Miss Chick's Outdoor School
TIRES churn the dingy slush as my car turns down the familiar road. Well-kept mobile homes roll up like cogs over the rounded, open land and propel me to the low, yellow home that sits in a stand of 100-foot white pines. Edith's house.
I'm anxious to escape this sloppy, anemic slush for the pure, robust snow of Edith's childhood. She will erase from my mind the noise of engines and slush-spitting tires and replace these with her memories - the thumpety rhythm of the horse-drawn wooden roller packing down snow on Main Street in the evening and the tight whine of sleigh runners in the brittle morning air. A leisurely walk into Edith's childhood relaxes the contemporary pace that crams life so full it feels empty.
Today I sink into her worn, down-filled armchair and lament the state of my son's school and public education in general. Edith had - and continues to pursue - an extraordinary education weighted with music, literature, and nature. She is never bored nor boring. Unlike some octogenarians, she is as happy to talk about where the world is headed as where it's been. Less than half her age, I am the one who indulges - who needs - her reminiscence. Suddenly I want to know more about her education. Maybe her p ast holds some example for today's schools.
"Hmmm. I don't know," she says. "I didn't go to public school. I went to Miss Chick's Outdoor School. "
"Well, of course we didn't call her Miss Chick to her face. She was Miss Chickering - of the Chickering Piano family."
"Yes. She changed from indoor school to outdoor school after my kindergarten year. As I remember, Dr. Beckley suggested it because Miss Chick's house had a huge side porch. He told her about a Chicago doctor who cured some patients with fresh air and then began a campaign for fresh-air schools. So Miss Chick sent away for information. And the next fall all our desks were moved onto the open air porch."
Edith shows me a picture of herself in what looks like a medieval spacesuit: a small peek-through woolen helmet, stiff and bulky jacket and pants, thick-fingered gloves, and farmers' felt boots stuffed inside thick rubber overshoes - hardly the typical garb of young Victorian ladies.
Every weekday morning she waddled out to the one-seater sleigh with the curved dash that was hitched to her favorite horse, Lady. Billy Diamond, her family's "everything man," hoisted her up, threw the shaggy buffalo skin over her knees, clucked at Lady, and whistled all the way to Miss Chickering's house.
After a few devotional and seasonal songs around the piano, the eight schoolchildren shuffled out to the porch. When the nor'easters blew, Miss Chickering lowered the canvas blinds. Otherwise, school was open to the weather with all its caprice and wonder. Edith tucked her feet into a hay-filled wooden box with a heated soapstone.
"Quite toasty," she says.
She loved her school companions - the clear notes of the chickadee (the musical ear will recognize their interval as a fourth), the blue sky with red-tailed hawks, the changing light of sun and cloud, the early moon, and lilac and maple buds opening not far from her desk. Now Edith has only one complaint. Her oversized gloves, though warm, proved a formidable impediment to writing. They marked her for life with second-grade penmanship.
"After a couple of hours of reading and math, Miss Chick usually called for the 'mid-morning stand-up.
Then, the medieval snowsuits in banker's gray with red piping and bright white buttons heaved themselves to a standing position to begin calisthenics roly-poly style: toe touches, side-bends, waist twists with arms akimbo.
"Of course recess was the best part. We went in for recess." Hot cocoa, more singing, and thawing out if need be.
Edith offers no inspired answers to present-day school problems. But I don't come to her for wisdom or mothering. I come simply for her life. Her stories are as real to me as my own childhood. So I adopt them as my own. And they will feed me tomorrow as legitimate memories.