Tag Archives: Transcendentalism

(the other) MARY’S MUSIC

St. Augustine: "He who sings prays twice."

St. Augustine: “He who sings prays twice.”

Hummel figurines of young children singing, blowing horns, and beating drums.

Hummel figurines of young children singing, blowing horns, and beating drums.

With only a few weeks until Christmas, I want to make it clear that this story is about my mother, Mary, and not THE well-known Other Mary. This is one of my favorite stories about how my mother used music in a surprising way to teach young children.

See the picture below of my mother in her 20s, weighing 98 pounds, and teaching kindergarten in a Kansas City school. Mom is in the top row, third from the left end. My cousin Beth, now a grandmother herself, was 5 and visiting my mother’s class that day; she is in the first row, left side at the end.

This story is about a young boy in Mom’s class, a very active, non-attentive, uncooperative, rambunctious boy. One day, after he’d pushed a child, punched another, and grabbed crayons from a third, my mother broke away from the expected discipline. She put her hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Oh, Tommy, you must be very tired or I’m sure you wouldn’t act this way. So I’m going to help you find a place to rest.”

She took his nap mat and spread it out behind the old upright piano that sat at an angle near the corner of the room. Tommy had plenty of private space to stretch out behind the piano, but he could neither see nor be seen by the others.

Mom seated all the other children on the floor and she sat at the piano. She began playing and singing nursery melodies about little hands that go clap! clap! clap! and eyes that go blink! blink! blink! and so on. One song, then the next, happy children singing loudly and laughing along with their teacher.

When they stopped to catch their breaths, a little voice behind the piano called out. “I’m all rested, Teacher. I know how to act now.” And he did. Tommy was very helpful after that. And any time he began to slip, she asked if he needed another rest. He didn’t.

Many years later, when I was teaching Transcendentalism to my high school English students, one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau was this: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

It was then that my mother told me the story of Tommy. She laughed, adding, “That works, as long as the individual steps to his own music without stomping on others.” She was very encouraging of individuality, of each person following his own inner beat of a different drum, as long as it didn’t hurt someone else.

This ends (the other) Mary’s lesson, for both children and adults, just in time for the push-and-shove, sugar-high, holiday chaos. And also, if it weren’t for her dementia, my mother would probably remind us to never give young children drums for Christmas. Or any time, actually, unless they live somewhere else and will take the drums with them.

Decades later, Mom's own great-grandchildren; Grace is about the age Mom's kindergarten students were in the big picture.

Decades later, Mom’s own great-grandchildren; Grace is about the age Mom’s kindergarten students were in the big picture.

Mom (top row, third from left) ~ a young kindergarten teacher.

Mom (top row, third from left) ~ a young kindergarten teacher.



Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Henry David Thoreau, kindergarten lessons about life, lessons for great-grandchildren, special quotations


Abandoned farm house. (All photos by Marylin Warner)

Abandoned farm house. (All photos by Marylin Warner)

detroit house

log cabins

Dear Mom,

During a trip to Colorado Springs many years ago, you visited my high school English classes.  In one class we were beginning Transcendentalism, and I wrote this quote on the board: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau 

I displayed pictures of houses—very old, decrepit houses—and told the students to choose one and write for ten minutes about what they saw and what might have happened there.  Sitting in the back of the room, you lifted a little notebook from your purse, closed your eyes and thought for a moment, then took a breath and began to write.

When the students shared what they’d written, the usual responses ranged from eerily sad tales to creepy horror scenes.  Much later you showed me the beginning of the free verse you’d written that day. Eventually it became a full narrative poem, but here’s what you wrote in the early draft:

Gone from the warped and bare front porch

The soft weary voices of evening—

And the steady creak of the porch swing

As weary ones rest from their labors,

Relax from the plow and the washboard.


Great are the secrets you hold there,

And the love that was whispered in evening.

But gone are your voices forever,

As the broken glass of the windows,

And the rusted spring at the screen door.

                   From “Lonely House” by Mary E. Shepherd 

I post this for your friends and family, Mom, and especially for your great-grandchildren who would otherwise never know your feelings about farm life in the 1920-30’s, and the beauty you found in simple daily events.  What you wrote is a reminder of your gentle and hopeful spirit.


“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  ~Confucius

“What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”  ~C.S. Lewis

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”  ~ Sir John Lubbock, English writer and archaeologist

pink tree blossoms

pink house


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Henry David Thoreau, lessons about life, Mary Shepherd's poetry, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations, writing exercises

Our Word for 2012: HUCKLEBERRIES

Dear Mom,

Years ago, when I was teaching the play THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL to my high school English students, you weren’t all that excited about the Transcendentalist philosophy, but you had two favorite parts of the play.  Henry David Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay his taxes, and he shared a jail cell with a young man named Bailey.  Bailey couldn’t read or write, so Thoreau taught him to write his name in the dust of the cell floor.  You loved that scene.

Your second favorite was when Thoreau talked about rights:  every human being had the inalienable right to snore, he said…provided it did not interfere with the inalienable right of another human’s ability to snore.  You laughed at that, saying you were going to quote that to Dad.

My favorite Thoreau story comes from the time when Thoreau’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was very busy traveling and lecturing,  so Thoreau went to help with the chores on his farm.  One sunny day Thoreau took Emerson’s son Edward on a berry picking adventure in hopes of gathering enough huckleberries for a pie.  With the exuberance of a child, the young boy ran to show Thoreau how many berries he’d picked.  Edward fell, the berries spilled everywhere, and the boy felt clumsy and embarrassed.  Thoreau, in true form, assured the boy that nothing was wasted.  What Edward had done was brilliant; he had scattered berries that might someday seed more and more huckleberries.

Nothing is wasted, not when a pail of berries is spilled, or when we make honest mistakes like forgetting names or details, and it’s not even a waste of time when we spend much of our day napping in a recliner.  Everything has a time and a place, Mom, and nothing is really wasted, not if we view it with a grateful attitude.

So this will be our word for 2012, Mom:  HUCKLEBERRIES.

It will be our reminder to look for the value in each experience.

Happy New Year, Mom.

Love, Marylin





Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, huckleberries, lessons about life, memories for grandchildren