A Learning Experience

Winter Fundraiser 2014, Day Two

When the Baron suggested “Odd Jobs” for our theme, it made me smile in remembrance. So many creative ways to keep the wolf from the door. Or, in our case, the coyotes, since they are becoming more common in our area. They must be attracted by the hordes of white-tailed deer.

Who would’ve thought all those years of doing varied temporary work would have been the perfect preparation for riding the intertubes on Gates of Vienna? Had we not gone through decades of economic uncertainty, living by the Baron’s sheer persistence and optimism, would we be able to do this now? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect those years prepared us for this incarnation. Who could ever have guessed?

When I met the Baron and moved to Virginia, it was a culture shock. No central heat or air conditioning, isolated from the busy-ness of the city, living among people who’d been here for endless generations… I was a long time coming to terms with a new way of life. Heck, I was a long time figuring out what people were saying!

The Baron chose the Middle of Nowhere and I chose the Baron so that was that. What impressed me back then still does: his optimism, his complete integrity and his persistence. All of those qualities would end up serving him well when we began this blog. However, when we started it was meant merely to serve as a distraction for me and as a connection between us while he was away at work during the week. Never did we intend it, ten years later, to have become our daily center of gravity. Sometimes it feels as though Gates of Vienna is a child, an eternal child who grows and changes but will never be able to get around without a guiding hand.

Tip jarWe’ve described before how we got here, now the time has come to talk about how we managed to stay and even to prosper after a fashion. This part of Virginia is a good place to be if you want to scrape by while you spend your time doing something you want above all else. For the Baron, that was painting landscapes — dozens and dozens and dozens of them from the age of seven until his eyes gave out. In the beginning he kept careful records of each one, when it was painted and where it went after it was sold. I’m not so sure he was that meticulous at the end, when he knew his sight was changing. [Note from the Baron, who did the final edit: Yes, I kept complete records right up until the last painting.]

The Baron always (or nearly so) painted on the scene; he wasn’t ever interested in studio work. So when it became too cold to paint, he turned his attention to making enough money doing something else to get by till the warm weather returned.

And that was my intention also: I didn’t want to set the world on fire, I simply wanted to keep bringing in enough fuel to keep the home fires lit. My jobs were, for the most part, pedestrian. I did enjoy working as a chef until the owner started pitching small tomatoes at me during some tense times in the kitchen. And I loved community work — being invited in to teach small groups about the Nurturing Parent Program and how it was designed to reverse and eradicate child abuse. It was easy to be enthusiastic about a program actually designed to create a practical, workable peace, one (formerly damaged) family at a time. No utopias, thank you. Meeting the founder, Dr. Bavolek, was a turning point in my life. Had my mother not been forced to come to live with us, I’d have stayed with his program continuing to teach facilitators how to implement this life-saving program in their communities.

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Perhaps it would be best to back up a bit and start with the academic or teaching jobs from early on. Those two words aren’t always synonymous, but in ideal circumstances they work synchronously. While the Baron’s time doing this didn’t play a large part in our lives, during the years they lasted the experience gave us enough background to choose home-schooling when our turn came to educate our own son.

I think this era began when the Baron saw an ad for a company that sent out private tutors to people’s houses. Given that the academic year mostly coincided with his non-painting time, it was a good fit. His academic skills were valuable, particularly in Math, where there is a perennial shortage.

Sometimes he found the jobs and sometimes they found him. These ‘academic’ assignments were a string of referrals, though I don’t quite remember how they were sequenced. I’ll let him remember that. At any rate, he’s a patient teacher and was always skilled at math. Later on, when the tutoring group folded, he went solo for a while. Some of those students were indeed Missions Impossible.

The student population most in need of his services were those preparing for college. Parents would pay royal sums (“royal” in our estimation) to have the Baron push and pull their progeny over the finish line to a creditable SAT score for college admission. The higher the intellectual demands of a college, the higher their requirements for a student’s SAT scores.

Doing well on the SATs is not necessarily a sign that a student is “college material” of course. It does mean, at the very least, that they’ve learned to perform well when it comes to test-taking. Thus, it wasn’t the Baron’s job to increase any child’s IQ. Instead he focused on teaching them how to figure out what the tests looked for in the student.

After tutoring several students from local private schools he’d come home shaking his head at what kids weren’t being taught. For example, since much SAT testing is multiple choice, if a child can estimate a general ball-park figure for a correct answer to a question, he can mark the answer nearest to his estimate and move on quickly. Often the kids he was teaching found the idea of estimating a novel concept.

