How many songs do you still know from high school? The old band – cooler than ice cream in its day – revs up the radio and you’re right back, lyrics sure after all these years. Which is why Holistic Boy learns a lot of things through music. He had the optional challenge of memorizing the first 17 verses of Exodus 20 in the King James the past school year and so I went to work. After writing the melody, I found the perfect male baritone (the voice of God), and recorded countless takes on the piano with Husband and Son on drums. The families in our homeschool community were given the best version to run at home. T and many of his homeschool friends learned it easily as we sang it a verse at a time in our weekly gatherings. The final stage presentation was open to anyone who wanted to perform it this spring, whether they had mastered it or not. Some who made Bible Master were too shy but I was so proud of the kids that night. We had five-year-olds up there. The 17th century diction and syntax were not easy but they got it.
1 And God spake all these words saying,
2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13 Thou shalt not kill.
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15 Thou shalt not steal.
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except – the first time Andrew plows right through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless bandaids would’ve been cinematic cliché if he were Korean. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.
Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the 1 mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the 1 error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.
I could see he’d felt the pressure. From me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom (from New York, double jeopardy). She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came and I was my Old Self again, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, the one who was now oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, that we had such tall demands to aspire to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.
So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.
I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof where he could’ve lost it all – fingers uncrossed. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to extend into his outer world of possibility and turn it into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.
Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.
Math: Counting by 12s
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods
What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds
Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition
First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural
A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without
Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.
Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate
What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct
What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle
After going through my posts on the writing process, Kevin commented that I seem to “write with intent rather than for ‘mere’ expression.” A lot of his poetry arose from the fun of it and the wish to express himself in a particular way. He also asked if I always analyze what I read, if I ever read just for the pleasure of it.
Which leads me to ask you: what is art?
First, Kevin’s question on reading. I don’t pick apart to death everything I read – in part for the small matter of time. As for intent, let’s visit some accomplished artists. I would almost kill to be able to ask Michelangelo, “Can art be a whim? An accident?” Did he ever “merely” express? Can art be spontaneous? My right-brain readers are nodding away. Can art be discovery? The Sam Francis exhibit that once ran at the Pasadena Museum of California Art showcases some extraordinary work by a most interesting painter. “Paintings are my thinking,” Francis said. “Not about anything…They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.” Is there then such a thing as chance in the art of mathematics?
Could we consult the Ancients in their wisdom? To this end, I veer off a bit to share some relevant thoughts on my blogging and the homeschooling that converged two years ago. A few months into the blogging, I came to see that what I’d been drawn to exploring on this blog were truth and beauty. Not long later in a seminar on Classical homeschooling, the speaker elaborated on the model I had chosen for our family; it was in essence about truth, beauty, and goodness. I was floored. We went on to hear a podcast featuring Andrew Kearn of the CiRCE Institute on the goal of education, which brought to light the meaning of the liberal arts. I’ve scaled it down to highlight some parts that bear on this post. Which of these insights resonate with your work?
Liberal spawns from the Latin liber [free]. Without these arts, we cannot know the fullest extent of human freedom. The Hebrews and a good many of the Greeks were the only ones in the ancient world who believed truth is knowable. Freedom is intimately related to perception of the truth. Education is learning to see deeply into the truth or essence of whatever is before you – be it spouse or garden. To see beyond the “accident of it,” the things that come and go. The lost tools of truth-seeking are the liberal arts: the art of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (which make up the Trivium of communication); and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (the Quadrivium of calculation).
The Greeks looked at how people communicate. What leads the community to truth, to harmony? If a good man or woman speaks effectively, that is the glory of rhetoric. The mind wants harmony. Math is the ability to find this in the universe. If I tell you 2 + 7 = 5, you feel the disturbance in your mind. Astronomy is the study of shapes moving. Planet literally means wanderer. The Greeks discovered that when you examine the movement of the stars, you see patterns. Your mind can be disciplined and ordered to see things you cannot see any other way. Same thing for reading or learning another language. If you can’t do either, there is no way someone can get you there virtually. The way you know a scientific theory is by its beautiful harmony.
