“I’m just sick of learning. I’ve learned enough. There’s no way I’m going to college.”
“Or would you rather be a mule?” I sing the refrain to the old song quietly as I wipe down the kitchen counters and move some dishes over to the sink where Bob stands washing.
I’m a big believer in education, an ardent fan of learning. But I’ve never pushed on the college front for my kids. I believe there are many ways that a person can gain an education without jumping through the hoops set out by an external authority. Every individual’s needs are different. College and/or diplomas may or may not be in the cards for my kids. But higher learning is still imperative. Saoirse knows my views on this, and she’s testing her own thinking on the matter.
She is 13 now. She looms over me, a full head taller, with, she tells me, a few more inches to go. She likes to experiment with contrary remarks, to test her independent thoughts with me as her audience. I’m usually okay with that. But tonight, with the blunt pronouncement of ‘being sick of learning,’ she scares the hell out of me.
She’s a great “traditional” student. She achieves nearly perfect scores on any standardized tests we have to inflict upon her as required by state law. She appears to have an encyclopedic memory compared with the rest of us. I still teach her math, but she has outgrown my handle on the other subjects. She now does online courses, where she gets straight A’s.
Unlike her sister, who fights her learning disabilities heroically for every nugget of book-learning she can acquire, it all just flows for Saoirse.
And there are moments, like this one in the kitchen, where I worry that this academic aptitude infringes on her ability to learn. I have observed in my life that many people for whom academics come easily have a hard time pushing through when learning gets tough. This comes so easily for Ula. She accepts that push as a given. But if there is one lesson I want to give to my oldest daughter right now, it is learning how to face that push.
In the corner of our kitchen is a sewing machine that I purchased when Saoirse was two. I never had a personal desire to sew, but from the time she was a baby, it seemed like Saoirse was drawn to textiles. Where other 18 month olds would pour over the pages of The Hungry Caterpillar, Saoirse preferred my knitting books, gazing endlessly at the textures of the clothing. We were pretty broke at that time, but I had two hundred dollars’ cash stuffed in my desk drawer that my grandfather had given me for Christmas a few years’ back. I was it saving for an emergency. And in the window of the quilt shop in town was this sewing machine on clearance.. The shop was dumping it because the owners were moving over to more expensive computerized machines. This one just went forward and backward.
“Saoirse needs that,” I remember saying to Bob.
“But I have to learn to use it, because she needs me to show her.” It sounded silly. But I knew it was true. I considered it “the right kind of emergency,” bought it and learned the rudiments of sewing while she watched. By the time she was eight or nine, she was working on the machine, begging me to teach her what I knew. By the time she was ten she was making stuffed animals for her little sister and I relinquished ownership of it. Her latest interest is in taking her favorite t-shirts from Goodwill and making replicas of them with fabrics of her choosing.
Standing in the kitchen, listening to her mulish proclamations, I wonder if this sewing machine holds the key to Saoirse’s learning how to learn. But I don’t enjoy sewing. And the three dimensional thinking required to understand instructions and visualize how things go together is hard for me.…Especially when my mind is pulled in so many other directions. Aside from helping her fix the machine when things go wrong, I feel like I can’t give her what she needs.
Saoirse doesn’t have many heroes, but I know, from her quiet confidences with me, that Clare, our neighbor on the next mountain, is one of them. At 62, Clare still gets chastised by her younger brother for riding her mountain bike too fast. She and her husband Neil have built their lives by hand from clearing their land, to building their house, to building a perennial business. Clare also became well known in our county with her sewing machine, traveling all over the country, teaching and taking highly technical custom jobs doing draperies and re-upholstery. She also does a killer impersonation of Donald Duck. In short, to Soairse, Clare epitomizes the word awesome.
I think I need Clare right now. Saoirse needs her. Saoirse also needs a curtain for her room. I take her to buy some remnant upholstery fabric in Albany, and one evening Clare pops over to talk to her about her project. To my surprise, ordinarily cool and articulate Saoirse is wild-eyed. Fearful. Clare asks her questions to help her plan out her project that Saoirse has never considered. Saoirse signals me with her eyebrows. She wants me to answer Clare’s questions for her. Instead, I retreat to cook dinner I don’t know enough to help Saoirse with this dialogue, and I don’t want to. I want Saoirse to grab her opportunity, and to know what it feels like to reach for an experience because you want it. Clare doesn’t have patterns for Saoirse. She has design books. She expects Saoirse to visualize. To plan. It’s like learning to cook without recipes. The remnant we bought isn’t quite the right size, and the opening to her room, because of the timber-frame structure of our house, is unconventional. She asks Saoirse to consider ways to improvise.
