Teachable Moments

by cindy

Or How Children Learn Just What They Are Ready To Understand And Not One Bit More. Thank God.

I am a firm believer in the value of “teachable moments,” those brilliant bursts of opportunity the Universe inexplicably gives us to share some wisdom with someone else. I am rarely ready for these moments which I’m pretty sure is a big reason why the Universe rations her delivery of such to me. Still, when that Universe calls, I wade right in and do my best. For better or for worse. I can’t be counted upon for a great degree of wisdom but I do try not to eff it all up.

Not terribly long ago (well, actually, a couple of years ago. I told you I was behind on stories, didn’t I?), on a steamy hot summer’s day, Dear Dave and I took the Rooster (Remember him? He’s seven now. Damn!) for an excursion on an antique train attraction in our area. This refurbished train happens to ride the same rail line that took Abraham Lincoln from Washington to Gettysburg when he was to deliver the Gettysburg Address. These rails also guided the train that carried his body to Illinois for internment after his assassination. Staking claim to this bit of history may seem a stretch to some, but here in York we kinda clutch at anything we can get. After all, we are sandwiched between Gettysburg with its glorious Civil War history and Lancaster with its gentle Amish influence. There seems to be nothing special about being that geographical middle child.

Anyway, on this particular afternoon, the Rooster just was not in the mood for anything remotely educational. It was hot. It was humid. It was August, for God’s sake. (And yes, the pool was just sitting there at home wondering where the hell we were.) In short, it was miserable. But we already had tickets! And I am nothing if not stubborn. And cheap. This particular event was billed for kids, with a docent dressed uncomfortably in Civil War-era attire (complete with a plastic flower tucked in her bodice. Really? It’s summer! Could she not have picked a daisy somewhere?) ready to talk about what life was like for children during the 1800s. (Hint: stinky and sweaty.) So what’s not to love, right?

Off we went, with our slightly sullen grandson. Frankly, it was so miserably hot that none of us were really paying attention to anything other than desperately catching a breeze. The docent’s voice spoke softly in the background, drowned out by the sounds of the steam engine. Not particularly engaged by her presentation, we sat fanning ourselves as the train chugged along its route, thinking about that pool waiting in the backyard.

And then, somehow, the name Abraham Lincoln reached our ears. The Rooster’s head whipped up. Eyes wide, he looked at me, and announced, “I heared about Abraham Lincoln in school, Mommom!”

Before I had a chance to reply, he asked, “Mommom, why did that bad man shoot President Lincoln?”

My thoughts at that moment? Not gracious. Not gracious at all. More along the lines of Thanks a heap, Universe. I am just too damn hot to deal with this right now.” And since the ride was nearly done, I decided to stall, telling the Rooster that we would talk all about it when we got to the (air-conditioned, thank the Lord) car.

My brain began an immediate scramble. How does one explain the Civil War to a not-quite-five-year-old? How does one begin to discuss slavery? And race? And brutality and injustice? How far does one go in explaining a very complicated and ugly part of our history? Well, one just wades on in, one does. So, I began to wade. Knee deep.

I told him that a long, long time ago, there were good farmers and there were bad farmers (and this is where any organization of farmers will hunt me down. Sorry. I told y’all I am neither wise nor gracious.) And the bad farmers had slaves which meant men and women and children were forced to work long hours without any pay, without any choice, without the chances everyone else had for education and freedom. The Rooster understood that the man that shot Lincoln was on the side of the bad farmers who were angry that Abraham Lincoln gave all the slaves their freedom. He got the gist of the message without my having to go into the uglier details that plague this country still. Those points will come later and he’ll be ready for them. But my sense was, No. Not now. Not all of it. Not yet.

After a couple of weeks had elapsed, I got a call from The Rooster.

“Mommom. I have a question.”

“Sure. What is it?”

“Mommom. The farmers with no sleeves, were the farmers with no sleeves mad that the bad man shooted Abraham Lincoln?”

Sleeves? No sleeves? Sleeve-less? Wife-beaters? Whaaaat? Suddenly I understood though I had to suppress my giggles as I corrected him.

Slaves, Rooster. Not sleeves.”

It’s all a matter of readiness. And vocabulary. Sleeves, slaves. He was still working to grasp the concept. He was still interested in learning more. His curiosity is endless. I answered his question, wondering all the while what he might ask next. And when.

Weeks went by. The Rooster and I were coming home from another excursion, this time to a Science Museum. If you think I am out of my league with history, you cannot imagine how bad I am at explaining science.


“Yes, Rooster?”

“Mommom. How big was the box?”

“The box? What box?”

“The box that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body on that train. How big was it?”

That’s it, Universe. Don’t do this to me again. I am so done!