Thursday, March 17, 2011

What my kids know

It was a professional day at Tim and Holly’s school yesterday, which is the perfect opportunity to visit the sites that get too crowded during normal school vacation days. I remembered that last time we drove to Salem to visit the Peabody Essex Museum, Holly saw a sign for the Witch Museum and asked if we could go, so earlier this week I suggested that might be a good destination for the day off from school. Tim agreed that it sounded like a decent enough plan to him, even if he’d rather go bowling. “Bowling next time,” I told them. “Let’s do something a little more educational today.”

It wasn’t until we were on our way there that I realized my eight-year-old’s expectations might be a little bit far from reality. In my joy over the fact that both kids were actually interested in visiting a) any museum at all and b) even better, the same museum, I had neglected to think about whether Holly had any concept of what the Witch Museum actually was. “It’s not about witches like Halloween witches,” I told her somewhat cautiously as we reached the highway. I suspected she was imagining an array of women in Walmart Halloween costumes surrounded by clouds of vapor from cauldrons of dry ice, possibly even handing out candy.

“I know that, Mom,” she replied with a touch of condescension. “It’s about the girls who lived in Salem in the 1600s and started acting strangely, just because girls sometimes do, and then everyone accused them of being witches and most of them ended up being killed for the way they acted. And the strangest part of it was that one of the girls who started it was actually the daughter of a minister. Her name was Betty.”

That certainly silenced me for a long moment. “How did you know all that?” I finally asked.

“We have a book about it at school,” she said.

In truth, the kids learn all sorts of things at school these days that make me suspect they are now better-educated than I am. In social studies, Tim’s class recently compared dictatorships; as we watched coverage of the riots in Egypt last month, he said to me, “The unfortunate thing is that the overthrow of a dictatorship is usually followed by a civil war.” I knew that too, I told myself, and surely I could have reasoned that out if I’d thought about it. I just hadn’t given it the level of contemplation he had.

I tell myself it’s just that they have more time to study specific topics than I do. Tim’s social studies class meets five times a week; many of those hours are devoted to current events. If I had the chance to discuss current events with a knowledgeable professional for an hour a day, five days a week, I’d have insights as fully formed as Tim’s, I tell myself. And Holly’s class devotes time every day to free reading, which is when she picked up the book about the Salem witch trials. I too learn all kinds of things during those phases in my life when I can devote time every day to reading whatever I want, I remind myself.

But really, I’m terribly impressed by the breadth of their curriculum. When they were very young, my approximate goal was to teach them all that I knew. Now it seems that they’ve far surpassed that. The audiovisual presentation at the Witch Museum outlined the story of the Salem Witch Trials just as Holly had told it, including the girl named Betty whose father was the Reverend Samuel Parris. I’d remembered the story, of course, but not that particular part of it.

Someday they’ll forget some of what they know also, and their interests and areas of study will become more narrowly focused as they enter careers or home in on specific disciplines. I’m just glad they’re learning so much now. And I’m glad that most of the time they’re willing to share their knowledge with me. Because I seem to become more aware every day of just how much I’ve forgotten.

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