My Grandmother, patient and wise from raising six children of her own, watched us through the kitchen window as she dutifully washed and rinsed that morning's breakfast dishes. My brother and I had ventured out the back door to the sandbox, an abandoned old tractor tire that had been tossed on the ground and filled with beautiful orange sand taken from the huge sandhill out beyond the barn. We measured and piled, pushed and poured this wonderfully siftable substance into and out of spoons, cups, jars and buckets furnished to us, of course, by Grandma.
Now, Grandma has a fine sense of humor and she's curious by nature. This probably explains why she gazed silently on for the next few moments as I attempted to fill every one of my three year old brother's overall pockets with cup after cupful of that lovely orange sand. His pockets were so full, in fact, that he had quite a bit of difficulty just trying to stand up without teetering over. His little red face squeezed itself into a pouty grimace as he proceeded to sputter, then
cry, then howl himself up to a murderous shriek. To this day, I don't remember exactly what he'd done to warrant such punishment, but I do remember feeling quite satisfied with my ability to teach him a lesson.
My smugness, however, was soon displaced by consternation as I heard Grandma's voice loud and clear from the back porch, "Gwinnie, now you take that sand out of your brother's pockets this very minute!"
Being the hefty seven year old that I was and provoked by thoughts of a paddling or even worse, no dessert after dinner, I quickly grabbed my brother by his scrawny little ankles and tipped him upside down. I shook him back and forth, back and forth several times until tiny mounds of sand pointed up toward the pockets from whence they came. My brother did not seem the least bit grateful. Why, he sputtered and howled even louder! Although it had seemed the most logical and efficient way of removing the sand, I was beginning to have second thoughts when I saw Grandma trotting quite briskly toward us. As I watched her wipe her wet calloused hands on her old jelly stained apron, I thought, "Uh oh.....maybe I didn't do the right thing."
I slowly raised my eyes to meet my fate. Grandma reached down and picked up my now hysterical brother, brushing tear-soaked sand from his curly little head. "Now Gwinnie," she said with a hint of laughter in her voice, "you collect the toys and I'll clean up your brother. We've got a lot to do today."
My Grandma is a good teacher. She gave me a problem to solve and allowed me to solve it in my own way. She admits, to this day, that my solution was not at all what she had expected. And, that although it involved a considerable amount of discomfort for my brother, I was successful in completing the task at hand.
Our expectations of young children are rarely accurate. They continuously surprise us. We tend to focus too frequently on the big picture rather than living in the moment as they so often do. Curiosity can be a great motivator. My Grandmother was curious to see how I would solve the sand problem. I doubt very much whether she was envisioning me as an environmental engineer twenty years up the road.
Her ability to live in the moment was a wonderful gift. I followed her into the farmhouse that day with my head held high, proud of my accomplishment.
Who knows.......maybe someday we'll get a PhD or become an expert at developing the "perfect" curriculum. But, all of that would be terribly useless if we did not keep one very important thing in mind.....the child. The child within, that is. That curiosity-seeking, risk-taking, life-loving side of ourselves that so often gets lost in the world of professional pedagogy. Much of what we wish to teach will fall through the cracks. By utilizing the unexpected or stretching the boundaries of academia, we're throwing new seeds of knowledge into those cracks, planting new ways of learning and growing. We're experiencing our own education. What a gift!