87: For the Love of Learning

87: For the Love of Learning

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

For the Love of Learning

That best academy, a mother’s knee.

~James Russell Lowell

“I can’t do this, Mom! She just can’t make us memorize all fifty state capitals!” My teacher was being so unfair.

My mother was a great one for learning. Growing up on an isolated farm during the Depression, books were her best friends. She read to me and then taught me to read before I was old enough to attend school. I loved to read. I also loved history and science, but this—this was memorizing a bunch of stupid facts! My nine-year-old brain just didn’t want to do it. To top it off, there was no pattern. I needed something to hang the names on, any little peg that would give me something to relate them to.

Did I mention that Mom only went to school through eighth grade? Her old-school father believed only boys needed education beyond that level. Besides, the secondary school was in town—she’d have to move away from the farm to attend. World War II had begun and the young teenager was needed at home.

“You know what? I’ll bet you can memorize them. Let’s think about this.”

She always said she wasn’t creative, but the things she came up with to help me in school were absolutely ingenious. And they were just crazy enough to stick in my brain, even many years later.

I watched Mom put on her thinking face. You could always tell when she was approaching the intersection of “problem” and “idea.”

“Okay, sweetie, think about this. What’s the lady’s name in Louise-iana?” I thought about that for a bit before I replied, “Louise.”

“Uh-huh. And what does Louise do when she puts on her make-up?” She pantomimed brushing some powder onto her cheeks.

“Rouge!”

“And maybe she uses a little baton to do it?”

Baton Rouge. The capital of Louise-iana. Of course.

I wrote it down, giggling at the mental picture of a fancy lady putting on make-up. She must be a Southern belle! After all, she was from one of those places.

The next one was Kansas. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t come up with the capital of that state.

Mom bailed me out. The farmer in her must have remembered the old outhouse because she told me again about visiting the “out-in-the-back” facility. It was a two-holer and the Monkey Ward catalog often sufficed for toilet paper. They had to check for snakes and other critters before taking a seat. No lights in there!

Change of subject. “We need the capital of Kansas. So, why do you go to the can?”

“Huh?”

She stuck out her lip. “Think about it. Why would you go to the can?”

“To pee.” Eeewww.

Once I got past the ick factor, it hit me. To-pee-ka. Topeka, Kansas. Man, she nailed it again. And that disgusting image stuck. Forever.

Some mothers were more like the Leave It to Beaver mom—always in dresses, with perfectly coiffed hair. (Imagine vacuuming in that getup!) City-born and bred.

My mom was a country girl. The Depression and then the War bred a certain toughness and can-do spirit in her. And she passed that on to me, even though I grew up in the suburbs. She never insisted I fit into a mold. I shouldn’t hide my smarts. I should be whoever I wanted to be. Me.

I don’t know how the other kids tackled that assignment, but Mom and I laughed a lot over it. She came up with plays on words, mental images, lots of really strange hooks for me to hang the capitals on. Some of the western states were a slam-dunk, because I heard those names on a regular basis. The more distant ones were a different story.

“Alaska?” I whined. “Who even cares about Alaska?”

“Well, your Uncle LeRoy does. He was stationed at Elmendorf Air Base after the war and he did some work on Ladd. Drove a big old dump truck for the construction corps. He loves Alaska.”

“Bet he never had to memorize capitals.”

“Bet he did. Besides,” she paused to summon an accent. “Ju know what theees one ees.”

I just stared.

“Come on, ju know.”

That one called for an eye roll. But I obliged. “Juneau, Alaska?”

She laughed and nodded. “Like I said.”

I passed that test with flying colors. It was only one of many that Mom helped me prepare for. And later, I was able to repay the favor. The lady who only graduated from the eighth grade went on to get her GED and then an associate’s degree. She became one of the first medical coders in Denver to utilize a computer.

My mom is now my friend. We still discover new ways to learn things. And it’s still fun.

~CF Sherrow

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