Tuesday, November 26, 2013

travelin' thru

In a few days we will be driving south for a few hours for a family gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving.  There will be people there representing 4 different states, and we will be celebrating in a different, fifth state.

Given our nomadic graduate school early adult lifestyle, Jonathan and I have lived in five different states since we were married.  And our children were all born during this nomadic time, one in each of three different states.

And so, I was a bit surprised the other night, when I was helping Julia with her homework, which was to learn the names of the fifty states, that somehow this personal familiarity with many states had not actually transferred into an ability to fill out a blank map of the United States.

She was sitting on our bed, tucked under the quilt, with an iPad in her lap.  She and Jonathan had opened a blank map of the United States on the screen and she was holding a stylus, writing the names of the states she knew onto the map.

I took a look at what she had so far.  And became dizzy as she zoomed in and out, fingers together and dragged out to make it bigger, fingers apart and dragged together to make it smaller.

Tech-savvy Jonathan refers to these as gestures and he had actually made this motion at me the other night as I was anxiously yammering about something, his effort to get me to stop talking for long enough for him to get a few calming words in.  I think he was zooming me out, but I had not realized what he was doing at the time.  Now I did.  Cut out the minutiae.  Let's look at the bigger picture here.  Ah.

Julia was scouring the country to find an empty state, thinking about whether she knew it, puzzling through a few mnemonic devices she had learned at school.  MIMAL with a Tray of Kentucky fried chicken for example.  If she was able to figure out the state's name, she would tap, zoom in, make it big enough to fit the letters of the state's name, write it, and then zoom back out again.

And though she knew much of the Midwest, and much of the Southwest and other scattered states here and there, she had very few of the New England states filled in.  But her birth state?  The one with a curvy arrow pointing to it, her actual labeling hovering somewhere over the Canadian boreal forest? You know, the one that we travel through to get almost everywhere we go?  And in which we visit two particular towns with a good deal of frequency?  You know, Massachusetts?  Was Cuneticut.  


And so, asking her to focus her attention away from those states in Tornado Alley, I said, let's start up here, let's makes sure you know all the ones over here.  Where we live.  They should be easy.  Because we know people in all of these states.  We have visited all of these states.

OK, she said, a bit irritated already with my distracting her from much more fun places like the big oversized geometric monstrosities of the former frontier.  She is, after all, studying the Organ Trail.

Nope.  That's not a typo.  That was how she pronounced it and spelled it until a few days ago.

Dropped a kidney in Wyoming.  A lung left in Wisconsin.

I swept my finger across the iPad screen to try to move us across the country.  Back toward home.  We began our journey east.  We gestured as far as Missouri.

Then, the screen froze.

I paused.  Reminded myself that many of my struggles with devices are resolved by waiting a few seconds.

And then, the screen became responsive again and I tried to move us closer to New England.  We were currently poised over Ohio.  But now, instead we zoomed in, Ohio now took up the entire screen.  Julia giggled.  And made that hand movement that Jonathan had made at me the other day.

I tried again.  Zoomed out.  And swept up and over, as New England blessedly came into view.  Thus ensued some in and out and in and out views of various states while I tried to get us set up to work through our hood.  And I dropped the iPad into my lap exasperatedly and started to look about the room for an atlas.

Julia picked up the iPad and said, let me do it.  It's okay.  Her confidence was a bit calming, but soon she too was getting a close up view of the Quabbin Reservoir, the lake bottom topographical view, alternating with a satellite view of North America.

She and I are not meant to endeavor jointly on these technology tasks.  We are both a bit too confuzzled by it all.  And really, when it is 7:50 pm and the world is zooming in and out, in and out?  All I really want is a piece of paper and a pencil.

Now let's just be clear here.  Mr Cox, my middle school history teacher, fell off a ladder early in the school year while setting up for a dance, streamers trailing down as he fell.  And instead of replacing him, we had what can best be described as a study hall for my entire school year.  Thus, there are one or two gaps in my knowledge.  I am sure there are other reasons for these holes, such as my poor memory for anything that does not smack of a good story or is not of a social nature.  Mr. Cox apparently began each school year with the phrase You are all ignorant.  My brother had prepared me for this phrase.  I was ready, I knew what it meant.  And he did say it the first day of class.  But I do believe that the idea was that he planned to fill us in a bit with some facts here and there.  But I was left as I began.  Ignorant.  So, let's blame it on the absent history teacher for a year of my formative learning era.  And apparently the year we were going to cover geography, and a few other topics that I don't even know about and of which I remain ignorant.

