by Joyce McGechan
Volume 2, no. 1, new series, PNEU, January 1967, pgs. 16-18
Our four children came home from their private boarding school in Rhodesia for the last time. They were well-dressed, well-shod, well-fed, prosperous-looking children. Only when one listened to their vapid chatter, limited by both vocabulary and knowledge, did one glimpse the distressing poverty of their minds.
I sent for the only correspondence course that I had heard recommendedthe PNEU one. Preliminaries completed, we began the programmes. Colin was in 1B, Charles in Upper 1A, Robert in 2B, and Alison in 3B. The time-tables required some juggling to fit everyone's work in.
Now, nearly four years later, things have changed. The children's clothes are patched, their feet encased in cheap canvas shoes. Meals consist largely of fruit and vegetables gathered from the orchard and garden, dairy produce from our two cows, and eggs from the hens. They cut and cart cattle bedding; they wash vegetables for market; they take turns in milking the cows, and generally take on any job that arisesmore or less cheerfully. A pretty poor little lot, you might think.
You could not be more wrong. Our bookshelves are full of good books, recommended in the programmes; and conversation is sometimes baffling to outsiders. For the children talk about John Masefield, Granny, Monet, our next-door-neighbour and Socrates with the same degree of familiarity.
I can claim no credit for this blessed state of affairs. Although a trained teacher, I knew nothing of Charlotte Mason's methods. I ordered 'Home and School Education' and read it with interest; but I must confess to some scepticism.
'Children have no natural appetite for twaddle,' she had written in the chapter on Aspects of Intellectual Training.
'Huh!' thought I. 'Haven't they though?'
I underlined that sweeping statement; and in my mind I classified it along with a few odd ones I had heard at college'Children are not naughty,' and the rest. Experience had fast taught me that children are downright wicked unless they are kept so busy and interested that they have no time to think up any fresh devilment.
I cannot possibly describe my bewildered, fascinated disbelief when the first batch of books arrived. Of them all, 'Plutarch's Lives' hit me hardest. Those long, measured periods in difficult language! Alison, at eleven, would not understand a word! How on earth was Robin going to assimilate 'Mankind in the Making' and 'The Spangled Heavens'? What was Charles going to make of 'Pilgrim's Progress'?
By the time I had been through them all I was in a whirl of doubt. However, I was prepared to give the programmes and the method a try. I threw my notions about 'giving lovely lessons' out of the windowthe more readily because I was aware that I simply could not give a lesson, lovely or otherwise, on the origin of the Solar System! We bashedand that is the only verb that describes our progress in those early daysthrough the text-books, got the gist of them by determined attention, and miraculously found ourselves enjoying every minute. Narrations were wobbly affairs, half inarticulate, half incorporating remembered phrases from the reading. Parsing and Analysis they found absorbing and rewarding. French and Latin were fun. After all, languages were words, weren't they? A sudden word-hunger seemed to grip them all; and a new world had opened up. When, at morning prayers, they sang:
'Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning! Praise for them springing Fresh from the Word!'
Their eyes shone. They were not thanking God as a dutiful routine, but joyfully.
They have retained their sense of delight and wonder. These four average children, who find some subjects easy and some difficult, are full of curiosity about everything that goes on about them, and everything that has happened since the world began. They chant poetry in the bath (in English or French); they quarrel in the words of Agamemnon and Achilles; they give our cows and calves Greek names. They observe closely the possible colour changes of a chameleon, and argue over the components of a certain rock specimen. They pester the curator of the museum, and any experts we happen to meet, for information about their various specimens. People fascinate them, be it Pithecanthropus Erectus, Elizabeth Fry or General de Gaulle.
Children whose epithets four years ago seemed limited to 'pretty,' 'quite nice' and 'sooper,' now yell when flying a kite, 'Mum, come and look at that "bewildered" swallow! It can't think what this kite is!' Or I find my best pyrex dish used for a 'suffering' tadpole that must be isolated from the rest. I am called to watch a 'quivering' Siamese cat as she lies in wait for a bird, or a 'baffled' puppy trying to walk through a glass door.
Charlotte Mason's statement about the 'twaddle' has proved to be absolutely true. The most worn books on our shelves are not the Annuals sent at Christmas; but 'Heroes of Greece and Troy,' 'The Odyssey,' 'Stories from the History of Rome,' Stevenson, Kipling, and all our poetry anthologies. Robert's favourite book at the moment is 'Memory Hold the Door'; Charles is deep in 'Children of the Archbishop,' and Colin is reading 'Puck of Pook's Hill' again while he is waiting for 'Jock of the Bushveld' to be available from the library. Just last night, as I switched off her light, Alison chided me sleepily, 'Mummy, I can't understand why you didn't recommend me to read your Somerset Maugham books. Gosh, that man can tell a story!'
Most people tend to be sorry for our children. 'They are missing so much,' they tell me. 'You know, rugger, school discipline, company, fun! They must be bored!'
These people are wasting their pity. Our shabby little crew, with few material advantages, have a good life. They work hard at lessons and on the farm. Then duties done, they run free on the veld, catching butterflies, collecting stones, watching birds, gathering wild flowers. Evenings for them are all too short. Specimens must be identified, labelled, catalogued. There are still unread books on the bookshelves, as well as old friends to be re-read. Daddy must hear someone's latest effort at poetry composition, or told the anecdote about George IV's false teeth.
Thanks to Charlotte Mason and the PNEU school these children of ours are, in fact, rich.
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