Recently my ‘G-son’ asked me what programs and activities I missed most during my grade school years. I shared with him my love of dissecting frogs (which he was thankful for not having the privilege) but overall, I enjoyed the freedom! From woodshop, cooking class, to science projects it gave me the opportunity to be creative, especially when required to make our own book covers from brown paper bags. I loved personalizing mine with drawings, expressing myself through images silently on display.
That brief discussion sparked a very interesting conversation between he, myself and my daughter when he asked if I knew who Horace Mann was. Shocked and curious to learn what my g-son knew, the conversation between the three of us regarding how the school system has changed over the years led me to further discuss the one thing that each generation has in common is that the education system was not established to create a nation of free thinkers but intended solely for labor, particularly during the times of our ancestors. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was an American educator, the first advocate of public education. According to britanica.com, “Mann grew up in poverty, hardship & self-denial. He was taught briefly and erratically by comparatively poor teachers but managed to educate himself…”. After attending Brown University, he gained interest as a slavery abolitionist and Whig politician known for his commitment to promoting public education. Once we did some research independently on Mann, we all shared varied opinions as to whether or not we could agree on his role within the school system, but we shifted our focus. Our intent was to share our individual experiences in school and how some changes have drastically occurred over the generations.
Many of the differences within the school system for me were due to geographical locations. During junior high which for my time consisted of 7th & 8th grade I attended four schools in four different cities as well as four high schools ultimately earning my diploma at Reuben Daniels Lifelong Learning Center in Sainaw, Michigan. Although I excelled in school, it was very challenging trying to keep up with the other kids. During the conversation the first thing that became obvious was the terminology we each used to reference various topics regarding school. For example, AP (Advanced Prep), “Electives”, “Homeroom”, “Home Economics”, and “Vocational classes” to name a few. Home Ec was no longer offered by the time my children began high school and had also changed drastically for me, since my mother’s school age years. I explained a number of subjects taught when I was in school that are no longer part of the curriculum such as Roman numerals, typing, the decimal & metric system. Shop class at some point became “industrial arts”. Latin was useful in helping me learn and breakdown words in preparation for spelling bees. My g-son wished he was able to borrow instruments to take home for music class like me & his mother. This turned into us over talking each-other while yelling out as many instruments as we could remember as fast as we could. With his love of cars, we transitioned into how students looked forward to drivers ed, field trips to local museums, the zoo, and occasionally opportunities to venture out of town for the day. We also noticed how physical education has changed. I was fortunate enough to participate in archery, gymnastics, and jazz dance. Present day it’s frightening to image if I would have had to attend school online, I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have done as well considering my learning style.
The conversation shifted to stories of our ancestors who never learned how to read. “If public school was free…” he asked, my grandson didn’t quite understand how this could be possible, especially since he began reading at the age of three. We explained the politics of the South at the time and how out of 12 of my great grandmother’s children, many of them had to work in the fields all day for sustainability and a few of them, like my grandfather received their education in the Navy/military. It was important for my grandson to understand, while many of his ancestors may not have been “book smart” that didn’t mean they weren’t knowledgeable in many other areas. It takes a lot to live of the land, by the land and for the land. From cultivating to overall sustainability, they were able to survive & thrive despite educational adversities. Those who were able to attend school still faced many challenges, the photos above of my ancestors gave a visual of some of the conditions they endured only to get a minimal education. For a period of time my ancestors and other colored folks gathered in a tiny shack, and many walked for miles in order to learn what they could while they could. As it did me when I first acquired these photos after Big Momma’s passing, it was just as disturbing for my G-son when he noticed some of them in the photo are barefoot. Another factor he noticed when viewing all the photo’s I’ve collected is that the teacher student ratio has drastically changed over the generations. Many factors play in the changes from then until now which I’m sure will turn into another insightful discussion as my grandson continues to read, grow and return with more questions. I’m thankful my G-son is aware he has a V.O.I.C.E and that we were all able to share our perspectives on this subject. In doing so, it allowed us to not only learn from one another but also have these conversations that hopefully will continue on through future generations.