Learning webs

This week we read “Learning Webs” from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, and I must admit, I really did not know what to make of Illich or his ideas.  Illich seemed so progressive and yet so reactionary at the same time. Deep and ‘free’ learning transcending the structure of schools and curricula were forward-thinking ideals to be sure, yet some of the suggestions for deschooling (a return to the master-apprentice model, replacing automobiles with donkeys) took the time-machine far in the other direction. As always, our New Media group helped me find more significant meaning in Illich, so much so that it will likely take several posts to work though all of the ideas swarming through my brain. Tonight I will start with a simple thought  – an expression of gratitude for my some of the more memorable members of a particular branch of my learning web.

This time of the year, I turn a greater portion of my time and creative energy to baking. I have been a baker as long as I can remember. I’ve only taken one formal course in cooking, 7th grade Home Economics with Ms. Laura Lufkin, where I learned the “rules” of cooking. Rules are not a bad thing to know in this field, especially since many rules of cooking are driven by certain laws of nature (gravity, acid-base chemistry, etc.), and  resistance really is futile when make a soufflé. However, I’d been breaking many lesser rules of cooking long before I’d learned them, and continued to do so after Home Ec.

So how did I learn to bake? Fortunately, some record of my informal education is preserved and resides in a small black box that holds dozens of 3 X 5 inch cards each filled with a recipe penned in almost calligraphic script, amazingly beautiful given most were written by women at the age of cataract eyes and arthritic hands.

“Perfect Pie Crust” was the recipe handed to me by my maternal grandmother, Edna Neily. Born Edna St. Onge, she left much of her French Canadian heritage behind to marry into the Anglo Neily clan of presumably bluer and finer blood. She learned to make Welsh rarebit, although not very well. (I still remember my dad’s protests whenever mom told him we were having dinner at her parents’ house.) Grammy never ‘unlearned’ how to bake like a French Canadian, and for me, the promise of dessert always made the bland dinners more than tolerable. The relationship between my grandparents and my parents was fraught with pain and dysfunction, and those dinners together were infrequent and strained.  I have many memories of my grandmother, but most of them buried in a safer place in my subconscious.

Yet Grammy’s pie crust was unparalled. Flaky but not dry. She kept the recipe a closely guarded secret but eventually shared it with me. I have made hundreds of pies since then and committed the recipe to memory, almost muscle memory. I’ve tweaked the recipe just a bit. I substitute 1 cup of whole wheat flour in place of some of the white flour. The result is a crust that is just as flaky but with a nutty taste, a richer golden color and some rationalization for another piece of pie.

Little did I know when I began dating Denis that our relationship would bring more than the romantic melding of two hearts into one.  A rich and mature branch was spliced into my cooking and baking learning web, and the contents of my recipe box bear the evidence. I have mentioned the Golden Girls before, Denis’ paternal grandmother, Julia, his great-aunt Josephine and their dear family friend Helen LaFlamme.  Grandma and Aunt Jo were both widowed when I met them and kept house together. Helen had never married and came over to visit and play cards almost every evening. Helen is the best baker I have ever known and will merit a later posting dedicated just to her recipes and wisdom.

For the first few years of our courtship, I was decidedly a guest in the home of the Golden Girls, although a much welcomed and pampered one. Denis and I often took the train from Boston out to Fitchburg to visit with them in Winchendon, Massachusetts, once the toy-making capital of the U.S. The ladies would serve Sunday dinner in a grand style – good china, real silver, sometimes a candelabra. Once we’d arrived and they greeted us, we were left to our own devices and speculations based on promising aromas and fragments of heated conversation that escaped from behind the closed pantry doors. (“Oh, you use flour. I always use cornstarch.”) Eventually, my role in the family evolved such that I was allowed to  help with the dishes (although not the cast iron skillet for many more years), help prepare dinner, and even cook for them. I assure you I was well supervised by three pairs of curious eyes the first few times I did that. (“SHE uses cornstarch. Did you see THAT Jo?”)

