in the schoolyard. Remembering secondhand moments, times that don’t even live in my own memories… remembering my grandfather.
My son goes to a unique school that is part of a working farm. He gets to have animals, gardens, ponds and fresh green growing things as part of his daily education. We just returned from an overnight campout at his school, the lawn of which was large enough to accommodate the campers and tents of all the families that attend with plenty of space left for bonfires, snipe-hunting grounds, and riotous play. I lay there in our tent long into the night as the giggles of children slowly faded to snores in the distance, and I was reminded of a place I had never been, a school I had only seen in pictures, the school that belonged to my grandfather.
I have no personal memories of that school, and my own memories of my grandfather are few and scattered. He was a kind man, soft-spoken and gentle, with friendly blue eyes and weather-beaten hands. Despite his large hearing aides he would often have trouble understanding my high pitched child’s voice. I knew that he loved me. Unlike the rest of my relatives, he seemed uninterested in my grades, or in awards or accomplishments, instead he seemed to only care that I was happy, and I really liked that. I remember most that he was far away and that I missed him.
During my life my grandfather was retired and living in rural Louisiana, more than 550 miles away. We traveled to see him once, sometimes twice, a year. I remember him coming to see us twice. Our visits were reason for all of his tiny town to celebrate, so his house was a beehive of activity and rarely did I have a moment alone with him. The visits were fun, but they were not personal. Those were the days of long distance phone calls. It would never have been possible for me to pick up the phone to speak to him. Once a month he would send a letter to my father, handwritten on green paper in a scrawl that took me well into my teens to be able to decipher. It never occurred to me to write to him. He was a holiday amusement, never a part of my everyday life.
After high school, our visits were even less, usually just family weddings or graduations. He never visited in my home when I finally had one, never got to see me practice my profession. I don’t even remember when the last time I saw him was. His health began to fail after I moved even farther away to complete the grueling schedule of my final specialty training. He passed away before I was able to see or speak with him, but at the time that seemed appropriate. I knew he loved me and I loved him, and I really thought there was nothing else to be said. I flew down to his funeral thinking that it would be a time of saying goodbye, instead it became a strange chance to say hello to the parts of him I didn’t know, to meet him in a new way. People came from far and wide to remember him, and their remembrances seemed so much more real than mine. They had known my grandfather in a way that I had not, and by the gift of their stories, details of his life that I had only known peripherally were suddenly made clear.
My grandfather was a teacher. He taught science and was the principal of a tiny school where each grade had only a handful of students. His students came to tell us what a difference he had made in their lives. Their stories told of a hands-on teacher who would gladly take any creature, living or dead, that his students brought in and make an exciting lesson out of it. They described the little school set back in the trees as an oasis of hope in an economically depressed town, and my grandfather as the teacher who saw their strengths and encouraged their passions. There was a stretch of several years in which his tiny school saw 100% of its graduates go on to earn doctorate level degrees becoming doctors, engineers, professors, even a nationally recognized journalist. I never set foot in that little brick school. He had retired before I was born, and the school burned to the ground when I was a young child and was never replaced. The local children were bused to a larger consolidated school. The town had never been the same.
My grandfather was also a farmer. He ran a small dairy and had acres for crops. He must have been up before the sun every day. He must have had to know so much about the land, livestock, small business skills, time management… what a wealth of knowledge to pass to his students. At his funeral, old men in old jeans and coveralls came to talk about his care for his animals, his love of the land. Good farmers thought he was a good farmer. By the time I can recall, he was living in a house at the edge of his land, the dairy was gone, and the fields were being farmed by someone else.
My grandfather was for many years a single dad. His wife left when the two boys were young. Many men those days would have given the kids to their own mother’s care or hired a housekeeper or moved in a stray aunt, but he chose to raise his boys ‘by hand’. He taught them in school every day, headed up their boy scout troop, led their Sunday school. When his boys had grown, he remarried and had another family late in life. His youngest son was only a couple of years older than myself. Therefore I got to see him more often as the parent to his young child than as a grandparent to myself. He was a good dad. He raised good sons.
My grandfather was once burned in effigy. When my dad and uncle were in high school, my grandfather made plans to desegregate his school. The KKK disagreed. They made threats against him and his family. One night, they hung a figure of him from the big beautiful tree in the school yard and lit it on fire. It must have been terrifying, but I wouldn’t know for sure because I never heard the story until my grandfather was far beyond this world, far beyond any of my now millions of questions. The folks who told the story only knew that he didn’t back down. He just marched his sons into the school the next day and welcomed students of every color and the school went on. I do remember that my grandfather treated everyone in town equally. No matter their color, he knew them by name and spoke to them all the same, but I had never known that he had risked his own life for equality.
There were other things we never talked about. His childhood, his first marriage, and his service in the Navy were all things he never mentioned and I was a child so I never asked. I met him as a child meets an old man. I had not lived the richness of my life yet, so I had no means of knowing how to talk to him about the richness of his. He was a man content in his present and to talk of fishing and food and faith and friends, and so that present is all I learned of him.
If my grandfather had lived, he would have turned 90 a few weeks back. For years after his death, his birthday was still marked on my mother’s calender, but now it has faded just like my memories. I have rarely been back to Louisiana since his passing, so the opportunity to meet anyone with new information about him has become less and less with time, but there have been those few moments. A family member found a picture of the boat he served on and we were able to look up his Navy records. A few old pictures from his college days found in a box long forgotten. An old letter yellowing with age. A few final glimpses of him, like looking back through a window as a car pulls away.
These days I meet my grandfather most often when I am taking my son to school. I pull up in front of the farmhouse and see the children flocking to the man who teaches there. He is a teacher/farmer/father/businessman/fisherman/revolutionary and in him I see a version of what my grandfather must have been. He has kind eyes, hands that my son notices every scuff and scratch on, and a way of making every child feel special. Some days I feel as if this school gives me the chance to ever so fleetingly meet my own grandfather, not the aged man I knew when I was a child, but the man he must have been when he was near my age. In those moments, I get a chance to learn from my grandfather again. I get to see my own child through his eyes, and I get to realize all the questions my son is not asking. It reminds me to take time to share my own memories with my son, the ones deep inside, the ones he would never know to ask about.
It gives me hope to know that schools like my grandfather’s still exist and a deep feeling of fulfillment that I was able to give my child such an experience. Good people tumble in and out of this world, drifting into other’s lives and leaving brightness in their wake. Such people are in a way one in the same, sparks from the same good flame, working the same good work, to educate, to grow, to tend the earth and all the little souls in it. Together they form a never-ending story, a timeless wisdom.
If everything you need to know in life you learn in kindergarten, then I’m thankful to the point of amazement that I was able to send my son to such a school with such a teacher. Someday, when I tell my son about his great grandfather, who he was and what he did in the world, it will not be such a stretch for him to imagine this good man. In a way, they have met already.