You should see me try to play Trivial Pursuit.  It is not pretty.  And no one wants to be on my team.

So it is funny that I am the one taking on Julia's Unknown States of America knowledge.

So we live here, I point.  I mistakenly touch the screen, which sets us off on a whole new adventure of learning the opposites, near and far.

Maine!  she shouts out.

And Grammie and Grampa live here.

She looks at me blankly.

Okay.  Deciding to take another approach.  In a few days we are going to drive to Rhode Island, right?


I decide to go for imbedding.  To put her into the story here and see if I can jog the facts out of her.

So, we are going to drive down to Bob's (our favorite clam hut) and cross the Duck Bridge (so named for the fact that we always duck our heads as we cross it, our little family tradition as we come in and out of our one time vacation destination state, now home).

And when we get across the bridge, we will be in a new state.  What is it?

New Hampshire!

Yes.  Okay, so then, we drive for awhile.  It is not too far, and right here near the Atlantic Ocean, I drag my finger across the famed 18 mile coastline of NH. Maybe I did learn something in middle school?

And then, we will cross into another state.  What is this one, I ask, drawing my finger across the long body of Massachusetts, from the Cape to the Berkshires.

Still blank.  Then, Boston!  

Yeesh.  That's the city.  You were born there.  And we lived there for a few years.  And in the middle of the state is Amherst.  Where Daddy and I met.  But those are cities and towns.  What's the whole state called.


Massachusetts?  I let her off the hook, hoping she has at least heard of it.

Oh.  Yeah.


Deep breath.  

And then I move on, continuing our journey.

So then, we will pass through Boston...

You said that was Massachusetts.

Right.  Massachusetts.  I spend a moment imagining last year's traffic jam, lasting hours near UMass Boston, on our way to Thanksgiving.  And hope that our plan this year for traveling in the wee morning hours might help avoid this.

Down here, we will pass into another state.  This small one here. 

That's Rhode Island.  She says.  Proud of herself.

I think, hey there smarty pants.  Don't get too proud.  You just totally failed Birth State 101.

 And next to it?  This one?

Again, a blank stare, because she has not yet reworked her initial Canadian labeling of Massachusetts as Connecticut.

That's Connecticut.  Where Nicholas was born.  And where we lived and Daddy went this way each morning to, I pause, to give her a chance to label New York City, which she does, and I went this way, to New Haven.

Oh.  She says.

And New York City.  And here, in the Hudson Valley where we visit your cousin?  What's this state?

New York!  She says.  And that's Long Island.


Buoyed by her knowledge of that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York and which she has never visited, I add, and this big state here?  This is where Mommy and Daddy lived when we were married.  And where your aunt is from.  It's Pennsylvania.

And is that New Jersey?

Yeesh.  She knows New Jersey and not Massachusetts??

But, feeling a bit relieved and like we had worked out way through our adjacents, our staterhood, I decide to run through them again a few times.  To try to get them to stick.  I imagine moving down to Florida the next night.

Ok.  So let's go back to Maine.  We get through NH with a side trip to Vermont.  And then I put my finger on Massachusetts.  What's this?

Um.  Sorry.  Wait.  It's not Connecticut.

So we are going to start here.  I may feel the need to sing state songs, chirp the state bird's call, and get out and touch the ground of each state as we travel south for Thanksgiving.  Perhaps I'll gather and label small jars of native earth.  Or write the state's name in the dirt of the rest stop, followed by a dousing of Purell of course.  You know, use the whole kinesthetic multi-sensory approach I learned about effective reading instruction.  I imagine myself, dressed up as the State of Massachusetts, the Cape attached to my wrist for support, with a small cardboard cutout of Paul Revere riding across my belly in efforts to give her some context.  A star over Brigham and Women's with the label, You Were Here.  I am not sure I am going to be able to fit all the props and costumes I will need for each state we pass through in the back of the Subaru.  Because it is now obvious that mere traveling through the state, visiting the state, and entering the world within the state has not been enough.

Clearly we have missed an entire category of knowledge here, and I am sure there are many other holes.  That will continue to show themselves at rather unfortunate times.  Like five minutes before bedtime the night before a quiz.

Now, where exactly is Dollywood?

P.S. I'm hoping Julia doesn't stumble upon this U.S. Map near the top of the Google Search list.  NOT helpful.

P.P.S. See you in a week when we return from Massahampshicut.

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