How to Raise an Autodidact

by Rufel Ramos


 

“Are all of your family like you?” a student asked me.

“What do you mean?”

“Do they all like reading and writing like you do?”

After much laughter I replied, “No. I’m the black sheep in the family – I turned out being a nerd.”

“How did that happen?”

“Well,” I said, “that’s sort of a long story.”

The long story began with how my mom escaped the future of being a poor, country farmer’s wife.

Born in the late 1940s, my mom grew up in a Philippines that had recently gained its independence from US American rule and was still economically and socially recovering from years of Japanese occupation during World War II. For my mom’s family, times were always difficult because being subsistence farmers meant struggling against nature and the market. Mom was one of the younger children, out of a large family of ten children living in a thatched roof house. As soon as she could walk and hold a broom, she swept the floors. As soon as she could hold onto the lead of the family carabao (a water buffalo), she helped her family plow and plant crops in the rich, muddy soil. One time she fell out of a tree and hurt her arm, but her family couldn’t afford medical care. Her mother tended to her wounds at home and, as soon as she healed, young Fely went back to the fields.

In another instance of hard farm life, my mom and her brother once had to harvest salt from the soil. They gathered the muddy, clay soil, evaporated away the water, and scraped up the remaining salt. It was a dirty, time-consuming process, just so that they had enough to sell in the market.

By the time she was old enough for school, Mom was more than ready. She started elementary school in the first grade in June, which was the beginning of the rainy season.

“Why do they start school in June? It was always so muddy!” Mom said to me, shaking her head. “I had one good dress, and I had to wash it all the time.”

As a young girl, Mom was embarrassed that she was a poor country kid in an elementary school that included town kids from San Fernando, La Union. (One of those town kids was her future husband.) Back then, only elementary school was compulsory and thus publicly-funded. Many rural kids completed sixth grade and declined high school, which went from seventh to tenth grade, to return to their family farms. She saw girl students finish elementary school, go home, marry at age thirteen or fourteen, and then have children for their husbands. She saw girls look old by eighteen, with three young children and pregnant with the fourth.

“I didn’t want that life,” Mom said, as she touched her chest where her heart was. “There was something in me, something that wanted more than that.”

By the time Mom finished sixth grade, she knew she wanted to go on to high school, so she worked extra hard on the farm to make more money. For instance, Mom harvested tobacco, where she bundled up tobacco leaves for processing and got sick with nicotine poisoning. She put herself through high school and then realized she wanted more.

“I wanted to go to college” Mom said.

Mom wasn’t a strong student – reading and writing didn’t come easily for her – but she was a determined one. Also, she had older siblings who had already gone to college, through the support of her family’s farm work and assistance from other relatives. A couple of her oldest sisters even became nurses and left the Philippines for jobs abroad. So Mom applied to National University, got accepted, and studied to become an elementary schoolteacher.

“Why didn’t you become a nurse, like your sisters?” I asked.

Mom wrinkled her nose. “Being a nurse has too much responsibility for a person’s life. Who needs that stress?”

A year after Mom graduated with her degree, she taught at a small elementary school and discovered that she really didn’t like it. However, teaching was an acceptable profession, and job options for a college-educated woman were poor. When Mom was in college, it was the early 1960s. The movement for women’s rights, especially women’s rights in a Third World country like the Philippines, was still in its infancy. College and workplace choices for young women were limited. Besides, people expected that once women married, they would quit to become housewives and mothers, that is, “homemakers.” Thus, everyone expected Mom to marry at some point.

Mom was a young schoolteacher when she reunited with an old, hometown friend – Ruben Ramos, my dad. He had come visiting family and old friends while on leave. Just a year ago he enlisted in the US Navy through the competitive Philippine Enlistment Program. In a short courtship, Mom and Pa eloped in May 1968 (to the great disapproval of her family), and then Pa left, as he shipped off on the USS Caloosahatchee.

Mom barely saw Pa, as he served on various ships throughout the Western Pacific, even in Vietnam, where he served on the destroyer, USS Keppler. Meanwhile, Mom worked as an elementary schoolteacher. When his tour on the Keppler ended in 1971, Pa returned to the Philippines. He offered Mom to go with him to his next duty station, Commander Headquarters Support Activity, of the US Taiwan Defense Command, in Taipei, Taiwan. On that day, Mom quit her job and never taught in a school ever again.

***

Mom had been a young student who struggled with money for books and supplies and gave up being a young schoolteacher who struggled to make sure her classroom had enough resources. However, those academic experiences followed her when she became a housewife and mother.

In Taiwan, a family friend gave my parents an incredible gift, on occasion of my infant baptism, a complete set of the Encyclopedia Americana, including five supplemental volumes: A Treasury of American Literature Volumes I and II, A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches, A Treasury of the Essay, The Home Book of Musical Knowledge, and The Complete Works of Shakespeare – Kittredge Players Illustrated Edition. My parents also received a ten-volume The Book of Popular Science by Grolier and an alphabetical, four-volume medical encyclopedia set. Mom and Pa put them up in their towering, brand-new wall unit/curio cabinet as shelving decoration, and our home library traveled with us from across the ocean, from Taiwan to Illinois to South Carolina, to Guam, and (later) across the ocean again.

By the time I was eight years old, Mom noticed that I never consulted this vast collection of reference materials. Even though I was a voracious reader, she decided that I was too young for these books. In their spare, monochrome covers, they didn’t look inviting to a grade-schooler used to catchy colors and illustrations.

Meanwhile, during the early spring of my third grade year, New Piti Elementary School had a teachers’ strike. My teacher, a guy we students all called Bruce, was one of the strikers. (I don’t recall his last name because we always called him Bruce.) It was sad because Bruce was a funny teacher who was challenging at the same time. One time, he showed up wearing a beret and declared in a bad French accent, “I am zee Evil Bruce, Bruce’s twin brother, and I will give you all zee pop quiz today!”

In place of him, my class received a mediocre, barely qualified substitute teacher. She made us copy words off of the glossary in the backs of our books, play too many rounds of “Heads Up, Seven Up,” and come home with no homework. When the strike ended by Spring Break, the teachers had lost, and my classmates and I never saw Bruce again.

The substitute teacher stayed, and I wasn’t learning anything.

Somewhere in that time, when Wendy and I were at school, a door-to-door Worldbook encyclopedia salesman arrived at the house, and Mom bought the 1981 edition of the fifteen-volume Childcraft: The How and Why Library series from him. When we came home from school, Mom pointed to the brightly-colored, hardback volumes that were on the lowest, most kid-accessible shelf of the wall unit and said, “Look what I bought you!”

I am not over-exaggerating when I say this: Childcraft changed my life.

***

Allow me to travel through time, into the twenty-first century, and in space, Grand Prairie, Texas. My siblings and I were over at my parents’ house for Sunday dinner in the summer of 2010. (We were and still are fortunate to live within thirty miles of our parents, even as we moved out and became busy with our adult lives.) After dinner and karaoke, my sister Wendy dug through some old boxes stored in our parents’ garage and discovered our old 1981 Childcraft books, with all fifteen volumes intact, if somewhat dusty and musty.

“Here,” she said, thinking of my then nearly-three year-old son. “For Daniel.” Then she helped me load my car.

I have those Childcraft books right now, in my own home library, for the next generation to read.

rufelmama

 

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