[NOTE: I have posted this remembrance on my website, www.patfarenga.com, too.—PF]
August 12, 2008: It’s with great sadness that I write about th death of Nancy Wallace, one of homeschooling’s earliest and most popular writers and a dear friend of John Holt. Nancy’s writing appears throughout many of the early issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine and her descriptions of the positive ways her family found to cope with the insecurities she and her family faced in the days before homeschooling support was widespread inspired many families to also homeschool. Nancy was a quiet but determined woman whose prose was full of gentle insight. John Holt always looked forward to his visits with the Wallace family as he especially enjoyed hearing the Wallace children, Ishmael and Vita, play music. On the cover of his book Never Too Late is a photo of John playing cello with young Vita playing violin next to him. Ishmael and Vita, now accomplished adult musicians, can be reached through their website, www.orfeoduo.com. They will perform a free concert in memory of Nancy on September 28, 2008 at 1PM at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 521 W. 126th Street in Manhattan...
I remember how, when John Holt was gravely ill with cancer and in a hospital in Maine, Nancy journeyed to see him. My wife and I were already there to support John, as were some dear friends of John’s who lived nearby. When Nancy appeared John’s spirits rose and he rallied. Indeed, within the next day or so John was feeling well enough that when Nancy and I appeared at the hospital we found John’s bed surrounded by several of the doctors and hospital staff who recognized John and had asked him to talk about education. It was bittersweet though; we all knew that John’s time was limited. Fortunately, John was later able to spend time with the Wallace family at their home before he died.
Nancy’s presence made a difference to John and to me. Her common sense and kindness were most welcome to me as I was a callow 28-year-old facing the prospect of handling all of John’s personal and writing matters, running a publishing and catalog business, and carrying on his work in general. As a Holt/GWS board member and friend Nancy helped steady me during those uncertain times and I’m glad we had many opportunities after John’s death to speak and work together. My love and sympathy go out to the Wallace family.
Since most homeschoolers today probably don’t know who Nancy Wallace was and, since her books and GWS are long out of print, I want to share some of her writing with you in the hope you, too, will feel what a wonderful writer and person she was. Nancy’s writing about homeschooling also appeared in other magazines besides GWS, such as Mothering, Inquiry, The Boston Globe, and Blair and Ketchum’s Country Journal.
SELECTIONS FROM NANCY WALLACE'S WRITING ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING
From Growing Without Schooling, #13, printed about December, 1979. I think this is the first letter Nancy had published in GWS:
…A few words about our school. Every morning we practice our French, playing the piano, and do some writing – letter writing, journal, poetry, etc. Every evening we read aloud to Vita and Ishmael for about 1 ½ hours. And in between? Ishmael takes two drama classes, a French class and a piano lesson for 1-hour periods once a week, we go to the library, explore the woods, observe nature and read (Ishmael reads for about three hours a day).
I seem to have forgotten to mention math! We do it every other day, in one form or another. When Ishmael was finally released from school a year ago, he seemed practically “retarded” in math. He had regressed to the point where he couldn’t even subtract 3 from 5, and even the though of numbers gave him severe headaches. The school board demanded that Ishmael complete his second grade math book and it was hell, although an improvement over school, since we cuddled a lot, went slowy and sympathized.
But this summer we were free! We completely dropped the artificial approach to numbers (workbooks) and did a lot of real math – cooking, carpentry, celestial navigation, etc. This fall, we had to go back to a workbook, but three things had changed. First, Ishmael gained a bit of self-confidence using numbers for practical things; second, music became the most important aspect of his life (except books) and numbers are, of course, the backbone of music; and third, we found a “modern” math book that does an interesting thing. It approaches math as a form of expression – just another language. And Ishmael loves language! Now, for example, instead of freaking out trying to draw the answer to 14 – 9 out of his memory, he easily translates the problem into (14 - 4) – 5 and the solution is easy. We don’t do any drill in math facts and we continue to make use of this newly discovered language – math – as we do with French, in our every day lives.