When the Baron met with the parents for the first time, he’d assure them that if their child followed his instructions during the weeks he tutored them, he could guarantee a rise in their scores (most of these kids had already taken the tests at least once so the parents knew the uphill road they were facing). One thing he stressed was repetition. Hundreds of problems over hours of work during those weeks. It really was “cramming” — which should have been done through the years if the child was ever to have any mastery of math. It is over-learning that does the trick in some subjects, and this is one. When the material becomes like a second language, the student will inevitably improve. It was also worth it to the parents to have the Baron come in and explain this sad fact of life to their child. It saved wear and tear on parents to pay someone else to convey this lesson to the child. I never did figure out why their expensive schools weren’t doing this necessary dirty work.

The bane of his teaching was calculators. Just because you can use a calculator to find the product of 9 times 8, it doesn’t necessarily follow that doing so is the best use of either your calculator or your mind. Calculators cause brains to atrophy and fiddling with them takes up time. Not all students took kindly to having the calculator removed from the tutoring equation. Such deprivations usually initiated Periods of Sulking and Muttering. The latter consisted of whingeing about the uselessness of math in general: “Why do I have to know this Algebra stuff anyway? I’ll never use it.” To which the Baron might reply: “ I know your trust fund will shelter you from most work. But on occasion knowing math might keep you from being cheated by the hired help.” Or words to that effect.

He had an interesting experience as a result of being a tutor. The small store where he stopped for gas on the way home had an Iranian expatriate proprietor. Once when the Baron wanted to cash a check from one of his customers to pay for the gas — always chancy for a store owner. But when this fellow found out the source of the check — from tutoring math — he was most impressed. He told us that in his country a tutor enjoyed high status as education was considered an elite field… Many years later the owner went on to make a great success of his small store and then built a much larger one. Eventually he sold out and moved north. He began buying apartment buildings and renovating them before renting them out at much higher rents in the areas where there were a lot of government jobs. Now there was a person who had a talent for and love of business.

One academic job the Baron stumbled upon was an enterprise we ended up sharing. Some students at the University had dyslexia and found the numbers of books to be read more than they could do. So it was our job — for government-grant sums — to read lots of books and write short summaries of each. It was during that job I learned about the details of Populism, particularly as they were identified with Andrew Jackson’s presidency.

Generally speaking the Political Class despises all forms of Populism. Heaven forbid the unwashed hordes might get their hands anywhere near the levers of government! The extent to which President Jackson was reviled and his wife humiliated was revealed to me because one dyslexic student couldn’t make it through those reams of political cant. Whether he learned anything or not, I sure did. I was already on the way to molting my liberal feathers; those books about Jacksonian Democracy surely hastened the process.

As I look back on it I realize our more or less continuing good fortune was only possible because we lived in a period of prosperity. Things have changed so much since the turn of the millennium that I doubt we could hop from rock to rock across the stream as we did back then. Our friends mostly had secure government jobs and enjoyed the wages and benefits that come with that way of life. Some would pay us a visit and murmur about the easy pace of life we had, living in the country and not being tied to a boss or a cubicle. On the other hand, the luxuries they took for granted were out of our reach. I suppose the fact that our way of life was a choice for us made their expensive vacations or luxury cars less enviable than might have been the case. Frankly, I don’t like travel and the Baron can’t tell one car from another. So those items weren’t high on our list…except for the traveling part for the Baron. But I’ll leave that for him to explain. Be sure to get him to tell you about the tent that blew away during one of his painting trips…

As the years went on and we were (literally) blessed with the birth of our son, we decided to home school. This decision was partly influenced by what we’d seen during The Tutoring Years. But in addition, we’d resigned ourselves to not being able to have children; the fact that we’d chosen to live in the country meant inferior schools and long bus rides to get there. So when the time came, homeschooling seemed the easiest choice for the future Baron. It fit with our life. And when the fB was old enough to begin submitting essays to the Calvert School, he was asked by his teacher there to describe his life. He enthused about our “large yellow house in the country” (six rooms back then if you counted the mud room) and his family’s two cars (I’ll spare you the descriptions of those ancient junkers). In other words, the world he was born into seemed spacious and abundant to him. The whole time he was growing up, until he encountered his first real mansion, he had no base of comparison. And when he finally did discover how the wealthy lived, he found the people there less than loving, so even then deprivation didn’t set in.

