A New Chapter for “The Happy Guinea Pig”

When my mother (Pamela Beere Briggs, Two in the World’s resident “Book Lover”) launched this website with me last year, we intended “The Happy Guinea Pig” to be a space in which to reflect on our two-year homeschooling experiment—and how this wonderful adventure continues to resonate in our lives 10 years later. But the world has changed dramatically in the past few months, and as such, I have decided to take my blog in a new direction…primarily because I find myself, once again, something of a “happy guinea pig.” Allow me to explain:

A few months ago, before COVID-19 swept onto the global stage, I was eagerly anticipating returning to school in September to pursue my master’s in History at (let’s call it) University X. But by May, I was forced—like so many—to reconsider my plans; ultimately, I made the difficult decision to decline my spot in the program. If nothing else, University X is overseas, and an international move seemed increasingly impractical, if not outright impossible, under pandemic conditions. I plan to reapply next year, in the hopes that the world will have regained some semblance of normalcy by that point. 

In the meantime, I find myself with a second year at home between college and graduate school. This is not the first time I have ended up with a two-year “interlude” in my formal education; the first was when I was 12 and my family decided to relocate my middle-school studies to our backyard shed (aka “schoolhouse”). And those two years—spent reading, writing, gardening, dancing—were two of the most educational years of my life. 

I remembered this when I made the decision to take a year “off” after graduating from Pomona College. I ended up devoting this year to volunteer work and language study, plus a few other learning endeavors. The results of which I’m proudest include: (1) a driver’s license, (2) a conversation conducted entirely in Arabic with a Chicago Lyft driver, and (3) a thriving sourdough starter (named Stan) that produces delicious loaves of bread for my family each week. 

While I am undeniably disappointed to have had to decline my place at University X due to (stupid! scary! horrible!) COVID-19, I also find myself increasingly excited about this upcoming year. I remember reading an article at the outset of quarantine that referred to COVID as “The Great Pause.” Sometimes there’s something to be said for a pause; I’m immensely privileged to be able to use this one as an opportunity to be a “guinea pig” in a school of my own making.* I think it’s safe to assume I’ll be a happy one. 🙂

I’m still figuring out what this new adventure in learning will look like—I’m imagining books & music & languages & food—but I know I want to share it with you. I hope we all find it an interesting journey. 

(Disclaimer: Because I’m an aspiring historian, it’s safe to assume some percentage of this blog will be devoted to discussion of books…many of them very thick and seemingly esoteric. But I will consider it my duty to make such posts relevant and engaging. History is more important now than ever!)

*I must acknowledge the socioeconomic privilege inherent in my ability to appreciate the pandemic’s “silver linings.” For too many, COVID has meant only severe financial stress, housing and food insecurity, disease and death—all of which reflect the inequality deeply rooted in our national life. The only solutions I can see right now: (1) donate funds/resources if you’re able, (2) make this pain and suffering visible, until no one—especially elected officials—can turn a blind eye, (3) VOTE ON NOV 3!

Penn Center, one of the first schools for formerly enslaved children

In 2010, ten years ago, Bill, Natalie (age 13 then) and I took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and St. Helena Island, South Carolina. We were immersing ourselves in history. It was a two-hour drive from Charleston to the Penn Center, one of the places we wanted to visit. We had to rent a car to get there. As we got closer, we drove on a long road with sea waters lapping up almost to the edge of it. I couldn’t believe how we were almost level with the water. My head was hanging out the window like we see dogs do, mesmerized by the water so close it seemed like if my arm were just a little longer, I could touch it.
The Penn Center is the former site of the Penn School, one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved individuals. Founded in 1862 by Quaker and Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania, the first three teachers included Laura Matilda Towne, an abolitionist missionary from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Ellen Murray, a Quaker teacher and Charlotte Forten, born into a wealthy free black family in Philadelphia.
We also knew it was where Dr. Martin Luther King found a safe haven in 1964, to rest and write, after one of many arrests/jail sentences. No road existed at that time, so he was transported by rowboat to the Penn Center in the middle of the night. No one knew he was there. This was during a time when the KKK would have been active in the area.

Dr. Martin Luther King

When we arrived at the Penn Center, I stepped out of the car and stopped to notice the ancient oaks, the sound of birds, and the quiet. I had walked only a few steps before I saw a magical sight. A pile of leaves started to gather in a circle and then they began to swirl around and around. It was as if they had turned into a beautiful long brown skirt. I didn’t move. It felt like a message. This is what I heard: This is a place of peace and faith. We see you. Learn our story so that you can share it with others.

The Penn Center became part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor established by the U.S. Congress in 2006. The Gullahs are descendants of African slaves who were brought to the region as early as the 1600s. They are now recognized as the oldest African American group to successfully preserve their language, religious customs, and cultural identity within the United States of America. The Penn Center is one of three National Historic Districts in South Carolina, and the only one that is African American. The Penn Center continues to be a vital part of its surrounding community, continuing in its legacy of cultural preservation.
This week, my donation to help fill in the holes of history goes to the Penn Center.