Aunt Grace


The other day I read an article talking about how the teaching of cursive handwriting is being completely abandoned in school, mostly because computers have made it unimportant.  I disagree, but largely because I was taught cursive, and use it primarily in my handwriting.  I can’t imagine how printing could be anywhere close to as efficient as cursive when you have to use pen and paper.

I have never had beautiful handwriting, and I’ve never particularly enjoyed physical writing compared to typing on a keyboard.  Despite this fact, the story of my learning this skill  is an important one in my childhood.  It is a tale involving a discouraging 1st grade teacher, a converted home schoolhouse, and a really old woman.

My mom made the decision to put me in school earlier than most kids.  I was almost a full year younger than many of my classmates.  This was because my birthday was in the beginning of October, just before the  cutoff in age.  In college this isn’t so important, but in early elementary school the gulf in development is huge.  I was a smart kid, and ready for school.  Intellectually, I was very ready.

I remember my first day of Kindergarten quite well.  My mom brought me to the classroom and introduced me to my teacher, and then spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to assure me that everything would be ok.  I remember standing there thinking, “Why is she still talking?  Isn’t it time for her to leave and let me play in the sandbox?”

Other kids were dropped off by their parents as I made beautiful castles, or as any adult would call them, piles of sand.   When moms would leave, invariably little Susie or Sammy would erupt into tears, their little faces looking like cooked crabs with pony tails and cowlicks.  I remember thinking (and I’m not exaggerating), “What’s wrong with those kids?”

The problem with me being in school that early was not that I lacked the intellectual or emotional proclivity to be in class, but that I was a daydreamer.  I had no problem sitting in class for an hour, but I wanted to think creative thoughts, not learn how to stack blocks.  This is a problem that I still have.  I still daydream, although I discovered that block-stacking is actually prime daydream time.

I also lacked some of the motor skills to do what children of that age group could typically do.  It wasn’t like I couldn’t stack blocks or finger-paint, but by the end of first grade my A’s looked very similar to my H’s, and my teacher couldn’t tell my q and g apart.  I suggested that she should use context to help her determine this, and she suggested that I spend another year with her in first grade.  Maybe she didn’t like me, or maybe she liked me so much that she wanted desperately to hold on for one more year—kind of like those crab-faced children.

My mom was having none of this, and of course I didn’t want to waste another year with a woman who used handwriting as a basis for judging people. Plus, she was a little bit obsessed over finding out if I knew the Muffin Man.  She had issues.  I wanted to move with my peers to a classroom with a little more grounded leadership, and possibly less naptime.

My mom worked out a deal with the school for me to spend the summer being tutored by my Aunt Grace in order to improve my handwriting.  If I could do that, I would be allowed to move on to the next grade, and I had to agree to stop accusing my former teacher of stalking the Muffin Man.  The school found this acceptable.

My Aunt Grace was an ancient woman with wiry hair and that stern face of women who lived through the Dust Bowl Depression.  Her house was the stuff of children’s dreams.  The main part of her home was crammed with eclectic piles of old magazine clippings, strange antiques, and weird things she’d won in contests.  She proudly displayed a three-foot diameter replica of the Millennium Falcon that had working lights and sounds.  If you pushed a button, the landing gear would retract.

Her kitchen was filled with large jars containing strange experiments, floating in off-green liquid.  She said it was something called “pickling,” but it looked like beakers of ectoplasm in a mad scientist’s lab.  The smells were strange, the sights were strange, and I was sure to never eat anything that came from that place.  I don’t recall her ever offering me food anyway.

The backyard was a jungle, but this was not due in any way to neglect; in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Aunt Grace was an avid gardener.  She composted in massive quantities before anyone had really ever heard of composting.  The yard contained enough fruit trees to feed an army, and had row after row of vegetables.  In the center of her back yard was a large cement pond of murky water with strange fish and turtles.

Crossing the pond was an ancient green bridge, with only flecks of fading paint there to prove its color.  It wasn’t big enough for a person to stand on, and rickety enough to scare off any crossers even if it had been.  The whole place was very surreal, as if a farmer had time travelled to the Jurassic era.  It would not have surprised me to see a monkey swinging from one of the trees, or a brontosaurus neck emerging from behind an outrageously large bush of chard.