One more thing – we never ask our kids to do things that we don’t do ourselves, and consequently we inspire each other. We all read a lot, we all write a lot, we all speak very broken French, we all practice the piano, etc. People are often amazed at how “selfless” I am. They think they could never spend so much time with their kids, do all the necessary preparation it must take to “teach” all those subjects, etc. Actually, I have never been so self-indulgent. I always wanted to learn French and take piano lessons and when Ishmael asked to do these things, I knew that here was my chance! As for math, I can barely balance our checkbook, so I enjoy learning along with Ishmael. And he teaches me spelling and history (don’t tell!), so I am feeling very alive and full. And I can’t even begin to tell how much Vita benefits. She’s only 4, but she keeps right up with French and piano and is beginning to read and loves numbers…
[For those interested in the math text mentioned above, Donna Richoux, who edited GWS after John died, wrote an interesting article about that book and learning math in GWS 14, which is available online at www.unschooling.com/gws/. The book is Patterns in Mathematics published by Laidlaw Brothers.—PF]
When Nancy’s first book, Better Than School: One Family’s Declaration of Independence, was published by Larson Publications in 1983, John Holt wrote the introduction. In this book Nancy details the very difficult time they had removing Ishmael from the New Hampshire public school system in the late seventies as well as many details about their independent learning and family life. For those interested in Holt’s ideas about music, Nancy’s chapter about music includes many letters and comments from John about teaching and learning music. This excerpt is from the chapter “School at Home.” Nancy, feeling insecure that she wasn’t teaching Ishmael enough, spent a day in school as an observer “to get a sense of how much the other kids really learned each day.” Nancy writes:
Certainly it was better for Ishmael to read Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages ten times over than for him to spend year after year reading colorless textbooks. And I far preferred to see him riding his bike up and down in the sun than sitting in a cramped classroom all day. I left the school knowing that, even in his doldrums, Ishmael was doing fine—at least compared with other children his age.
Of course, I still wne through periods when I felt insecure about Ishmael’s education. Usually when I found myself feeling that way, though, I sat down for an hour or two and read his diaries. (Ishmael wrote “secret” before passages that he didn’t want me to read.) They never failed to remind me of how much really went on at our house. I realized that, even without my teaching, the kids were learning an incredible amount. Invariably, my spirits lifted. I think it will be useful to quote some sample entries here, since they give a marvelous account of Ishmael and Vita’s lives between lessons. In fact, they are a convincing argument for doing as John Holt says—just letting children be, to absorb and assimilate the world around them…
May 2. Me and Vita went on a walk. We saw a mouse hose. Yesterday I finished From the Earth to the Moon. Spring is wonderful. Me and Vita did a play. She wrote it. We had a bath and did lots of frolicking which involved the mix-up of names. I wrote a story about knights which had poetry in it. I also wrote a play called A Debate of Parliament. Hurray! Hurray for today! Vita’s birthday cake was constructed. It will be her fifth birthday.
Nancy’s next book, Child’s Work: Taking children’s choices seriously was published by me and edited by Susannah Sheffer in 1990. It was a popular book for Holt Associates and described how Nancy learned to trust her children’s idiosyncratic ways of learning and to respond seriously and helpfully to the choices they made.
Needless to say, I have made more mistakes, as a teacher, with music, than with anything else I have worked on with Vita and Ishmael. But despite the mistakes, some of which have verged on the disastrous, Vita and Ishmael have watched me learn to care so deeply about music that they have never even thought to exclude me from their learning work. They have shown me how, even when they share the same piano bench for a whole afternoon, they are never tempted to compromise their own individual viewpoints. They have shown me how, at the same time, they feel free to experiment with and even change their approaches to learning music as their viewpoints shift of change focus.
When Vita was almost five and Ishmael eight, they began studying the piano. She was already a dancer; he was a singer. That is, Vita never walked, she danced from place to place, whereas Ishmael stumbled along, humming to himself with every step. For the longest time, that difference between them seemed to me to be the crucial one. Every time Vita sat down at the piano, her fingers danced across the keys the way her feet danced. Her gestures were so nimble and rhythmic. Yet at four and a half, she wasn’t the least concerned about playing the proper notes. Ishmael, on the other hand, sang at the piano. Quite literally, he sang as he played, and he cared deeply about making the notes sing. The trouble was — and this persisted for a long time — his fingers stumbled on the keys the way his feet stumbled when he walked. By the time he was able to play real pieces — a Clementi sonatina, for example — we used to laugh and say, “When you make your debut in Carnegie Hall you’ll have to bring Vita along to play the trills!”