So many events ‘conspired’ to keep us in place. At an early age, we discovered the fB had some talent for music. A woman at church gave him her grown grandson’s guitar and a retired Navy chief offered lessons until he said the fB was faster at it than he was. Before we could afford a piano, the swami who taught music and voice at the ashram loaned him the Guru’s own keyboard. Eventually, the small room off the kitchen became The Music Room; it took me a while to catch on to the fact that music practice is much less lonely if someone is sitting with you paying attention. So that’s what I did until he was old enough to handle it on his own.

I haven’t covered the dozens of other jobs the Baron found, created, or developed over the years. As I said, this is the academic section and in many ways it ended up being the most important part once our son was born. The Baron became the stay-at-home dad or the fB became the take-along child when the Baron went painting. Perhaps watching Dad cured him of ever wanting to paint, but that boy knew his colors. The only two year old in Virginia who could identify magenta. And one time in early Spring when we were passing a newly sprouted field, I said with heartfelt enthusiasm, “Oh my! Look at that intense green!” The fB looked up and replied with great patience, “That’s yellow-green, Mom.” And so it was.

I will leave off for now; I’m curious to know what parts the Baron will cover tomorrow. At some point during this Fundraiser octave I want to tell you about our brief — the Baron’s brief — sojourn amongst the ‘real’ jobs. The ones where he wore a tie and store clerks called him “sir” — making him turn around to see who they were talking to.

But that’s for another time. At the moment it’s time for the proprietor to list the first day’s donors and the places they live. This is one of my favorite sections — looking at the myriad towns and cities and byways our donors live. We are so fortunate to have them return so faithfully — or show up for the first time, or return after five years. It’s all good!

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On the first day of our winter fundraiser, donors arrived from these far-flung places:

Stateside: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia

Near Abroad: Canada

Far Abroad: Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, Poland, Sweden, and the UK

Thank you all so much for your generosity, when it was most sorely needed.

The tip jar in the text above is just for decoration. To donate, click the tin cup on our sidebar, or the donate button, on the main page. If you prefer a monthly subscription, click the “subscribe” button.

6 thoughts on “A Learning Experience

  1. Very interesting read.

    I myself was a tutor in Canuckistan – however we don’t have the SATs here because universities are wide open to anyone – I mean anyone – so, I happened to have no Canuck customers – why would they bother – only Korean immigrant customers.

    While some of the kids were clearly challenged by their studies, most were already hard-working, some times even amazingly so. The parents simply wanted to give them that extra hedge.

    Because of that experience, I developed a sense of awe and respect for Korean culture. By their hard work and dedication, these immigrants are truly “enriching” the country, to borrow an expression the Baron is wont to use – except that in this case, it is entirely deserved. The same applies to a large extent to Confucean cultures such as the Chinese and the Japanese, and to other cultures which I am not familiar with, I suppose.

    This has also given me a sense a perpective about the conventional wisdom according to which, it’s all the professor’s fault, get rid of unions, blah-blah-blah. This ignores the fact that not all people value education the same, and that if a kid has no incentive to learn, that learning is not valued in its culture and immediate environment, then the kid will not learn, regardless of the quality of the education he/she receives.

    It is certainly a blessing that you and the Baron were about to make ends meet with tutoring for the SAT, but on the other hand, it is a sad comment on our decadent societies that the only reason why effort must be expensed is passing a test. Once the test is passed, one can revert back into ignorance.

  2. When I was teen, one of my mentors advised me, always take pains to seek the truth, and not be blinded by group think or the popular culture. He was an Austrian Phd. in economics. As far as the MSM he told us that we only see what they want us to see, important facts and items are routinely ignored, eliminated, or twisted. Thank you once again for your views and accurate reporting in a world of deceptions and lies.

  3. Any culture that values its own longevity and viability must insist on good standards of education. Sadly, none of the Western cultures today practise that outlook. The Collectivists are now in charge of our disintegrating cultures in which ignorance, materialism and bad manners has replaced learned spiritualism and good grace.

    A lovely story teller you are Dymphna. You are a writer who is able to put the humanity back into story telling while also reminding us of what it is that we have all lost.

    Well done to you!

  4. Wonderful story Dymphna~thank you, I am thrilled to learn more about my favourite bloggers, contribution on its usual slow journey.

  5. Thank you for this posting, Dymphna. Bless both of you.
    Watch your mail. I’ll try to send a contribution by USPS, if I can find your address…it’s been so long. Failing that, I’ll attempt to followup by email. Belle is thriving, and a joy to all of us.

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