This approach to learning took my breath away. And it happened to dovetail this post I had been mulling over two months. What is art? To what extent is achieving harmony or articulating the essence of something the goal in your dance, your sport, your music? What is it about your painting that begs visual utterance? Do you find you’ve been in pursuit of ancient and timeless virtues? Beauty is not necessarily happiness or cheerfulness. There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure. Years ago I looked regretfully upon some morose paintings by a gifted artist who had grown up in a nudist colony and believed she had a bipolar disorder. Her works were rich and told of a dark psyche. I felt they would reach her promise if her painful confusion were redeemed. I’ve said in The Writing Process, Part 1: Color that the darkness is an easy way in through the door of inspiration. But I now feel great art is more than bleeding all over the page.
Art is a process and need not be a solution or product. But does a story not have a point? A reader quoted for me from My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian, “the anticipation of the pleasure of making sense.” In my writing, this expectancy is the wee hours of dark that prelude the stream of dawn, the knowing stillness almost as thrilling as the satisfaction of breaking light on the landscape of my intention. The objective, to get across exactly what I’m seeing. Though a poem sings in metaphor, does it (should it not) sustain a coherence that draws assent from the reader? Is art random? Take the greatest masterpiece we can name, the human body. Illness is simply disharmony. As for the life in the womb, there is articulation. The little body forges ahead in full purpose. Though to elaborate would be another post entirely – indeed I find order, truth, beauty, goodness in our wondrous frame.
I’m thinking aloud for the answers, surveying the fields of virtuosity. Instinct whispers that there is a difference between war and the art of war. There’s straightforward violence. Or the boxer who flails struggling at the level of technique, trying to get the moves just right. But observe the fighter who executes with fluidity the right tactic among all the possibilities in that moment, and be enthralled by elegance. Through my brief time in mixed martial arts, I came to see the brilliance in the problem-solving we call fighting. I now understand the sense and logic of the art. It is geometry – angles, lines, space in motion. Just shift and turn to create the space your opponent wants to deny you and you can make your way out. Fighting is chess. I love the Greek appreciation of disciplining and enlarging your mind to possibilities. The thousand drills you hammer into muscle memory are the tools to conceive your art. The unspeakable beauty of ballet is borne of training and toil, from endless run-throughs that demand reflex and mastery. I agree with Miles Davis that more than the sight-reader, the musician is the one who can improvise. But you need to know the grammar of the music to be able to create at levels above, though some who have gone without the training know it by instinct. What I’m getting at is that art comes by merit. The endowment suggests a certain caliber of performance, of craftsmanship.
Which then incites the question whether something can be art at either the elementary or exploratory stage. How about your kids’ fun on construction paper? We don’t hold up the canvas of children’s imagination against the expression of Monet’s, but isn’t there, shouldn’t there be a standard of measure within a given range of age or capability? Here I circle back to my beloved. Standard.
As I set out in my writing and my son’s learning two years ago (as it turned out, upon the same road), I accepted the guidance of the virtues named in the Classical world. As marvelous our fascination with the Minotaur, so we cheer Theseus on and breathe again when he rids Crete of the senseless terror. The living nightmare makes for a great tale but we don’t really want to live in fear and endless night. We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made.
Photo credits in order of appearance
Yes, we all have our job. Yours is to study, mine is to cook and teach you, Daddy’s is to make money.
Huh. I have the hardest job of all.
Umma, what is the bottom number? The lowest number….the floor?
*Smile* It’ll be a negative number, right? Way below zero. Only God can reach it because He is infinite.
When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask Him to show me how He stretches from the lowest to the highest number.
*Watching him eat, in amazement*
Where does it all go? It’s a three-mile tunnel in there.
Mom, what is M x X?
Mom, you know what the bottommost lowest number is?
His prayer in Sunday School
Lord, give us joy as we fall at your feet.
At seven-and-a-half, Tennyson memorized
the first seven verses of John 1 in Latin and
English in the homeschooling with
Classical Conversations, a global home
education program based on the ancient
Classical model of learning. I set each text
to song and he downed them like dessert. T
adored the Latin and the third day or so said,
“I heard it last night [in bed]. It was beautiful
in my head and I loved it. It’s one of the most
beautiful songs ever, Mom.” The words in-
grained nice and deep; they’ve become a part
In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat
apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc
erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per
ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est
nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat,
et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris
lucet, et tenebrae eam non
comprehenderunt. Fuit homo missus a
Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. Hic venit in
testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de
lumine, ut omnes crederent per illum.
In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was
God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has
been made. In him was life, and that life
was the light of all mankind. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it. There was a man
sent from God whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify concerning
that light, so that through him all might
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