After finishing my Life Jackets project, I felt the pull to do a little painting again. During the months of making those jackets, I had done a lot of thinking about the unknown futures of individuals—now my thoughts turned to unknown pasts, especially relatives on my late father’s side. A genetic test revealed I was 6% black. Further research revealed I had ancestors who were free people of color who actually owned slaves themselves. Disturbing to say the least. A little research brought me to news that the remains of the last slave ship to reach America had been unearthed; this provided the inspiration for the painting “The Cotilda” which landed in Alabama in 1859.
Click here to watch “Life Jackets,” the 8-minute film by Pamela Beere Briggs & William McDonald featuring Suzanne’s recent project.
We have been thinking about, researching, and planning our library project off and on for a dozen years. One good thing about things taking longer than you expect is that it allows for more learning. I will be sharing on this website not only the building of our downstairs garage/upstairs library+studio, but also the amazing things we’ve learned about healthy building materials. One person who has been an inspiration to me is Isabelle Nagel-Brice of “A Tiny Good Thing.” I learned about Isabelle because I’ve been enamored by tiny houses ever since we built our little 10’ x 7’ tiny schoolhouse in our back garden. When I visited Isabel’s website the first time, I was smitten. I read every single article and post she had written.
I watched the video tour of her tiny house. I revisited her website again and again. And then…we met Isabelle and decided to have her be our consultant for healthy building materials on the library project. I’ll be writing more about Isabelle’s building knowledge and tiny house expertise in future posts. For now, let me introduce Isabelle Nagel-Brice, someone who has inspired us to take healthy building a few steps further than we had imagined. She is the person who suggested we recycle the wood from the old garage and turn it into the hardwood floor for the upstairs library. We are so happy she suggested it.
This is our Little Free Library. It is such an active library that Bill, who is our official curator, must check it every other day to make sure it is full, but not too full (so that it is easy to peruse the books). This picture I took today makes me think it’s a bit too full. We have even received thank you notes like this one, tucked inside where we can easily find it. We try to make sure to include a few children’s books, as we see children walk by and get so excited. Little did we realize how much we would enjoy sharing our love of books with our neighbors, who deposit books regularly. It’s become their Little Free Library, as much as it is ours.
“[Learning] is the only thing that never fails… the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
Ten years ago, I began middle school in my family’s backyard, in an 8- by 10-foot
garden shed that would be my very own schoolhouse for the next two years. Family,
friends, and strangers reacted to our decision to “skip” seventh and eighth
grade with a long list of questions. Most expressed genuine curiosity: Would we follow a set curriculum? How would
we structure our days? Could Natalie still spend time with children her age? Other
queries betrayed skepticism: How would we
know we were meeting curricular standards? Would Natalie be able to get into a
good high school? What about college? The fact was, despite my excitement, I
shared some of these same concerns. After a sixth-grade year that had emphasized
rules, structure, and achievement, the thought of learning at my own pace in my
own home with my parents for teachers and my beloved cat as my only classmate conflicted
with my developing sense of what education was. Homeschooling sounded fun, yes,
but would I learn enough? Little did I know that I would learn not only all the
things I worried I wouldn’t—pre-algebra, essay-writing, science and history—but
also lessons even more important that continue to resonate today. These
lessons, which will be featured in future “Happy Guinea Pig” posts, include: the
importance of unstructured play, time outdoors, getting enough sleep, and eating
well, as well as the toxicity of stress and peer pressure. During my two years in
Applewood Schoolhouse, I also came to a healthier definition of education
premised not on homework, testing, and grades, but on curiosity, creativity,
and a love of learning.
How can schools and families teach children to be healthier and happier
learners? This is the question at the heart of “The Happy Guinea Pig,” because
we firmly believe that a love of learning is an essential tool for living
hopefully and courageously in a complicated world.
Next time on HGP: “Laugh about Math: Having
Fun in the Classroom”
Once upon a time, a girl turned into a guinea pig. The girl’s name was Natalie, and she loved school—until 6th grade. In 6th grade, homework piled up, kids were mean, and grades were privileged over learning. Natalie was so miserable, she stopped doing her favorite things: playing outside, reading, drawing, and practicing the piano. Desperate to recover their daughter’s love of learning, Natalie’s parents decided to conduct an experiment. For 7th and 8th grade, the family moved school into their Los Angeles backyard. They planted a garden. They published a newspaper. They read aloud from a 600-page atlas, visited museums, and sewed quilts. This is how Natalie became the guinea pig—the happy guinea pig—at the heart of a schoolhouse experiment.
Co-authored 10 years later by Natalie (now an alum of Pomona College) and her mother Pamela, and serialized as a blog, “The Happy Guinea Pig” is part memoir, part guidebook for anyone committed to nurturing a child’s love of learning. It includes 10 essays by an elementary school teacher on how elements of the schoolhouse experiment can be incorporated into a traditional classroom.
Twenty one years ago this month, a very bundled up baby was thrust into our arms in a tiny hotel room in Chengdu. After the Chinese adoption contingent left, we started to unbundle her because she seemed too warm. Garment after garment came off until we reached the last one…a beautiful, humbly made, and somewhat fragile jacket. Someone had really worked on this to make it useful, repairing it by hand over and over again. We brought it home with us.
I came across it a some months ago and an art project has grown out of it – exploring ideas about lost potential (all those kids who are still there, maybe working in factories and fields), about fate, randomness, and so on. With the encouragement of my teacher I have gone somewhat beyond my initial thought of making a few and I am over 100 now, all smaller than the original. I want them to look as old and worn as the original, but evoke the feeling of being worn by an individual whose life we know nothing about.
Pamela Beere Briggs and UCLA Professor William McDonald, filmmaking and life partners, decided to make a film about Suzanne’s new project “Life Jackets” when they saw a few of the jackets. They both believe that the world needs as many stories about people doing things out of love and looking at what connects us all as a community. “What we can do as filmmakers and storytellers is share stories about people who are actually doing things out of thoughtful kindness.”
Our family is a trio of book-lovers. We love reading all types of stories—both fiction and non-fiction. We get excited about researching subjects we know nothing about, learning new details about subjects we know more about, and sharing what we learn around our dinner table. A dozen years ago, Bill, Natalie and I started fantasizing about building a small library atop our garage. That fantasy is becoming a reality. As I type these words, I hear the builders arriving and beginning work. Our 1947 garage is in the process of being rebuilt, with a library on the second floor. And guess what? The wood from the old garage will become the library’s hardwood floor. I will be sharing with you the best things I learn while the building process goes on for six months. One exciting part of this project is that I found a wonderful advisor in the tiny house world, who has become an expert in healthy and environmentally friendly building techniques.
We need as many stories about people doing things out of love and looking at what connects us all as a community. Here at Two in the World we hope visitors can come for a minute or five to just feel like they aren’t all alone. Together we will be exploring a multitude of ways in which we can foster kindness, courage, hope and justice.