Meeting Robert E. Lee

When I was in 1st grade, I got up at 4:30 every morning. I put on my barn clothes, and after a quick bowl of Cream of Wheat, went off to milk cows with my parents. My teacher was also my neighbor, so when I put my head on my desk in the afternoon for a little nap, she let me rest. It didn’t harm my education. In fact, I often revived the technique during my college years to get through boring lectures.

I sometimes slept through the bits of free time we were given, but when I didn’t, I discovered two things that shaped my life.

The first was a puzzle of the United States. I practiced that puzzle until I could put it together without having to consider the pieces. The entire world became a puzzle to me; I studied maps until I could put the different colored pieces together in my mind. Unfortunately, this never helped me in a Spelling Bee, where I always found myself sitting down after the first round. Geography Bees weren’t a thing yet.

The second was a book: Meet Robert E. Lee, hardly the reading material you’d find in a 1st grade classroom these days.

I expect 1st grade book collections have changed since 1973.

It’s hard to pinpoint when love affairs begin, but the fact I remember this hints that it had something to do with kindling my interest in history. I wanted to know more about long-gone people and the lives they led. More than that, I wanted to read.

I checked out of the library a book called Rogers’ Rangers and the French & Indian War. It was a middle school book, and despite my not comprehending it very well, I read the whole thing. It inspired me to play French and Indian War games in my Cap’n Crunch – the yellow pieces were the French and the Crunch Berries were British. The milk was a reminder that I had to get up at 4:30 next morning.

I doubt this cover will be featured on the front of next month’s Scholastic catalog.

Why do I mention these things? Partly, it’s because I don’t have anything more interesting to mention this week. It’s also because all our boys will be in elementary or preschool next year. I’m hoping each of them will find something in school that makes his little synapses crackle and fires him with a hunger for knowledge.

It would be nice if whatever excites them inspires them to read, but maybe they’ll learn in different ways. The boys like maps and Big Brother has revered Mr. Lincoln since he was three, but it doesn’t have to be Geography or History that sparks them, though it would be nice to raise children with an appreciation for what came before them.

Speaking of what came before, I’m grateful General Lee lived a fascinating life that drew me into the past. I’m happy his team lost, but I don’t think he would harm today’s children any more than he harmed me. Rogers’ Rangers on the other hand, those guys were rough, firing off all their long words at a 6th grade reading level. They almost took me down.




Three boys who built a nation

You know when you read a post on a Mommy/Daddy blog and the whole thing is an excuse for the writer to brag about his/her kid’s intellect or athleticism? Don’t you just hate that?

Good news! This will be the latest in a string of 260ish posts in which I do not brag about any of my kids’ prowess on an athletic field. Yes, I did post about my son’s first soccer goal, but that was more relief than boasting.

The bad news is that there are two more boys coming along who may develop into star athletes, should lightning strike, and who knows that you won’t be showered with tales of their goals and touchdowns through the seasons of the future.

But that’s for another day. For now, I will take the humble road and merely tell you how smart my kids are.

For his seventh birthday, Big Brother asked for a puzzle map of the United States. Since this was easier to procure than an authentic German pickelhaube, worn by a real WWI soldier, preferably his great-grandfather, I decided the map would make a fine gift. (I doubt his great-grandfather packed his pointy helmet for his voyage to America.)

Big Brother was thrilled to receive his puzzle map and, being an eager student of geography, put it together immediately. To challenge himself, he began putting it together with the pieces upside down. His enthusiasm for the map drew Buster’s attention. Before long, Big Brother was helping Buster put the map together.

east is west

When you use the pieces upside down, it makes everything seem backwards too.

We can build a nation.

Big Brother helps Buster learn the ropes. Big Man refrains from eating the pieces.

Now, Buster doesn’t know the names of the states, or their capitals, like Big Brother does, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t learned where a good many of them go.

building a nation

This is how much Buster can put together without any help.

I would have been completely satisfied with this. It is more than enough to fill an entire post with cringe-worthy paternal pride. But Buster, his father’s son, finds joy in sharing knowledge. Like his father, he never let the fact that he only half knows what he’s doing prevent him from teaching somebody else how to do it. The world moves fast, and we can’t wait for them to wait for us to learn the whole thing.

Buster has begun teaching Big Man how to put the United States together. As of last night, Big Man could put Michigan and Maine in the right spots. That may not seem like much, but it is almost 1/3 of the Ms, and the Ms pull as much weight as anybody, state-wise.

junior partners

Buster passes his learning on to Big Man. If this cycle retains its natural course, Big Man will soon pass on his knowledge to me.


By this time next week, they’ll all know more about geography than I do. It’s a good thing I didn’t wait until I knew much about it to start teaching them, or maybe getting out of the way so they could learn it on their own.

Anyway, aren’t you glad I used this post to objectively document intellectual progress rather than get all puffed out about my amazing kids? Don’t you just love it when a blog is all classy like that?

This is how they do it in the UK

Our kindergartener is into flags and geography. Whenever I’m looking at something on my WordPress dashboard, he always wants me to click on the stats page. “Can we see what flags are there?” he asks. (For those unfamiliar with WordPress, the stats page shows the flags of the countries from which visits to your blog originated.) We go down the list and he names the country that goes with the flag. I make him read the names of the ones he doesn’t know. He seems to enjoy this game, though it gets a little boring on days when all my blog hits come from the US and Canada.

I love that he has an interest in these things because I like flags and geography too. More than that, I think that knowing where different places are makes you more interested in learning what happened (and is happening) there. In my book, a grasp of geography is vital to educating oneself about the world.

It also leads to interesting mealtime conversations and creative fibs.

One day, my son was drinking out of a mug with a handle on it. After quenching his thirst, he said to me, “Daddy, I know how they drink out of cups in the United Kingdom.”

I was not expecting this statement, as I did not know there was a particularly British way to take a drink. Naturally, I was intrigued. “How do they do it in the UK?” I asked.

“Like this.” He lifted up his mug and conspicuously uncurled his pinky finger, extending it out straight, exactly as Queen Elizabeth might do if she ever sipped from a plastic mug with her name printed on it at high tea.

“Oh. That’s how they do it?”

“Yup. Just like that.”

He couldn’t tell me how he came to know such an interesting and amazing fact. He knew it in the way that kindergarteners know such things: he just did.

Spot of tea, Gov'ner?

Even with his low-brow family holding him back, he is determined to blossom into a society gentleman.

A few days later, at breakfast, I was spreading raspberry preserves on a saltine.

“Can I have a cracker?” the boy asked.

I offered him the one I had just spread.

“No. I just want a plain one,” he insisted. “I don’t like that berry stuff. It tastes terrible.”

“How would you know?” I scoffed. “You’ve never even tried it.”

“Yes I did.”


“In Germany, in the 1950s.”

Raspberry preserves

As part of the Marshall Plan, post-war Germans were forced to consume ersatz fruit spreads from America.

Well, I guess that explains why I didn’t know about it. I’ve never been to Germany and I wasn’t even born when he went on his European fruit spread sampling tour. Maybe that’s when he popped over to have a drink with Queen Elizabeth and learned her people’s cup handling techniques.

He shut me up. I handed him a plain saltine and for the rest of the meal I sat quietly, trying not to draw attention to the fact that I needed all of my clumsy, provincial fingers to lift my cocoa.