Grandma and Aunt Jo had both been nurses, around the time of World War II. They were trained by the Roman Catholic nuns who managed the operations of the hospital where they worked. Back then, nurses, and especially young nurses-in-training, did whatever they were told, from cleaning bedpans to placing IVs to cooking for the patients. Aunt Jo perfected her tapioca pudding during this training. The first time she served tapioca for dessert, I was a little disappointed. I’d eaten plenty of tapioca in my day and while it tasted ‘OK’, I generally placed it in the same treat category as Jello. Aunt Jo’s tapioca certainly transcended Jello. It tasted like a hug. Aunt Jo used the same little red box of tapioca that everyone else did. What was her secret? One day, she shared.  “Dessert was a big treat for our patients. I wanted to make something a little extra special for them…” Before she could continue, Grandma interrupted in a booming voice, “She used HEAVY CREAM, and if the Mother Superior had ever found out, she would have put her right out in the streets!” At this, Aunt Jo tilted her head back and laughed her big jolly Santa Claus laugh.

Clearly, learning through informal networks is not bounded by disciplines, approved curricula, syllabi, or learning outcomes, legal or otherwise. That day at Grandma’s house, my lesson in cooking became a broader lesson in life. Despite my near obsession with raising a healthy family during an epidemic of obesity, I realize there are days when the people I love need a hug more than flax seed. That is when I reach into the back of the refrigerator for the heavy cream.

As you might imagine, a learning web this rich in “masters” as Illich calls them, is as fragile as a spider’s web, intact and perfect early in the morning as the sun catches it speckled in dew, then shredded bit by bit throughout the day by the forces of nature. For my web, those forces were cancer.

My grandmother died while I was a postdoctoral fellow in Denver. She had survived colon cancer but not the later metastasis to her liver. Mom was by her side every day during the agonizing final weeks and made her peace with her.  Long ago, Grammy gave me one of her aprons, sleeveless floral print that snaps down the front and has two pockets. I still wear it whenever I roll dough for pies.

Aunt Jo died shortly after Denis and I moved to Blacksburg to begin our family life here.  Ovarian cancer overcame her in a fast and furious way with only months separating diagnosis and death. Her belly laughs were reduced to smiles but she never complained. Not once. Long before she took ill, Aunt Jo began passing on the tools of her trade, enormous kettles, cake pans and intricate molds that could make even Jello an elegant dessert. Aunt Jo never wrote down her recipe for tapioca. She didn’t need to. Some lessons one never forgets.

Grandma now lives with Helen in Gardner, Massachusetts. Grandma will be 100 years old in February. She and Helen still cook a little for themselves and despite our protests, always bake for us when we visit New England. For years now, at the end of each vacation, there is inevitably a moment when Grandma beckons me aside to the basement, the kitchen or her bedroom. She asks me to bring out one cardboard box or another and then she shares the contents with me, unwrapping the objects one-by-one from yellowed newspaper. Then she offers me the contents. “Would you like this?” “Do you think you could use this?” These are the tools of her trade, our trade, and she needs to place them in the proper hands. This I understand, and I always answer, “Yes, of course. Thank you.” I remember the day Denis and I were solving the puzzle of how to fit two adults, two kids and all their gear into one compact car for the 750 mile drive home when Grandma presented me with the crystal punch bowl service for 20 and the candelabra. “Not the candelabra, not now!”, I confess I was thinking. But instead, I said, “thank you” and Denis unloaded the trunk to start all over again. I understood and he did too. When Simonne turned 11 on an unseasonably warm March evening last year, I served a ‘formal’ dinner on our deck, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese served on good china, silver-plated utensils, and yes, the candelabra.

Learning webs such as these, however informal, can bear an element of the sacred. The student-teacher relationships are governed by such a deep respect for the subject and for one another, that a state of true grace descends upon the learning. I believe this is the ideal to which Mr. Illich aspires, and I hope that I can help achieve this ideal in both the formal and informal learning webs of which I am a part.

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