The final interesting thing about my Aunt’s home was the back den of her house, which she had converted long ago to a fully functional schoolroom, with 15 or so desks for the kids that she tutored regularly.  It looked exactly like any schoolroom I’ve ever seen, except a little homier. There were shelves of books, and a pencil sharpener on the wall.  On one wall were large windows that looked out to her jungle-garden.

It was in that room that I spent many hours during that summer with Aunt Grace.  She taught me phonics (which was something she strongly believed in), and writing.  I read every Dick and Jane book ever written, and I sharpened my pencil until there wasn’t much left.  I learned a life-long love for reading, but I learned more about life itself by hearing the amazing story of a woman whose life was truly remarkable.

My Great Aunt Grace (my grandmother’s older sister) was from Missouri, like the rest of the extended family.  When the land dried up, the economy crashed, and life turned as grey as it looks in the black-and-white pictures, they had packed up the whole extended family and moved to California.  Although in later years, I learned that the family migration took place over a long time, in my mind the whole family travelled together in some jalopy piled high with overturned furniture and rolled up rugs.

She left and brought her only son out west with her.  In those days, women didn’t do things like travel alone or leave abusive, alcoholic husbands.  She had an adopted daughter and a single natural son, Norris Dale.  Norris Dale would later go on to be an important war hero, and German prisoner of war.  He died of a heart attack many years later while at his desk at the Pentagon.  I remember him from the one time I met him as a small child, and I remember his death as this big traumatic event to the family.  But I was also very young when he died, so I don’t remember much.

Aunt Grace became a teacher when she was quite young.  This was back in the days when schools weren’t the big mini-cities that they are today, and more like what we’d see in an old episode of Little house on the Prairie.  Managing a room full of students before the age of In-School-Suspension and dedicated campus police must have been tough, and it created a tough old woman.

She taught school and moved up the ranks until she was eventually the Assistant Superintendant of schools in the little town of Dinuba, the town I originally came from, and the town she lived in until she died.  Eventually, when she retired lifetimes past when people usually retire, she found that she couldn’t just sit alone in her home and quietly quilt until her time came due.  So, she converted her den into a schoolroom and tutored troubled kids full time.

I suspect that she did this partly because her nervous energy would have driven her stir crazy otherwise, but she kept going mostly because she really did have a passion for education, and helping troubled kids get on the straight and narrow.  And she did that for many lives.  She took in a young Hispanic teenager who had decided to drop out of school.  He stayed, and when he became the first Hispanic Lieutenant Governor of California, he sent an official proclamation honoring her.  She taught my mom that a single mother can raise a kid successfully on her own.  She taught me how to write.

She finally stopped tutoring kids when she was 98.  She had fallen and broken her hip.  They surgically repaired it, and the doctors told her that she had the bone structure of a woman in her 60’s.  I visited her in her home as she was ailing.  She showed me some tennis rackets that she had just won in a contest.  I asked her what she was planning to do with them, half-hoping she would give them to me, but in true Aunt Grace style, she told me that she was going to keep them and take lessons as soon as she got back on her feet.

She outlived both her children, and all but one of her younger sisters.  Al Roker read her name on TV on her hundredth birthday, and she died at the age of 102, one month shy of the Millennium.  If she had squeaked out another month, she would have lived in three centuries, and two millennia.

Many of us think of success and influence as becoming President, or the boss at our jobs.  We think of big families and people with boats.  But at 17, my aunt stepped into a schoolhouse with a handful of scruffies, nervous to try and keep order.  But by her last breath she’d raised a war hero, taught government leaders, shaped policy of a school district, and been honored in newspapers and national TV.

During her life, she saw the dawn of electricity and telephones, horses became cars, and airplanes went from dreams to reality.  She walked in Germany before Hitler was Chancellor, and had her picture taken there before color was an option.  Not only did she see computers invented, but she learned to use them.  She lived a remarkable life, and changed lives of many, including mine.  Every time I put pen to paper, it is because of her influence.  A life like Grace McGinnis’ is very rare one indeed, and I am blessed to have sat in her schoolroom.  -Ryancopyright-notice

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