Clare leaves and Saoirse finds me making my bed. I expect her to be excited, inspired. Instead, she inserts her lanky frame between me and the covers so that I cannot escape her. She looks off out the window and gives a little toss of her hair.
“Well, I don’t think I’m really interested in learning to sew curtains anyhow,” she says.
I want to reach up and put my fingers around her slender neck and scream, You disrespectful little brat! That woman made time in her day for you, and you’ll show her respect and you’ll do what she tells you!
Instead, I breathe. And that’s when I see it. This thing that I recognize from every learning breakthrough I’ve ever had, whether’s it figuring out a research problem when writing a book, or puzzling through a financial problem on the farm, or battling through a question in my mind as I consider an essay or blog post. Some people might call it a stumbling block. But a stumbling block suggests that we fall at these moments. And then maybe we don’t get up. In my mind, it’s more of a magical veil, really. Or, perhaps more apropos, a curtain. A learning curtain. It’s thick and heavy, and we can’t see through it. And it looks like a wall, and unless we find the courage to face it, to put our hands up to it, to wrap our fingers within it’s folds, we will believe it is a wall.
But it’s not. And if we can approach it and pull it back, the other side is just so…exhilarating. It’s like chocolate for breakfast. It’s the ultimate high.
And as I stare up at my adolescent daughter and her dismissive shrug, I can’t stop myself from taking her by the shoulders and giving a little happy hop.
“This is the good part!” I gush. “This is the part when you don’t think you can do it, so you tell yourself you don’t want to do it. Because you don’t want to get it wrong. But then..” I’m vibrating with excitement now, wriggling with pleasure. “It’s so COOL! You’re gonna spend the rest of tonight discouraged. You’re going to shove the fabric away. And then, like, maybe in the middle of the night, or maybe while you’re outside playing tomorrow, something’s going to click. And you’re not going to known much more than you do now, but you’ll know what you need to do next. And if you can just trust yourself, that’ll happen again and again, and before you know it, you’ll have a curtain, and it’ll feel….amazing!”
She droops her shoulders and cocks her chin to one side as she pointedly stares the long way down at me with practiced exasperation. Then she rolls her eyes. I shut my mouth and take a vow of silence on the sewing thing.
One day goes by. She doesn’t touch it. Another day goes by. Nearly a week goes by. And then, one afternoon, the ironing board is set up in the kitchen, and the fabric has been laid across it. A few hours later, I hear the hum of the machine.
Then everything comes to a stop. The fabric is left in a wad, the machine left uncovered.
That’s when an email comes in from Clare. How’s it going? I have time this week. Saoirse can come over to sew while I work outside. I can be here to answer her questions.
I relay the message. Saoirse tries to tell me she’s busy, that she doesn’t want to put me out by making me drive She doesn’t want to have to make the social effort. I assure her that I am not inconvenienced in any way. I go to the kitchen to start lunch when I hear her speaking. She has picked up the telephone to schedule the visit. Without asking me to make the call. A short while later, I drop her off at Clare’s, her sewing machine in hand.
A few hours later, I drive up to retrieve her. Her sewing machine is pushed to the side and she’s working on Clare’s 50-year-old machine, admiring how it works. “The tension’s not set right on the bobbin on your machine,” Clare explains. “You’ll need to take it apart, maybe clean it. See if that helps.”
My shoulders slump when Saoirse’s back is to me. I don’t want to take the darn thing apart. I don’t want to deal with it. I feel frustrated, because Saoirse’s sewing is still, somehow, my responsibility. Maybe I’ll just pay to have it serviced. But that will hold her up a few weeks.
Saoirse seems sullen on the way home. Over supper, her dad asks her about how it went.
“Great!” She tells him, her cheerfulness blind-siding me. “But I need to see if I can open up the machine and clean it. The tension’s not right on the bobbin.”
She’s going to do it? I don’t have to? I don’t say anything. College? No college? Doesn’t matter. I see a beautiful learning curtain in the making.